He didn’t want this conversation, and he hadn’t started it.
Neil and I had been friends and college classmates for about a year. He was a religious Christian, and I a secular Jew, but he never preached to me. Out of nowhere, I asked him whether he thought I was going to hell, and he demurred, saying it wasn’t up to him. But I couldn’t accept that dodge. I pressed and prodded until he had to admit that, yes, if his theology was correct, and I didn’t believe in Jesus, and maintained that non-belief until death, then I was, tragically, hell-bound.
Since then, I’d been grilling him for hours, even more doggedly than before. Surely he would see how cruel his belief was. Surely he’d never stopped to think about his good friend burning in eternal fire, and if he only would consider that, surely he’d stop believing something so monstrous.
He told me, “If I get to heaven, and find out I’m wrong, and see all my Jewish and atheist friends there… I will cry tears of joy. I will shout, ‘Thank you God!’ I will be… so happy.”
Then, he paused:
“What I believe isn’t the same as what I want.”
I didn’t know what to say. Neil’s sympathy — his genuine love — didn’t fit into the only story I knew how to tell about people who believed in hell: that they were judgmental and hateful. It had never occurred to me that someone could believe something other than what he wanted.
It has been ten years since my late-night talk with Neil, but I’ve been thinking about it since reading an article from Politico. It suggests that the former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s donation to a Republican congressman’s primary challenger may have been motivated by the congressman’s remark a few years ago that Cantor, who is Jewish, will not be saved.
In college, I would have been just as put off by the remark as Cantor’s allies were. Today, it doesn’t bother me at all. I have real respect for Christians who will say this in public despite the unpopularity of such beliefs.
What has changed in the interim? I found religion. And no, not Christianity; my appreciation for believers in exclusive Christian salvation stems from the choice I made, after college, to embrace traditional Judaism.
I derive great joy from the all-encompassing framework of Judaism: the thrill of locating my life in a glorious arc of history; the art and discipline of adhering to the law; and the awesome privilege of living as one commanded, as one called to sacred deeds by the source of all that is sacred. Yet, though nearly all of Judaism is beautiful in my eyes, there are some elements of my religion that trouble me deeply.
An example: every man, woman and child of the nation of Amalek had to be killed — even the infants. To be clear, this commandment applied only in antiquity, and never applies today, but even in distant history, a commandment of genocide is appalling. Another: children born of incest or adultery, who have done nothing wrong themselves, are classified as mamzerim forever, forbidden to marry anyone except other mamzerim. And so also will be their children, for all generations to come.
I have come to accept, and even to embrace, many elements of Judaism that I abhorred in my secular days. Many of these were never really problematic; I had only misunderstood texts which deeper, more patient, investigation clarified. But to problems such as the two above I have heard no answer, no context, no explanation that comes close to being satisfactory. My conscience stands in unwavering opposition.
My secular self — he of the late-night talk with Neil — would never countenance belief in a system that includes concepts at odds with my conscience. It is unjust, he would thunder, and it must not stand. You may change the system, or you may reject it, but embrace such a system? Never.
Rejecting the system means rejecting all the meaning and beauty, the purpose and the call. Change the system, then? The problem, I have come to see, is that if I change the system to match my taste, I annihilate one of the most valuable elements of religion. Religion at its best sounds a voice that commands, a voice that will not be silenced. Religion’s finest moments in history have starred zealots who refused to bow to common sense — whether the common sense of Seleucid imperialism, or the common sense of American slavery. Religion must be uncomfortable and unusual, or it will be tautological. It must be authoritative and binding, or it will be a sham.
To put it another way: if I can decide to change the law of the mamzer because I don’t like it, how shall I answer my fellow Jew who decides to change the laws of giving charity? Beautifully demanding laws they are, but utterly useless if any Jew can suddenly change them because he’s just read Ayn Rand and decided hand-outs are immoral. No. Cries Deuteronomy 15:11:
“You shall open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your needy in your land.”
Yes, I could change the system. I could join one of the liberal denominations that have conveniently done away with the law of the mamzer, but only if I’m willing to let Deuteronomy 15:11, and every other sacred commandment, be similarly defanged.
Conflict between personal conscience and divine revelation is not a new problem of modernity. This dynamic is central to the paradigm of faith presented in Genesis 22, the Aqeidah (Binding) of Isaac. Being commanded to slaughter a son would be torture for any parent, but for Abraham especially it is the ultimate nightmare. Abraham is a paragon of love; in earlier chapters we have seen him eagerly welcome strangers into his tent, fight a war to rescue his captured kinsman, and plead with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah. We have also seen him greatly distressed at the prospect of sending away his older son, Ishmael. Now God commands him to lose Isaac, as well; and not only to lose him, but to see him die; and not only to see him die, but to personally cut his throat, and offer him as a sacrifice.
A sacrifice indeed! No act imaginable could better represent the opposite of Abraham’s wishes, his temperament, and yes, his conscience, than this. Every cell in his body must have cried out in horror. Yet Abraham passed the test. He lifted the knife to kill his own child, and only at the last moment did an angel’s voice stop him. Abraham passed the test by overcoming every ounce of his own will, to put God’s will above his own. Ever since, Jews have remembered the Aqeidah as the ultimate act of faith.
Thankfully, few of us will ever face so extreme a test — and a good thing, too. I cannot say that in a similar situation I would have Abraham’s strength of faith. But for many believers of many faiths, adherence to religious mandates can present less extreme, but still uncomfortable, situations which may be seen as Aqeidot in miniature.
For me, it is something of a trial to study those few Torah laws that I find terribly unfair. Perhaps for Neil, and other kind-hearted traditional Christians, conversations like ours ten years ago are a mini-Aqeidah. Will you honestly profess the faith to which you have committed your life, when you know that professing your faith in this context means deeply hurting your friend’s feelings?
When an Aqeidah occurs, the temptation arises to find some way out of the tension. Nonbelievers simply reject the existence of divine revelation. Others, such as followers of liberal religious movements, may accept that God is speaking, but empower themselves to modify or ignore parts of the divine message. Not even traditionalists, however, are immune from this temptation; some particularly eager believers accept the revelation and deny instead that they ever felt the slightest conflict. They vigilantly squash all interfering sympathy for their son Isaac. They build the altar with a cheerful smile, and whistle while they tie him down.
Aside from being cold, this third attempted resolution is just as theologically unsound as the former two. Removing the conflict that makes the sacrifice selfless, this approach transforms the heroic into the pedestrian. The Aqeidah is not a story of Abraham annihilating his heart and conscience. On the contrary, it is a story of a man of extraordinary love and strong conscience who nonetheless declines to put ultimate faith in himself, choosing instead the humility of yielding to a transcendent revelation. That model can only be followed by believers who are humble and kind, and open to acknowledging feelings of immense opposition to the divine call even as they prepare themselves to follow it. The believer in the model of Abraham is the believer who does not flee from discomfort, or even from torment.
I don’t believe I’m going to hell any more than I did ten years ago. But my attitude toward those who do so believe has been forever changed by a journey into my own tradition.
I now see in traditionalist Christians a kind of kindred spirit, however starkly our theologies assuredly diverge. Like me, they carry an ancient teaching, which they dare not presume to rewrite in their own image. Like the Maccabees and Christian abolitionists, they proclaim this teaching without bending to public opinion. And, like Neil, they model the humility to acknowledge that their sense of justice and the Ultimate Justice may not always align.