Act 1 A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with an old friend in Italy – the discussion revolved around things I had expressed on Facebook regarding the role of religion and God in the daily life of a Jew. At the end of the discussion, I proclaimed myself a “faithless nihilist,” a statement which left the other side quite wordless, and allowed me to deal with my own personal need to state clearly what my rapidly changing religious conceptions are at the moment. Yes, I am a faithless nihilist. I do not “believe” that belief is a necessary component of a Jew’s life and I yearn for a clear acknowledgment of the Divine absence, more than his presence. And all this is a necessary process for the acquisition of a clearly humanistic stance vis-à-vis history – or, in other terms, speak less about God and the Chosen People and how the transcendental Divinity directs the historical vicissitudes of the Jews and supports their eternal right to the Land of Israel, and focus more on the human sphere of the individual, of his / her obligations vis-à-vis the “Other.”
Act 2 For my son fifteenth birthday, I bought him, or maybe I bought for the two of us, a book which recently came out here in Israel, by Eliah Leibowitz, entitled New Reading in the Old Testament: Atheistic Writings in the Bible . While certainly interested in giving Yedidia the tools to tackle the central text of his cultural tradition from a totally different direction, namely that of a God-less narrative which nevertheless intends to claim its own connection to tradition, I am aware of the fact that the book was also for me. So, as I very much expected, once I opened the book and started reading the author’s staggering re-interpretation the Ten Commandments, it started to dawn on me why I had defined myself as a “faithless nihilist” in the above-mentioned discussion – when it comes to the concept of God, faith is a senseless term, and since the Divine entity is essentially absent from the daily framework of the individual Jew’s life, all he or she can be is a faithless nihilist.
Act 3 The first two of the Ten Commandment present God with specific traits –
(Ex. 19:2-3) “I the LORD am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: You shall have no other gods besides Me.”
In the first of his utterances to the people of Israel, in a unique moment of history, God presents himself not as the Creator of the Universe, but rather as he who brought “you” out of the bondage of Egypt. As Leibowitz points out, this is not the self-defining statement we would have expected – God is not only putting aside the creational narrative as secondary, but also puts aside the national sphere, defining the individual sphere, and not the collective one, as the context in which he reveals himself. Furthermore, God presents himself as he who, within the sphere of the individual’s consciousness, frees him from the bondage of external factors, placing him as the sole ruler of his destiny. The freedom granted by God is not national, but individual – the Divine speaker directs his statement to the individual listener / reader, and defines the first principle of the Jewish faith as the capacity to express, in a courageous and free manner, and against all possible forms of bondage to external forces, his or her freedom, independence, uniqueness in matters of faith and knowledge.
Furthermore, this God is a Divine entity which does not allow for there to be other divinities beside it – the uniqueness of the first commandment, with its One God talking to One Individual, is re-iterated in an extremely uncompromising definition of Divine identity in the second commandment and which finds a broadened definition in Exodus 19:4-7 –
“You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. You shall not swear falsely by the name of the LORD your God; for the LORD will not clear one who swears falsely by His name.
The mimetic need of man to represent and define by use of matter or words (images or names) is denied in the clearest of ways in these verses – God is like nothing, God is unrepresentable, and unnamable. He breaks the chains which tie the human being to the influence of external factors, and propels him into the depths of the individual subjectivity, where responsibility is one’s own, and where one’s consciousness of uniqueness gives way to the ethical opening to the Other. The God of the first commandment reveals himself, to quote Elia Leibowitz, within the individual’s uncompromising consciousness of his or her freedom of thought and choice.
These points lead me back to my self-definition as a “faithless nihilist.” In the world of a faithless nihilist there is the ever-present voice of his consciousness, the uplifting bliss of freedom and an excruciatingly painful sense of solitude, both of which are accompanied by a humble need to accept the Other’s difference and his / her right to be so. God is not “out there” or “in there,” cannot be represented and cannot be named – God reveals himself in initiative, creative acts, acts of humility and pity, in the freedom of interpretation, in the courage to break the chains of bondage.
*Yaakov Mascetti holds a Ph.D. and teaches at the Department of Comparative Literature, Bar Ilan University.