Sunday, September 21, 2014

Why I Believe - The Short Version

The 'Big Bang'
I am always reluctant to talk about matters of belief. That’s because it is one of the most difficult topics to understand and transmit properly. It also invites the skeptics to challenge everything I say and understandably argue for their views.

What I am about to discuss is not meant to open a debate with atheists or skeptics. It is only for the purpose for explaining where I come from on these matters. The following is nothing more than a seat of the pants explanation of why I believe. It should in no way be seen as an exhaustive treatise of the subject. I’m sure that there will be many elements missing.  With that in mind - here goes.

I believe in the existence of God. For me it is a simple matter of logic. Unless you say the sum total of the universe which consists of matter and energy is itself infinite (and has always existed) you must ask how it got here. The most logical answer for me is that it was created by an Infinite being that exists outside of the space time continuum of the physical universe. He existed prior to it and actually created it. God is a completely spiritual being whose nature is beyond human understanding. But there is not a scintilla of doubt in my mind that the universe was created by a Infinite Spiritual Being. The we call Him God is irrelevant. The point is not his name. The point is that He exists. A rose by any other name is still a rose.

Modern philosophy has argued that there need not be a first cause. But I find that logic to be far less convincing than to believe in a Creator. To me every effect has a cause. The fact that the existence of God cannot be proven is an essential facet of belief. If God could be proven, there would be no such thing as an atheist or a skeptic. For reasons known only to God, in our day He wants us to believe in Him without conclusive proof. That is what Hester Panim means. God’s ‘face’ is hidden from us.

Now a rational thinker and logic oriented person like myself might concede that the universe has a Creator. But what about Judaism? How do we know that is the ultimate truth? That is indeed a more difficult question. There are several ways to deal with it. How, for example,  do we know that God is not the unmoved mover of Aristotle? How do we know that God is active in the universe in general and in human affairs specifically?

To the best of my knowledge, Judaism is the world’s oldest monotheistic religion. It is the one from which the two other major monotheistic faiths grew.  I have no reason to believe God changed His ‘mind’ and revealed new truths. There is only one truth. It was revealed at Sinai. I believe that the other religions are mistaken.  We know of our truth from a source that other religions consider valid: The bible. How do we know what is written therein is true?

The Kuzari argues that when you have so many witnesses to the events at  Sinai (starting with 600,000 males over 20) testifying to their children as to what they saw at Sinai … and they all say the same thing - it must have happened. Fathers will not lie to their children when they try and transmit truth. While a few might - certainly not all 600,000 of them.

There are arguments to counter this. Other religions have been around for a long time too. And transmitted their versions of truth too. But their ancestors did not witness their miracles en masse the way ours did. They had far fewer witnesses. Christianity for example had only 3 witnesses. That leaves lots of room for error.

But there is other evidence of the truth of Judaism. Not the least of which is our continued existence as a people. We have been around as a people for over 3000 years. Most of them years of persecution.  We were never a civilization of great numbers.  And since the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, we have never been able to fully control our destiny as a people.

We have been exiled to foreign nations who ruled over us. And with few historic exceptions, those foreign powers were not kind to us. They persecuted us, threatened us, tortured us, tried to forcibly convert us, massacred us, and ultimately tried to wipe us all off the face of the earth during the Holocaust. And yet we are still here. And thriving. Great civilizations that have arisen and conquered the world have long since disappeared. The ideologies of the ancient Greek the Roman civilizations, are all gone and have been replaced by new ideologies. The Rome of today is not the Rome of Caesar. It is only the Jewish people and its ideologies that have survived.

Add to that the body of religious literature written by some of the finest minds in history produced over the millennia, starting with the Mishna and Talmud, and I can’t help but believe that we have the truth has been transmitted faithfully to us by these great people.

It is true that other religions have great works too. But having been raised a Jew and having studied some of these great works, I am convinced that they contain truth . I don’t not for example think that Christianity or Islam contains anything remotely resembling the Talmud.

What about contradictions between science and Torah?  I do not believe there are any real contradictions. Only perceived ones. And many of them can be reconciled. One of the more famous contradictions is the Torah narrative that indicates that the universe was created about 6000 years ago.

Scientists on the other hand believe that the universe was created about 15 billion years ago. And they have plenty of evidence to show it. But the fact is that one does not have to believe that the six days of creation are to be taken as literal days. While an explanation of this is way beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that there is precedent in the rabbinic literature spanning over 2000 years whereby one can derive that the universe is 15 billion years.

What about evolution? That too in compatible with our beliefs. Again the details are beyond the scope of this post. I believe that evolution has and is taking place. That is the way God created the universe to function. Again, the details of reconciling the Torah with evolution are beyond the scope of this post.

What about other contradictions between science and Torah? There are answers to some of those contradictions. But in some cases, there may not be answers that are satisfying. When that happens to me, I remain with the question. I believe there is a way to reconcile the contradictions – even if we haven’t found it yet. As Rav Soloveitchik once said. When one sees a contradiction that they cannot explain it is probably because they either don’t fully understand the science. Or the Torah. Or both. There is indeed a lot of Torah we do not fully understand. And there is still plenty of knowledge about the nature of the universe(which is what science studies)  that we still do not understand.

I haven’t touched upon the bible critics here. But this essay is long enough. I will only say that a literary analysis of the writing styles of various segments of the Torah which seems to show that they were written in different eras by different people are far from convincing to me. God chose to write His Torah the way He did for His own reasons.

The bottom line is that the truth of God’s existence and the truth of Judaism is based on a lot of factors some of which are logic based; some of which are historically based; some of which are intuitive; and some of which are emotional. None of them are bad reasons. And none of them are by themselves conclusive.  But when they are all combined, the evidence is overwhelming.  Although admittedly not conclusive proof beyond any doubt, I believe with complete faith that God and His Torah are true.

Warning: I just want to repeat what I said at the outset. This blog operates on a premise of belief in God and His Torah. I know that I most likely have not convinced the hardcore atheists and skeptics. But I will not allow this post to become a platform to try and refute everything I said here.  The purpose of this post is to explain why I believe… and to hopefully  help those who are struggling with these issues.