Sooner or later, most Orthodox Jews face the big questions. Why be Orthodox? What is our justification?
One prominent rabbi publicly said that he doesn’t think that we have given these subjects the proper thought. Another, in private, invoked a platitude of “bringing light into the world” through Judaism as his reason for being Orthodox. Not exactly confidence-inspiring. I wasn’t seriously expecting much more, though. After all, there are only three major arguments for Judaism: the Kuzari argument, the chain-of-mesorah argument, and the argument from Jewish history.
If there were another one, everyone would know about it.
The Kuzari argument, that you couldn’t possibly convince the Jews that their ancestors had stood before Sinai unless it was true, is a joke. The legend of Sinai could have slowly evolved over centuries, remaining known during the eras of Ba’al-worship only to the scholars, so that nobody would have been particularly surprised when the claim was made. Nor, for that matter, do I know of anyone who managed to think of this argument prior to R’ Yehuda HaLevi – it’s the sort of thing that gets swept under the mental rug. And just how many records do we have in ancient times of challenges to religion, by the masses, based on historicity?
The argument from recorded history takes two forms: the survival argument and the teleological argument. The first argument is very simple: how did we survive? We must have had help.
Aside from the theological problems in suggesting constant, tangible, divine aid, this isn’t quite the miracle it’s made out to be. The tenacity, the self-sacrifice, the raw brainpower, the absolute dedication to difference and to the proposition that “we are right and they are wrong” that expressed themselves throughout all the generations of Jewish history – these are what allowed the continued existence of the Jews. Did anyone else really have something comparable in quality to the Torah on which to pin their hopes? The Gypsies certainly didn’t and don’t, and they’re still here as well. Their existence is no miracle, and neither is ours. Even if our existence were a miracle, it would still not point to any particular interpretation. Perhaps we’re just the scapegoats of history.
In no way does that diminish the significance of our survival or mean we can’t credit God with it. We make a beracha after we go to the bathroom, and few can claim that that’s an unnatural miracle while keeping a straight face.
The teleological argument is slightly more complex. Instead of asking how we survived, we ask why we survived. Our survival – and even more than our survival, our continuous, powerful hand on the wheel of global progress – seems to indicate a broader role in history, a central role in the evolution of mankind towards history’s culmination. We always seem to survive, to change the world, to get into positions of power, all without really meaning to. The only explanatory system that accounts for this is Judaism. Thus, we have an argument for Judaism as the best explanation of empirical data.
The problem with this is that Judaism is a very broad explanatory system. Pretty much anything could have happened over the past two millennia, and Judaism would have explained it – with the possible exception of the extinction of the Jews, in which case the point is moot. In fact, outside of survival, the only thing that seems to have happened in the past two thousand years that Judaism clearly explains was that we would suffer: something nations in exile tend to do. All our teachings seem to be based on events of the distant past. It becomes harder and harder to see Judaism, even considering its explanatory breadth, as satisfactorily explaining the past two millennia. Moreover, it needn’t concern us that we don’t exactly have a proper explanation. Even within Judaism, a full explanation of history awaits the end of history. Why is it necessarily the case that we should have some sort of putative, primal explanation already?
No, the argument for Judaism must lie in the Mesorah. I’ve heard it argued that the nation couldn’t, in its entirety, make a mistake.
I doubt the facticity of this argument.
I’ve heard it argued that the Rabbis were consummate geniuses and holy men – this you can see from their writings – and that they clearly wouldn’t, or couldn’t even, have made this stuff up.
This point gives me significant pause. In my learning, I have seen some of this genius, and it puts all other wisdoms, right down to the present day, to shame. But I’m also aware that the rabbinical world is not very history-conscious and is indeed prone to making things up. Malbim invented a theory that drashot were p’shat with no historical basis. Every yeshiva bochur knows how to read a R’ Chaim into a Rambam, and many of them believe that the Rambam was actually thinking of R’ Chaim’s vort in the 12th century. Rigorous academic study of history, even natural history, has been violently spurned for centuries. I can only go based on what I see, and if there was any taboo attached to the foundations of Judaism in Mishnaic times – anything that might have allowed vagueness between a rebbi and a talmid, anything that might have permitted the talmid to figure things out for himself (and, indeed, students were expected at that time to figure out hints) – an uncorrected error may have easily occurred, and snowballed.
As to the issue of the immense genius found in Torah, I simply think the better explanation is the blood, sweat, and tears of some of the greatest minds in history over centuries.
Most of the people whose judgment I respect disagree with me. But at the end of the day, their say-so is not sufficient to tip the scales in favor of belief.
Without a real ground for Orthodoxy, the cognitive dissonance involved in staying becomes enormous. It’s incredibly difficult to follow Orthodoxy fully, down to the shoelaces and washing your hands four times each (like the Gra, of course) before rubbing your eyes in the morning, without believing in it. But attempting to believe in it leads to intolerable dissonance – attempting to practice only those parts one finds agreeable, thus obviating the need to believe, leads to feelings of inconsistency and the notion that the practices one has retained are meaningless.
So why stay? Social reasons, perhaps? Affinity for the traditions? A friend recently told me he’d decided not to go off the derech because pork just wasn’t worth it.
There’s a better reason. To those who believe in the Talmudic method – those who believe in case-oriented discussion, who believe that the deepest and broadest questions of ethics arise from the simplest problems – there is simply nothing, anywhere, in the short history of humanity, to compare with Judaism and its Torah, a system developed over millennia by the finest and greatest people humanity has ever seen.
This holds especially of gemara. Intellectuals fortunate enough to stumble upon it or to be introduced to it are staggered by what Emanuel Levinas called “this amazing book.” Nor is there any other community of discourse that rests on the same fundamental perspectives on the world, on ethics, and on what life is all about other than the Orthodox Jewish community.
An old secular man once cursed out a Brisker – the old man had stopped believing in Judaism dozens of years ago, but thanks to Reb Chaim’s Torah, he couldn’t live without learning a daf of gemara a day. For those who believe in the philosophy of Judaism but question aspects of the history: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!