Sunday, January 14, 2007

Can We Question?

This post started out as a comment on a post by Chana which discusses her feelings about “Truth and Illusions”. But I realized pretty quickly that I was writing something which was too long and too general to post as a comment on her blog. In her post, she writes about some of the issues which – independent from belief - keep one from potentially exploring religious changes. And, she writes about the things which she feels compels and impedes her own process.

While Chana writes about her personal situation, some of the issues which she raises are universal in the thoughts and emotions of those who consider the questioning of their lifelong religious beliefs. From my own experiance, I can testify as to how crucial some of these issues can be. I am not at all advocating that people not believe in Judaism or orthodoxy. Rather, I am advocating the legitimacy of asking their own questions and seeking their own truths.

1. Parents:

I owe a debt, far more than I could ever repay, to my parents. My parents raised me. They gave me life, they gave me my upbringing, they gave me literature, they gave me love. Do I cause them anguish and worry simply because I have discovered what I believe to be my truth? How much do I owe? Do I owe them my life?

You have some very real obligation to your parents, but not disappointing them with your life choices isn’t one of them. We parents tend to play up (overtly or not) how devastated and sad we will be if our children do something 'wrong'. But the truth is that it's overplayed. We love our children and feel for them, (and most of us aren’t above feeling some embarrassment when they really foul up) but we still have our own lives to live. The children, on the other hand, are the ones who will actually live the choice - that is the entirety of their lives. So our second-hand upset does not begin to compete with the full-time, direct effects which the children experience by their choices. Most good parents understand this.

No one else on earth is accountable for your actions. You yourself will have to bear responsibility for your choices. Hand in hand with this ultimate accountability is ultimate self-responsibility and ultimate freedom of choice. So, though this may sound like trite new-age stuff, you have only one life, it belongs only to you, and it is yours to live as you see fit.

2. Torah Knowledge

In order to be honest about oneself and one’s religion, one ought to investigate claims against it. The problem is that I am not yet secure in the religion itself; I have not learned the texts I need to learn. How can one hope to understand opposition if one does not even understand all that one believes? There are innumerable pages of Gemara, various commenataries, scribes, ideas. I would have to study all this, and know it well, before I could ever hope to look through the ideas countering it. For if I do not understand my religion, how could I hope to understand attacks against it?

You state that you haven’t learned enough Torah to investigate the claims against it. This was a notion which kept me practicing religion for quite a long time. But how can this possibly make any moral or logical sense? You’ve certainly learned far more Torah than biblical criticism, or ancient history, or anthropology, or comparative religion, etc.. And, since Torah defines itself as having no end, you will be troubled by this argument ad-infinitum. Moreover, though, you are smart and learned enough to know that, while you will find many more expositions on Torah anomalies, you aren’t going to come across anything which will fundamentally change the game. My experience, anyway, is that it ultimately comes down in to whether you end up thinking that the story in its entirety passes the “can a rational person believe this” test. And that is based more on the global issues than the specific minutia.

This is part of the orthodox ‘truth’ paradox. You must seek the truth. But, you may only seek it within the confines of orthodoxy.

I used to tell myself that, while I couldn’t figure out how to believe, the fact that some of the most brilliant and admirable people that I knew believed so passionately must mean that there were compelling answers to these questions. It was only when I experienced equally brilliant and moral people who did not hold these beliefs – or who believed other things which were unfathomably irrational, that I began to realize that their belief was not based on brilliant answers which they had found. It was based on the same emotional and sociological forces which hold such strong sway on all of us.

3. Trusting your Motives and Ideas

I can do nothing before I have succeeded in acquiring a kind of humility, because only the humble can seek. Humble people want answers, they want to learn, they want the truth.Proud people want to be right. Or they want others to think they are right.

You claim that you lack humility, and that this pridefulness negates your ability to seek the truth. I beg to differ. I’m sure that you have a very healthy ego, and a high opinion of yourself. But pride is not the same as feeling your worth, just as humility is not equal to feeling your worthlessness. With all of the value which you place on honesty and integrity, do you really think that you are too proud to accept a truthful idea when it is presented to you? Or, rather, do you just have enough self-confidence to not accept a problematic idea which others think is truthful but which you may not?

This is just another subset of another thing which kept me in orthodoxy for so long – questioning and second guessing your motives. The though process goes like this; “I can’t understand how the Orthodox Story can be truthful, but am I saying that because of a ‘genuine’ exploration of the truth, or do I have some ulterior motive, or some character flaw which is leading me in the wrong direction. How can I be sure that I’m right? How can I really trust my thoughts?”

This is all crazy-making. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t look at the emotional context for what you’re thinking – of course you should. But to be taught – as we all were – that we can’t trust our thoughts and feelings is just not true. The truth is that, within the vast majority of us humans, the desire and drive towards good is overwhelming. Certainly, we have weaknesses, character flaws and temptations. But, far stronger than those things is our yearning to become better people.

4. Can we Question?

Virtually all skeptics who have been brought up in orthodox families approach their skepticism in the same way. They consider skepticism to be a radical theory which they can not buy into until they are 100,000% sure of its accuracy and until the prevalent theory of faith has been irrefutably proven to be false. In the meantime - while all of this evidence is gathered, while we endlessly question the purity of our motives, while we hesitate to explore the information which may help us determine our choice - we remain practicing our orthodoxy and carrying on with our lives.

One of the Rabbeim in Ner Yisroel once explained to me that the goal of the yeshiva was not to create great torah scholars per se. Rather, the goal was to keep boys in the yeshiva until they had started their families. After that, he said, the die was cast, and reducing their level of religiosity would be virtually impossible.

Changing beliefs is incredibly difficult and painful, but it is far more difficult once you have the obligations which come to you as you get older – spouses, children, careers, mortgages, community ties, etc.. Young adulthood is the age when one has the greatest possible freedom to explore, test, experiment and change.

But, rather than granting our young adults some encouragement – or even leeway - to try to apprehend a life path which resonates with them, which is true for them, which leads them to their own happiness and fulfillment, we do the opposite. We build as many roadblocks as possible to prevent them from doing the things which would be most helpful in finding and feeling secure in their choices – be it Orthodox Judaism or something else.

The orthodox system has a zero-tolerance policy for any deviation from the ‘derech’ – the one and only acceptable path. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, we subconsciously know how weak our story line really is. So, we endlessly lecture about how seductive the dark side is, how fallible our human judgment is, and how easy it is for our minds to be corrupted. And, we prevent – through legislation, social pressure, family influence and emotional manipulation – any attempts by our youth to really test and question their faith.

What is the theory here? Is it that Abraham – through honest introspection and broad unfettered philosophical inquiry – abandoned the pagan faith of his fathers and set out on a new (then heretical) path. And, since that fateful day, some three thousand years ago, not one single Jew has had the right to engage in exactly the same inquiry? He found the one true and right answer, and now we are no longer even allowed to ask the question?

The choice of faith is very personal on many levels. Every person must choose his own path. This is not merely a right – it is a reality. Even not choosing is choosing. Try as we may, there is no way to abrogate this obligation.

And, the time of young adulthood is the time to explore the choice. Dispite what you may be told, despite what doubts and fears have been planted in your mind, you are, in fact, allowed to experiment – to try on different ideas and see how they resonate, to do different things and see how they make you feel, to make mistakes, to read and study and speak and ask and argue. And you are allowed to trust yourself, and to trust your own honesty and goodness and integrity.

You owe yourself more than to look back at life and know that you didn’t even consider making a self-directed choice at the time that you could have because you hadn’t learned enough Torah, or felt obliged to your parents, or couldn’t trust your motives.

And, no choices must be final. You are allowed to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. If you leave and return, you will be welcomed back with open arms, and before you know it, Feldheim and Artscroll will be bidding on your life story.


Blogger Chana said...

This is a brilliant post. I have to think about your points some more, but I want to thank you so much for your thoughts. I hadn't really realized that some of my thoughts are widespread- that the blocks I come up against are similar for others. That's a new realization for me; thank you.

January 14, 2007 2:54 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I don't know what you do for a living, but you should be writing for a wider audience. I mean than the jblogs.

January 14, 2007 10:13 PM  
Blogger dbs said...


Wow, thanks. I'm an ee, by the way. (Why should the software guys be the only ones with blogs.)

January 15, 2007 8:16 PM  
Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

excellent post, I enjoyed it a great deal. It should be secretly emailed to eighth graders before their yeshiva farhers !!!

January 31, 2007 8:11 PM  

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