For many people, the concept of belief is irrelevant to the modern world. In an age when things are proven based on logic and research, what reason is there to just “believe” something? Many people cannot understand why something so primitive as “belief” refuses to disappear.
I am not one of those people. I think the reason “belief” continues to exist is because it is clear to many of us that not everything can be proven. We just feel that there is something out there that cannot be measured with a microscope or deducted with a mathematical equation. We have a way of sensing this through a sense that is not one of our five senses. We have a way of perceiving this through a perception that is not one of the various functions of the human brain.
Is it just our imagination? In the modern world we cannot feel comfortable with a “belief” that is not based on any form of logic. During my senior year in high school I stumbled upon a book called Permission to Believe, by Lawrence Keleman. At first it seemed like just another one of those books that try to prove that G-d exists. Then I realized that there is something unique about the approach of the author.
I think that Keleman has succeeded in putting his finger on an approach that we use frequently in many aspects of our lives and are not even aware of it. My goal is to analyze this approach and various ways it is applied and then to evaluate to what extent this approach is valid.
Let’s begin with what is written on the cover. “Permission to Believe: Four Rational Approaches to G-d’s Existence.” Already from the cover we can see a very clear distinction from other books of the same genre. Keleman is not trying to “prove” that G-d exists. Rather, he is just giving “rational approaches.” What is the difference? Keleman does not claim that there are no “rational approaches” to not believing in G-d and he has no interest in trying to prove that his “rational approaches” to believing in G-d are superior to the “rational approaches” to G-d’s non-existence.
He is not trying to prove anything. Rather he simply seeks to give us “permission to believe.” On the surface this seems to be a rather cowardly approach. He seems to be saying, “If you want to believe in G-d then you can use these arguments to help you feel sophisticated about it.”
The reason Keleman’s approach is not cowardly is because he doesn’t think the reason people seek “permission” to believe in G-d is merely because it makes them feel warm and fuzzy inside. On the book’s back cover it states,
“Many people would believe in G-d tomorrow if only their intellects would allow them. These people intuitively suspect the existence of an Almighty. Yet the admirably high value our society places on reason, combined with the unfortunately widespread misconception the belief in G-d is necessarily irrational, squelches their potential spirituality. These individuals should be permitted to examine the case for G-d. They should be granted permission to believe.”
The reason people are seeking permission to believe is because they have a sort of sense, they “intuitively suspect” that G-d exists and now all they need is a stamp of approval from the office of intellectual reasoning in order to truly embrace that which they have already discovered through their spiritual radar.
The Magical Combination:
The basic structure of Keleman’s approach is the combination of two things that would not be able to stand alone. Logical reasoning by itself apparently cannot conclusively establish the existence of a divine entity or at least not with enough certainty to maintain a consistently religious life. “Belief” also cannot stand alone in the modern world.
So now the question is, to what extent is this method of combining two things that could not survive independently valid? Is it strong enough to justify applying your religious beliefs in ways that affect other people, or is it merely strong enough to justify your own private religious practices? Or is it not even enough for that? It is not possible to answer this question without seeing how strong each of these two ingredients can be.
The concept of a rational approach to G-d has early roots in the Jewish tradition. Abraham, the father of monotheism, is described as discovering G-d from a philosophical approach. It is only after he reached the intellectual conclusion that there is one and only one G-d that G-d reveals himself to him.
The philosophical approach was effective for a unique individual such as Abraham but it was not effective in convincing a large group of people. A more persuasive approach was necessary. In the text of the 10 commandments, it states “I am the Lord your G-d who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It would not be fair to demand of the masses to discover G-d through philosophy in the manner of Abraham. But now that G-d has become a central part of the Israelites’ history, believing in him is a more reasonable request.
After the children of Israel witnessed G-d in such a powerful way, there is not much purpose in postulating his existence through philosophical discourse. The philosophical approach was effectively null and void. So what caused it to eventually pop back up again?
In Israelis and the Jewish Tradition, David Hartman compares the approach to belief in G-d of the two leading medieval Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Judah Halevi and Maimonides. Halevi argues that G-d should be “found” inside of the historical experience of our nation. Maimonides, on the other hand, believes that G-d should be proven based on logical principles.
Hartman notes a clear advantage to Halevi’s approach. Encountering G-d through revelation causes people to be much more passionate and to feel a much more personal connection. Martrydom is a rare occurrence amongst philosophical monotheists.
The problem we face today is that these two different approaches have effectively become one. The historical approach has in effect transformed into philosophical reasoning.
“I am absolutely sure beyond any reasonable doubt that Judaism is true.”
“Beyond any reasonable doubt?”
“I have no doubt whatsoever! I am so positive that I can engage in my religious practices with a passion that is as powerful as fire!”
“What is it that makes you so utterly positive?”
“Because, for us G-d isn’t something that was just revealed to one person who then spread the word to everyone else. G-d is a part of our history! Do the French people have any doubt about the existence of Napoleon? It’s not possible to convince an entire nation that they all descend from witnesses of a divine revelation. You just can’t pull off a mass conspiracy like that. It’s impossible!”
“Impossible? I actually have a book by a sociology professor who believes that this can be pulled off and he has a rather intriguing line of reasoning.”
“That’s nonsense! I’m sure I could rip it apart in a second! Let me see the book!”
“Which book? The one I was just referring to?”
“Yes! Let me see it! Now!!”
“Oops, I think I lent it to a friend, I’ll have to see if he finished reading it yet. Anyways, look at the time! It’s time for your afternoon prayer service. So run along now, enjoy your prayers and make sure you say them with that that ‘passion that is as powerful as fire’ of yours. Ta ta!”
Intellectual reasoning isn’t enough, or at least one line of intellectual reasoning isn’t. Is a combination of numerous arguments enough? What about a combination of various arguments for belief in G-d or Judaism, or whatever, alongside a combination of arguments in opposition? Is there one argument or combination of arguments that is strong enough to give a person certainty despite not being aware of all of the potential rebuttals that may exist?
During one of the lessons in Jewish philosophy at my post-high school yeshiva, we studied the original text of the “Impossibility of Mass Conspiracy” argument, in the words of both Halevi and Maimonides. After we finished analyzing these texts, the teacher opened the door for challenges.
Many students raised their hands and I was satisfied with the refutation the teacher offered to each one of them. Then, one boy asked, “If this really is such a convincing argument, then how come more people aren’t convinced by it?”
“It’s because most people are biased,” the teacher responded, “would you want to believe an argument that would require you to do lots of hard and annoying stuff every single day?”
I wasn’t satisfied. I don’t think it is fair to say people outside of the religious Jewish world are biased and we aren’t. I also don’t think that our religion requires us to do lots of hard and annoying things. I think our religion is beautiful and I am quite biased towards believing in it.
The reason this argument does not bring in masses of converts is because it is a brilliant argument but it’s just not that brilliant. It’s not like so, so, super amazing that it would cause people to just like abandon everything they have previously thought about.
When we are not comfortable with the legitimacy of a certain viewpoint it is our first instinct to attack the defenders of that position.
During my years at Brooklyn College I was very happy with diverse atmosphere and felt very welcome as an observant Jew. Then one day I saw some really ugly fliers that were advertising an event where speakers were going to compare Israel to Apartheid South Africa.
Some people at the Hillel were preparing to attend the event and to distribute materials and make comments that challenge the claims of the speakers. I didn’t want to argue with the speakers. I wanted to attack them. I found an article on CAMERA about the main speaker of the event that described her as a “propagandist.” I disagreed with some things stated in that article but printed out numerous copies anyways. I did not wish to argue with those people. Arguing with them would imply granting legitimacy to their position.
In some of my posts on this blog I took positions that did not please many people and have gotten attacked for it. Sometimes I was asking for it and sometimes not. Some of the comments I received dwelled obsessively on points that were quite peripheral to the main thrust of my essay. I don’t think the reason my readers chose to focus on such minor points was because they truly wished to refute that particular claim of mine. I think it was because they wished to refute me.
It is not easy for us to accept the fact that there are perfectly intelligent and open minded people out there who simply disagree with the arguments that our way of life is based on.
Let’s return to Permission to Believe. Logic is not the only persuasive tool that Keleman uses; he also evokes science. In his third approach, Keleman brings in various quotes from leading scientists that seem to indicate that the world could not have come into existence on its own. Keleman does not claim that these are the only perspectives that are offered by leading scientists, nor does he claim that most scientists believe in G-d. Again, he is not trying to give us proof, he only wishes to provide us with a “rational approach,” which does not stand on its own, but apparently is enough together with that which we have discovered through our spiritual sense.
What is this spiritual sense anyways? Through all of the changes that I have gone through over the years I have never questioned G-d’s existence. To me it is simply self evident that I am here for a reason. I did not just like pop up randomly as a result of molecules bumping into each other for trillions of years. When I look at the events of my life it is clear that everything happened for the right reason and at the right time. I see just as much of a guiding hand when I look at the history of my people.
After the immense popularity of Permission to Believe, Keleman wrote a sequel entitled Permission to Receive. In this book, Keleman takes the same approach to providing a rational basis for believing that the Torah is the word of G-d. Similar to Permission to Believe, Keleman’s sequel uses a combination of philosophical reasoning and science. In one of his chapters, he provides quotes from various leading archeologists that state that the events described in the bible are supported by the archeological record.
Again, Keleman does not claim that this is the only position that is taken by archeologists, nor does he claim that this even is the most mainstream approach. Keleman does not attempt to provide us with proof. Rather he merely wishes to provide us with a “rational approach.” This “rational approach” does not stand on its own, but apparently it becomes conclusive when combined with what we are able to sense with our spiritual perception.
As I previously stated, I agree that intuition can be a legitimate basis for belief in G-d, but what about other aspects of our faith? Can I base my belief that Homer was the true author of the Odyssey on intuition? What about that King David was the author of Psalms? Or that G-d was the author of the Torah? What role exactly can intuition play in such concrete historical events?
Some may argue that they find this intuition inside of the religious life. Many of us see such beauty and meaning in the religious lifestyle that it seems clear to us that this is a divine creation. There may be some things that don’t make sense to us but we feel convinced enough by the things that we do find relevance in that we are willing to accept that some things may be beyond our understanding.
During my final year of college, I bought a book called Judaism and Homosexuality. Although neither myself nor any of the close people in my life (as far as I knew) were of this inclination, it was an issue that bothered me. I knew that attempts at “curing” homosexuality had a dismal record and it didn’t make sense that these people should be forced to either remain single or marry people they are not attracted to.
Sacks expressed deep sensitivity for those were struck with this unfortunate condition but he did not provide any answers that satisfied me. One particularly disturbing section of the book was a response a particular rabbi gave to someone who suffered from homosexuality. This rabbi told that if he has to, it’s not the end of the world if he masturbates.
This is not the most painful sacrifice that a person has ever been asked to make for his G-d, but there is something about it that just seems so un-divine. When you see a mother and father and kids all sitting at the table singing zmirot together as the Shabbat candles burn in the background- that’s like wow this is how G-d intended us to live. But if you say to someone that they should just like abstain from something so central to the physical, emotional and spiritual experience of being human, but if you can’t entirely remove this from your consciousness, then just like jerk-off or something. That just seems so… un-divine.
Years later, when I finally did make friends with someone who is openly gay, I was intrigued by how he had received this same advice from a rabbi and he noted that as a central milestone in his road away from Orthodoxy.
How confidant are we in our beliefs?
Once I happened to be at a Friday night dinner where I met a young lady who was doing an MA in Judaic studies. She explained that she didn’t take any of the courses that dealt with religious texts because she didn’t feel that she had enough knowledge to be able to handle the challenges presented by secular scholarship.No one at the meal had any problem with her reasoning, myself included.
But let’s just flesh out what exactly it is that she’s saying. There are many things that are implied by her statement. First, she is saying that she knows Judaism is true. She doesn’t specify what exactly this knowledge is based on but she seemed to be an intelligent person so I would assume that whatever it is that leads her to embrace Judaism is intellectually sound. She is also saying that there are arguments against Judaism being a true religion that she is not able to refute. This is also reasonable. In an earlier blog I argued very fiercely against the Bennet proposal. However I would not be surprised if there are some arguments in support of his proposal out there that I would not be able to refute.
It isn’t necessary to have an answer to every possible critique of a given position in order to feel confident about the position you take. What she is saying is that she wants to avoid these various attacks against the legitimacy of Judaism because they would interfere with her dedication to the religious life. Apparently, knowing that these arguments exist without knowing exactly what they are is less damaging to her piety. How confidant is she really in the truth of her religion?
During my days at Brooklyn College, I had an interesting conversation with a friend who I knew both from the college and a yeshiva that I studied at part time.
“There’s this amazing course that I heard about. It’s called The Making of the Modern Middle East. I heard the professor is a genius and that you have to understand the way everything formed in the entire region in order to really understand the situation with Israel and the Palestinians,” he said.
“That sounds awesome! I’m really bummed that my schedule is full for next semester,” I replied.
“Yeah but I’m not sure I want to take it.
” “You’re not sure? Are you crazy?”
“The problem is that I heard if you really understand the way the region developed then you will reach the conclusion that Israel isn’t a legitimate country. So, the same way that people would avoid taking academic classes on the religious texts, it might make sense for me to avoid that class so it doesn’t damage my emuna in Zionism.”
Emuna in Zionism! What a fascinating approach! He did end up taking the course and it didn’t end up ruining his Zionism. But it was fascinating to see that parallel in approaching belief in the religious texts and support of the Jewish state. I began to see many similar parallels.
During my college years I began to develop serious reservations in regard to both Judaism and Israeli policy. I would often feel a similar fear about expressing these reservations at large gatherings such as Shabbat meals. I would often feel that these ideas of mine were not wanted and were not part of the accepted discourse.
If we all are so positive that the Torah is true then why is it a problem for us to browse through Who Wrote the Bible before taking our Shabbat nap? If we are so sure that our country is righteous, then why don’t we spend more time discussing the latest findings of B’tselem?
Around two years ago I got into an intense Facebook debate with a friend of mine over the claims of a journalist named Joan Peters that most of the Palestinians arrived in this area during the early-mid twentieth century. I took the side of a historian named Yehoshua Porath who rejects this claim and he took the side of a historian named Daniel Pipes who defended Peters’ position.
At an early stage of this debate I claimed that Porath is regarded as a greater authority on the topic than Pipes. His response was interesting. “Pipes is also a very respected historian. I approach this topic from a rightwing perspective and I tend to find the approaches of right-leaning scholars such as Pipes to be more convincing.”
I lashed out at my friend. “What are you spewing? You only believe Pipes because he says what you want to hear!”
At that time I don’t think I fully understood where my friend was coming from. I think there is a very strong connection between my friend’s decision to side with Pipes and the “magical combination” of Lawrence Keleman. What is it that causes him to approach this topic from a rightwing perspective? Is it a “spiritual sense?” Or is it more of an intellectual approach that he developed from years of reading and attending lectures on Middle Eastern studies?
I think there is a spiritual aspect to it. Recently a study was published that repeats the claim of Peters, but it has yet to be reviewed by the academic community. I don’t think this study will gain mainstream acceptance. But, to be honest, if at some time in the near future this position does become mainstream, I won’t be surprised. To me, it just doesn’t make sense that another group of people took residence here without our permission. I just feel it intuitively- this land is ours.
In an earlier post, I set out to refute all of the arguments claiming that the West Bank is not “occupied.” However, after I thoroughly demolished the first of these arguments I stopped. Then I stated,
“There’s no point in trying to disprove these arguments because the people who use them don’t even believe what they’re saying…. The reason people employ all of these fake arguments that don’t convince anyone anyways is because they simply aren’t man enough to say the real reason why they don’t consider the West Bank to be occupied.”
Then I stated the “real” reason, in the words of Naftali Bennet, “A nation cannot occupy its own land.” In retrospect, I don’t think the other arguments actually are fake. Rather, many of us simply feel intuitively that it just doesn’t make sense for Judea and Samaria to be occupied and so they are more inclined to find the arguments against the accuracy of this term to be convincing. I was not fazed by “intuition” as I made Chopped Suey out of the first of these arguments.
The magical combination is a very powerful thing. It was necessary for me to separate the two parts of this combination in order to persuasively argue that the West Bank is occupied. After the expository essayist in me wounded the rational element of this magical combination, the intuitive part was left to fend for itself. Then, I put on my literary writer hat and destroyed that intuitive element with a superior use of intuition.
During my year in yeshiva after high school, my Jewish Philosophy teacher told an interesting story.
“One time I was on an airplane and I happened to sit next to a Hasidic man who claimed that dinosaurs never existed. So I asked him, ‘nu, what about dinosaur bones?’
His response was, ‘Hashem just created them in order to test my faith in the Torah.’
So then I asked him, ‘how do you know Hashem didn’t just create the Torah in order to test your faith in dinosaurs?’”
Before I made aliya, I decided to get back in touch with many friends who I hadn’t heard from in a while. One of these was a friend from my yeshiva who had recently stopped being religious. He is an extremely logical type of person. His faith in Judaism was based solely on logical principles and after he ceased to find these logical principles to be logical, it was only logical for him to abandon the religious life.
This exchange was the inspiration for the semi-autobiographic first story I wrote for my MA in Creative Writing at Bar Ilan. The title I gave to this story was Faith in Dinosaurs. My classmates gave me a lot of praise for this title because the rest of this first draft was written in an experimental style that proved to be nearly incomprehensible. The second draft was better but I’m still not going to try to publish it.
The character Neve was loosely based on the friend who I previously described. He states,
“The truth is that people really don’t do things for logical reasons. As much as you might want to deny it in the end of the day you just do what your instinct tells you… No matter how hard you might work to try and gain knowledge and to do the right thing, in the end, you’ve just wasted your time. At college, I graduated with a degree in math and engineering, but in the beginning I took all these classes in philosophy. After the first year I realized that it was pointless. You can try to prove something but there’s always an argument to the other side. In the end, you just believe what you want to.”
A rather gloomy outlook results from Neve’s rejection of the magical combination. But a dark universe is always preferable to La La Land, I guess.
When Jude, the protagonist and Neve later meet up, Jude asks Neve about his abandonment of his faith. Neve responds,
“It’s interesting that you’re bringing this up.” Neve said, “You know, for the most part, nobody really seems to ask me about that- I always wondered if my old friends felt like I betrayed them or something.”
“Do you feel like you betrayed your friends or other people?” Jude asked.
“That’s a funny question.” Neve said, “I don’t know if you remember, this one time, Rabbi G told this story about the guy who didn’t believe in dinosaurs…’”
(After Neve repeats the story, he states the story’s message.)
“When it comes down to it our number one loyalty is to the truth. There’s no reason to distort your reasoning for anything. I think this idea really signifies the overall message that Yesod taught us. The most crucial aspect was the philosophizing, the constant thinking, constantly challenging yourself and reconsidering your view. That’s what it really was all about.”
“So you’re saying that you don’t feel like you’ve betrayed the rebbeim at yeshiva?” Jude asked.
“Perhaps I have betrayed other educational figures or role models in my life. But I think that my year at Yesod is still very much a part of me” Neve said.
Jude reached for a jar of cream cheese and started cutting open a bagel.
I very much agree with this story’s moral. There are many people who feel that their first obligation is to Judaism and all of the other things in their life are mere objects inside of this Judaism- centered universe. My first obligation is to the truth. As dedicated as I am to Judaism it still is a mere object inside of my truth-centered universe.
For many people, truth is a mere object that can be flicked away if it interferes with whatever it is that they consider to be the most important thing in the world. It’s crazy how the world’s first monotheistic religion can become a form of idol worship.
I don’t think that G-d wants us to believe in Judaism with a pure and simple faith. For those who lived during the first few generations after the revelation, assuming it happened the way it is described, that’s a different story. For the characters of the books of Joshua and Judges, it would be wrong to question something that was so clearly revealed to them. Today, in the 21st century, there are many different types of arguments that pull us in many different directions. I think that G-d wants us to expose ourselves to all of these arguments and to take them seriously.
I think it is better if the search for truth leads you away from Judaism than if Judaism leads you away from the search for truth. But I don’t think either one should be necessary.
I strongly disagree with the approach of my friend who abandoned the Jewish religion because he no longer felt convinced by certain philosophical arguments. I don’t think anyone should hang their commitment to their heritage on such a thin thread. There are many different things that inspire people to be involved in religious life. Judaism has evolved a multitude of different forms and expressions that will find relevance with different types of people and there is much room for creativity still to develop.
Spirituality is an integral aspect of being a human being and there is no reason not to channel your spirituality in a way that is in dialogue with the spirituality of your ancestors.
Why am I religious? There are many lessons that I learned both about Judaism and myself along the road of my abandonment and later retrieval of the religious life. During my years in college, I added Torah learning to my free time as much as possible. Sometimes I was a part time student at a yeshiva and sometimes I just had a Chavruta at night. It was my intention to expose myself to different worlds with contradictory outlooks, but I was always too busy to evaluate the implications of these contradictions.
After I graduated, the job market was in a slump and I was living with my parents in Allentown, PA, with a lot of time for thinking. At this point, both parts of my magic combination had received their share of challenges.
When I studied literary texts in college, I felt that there were numerous legitimate approaches to understanding a text and the only thing that would disqualify a particular approach is if it is poorly reasoned. In yeshiva, there were some approaches to understanding religious texts that were acceptable, others that were controversial, and others that were simply false with no refutation necessary. I started to wonder if it really is in my nature to approach texts, or anything with that type of attitude, or if this was simply programmed into me at some stage along the way.
I was starting to have issues with certain aspects of the religious life, particularly communal prayer. I have always felt more inclined to finding spirituality when I am by myself, in quiet places, particularly in nature. Despite this, for many years I also succeeded in finding inspiration in the communal prayer services that I participated in daily.
But the inspiration was starting to fade. I was starting to wonder who it was exactly that was so wise as to decide how an entire nation should communicate with G-d for the rest of eternity, and why this approach is superior to that of Yitschak Avinu, who went out “to converse in the field.
Both parts of my magical combination were still quite strong, but neither one of the two were strong enough to cover for each other’s weaknesses. I continued living a very observant lifestyle but I gradually stopped learning Torah. I just felt confused. I felt pressured to relate to the texts in a certain way and I wasn’t sure if that really was how I wanted to relate to every single sentence.
One day, I started reading Who Wrote the Bible, by Richard Friedman, the primer on biblical criticism which my sister had acquired for one of her courses at the University of Michigan. I read around a quarter of the book and then stopped. That was enough. I had no need to read any further. After reading that small section of the book there were two things that were clear to me:
1. Richard Friedman is brilliant.
2. Friedman is neither more nor less brilliant than the authors of all of those amazing divrei Torah that I have heard and read over the years.
A few days later I picked up my sister’s copy of the Oxford Bible. I was intrigued by a point in the introduction. It stated that, previously the academic bible scholars considered themselves to be “objective,” while the traditional commentators were biased and interpreted the texts according to their preconceived notions. But now, secular scholars are starting to acknowledge that they are no less biased than anyone else. Furthermore, a “bias,” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Each person who analyzes these texts comes from a different perspective and all of these perspectives give them something unique to contribute.
After seeing this humble gesture on the part of the academic scholars, I felt like I just might be able to meet them half way.
When I arrived in Israel I continued with my strange balance of a highly observant lifestyle with a refusal to study sacred texts. On Shabbat I had a dilemma because I wouldn’t chas v’shalom read a secular book on Shabbat, but I also wouldn’t read a religious text. I decided to study Hebrew.
At Bar Ilan, one of the required courses was called “Jewish Literature,” This was a survey of Jewish texts, starting with Genesis. I was very touched by the diverse atmosphere that developed from the discussions on these religious texts
. There was one student who seemed to be part of the haredi world. She approached the texts from a very traditional perspective. Another student had tattoos plastered across her bare shoulders and had her own ideas to share. I didn’t contribute a lot to these discussions but I felt that whatever I happened to be thinking was legitimate. Finally, I felt comfortable studying religious texts again.
One day I was at my sister’s place and was reading a page in the newspaper that had a picture of a demonstration that was packed with kippa sruga wearing Jews. “What’s a Hakpa’ah?” I asked my brother in law, who was on the other side of the room.
“A freeze,” he responded, “maybe they’re protesting against the freeze in the negotiations.”
I took another look at the picture. Is it really realistic for a crowd of religious Jews to be demonstrating in support of peace?
It is true that in recent years we have not been blessed with the choicest of negotiation partners. But is the reason it seems unrealistic for a crowd of religious Jews to rally for peace merely because they are more strategically shrewd than the Left? Or is it also because peace is not as much of a concern?
During my years of high school and undergrad I wasn’t a particularly political kind of guy. But in terms of my value system, things such as peace, human life and human dignity were always more important than a given piece of land. At this time, during my first year in Israel, I was starting to feel that I didn’t identify with the dati leumi world much more than I identified with the haredim.
I started praying at home instead of going to synagogue every day. I didn’t find the structure to be conducive to concentration and I also realized that this simply wasn’t something that I wanted to devote so much time to. One day I decided not to say any of the three daily prayers to see what it felt like. I spread chocolate spread over a slice of bread. What, you think I’m just going to like shove this into my mouth like a shaigetz? I went to the sink and did netilat yadayim.
The three daily prayers eventually became two but I continued with all of the other ritual aspects of the religious life and all of the stuff you say before and after eating. If I was moving in the direction of abandoning everything, I wasn’t going to get there before age 40.
There were two memorable interruptions in my road away from religion. One day I was with a couple of friends at Tel Aviv University and we were waiting in line at this stand where a Bedouin lady was selling traditional Bedouin food. I was planning to check if she had a kosher certificate.
There was a car parked in the grass behind us and a window rolled down. A young man wearing a velvet yarmulke and a T-shirt shouted at me, “Zeh Ochel Goy!” To translate literally, “that’s gentile-food!” I didn’t respond. After we reached the front of the line I saw that she didn’t have a kosher certificate. My friends didn’t care but we all decided to go somewhere else.
After that incident, I realized something: That guy and I were the only two kippa wearing people over there. Then I realized something else: If I would not have been wearing a kippa, then he would have been the only one. Would I really want that guy to be the person who represents what it means to be an observant Jew?
A few days later, I attended a presentation by Esther Jungreis, a very inspirational speaker who’s like a thousand years old. She talked about her experiences surviving the holocaust and there was one thing that particularly struck me. When her family was forced to leave their home, there was only one thing that each person was allowed to take with them. Out of all of the valuable and useful possessions that her father could have chosen he took his tefillin.
At that moment I realized how much my ancestors had sacrificed; how much they had gone through in order to pass this tradition on to me. Any Jew who decides to abandon his tradition better make sure he has a very good reason.
When I arrived at Kibbutz Ketura in March of 2011 I was not exactly moving in the direction of abandoning Judaism. But then one day I just like dropped everything. I was just like weeeeeeeeew!! It was lots of fun.
OK fine, it wasn’t like that quick. There were a couple of small changes along the way. I started going pub night, doing the whole dancing thing that’s not like in a circle. Then I started going to the pool. Then there was a very big moment. I broke shomer negia. I gave Rajani a high five! This was a very big deal for me. It might even have been a bigger deal than when I dropped everything a few days later.
These radical changes that I made did not have much of a philosophical basis. This was a time of exploration for me. I was exploring the secular aspects of myself. I was learning how to have fun for no reason except for the sake of fun itself and being together with amazing friends.
Eventually, the fun ended. There was one really bad week when they decided to do drug tests and several of the volunteers got kicked out. It was upsetting watching my friends pack their bags and trying to pull their lives back together again. There’s nothing wrong with hiding in the bushes every now and then.
There was a big party that I had been very excited about, the closing celebration for a group of post- high school Israelis that was called the garin. I was trying to push the negative stuff out of my mind so that I could have a good time.
I’m not going to explain exactly why, but I showed up at this event wearing a tank top and makeup. It was awkward. I didn’t expect all of the parents of the garin people to be there. I asked Zee to walk back with me. At one point during the conversation I said, “I’m not really in the mood for a party but I think if I start drinking I’ll start to get into it.”
“That’s not a good idea,” Zee said.
“I’m just remembering this one time when I tried drinking to get into a better mood at a party and it didn’t work out very well.”
“There was this one guy who I had been hooking up with for a couple of weeks and then I show up and I see he has a girlfriend.”
Zee is such a serious and ambitious person. I would not have expected her to allow herself to get used like that.
When we got to my room Zee helped me wash off the makeup. Then I changed back into one of my shirts. It was a weird feeling, having a girl seeing my shirtless like that, alone in my room. It was like a vulnerable, perhaps intimate type of moment.
At that time she was in a serious relationship and I also knew that she had been sexually active for years. I knew that this moment did not have the slightest significance to her and that made me feel like a piece of garbage.
My eyeliner still wasn’t completely washed off when I went back to the pub. I wasn’t feeling the vibes so I went back and hung around the volunteers housing for a little. I sat in on a conversation.
“What I say, nobody should repeat.” Rob said as he looked at Joey, who had been away from kibbutz for a few weeks, and then he looked at me.
“I never say anything about anyone,” I said.
Then he started going through all of this gossip, all this sleeze that I had no idea was going on. This person was trying to get with that person, who was already ___ing someone else. I wasn’t aware that things happen so quickly.
“He’s been drinking too much lately, doing lots of idiotic stuff. You heard that he slapped Rajani?”
“Yeah, but I thought that wasn’t a big deal, obviously you’re not supposed to lay a hand on a woman,” Joey responded.
“You know where that happened?”
“The two of them were in the sack and he asked her to do something and she didn’t want to do it, so then he slapped her.”
“Shit, that’s twisted.”
For a few more minutes I continued sitting there, not participating in the conversation, sort of listening, sort of spacing out. Then I went back to my room and put my kippa back on. I wasn’t sure why exactly, but I knew that my secular phase was over.
The fourth story that I wrote during my year at Bar Ilan was about me. It was written in first person and I was the protagonist, except the events described didn’t actually happen. Or at least they hadn’t happened yet at the time I was writing it. I decide to leave everything behind and take a taxi to a random spot in the middle of the desert.
After some wandering I eventually find the portal to the World of The Second Creation. In this world, everything is natural. Everybody is connected to nature and the whole place is just like one big forest. People also live a natural lifestyle and are not inhibited by superficial rules that modulate human behavior.
Although I have some reservations I find that I am much happier in this more natural world than in the place where I came from. But then something happens that changes my mind.
Suddenly, a small raindrop fell from the sky and landed on Shualla’s nose. It glistened dimly in the morning sunlight. More raindrops started falling. It was refreshing, and made me feel connected to the atmosphere.
Shualla looked so alive and happy with her damp hair and little droplets of water dripping off of her face, it made me forget that I had chosen Atalefet over her.
“Come for a swim with us!” Shualla said. I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with the idea but I followed after her as she skipped down towards the lake.
Atalefet was still sitting on top of the large stone. Her lips extended into a gentle smile when she saw me approaching. Shualla walked past the stone until she was standing in between the stone and the lake and I could only see the top of her shoulders and the back of her head. She extended her arms into the air and… what was she doing? She was taking off her leaf dress.
She rested the dress on top of the stone and then I heard a splash. A discomforting confusion rose into my chest. I looked at Atalefet, mentally asking her if that was considered to be a normal behavior. I didn’t receive an answer.
“Won’t you come for a swim with us?” Atalefet asked, “It would be very special.” Then, Atalefet hopped off of the stone so that she was standing in between the stone and the lake. She bent downwards and I couldn’t even see the top of her head. A minute later I saw a pale hand extend above the stone, placing her dress beside Shualla’s. I heard another splash that was quieter than the previous one. I
stared at the stone. I could feel my heart beating rapidly. My feet started moving and I took some quick steps into the woods and then I froze. What is this? What kind of place is this? Is this some kind of Eden like innocence where they don’t even see that as having a sexual connotation?
I looked back at the lake and I received my answer. Both of their heads were sticking out of the water, inches apart. Atalefet was staring deeply into Shualla’s eyes and then she planted a gentle kiss on the top of her nose. Then she used both hands to push Shualla’s head into the water. Shualla pulled her head up with splashes and giggles and then reached one hand to pull Atalefet under the water. They both disappeared beneath the water’s surface.
At that moment it was clear that the World of The Second Creation was not for me. The following day, I was sitting in the cafeteria and listening to a conversation about some of the escapades from the previous night.
“So then a bunch of us were mad drunk and we hopped over the fence to the pool and started skinny dipping. Some girls jumped in too, it was awesome. Then this one bozo turns the light on, I’m like ARE YOU RETARDED?” Uri said.
I did not regret missing out on the fun. Not only did I not have any desire to participate in that sort of event, but, in fact, I had a strong desire to be as far away from that as possible. After getting all caught up with all of these philosophical arguments and “proofs” for why Judaism is true, I lost touch of the real things that had attracted me to it to begin with.
Holiness. The things that exist in this world weren’t just put here to be thrown around and abused. Everything was put here for a reason. Everything is to be used for its designated purpose and for that purpose only. Everything is governed by rules; nothing is random. Nothing is random. This is something that I sense intuitively and this is what attracted me to the religious life as a teenager.
This is the intuitive part of my combination. But do I also think it is historically true? Yes. Yes, but not enough to be able to place myself within the bounds of Orthodoxy. Rav Soloveichik famously states that he has never been bothered by biblical criticism. I don’t think I would either if the Brisker Rav was my uncle and teacher.
There is something that people who have not truly tapped into the yeshiva world simply don’t understand: The power. The immensity. The truth that emanates from someone who truly is a talmid chacham.
The thing that made the strongest impression on me from my yeshiva days is the intense commitment to truth; the unbelievable dedication to transmitting information accurately from one generation to the next. This is seen in the meticulous inspection of each letter of the Torah scroll and this is seen in the obsessive dwelling on the tiniest minutia of legal positions that were transmitted orally. There is no nation that has a greater commitment to passing information accurately from one generation to the next than us. There is no claim of revelation that is more difficult to fabricate than that which our religion is based on.
Is it really possible to know anything? You can have the most brilliant logical proof that you ever imagined, but so what? Can you really know that in a million years nobody is going to discover that this logic is internally flawed? You can make a scientific discovery with the most advanced, state of the art laboratory in the world, but so what? A hundred years from now there will be much more advanced scientific techniques that will prove that this brilliant discovery is all nonsense. Can you really know anything? What’s the point?
One day, I felt the ground shaking. What am I standing on anyways? It’s all air! What are atoms made of? Mostly open space. They just fuse themselves together in a way that makes it seem like it’s solid ground but really it’s like 99.99% nothingness.
The ground was shaking.
Not only is it almost complete nothingness but it isn’t even stable. All of these nothingness filled atoms and molecules are constantly moving around and bumping into each other as the electrons that form their borders zip in circles at lightning speed. The only thing we are standing on is unstable nothingness.
The ground was shaking and then the explosion happened.
Molecules, atoms, protons, electrons, neutrons and nothingness, shooting forth in every direction. I was thrust into the fierce river of fleeting nothingness and I was being pushed farther and farther downstream. I tried to fight back, my arms flailing in every direction. I stretched my arms, searching for something that I could grab a hold of but there was nothing that I could grab. Then amidst all of the nothingness, a vision flashed through the air and disappeared. It disappeared so fast that I couldn’t even figure out what it was, but it was so powerful that I knew I would never forget it. A few moments later, the reality of nothingness disappeared and I returned to my illusory world where everything seems to be solid and stable.
What was that momentary vision that vanished as quickly as it appeared? What was this one and single thing that I found to be so very powerful? It was a moment a moment of human sincerity. When a moment of true human sincerity happens you know that it is real. This is the one thing that I know truly exists. It is through human sincerity that these traditions were passed with such dedication from one generation to the next and it is because of this human sincerity I know it did not begin as one big lie.
Why am I not Orthodox? I do not sense an inner truth in every aspect of halacha and I also am not in full agreement with the traditional narrative of how our religion came to be. Ideas from other cultures and from myself shape my outlook and lifestyle as much as religious traditions. I also believe that secular approaches to understanding the religious texts have their share of truth.
I think that despite this commitment to accuracy in transmission that has existed throughout the generations, lots of things got misinterpreted over the years. I also think that there are lots of things that we understand better today as a result of the advancements of mankind as a whole. When I look at the books of the Prophets I see a very different culture and mentality than what I see in the Talmud. I think that the oral traditions that existed during biblical times went through a great deal of evolution.
And I think this is perfectly fine but we should continue to evolve. I don’t have much doubt that a revelation occurred but I am not sure if every word of the Torah is a product of this revelation. I definitely don’t feel like I understand what G-d wants well enough to try to enforce “G-d’s will” through politics.
So what if things got misinterpreted along the way? What about the story of Achnai’s oven? For those who aren’t familiar, this is a famous Talmudic legend in which the sages agreed that a particular oven is pure but then a heavenly voice declared the oven to be impure. Despite this clear proof that the sages were wrong, the decision was still made in accordance with the ruling of the sages.
The lesson is that we are only obligated to do our best to transmit the tradition accurately and this tradition becomes authoritative even if it is not the absolute truth. I think this approach is fine for legal rulings on ritual law, but it will not satisfy a homosexual individual who is asked to live a life of singlehood.
This is my where I stand in terms of my personal beliefs. Others of course are entitled to differ. I would just like to make some comments to those with a more traditional outlook, who feel confident enough in their religious beliefs to apply them in ways that affect other people.
First of all, are you really that positive? If so, then surely you have taken the time to deeply analyze the arguments of those who disagree?
“There are two reasons why I believe the Haredim should not go to the army. First, learning Torah has priority over everything. And second, the army doesn’t really need them anyways.”
How confidant are you about both of these things? If you are truly confidant about both statements, then why do you need to lump them together? If you were to remove one of them, would the other one still stand strong? Let’s do an experiment. Play a game on yourself- exterminate one of these beliefs. Convince yourself that the army really does need the Haredim. Spend a week reading nothing but articles that take the position that Haredim should go to the army.
Don’t say a word to any of your rabbis or yeshiva buddies, don’t talk to anyone except for angry hilonim who feel that you are taking advantage of the country. Listen to what they have to say, hear them out, let yourself be convinced. Then, ask yourself do you still believe that learning Torah truly has priority over everything?
Exterminate the other belief. Pack out of Bnei Brak and spend a week at Yeshiva University. Listen to some drashot from rabbis who believe in a Torah Umadda outlook. Stop by the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. Listen to some Judaic Studies lectures at Columbia University. Allow yourself to be convinced that the Haredi outlook on Torah study is wrong. Then ask yourself, do you still believe that the army doesn’t need the Haredim?
“There are two reasons why I support the settlement movement. Firstly, because this is what G-d wants. And besides, it’s necessary for security and the Palestinians benefit from it too.” How confidant are you about both of these things? Why don’t you do an experiment?
Exterminate one of them. Study in a yeshiva in Bnei Brak for a week. Read some divrei Torah from the Rabbis For Human Rights website. Read my essays where I passionately articulate a progressive, religious Zionist outlook. Immerse yourself in the leading works on biblical criticism. Talk to the most brilliant Jews who grew up religious and then lost faith that you can find.
Allow yourself to be convinced that G-d really doesn’t like the settlement movement.Then ask yourself, is it really beneficial for both sides?
Exterminate the other belief. Immerse yourself in the publications of B’tselem and Bimkom. Don’t just read them to check off the box, truly internalize the things they have to say. Allow yourself to be convinced. Read some books by Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi. Read about the history and culture of the Palestinians. Learn about these people, see things from their perspective, appreciate their positive qualities. Spend some time living in whichever Palestinian village it is that was the most negatively affected by the settlement movement.
Then ask yourself, is this really what G-d wants?
Religious beliefs and political opinions can never be right or wrong. They can only be good, bad or medium. The quality of a belief or opinion is measured by how much thought you put into it and how much time you spent exploring the arguments for the other side. On a scale from one to ten, how would you rate your beliefs?