Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen
As a counselor on the staff of a Jewish outreach group, I once met a teenager whose parents were agnostics and who had absorbed their attitude. Still, something attracted him to us, and eventually he started joining us for Shabbat services… He donned a kippah and put on tzitzit. He started to believe in God. He did everything except approach Judaism intellectually. That was five years ago. Then I ran into him last year. He was a little embarrassed to see me. The kippah and tzitzit were gone. So were all involvements with the Jewish community. So was his belief, he confessed. The emotional jolt that initially drew this fellow toward Judaism slipped into the past; and lacking any supporting intellectual architecture, he was back into the secular mainstream.
In varying degrees, all American Jews are exposed to the same cultural magnets that led this boy away from Judaism. We cannot escape the media’s sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, anti-religiosity. Neither can we isolate ourselves from the American public’s burgeoning agnosticism. All these forces feed subconscious doubt. And, if not dealt with, these doubts can destroy our religiosity too.
Of course, the vast majority of us won’t give up our Judaism. Nevertheless, we can die spiritually. We can become religious robots, going through the motions, acting out the part, mouthing the catechism, but spiritually paralyzed. We can lose all enthusiasm, and resent the endless restrictions and requirements which shape our lives. If we cannot answer our intellect’s objections — if we cannot demonstrate to ourselves that God really exists and interferes in our world –then we will decay into religiously heartless automatons.
Thus, the same Rabbi Elazar who says that one should develop a “good heart,” also advises us to “know what to answer a heretic” (Talmud – Avot 2:13, 19). Rabbi Elazar does not advise that we actually debate heretics. There is nothing wrong with debating heretics, of course. But debating heretics is not a prerequisite for creating a “good heart.” Knowing how to answer a heretic’s objections is absolutely essential to building a “good heart.” Each of us must probe ourselves for doubts. We must bring those uncertainties to the fore of consciousness and blast them to pieces with vigorous intellectual argument.
By way of illustration: If, somewhere deep inside, we feel torn between Torah and science, we should remind ourselves how often the scientific world reverses its position on fundamental issues. First the world was flat; then it was round. In 1987, the scientific world leaped to support U.C. Berkeley geneticist Allan Wilson’s “discovery” that the first woman “lived in Africa between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.” Then, last October, everyone abandoned those dates. Professor Ulf Gyllenstein (University of Upsala) had revealed that Wilson and friends forgot to include “Adam’s DNA” in the genetic retrogression. Gyllenstein “proved” that Wilson’s date was off by about 250 percent and that the first woman “lived only 75,000 years ago.”
At first, the scientific world believed that the universe was eternal. Then in 1978, the director of NASA’s Goddard Space Center, Dr. Robert Jastrow, published a piece in the New York Times Magazine outlining the overwhelming evidence that our universe inexplicably burst into existence, and concluded saying:
“This is an exceedingly strange development, unexpected by all but the theologians. They have always accepted the word of the Bible: In the beginning God created heaven and earth… For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”
On the one hand, these constant reversals prevent the scientific community from speaking with any real authority. On the other hand, it is fascinating to note how the reversals in recent years have more often than not bolstered the Torah perspective. The writings of many of today’s top astronomers, chemists, biologists and physicists are entirely consistent with our tradition. And even in the words of those who despise religions and religious values, and who would never consciously offer support for God’s existence, we can often detect inadvertent arguments for our perspective.
AN AGNOSTIC’S UNSHAKABLE FAITH
Consider the case of Dr. Francis Crick — a notoriously anti-religious Nobel laureate and professor at Cambridge University who, in a recent interview with Scientific American, pointed out that he was proudly an “agnostic with a prejudice towards atheism.” Faced with the outrageous odds against the random evolution of life (Yale University’s Dr. Harold Horowitz put them at about 1 in 10,100,000,000,) Crick suggests that life must have been “sent here long ago in the form of germinal material, from elsewhere in the universe.” Now, Crick admits that there is not a crumb of evidence that Earth was ever seeded by aliens from outer space; but his anti-religious bias makes Divine creation a non-option and compels him to grab at straws for any alternative.
For me, Crick’s most comical attempt to avoid bumping into God is as much an argument for monotheism as his colleagues’ more objective confessions.
Consider this statement from Nobel laureate, Sir Fred Hoyle, and his chemist co-author, Chandra Wickramasinghe:
“No matter how large an environment considers, life cannot have had a random beginning. Troops of monkeys thundering away at random on typewriters could not produce the words of Shakespeare, for the practical reason that the whole observable universe is not large enough to contain the necessary monkey hordes, the necessary typewriters, and certainly the waste paper baskets required for the deposition of wrong attempts. The same is true for living material.”
Of course, the best way for a Jew to conquer doubt is to throw himself, heart and soul, into Torah study. Our texts are astonishingly powerful faith-builders, especially when studied in the deep, analytical style cultivated by the Talmud and classical commentaries. Still, even a surface reading of the Bible will affect a thinking reader. Consider, for example, the passage:
“Inquire about times long past, going back to the time that God created man on earth… See if anything as great as this has ever happened, or if the like has ever been heard. Has any nation ever heard God speaking out of fire, as you have, and still survived?” (Deut. 4:32-33)
None of ancient Israel’s neighboring nations claimed to have experienced a national prophecy — not the ancient Canaanites or Egyptians, not the Hittites, Mesopotamians or Zoroastrians (all of whose polytheistic literature we have access to today). Indeed, besides the Jewish experience at Sinai, which both Christianity and Islam affirm, there is no tradition among any modern religious group-including the Bahai, Buddhists, Jains, Shintos, Sikhs, and Taoists — that God ever spoke to hundreds of thousands of men, women and children simultaneously. Not even modem cults have the gall to make such an outrageous claim.
And for good reason: A few charismatic men might persuade the masses that a leader or a handful of his priests had contact with the Divine. But a whole people cannot be fooled. If God didn’t speak to all of Israel, then Judaism could never have started. The existence of a more than 3,000 year old continuous tradition, handed father to son, that God communicated directly with His chosen people — a tradition which, incidentally, was challenged for the first time ever only 200 years ago — is rock-solid evidence of Judaism’s truth.
And, of course, Jewish history has God’s signature all over it. How the Jewish nation survived Egyptian slavery, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman and Persian onslaughts, not to mention two exiles from its homeland, defies rational explanation. How did the tiny Jewish people escape annihilation at the hands of the Crusaders, Cossacks, Communists and Nazis? These were immensely powerful and populous groups absolutely committed to the destruction of tiny Jewry; yet we are here and they are gone.
How does one describe the events [in Israel] of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973 without using religious terms? Was it just a coincidence that Iraq’s 18 missile attacks on Israel — during which Saddam Hussein fired a total of 39 SCUD missiles, each of which had an accuracy rating of 200 feet at a range of 500 miles, and each of which carried enough explosives to kill anyone within 400 feet — succeeded in killing only one Israeli? Was it a coincidence that the war with ancient Babylon’s modern counterpart ended on Purim?
Anyone who admits the possible existence of God will certainly say that His interference makes more sense of Jewish history than any other theory.
Reflections like these are good for a Jew. They keep our heart and brain connected, and they vivify our religiosity. Only when every detail of our Judaism has an intellectual basis can we properly serve our Creator. In the Rosh Hashanah prayers we remind ourselves that “His Name is Certainty, and so must be His praise.” May we and all the Jewish people merit offering Him such praises.