In my last essay, I mentioned that I decided to reevaluate my commitment to Judaism from scratch, since the reason for my conversion was based on a simplistic understanding of the Jewish Tradition. I may have had a wrong perspective of what Judaism was all about. I wondered whether I should stay religious or return to the secular lifestyle with which I was raised. However, I felt that I could not do this without undertaking a much more thorough study of Judaism than I had obtained at the time of my conversion or in my yeshiva days. After all, I could not reject something unless I fully understood what I was rejecting! Thus, I found myself in a very painful situation.
But there were two other questions. First of all, what should I do during this interim period before I reached a final decision? Should I continue to live an observant life? Or should I lead a totally secular lifestyle? The famous American philosopher William James (1842-1910) wrote that when you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice. Secondly, should I also embark on a careful study of the philosophy of secularism? If not, how was I going to decide which of these two philosophies is the most compelling?
Consequently, I became entangled in a Catch 22 situation. I felt I was in real trouble. How was I going to solve that problem? Let me explain what I decided to do.
To Be Partially Observant or to be Partially Secular
I first played around with the idea of alternating between being observant for several days a week and then switching to a secular lifestyle for the remainder of the week. After all, I thought that this would be the most honest way to go about it, since it was unclear what the outcome of my investigation would be. It could go both ways.
But I quickly came to the realization that this was foolish. God’s existence or non-existence does not depend on which day of the week it is! Moreover, I couldn’t keep the cake and eat it at the same time. Either the secular approach was true, in which case living a religious lifestyle during the rest of the week was meaningless, or the religious approach was true, in which case it demanded that I live as a religious person for the entire week.
Thus, on a practical level, it was entirely impossible to be neutral.
Blaise Pascal’s Solution
Later, I considered adopting the famous solution called “Pascal’s Wager”. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), a renowned French mathematician and physicist, turned to philosophy and religion and came up with the following argument: A rational person should live as though God exists. If God does not actually exist, such a person will have only a finite loss (some pleasures and luxuries in this world which he would have to give up because of his belief or his religion), whereas if God does exist, he stands to receive infinite gains (as represented by eternity in heaven) and avoid infinite losses and end up in hell. The original wager was set out in Pascal’s Pensées (“Thoughts”), a collection of previously unpublished notes, which was posthumously published in 1670. The truth is that Pascal’s wager is much more complicated and sophisticated then I’ve expressed it above, but this captures in simple terms what he was trying to get at.
This idea has been heavily attacked, and contains many problems, although it has had an enormous influence on many other disciplines. But in my case, it was the “business-like” attitude of this argument that I found most problematic. It appears that Pascal’s argument depends on how much reward one would get when living as though God exists. This was not my problem. I did not care whether I would go to heaven or hell. I wanted to know whether there is a true way to live one’s life. Is Judaism this “way” or not? Perhaps a different kind of Judaism—even an entirely different religion—is closer to the truth? I also had to seriously consider the possibility that the secular way of life is more valid than the religious approach.
Sure, I agree with Pascal that there is no way to ever know for sure whether God exists. Thus, it would be better to live life as though God exists if your greatest concern is the issue of reward and punishment. In that case, his wager is probably the most viable way out of this unsolvable problem.
My dilemma, however, was not about the existence of God per se but the practical consequences of this question in terms of determining an appropriate lifestyle. This question is unrelated to the issue of reward and punishment. It is a profound philosophical issue dealing with ultimate existential problems, rather than a utilitarian business calculation designed to yield the greatest dividends. What is the correct way to live in case God exists? Conversely, what is the proper way to live in case He does not exist? Furthermore, even from a strictly “business” standpoint, who says that one gets more reward when you live as though God exists. Perhaps you receive more reward when you live a life as though God does not exist and you still live a decent moral life without any hope of being rewarded after death.
Would that not be a much greater achievement?
(It should be noted that William James discusses the pro’s and cons of Pascal’s wager in his celebrated essay, “The Will to Believe” (1887). He gives a much deeper meaning to Pascal’s argument. See especially chapter 4.)
Anyway, this argument did not work for me.
To be continued.
Note: For short discussions on Pascal’s wager:
- Walter Kaufmann: Critique of Religion and Philosophy, pp.168-172.
- Hans Kung: Does God Exist? Chapter 2.
- Ben Dupre: 50 Philosophy Ideas, You Really Need to Know, pp.172-176.
- Karin Armstrong: A History of God, pp 297-299.
Larry Winer says
Rabbi Cardozo, I trust things are well.
A thought. I find Pascal’s Wager problematic, as I do not see reward and punishment as sufficient reason for practicing halachic (define as you will) Judaism. But I’d like to take it a step further. Yes, I (we) follow because it’s what we have learned, what we believe. But I’d like to think that even without G-d, that much of what we practice is a good approach for living. I am not referring simply to a moral life, but a halachic one. I have a friend who is a Buddhist (actually a JewBu) and I’ve studied it a bit. I find the approach, the principles and discipline, in some ways similar. ( I suppose I should add l’havdil) Granted that the Buddha was not considered a god (for most), but someone, who along with his students, provided guidance. They believe, as we do that their practice leads to a better life. I like to look at Judaism in a similar way. Yes, we have G-d. But what if we did not? I’ve read this a couple of times, and I apologize, it needs elaboration.