Friday, April 20, 2007

The Fall of a Godol (Part 1)

The big news in the sub-nanoscopic world of Orthodox Jewish blogging is that the Godol Hador, by far the widest read blogger in this tiny arena, has renounced his skepticism and, at least for now, returned to the fold. And, though I will probably find his blog to be somewhat less interesting than it was in the past, I certainly wish him well in his choice.

Much of the reasons which Godol has pointed to in his turn back to faith relate to his personal enjoyment and affinity to Orthodox Judaism. In that sense, I have no axe to grind whatsoever. He, as much as anyone, has the right to choose the path which brings happiness and fulfillment to his life.

But, as a rationalist, Godol also presents several key reasons for his choice:

1. That the Orthodox story, while not likely, is at least possible.
2. That without belief, there is no objective moral compass or meaning to life.
3. That Orthodox practice of rituals promotes moral behavior.

While I certainly respect Godol’s personal choice, and hope that it will work for him (and not hurt his hit rate too much), the arguments which he puts forward are worth discussing. These ideas, which GH states in his characteristically well written and entertaining style, lurk in the minds of many people who deal with religious doubts and uncertainties. They were certainly very present in my mind as I went through the difficult process of religious evaluation.

So here is the first installment of my own thoughts on these three points:

1. That the Orthodox story, while not likely, is at least possible.

Godol writes:

Could OJ be (mostly) true? Could be. Could it be false? Certainly. But I don't think it makes that much difference to me. I'll still be on the lookout just in case I find the killer proof (either way), but we all know that's not going to happen.

At first blush, this argument may seem trivial. It is, after all, only a ‘maybe, maybe not’ presentation, and it certainly falls short of the ‘with perfect faith’ standard with which we tend to associate religious dogma.

But, in fact, this is the thin but crucial dividing line which defines which skeptics land back in the orthodox fold and which do not. To be sure, this is only the end point – the process of getting there depends on endless issues which are specific to each individual who goes through this. But how one concludes on this issue is critical in defining how one goes forward.

If you feel that the orthodox story of divine revelation through the Torah and associated oral tradition is plausible, then you are, at least technically, safely within the acceptable orthodox sphere. Moreover, maintaining this idea preserves the integrity of practicing orthodoxy, after all, belief – which is inherently not based on factual proof – is always a continuum between certainty and doubt.

Crossing this line is remarkably difficult. It represents, more than anything else in the process of examining your beliefs, a point of no return. Not only does the world look completely different once you have crossed it, but the question itself looks completely different.

Before you have crossed, you are viewing the question from the perspective of belief. All of your family, friends and loved ones accept, believe and privilege the TMS (Torah from Sinai) story above everything else. It is the fundamental assumption upon which everything in your life is premised. Even in the questioning process, you tend to explore the answers from within the Torah system, looking for contradictions and proofs by exploring the texts and their commentaries.

Once you are across the line, and look back from a distance, the world looks very different. You are being swayed much less by the influence of groupthink, and you have begun to break the habit of accepting far-fetched notions as fundamental facts. You suddenly feel as if everyone has been trying to convince you that – in spite of what you are seeing – the sky is actually yellow. While you still may maintain a love of the concepts in the Torah, the story which underlies its divinity is equally far fetched as the claims of any other religion – Mormon, Scientology, Islam, Christianity, etc.. And it looks as clearly mythological as is any ancient pagan belief.

As many people point out, one can not prove or disprove the TMS story. I suppose that this is true, though this is partly because a miracle-performing God can always trump any form of challenge. Why is there scientific evidence that the universe is older than 6,000 years? Because God placed that evidence in the world. Also, religious dogma is actually more flexible than meets the eye – it is constantly (though slowly) being redefined in order to not be too contrary to existing science. How can the world be older than 6,000 years? Dogma no longer requires that we believe that the story of creation is to be taken by its plain meaning – each day could have lasted many millennia.

GH points out that some religious claims are more plausible that others, and he invokes the famous “Flying Spaghetti Monster” proof. While I understand what he is saying conceptually, I don’t really see how you begin to go about constructing this argument. Each religion seems, from the outside, to be ridiculous. That Jesus is the Son of God? That Mohammed was transported to heaven and taught the teachings of Islam? That John Smith received the Golden Tablets of Mormon?

Is this really that much better that believing that L. Ron Hubbard discovered the secrets of the warlord Xanu while traveling through the Galaxy? Or, for that matter, that Moses received the Torah directly from God’s dictation, along with a much more detailed set of oral laws which were only documented a thousand years later?

Every major religion has its own ‘killer proofs’ which are touted by their adherents as being compelling. Judaism may point to its remarkable longevity through greatly adverse conditions. Christianity may speak about its remarkable dominance of the western world – from amazingly humble beginnings. Buddhism and Hindu have both pre-dated Judaism by centuries and hold sway over enormous populations. Even the recent religions such as Mormon can point out how remarkably vibrant they have been, even after being expelled from State after State and being forced to settle in the inhospitable and unfarmable lands of Utah.

And everyone has their personal proofs – those things which we experience which seem to uncannily jibe with our religious beliefs. And, in case we are running low on our own experiences, there is a burgeoning market for ‘small miracle’ books.

For whatever reason – perhaps there really is a universal hidden spirituality, perhaps our minds have more psychic power than we realize, perhaps it is all just the power of wishful thinking – humans all have experiences which seem to go beyond the realm of coincidence. And, we all place them in our personal context. If we are Christians, it’s Jesus taking the wheel. If we’re frum, Hashem is exerting His hashgacha in the world.

But, even if you can’t ‘disprove’ a religious claim, you can apply the ‘can a person reasonably believe this’ test. While this is a completely subjective standard, and everyone will reach their own conclusions, shouldn’t we be able to use the same rational thought processes which we rely on to make all of the other decisions in our lives?

Is it really plausible that God spoke to humans? It certainly contradicts the vast experience of mankind. Is it possible that He dictated the epic stories of the Pentateuch, complete with its’ sacrificial laws, arcane histories and genealogies and repetitive, meandering storytelling? I certainly don’t think that would be the most rational conclusion. Is it possible that He inscribed two miraculous stone tablets with the Ten Commandments? Is it possible that He gave an incredibly detailed and intricate Oral Law to Moses – one which largely contradicts the written law? Is it possible that He kept an eternal flame burning in the Temple? Or that He stopped the sun from setting for Joshua? Or that He performed all of the other great miracles and sent all of the detailed prophesies in the Bible?

When you live within an insular community which takes these things for granted, it is true that they lose their absurdity. We have been brought up reciting these beliefs even before we went to school, and we have invested huge parts of our lives and our energies to studying the Torah and living its laws. And, if nothing else, we all know many outstanding people who are incredibly bright and thoughtful who are believers, so we certainly have enough role models to help us keep our faith. This is what we have been socialized to believe, and we have too much of vested interest in these ideas to see them with any level of objectivity.

But the reality is that, if you are on the outside of the community, and are able to look at these beliefs with the same impassiveness which we would apply to the claims of some foreign religion, Godol’s assertion of plausibility sounds starkly absurd. Just as it sounds absurd for us to hear a Mormon, Moslem or Christian talk about the rationality of their own beliefs.

So when GH writes that Orthodoxy is plausible, he is right, but only for a very select audience.