Lazer Gurkow

The Rational You

The Torah is divided into two parts — the first four books and the last book. The last book is in a category of its own because it is largely written as if Moses were talking rather than as G-d talking. Rather than saying “Moses spoke” this book reads, “I spoke.”

However, before we assume that this book was written by Moses rather than G-d, our sages assure us that every word of the Torah was written by G-d. It is a question of whether G-d dictated His ideas in His own words or if G-d dictated His ideas in Moses’ words; making it seem as if Moses was talking.

When you listen to a lecture you simultaneously listen and process. Although the emphasis is on the listening, in the back of your mind, you are also processing. In the last book, G-d dictated His ideas to Moses in the words that Moses processed them rather than in the words that G-d spoke.

Why did G-d do this, and more importantly, what can we learn from this?

A Tale of Two People
To help us understand this and to relate it to our own experience, let us suggest that there are two people within each of us. There is the believer in you and the rational you. The believing you is the one that sees and hears G-d in everything. The believing you believes in G-d without question, and serenely accepts all the troubling contradictions and ideological concerns that plague the rest of humanity.

The believing you believes that G-d is perfectly good even though good people suffer and bad people prosper. The believing you accepts that G-d cherishes life and abhors murder even though He instructed the ancient Israelites to annihilate several ancient nations such as Amalek and Midian. The believing you accepts that G-d is compassionate and loving even though G-d does not allow Gay people to marry. The believing you believes that the world was created 5780 years ago even though science has demonstrated that the universe has evolved over millions of years.

That is the believing you. Now what does the rational you say about all these things? How does the rational you process these questions? When you read the biblical passages about G-d’s grace, kindness, and compassion, the believing you listens keenly and accepts with a full heart. But what does the rational you think as it processes these questions?

When the thunder and lightning of the Sinai experience faded, when the trumpeting call of the Shofar fell silent, and the voice of G-d stilled, you went home and the rational you began to process what you heard. Well, what did you think? The rational you heard G-d prohibit murder, yet not seven weeks earlier, He smote every Egyptian first born. He told you to rest on the Sabbath, yet He forced you to wake up and hike out to the mountain on the Sabbath to hear the Ten Commandments.

These are just some of the ideological conundrums that believers must face, so how does the rational you deal with them?

The easy solution is to silence the question and deny that it bothers you. Stop the processing and shut down the rational you. But that is not a permanent solution because eventually the rational you will pop up again in the most inconvenient times and places.

Another option is to shut down the believing you and forget all about G-d. The universe is a random collection of atoms that evolved randomly. There is no G-d, there is no rhyme, and there is no reason.

But that too doesn’t work. Deep inside, we intuit that there is more to life than a random collection of molecules. Deep in our minds, we reject the notion that life is aimless and without meaning. Deep in our hearts, we seek fulfillment; we want to know that we each have purpose.

Believe and Know
G-d also doesn’t want us to shut down either part of ourselves. The believing you was created by G-d so that you could believe and the rational you was created by G-d so that you could process. If He wanted you to reject either, He would not have given you both.

He wants you to use both. The first commandment summons us to believe in G-d. In Deuteronomy, the Torah tells us also to know G-d. Knowing is different from believing. To know means to process and to understand. To ask questions and to seek answers. To embrace the rational you.

We are not guaranteed that we will find all the answers, which can make for a tumultuous and emotionally draining existence, but process we must. We must look for ways to allow the convictions of our faith to suffuse our minds. We must try and form a symbiotic relationship between our rational minds and our articles of faith. We must try to reconcile the believer in us and the rational us.

Making peace between the believing you and the rational you doesn’t mean explaining to the believing you that it believes falsely. It means to seek rational explanations for the questions that vex and perplex us. It means to invite the rational you to come to terms with what the believing you accepts. Ask questions, pester scholars, write, and read what others have written, accept explanations that satisfy you and reject the explanations that don’t sit well with you.

Above all, simply refuse to accept that the believing you is wrong. If you have not yet found the answers, keep looking. As I wrote earlier, you may never find answers to all your questions, but you are summoned to try.

If the rational you fails to find the answers, the believing you should kick in. Belief picks up where knowledge drops off. We know as much as we can know, and we believe the rest. The truth of G-d does not change when we fail to understand it. The truth remains inviolate. Rejecting it just because we fail to understand it, is folly. Thus, we seek to understand as much as we can, and where we can’t find the answers, we make a leap of faith.

Words That Matter
This explains why G-d wrote an entire book in Moses’ words. The message was, don’t just believe in me. Process what I say and seek to understand it. Your musings, so long as you seek to understand me and not to reframe me, are part of the Torah. Don’t seek to remake me in the image of your understanding, seek to understand my words. So long as you do that, your thoughts are in the tradition of Torah.

The Talmud is filled with the musings of our sages. Jewish literature is filled with the theories of our teachers. Some were more widely accepted than others, but all who wrote in the spirit of fervor and faith, were accepted as part of the oral Torah.

The fifth book of the Torah is called Devarim because it begins with the words, “these are the devarim that Moses spoke.” In its most literal sense devarim means words, but devarim also means things or matters. These are the matters of which Moses spoke. I suggest that the Torah is telling us that it is not enough to accept the words of the Torah. We must also ensure that they matter. That they are important to us. That we don’t dismiss them when we fail to understand them.

And the only way to do that is to do what Moses did. Let the rational you process the words until they come to matter. Moses did that and G-d recorded it for posterity to ensure that we are emboldened to do it too.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at
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