And if we have convictions, we have a very crucial thing: belief.
When someone asks why whatever thing it is they expect to see is missing, the answer is: we say what we believe.
Judaism beyond God is about believers. Not believers in the supernatural, of course. Judaism Beyond God is about belief that it is within our power to change the world, and that Jewish life and history can help illustrate ways to do just that.
Theodor Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream.” Whatever you think of its present condition, we must ask: what is the modern state of Israel if not the product of the work of people who believed in their ability to make change? The secularists who settled in Palestine were not people of faith in the power of the heavens. They advocated people-power, and believed that their work would create a new nation-state. They were right.
The entire Jewish community structure we know in the United States is the product of the work of people convinced of their ability to create. B’nai B’rith was a response to antisemitism in social and fraternal institutions, and the Anti-Defamation League was a response to the lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia. Their founders didn’t wait for something to happen. They created their own institutions.
That Jews have been in the United States since the 1600s is itself a testimony to human power in Jewish history. Some of the earliest American Jews came to New Amsterdam after the Dutch colony in which they lived was conquered by the Portuguese, who brought the Inquisition with them. These first American Jews did not wait to be saved: they took the matter in hand and headed to safe harbor in another Dutch colony—the one that would eventually be New York.
The ancient rabbis believed they could reshape Judaism in the wake of the massive destruction of the land of Israel by the Romans. And reshape it they did—into something a biblical prophet would likely not have recognized as the worship of Yahweh as they knew it.
Even the Holocaust, in which so many Jews were seemingly unable to exercise their power to change the world, is a testament to human power in Jewish history. Jews hid; Jews fought; Jews chose dignity when no other choice was available, and they chose self-sacrifice when it might save others. Even those Jews of whom we think the worst, the ones who worked in ghetto councils, doing the bidding of Nazi overlords, sometimes took those horrible jobs in hopes that they could save even a few others.
Even the sonderkommando, the men to whom the Nazis gave a temporary stay of execution in order to operate the ovens in the death camps, took action, hoping to slow the machinery of death in Auschwitz by sabotaging one of the ovens. And Viktor Frankl and Primo Levi both remind us that Jewish prisoners in the camps had some ability to control their own fate: when a prisoner began giving away his belongings, Frankl reported, it was clear that he had given up on himself and would be gone a few days later.
Jews believed, even in their darkest hours, that they could change the world, even if it was only for themselves, even if it was only a little bit.