Thursday, March 30, 2006

Emunah, skepticism, and the j-blogosphere

Why did I devote a post to Torah min haShamayim? Do I really think I am going to win over the skeptics of the world?
In a nutshell, No. And I will limit my postings on these type topics, bli neder.
However, I must admit that there is a trend out there which concerns me. A recent letter to a 5T newspaper had a wife writing (I quote), "Probably just as disturbing, and in some ways more so, is that he reads blogs that relate to Judaism. People post blogs about the credibility of everything that has always been the foundation of our lives, our upbringing, and our Torah." Personally, I have my doubts about the letter's authenticity, but I think the attitude is real. Pseudo-intellectual debate is entertaining! Suddenly it is "smart" to be "orthodox", but what passes for "orthodoxy" in a far cry from the basic truths picked up in elementary school. Instead, many people pick up a more "sophisticated" view on the historicity of Tanach, on the ikkarei emunah, on the truths of many of the minhagim. Having never opened a Moreh Nevuchim to check what the Rambam really says, or learned sifrei machshava, or thought about what the ikkarei emunah really mean, a guy suddenly finds himself with all sorts of questions and doubts that a 20 minute Shabbos morning derasha is not going to solve.
I don't necessarily have all the answers, and I don't want this blog to turn into an emunah question and answer forum, but I think someone better grab the bull by the horns before a lot of damage is done.

Here's my 2 minute answer to emunah questions: learn gemara. Put your skeptical baggage to the side, and sit on a blatt in Bava Kamma. Not the Artscroll blatt, but the REAL THING. Work through every kashe and teirutz, asking what did the gemara think in the hava amina, what did the maskana resolve. Ask on every Rashi why did Rashi offer the comment, what is he trying to explain, and if you have a different pshat, why did Rashi not learn that way. Same approach for every Tosfos. Try to get to the conceptual underpinnings of every machlokes rishonim. What bothered R' Akiva Eiger? What insight did the Ktzos have? Why does the Nesivos disagree? etc. etc. Repeat for 6 months daily for as much time as possible.
At the end of 6 months come back to all the skeptical baggage and see if you still have any doubts as to the Divinity of Torah. See what perspective you have on Torah SheBa'al Peh.

Isn't this just sweeping all problems under the psychological rug? Nope. It's called keeping perspective. I need some minor repairs done in my home that have not been taken care of for months - does that mean I should move out of the house? Or not enjoy living there? That would be stupid. The same with theological issues. To someone who is captivated with the beauty of limud haTorah and shmiras hamitzvos, so there is a kashe here and there, a repair that is needed. Maybe I will fix it, maybe it will linger because I don't know how to fix it. But I'm not moving out! To a guy who spent a week on a kashe of R' Akiva Eiger (and R' Akiva Eiger spent a lifetime on it!) and then discovers a yesod in R' Chaim that answers it up and clarifies the whole sugya, mattan Torah is not a historical event, it is a daily experience.
Historically even Volozhin produced its share of high-level apikorsim who could learn up a Ktzos while smoking a cigarette on Shabbos. IMHO this is not a danger for our times. I'm far more afraid of the guy who can't read a Ktzos, but feels free to offer comprehensive theories on theology and philosophy of yahadut.
(Lest anyone take unnecessary umbrage: this post is not meant as an "attack" on anyone or any particular hashkafa - don't take it as such. I'm just reflecting on what I perceive as general trends).


  1. Anonymous11:59 AM

    Fantastic and long overdue post.

  2. Anonymous12:33 PM

    Having an appreciation for the beauty of Torah and Mitzvos may keep people on the straight and narrow in terms of practice, but at the end of the day everyone needs a belief system that makes sense to them. We can all live with some questions. Even athiests live with questions. What people have trouble with is answers that aren't really answers. If my rabbi said, I don't know for sure if the Torah came from Sinai but it's really beautiful and pleasant and you need to be loyal to it if you want your grandchildren to grow up knowing that they're jewish, I would respect that. But if he insists that there is no good reason to doubt whether the Torah came from Sinai, I'm bound to be troubled if I know otherwise. Once someone, however emotionally attached to frumkeit they may be, starts to wonder about these things, there is no turning back.

  3. Anonymous1:50 PM

    A gorgeous wonderful posting that lays it on the line! Should be mandatory reading!

  4. While I think what you have to say is nice, even if someone sits down and learns gemarra for, as you suggest a half-year, or even a couple of years, that very likely will do nothing to his/her theological conceptions and questions nor might it help issues regarding higher Biblical criticism, for instance. Learning gemarra is nice, but, as you say, it's about perspective: one could learn gemarra for the sake of an intellectual endeavor and not have anything to do with God. And certainly not with regard to questions with regards to the Divinity of the Torah. If one wants to look into that, one should look at the proper mekoros, and not at gemarra.

  5. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy gemarra, but the gemarra doesn't develop in me any sense regarding the Divinity of the Torah - learning about the Divinity of the Torah does.

  6. "Historically even Volozhin produced its share of high-level apikorsim who could learn up a Ktzos while smoking a cigarette on Shabbos."

    Which former Volozhin student are you talking about?

  7. But then what about those who just can't get into learning?

  8. Anonymous3:16 PM

    If I understand what you're saying, then I agree. But I bet I don't.

    Pretty much all of the Judaism we interact with is created by people - most of halacha, all of our torah shbaal peh learning you refer to, etc. So, what if the Torah was also written by people? It doesn't change the value of our mesora.

  9. Didn't you just contradict yourself? On the one hand, you suggest spending some time deeply involved in learning gemara, saying that'll get any skeptic to believe in it all, then right after you tell us about how in Volozhin there were those who didn't buy into it all. Obviously, deeper intellectual gemara experience doesn't do what you claim it does.

  10. This was written 2 months ago and I responded to some comments on Gil's site, but a few notes here:

    Hedyot: No contradiction. If this was 1875, then I would say gemara is not the solution; in 2006 it is. I have yet to meet a person who is a real lamdan and a skeptic at the same time; 150 years ago I think it was more common.

    Steg, good kashe. I have no teirutz.

    Mike Skeptic, I beg to disagree. As I wrote on Gil's site, if one takes an overview of science, every field as its contradictions, questions, anamoloies, but no one is suggesting that we throw out the scientific method (despite the fact that there is no proof that it leads to truth at all outside its paradigm, as Thomas Kuhn showed). You get the analogy. Everyone has kashes they can't answer and doubts, but if you discover that the system works, even if you don't have answers now, you don't abandon the method.

    Drew, the reality is I have yet to meet someone sitting is a Bais Medrash Shabos afternoon for intellectual enjoyment when they could be doing something else. Not to say there might not be yechidim out there, but lets be real and look at the masses. The majority of the people who are sitting and learning, and who have been exposed to 'the outside world' (I have a college degree and a 'real' job, not in kollel) are doing so because they believe in the value of Torah without going through mekoros about its Divinity. In YU there used to be T-shits inspired by a certain Rebbe which said something to the effect of 'We don't learn about it - we learn it'. That's the way to discover Torah.

  11. Anonymous4:01 PM

    >Everyone has kashes they can't answer and doubts, but if you discover that the system works, even if you don't have answers now, you don't abandon the method.

    I wasn't speaking about abandoning halachic observance and I didn't think your post was addressing that either. I thought you were crticizing skeptical inquiry into the authorship and historicity of the Torah and that's what I was addressing. Your analogy to other areas of academic inquiry doesn't help you there. Sure there are difficulties with particular scientific theories, but science is open about them and scientists grapple with them objectively to try to resolve them. You seem to be advocating that people with questions about the authorship or historical accuracy of the Torah
    should stick their head in the sand and learn a blatt gemara instead. That seems senseless to me. First, the Torah leadership of our time needs to articulate a coherent approach to jewish belief that intelligent and educated individuals can be comfortable with. If there isn't a single godol willing to go on record for an honest and realistic approach to these questions (sorry, but the Rambam doesn't count), how can a reasonable person not suspect that the emporor is naked.

  12. > If this was 1875, then I would say gemara is not the solution; in 2006 it is.

    Why? What's the difference?

    > I have yet to meet a person who is a real lamdan and a skeptic at the same time

    I'm not one of them, but there are plenty of them among the skeptics. And by the way, your analogy of "a kasha there, a repair there" is a far cry from those of us who see how unstable the entire structure is as a whole. That's not to say that it's all worthless, but the skepticim is based on a lot more than how you're spinning it.

    Additionally, what you may not realize is that there's a lot of different types of people that would be classified as skeptics, and their skepticism stems from different sources. For many, the skepticism is not rooted in clear-cut intellectual challenges, but other factors, and gemara won't help with those issues whatsoever.

  13. I posted a reply to many of the comments my original post engendered. See here: revisited.html

    (sorry, not sure how to paste a hyperlink into the comments field.)

  14. Here