Do you believe in G-d? Issues of belief in Judaism

Over Shabbat Chazon (July 16-17), I was reminded of a story that happened to me approximately 12 years ago.  While studying in Israel, the post-high school yeshiva I attended arranged for the students to attend a two day version of Aish HaTorah’s Discovery seminar, which is a week-long “Introduction to Judaism” kiruv program.  The seminar offers various arguments for the validity of Judaism, from Bible Codes to the compatibility of creation and evolution.  Its goal is to convince the unaffiliated or non-Orthodox that Torah Judaism is the only legitimate way to live. 

Being the skeptic that I am, during the two day seminar, I asked many questions of the presenters.  While some of the questions were simply out of frustration for the simplicity and superficiality of some of the “proofs,” all in all I thought that I was doing what was appropriate, namely getting my fellow students to think.  What ended up happening was a bit more fascinating from a sociological perspective.  When we returned to Yeshiva, I think about half a dozen of my friends had to make sure I was really a believer, so I kept being asked, “Do you believe in G-d?”  I recall that my answer was something to the effect that I believe in G-d not due to some philosophical proof, but rather because life did not seem coincidental.  Strange events have occurred that I believe just have to be guided by something higher.  In the years since, I have come to realize that the notion of proofs, something I was exposed to both in high school (see to get an idea of these “proofs” which I encountered during my teenage years) and subsequent, is for the most part silliness.  It is silliness because the argumentation becomes circular and the proof texts used are the ones that are being proven to be true. 

There is a quote by Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger that has summed up my approach to the notion of philosophic analysis when it comes to G-d and religion:

To present history as objective evidence for the existence of G-d to a non-believer is an exercise in futility. Like most theological arguments, they are unnecessary for the believer, and useless for the non-believer. But, as we have already observed with respect to various other “proofs” of the existence of G-d, they are of great help to the believer in the quest to relate the insights of faith to the unfolding of the historic process (Rabbi Dr. Walter Wurzburger. G-d is Proof Enough (Devora: NY, 2000 66)).

It is unpopular to believe in something without empirical evidence.  This is perhaps part of the problem that OTD’s (Off the Derech people) face today.  They are correct that most answers provided to their philosophical and historical questions fall short.  Furthermore, the other side, the “heretical” side (or the “dark side” if you’re inclined in that direction) seems more intellectually appealing because if we discuss evidence, then that side has a stronger set of arguments.  Additionally, most rabbis, including the kiruv rabbis, don’t really know the latest findings or conversations in the academic world.  I grant that academia is biased as well, but for many, it is extremely compelling.  Instead, they give simple, silly answers that often backfire (for recent discussions of the issues of faith and the challenges of being Modern Orthodox see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking, by Dr. Daniel Jackson, and Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, by Rabbi Marc Angel).

I think it is important, having said all the above, to also lay out how I view belief and dogma as it relates specifically to Judaism.  In short, I do believe there are basic tenets of Judaism, regardless of the various arguments on both sides.  These premises are not as comprehensive as Rambam.  They boil down to the following, as laid out by Tanach and Hazal (for Hazal do provide certain basic tenets):

1.  Exodus 20:2 – I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt… – This verse is the acceptance of a higher power in relation to our collective history.  Since G-d is the moving force of history, issues of what G-d is or isn’t become irrelevant.  In other words, questions like, Can G-d create a rock he can’t lift, become merely mind games.  These questions should have no effect on our day to day worship.   

2.  Pirqei Avot 1:1 – Moses received the Torah at Sinai – The Sinaitic experience was some sort of climactic moment in which the Judeo-legal and ethical system was revealed to the Earth.  The how and what of revelation become secondary to the concept of a revelatory experience.  This eliminates the questions about the historical event as well as removes the challenge of Documentary Hypothesis or Ancient Near Eastern influences.  It is not Hazal that dictate a pristine Torah from Sinai without a single mistake.  The exactness of the text might be assumed but then again, the way texts were read in the Talmudic and pre-Talmudic times, it is hard to fully engage such a notion.  Today, with the conclusiveness of the Torah containing linguistic layers, etc. it becomes challenging to concretely claim absolute single authorship at a single moment.  I remain non-committal on the exactitude of TMS (Torah M’Sinai). 

3.  Sanhedrin 11:1 – All Israel have a place in the world to come…those who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead have no place in the world to come – There will be some form of utopian society, we hope and pray, and perhaps a means of regenerating life from after death (though whether that life form will be the exact us is part of the question – Genetic engineering could recreate the physical presence but not necessarily the non-physical which constitutes the rest of self).  This tenet is most difficult to fathom from a scientific perspective, but it is needed as part of the system. Having a picture of life after death and potential reward provides incentive for further growth and motivation.  Franz Rosensweig stated in the beginning of The Star of Redemption “From death, from the fear of death arises all knowledge of the All.”  I look at death and dying as a motivator to take advantage of doing valuable things for the world and for humanity, not as an opening for hedonism. 

These basic tenets provide a framework for which I practice Judaism, following halacha and the Jewish traditions.  Coming back to the beginning of my story, if I am committed to Jewish life and recognize a relationship between humanity and the divine, how important are the philosophical specifics or the exact number of dogmatic statements with which I agree or disagree?  Can anyone know what another truly believes, especially by assuming that questions asked must mean knowledge already accepted?  Belief tends to contain various ambiguities and little exactitude.  As such, to assume you can garner what is in a person’s heart because of questions asked is arrogance.  We are taught to question and investigate.  One doesn’t die from a question.  And yet, when we ask questions, we are either looked at as heretics or given some rehearsed or outdated response.  Walking away from the Discovery seminar after the second day, I was quite angry, feeling that I was misunderstood because I thought the goal was to challenge, not accept with blind faith.  I now feel sorrow.  I am sad that Judaism as I have come to engage it thinks it needs exact answers and if it can’t find the answers will attempt to deflect the questioners away instead of admitting “I don’t know.”