Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Why Should I Care When People Attack Belief?

Recently, I shared on Facebook a New York Times article entitled: Is Belief a Jewish Notion? The article addressed different patterns of belief among Jews (both Traditional and non-Traditional). I found it extremely thought provoking (irrespective of whether I agree with everything that was said there), and hope to devote an entire post to it.

That, however, is not the reason I 'shared' it. I shared it because of the post that brought it to my attention, and the discussion that it engendered. Briefly stated, these people actively celebrated the idea that Judaism has 'matured' beyond the need for an Omniscient, Omnipotent God. Jews are much too sophisticated, it was argued, to have to believe in the historicity of the Torah, and the God who (ostensibly) gave it it. Much ado was made by these posters of a recent article in Commentary, which celebrated something called 'Social Orthodoxy,' which is religious observance based on sentiment, tradition, and/or national identification. It celebrated, and the commenters on Facebook and elsewhere rejoiced, at Judaism without God, as Jews have believed in Him for almost four thousand years. (Never mind that 'Social Orthodoxy' has another name, Kaplanian Reconstructionist Judaism.)

I had a very visceral reaction to the comments, to wit:

I am proud to be a primitive believer in an Omnipotent, Omniscient God, who created Heaven and Earth, who brought Israel out of Egypt, gave us the Torah, and brought us to the land He promised to our father, Abraham. I would rather, much rather, struggle with my primitive belief and accept the vastness of all that I cannot comprehend, than to find myself among those who would sophisticate themselves to death, and eviscerate the Torah and the Jewish People while doing so.

After publishing this, I was asked: Why are you being so defensive? It was a good question, and I thought about it over the next few days. Why, indeed, should I react so strongly to such a discussion? After all, I am well aware that myriads of people are atheists, agnostics, pantheists, deists, and what have you. After all, I read what many of them have to say, and I've studied all types of religions. Nothing should surprise me.

So, why did I get so emotional? 

Last Shabbat, I realized that I reacted as I did because the participants define themselves as (and claim to represent) Orthodox Jews, and thereby distort the Torah and undermine its viability from within. Judaism cannot survive without God, who sanctifies us with His commandments and (thereby) sanctifies us. To assert otherwise is, and I really don't like to use the word, heterodoxy. Such positions may be principled, reasoned, logically consistent, and coherent. They remain, however, heterodox.

The question remains, though, why the hurt? Why didn't I get indignant?

The answer came to me, when I recalled a passage in the Gemara in Sanhedrin (56a). The Mishnah and Gemara there discuss the procedure by which one tries a blasphemer (מגדף). The rule is that a blasphemer is not definitely liable for the death penalty unless he uses God's ineffable Name (Tetragrammaton). Out of deference for God's honor, when describing the acts of the blasphemer during the trial, the witnesses use a euphemism for God's Name.

The Mishnah states:
The entire day [of the trial] the witnesses are examined by using a substitute for the Divine Name, as in ‘May Yossi smite Yossi’ (Where the blasphemer actually used God's Name instead of Yossi). When the trial is over, the accused cannot be executed on this evidence. [At this point], all persons were removed from the court, and the chief witness was told: ‘State exactly what you heard.' At that point, he does so [using the Divine Name]. The judges then rose and tore their garments, a tear that may not be resewn.

Now, it makes sense that the proceedings be carried on with a euphemism for God's Name, so as not to repeat the blasphemy over and over. It makes sense one who hears a Jew maliciously blaspheme against God that should tear one's clothes (Sanhedrin 60a). In addition, it makes perfect sense that prior to voting for or against convicting the accused blasphemer, that the judges must hear precisely what he is alleged to have said. But why do the Judges then have to tear their clothes? The witnesses weren't blaspheming! They were simply reporting what they heard.

I recall that Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל deduced from this odd situation that it is not the malicious act of blasphemy that requires tearing one's clothes in response. Rather, simply hearing blasphemy reported requires that one tear one's clothes in mourning (לא המעשה גידוף מחייב בקריעה, שמיעת דברי הגידוף מחייבים בקריעה).

The Rav's observation lead me to understand why I reacted to these discussions as I did. We really are supposed to be sensitive to God's Honor, and to experience an encounter with disbelief, emotionally (even if it is not malicious in intent). There is nothing wrong with, and certainly nothing to be ashamed of, blanching and hurting when one hears that which one holds most holy attacked, or more insidiously--- blithlely dismissed (and its dismissal celebrated). It's incredible that it needs to be spelled out to ostensibly Orthodox Jews that there is no Judaism without the Holy One, blessed be He, Creator of Heaven and Earth. There are no מצוות without a מצווה. Indeed, mitzvot without a מצווה become mere ceremonials; and ceremionials, Rav Soloveitchik taught us, are fundamentally pagan.

I know that I am not alone in this conviction, and have been pleasantly surprised over the past few days to read calls for to the critical need to restore God to the center of our religious universe

Pesach is all about renewing our covenant with God. In doing so, we would do well to try to implement, in this world, the ideal that Hazal described as achieving its full realisation in the next (Ta'anit 31a):

Ulla Bira'ah said in the name of R. Eleazar: In the days to come the Holy One, blessed be He, will hold a chorus for the righteous and He will sit in their midst in the Garden of Eden and every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said, And it shall be said in that day: Lo, this is our God, for whom we waited, that He might save us; this is the Lord for whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.