01/03/2011 08:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Jews and the Need For God: Modern Lessons from Moses Maimonides

Judaism is an action-oriented religion. We have, according to the Talmud, 613 Commandments -- not just a top-10 list. In rabbinic courts, your actions can be praised or punished. Faith is a means to achieve just ends, prayer as a way of connecting to the Source of Creation so that we can better play our part in its ongoing unfolding.

But what if you can achieve those same just, creative, Jewish ends without faith as a means or a motivation? Do you need God if you observe the 613 Commandments (or reinterpret and reapply them as so many modern Jews do)? Do you need God if you consider prayer an act of introspection -- one that changes the way you understand your actions, much as your believing counterparts do? Do you need God if you love the Torah as a national treasure of the Jewish people -- but one written and conceived of by our ancestors rather than the Divine?

Jews have a long history of grappling with these questions. One of the greatest thinkers to do so was Rabbi Moses Maimonides, the 12th Century Talmudic genius who also wrote one of the enduring philosophical works of his time, Guide of the Perplexed. As a rabbinic judge and scholar, Maimonides was unusually strict and even composed a dogma -- the "13 Principles of Faith" -- to differentiate Judaism from other Abrahamic faiths at a time of oppression. Core to those principles was the belief in one God and faith that Moses was the greatest of all prophets.

Yet, as a philosopher, Maimonides struggled to define a concept of God rationally. If the world was not eternal (as Aristotle had suggested), then how could God have created the initial substance that composed the world? Moreover, if God was omnipotent, eternal and constant in both features, why did God show conflicted emotions in the Torah -- or, for that matter, emotions at all? And as for his view prophecy, Maimonides endeavored to rationalize the miraculous, suggesting in Guide of the Perplexed that prophecy must have taken place in the form of a vision or dream, hinting that it must be interpreted loosely.

Some, such as renowned scholar Leo Strauss, have even gone so far as to suggest that Maimonides was an atheist, explaining the contradictory nature of belief in coded language such that only other philosophers could recognize his refutation of faith. While I am of the impression that Strauss overstates this claim, it seems clear that Maimonides' idea of God was far removed from that of traditionalist rabbis of the same era. To him, God was not an "old man in the sky" or one who literally spoke "face to face" with Moses. God was an indeterminate, powerful and perplexing force that acted on the minds of human beings, as well as on the world itself.

To step back from his beliefs (or lack thereof) for a moment, Maimonides' process of grappling with faith is striking. As his very own works show, from the 13 Principles (in the Commentary to the Mishneh) to the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides believed that God was an entity that could be discussed, analyzed and debated -- much like so many of Judaism's ideas. His conflicting and evolving understanding of God fell within a paradigm that allowed for inquiry and introspection. Faith, by definition, was not a self-evident idea and merited further inquiry.

Contemporary American Jewry should take heed of Maimonides' honest doubts and even more honest efforts to understand them in relation to his beliefs. It is unclear that Maimonides would have written Guide of the Perplexed at all were his struggles not such a salient part of his life, study and leadership as a rabbi. Maimonides refused to ignore his doubts for the sake of his leadership position as a rabbinic jurist. He also refused to renounce his religious practice because of those doubts. Doubt, practice and belief could all cohabitate in his mind, likely in different proportions at different times. Guide of the Perplexed was both the story of his quest for a coherent belief system and story of his doubts.

Today, faith is more of a choice than ever before, and atheism is becoming a more socially accepted alternative to belief. Judaism, especially as an action-based religion, need not feel challenged by atheism and can actually benefit from the new religious inquiries it has inspired. The key for the Jewish community is to allow for respectful, caring and frank discussions about personal belief -- and the doubts that many feel. Questions of faith are not confined to clergy or religious scholars. It is upon all contemporary Jews to write their own Guides in order to more fully understand their actions and the theistic or non-theistic values that motivate them. And it is upon Jewish leaders to allow -- and better yet encourage -- them to do so.

I, as a Jew, need God. Others may need to eschew belief in order to remain on their Jewish paths. Allowing for genuine engagement and the chance to struggle with faith and disbelief is something that our tradition should not shortchange itself of. Maimonides, as a rabbinic exemplar par excellence, shows us the means -- but the ends are ours to shape.