Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Practicing Skeptics

One of the most fascinating phenomena to me is the existence of observant Jews who are not fully Orthodox in their beliefs. One such individual is a blogger known as XGH. He was not always this way. But in the course of running several blogs on matters of belief he became very skeptical about the traditional Orthodox view of God and Torah. And yet, he is an observant Jew who learns Torah and fully practices Halacha. He calls himself Orthoprax.

There are of course various degrees of Orthoprax Jews. Some are actually atheists. Others are not concerned with theology at all and practice Halacha for social reasons. Still other are somewhere in-between.

Although Hirhurim posted yesterday in the name of Rishonim that seeking proofs of God’s existence is a legitimate enterprise - the purpose of this post is not to debate belief. That would be counter productive in a forum such as this. I am a believer. I base those beliefs on a combination of factors that include – but are not limited to - education, evidence, history, and intuition. I’m not going to go into to details. Been there and done that.

This does not mean I don’t have the same questions that many skeptics have. I do. But my conclusions are different than theirs.

I wonder how two Jews who started out religious and sincere - as both XGH and I did – can come to different almost opposite conclusions? Is he smarter than I am? Or am I smarter than he?

I don’t think it is a function of intelligence. Some of the greatest minds in history were religious believing Jews. Like the Rambam. And some others were not. Like Albert Einstein.

There are plenty of smart people in both camps. In my view the Rambam may very well be the role model for intelligent conclusions since he wrote about it extensively in his famed Moreh Nevuchim. He contemplated God’s existence a lot as he did the validity of the Torah. He concluded that God exists and Torah Judaism is true. It is his thirteen principles of faith that - according to most people - define the basis of our beliefs.

True, some of his other beliefs may no longer be considered mainstream. For example, his son, Avraham Ben HaRambam declared that Chazal were fallible in maters of science. This is a near heretical belief according to many Poskim, including my own Rebbe, Rav Ahron and - if I understand correctly - according to his brother the Rav as well. But Avraham Ben HaRambam was nonetheless a believing Jew according to all.

Seeking proofs of God is an exercise in futility for me. One cannot prove His existence conclusively. If that were true, there would be no such thing as an atheist. And yet it is permissible to try.

Rabbi Gil Student points out the following:

…the Maharsha writes that it is proper to investigate and acquire knowledge of the world and its creation. However, whatever you fail to understand you should attribute to the limits of your own understanding.

That is pretty much my approach. Which is why I’ve always been interested in seeking proof of God’s existence. But I have never succeeded. I have only succeeded in strengthening my belief. But in many cases other religious Jews have gone through a similar process and have gone in the opposite direction. That was - as I understand it - XGH’s route.

I am not in a position to judge people like XGH. He is a sincere Jew looking for Emes just as I am. His search led him down the path of skepticism. As it has many others who have gone even further to deny God’s existence entirely.

These are not bad people - just misguided ones in my view. I’m sure they would say the same thing about me. But one thing is certain. These are not people who wanted to be Porek Ol – to remove from themselves the burden of Halacha. Some have suggested this as their motive but I don’t believe that. They keep Halacha in spite of their doubts. Of course there are some who don’t but I am not addressing them. I am addressing only Orthoprax Jews - those who observe Halacha as XGH does.

I wonder how many Jews there are like this. It’s hard to gauge because a closet skeptic may choose not to reveal their skepticism to anyone. Even anonymously on a blog – although many do.

And what are we to make of such Jews? Are they permitted to be counted in quorum related Mitzvos? Can we include a practicing Jew into a Minyan that we know has serious doubts in belief? How serious must those doubts be before we disallow their participation? How much skepticism qualifies for rejection? If there are so many how can we even be sure whether the fellow standing next to us in Shul isn’t one of them?

Just some random thoughts on Orthopraxy.