Why the Jew Believes

Why the Jew Believes, and Why the Jew studies

Message from the Rabbi

Spring 5770/2010 

Why identify oneself in a religious context?  Why profess a belief in God? Why limit one’s freedom voluntarily by submitting oneself to laws and morals, secular or religious?  Why pay any attention to, let alone study, ‘sacred texts’? 

We identify ourselves as Jews.  Exactly what that means in anyone’s personal context is, of course, highly subjective.  Aspects of this self-identification include identification as one who has faith in the existence, beneficence and justice of the God of Israel, a universal, transcendent and immanent God.  Also, one might identify with the history of the People of Israel, from our father Avraham to the modern State of Israel-the sweep of history, the stories, the struggles, all these as part of one’s mental and emotional landscape.  The culture might be informative – one is enlivened by the music (even Klezmer), food, dance, language…  The liturgical and ritual life of the synagogue gives to some the ultimate expression of who they are as a Jew.  Many of our greatest minds defined themselves through study of Torah and Talmud.  For them, service to God and living the Jewish ideal meant mastery of our canon. 

What justification, then, for religious expression, adherence to external legal and moral dicta, and study of texts? 

All of us live according to some value system, whether derived from our parents, our peers, our religious institutions, or even the media, TV, movies, pop music.  We might not even know why we think something is important, or something to be avoided.  Certainly, modern secular culture has provided us with an individualistic, self-driven value system.  A sad result of this system is seen in the rampant misogyny and misanthropy in the music culture – hip hop, rap, and the pop culture as a whole have been targeted constantly by bloggers, columnists, analysts and academicians for the violence, homophobia and objectification of women they promote.  Our movies, TV shows and video games provide examples of violence and crime, with little if any discussion of the ramifications; these will by necessity provide models of behavior, shaping our opinions on what is, and is not, acceptable. 

Those whose morals and ethics are informed from a religious perspective, are sadly, not free of value systems replete with denigration of women and violence towards one’s fellow.  ‘Religious’ men murder ‘abortion doctors’, use rape as tool of war, murder innocent people by blowing themselves up as if they were ‘martyrs’, assassinate heads of state (Sadat, Rabin) whose only crime was to make peace with implacable enemies, march into mosques and gun down those in prayer. 

There is a disease shared by both syndromes, Secular and Religious, and that is the objectification and identification of one’s fellow human as ‘other’, as ‘not-oneself’.  What is missing, and tragically so when evaluating from the perspective of the Jewish ethos, is the realization of ‘tselem Elohim’, or the image of God, in our fellow human.  That this identification could be missing in a ‘religious’ Jew, or any Jew, for that matter, given that the knowledge of Man as created in the image of God, a fundamental, bedrock principle applied to every human, not just ourselves, is shocking and tragic.  That this principle should be missing from a secularist creed should not be surprising; this is a Jewish ethic.  Even Jews for whom their Judaism is enlivened solely by cultural or ethnic concerns understand ‘tselem Elohim’ at a gut level.  So how can a Jew be involved in murder (Amir), fraud and larceny (too much of this coming from up North these days), violence against women – yet be self-identified as ‘religious’, nay, even ‘Orthodox’ (whatever that means) and sometimes claiming that not only does the faith system allow for such, but even demands it? 

One key to this deplorable puzzle is the methodology applied to the study of our history, and especially, our canonical texts.  Dominant modes of understanding and interpreting our Torah and our Talmud seem to revolve around two distinct and opposing poles.  The one, that Torah and Talmud represent the unerring word of God.  They are to be studied as a religious duty, and as a source of instruction for correct behavior and belief.  Woe to the student, though, who thinks that there is a ‘reason’ implicit in any of the teachings or instructions of Torah or Talmud.  For no less a luminary than Rabbi Soloveichik (the Rav), icon of Modern Orthodoxy in the 20th Century, abnegation of self in relation to God is the desired outcome.   The act prescribed by Torah is good because God said so; proscribed, because Torah said it was bad.  The only moral norm is the obedience to Torah dictates.  No other norm exists.  According to such doctrine, it is this surrender of the will and intellect that is the ‘holiness’ we are enjoined to attain.  

The other pole removes all divine imprimatur from the Torah.  Moral norms and ethics contained therein are the product of human reasoning and subject to human critique and modification, if they are to be adopted at all.  There is no ‘absolute’ right or wrong, all ethics and morals are situational and subject to alteration as needs see fit.  Holiness, if such a term could be used in this context (meaning only, in parallel to the previous, that ultimate state to which Man must strive to attain) is to see the ascendancy of individual human reason and autonomy to the position hitherto reserved for godhead.  With no sacred calling, the floodgates of human choice burst open, and by definition there is no ultimate limiter on human action.  Duty and obligation are foreign to this paradigm. 

That either system can rapidly degenerate into objectification, alienation and violence is left as an exercise for the reader.  History and current events provide abundant evidence in this regard. 

Sadly, the cure for this syndrome, at least in the realm of Jewish philosophy of ethics, was given explicitly in that self same Torah which the former camp reads without understanding, and the latter, without obligation.  For we are commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  What remains to be seen is exactly how this commandment is to be followed. 

Kant hints at the solution. “When, therefore, it is said, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ it is not meant, thou shall love him first and do him good in consequence of that love, but you shall do good, to your neighbor; and this your beneficence will engender in you that love to mankind which is the fullness and consummation of the inclination to do good.”  And to borrow a trope from Kant, we might also add, “Obedience without understanding is blind, but understanding without fulfillment of duty is empty.” 

I will not here debate the merits of ascribing to Torah divine imprimatur.  This, to me, is self evident.  That such a law code could have been promulgated, where justice is not a function of social standing, where the care of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the stranger are duties elevated in importance beyond any cultic, ritual, or purely religious requirement – an ethic completely alien to the historical socio-political environment in which it was born, a personal and social system of morals unsurpassed for 3000 years, and unequaled by any other system independent of its influences, smacks of no less than divine inspiration. 

Nehama Liebowitz wrote, “do the commandments and study, and you will come to see the pattern and believe…”  What is demonstrated here is the need for a ‘spiritual suspension of disbelief’, the modern equivalent of the Na’ase v’Nishmah, “We will Do, and then we will Learn”, that the Nation of Israel so famously promised at the foot of the mountain. 

Our Sages of Blessed Memory, all the while they were fulfilling the dictates of Torah, were using hermeneutics and ethical logic to understanding the moral principle underlying each commandment in Torah (a process called Darshina taame lmikra, a processes completely antithetical to the former method of understanding Torah discussed above).  Only by understanding the principle behind the law and applying logic and hermeneutics, can the student make determinations on ethical and moral issues not explicitly referenced in the canon. 

The other side of the coin is worse than the mere (albeit tragic) incapability of extrapolation to novel situations.  Religious obedience as an end to itself opens the door to extremism, fanaticism and violence.  Rabbi A.J. Heschel wrote, “Religion is a means, not the end. It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end in itself. Over and above all being stands the Creator and Lord of history. He who transcends all. To equate religion and God is idolatry.  Rabbi E. Shafir once commented in my hearing, “any ritual that does not have a moral dimension leads to avodah zarah (idolatry).” 

In order to be ‘holy’, we must have understanding.  Rambam wrote, “Holiness is a specific state for which mitswoth driven morality is the basis.”  Holiness comes with mindful, understanding fulfillment of Torah commandments.  Only with understanding can we hope to emulate the patterns of holiness given us in Torah. Torah wanted us to use our sechel – our smarts and our sense, and to struggle – that is the mitswah – following perfect lines without need for thought merely makes us into angels without free will, or demons plaguing the earth.  If we are afraid of hell, then being perfect is necessary.  If struggle and comprehension are the purposes, this underlies the system where all comes out well anyway.  Mindfulness!  And, by the way, since we have Torah, that cannot be a hell. 

Morals are not an individual survival trait.  Rather, they are a survival trait for a culture or society – morals have no individual context.  If we are to have a moral society, however, as it is that human societies are in a constant state of flux, the ethical system it uses must be adaptable. 

Holiness is on an individual level, and the moral and ethical function on the communal level.  For us, achieving holiness and morality requires identification with God, acceptance of Torah, and understanding of the principles therein.  Through the methods that blend faith and logic, as used by our Sages of Blessed Memory, can we avoid the twin evils of fanaticism and social chaos. 

That is why we believe, that is why we acknowledge God in our lives, and that is why we study. 


Rabbi Hayyim G.Z. Solomon, Ph.D.

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