Herman M. van Praag:  On religion and religious identity*


        This book** is a homage to doubt and in particular, doubt about religious identity.


        Religiosity, identity and doubt are the central themes. Let me first define those concepts. Then, at least, we'll know what we're talking about.

        Doubt, in my view, is a hybrid of uncertainty and skepticism. Uncertainty implies an inability to make decisions and skepticism the tendency to question accepted truths.

        Religiosity, or religious dependence, I interpret as the need to add a vertical dimension to life. Doing so requires reaching beyond the limits of reason and imagining a supernatural world.

        A world that is imperceptible to the senses and impossible to study with empirical methods but which, nevertheless, exerts a fundamental influence on the individual and on the society in which that individual lives. The influential entity is referred to as God or the Lord.

        I define identity as an individual's hallmark, their licence plate, if you will. The person he or she would like to be, hopes to be and, ultimately, will be.

        Religiosity, doubt, identity. How are those concepts brought together in my book?

        I present a fictitious character named Amos. A young Judean, living in the first half of the first century CE.

        The Judea of that time is under a great deal of tension. First and foremost, in terms of religion. Discord abounds. People have long since forgotten how to speak with one voice.

        The priests are doing their utmost to consolidate their waning power, clinging like grim death to the dictate that the Temple is essential for worshipping the Lord. Their influence has diminished, though, and a new elite has emerged, which is fast gaining in popularity. It consists of teachers, Rabbis, who are experts in the Mosaic laws. They discuss them and explain them to the people, teaching them how to apply them in daily life.

        The group of Pharisees is, incidentally, far from homogeneous. There are hair-splitters and nit-pickers, unwilling to make the slightest compromise, and there are more liberal minds. Between the two is every imaginable nuance, including those labelled by the pious as “defectors” and by rather freer spirits as apples that have fallen too far from the tree. These are fascinated by everything the Greek culture has to offer, immersing themselves in it, Hellenising, and often making so many religious concessions that the original law is barely recognisable.

        And then, in Qumram lives yet another community which feels that the practice of Jewry is perverted to the core. They see themselves as the "new Israel." The "children of the light,” while other Jews are branded as "children of the darkness." They claim the Lord has concluded a new Covenant with the "children of the light."



        Deep clefts have also formed socially, primarily between the poor and the rich. Over the past few years an upper class has evolved in Judea, made up of landowners. A lot of people are rich, but too many are impoverished.

        Finally, there are political divisions. For some years now, Judea has been under the direct rule of Rome.

        The question arises of what attitude to take with regard to the oppressors.

        At one extreme there are those who go all out to accommodate the Roman government, up to and including openly collaborating. They call themselves the freedom party. At the other are the zealots, extreme nationalists who reject any idea of conciliation with the Romans. Their aim is to drive them out the country and they are spoiling for war.

        A quaint idea: a dwarf standing up to a giant. An idea that is to have fatal consequences in the year 70 CE.

        Between those two extremes – accommodation, in other words collaboration, and resistance – is a legion of different hues. Everyone is keen to voice their opinion, whether they know what they are talking about or not.

        A great deal of social capital seems to have been lost. The situation confuses Amos. How on earth can you distil a Jewish identity from this near chaos?



        Amos is a Jew, a young man born of a Jewish mother and circumcised at eight days old. That term, he realizes, is nothing more than a label. So, what's behind it? What should an authentic Jew's "inner self" be like and what is his hallmark? How should he choose from the multitude of viewpoints? And, if he doesn't make a choice, should he then structure his own spiritual life, customize it, as it were? Should he compile his own way of thinking and his beliefs in a way in which he feels comfortable?

        He discusses these issues with his father, who says, "I cannot, in fact, I will not answer your questions. Only you can find an answer to them. Explore the 'market', son, absorb more detailed knowledge of everything that is for sale in the spiritual field, think about it and form your own opinion. And, above all: ask questions. Don't content yourself with the obvious answers. Keep asking questions.

        “Contradict if you don't agree with the answer. Ask for explanation if you don't understand an answer.

        “Don't let yourself be overawed by authority, by religious or social status. Sometimes, it's no more than a veneer. It has a lovely shine, but it's wafer thin. Don't let yourself be over-impressed by knowledge, factual knowledge, either. Very often, for questions such as yours, knowledge is not enough. Here, in particular, is where your heart has to speak.

        “Be impressed, open your mind where you suspect there is understanding, empathy and wisdom. The important thing for you to do is to shape your identity - essentially, therefore, to give your life meaning.

        “Life becomes meaningful when you make every effort to live out your identity, to give it substance. Meaning has more to do with the heart than the head. Bear that in mind. Go forth, lechlecha (Hebr.).” These are the words with which the Lord called Abraham to leave his old, familiar surroundings and journey to new, as yet unknown climes (Genesis 12:1).



        Amos follows his father's advice. He visits, in turn, a Pharisee, a priest, a Zealot, one of the leaders of the Qumram community, Jochanan (alias John) the Baptist, Joshua (alias Jesus) of Nazareth and, finally, the philosopher and exegete Philo of Alexandria, a brilliant representative of Hellenistic Jewry.

        It becomes a journey full of intellectual clashes.

        The book is an account of Amos' experiences, written entirely in dialogue form. He listens and debates; he asks questions. And, when he considers the answer unsatisfactory, he keeps probing

        When Amos arrives home at the end of his journey, his father is curious and asks, "So, has your spiritual quest got you any further?" Amos replies, "I'm no more certain, but I am much the wiser. I was inundated with opinions and views." He feels as if he has ventured into a spiritual labyrinth. No two interlocutors have given him the same answer to any one question. In fact, they have often seemed to contradict each other.

        None of them appeared to be in agreement on even the most basic of issues, such as what the concept of God entails.

        To one he was an utterly transcendental greatness, neither of nor in this world. Another painted an image that was quite recognizable for me, that of a kind of Super Moses, a human-like mentor, gently guiding humanity in its voyage through time.

        Amos gives other examples, but I will let you, reader, discover those for yourself.

        Amos is ill at ease with the many apocalyptics, including Jochanan (John) the Baptist. They foresee a global catastrophe, followed by the coming of a redeemer, the Messiah, heralding an entirely new world.

        Man will be judged by a heavenly court. Is he morally up to par, or will he be found wanting? That judgement decide his fate: eternal life in the new world or the lake of fire. The apocalyptics call for remorse and repentance before it's too late.

        Amos finds this view of the world terrifying. Surely God can't have meant to scare people out of their wits? The reason He revealed himself was to lighten the burden for mankind and to bring light, enlightenment, into his life.

        Will a Messiah ever come, Amos wonders, or is he already amongst us? There are those who see Joshua (Jesus) of Nazareth as the Messiah.

        Amos seeks him out and puts many questions to him. Does he, himself, think he is the Messiah? Does he believe he has divine antecedents? What does he mean when he says he has come to bear mankind's sins and will soon die? Where does he get that information from?

        Why does he behave, when Pesach brings him to Jerusalem, in such a way that the Roman authorities are forced to see him as a rabble-rouser, with all the fatal consequences that entails. Is he actually seeking death?

        Amos doesn't find any clear answers and he has the impression that Joshua himself has doubts, bordering on despair. Am I the son of a carpenter from Nazareth or the son of God, the Messiah, as my disciples believe?

        Amos has a problem with Philo's way of thinking, too. He holds him in high esteem as a philosopher, as a leader of the Jewish community in Alexandria, but feels he goes too far in his attempts to reconcile Judaism with the views of the Greek philosophers.

        Even as an exegete Amos feels he goes too far. He clothes Biblical characters in Greek robes, as it were, to make them more credible for the Greeks. Unacceptable kowtowing, in Amos' opinion. In that sense, the brilliant apple is falling too far from the tree.



        Amos returns to the family home and recounts his adventures. "You're starting to put things into perspective. That's what I'd hoped would happen," is his father's enthusiastic response.

        "Now you’ve seen for yourself how our people has become embroiled in undue debate, in what I call hyper-dialectics, in a clash about directions and even in the service of vulgar power politics," he continues.

        "Consequently, our teachings have become considerably less cohesive. The Torah is no longer in heaven, the Lord himself said so. Endeavour to understand it, is what He meant. So you can't expect any unanimity of opinion. You spoke of a labyrinth. A marketplace is a better metaphor.

        “Many things are for sale at that 'idea market.' Much is of excellent quality, but you can't buy everything. You don’t need everything, not everything is to your taste and you can’t afford everything. You have to make choices, but your choice need not be definitive. You can always buy more or exchange what you’ve already bought. The market is open at all times. So doubt will accompany you throughout your life.

        “Is the choice you made back then still the right one?

        “Many people are uncomfortable with that; they seek certainty, making choices for life; after all, doubt is inextricably bound up with uncertainty. Doubt doesn’t mean you're unable to choose, though. You can certainly choose, but you retain the option to decide that this was not the right or the final choice. Keep doubting, son. Doubt saves us from intellectual arrogance, smugness and pedantry, which ultimately lead to intolerance and the inability to listen to others.

        “In time, you’ll notice that you become more critical, more of a spiritual epicure, as what you refer to as your inner self takes on an increasingly personal and pregnant allure.

        “You may wonder whether our world view is becoming something of a hotchpotch. No: it qualifies as a strongly differentiated, but nevertheless cohesive system. Taking the image of an ordinary market once again, there are two constants: the place where the market is held and the stalls where the wares are laid out.

        “Our 'idea market' also has two constants. Firstly, the belief in one unique, indivisible God. Secondly, the unconditional acceptance of the code of conduct and morals set down by Moses in his scriptures. The schemes our sages have woven from these may be divinely inspired, but they’re man made. They should be studied diligently, but they’re not binding.

        “The two constants I mentioned are what bind us together. Our people remains one big family, despite profound differences of opinion.

        “You must make your choice from all those 'weavings', Amos. Not lightly or non-committally, but after careful internal consideration. Which of them hold significance for me and which can enrich and enhance my life? Slavishly following rules that fail to fulfil those criteria is hypocritical, in my view."

        Amos is impressed by what his father said.

        "Highly apt imagery, Father,” he says. “That is, indeed, how my future will be, I realize that now. Physically, I’ll probably be bound to one place. But mentally I won’t. I’ll regularly stroll through that 'idea market.' Tasting, testing, with my head and with my heart. Seeking my own way, a way that may well deviate considerably from the path many see as normative.

        “Who am I and who do I want to be? How should my 'inner self' look? That was the issue that launched me on my quest, on your advice. Now, I see the way – the way out – before me. There is no ready-made package awaiting me. I, myself, will have to forge a path through a forest of possibilities, a path marked with permanent discussion. A path with no clearly-defined destination.

        “In other words: I’ll never get there. I am becoming, and that genesis is without end. I’ll always be on my way.

        “Spiritually, I’ll be a wandering Jew. The destination will forever evade me, like the horizon when you endeavor to approach it."

        His father replies: "An exhilarating prospect, my son! May the Lord bless you and keep you while on that path.

        “Come on now, son, let's get back to work. We have to earn a living. There are no two ways about that!"

        Just for the sake of clarification: Amos has a lot in common with the author. And no wonder, after all it was he himself who begot Amos!



*Presented on December 3, 2019, in Jerusalem at a meeting of the World Psychiatric Association in a section on Religion and Psychiatry.

**Herman van Praag. Deference to Doubt: A Young Man's Quest for Religious Identity in First Century Judea. New York/Jerusalem: URIM Publisher; 2019.


April 23, 2020