Friday, January 28, 2005

Agnostic Tevye Not So Crazy (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, January 28, 2005

The Harvey Fierstein era has begun in Anatevka and "Fiddler" will never be the same -- nor will God.While it seems to be counterintuitive to have Mr. Unconventional play Mr. Traditional, having Fierstein play Tevye is in fact a match more perfect than even Yenta could have devised.

As Blake Eskin wrote recently in the e-zine Nextbook, the casting "exploits the national hysteria about gay marriage while tapping into insecurities about Jewish masculinity.""Fiddler on the Roof" is the story of Tevye's internal battles against the demons of emasculation; he finds himself equally powerless against the marauding Cossacks and the matrimonial-minded women of his household.An additional counterintuitive aspect of the Fierstein-Tevye synthesis intrigues me even more: How can an avowed agnostic play a guy best known for his endless conversations with God?Sounds crazy, no?

Not really. Agnosticism for a Jew is part of that ongoing dialogue with divinity that is Tevye's specialty. It is in fact the ultimate expression of spirituality, the religious quest as extreme sport.

I can pinpoint the exact moment when I first thought about being a rabbi. It was the time that I told an incredulous Jewish classmate in high school that belief in God has very little to do with being a Jew. I'm not sure which of us was more shocked.

I thought about this recently when I looked at a survey by Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University, cited in The New York Times detailing the state of belief in America. It had been commonly assumed that about 95 percent of Americans claimed to believe in God. The study refined that number, revealing that only about two-thirds acknowledged unambiguousbelief in a personal God.

Sixteen percent professed belief but confessed to having doubts, while another 8 percent asserted that they didn't believe in a personal God but did believe in a higher power of some kind.Among Jews surveyed, the number of "believers" dropped precipitously: 27 percent professed no doubts, 21 percent believed in God despite their doubts, and 16 percent looked toward some impersonal "higher power."Not surprisingly, Jews scored high on agnosticism. In the survey, 22 percent responded positively to the statement, "I don't know if there is a God, and I don't believe there is any way to find out," as compared to 4 percent among the overall population.

What are we to make of all this? Are we to chalk it up to simple blue-state proclivities, or do these numbers reveal some darker undercurrent of despair in Jewish life?

The answer is neither.

Surveys like these betray a common misperception about Jews and Judaism. When we are speaking of "belief," religiosity is being measured on purely Christian terms. What such polls fail to grasp is that Judaism is a faith based far more on action than belief. For the Jew, "belief" is not a purely intellectual phenomenon.

More to the point, the essence of Jewish belief is questioning; its spirituality is fueled by skepticism. The very term "Israel" means to struggle with God. The first Hebrew passage a Jewish child learns is the "Four Questions" recited at the Passover seder. Those who claim to be agnostic are actually more true to classic Judaic forms of religiosity than those who profess blind faith. Christians are nurtured on dogma; Jews are nurtured on doubt, which is a prime reason for Judaism's increasing popularity among other Americans in a time of uncertainty.

A few generations ago, American Jews embraced the notion of a Judeo-Christian society, seeing it as an avenue of acceptance into the mainstream. It served us well at the time, but now it only serves to mask the major differences that exist between the traditions.

Jews don't post Ten Commandments on courthouses because for us, those 10 aren't any holier than the other 603. Jews allow abortion in certain cases, especially when the life of the mother is at stake, not because we are godless liberals, but because Judaism teaches that a fetus does not possess the status of aborn human being.

Most of all, Jews challenge everything, including self-evident truths, age-old philosophies and revered leaders. Nothing is sacred. The act of challenging ephemeral truths brings us ever closer to ultimate Truths. We're the ones who drove Moses batty in the wilderness, refused to bow down to imperial tyrants and who have, on occasion, even indicted God.

There is a story of a group of inmates in Auschwitz who put God on trial. God lost. Immediately afterward, they prayed the afternoon service.

Harvey Fierstein acknowledged in a recent interview that although he doesn't believe in God, he prays "three or four times a day." He fits right in as an agnostic playing Tevye. Martin Buber said that "God cannot be expressed, only addressed."

An agnostic is someone who wishes to address God but has simply lost the zip code. Jews therefore are not the most godless people in America, but rather the ones who take the subject seriously enough to grapple with God, never afraid to ask even the most difficult questions.

May God bless and keep those misleading surveys -- far away from us.

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