Wednesday, 28 April 2010

19. Grace After Meals

When there are so many people starving in the world, how can we say that God “gives bread to all”?
It is not particularly difficult to imagine this question being the initial catalyst causing a Torah-observant Jew to journey away from Orthodoxy: Reuven one day stops to think about the meaning of the first paragraph of birkat hamazon; he is confused by some of the statements, the above included; he asks his rabbi about the apparent deceit; the rabbi offers an answer, or maybe a few answers, but none of which fully satisfy Reuven—as he sees it, while the answers do address the case, there is nothing anyone can say to change the fact that the text implies one thing and the world as we know it tells us something else. This incites, or unearths, an accelerating, almost stumbling, stampede of questions in Reuven’s mind, and, over time, he moves further and further away from Torah Judaism.

Relatively speaking, it is a simple matter, one that comes up quite often—a case in which the text, as we have it, seems to contradict the reality that we live with. Any investigative, Torah-observant person will be forced to confront such discrepancies frequently. There are many different ways to deal with these questions and not everybody is bothered by all occurrences. But every so often, one apparent inconsistency finds itself, for some reason, in a unique position to overthrow a person’s faith. For someone who cares deeply about third-world children, for example, the statement that “He gives bread to all flesh,” will have a special significance. And this one small infection in an otherwise healthy belief-system may quickly spread until every minor challenge seems inescapable and, eventually, it feels entirely foolish and dishonest to do anything other than abandon Halacha.

But I called it an infection. That’s not right, is it?

In the search for Truth, how do we know when to quell our rebellious voices? We believe that God exists and that He gave us the Torah at Sinai. But this is a belief, isn’t it? It is not an incontrovertible fact. It is possible that we are all practising a false religion, praying to a non-existent God, devoting our lives to a purposeless existence. If this were not possible, it would not be called belief. One of the main reasons we study Torah is because we believe that it will bring us closer to the Truth we all yearn for. But, again, this may be a mistake. And isn’t it our duty to investigate the reliability of these beliefs? If we are, whatever the costs, fighting on the side of Truth, aren’t we obligated to face these potentially-life-altering questions head-on?

But I called it an infection.

When a Jew-for-Jesus disposes of his New Testament and devotes himself to Torah, do we tell him that he is being hasty, that he has not fully considered all the angles, spoken to all the Jews-for-Jesus experts, investigated sufficiently all the literature on the topic? Do we say, “Hey—Jesus could be the son of God—how do I know?” Of course not.

But if we meet someone who is moving away from Judaism—who is, I mean, philosophically, ideologically, intellectually moving away from the tenets of Torah—can we watch passively? No—we have a duty to defend the system.

Aren’t we maintaining a double standard?

So it seems. We are presented with two commitments: one, to the humble, personal pursuit of Truth, and, two, to Torah and the Halachic system. And these two commitments, while we generally take for granted that they are aligned, sometimes diverge. If that happens, what is our first priority: to ceaselessly continue the personal quest for Truth, wherever that takes us, or to follow Halacha and uphold a Torah-centric lifestyle, regardless of the doubts that build?

If you are approached by someone with the above question—‘aren’t there people starving?’—and you sense that this question carries with it a burgeoning, powerful scepticism, do you assist him with his hunt, in the same manner that you would passionately, directly, fearlessly assist a man-of-faith who is committed to Torah to come to the Truth that he pursues, or are you restricted to providing carefully constructed answers, ensuring, first and foremost, that he remains Torah-observant for as long as possible?

Because, quite simply, if there are any answers to the major questions within Torah, they probably require at least a lifetime’s worth of study to find them. To suggest anything less than this is to undermine the entire system. So before you can come to an educated decision about the validity of Torah, in a sense, you have to commit yourself entirely to it from the inside; that is, you have to live an entire life as a Torah-observant Jew before you can accurately decide whether life as a Torah-observant Jew is a waste of a life or not. But when someone asks questions that are pointing in a direction away from Torah, the instinct can be to stage an intervention, as though the move away from Torah cannot possibly coincide with the personal drive for Truth; as though, without any offerings of doubt on the part of the faithful, it is a blunt, straight-forward decision, with an unmistakable right and an irreparable wrong; as though staying Torah-observant carries with it no risk at all.

But, worst of all, in our attempts to keep people within the circle of Orthodoxy, we betray the value that the questioning soul most cares about: the commitment to Truth. And once it seems that Truth is secondary to Halacha—a sentiment that is so vastly disastrous—we lose our capacity to bring light to the nations.

Can any good really come from defending the Torah against Truth, apologising on its behalf as if, somehow, we are in any position to do so? Can any good come from stifling the part of my consciousness that hungers to know the difference between light and darkness, holy and unholy? Isn’t that the part of me that made me a believer in the first place?


I. Borg said...

Your piece was beautiful and inspiring. My question is: if an individual says that it is only the belief in one's self that can be defended, that is responsible -- that all the apparent truths outside of us are beyond our apprehension -- what would you respond? Is it comfort we seek when we attempt to see in the world and its forces -- a nest? Is it there? What is the true value of an external system? A hope, a longing -- or a reality?
I. Borg

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

The uniqueness of Torah may actually be found in the very fact that it acknowledges these questions and recognizes them to be an inherent part of the human condition. Even in terms of Avraham Avinu, while he eventually found God he spent many years dealing with the question and experimenting with other thoughts. Yitro was a similar individual having partaked in all known forms of avodah zara. We not only celebrate the conclusion but the very process in that these great men are praised for being involved in their very struggle. Indeed while religions in general attack the very act of quetioning, Torah accepts that it must be part of humanity efforts. They are, in a certain way, part of Torah.

So the question is further rightfully asked: does it not seem that we only encourage questioning by one outside the system -- thereby allowing for the possibility of that person accepting Torah -- but we actually discourage questioning by one inside the system -- thus preventing the possibility of that person leaving Torah? Is that inherently contradictory and even manipulative? My response is that one must act based upon one's beliefs and if one believes Torah to be true, that individual has to advise another aswell based on this truth. So it should be accepted that one within Torah will apply that system, as well, in giving advice and the result will include a bias towards the truth of the system. Yet, there is a difference between advising based upon one's of what is and intentionally manipulating another and stating that which one really does not believe. It is thus not correct for one who believes that one should not question to, for the purposes of kiruv, states that questioning is what a person must do yet, when this person becomes frum to state that questioing itself is wrong. It is another matter, though, in regard to the questioning, to respond to a question on Torah with an answer that one must give oneself time to find the answer yet did not offer that allowance for time in the process of kiruv. It may be -- and should be -- that the one immersed in Torah thought has enough evidence to argue for patience in the study of Torah. He does not have to extend that patience to another system for which he does not have this evidence.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Chai Hecht said...

I. -
Thank you for writing.
Is belief a feeling? A self-fulfilling prophesy? Does it start, somewhere, with a desire to believe? Only later to have its own legs? And then to exist outside of me, to control me, to direct me?
Or can I say that my belief exists outside of me? That I am not a victim of my belief (or my belief a victim of me), but that it is a reality of mine, like the colour of my eyes or the names of my grandparents?
And if this question cannot be answered -- and I don't think it can be -- then it is difficult to distinguish ever between a belief in Self and a belief in something outside of Self. I understand the distinction, and that it has relevance from within the framework of belief, but if I am to consider the validity of the belief --
There is something to attempting a foot-planted stance in the world of belief, and since it is, I think, an internal dialogue for everyone -- or if there is a dialogue at all, it is internal first -- then it might be limiting to delve exclusively into the abstract Self when the tangible Self -- the world as you perceive it -- might be --
I don't know what I would say, I..
What would you say?