Saturday, March 17, 2007

Atheists in the Holy Land

Over the last 9 months, my work has taken me fairly frequently to Israel. Zango -- the company I work for, and helped start back in 1999 -- has rented an apartment in downtown Tel Aviv, just off of Rabin Square, where I've stayed the last several visits. I walk a half-mile or so to the office every morning, and back in the evening, down Ibn Gvirol Avenue. Lots of folks have commented on how "Western" Tel Aviv feels, and they're onto something. My wife says that Tel Aviv reminds her of Sevilla, in Spain, and that sounds about right.
As secular as Tel Aviv can be, religion is never too far from the surface in the Holy Land. Only a few people in our office would describe themselves as "religious", but you scratch an Israeli, and he'll bleed religion, even if it's not the sort you'd expect. At a company lunch the other day, the topic of God came up. My curiosity got the better of my judgment, and I asked the general question, "OK, who here believes in God?" Of the eight folks around the table (all Jews except for me), six of them professed a belief in God of some sort, andtwo denied His existence outright. Israelis being Israelis -- which is to say, in favor of argument of every sort, and in that way much like me -- this prompted an extended argument that lasted well after we had left the restaurant.
If my limited experience is any guide, that ratio -- 25% atheists -- seems to be reasonably representative of the larger population. My good friend Rinat varies between disliking God intensely and merely disbelieving in His existence, but usually professes the latter. My friend Meir is as loud and vocal about his atheism as about his poker playing, which is to say, quite passionate.
On a side note, I had the wonderfully surreal experience the other day of a long car ride with Meir and his best friend Moris. Moris made the mistake of acknowledging a belief in God, which earned a great deal of scorn from the loud and passionate Meir. The highlight of their argument, which lasted for many miles, was Meir's loud insistence to Moris that Christians didn't believe in the 10 commandments, an opinion which the repeated denials of the one Christian in the car (with an M.A. in theology, no less) did little to shake.
The paradox of atheists in an avowedly Jewish and religious country was made perhaps a bit more understandable to me after a visit to Yad Vashem. It's admittedly hard to believe in the goodness of a God who has supposedly chosen your people, after you've watched this same God allow your people to be "led like lambs to the slaughter". Even the name "holocaust", with its evocation of the Torah's "whole burnt offering", is an unsettling reminder of the paradoxes inherent in modern Judaism.
One image from Yad Vashem sticks with me beyond all others, however. When you finish your journey through the exhibits, the exit from the museum opens up almost trumpet-like, with an unparalleled view of the green hills of Jerusalem. The impact of this not-so-subtle architectural effect was not lost on me: after the Holocaust, Israel; after childbirth, a child. I don't claim to know what God is doing with the Jews or with Israel. St. Paul was content to call it a mystery, and I am too. But St. Paul was also convinced that God wasn't through with His people; and having spent some time in the Holy Land recently, I'm pretty well convinced of it as well.