At the beit din for my conversion one of the rabbis asked me “do you even believe in God?” I gave an ironic but completely sincere answer. I guess they accepted it because I’m Jewish now, but that question has stayed with me since, and I suppose that is because maybe I didn’t accept my answer. I did not nail that question, nor did I nail several other key questions, especially not “How would you explain Judaism to someone who doesn’t know what it is?”. I hit these nails sideways and bent them all up. I want a do-over, but I think you only get one shot. But somehow I perceive this lingering dissatisfaction and feeling of lost opportunity as a good thing. I believe this might be a Jewish attitude along the lines of “there is nothing fuller than a broken heart.” In that anxiously optimistic spirit, I will put my unease to work and try to unbend the “do you even believe in God” nail. Here it goes…
Being a devout Pragmatist, I will go directly to the Pragmatic Maxim and ask what the practical consequences are to a statement to understand what it means. This is what William James called the “cash value”. My friend Mónica has an even more pragmatic version of Pragmatic maxim, which she expresses not as a maxim or a concept but, in a profoundly Pragmatist manner, the practice of asking: “AND THEREFORE…?”
So I believe in God, and therefore we are morally obligated to live toward alterity. We must live as a part of a reality that includes and exceeds us, and expects us to do so.
The evidence is all around us, and inside us. When we encounter a person who views us egocentrically as merely what we are to them — either useful or useless to their purposes, amounting to what they’ve deduced from their beliefs about us — apparently missing the fact of our own reality, purposefulness and autonomy we feel indignation. The indignation intensifies if we realize they prefer the imagined role they’ve assigned us to the more surprising, resistant and disruptive reality of who we are, and they seem resistant to noticing otherwise. And if they are in a position to enforce the role they have assigned as so we must cooperate and perform it, indignation can devolve to resentment or wrath.
Despite what many are currently saying, every person has this experience. It is intrinsic to the human condition.
Also intrinsic to the human condition is inflicting this indignation on others, by reducing others to roles we have imagined. (Sometimes we even pull this off by reducing them to mere reducers — people who have no experience of being reduced to a category not of their choosing and forced to play it, and who therefore are ignorant of the matter, incapable of understanding, unable to be reasoned with, and who can only be reformed through counter-domination. To meet this with indignation is not “fragility”, nor is it rage at having to share power. No: this is normal human indignation at being reduced to an imagined category, and then having one’s indignation reduced to vicious ignorance.)
So, when we do the same to others and take them as nothing more than what we imagine them to be — and, again, every single one of us constantly does this to others! — we are met with indignation. We are called upon to do something about it, to converse, to hear, to rectify and reconcile: to make teshuva. To return to a state of mutually acknowledged reality that includes each of us while infinitely exceeding each and all of us. I see teshuva as attempting mutual atonement. The infinite is no longer infinite to us if we exclude anyone from it, so full atonement is impossible without teshuva.
To believe as I do that this indignation is legitimate and warranted by more than utilitarian self-interest, biological drives or cultural norms strongly implies a reality that wants something of us. This wanting-from-us is the difference between a Godful and Godless reality. That is my “and therefore.” Therefore we must perpetually atone with God by atoning with all fellow-participants in the at-one God’s being.*
(Note: lately I am including non-humans in this process of perpetual atonement. Bruno Latour, Michel Callon, Tim Morton and Graham Harmon have me worried I have been “objectifying” objects!)