So, Should I Believe?

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13 Responses

  1. rabbidmk says:

    Wonderful piece, Micha.

    There is what to add, but in the end, it would only detract.

  2. Tuvia says:

    I liked parts of your essay.

    I wish to make two points from the secular side:

    The thing most secular Jews who engage with orthodoxy find frustrating is the fear and inability the haredi have of dialogue with outside voices.

    You postulate that feeling halacha’s power in your life is the beginning of understanding the truth of Judaism. But that is not what is really going on in chinuch. What happens is that outside voices can never be heard. What is permitted are show trials, where a rabbi takes the “side” of say, evolution and does a terrible job describing why scientists think it is true, and another rabbi takes the side of tradition and trounces on the Theory of Evolution. And the traditional side wins, every time.

    This is just the beginning of the problem. People are quite literally afraid to leave a life of mitzvoth because they have been taught they will pay for it in this world and the next. They do mitzvoth for rewards in this world and the next as well. This a tool of control – of spiritual fear mongering (and it works on a a lot of people, but it is implicitly used as a threat against the vulnerable. An ace in the hole for clergy every where.)

    In all, haredi folks are not “trusted” to evaluate anything that might adversely affect their emunah. This does not speak to any degree of confidence in your world – it speaks only to control.

    So while you have a nice view of halacha (one I agree with in a sense) what repels secular Jews is the deceitful, omitting, suppressing, distorting tactics of the orthodox world which knows it has the “ultimate truth” but simply cannot afford a sustained, unflinching encounter with the outside world.

    My second point is this:

    If you are correct, it needs to be pointed out that other religions have their deeply feeling adherents who have their amazing hashgacha pratis stories, their miraculous divine intervention stories, their stories of great depth and feeling that account for their attraction to fundamentalism.

    I know a Muslim intellectual who feels almost identical to any Jew I know in his central (and unalterable) identification as a Muslim. These feelings Jews ascribe to themselves with their “pintele yid” stories are not ours exclusively. Isn’t it likely not a spiritual thing, but a psychological one? Are we able to even have that discussion in the frum world?

    There are many Jews for Jesus types who will tell you how that religion changed and lifted their lives in ways that felt amazing and also had to be divine (again hashgacha pratis stories galore.)

    Why should Jews limit themselves to “feeling” Judaism is the true religion if they can feel that other religions are the truth? How many Jews go to church today as a result of this feeling stuff you are touting? My own father said the only time he ever thought there may be a real, live G-d in the world was at the funeral of a bishop he attended – because the service and church were so beautiful.

    My point is this feeling halacha stuff can get a person anywere – including in to “feeling” a life spent surrounded by child sex workers in Thailand “feels so right, how can it be wrong?”

    Maybe that’s an exaggeration – but the point is – at least if you put G-d at the top (or Jesus, or Buddha, or Allah, or maybe Stalin or the fuhrer), just add that you are “feeling” its realness and anything goes anyway.

    In conclusion:

    I will go back to my first point only: the problem we on the outside have with orthodox Judaism is not that people choose to be frum (I admire the lifestyle. I admire the general values. I admire the importance there of life having meaning.) It’s that they deny, omit, suppress and distort outside sources and voices to get there. They can’t dialogue without the outside world, just feel “certain,” based on filling their head with indoctrinating material and cementing it with halachic practice.

    It’s not halacha that bothers the secular (everyone has to eat, kosher is a choice and an admirable one.) It is a culture of manipulation and indoctrination (and its fuel, inspiration – fuel of fascists and fundamentalists and jingoists everywhere) and the highest walls of any religion (save the Amish?) that are designed to keep dialogue with outside voices from happening – and avoid the inevitable shattering of the haredi intellectual approach to discerning the truth. An approach that simply cannot afford a genuine encounter with outside ideas or voices.

    The walls are very high in haredi Judaism (they seem to be climbing even higher these days.) Isn’t there something suspicious about a system that seeks to persuade people to adhere to it but cannot tolerate the open inquiry which is the hallmark of the Age of Reason?

    And why are the walls so high? Because haredi Judaism cannot be transmitted as a choice built on a wide ranging education that includes open inquiry. Haredi Judaism can only be transmitted as a foregone conclusion. And that’s not a confident religion, that’s just a technique for staying in control.

    • micha says:

      I do not invoke feeling in the sense of emotion. The distinction between internal experience and emotion is why I invoked the self-evidence of Euclid’s postulates (in a flat space) as a comparison. Do you believe that two lines with the same slope never meet because it makes you feel good? It’s not because of actual experience — there aren’t such things as infinite lines or perfectly straight lines. (Or come down to it, a flat space — thanks to General Relativity.) It’s because you can experience things that aren’t sensory impressions of empirical reality. Some math proofs are found to be elegant or “beautiful”. That discusses two things: the aesthetic judgment of beauty, and that which makes this proof more “beautiful” to the non-eyes of the non-beholder than another proof. I’m discussing the latter not the former.

      The second fundamental difference between what you’re discussing and the topic of the post is in your opening words: “I wish to make two points from the secular side…” I said nothing about dialog. Dialog about experiences both parties cannot share is inherently impossible. My discussion was why a believer is sane in not accepting proof that runs counter to his aforementioned religious experience; not how to make the point to another party.

      As to whether others cannot admit that this is the basis of their trust in Orthodox Judaism, and instead want to pretend that they’re relying on empirical evidence or logical proof isn’t my problem. Nor, for that matter, R’ Yehudah haLevi’s or R’ Chasdai Crescas’s. Take it up with them and the Rambam.

  3. Tuvia says:

    A young man starts to observe Shabbos after hearing about its spiritual reality in a kiruv class. He feels the power of Shabbos as a result of being primed by his kiruv class – which taught him that the Torah is from G-d (and proved it to him in a number of ways.)

    I don’t think the young man feels the power of Shabbos without first understanding that it is a holy day, based on the idea that the Torah is from G-d.

    I have no problem with someone embracing all of this. But I don’t think he arrives at these conclusions and feelings in an honest way if he also does not have prolonged exposure to the point of view (and evidence) that shows the Torah was written over centuries by many authors.

    The young man should hear both sides, or all sides. My problem with orthodox Judaism is people are forbidden from evaluating its claims. And that the frum world distorts, omits, and suppresses outside information to keep the whole project going.

    I don’t mind at all people choosing religion. But it is not taught in a way that would lead one to choose anything – it is taught as a foregone conclusion.

    Your idea that the personal feeling one gets doing a mitzvah is valid is also built on the idea that it is valid the person doing the mitzvoth is kept in a bubble of half information – dogma, indoctrination – that informs and colors how he feels about the mitzvah.

    It is the same as when the prosecution finishes its case in a trial. For sure, the defendant is guilty! They just showed us! But in the real world, the defense gets to make its case. Followed by cross examination, etc.

    If the frum world would permit this kind of search for truth – I would be very admiring of someone steeped in the arguments of both sides who still gets that feeling while keeping Shabbos. But I don’t think the orthodox world can go along with a broad education – and that is a profound weakness.

    • micha says:

      R JB Soloveitchik agreed with your last paragraph. That is why he resisted all calls to give the rabbis any say in the curriculum of the secular colleges. He felt that the role of YU should be to allow the student to encounter real Western Thought in its full and figure out what they want to do about it. That to edit the experience either means fooling the student into thinking he can live a full and dignified life without encountering the West, or forcing the student to come to their own resolution later in life, without the yeshiva’s resources of people to come to with their questions — nor the university’s.

      That said, you have a much more positive opinion of human reason than I do. I believe a person picks those postulates that fit his experience — those are the givens they find self-evident. Then they form lines of reason combining them to reach conclusions, and if those conclusions don’t fit experience they will start questioning their choice of givens or the soundness of their arguments. This was Rabbi Yehudah haLevi’s thesis in much of the first section of the Kuzari. E.g. 1:13:

      The Rabbi: That which you describe is religion based on speculation and system, the research of thought, but open to many doubts. Now ask the philosophers, and you will find that they do not agree on one action or one principle, since some doctrines can be established by arguments, which are only partially satisfactory, and still much less capable of being proved.

      One of my signature files, the only one that’s a self-quote, reads, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” This echoes the King of the Kazar’s objection, that for any philosophical position justified by argument, there are conflicting opinions whose adherents claim equally valid arguments.

      After all is said and done, I consider the following to be one of the most enlightening comments on religious faith. It was posted by R/Dr Sholom Carmy to the Avodah mailing list here on AishDas.org:

      People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

      The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

      Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

  4. Tuvia says:

    I find the view you espouse, and other religious types I read, to be full of an almost childlike reading of the world. I truly had no idea that religious people (Jews in particular) succumb to this kind of stuff. It seems so against what it means to be educated to me.

    To me, people who are really educated know that things are not that simple. That religion speaks to simple ideas and feelings that are false and comforting at times. That we crave order (some of us) and religion fills that craving – but that doesn’t mean it’s true any more than it’s true that the perfection someone may feel on cocaine means they are really perfect. More to the point, the idea that one can fly seems to overwhelm people on LSD sometimes – but they invariably go splat if they test it.

    I don’t understand how mature adults who are beyond childhood fall prey to the fantastic feelings they have being religious. Prayer, Shabbos, even wearing tzistzis can feel great – why does a great feeling equal a true Torah?

    Why does how I feel mean I’m right? If I love my child more than other children, does that mean my child is objectively better? Just because I see it that way? Who cares what I think or feel? Why should I? If my child loses a competition, do I cry foul because, well, he’s mind and he is the best, no matter he came in second to last in the math Olympics? The fix was in?

    I understand the deep fulfillment of religion pretty well. I’ve been there. I felt it. I thought to myself: wow. Being a Jew among Jews feels great. Shabbos is high minded and idealistic and I feel it is just terrific.

    But: that never made it necessarily any realer than any body else’s ecstatic moment realizing their own self-fulfillment doing something religious. I just can’t take seriously the idea that my feelings are real, and the Southern Baptists are not. He thinks I’m going to burn in a lake of fire unless I accept Christ. He is nuts. I think the Torah has to be true because that’s what I feel – I am nuts.

    Haven’t you ever looked in the mirror and thought to yourself: boy I take myself too seriously. I know men (oddly a number of them baal teshuvas) who got so wrapped up in a woman (either their new BT wives or, before they did teshuva, their secular girlfriends) that when the break up came (several I saw with BTs being divorced by their wives early in marriage) they went virtually insane – demanding, controlling, unforgiving, incapable of breaking up. Why is this something that seems to afflict BTs so much? Is it because they have the mentality “I want it to be true, therefore it is”?

    Why the childishness from BT men whose wives want out? I’ve never seen anything like it (except one, who agreed with his wife the marriage did not work. They split custody of the child. He went OTD and resumed a typical dating life.)

    Is it something in religious folks that, if it is true to them, it is just plain true?

    I would really like to hear what you think. I am utterly confounded by my own people. We say something specific took place in the desert over two thousand years ago. Nothing really suggests it happened except we say it happened. There is no reason to embrace it on factual grounds. Every kiruv proof goes wobbly on examination. Why do people embrace it so hard? Why don’t they just acknowledge what we all know: doubtful, certainly not confirmable at this late date. Just not knowable if we are being even more objective and detached.

    Why the childlike embrace of something we can’t confirm? With so much certainty?

    I am asking you Jew to Jew to explain this to me. It scares me that adults can be so childlike in this way. Is life so hard it just flips a switch in some people who (like two friends of mine who gave themselves over to Christ during life traumas and have never looked back) just embrace regardless of lack of evidence and refuse to expose themselves to anything that might make them reevaluate their faith?

    Really interested in some color on these questions.

    Tuvia

    • micha says:

      The role of religion is not to provide easy answers, but more productive ways of framing one’s questions. People who think religion is a set of easy answers are the ones who become come-and-go baalei teshuvah. Your premise about what I believe is flawed.

      Second, you fail to admit that the same is true of people who take the religious positions of atheism and deism. We are all equally incapable to objectively prove our positions, and thus end up accepting those proofs that are based on our experiences and that lead to conclusions in concert with it. The allegedly objective is slave to the subjective.

      Your position on why to believe represents a trend in Western Philosophy that certainly survived for quite a while — from Greece until the Renaissance — but collapsed in the battles between the Empiricists and the Idealists, and was replaced by Kant’s “Copernican Revolution”. All my talk is not about what feels good as much as what Kant called the synthetic a priori. Google around — others explain what I’m talking about far better than I could.

  5. Tuvia says:

    “The role of religion is not to provide easy answers, but more productive ways of framing one’s questions”

    To me this sounds like an easy out. Because while all religions do this, their larger agenda seems to me to be to announce very specific truths one is expected to believe and follow in order to be a part of the religion.

    We would NOT have kiruv proofs and quarrels about science, Jewish history, archaeology, the recent version of the Doc Hypothesis, and more UNLESS each religion had a larger agenda.

    We would also not have the indoctrination, the suppressing of outside voices, the fear mongering, the impugning of the outside world.

    Whatever solid good comes from finding a productive framing of one’s questions – there is so much more to religious life. The framing of one’s questions part is just not a fair way to characterize what actually goes on in religious indoctrination or dogma.

    “Second, you fail to admit that the same is true of people who take the religious positions of atheism and deism.”

    Let me take the opportunity to admit that deism and atheism are also a bridge too far. We can’t know is probably the honest answer.

    But also, I know atheists. They can socialize with believers. They can freely discuss their beliefs and why they hold them. They can marry deists.

    Orthodox Judaism does not permit this really. Why?

    Let me finally say that it is not the embracing of an aspect of Jewish living, or all aspects, that bother me. It is the intellectual stance of the orthodox Jew that is exasperating (as is the intellectual stance of all other fundamentalists.)

    What is really exasperating is how they cannot tolerate exposure to outside voices, outside facts or ideas or ways of thinking.

    My friends are all progressive democrats, I am more conservative. We can break bread together and discuss our views. We can try to persuade or point out flaws in each other’s thinking. It’s fine. We can have our viewpoints.

    That’s the larger society for you. You can read, think, argue. You can learn and evaluate things.

    The orthodox world you are defending does not permit broad education or evaluation. Why?

    Tuvia

  6. Tuvia says:

    A lot has been said – some of it is pretty philosophical and while I looked up your terms I can’t say for sure I understand how they refute the things I say.

    My final idea is we seem to have a conflict about whether I am overstating the role a closed educational system plays in maintaining the faith of orthodox Jews.

    I suppose this is a hard one to pin down. What I think I would like to end on on this topic is that it seems to me that the modern form of the doc hypothesis is kept from orthodox Jews. Those who espouse it – at least some of whom are dressed in the traditional garb of the orthodox Jew – are not encouraged to come in to the community and discuss their findings.

    I think when OJ encourages two years of modern biblical criticism in its curriculum – taught by academic scholars who know the subject well and are not hemmed in by a commitment to upholding the dogma of OJ – that will be a great day in Judaism. People will feel proud of how OJ is able to confront its critics head on – so confident are they in their beliefs. Real choice for the people will be the result.

    Until that day, I see fear and excuses. And as a Jew, I am saddened. I still (years have gone by since I started study of Judaism) cannot believe how cut off intellectually orthodox Jews are – and yet how certain they are of their ultimate truth. It really is through the looking glass – or inside the Soviet Union – where people were told “communism is obviously superior and the truth, and the West decadent and classist and materialistic.”

    But no one inside the Soviet Union could travel abroad to see for themselves. And no one could evaluate things because no books, tv, radio, or newspapers from the outside world were allowed. And those who dared to not agree that communism was obviously superior and the truth were subjecting themselves to internment in a forced labor camp.

    I can’t believe you don’t see anything like this going on (particularly in the far right frumkeit of Mea Shearim, Bnei Brak, New Square, Monsey, Williamsburg and parts of RBS.)

    Even if I overstate it? There is a good deal of information control inherent in the community.

    I just don’t believe that none of this strikes you as controlling. People don’t know what they believe – they are never able to really look at things in a fair way. And like a good party member in the Soviet Union, somehow this is fine with you. And that really makes me fear for the future of Judaism.

    I just wish I could understand why thinking orthodox Jews aren’t equally afraid.

    Thanks for trying,

    Tuvia

    • micha says:

      You wrote: “To me, people who are really educated know that things are not that simple. That religion speaks to simple ideas and feelings that are false and comforting at times.”

      I replied to you with a plethora of philosophical references to show that this is only the religion of people who want false comfort, because they prefer easy answers over struggling with the truth. That in fact the religion of someone engaged in critical thought isn’t immature or naive, but well founded on the philosophy of our era. And ironically, skepticism is less so, founded more on Scholastic or Empiricist ideas that philosophers themselves have moved past. And that religion can support critical thought; but you have to look at the critically thinking religious to find it. Not to someone who bought into a kiruv worker’s presentation of Judaism as thought that level of thought were education rather than marketing. People who want to look at things “in a fair way”, do — and in fact the religious ideal encourages it. We are the people who produced two Talmuds, after all.

      As for Document Theories, I don’t think they fit within Orthodox Judaism. To explore them would be to explore alternatives, not a richer, more subtle, Orthodoxy. The original post discussed why anyone who followed a halakhah based on the notion of derashah would not find the givens of Documentarianism to be overly convincing, because we found another explanation for the text that actually is consistent for our experience. (And those who didn’t…. well a percentage of Orthodox Jews do end up leaving…)

  7. Tuvia says:

    “As for Document Theories, I don’t think they fit within Orthodox Judaism. To explore them would be to explore alternatives, not a richer, more subtle, Orthodoxy.”

    We’re stuck on different questions, but here is what I want to say:

    I think what I would like to see is DH ideas acknowledged in the community. Not embraced, but not ridiculed or suppressed. If you want to make orthodox Jews have an authentically uncomfortable experience – this is the way. No more pretending.

    This still leaves room for other conversations of course along the lines of richer, more subtle, orthodoxy.

    For most people I know who embrace orthodoxy, it is a way of answering questions. Smugly. Assuredly. Conclusively. The idea of being uncomfortable? No. I don’t see it really. I see OJ presented more as a way of being certain. Maybe we talk to different people, but I think most people don’t have the taste for philosophy you have. What they want are answers. Guidelines. Order. I see this over and over again.

    I applaud traditional living. But I will never appreciate the thinking that can’t acknowledge the unpopular voice, the voice of the outsider, or the unorthodox view. I think orthodoxy is weaker for not being able to acknowledge ideas that don’t support the orthodox vision.

    I think it leads to all kinds of strange ideas. There are too many to list, but I think it leads even to the insanity of welfare fraud, intimidation of molestation victims and their families, faked up shidduch resumes, agunah crisis, hiding tvs in microwave boxes, high levels of (hidden) depression and anxiety in ultra-orthodox communities, an obsession with tznius, and these are just the most blatant, in the news kinds of things.

    I hear Rav Twersky say that OTDers just don’t want to restrict their lives and live the truth – and I want to weep. The solipsism of remarks by leadership is just awful. The impossibility of hearing and acknowledging someone whose real crime is they happen not to see things your way.

    Daas Torah has become strange too. In small ways, subtle ways, orthodox Jewish thinking is threatening its own viability. And leaders seem to be even more involved in narrow thinking than the rank and file.

    An open society with open inquiry is what changes everything. Just look at the Soviet Union. Black was white and white was black there. Look at Cuba today – prisoner/citizens. The most ridiculous system – presented as superior. Patiently waiting for the demise of the West – where people can come and go as they please. White is black and black is white there.

    For some reason, my gut tells me it boils down to this: orthodox Judaism needs to simply acknowledge points of view other than its own. Le them be heard. That would make it an interesting (and safe and dignified) place for a Jew to be.

    It would say to people that, while the authoritarianism of fundamentalism is very seductive and in ways attractive, it is just not cool to deny the humanity and dignity of people who don’t think like us. It is just not what a man does.

    Tuvia

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