Judaism Is as Real as You Are

May 24, 2012

We search for answers in Judaism. We want clarity, logical assurance; we want things to make sense. When they don’t seem to, we often fall back on simple faith. Belief. But despite the preached value of belief, we tend to harbor a feeling that we only got second tier confirmation that what we’re doing is correct. But is the rational approach really the only avenue to confidence in our religion? Is it the only – or even the best – way to forge a powerful commitment to G-d and His Torah?

I was recently researching a complex discussion famously started by 17th century rationalist philosopher René Descartes. He questions the existence of everything we know to be reality¹, saying as follows: people have experiences they think are real, but then turn out to not be so. Dreams, for example, seem like they are actually occurring; only upon waking does it become clear that the scenes only exist in our mind. Or when looking at a pencil halfway immersed in a glass of water it appears bent – but when removed from the water, it is obviously not.  So how then, ask many philosophers, do we know that our “true” lives are not also some sort of illusion – a dream, a trick by G-d or some evil demon?

Over hundreds of years it has become quite clear that this question and others of its sort cannot be entirely disproved by standards of rigorous logic. So while contemplating the issue, my mind strolled on to its own question. Does anyone actually become so caught up with the logic that they begin to take these doubts seriously? I do not mean this in the philosophical sense–in the realm of intellectual discourse these questions are very serious. But I mean in real life–does anyone begin to doubt his or her existence?

The answer–for vast majority of people most of the time–is obviously negative. But the more interesting question is: why not? Aren’t we all educated, sophisticated, and intelligent? Do we not perceive ourselves and often even pride ourselves on being rationally driven people? So how is it that despite our inability to logically defend the belief that we exist, we don’t even entertain the possibility that we are mistaken?

I think the main answer is one word: experience. I do not mean to say that this is a justification from a philosophical perspective². I simply intend to say that regardless of all the philosophical hustle and bustle, we do not, in a meaningful way, take this question very seriously because the experience of life is too close to home. The world and our existence is too real and too important to us to be a fantasy or a fraud.

Scientific research, historical evidence, philosophical logic, human morality and many other areas all pose major challenges to our long-standing tradition of Orthodox Judaism. Many of these questions are good ones and they need to be taken seriously. I firmly believe that the scattered number of books raising and addressing these issues needs to multiply. Voices quivering with doubt must have their volume turned up instead of being put on mute. Judaism is an intellectually rigorous religion which prides itself on in-depth study and intellectual honesty. We do not turn a cold shoulder to the truth-seeking questioner and we should encourage the embarrassed inquirer to come out of his lonely corner.

However, at the same time, we must not be disillusioned. While there are great answers out there for many of the major questions, we do not have all the answers. Even our experts do not have all the answers. Everything can be scrutinized to the point where it is not one hundred percent provable on a strictly logical basis. But we must remember that neither is our world, as Descartes demonstrated.

Even science, the most “rational” field of study, is premised on a faulty logical foundation (known as induction), as posited by philosopher David Hume³. So while Descartes’ question of our existence is an important discussion, the possibility of its conclusion does not impress us because of our close and personal experience with life and the world.

So too it must be so with our religion. We must make it so with our religion.

There are valid questions about the workings and legitimacy of prayer. But if a person has ever tasted the powerful transformative experience of standing before G-d in prayer and conversing with the King and Father so far yet so close, these questions will not inject doubt into his heart. If a person has been privileged to be touched by the sweetness of Shabbat’s embrace, nothing can pry through his tightly wrapped arms. If a person has ever swam in the sea of Torah’s infinite wisdom, whether it be the Talmud’s brilliant analysis and concepts, the great majestic visions of Jewish thought, or the heart-warming Chassidic teachings, he knows what is true. Not because he can prove it, but because he has come face to face with it, he has experienced it intimately and it has changed his life.

The faces of tragedy and suffering are unfortunately quite familiar to the Jewish people. Yet in the depths of darkness and despair, Jews hold on to their tradition. Jews have cried, died, and lived through the cruelest of evils this world has to offer, time and time again. But we have prevailed. Across the world Torah observant Jews are thriving. The rhythmic melody of the Talmud echoes in the halls of thousands of schools across the world. Shabbat candles illuminate the houses of millions of people. What enabled these sacrifices? What gave Jews in the Holocaust the ability to sacrifice their meager resources and put their lives on the line to light Channukah candles, dance on Simchat Torah, and put on tefillin (phylacteries) in the face of imminent death?

Experience. They cherished their intimate experiences with their religion. The energy of prayer, the beauty of Shabbat, and invigoration of Torah learning still lived in their hearts, and they held on to it for dear life.

Our tradition carries on by creating these experiences for ourselves and for others. Our shuls, our schools, and our homes need to start developing atmospheres and opportunities for experiential connection. Our Shabbat tables cannot consist merely of politics, sports, and complaining about our jobs. They should be times of connection – to G-d, to each other and to ourselves.

For some, this can be achieved through deep discussion that involves everyone at the table, while for others through the sweet melodies of Shabbat zemirot (hymns), and for most, through both. Learning with our children, not just for their homework but as a time of bonding and displaying great affection and respect for the Torah can leave deep impressions on their hearts. Schools and shuls as well need to look for opportunities of this sort. Friday night tisches or shalosh seudot (the third meal of Shabbat) with singing and deep words of Torah, enlivened davenings, heartfelt speeches saturated with content for the soul, stimulating questions of Jewish thought, or just hanging out with the rabbi and having a good time as a community.

These are just a few simple suggestions. The point is that we need to come face-to-face with our religion, we need to experience it in a way that transforms us and penetrates into the deepest depths of our being, fortifying us in the face of all doubt or temptation, to nonetheless carry the beauty and light of our nation.

[1] The discussion begins in Descartes’ own writing – Meditations on First Philosophy (1641). For a summary, explanation and elaboration of the topic see Bonjour, Laurence. EPISTEMOLOGY: Classic Problems and Contemporary Responses. 2nd. Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth, UK: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2009. Print.

[2] That is a discussion in its own right amongst philosophers; see chapter six of Bonjour’s book above.

[3] See chapter 4 of Bonjour’s book above.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.