Tuesday, 3 January 2012

JVO: Confusion About God

Jewish Values Online (jewishvaluesonline.org) is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the dominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars.

This post continues the weekly series on the Nishmablog that features responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. This week's presentation is to one of the questions to which Rabbi Hecht responded.

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Question: Is it normal or acceptable to be confused about the truth of God this day and age? Can one have doubts or be uncertain and still be a 'good Jew'?

Responding with another question, I could ask: how could it be possible for a normal person in this day and age not to be confused? The issue actually goes beyond our day and age: how could anyone in any time not be confused about the truth of God?
­­­­­­The simple answer is that, during those times in history when there were open miracles and clear prophecy, it would seem that the truth of God was pretty straightforward. In fact, the Torah text itself (Shemot 7:5, for example) states that one of the very purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to establish, without any doubt, the truth of God. Indeed, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, Chapter 8 points to the fact that one of the most important elements of the Revelation at Sinai is that there was no doubt, amongst those who witnessed this event, that God presented Himself at Sinai. The relevant issue for us, though, is how we are to look at this issue of the truth of God when such open miracles are not existent. Clearly, it would seem to be normal to be confused about the truth of God without such obvious evidence.
Perhaps, the clearest indication that Jewish Law recognizes the reality of this confusion is the various statements within the Halacha which accept a possible reality of lack of knowledge and confusion leading to a subsequent non-culpability for violation. Ignorance of the law, for example, is an excuse within Jewish Law; before a conviction, there must be a clear cut indication that a violator accepted the authority of the law. (See Encyclopediat Talmudit 11:292, Hatra’ah) One who was unsure of the truth of God and, as such, the authority of the law could not be found guilty. (It should be noted that there was a limitation on this principle in cases which affected societal law and order, however, a further discussion of this legal issue is beyond the parameters of the specific topic of this response.)
As another example, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Mamrim 3:2 also states, although there are strict laws of censure against a heretic, one who was brought up under the influence of such heresy is basically exempt from such consequences for that person is not responsible for having such beliefs. The truth of God is not so obvious that we can expect someone to clearly have this knowledge. In addition, although I have not personally seen a statement of this nature, it is often presented in the name of the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Abraham Isaiah Karelitz, 1878-1953) that in the absence of clear, open miracles in our present world, it is impossible to declare anyone today a heretic subject to the censures of the law. (I should, perhaps, mention that I have seen something of a similar nature by the Chazon Ish, although not as far reaching, in his comments on the laws of kashrut.)
The greater question may now be why this is so. Why does God not make knowledge of His Existence obvious? In that God did make this Knowledge more obvious at certain times in history and less so at other times, such as our own, we may further wonder: why this is so? It must be that every generation has its own challenge that it must confront and, at times, this challenge is built upon clearer knowledge while at other times it is built upon less clear knowledge. Times of less clear knowledge demand of us, for example, to consider how we know anything and how to think and render decisions in such circumstances; this may in fact be our generation’s challenge. In a certain way the goals of Torah are measured not by the conclusions we reach but the effort that we apply in trying to meet God's goals for us. As such, the real issue for us is not the confusion about the truth of God that presently exists but rather how we respond to this challenge.
(Someone truly interested in this topic may be interested in researching the various different viewpoints that are found in Torah sources in regard to how one knows of the truth of God. Rambam, for example, clearly understood it to be a result of intellectual, logical inquiry. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, Kuzari, on the other hand, felt it emerged from an intuitive perception of our souls. The very fact that there is disagreement, debate and discussion about this most basic of issues truly reveals, in my opinion, the essence of what Torah truly is about. It is a guide to our struggle with reality. To meet the challenge of this struggle is what God demands of us.)


Garnel Ironheart said...

Here's a cynical counterpoint: when God did make His presence in the world known, what difference did it make?
After revealing Himself at Krias Yam Suf Micha and Har Sinai still carried an idol in his backpack and all through the 40 years of wandering and then set it up in a shrine in Israel.
Eliyahu HaNavi proved God's existence and wiped out the local prophets of Baal and the next day couldn't find a single ally to help protect him from Izevel who didn't stop worshipping idols.
When I used to do youth services one child asked me why God doesn't speak to us anymore and I pointed out that He'd already said everything He needed to and was still waiting for us to listen.
Imagine He were to reveal Himself again today. The first thing the Dickens and Hawkins of the world would do is engage in a campaign to discredit His appearance and how many people wouldn join in because they couldn't handle accepting that He is guiding our lives?
Perhaps that's why He is sitting up in Heaven still waiting for us to clue in to what He really wants from us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

In a certain way, what you are highlighting is the fact that there may be two (and most likely in fact many more) different services of God depending upon the Age. When there were open miracles, there was one challenge. When there are not open miracles, there is another. I don't know how one who had no doubt about God could have undertaken to do evil, especially on a consistent basis. As such, I cannot understand Esav, Amalek, Ahav and Jezebel, to name but a few. But that is not our issue today. Our challenge is existing in a world where God's Presence is hidden.

Rabbi Ben Hecht