Just say no: Reluctant atheist celebrates Judaism without God (J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California)
November 7, 2007
by Dan Pine
reprinted from J, October 19, 2007
Lawrence Bush wants to believe in God. Really, he does. But, for reasons of personal temperament, constitution and bedrock skepticism, he can’t.
That doesn’t mean he has abandoned Judaism. For most of his life, Bush has worked in the Jewish world — as a journalist, as a speechwriter for the late Reform leader Rabbi Alexander Schindler and now as editor of Jewish Currents magazine.
Still, Bush is an atheist, albeit a reluctant one. His book, “Waiting for God,” explains his take on faith and doubt, with a little John Lennon thrown in for good measure.
“Most liberal-minded Jews struggle with issues of faith and skepticism,” said Bush during a swing through the Bay Area. “The difference between my book and most of the new atheists is, I don’t indulge the scorn. I approach religion as one who worked in religious life, with great respect.”
By “new atheists,” Bush means writers like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, all authors of recent books blasting organized religion — and the unorganized kind as well.
Instead, Bush has delved into Torah study, and even published commentaries on the weekly Torah portion.
He even found a way to reconcile his leftist politics with Judaism. “The fundamental principle is Psalm 24: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all the fruits derived,’” Bush said. “I saw in Jewish law a mixing of community responsibility with the acknowledgment of people’s fearfulness and ambition. Economics are social. Judaism, with that psalm, acknowledges that.”
Bush grew up in a secular home in Queens, N.Y. He received little Jewish education, but he did know to skip the words “under God” when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
If he got religion at all, it came in the form of the Fab Four. Calling the Beatles the “central aesthetic experience of my life,” Bush cites John Lennon as a key influence. “My strength as a writer is self-examination,” Bush said.
“I identify with Lennon’s style that way.”
Lennon influences him still. Consider the song “Imagine.” It begins with what Bush calls the four no’s: No countries, no possessions, no heaven and no religion.
“Does atheism bring with it any affirmation, or is it basically no, no, no, no?” he asks. “It may just be about saying ‘No, no, no.’ But there’s something about saying no — about not trusting our own senses — that frees us.”
Bush is quick to differentiate between religion and spirituality. He’s the first to admit he, too, has had spiritual experiences. He just doesn’t ascribe anything supernatural to them.
He views spirituality as “the emotions that happen when you recognize interconnection. We are interconnected. But we substitute God — the ‘You’ — for the ‘We’ that we can’t possibly express. All I ask is: What if we look at what we’re really talking about, which is the ‘we,’ not the ‘you?’”
At Jewish Currents, Bush has a forum to express his views on politics, religion and Judaism. Founded as a socialist outlet, Currents teamed up with Workman’s Circle, expanding readership but at the same time furling up the socialist banner.
“We have 12,000 more readers,” Bush said, “with a range of liberalism, radicalism and conservatism. The one principle is skepticism.”
Skeptic, yes. But Bush says he, his wife and their 20-year-old twins never miss tashlich during Rosh Hashanah. Near their upstate New York home, they stand before a creek and cast their woe-begotten bread crumbs into the waters.
“It’s a remarkable thing to have your children express love,” Bush added. “It is remarkable to see them bond within this Jewish ritual. It bonded us to Jewish identity, and was one of those things as a family we walked away from as high as a kite.”
But not to heavenly heights. Bush remains godless, though he may turn up at a local Shabbat morning class alongside his most fervently religious neighbors.
“The Talmud is where Judaism begins,” he said, “and the more liberal down-to-earth conversations begin. It’s a big civilization.”
“Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist” by Lawrence Bush (194 pages, Ben Yehuda Press, $16.95).
Copyright J, the Jewish news weekly of Northern California
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