This book is a bit of a mixed bag, and may defeat its own purpose. What one expects from the title is the encouraging, even inspiring material in the last half of the book. There, Rabbi Robert Levine’s goodness and compassion shine through, and make you wish you could spend a few hours talking with him. He demonstrates that people can behave morally and kindly whether or not (sorry, Rabbi) they believe in God.
But the fact that this inspiring material is preceded by something less inspiring may turn away people that Levine clearly hopes to reach, and who could have benefited from what he teaches.
Through the initial chapters, Levine’s defense of God seems rather…defensive. And full of straw men.
He maintains, for example, that if you suggest God is non-existent and irrelevant, this is an “attack” rather than simply a claim. And furthermore, if you (as he says) “attack” the idea of God, you must first posit that God yourself, because you can’t “attack” him if he’s not there. So those who get angry at fundamentalists have to posit the fundamentalist God first, in order to “attack” him. Making defenders against fundamentalism exactly the same as the fundamentalists. Which is preposterous.
To say “There is no Santa Claus” is not to “attack” Santa Claus; nor must you posit a Santa Claus before you can claim he doesn’t exist. So Levine’s claims make no logical sense, and set up a straw man he himself can easily attack.
Nor does Levine consider that after years of the American fundamentalists ramming their religion down the world’s throat, and trying unconstitutionally to make it the law of their land – one might have a justifiable cause, perhaps even a moral obligation, to attack this behaviour, and not be “positing” their God at all. Straw man, easily attacked.
Levine continually assumes things without proof, to bolster his argument. Nobody can be good or moral without God – despite evidence that atheists are equally as moral and good as believers. No atheist can express “wonder” about the universe without positing a God behind it – despite the fact that so many, in fact, do.
Levine can say “I don’t know” about matters of faith, without discrediting that faith at all. Yet a scientist who admits “I don’t know” somehow secretly discredits atheism and proves there’s a God.
The fact that Levine appears to have a temperamental need to posit a God to fill the gap of “I don’t know” or of “wonder” does not mean that everyone else has the same temperament. Yet he claims that they do.
So Levine’s book, no doubt unintentionally, begins with a virtual attack on atheists which is likely to sour them on considering anything he says later. He may find himself, as they say, “preaching to the choir,” or to people who are already searching for a God to fill their gaps. Perhaps that’s the audience he wants anyway.
Yet the God he offers, even in the later chapters, is dissatisfying. In addressing the Holocaust and 9/11, the only way he seems able to deal with them is to weaken God, so the deity couldn’t have done anything about them. Levine’s idea of the “partnership” of God and humanity is very helpful, yet one can’t imagine that if God exists, he is quite so helpless as Levine wants him to be so that people can believe. Why bother with a “God” at all, then?
The concept of God that the Rabbi offers appears to be a “make it up as you go along” sort of deity, picking and choosing interpretations that suit you. What is the difference between this sort of God and simply relying on your own mind and principles, without having to posit a divine (yet weak) justification for them?
Despite Rabbi Levine’s obvious compassion and generosity, and his undeniable good work, his book does not live up to its title. It does not offer any way of living or viewing the world, in practical terms, that a hopeful, moral, compassionate person can’t live on their own, without needing to create a God to back them up.