Wednesday, June 22, 2005


Last week, I was asked why I believe. So here are my thoughts:

1. You have to differentiate between difficulties and doubts. There is no easy way to identify something as a doubt or a difficulty, but when you have enough difficulties they cumulatively turn into doubts. The more I learn Torah, the more truth I find and the less significant the difficulties that I have become. I believe in the general structure of Torah -- Torah She-Bi-Khsav, Torah She-Be-Al Peh, the need for commandments and a structure to conservatively develop halakhah over time (this last point is confusing and requires elaboration; I contend that almost everyone would agree with it if said in the right way). I see the profundity in even the most obscure aspects of Torah and the multiple ways of reading the Torah. I delight in the creativity of the greatest Torah scholars of all generations, and the relative intellectual freedom that they had to be so creative. Of the people I have seen lose faith, they usually spend day and night thinking about the difficulties and nothing else, so that these problems grow in their minds into insurmountable barriers. If they would take a step back and look at the big picture, the difficulties would shrink in perspective.

2. Humility. When I was in yeshiva, I was the katan she-ba-haburah (the least of the group). Commenters and readers here like to congratulate me on my blogging brilliance but I know better. I know where my "peers" are and how great they have grown. I left yeshiva at the age of 22; some are still in yeshiva, learning and teaching strong. I have been fortunate enough to have spent time with some truly brilliant students and scholars, many of them with very different skills and interests, and to see how frumkeit need not be sacrificed for intellectual curiosity and creativity. Yes, all of the people of whom I am thinking have very different paths in life and have often reached very different conclusions in their thinking. That is part of my point. I have been blessed by having seen and been taught multiple paths in Torah. That, alone, solves most problems that frum people face.

Additionally, time and again over my short life, I have faced difficulties that I thought were unsolvable, only later to discover a solution. Sometimes it took a few years, sometimes days. Sometimes I just had to ask someone while other times I searched through libraries. I have been convinced enough times that something was wrong, only to be later convinced that it is correct, to develop patience and humility. Some things are entirely false and some problems are unsolvable. But my inability to solve a problem is not a definitive evaluation.

3. Proofs. I don't need to prove Judaism. Personally, I have never been interested in the whole "Age of the Universe" or Evolution issues, even if you would not be able to know that from reading this blog. It is not even a difficulty for me, certainly not a doubt. But I don't believe any single proof that I have seen for Judaism. I remember once in college, a professor, R. Asher Ziv (whom I've been informed is still alive and well and was recently spotted in Teaneck), quoted an article in an old journal that supposedly proved the Divine origin of the Torah. So, using the wonderful library resources that YU has, I tracked down the article to finally have proof to present to others. Nothing. The same old arguments that don't stand up to critical questioning.

The closest thing that I have found to a proof, really more of an argument, is the existence of the Jewish people after thousands of years. It is, indeed, quite stunning. I know, plenty of arguments can be given, not least of which is that the changing of a national name does not mean that the people have disappeared off the face of the earth. Still, with all that considered, it is still quite amazing. Sociological reasons just don't sufficiently explain it.

More importantly, I am not an empiricist. I believe in things that cannot be proven, because to do otherwise is absurd. Proof has high standards that cannot always be reached. But just because something cannot be proven does not mean that it is not true. Ask any prosecuting attorney. Additionally, there is more than one way to learn things. Rational thought is only one way. Intuition and emotion are important methods that we all use in arriving at truth (see this post), even if we like to pretend that we are purely rational beings.

I think the following excerpt from an essay by R. Aharon Lichtenstein is worth quoting. It can be found in his Leaves of Faith, vol. 2 p. 365-367 and is also in The Jewish Action Reader:
Newman has emphasized the difference between difficulty and doubt, noting that of all his beliefs, the existence of God was the most fraught with philosophical questions, and yet none was borne in his mind and heart with greater certitude. This is the crucial distinction between judging faith and its tenets as an outsider or probing its contents while firmly ensconced within. The bulwark of my mentors' support assured that my own situation would be the latter: Tuv ta'am ve-da'at lamdeni ki be-mitzvotekha he'emanti (Tehillim 119:65). Answers, I of course continued -- and continue -- to seek, and have found many. But commitment has not been conditioned upon them. I have never been attracted to fideism and I regard Tertullian's credo quia absurdum est as alien to the spirit of Judaism. Clearly, however, faith cannot be contingent upon having all the answers. Its essence is implied in Rav Yohanan's rejoinder to a student who had initially ridiculed a palpably implausible statement but who then recanted upon finding empirical support for it: "Ne'er-do-well, had you not seen, you would not have believed. You ridicule the words of the wise" (Bava Batra 75a)...

The greatest source of faith, however, has been the Ribbono shel Olam Himself.

At the level of rational demonstration, this is, of course, patently circular... Existentially, however, nothing has been more authentic than the encounter with Avinu Malkeinu, the source and ground of all being. Nothing more sustaining, nothing more strengthening, nothing more vivifying...

This will obviously provide too little guidance for those to whom attaining encounter is precisely the problem. To those "struggling to develop faith," one can, however, proffer first the reassuring assertion of the religious significance of the quest per se, as, in the footsteps of Avraham Avinu, they have already become mevakshei Hashem; second, the prospective hope of successful resolution, as "The Lord is good until them that yearn for Him, to the soul that seeketh Him" (Eikhah 3:25); and third, the counsel to focus persistently, in terms of coleridge's familiar distinction, upon faith rather than belief, upon experiential trust, dependence and submission more than upon catechical dogmatics. Intellectual assent is normative and essential; but, at the personal level, it is generally not the key. In the final analysis, the primary human source of faith is faith itself.

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