Monday, June 9, 2014

ChoppingWood Mailbag: Responding to a Comment about Belief

My cousin and good friend (and digital guru) Avi Greengart sent the following comment to my last post, which I started to answer and then realized that my answer is really a full blog post. I have received other responses which I will address in a future post (hopefully this week).

Avi writes,
Let's say your neighbor [who said that many, if not most Orthodox Jews in the community he grew up in doubt the divinity of the entire Torah] is correct. (Because he is.) Your response? You want people to believe things that they do not (without explaining why they should believe things that they do not). Then you want them to act in ways that will cause them to confront their non-belief. Are you sure that's a good idea?
--What if they don't know what they believe and their version of faith is to keep doing mitzvot anyway?
--What if they've given great thought to these issues and their conclusion is, "I don't believe the version taught to six year olds; Truth is actually Complicated."
--What if they absolutely do NOT believe in "the Divine nature of the Torah?" but know that it is a good way to live / don't want to break up the family because the spouse is a Believer?
My response:
First of all, thanks for confirming my suspicion that my neighbor is, in your mind, correct. I suspected as much, but I'm not "there". It's also important not to cast aspersions on the entire Orthodox community. I'll only say that it's a significant phenomenon, which is what prompted me to write about it. I'll take your comments in order, because I believe this discussion is really, really important (and will be following up with at least one more post).

"You want people to believe things that they do not (without explaining why they should believe things that they do not). Then you want them to act in ways that will cause them to confront their non-belief. Are you sure that's a good idea?"
I don't really think it's just me. I also would not say that it's just that "I want" people to believe in the divinity of the Torah. This is a fundamental belief essential to our identity both as a religion and as a people. I believe that this is what God wants. I don't know if I am, in my blog, addressing those people that don't believe in the divinity of the Torah. But I do feel that people when people struggle (because belief isn't an all-or-nothing value), then focusing on the "yes" side can and does reinforce faith.
Moreover, in my mind I was primarily addressing people who do have the faith and belief. I feel it's critical today to emphasize that fact. Belief and faith as ideals are under siege in Western society. Assuming that you can just withstand attack after attack without taking strong steps to counter those attacks isn't realistic. It's not enough just to believe (and I don't know if it ever was). At the back of Shacharit in pretty much every siddur you'll find the 13 Principles of Faith of Rambam. I was never raised to say those each day (yes, I blame my mother), but perhaps we need to teach ourselves, and especially our children to recite these 13 Principles - and not to just say them, but to also know what they mean).

What if they don't know what they believe and their version of faith is to keep doing mitzvot anyway?
I'm OK with that - not just OK, but quite supportive. Everyone struggles with faith, on some level, and to say, "I can't claim to have all the answers, but submit and fulfill the commandments" is, to my mind, a wonderful expression of faith.

What if they've given great thought to these issues and their conclusion is, "I don't believe the version taught to six year olds; Truth is actually Complicated."
I find your formulation to be part of the problem. We were taught at age 6 (and 2 and 3) that God created the world. I still believe that, despite the fact that I learned that piece of information at a very young age. I was also taught that God gave the Jews the Torah at Sinai, that God split the Sea and rescued the Jews from Egypt - both at a very young age. Still believe both. The fact that we're taught these things at a very young age doesn't affect whether they're true or not, nor does using supposed axioms like "Truth is actually complicated" - which sounds true, but is in fact misleading. 
This also goes to the heart of what you mean by "truth", which is a loaded philosophical question (and now I'm even starting to bore myself). Some truth is complicated, while other truth is quite simple. ה' אלקינו ה' אחד - "The Lord is our God, the Lord is One." Complicated? Of course you could delve into the matters of Oneness, and the names of God, and give a series of shiurim on the topic. I have. But it's also very simple: I believe in the One True God. And I'm neither ashamed, nor upset by the fact that I was taught this idea at a tender young age, and using that fact to denigrate basic beliefs is part of the cultural war against belief that I mentioned earlier.
Truthfully, I find it ironic, that the very same society that loves to promote the fact that "Everything we need to know we already learned in Kindergarten", and by buying books and posters promoting those universal truths, will then turn around and ridicule any universal faith truth that we teach to toddlers.

What if they absolutely do NOT believe in "the Divine nature of the Torah?" but know that it is a good way to live / don't want to break up the family because the spouse is a Believer?
I'm against breaking up families. I don't think parents have to agree. But if I was the believer, I'd be very concerned about how I was going to pass my faith on to my child, when my spouse, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways - sends the very clear message that the very faith most critical to me, and fundamental to my way of life, believes that it's a bunch of baloney.

Maybe then the lesson is to start asking these questions earlier in the process, perhaps while dating. 
Instead of asking the really important questions like: "Do you care if I wear pants and cover my hair?" or "Do you want to live in Teaneck or the Five Towns" or even "Are you planning on making Aliyah"?, perhaps young people should first, in all seriousness, begin asking each-other: "Do you believe that God gave the Jewish people the Torah?"