Is God a Threat to Religion?”

It sounds like a question that could have come out of the newly released Pew Research Center survey of “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” which found a fast-growing number of Americans who are atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.”

But it was actually the topic of a Jewish Week Forum last Tuesday evening at Park Avenue Synagogue. And while the question may have sounded abstract, even profane, the audience of about 200 people came away from the lively discussion with sharp insights into theological debates and dilemmas that span centuries, from medieval times to today.

At the center of the talk was the seminal work of the 12th-century philosopher, Maimonides (also known as the Rambam), “The Guide For The Perplexed.”

The guide to “The Guide” was Micah Goodman, an engaging 40-year-old Israeli teacher, author and public intellectual, whose book, “Maimonides and the Book That Changed Jewish Life,” was a recent best seller in Israel — a largely secular society — and has just been published in English by the Jewish Publication Society.

Goodman noted at the outset of his book that a central ideal in “The Guide” is that “God is the greatest threat to religion … in the sense that the greatness of God renders absurd the thought that God needs our worship.”

The young scholar said he attempted to bridge the gap between the unreachable, unique and all-powerful God of Maimonides, and the God of our personal prayers and petitions.

“I tried to fight both battles,” Goodman explained, “and to create new excitement among both secular and religious readers, and open them up to new ideas.”

Joining Goodman in the discussion were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, and host Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue (Conservative), each of whom offered perspectives from his own studies and experience.

A poignant moment came at evening’s end when a questioner said that , while the discussion had been intellectually stimulating, “None of your words made me believe in God. Why should I?” she asked.

The woman seemed to step out of the pages of the Pew report, which revealed that the “nones,” as they are called, now total 56 million Americans, or 23 percent of population, more than either Catholics or mainline Protestants.

Rabbi Jacobs ventured an eloquent response, centered on the notion that it is our responsibility to “shape a better world,” and not rely on Divine intervention. “Humility,” he said, “comes from not having that certainty” of God’s presence.

gary@jewishweek.org