Thursday, December 05, 2019

Is Simple Belief Irrational?

The 'Big Bang' of Creation
Discussion about matters of belief is a subject that makes me uncomfortable. Which is why I tend to avoid such discussions. Not because I fear being dissuaded about God’s existence and the legitimacy of Judaism in both belief and practice. But because I fear that hosting such discussions will inevitably cause people that question their faith to buy into arguments against it in such discussions. I have expressed this before – this is not the first time.

And yet, this is an important issue that will not go away. In our time the availability of material arguing against belief in God or the truth of the Torah is prolific. If one has questions about the beliefs they grew up with, it is all too easy to find the kind of answers that will satisfy them and cause them to lose their faith. Especially if they first sought answers from their educators and received responses that did not satisfy them. I see this phenomenon all the time. Most people like that are pretty smart. I therefore do not want to contribute to it in any way.

That said, I have in the past reluctantly dealt with this subject. And I will repeat here why I am a believer. But before I do that, I highly recommend the article written by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein on Cross Currents. He does a masterful job in not only dealing with these questions, but in dealing with people that ask them. The discussion which follows that article is just as enlightening.

For me the most important take away is in how - in our time - to view those with questions of faith that eventually found satisfying answers only among those that led them away from belief. Here is how Rabbi Adlerstein puts it: 
How should we view this new batch of troubled thinkers? Not by demonizing them. They may be wrong, but they are not otherwise possessed of evil traits more than lots of others we know. Some are very nice people. They should not be confused with apostates like Johannes Pfefferkorn and Pablo Christiani who turned against their G-d and their people. They were usually possessed of both great ego-centricity and bad character. Not so at all, the new heretics. Neither are they all victims of bad parenting, products of inadequate schooling, glory-seekers, or mired in their lusts and desires.
They are consequences of one of the greatest gifts Hashem gave us – the freedom to make moral choices. We should stand in awe at the power of bechirah that HKBH gives us! It means, among other things, that people have the ability to ponder and question anything. Furthermore, to maintain bechirah, plausible options need to be available (Note: plausible does not mean true or accurate) to keep the choices people make meaningful. While HKBH left us ample evidence of His existence and role in history, He also hides Himself enough sufficiently for some people to have to wrestle with a real choice. 
Could not agree more. This is the right way to deal with people that have lost faith in our day. It is the way I have always dealt with them. I respect the intellectual honesty that led them to their conclusions – even as I strongly reject those conclusions. They are indeed not evil people. And not to be treated like those that use their Kefira to turn others away from God.

The question remains however, how does one deal with the rational thinking itself?  For example the kind of arguments made by bible critics?  Rabbi Adlerstein deals with that in both the text of the article and in responses to those that had questions about it.

As for me, I have said it all in the past. Rational thinking is a powerful force in choosing what is and isn’t true. But that alone is limited as a form of finding it and is certainly not the only means by which to do so. Belief is by definition something that is not proven. However, even so it can be seen as a powerful Truth. There are a variety of ways one can seek that Truth – even as rational thinking alone might not.

For one thing (as Rabbi Adlerstein correctly notes) one cannot irrefutably prove that God does not exist. Just as one cannot irrefutably prove He does. If either of these two options were incontrovertibly provable we would all either know God exists or know that He doesn’t. We are therefore left with belief as a necessary component either way. 

Believing in God and His Torah ultimately means relying on belief after finding evidence that can lead you in two opposite directions.  Not blind belief. But what we might call Emunah Peshuta – simple belief. We can ‘know’ that God exists and that His Torah is true based on a variety of reasons. But ultimately it still requires that ‘leap of faith’ - the Emunah Peshuta that will  result in finding it. 

That said, there are some very smart people of fine character with great values that have concluded the opposite. And as I said, they are  not to be dismissed even though in my view they have relied too much on rational thinking alone in arriving at those conclusions. 

I have discussed my personal journey here before - the details of which are beyond the scope of this post. What I will briefly say, however, is the idea that the universe (matter and energy) itself is infinite… that our existence as thinking human beings came about randomly… and that how mankind behaves doesn’t matter to anyone but ourselves does not make as much sense as does the idea that there is an Infinite Creator – a Spiritual Being Who cares how His creations behave and that there are consequences to that behavior. One way or another.