Study Says Analytical Thinkers Less Likely to Believe. Judaism Says, So What?

May 1, 2012

The LA Times reported on a study published in the journal Science that people who think more analytically are less likely to be religious believers. I don’t question the results, but I wonder how things would have gone had they conducted such a study with yeshiva students.

There’s an old joke in which a man asks his rabbi to explain Talmudic logic. The rabbi gives the following example:

“Two thieves break into a house through the chimney. One’s face gets dirty, the other’s stays clean. Which thief washes his face?”

“The one with the dirty face,” replies the man.

“No,” says the rabbi. “The thief with the dirty face looks at the other and thinks his face is also clean. The one with the clean face looks at his friend and thinks his face is also dirty, so the clean thief washes his face. Let’s try it again. Two thieves break into a house through the chimney. One gets dirty, one stays clean. Who washes?”

“The one with the clean face,” replies the man.

“No,” replies the rabbi. “The one with the dirty face looks at the one with the clean face and thinks his own face is also clean but when he sees the one with the clean face wash, he realizes his face must be dirty. He washes, too, with the result that both have washed. One last try. Two thieves break in through a chimney. One gets dirty, one stays clean. Who washes?”

“Both,” says the man.

“No,” says the rabbi. “The entire question is moot. How can a thief break in through a chimney and not get his face dirty?”

This joke is meant to highlight the analytical nature of the Talmudic methodology, which constitutes the major portion of a traditional yeshiva education. Critical thinking and religious belief don’t go hand in hand? I think not!

Judaism may be unique in that it actively encourages questions. While all religion is ultimately predicated on faith, we do not believe that G-d said, “Because I said so,” and left things at that. The Jews’ crowning moment came at Sinai when they declared, “All that G-d has said, we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). They agreed to do the mitzvot (commandments) because G-d said so and, let’s face it, He knows best.

But while we do them, we also try to understand them, to figure out their nuances, and to derive lessons for our lives from them. Judaism doesn’t end with the observance of mitzvot; that’s where it begins. From our observance, we enter a world of analytical thought that leads to a better understanding of G-d and ourselves.

Many people equate analytical thought with science. Science and religion cannot coexist, they posit–incorrectly, I might add. Historically, the more Torah one knows, the less scientific “contradictions” pose a challenge. Two simple examples:

(1)   The heliocentric model of the solar system, popularized by such people as Copernicus and Galileo, was considered problematic for contradicting Church doctrine. Judaism was never bothered. Joshua chapter 10 certainly implies that the sun moves; so what? “The Torah speaks the language of man” (Sifre). We, in the 21st century, know that the Earth goes around the sun, but we still say things like “the sun came up” because, from our point of view, it does!

(2)   When first discovered, fossils of cavemen or dinosaurs threw many religious people into a tizzy. Some even believed they were planted by “the devil” to trick people into straying from their faith. Judaism was again unfazed. The Midrash describes a series of earlier worlds that were created by G-d. These were allowed to run their courses, then He wiped them out and built increasingly more complex worlds on top of them. What for 2,000 years was no doubt considered by many to be a fanciful metaphor suddenly became consistent with archaeological finds that were troubling others.

Scientific challenges do not trouble the analytical Jew. There are any number of approaches to reconciling such things that do not require one to throw out either religion or science. The existence of chlorophyll doesn’t mean that G-d doesn’t make the plants grow. Understanding how G-d does something doesn’t mean that He doesn’t do it.

Does this mean that we can never reach an impasse in our understanding? Are we guaranteed that we will always have satisfactory answers to every question about life, the universe and everything? Of course not. We’re only human. Even without religion there are plenty of unanswered questions in life. (Wave-particle duality? Quantum entanglement?  Science has enough head-scratchers without our help!) But half of “na’aseh v’nishmah” (“we will do and we will hear”) is “na’aseh.” We agreed to do the mitzvot while we analyze–and we’ll still do them even if our analysis fails!

Judaism encourages analysis, of itself and of the world. Regarding Torah, the Mishna in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot tells us “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” It’s possible to be an observant Jew without being analytical, but a non-analytical Jew may not be getting as much out of his Judaism as he might. Conversely, an analytical mind is only helpful insofar as it helps to bring us closer to G-d. If one’s observance is predicated on always understanding everything, he is in danger because there will always be one more mystery to solve.


Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of four books, including The Tzniyus Book, available on Amazon. His fifth book, The Taryag Companion, is anticipated for summer 2012.