Is Jewish Religious Tolerance Condescending?

Famously, Judaism does not want everyone to be Jewish. Our vision of a perfect world includes other religions and we even discourage conversion. But more and more lately, perhaps in consonance with a rise in introspection regarding “tolerance” in general, I have seen non-Jews view this open-mindedness with suspicion and even outright contempt. “Surely,” they insist, “you don’t believe those other religions to be as true as Judaism, or you’d convert.”

Good point. A Jew obviously values Judaism, and if he or she takes it seriously, they clearly don’t hold Christianity, say, to be as correct, even if they do hold it to be valid. To an outsider (and even to a Jew who has not really thought about it) this seems like confusion at best or PR sophistry at worst, a dishonest and condescending “pat on the head” to non-Jews.

There are several ways to square seeing other religions as “valid” but not as true as Judaism, and some are more honest than others.

Many today would, I suspect, instinctually reach for the pluralist panic button, that very Jewish invention that declares (through a bullhorn, protest sign, or bumper sticker) that society is better when we allow the mutually-exclusive claims of various faiths to coexist. Pluralism is quite the leviathan to fry, and to properly dismiss it we’d need to deal with relativism[i], perennialism[ii], interfaith relations[iii], the role of Judaism in a diverse and/or secular society[iv]…suffice it to say that the issues are complex and would require in-depth discussion. However, most of that discussion would miss the point entirely. Our question is in the main religious and philosophical, a matter of truth that could reasonably exist in a world consisting of a single human being trying to choose the right path. The more practical concerns of pluralism are of secondary importance if truth is our priority. If at all possible, we must try to find an internal solution that prioritizes the truths within Judaism and hope that correct social results will follow.

Another approach that misses the mark is to double down on the practical, rather than ideological, essence of Judaism. Clearly, our religion is more one of orthopraxy, correct action, than orthodoxy, correct thinking, what with the Rabbinical disagreement over even the very foundations of Jewish belief. If, indeed, “the action is the main thing,” what does it matter if other religions believe in different prophets or (in our view) false messiahs? Actions are what matter! Unfortunately, aside from not really solving the problem—we still believe it’s “better” to put on Tefillin than (l’havdil!) taking the eucharist—this approach ignores what few orthodoxies are fundamental to Judaism. For example, the first two of the Ten Commandments seem rather important, and though we may riotously disagree on the precise nature of G-d there is no question it’s important that Tefillin are for, or at the bare minimum signify, Him.

The best answer, instead, stems from an acknowledgment that Jews do believe in certain truths, and that we believe in them to the exclusion of others. In what sense, then, are other religions “correct”?

The first clue lies in the Seven Noahide Laws, which Judaism holds apply to all of humanity. The difference between these seven and the Jewish 613 is not quantitative but qualitative as well. Though some, such as David Hazony and Dennis Prager, see the Ten Commandments as the recipe for a successful civilization, the Rebbe sees that as the role of the Noahide Laws[v]. After all, the Ten Commandments and the experience at Sinai are the birth of Judaism, where G-d refers to Himself specifically as the redeemer from Egypt. Morality and G-d’s moral law, on the other hand, predate the Sinaitic event by the Torah’s account. The Noahide Laws serve as the rules that make order out of human chaos, that transform the jungle of homo homini lupus into a sustainable civilization and, as such, constitute Judaism’s clearest statement of universal human morality.

And the first of the Noahide Laws is the belief in G-d.

How, one wonders, can the non-Jewish code begin with a decidedly religious command? If the entire world is meant to believe in the G-d of the Jews, how “tolerant” of other religions are we, really? And if this god they must believe in is not our god, how do we really attribute validity to their religions?

This brings us to the second clue, which is that Judaism is not a religion in the typical sense of the word. We have already mentioned how we value orthopraxy over orthodoxy. But in fact even orthopraxy is secondary to the Jewish identity, as is race, nationality, and even theism itself. While there is a defined Jewish religion, Jews can be atheists, non-practicing, or even, in some respects, converts to other faiths, while still remaining Jewish. Judaism is not just a set of actions or beliefs but an essential state acquired by inheritance; I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish. More broadly, we are all Jewish because we or our parents converted, at Sinai or later, and the Jewish conversion process is a merging of stories, the joining of fates within the Jewish mission and the Jewish narrative. To be Jewish is an immutable identity because things that have already happened are immutable; the past is immutable. You cannot undo being born to your mother or taking an oath at the foot of the mountain.[vi]

The Noahide Laws and the intrinsic nature of Judaism bring each other into clear focus. Judaism holds that our G-d, creator of heaven and earth, belongs to all mankind, but that the Jews have a special relationship with him based on the covenant made at the mountain. In turn, this means that the covenant at the mountain, if it introduces a new truth, introduces it not universally but particularly as part of the Jewish story.

More simply: There are two truths about the one G-d. He is both the Creator of heaven and earth and He who took us out from Egypt, and these are different not only contextually but to their very core.

The G-d who creates heaven and earth is, in the eyes of Judaism, a fundamental pillar of creating a lasting civilization, Jewish or otherwise. He is the G-d that the Rambam says we can know, the first existence who needs no others but upon whom all others depend. This G-d can be reached by logic and is the possession of all humankind; He can be presented in argument, puzzled over, contemplated through positive or negative theology. When we say we respect other religions, we respect them inasmuch as they grasp this widely-available truth, at it could be argued the majority of them do.[vii]

On the other hand, the G-d of the exodus from Egypt is He who made a personal covenant with a certain group of people, that unchangeable covenant of the past. The G-d accessed through the covenant is personally bound to us and us to him beyond his involvement in the world’s creation. Our relationship with him is based on faith, forged in the crucible of Egypt by great miracles and hardened at Sinai by a G-dly choice from beyond the veil. The circumstances transcended reason and the laws of nature, and it formed the foundation for all time of our tribe’s relationship with G-d.

So, do Jews believe our religion is “more true” than other religions? Yes, and we would never forfeit our unique relationship with G-d, on pain of no longer being Jewish. Is it therefore false and condescending to say we value other religions?

Not at all. Because the unique truths of Judaism are not something we’re in a position to share. Reason can be shared; faith cannot.[viii] I believe Tefillin are true, but they’re true because they reflect a choice of G-d to care about them conveyed to us through a prophet thousands of years ago. You can possibly doubt that occurrence; you can certainly doubt what it meant; you are not part of the tribe that witnessed it. Our experiences are fundamentally our own, and, beyond what is the common inheritance of all minds, we cannot expect the world the understand them. It is in the shared collective present that we all participate. Heaven and earth were made for all men, and their G-d can be argued for rationally, experienced universally, and shared. Ultimately, we have a subjective and objective relationship with the creator, and the latter belongs to everyone. It is this common ground that we value, and beyond it we have no hopes of convincing others anyway.

True, we do believe that the G-d of the Jews is also the G-d of the universe, but we cannot argue it and we cannot share it. Like all matters of faith, it is a digital switch; it is either on or off, a 1 or a 0, something that happened or did not. It is simple and therefore ineffable and it is not created by us but has happened to us by no personal merit of our own.

Ultimately, much of the truth of Judaism is intimately tied up with being Jewish, which is not a choice we make[ix]. And being Jewish is itself a mysterious matter that precedes our choice, something that happened in the moment between exile and redemption. If billions of G-d’s human beings have not yet hung still in that moment, devoid of all velocity, alone with the creator, we can still celebrate with them the impossible creation, the something from nothing we all call home.


[i] That no one’s more correct than anyone else, which I’d be willing to bet a shiny quarter no one has ever believed.

[ii] That deep down we all believe the same thing, a rather lazy assumption powerfully tested by every major religion and way of life. For a short and (from the Jewish perspective at least) perceptive book on the subject, try God Is Not One.

[iii] When we find out that a Jew not acting like a Jew, a Christian not acting like a Christian, and a Muslim not acting like a Muslim turn out to all be exactly alike.

[iv] Other than works of genius like the New York bagel or the script for Annie Hall.

[v] For one of many times the Rebbe applied this approach, see this exchange about the Arab birthrate in Israel.

[vi] And metaphysically, it is these experiences (and also those of the forefathers) that convey to us the Pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that constitutes the deepest and most permanent part of the Jewish soul.

[vii] There is even a laxer standard for the gentile’s affirmation of G-d’s unity, as shittuf, the attribution of causative agency to intermediaries or emissaries, is permitted to the non-Jew. For a treatment of the shared G-d of many Eastern and Western religions, you cannot beat the excellent The Experience of God.

[viii] This is, on the view of the Kabbalah, why G-d bothers to create reason at all, an unchanging objective reality beyond subjective experience. Without an objective reality (accessed by the intentional mind through reason) G-d would forever be separate from his creation; it is specifically the objective reality that is shared. This is also why few aspects of Judaism are purely subjective and most are at least in some way accessible for understanding to the non-Jew; it is through the objective aspects of Judaism that we meet G-d outside of ourselves, as is his deepest desire.

[ix] We even say this is true of converts, who are retroactively revealed to be lost Jewish souls.


Originally posted on Hevria.

Faith and Rationality (I) — Who Needs Both?

I have written before about the difference between “gods,” the limited demigod superheroes of pagan understanding, and the G-d of monotheism. Mainly, the G-d of monotheism is not merely the greatest or most supreme being in existence, but is the Creator of all other existences, a necessary being upon whom all else is contingent.

Though at first this difference may seem subtle, G-d the Creator is the catalyst to a mental chain reaction that fundamentally shifts our understanding of reality. It is a notion, in fact, that is just as revolutionary to our modern sensibility (which congealed from the so-called enlightenment and has since crumbled into the light-and-loose postmodernism-cum-nihilism you can pick up from any awards banquet or Twitter account on the street) as it was to the hyper-rational Greek weltanschauung.

The idea of G-d demands a radical reconsideration of rationality itself, which in turn opens new doors in our understanding of “faith.” I put the word “faith” in scare-quotes because it is terribly maligned in the public consciousness, a term that has come to mean a belief in what cannot be proven, the decision to abandon the rational for the unproved. In Judaism, at least, this is a slander; the term emunah does not mean anything like putting aside our rationality and choosing G-d because he makes no sense. The Jewish faith (and, if I understand correctly, several forms of Christianity) rejects Tertullian; Credo quia absurdum is not our way.

I hope, in a series of exploratory essays, to deal with the nature of rationality and of faith in the Jewish understanding. First we will busy ourselves with trying to get a handle on these terms from the perspective of the hidden Torah. We will then refine our understanding of faith in particular into several particular categories, one of which could even be said to grasp the Creator Himself, a matter whose controversial nature will become clear in time. We then hope to make a brief diversion to recapitulate an old point of this blog on fossils and the way the Lubavitcher Rebbe deals with them and the Torah’s creation narrative in general. We then plan to dive into the world of comparative religion and see how our understanding of rationality and faith might shed light on the way Judaism views other religions. The next essay will probably deal with Darwinism and Religion from an unusual angle, observing the most “religious” Darwinist arguments one hears today and evaluating whether and to what extent they fit with our monotheistic worldview. Finally, we hope to test the practical application of our faith/reason dichotomy by diving into the world of chance and probability with an eye to Jewish history and the Jewish future.

But before we get to any of that, even to the definitions of faith and rationality, we must first ask the question: What does it mean that G-d is the Creator of everything that is not G-d?

If we take the notion seriously, it means that “faith” and “rationality” themselves are creations, a position that to classical philosophy might seem quite radical. On the other hand, classical philosophy did not view G-d as the creator per se, and their rationality had trouble openly acknowledging its own limits.

And rationality is limited, if it is a creation. Even if it is eternal, it is still contingent and thus of a “lower order” than the creator; G-d can perform or create a logical contradiction, and this is precisely what the Talmud said he did in various miracles, perhaps the most famous being his original call sign to Moses, the bush that burned but was not consumed, almost as if at the very beginning of his recorded prophetic revelations the Creator wanted to distinguish himself from the logic-bound “god of the philosophers.”

Alright, so rationality/intellect and faith are both creations. What are they?

Again, it is worth re-emphasizing that each of these terms have connotations in the popular/secular culture that are not helpful in the context of monotheistic creation. We have already touched on how faith is not some sort of backup system that maintains our connection to G-d or religion at the point where intellect and rationality fail. This is an insult to the true religion, which is rather like a binding relationship and is not in the first place based on answering one party’s questions; religion is not based on intellectual understanding and so if intellectual understanding were to be taken away we would not need to improvise some magical blind faith to stay connected and involved. This is not what we mean by faith.

Furthermore, the distinction between reason and faith does not fall on the line between learned and revealed wisdom. A Jew might be tempted to say that the teachings of Jewish philosophy stem from reason, but the mystical revelations of the Kabbalah (which literally means “received wisdom”) are taken totally “on faith.” This, again, is not what we mean either by reason or faith. We will see how there are aspects of the Kabbalah largely susceptible to reason, whereas there are perhaps aspects of philosophy only properly penetrated by faith. In other words, the truest distinction between these concepts has nothing to do with the provenance of information, whether we learn something through tradition, revelation, or demonstration. Certain traditions and revelations are quite reasonable, and certain demonstrations get at the supra-rational.

Faith and intellect are two powers of the soul. They each grasp a different sort of truth.

G-d created the world in two ways, the intelligible and the unintelligible. These have many different names and manifestations. Philosophically, he creates the form of each being in an intelligible way, whereas the matter of each being is created ex nihilo in a process that is utterly inexplicable, as much a melding of opposites as the bush burning but being not consumed. Form, after all, is what allows us to abstract away from any individual apple and consider “appleness” as a whole, as an abstraction we can compare to elephantness or triangularity or any other without actually dealing with the physical objects themselves. This is the process of abstract thinking, and it allows us to reverse the creative process and meet the Creator at his blueprints. But matter is not so easily disposed of; there is no “meeting the mind of G-d” at the source of the actual stuff that makes up the apple, since it has no source; it is created something from nothing.

Form (e.g. the apple’s sweetness or redness) and matter (e.g. the actual physical stuff of apple) are different because they require different G-dly expression to create. Redness or sweetness or any other quality in the world derives from one or a combination of the ten sephiroth, is an instantiation of the G-dly realm of Atziluth, where all things have a G-dly source/essence. But matter does not (and cannot) have a spiritual source; it is created something from nothing; no layering or combining of spiritual beings will ever produce a physical atom; they exist in different realities entirely.

We thus find that the intelligible aspects of the creation, its forms, perforce derive from G-d’s self-limitation (after all, G-d is beyond conception but the forms are not) whereas the unintelligible aspects of creation, its brute material existence, come from G-d’s infinite expression (as it is only G-d’s limitless power that can close the unbreachable gap between immaterial and material).

Intellect may thus be summarily defined as that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression.

The question remains: Why, indeed, does a G-d who creates everything decide to create both the reasonable and the irrational, to express Himself both finitely and infinitely within the same creation? Or, in other words, why is the creative process both one of spiritual gradualism (in form) and abrupt creation ex nihilo (in matter)?

The Midrash says that G-d creates because He desires to dwell in the lowest possible place; He desires to completely hide Himself from a certain realm of reality and then to be known there, on its own terms, as He knows Himself. That is, our physical world is designed to conceal G-d more-or-less completely, and the purpose of creation is fulfilled when He is revealed in this place not by his own action but by the choices of those from whom He is hidden.

Now, he could create this lowest world entirely ex nihilo, with no intelligible G-dly forms whatsoever. (Indeed, in the Aristotelian philosophic understanding this is very much what He has done; this is how the Moreh Nevuchim might describe the creation, though he would of course say that though there are no G-dly forms there are forms immanent in the creation.) But this is essentially an external imposition of will. G-d would be interacting with the world in a way of all or nothing, take it or leave it. No matter how deeply one understood a world created entirely ex nihilo, it would never reflect the “mind of the creator”, since there would be no such mind. Nothing in the world would convey a G-dly truth. All truths would be worldly proofs. So the Creator instead chose to let Himself into his creation; he limited Himself in the expression of the G-dly forms, the sephiroth and all the spiritual worlds. He made reality at least partially collaborative; if the sweetness of the apple reflects Chessed d’Atziluth then understanding it means understanding some aspect of the Creator.

So perhaps then the Creator ought to have created only through limitation? After all, He can do anything, and if He desires to be truly known in his world, why create ex nihilo at all? But this, too, will not achieve the goal of His full expression in the lowest worlds. After all, if He were only to Create through conceivable forms His true infinitude would be excluded from the creation. Or in other words, if G-d could be fully collaborative and open to human participation, He would not be G-d, and though He could make Himself not-G-d to the creation, this would be contrary to His desires to be fully expressed within the lowest worlds.

We can therefore add to our definitions, since in understanding what intellect and faith grasp we have gained insight into how they grasp.

Intellect is that faculty of a human being which grasps G-d’s limited expression, and its mode is collaborative, the self-subjugation (by any number of parties) to one reality. Faith is the faculty which grasps G-d’s infinite expression, and its mode is receptive, the acknowledging of the reality of another even if one cannot make it one’s own. The necessity of both is born straight from the notion that the G-d of monotheism is a true Creator, bound by neither infinitude nor the finite rules of rationality.

In the next essay, I hope to start where we leave off here and analyze different types of faith and also to explore how this distinction plays out in the Jewish way of acquiring truth, the study of Torah.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 10)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time, we spoke about the famous Euthyphro dilemma, and whether a G-d-based morality is self-contradictory.

In this, the final installment in this series, we will deal with the big one, the center of it all, not so much an argument for atheism but atheism itself, and we will see how it improves our service of G-d.

10. G-d does not exist.

Throughout these blog posts, we have endeavored to examine some of the “smaller” atheist claims, that is, the sort of things an atheist might say casually or have printed on a bumper sticker or the like. Rather than serious arguments for atheism, I feel these more intuitive perspectives, by dint of their common-sense approach, capture something of the truth. Furthermore, they capture a deeper truth than religion per se — a deeper truth than lazy religious thought.

Why should this be? After all, an approach that intuitively senses that there is no G-d hardly seems appropriate as a source of religious insight.

In fact, it is an excellent source of religious insight, because (and this is the underlying message of this entire series) G-d’s nonexistence is a fundamental principle of monotheism. That is, just as we gain ever-deeper and more detailed understanding of the Creator through studying His world and His revelation, we also continue, in the religious endeavor, to realize how little it is possible to know about G-d.

This is why the famous response of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev is true. “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Just as there is the positive commandment to know G-d, so there is a negative commandment to forsake idols. Until we realize that not believing is fundamental to religion, we will always lack a deep religious insight. Ultimately, the atheist perspective is (mostly) not a flase construction of man but a reflection of the reality of the Creator — that aspect of the Creator which is utterly unknowable, the mysterium tremendum.

To ignore the truth of G-d that we cannot grasp is indeed a certain form of religious arrogance. Once the idea of G-d becomes somehow disentangled from the ideas of omnipotence, infinitude, and transcendence, we begin to worship our understanding of the Creator rather than the creator himself — an intellectual form of idol worship. The impulse to atheism is rooted in the rebellion against this prosaic conception of G-d.

It is intellectual idol worship that allows us to think of G-d as contingent and that his existence is demonstrated like a contingent being. If G-d is indeed just another being, then perhaps He is merely the temporal rather than causative foundation of reality, and his knowledge of the finite realm poses no quandary, and an intimate knowledge of Him is easily conceivable. We run the risk of thinking G-d exists for our emotional satisfaction, or that His subjective experiences mirror our own, or that His mission aligns with what we find easy or important. We can even make the mistake of viewing him as a demigod bound within the laws of the universe he creates. Without exception, these errors come from the certainty that we know the creator, rather than the humility of knowing that we can never know.

Now, the reader might think I am playing with words. Sure, intellectual humility is necessary, and atheists certainly bestow that upon believers, but at the end of the day the theist certainly believes that there is a G-d; that’s what makes him a theist, after all.

But even the assertion that G-d exists is technically false in the monotheistic view. G-d is indeed so transcendent, says Maimonides, that there is no meaning of the word “exist” by which G-d exists. After all, to assert that a table exists is to say that there is such a thing as a table, a defined form, and that there is matter that participates in that form — there is wood in the form of a table, and so a table exists. But the G-d of monotheism cannot be an instantiation of a form, since this would imply duality and finitude — there is Him, and there is his form. And so, by the definition of the term “existence,” G-d does not exist. He shares no positive trait with any other being, and that includes existence itself.

Indeed, the most that could be said about G-d is that he does not not exist. But there is no meaning of the term “exist” by which we can say He exists.

And so, we find in the end that the atheist is right practically all the way down.

The difference between the theist and the atheist is that the theist also believes in the positive aspects of religion, that through some miraculous process the infinite, unknowable, non-existent creator cares about humankind and told them His will that they may serve Him. The atheist, on the other hand, knows only G-d the non-entity, mysterious, and utterly uninvolved in our reality, indistinguishable from a truly non-existent being.

The G-d he doesn’t believe in, we don’t believe in either.

If we’re lucky.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 9)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

In our last installment, we spoke about that old religious chestnut that G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle. We pointed out what to some readers was already obvious: that the “problems” we refer to here are not problems of health, wealth, or happiness, but rather the challenges we face in trying to fulfil our G-dly purpose on earth.

In this, our penultimate(!) Atheist Argument I Like, we will talk about the moral imperative that lies behind that purpose, and whether it exists.

9. What moral authority can G-d have if “morality” is merely what He desires?

This argument often comes citing its pedigree. The question is quite an old one, straight outta Plato, and is called the Euthyphro dilemma.

As Socrates would have it, there are two options when it comes to G-d-based morality — either G-d says something is wrong (or right) because it is, or the thing is wrong because G-d says so. That is, G-d either says murder is wrong because murder is actually wrong on an objective level (thus, G-d is only “the messenger” when it comes to moral truths, but the truths exist even beyond him), or murder could theoretically go either way but is wrong because G-d says so (thus, there are no real moral truths per se but only what G-d desires).

Both of these options are problematic for those theists who tote morality as the thing G-d gives you that no one else can. Because either murder is wrong without G-d and, contra Dostoevsky, everything is not permitted if there is not G-d; we don’t need G-d for morality, or murder is only wrong because of G-d, in which case G-d may have decided murder was okay and the theist would have gladly gone along.

Nowadays, it is this second horn of the dilemma I hear more often — “Are you really saying the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s a no-no? And then you have the gall to say religion makes people more moral!”

As is our custom, our theistic response is, “The G-d you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in, either.” Or in this case, the gods you don’t believe in. Because in his criticism of the gods of his time, Socrates was actually paving the way for the G-d of monotheism, even if modern atheists do not see it in the Euthyphro dilemma.

You see, the dilemma is a criticism of the pagan pantheon that has been copied and pasted and rendered in single form in the times of monotheism. But this was a mistake, since the G-d of the monotheistic religions is quite different from the pagan gods, as we’ve spoken about before.

One of the major difference is that the universe in the Greek understanding was eternal, and certainly not created by the gods from nothing. The Greek gods were merely powerful beings, almost like superheroes, and their moral authority stemmed from their power. To this Plato answered, quite correctly, that the gods are either irrelevant or in contradiction to man’s moral understanding of the world; power does not affect ethics; might does not make right.

The G-d of monotheism’s moral authority, however, derives not from strength but from the fact that He is the creator of the universe and of its morals. That is, G-d says murder is wrong because it’s wrong — because in the universe he created, murder is evil (In fact, in a deeper sense, the universe is created from the fact that murder is evil, and G-d’s other moral declarations, as a structure is built from blueprints. That is, the universe has the properties it has, including its moral properties, because G-d had a vision of a place where there could be moral free choice).

This does not make G-d “the messenger” and irrelevant to morality, for He creates it. And His creating it does not mean that its creation is somehow illusory and G-d could turn around and say “murder is good.” The rules, once decided upon, were coded into the fabric of our world, and they are now binding on the creator as much as anyone.

Thus we find Abraham asking, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?” In other words, just because G-d wants it doesn’t necessarily make it right. Which is mind blowing. Even further — in the next part of the biblical story, the binding of Isaac, Abraham does not question G-d at all but is willing to kill his own son, because G-d asked it of him. That this story is in some ways the moral center of the entire biblical story and has been puzzled over for thousands of years is a testament to how exceptional it is — proving the rule.

So no, theists don’t say that the only thing wrong with rape is that G-d says it’s wrong. Rape is wrong and always has been since G-d decided to make a world showcasing the foibles and fortitude of that creature, man.



Hello. It’s 2 AM. And Pesach Is Coming.

I learn Torah now from 2:30 to 3:30 on Thursday mornings.

This is how it happened: I have a chevrusa (a one-on-one study session) with a genius from Israel once a week. It involves a lot of him talking very quickly and me nodding as if I understand, and we used to do it at 8:30 P.M. his time, 1:30 P.M. my time, when I was in Atlanta. But now I am in Hong Kong, and his schedule cannot change, and so — 2:30 A.M.

So now on Thursday night I typically go to sleep at 10, wake up at 2, go back to sleep at 3:45 (if I can), and get up at 9 (work starts later on Thursday, making all this possible — thanks, G-d!). At around 2:10 A.M. I make a cup of tea and drink it staring out the apartment’s living room window at the lights and the bay. Then I grab a liter of water and a cup, open Google Hangouts, and find our place in my copy of Moreh Nevuchim. There is no sound other than the thankless toil of the air conditioner.

A ring pierces the silence.

I start, resist the urge to look over my shoulder, paranoid. I am worried about…what exactly? I am worried about the cosmic balance upset by this clandestine antemeridian study session. Surely this venture cannot succeed.  I, who cannot do anything consistently for more than two days, am going to keep a commitment to learn medieval philosophy at witching hour? An outrage. A scandal. When do I learn during my regular daily schedule, I wonder. I seem to rack up way more hours playing video games and concocting brilliant Facebook statuses….

My teacher’s face appears on my laptop screen against the backdrop of his library.

We do not greet each other.

Greetings are a luxury. Greetings are for day-time Torah, part of the schedule, that hallowed space before work or on lunch break or during the commute. Even out-of-the-ordinary occurrences still occasion a greeting; the order of life itself condones a touch of madness, allowing for a “fancy meeting you here” or even a “good evening, officer.” We expect the unexpected, some of the time.

But when you wake up at an hour normally reached only by accident (“oh look, half a season of Daredevil I haven’t watched!”) to do something good that is totally unnecessary, salutations are the least of your worries.

In the moment before we fail to greet each other, I find myself surrounded by the spirits of all the Yeshiva students I have known who somehow studied Torah for twelve hours a day. My memories of them encircle me, like a strange cross between priori incantatem and the bickering familial spirits of that great masterwork Mulan:

“Philosophy, shmilosophy. 100 pages of Talmud a year! That’s what Rabbi K. says!”

“Yeah, you’re really devoted to chassidus. That’s why you show up to learn it so often.”

“Pesach is coming and I’ve only learned the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch with Kuntres Acharon. I feel like such a slacker.”

“You know, this weird middle-of-the-night once-a-week tryst with the Rambam only serves to salve your guilt over all the other learning you’re not doing.”

“You’d know for sure whether to say birchas haTorah before this chevrusa if you were not fundamentally irresponsible.”

But this puritan pantheon, this cruel court, this glowing nimbus of garish guilt implodes the instant my teacher says, “Can you hear me? Good. We are on page…”

The Rambam speaks tonight on the eternality of the world and the nature of volition. Our discussion, like all our Rambam discussions, terminates in that Great Mystery who is the G-d of his philosophy. If the Guide is an intricate chamber of complex, crystalline design, then G-d is its oculus, the highest point to which everything converges, where is found — nothing, a gap, empty space, a window to the sun.

And together, in the night, we taste the sun-Torah. Here, in the Moreh, is a Judaism in which G-d does not move and our goal is to become refined enough to appreciate His stillness. Here is a universe governed by order flowing from the commonsense reality of what is, rather than underlying abstract principle. It is a worldview in which randomness is the opposite of order, an exception that proves the rule, at odds with the modern idea that randomness is the rule that generates the world’s apparent order.

The philosophy of the Rambam can rub us 2 A.M. learners the wrong way.

Because we revel in a bit of randomness. Because disorder is our operation space. Because Purim precedes our Passover.

Because we are the night thieves.

We steal the witching hour for Torah study and a friendly conversation on Jewish belief. When the sun sets we crawl out of our flop houses like goblins, glad to be free of the hateful light of day and its unerring constancy, a tireless reminder of the things we could never be.

We, the night walkers, stride sure in the silver moonlight, ever-shifting, treacherous. Some nights there is no moon, our inspiration dies, and we are full of shame. We reschedule our good intentions or simply roll over when the alarm rings, as we have a thousand times before, unable to care.

So, no, we may not have the riches of the day workers. We yearn for that normal, scheduled, productive life. But as long as we don’t have it, we sleep in our shabby apartments with barely a dime to our name and dream of being men one day and in the night we wake to play and ply our secret trade. At the moment, due to my own weakness, I do not learn in the light. But I learn in the dark. My tower to the heavens crumbles, but I etch holy words upon the ground. In the dark, we still twist wires. As the Dutchmen steal from the sea, we steal from the night.

The day of our national redemption is coming, and Torah after midnight is the perfect preparation. Our ancestors were slaves and idol worshippers who in their toil could not remember the G-d of their forefathers; they could not hack G-d by day. All they had to their name was a little spilled blood when their creator came in the middle of the night, found them awake and ready, and redeemed them.

So if you are like me and your actions are lacking and your devotion is weak and you wonder to yourself sometimes if there has not been some mistake and perhaps you cannot do this at all — take heart. Who you are is not in question, and what is a mere drop of blood in your eyes is not worthless. You are one of the many who in the depth of night find a foothold. By the power of that one good deed, we, too, shall cross the sea.

We, too, will wake up.


Originally posted on Hevria.


10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 8)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Last time, we spoke about the need to recognize that our subjective reality is completely different from the Creator’s and that his experience of His actions is totally different than our experience thereof.

In today’s post, we will talk about an old religious canard that, with the help of a bit of atheistic thinking, we can blow apart.

8. “G-d gives you problems you can’t handle all the time.”

Religious people like to reassure themselves that G-d doesn’t give you problems you can’t handle. The Jewish texts do say something along those lines (though obviously the texts come with pages of explanations and in-depth commentary and are not the bumper sticker they are sometimes made out to be) — but Penn Jillette disagrees. If I recall correctly, he said that G-d gives you things you can’t handle all the time, like getting run over by a truck, for instance. Not many people handle that too well.

Penn is a famous atheist (and libertarian — perhaps my next series should be on ten libertarian arguments I like?) who seems to largely subscribe to the “religion is a crutch” idea we spoke about back in part 6. I respect his talents, fame, and atheism, which, we hardly need to belabor the point, is a great tool for religious insight. And indeed, he’s hit the nail on the head here.

“G-d doesn’t give us problems we can’t handle” has become something of a cliché. And clichés are evil. Let’s talk about what those holy texts, and religion in general. are trying to say.

Really, it all comes down to what a problem is, and what it means to handle that problem. If someone comes down with a debilitating disease, G-d forbid, or is a prisoner in a death camp, or gets hit by a truck, they will see rapid decreases in comfort and health. They will sometimes even die. And it does no good to pretend that G-d did not cause these things to happen, or, to take the other escape, that these things are easily “handled” in whatever way. If a person is left a quadriplegic and “handling” it means living the life of a healthy human being, then clearly G-d gives us problems we cannot handle.

Problem is, the concept of G-d never giving us insurmountable challenges was never meant to be used to comfort the sick, impoverished, grieving, etc. regarding their dire situations. It was never meant to be, “Oh, you were hit by a car but you can handle it!”

In truth, the “problems” G-d gives you that you can always handle are the challenges you face in pursuing your G-dly purpose. This is in accordance with the general religious perspective that at essence our lives are not taken for granted but rather are given to us by our Creator that we may serve Him.

The challenges in health, wealth, or family are viewed by Judaism merely as the context in which the real drama of life occurs — the drama of whether or not we choose to live up to G-d’s hopes for us, or not. It is in the moral crises of life, those situations where we have a choice between what is right and what is easy, that we are to remind ourselves that G-d gives us no problem we can’t handle.

Really, the unhandleable/handleable perspectives boil down to a much more visceral issue, wherein the theist says, “If I am hit by a truck and die that is His will and if it is unavoidable I will come to terms with it; this is not something I was meant to handle,” and the atheist says, “Are you insane? This is all there is, and the only meaning is the meaning you experience or make, and you can’t do any of that if you’re dead.” This is a debate that aims at the core of our reality and, as such, is a debate worth having.

Way better than a misunderstanding based on a bumper sticker.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 7)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

In part 6 of our near-endless (but 3/4 finished!) examination of fun and educational ideas I’ve heard from atheists about G-d and religion, we spoke about whether G-d is merely a crutch for those who cannot deal with real life.

Today we continue in the vein of arguments that totally circumvent our rational side and go straight for our gut — and teach us something along the way.

7. “G-d is a killer of millions.”

There is a certain Jewish-flavored shower thought I’ve entertained a few times. It goes like this: There is a general principle in Judaism that G-d only gives us commandments he Himself keeps. How, then, does it rain so often on Shabbos, a day when we are forbidden to water the plants ourselves?

There is a right way and a wrong way to answer this question.

The wrong way: Of course we’re being non-literal when we say G-d keeps the commandments. This dodge, the “it’s all just a metaphor” maneuver, has the advantage of producing sweet, lofty thoughts that happen to not be true. That’s why it is so popular. With metaphor, we can basically affirm what we like and worry how it fits into received truth later. By the power of metaphor, everything will always fit. Why even bother with “G-d keeps his own commandments”? It’s just another way of saying G-d doesn’t lie or G-d’s a good guy or history is deterministic or our morality is G-d-given or a thousand other things I didn’t think of in the last twenty seconds. This is nice for speculative analysis or Shabbos table talk but it does not reflect a concern for what the original statement actually intended.

The correct (and, to my mind, far simpler) way of answering the plant-watering question is to contemplate the premise of the question: that rain is somehow similar to us watering plants on Shabbos.

“What do you mean? It’s water. Going into plants. Equals watering plants.”

I’m not so sure, myself.

After all, at what point did we so limit rain and so promote our own abilities that we can even imagine anything we do approaches the verb “to rain”? If water onto ground is somehow a sufficient description for rain, then perhaps stepping on a nail is surgery or taking pain pills is fine dining. Whence this ignorance of context, intent, scope, and agency? The truth is, we have no idea what it means to rain, as a transitive verb. We are ignorant of gathering moisture on a vast scale into clouds and manipulating pressure systems and stacking them up in threatening towers of thunder and sending the gathered waters hurtling toward the ground as a billion translucent spears, clearing the air and washing the earth and giving all manner of creature their life’s sustenance. The subjective experience of making this happen is beyond us. And forgetting this ignorance is the only way to think rain compares to anything we are forbidden to do on Shabbos. “If there is H2O descending it must be the same.”

Technical physical comparison is the grossest sort of comparison we can make here, and even what is comparable is utterly beneath a true understanding of the creator.

Theists certainly should not think like this.

But if you can’t even grasp the difference between watering plants and creating a thunderstorm, you can’t expect to answer correctly when someone points out, “Your G-d is a killer of millions, master of torture and death.”

Here’s the wrong response: “Those deaths are only caused by man’s evil,” or, “G-d is allowed to kill; He is G-d, after all,” or any other dodge of the fact that G-d directly causes all of the death and suffering in the world. These answers are all good but they accept the false, unreflective premise that merely being the cause of death makes someone a killer or their act killing.

In truth, we must remember that we know nothing of the subjective experience of the Almighty. To liken him too much to us is to break all boundaries of reason.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 6)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Back in Part 5 of our continuing series on atheist ideas and perspectives that are good for believers, we spoke about how important it is to recognize and deal with the fact that G-d cannot truly be known (at least not in the normal sense of the word).

But now for something completely different. This time, we leave aside reflections on the nature of the creator for more practical and in some ways more interesting sociological concerns.

6.  G-d is just a crutch for those who can’t handle life.

It is both undeniable from my own experience and a realization of many  latecomers to religion: the people showing up on the religious doorstep by choice are almost without exception flawed, troubled, or lacking success in regular secular life. This leads to the obvious doubt — are people interested in this because it’s true or because they are flawed?

Of course, if one so desired one might point out that human flaws are just as true as any ideology and far more widely accepted, so what surprise is there that the religious subset has issues?

But it’s much more than just “having issues.” I have friends who as they became more religious also went into therapy. As they sorted out their life issues, they came to the conclusion that their initial attraction to religion was due to psychological insecurities, pain, etc. As they in their adulthood learned to manage their problems they found little need to continue their religious practice which for them was always a crutch they used to deal with the world. So I think there are indeed people who at the very least perceived their own connection to G-d as a shield from the difficulties of life.

(On the other hand, there are many who leave religion in the exact same way. That is, not due to an intellectual disagreement or even deep personal incongruity but because they were merely unsuccessful at the religious endeavor or damaged in other areas of their life and thought that by jettisoning their religious commitments they might fix their problems. Many indeed do fix them in some way and find themselves slowly coming back to religion. So practical examples of what specifically is a “crutch” may be a bit of a wash.)

The atheist argument generalizes this situation and is usually coupled with a historical explanation of how religion came about. It says that all religious worship is a defense mechanism against the painful truths of the world.

The world according to most religions, however, is a painful place. There is no religion I know of (not that I am an expert on other religions, granted) that does not acknowledge that the world is imperfect and full of pain and death. Judaism especially has a long history of struggling with G-d in times of great pain, which unfortunately litter Jewish history. We find the truth of anguish undeniable and so cry out to G-d, doubting His goodness. This, too, is part of our religion.

In fact, the only general pain from which religion generally rescues us is the pain of meaninglessness. It is against the existential void that religion indeed acts as a shield, not dulling life’s pains but granting them meaning and in this way comforting us.

Nevertheless, we could still contend (as Victor Frankl might) that the pain and terror of suffering without meaning is so great the it encourages a sort of willful ignorance of the truth (that is, that the world is an accident and our lives are for naught) that many can achieve only through religion.

As usual, the atheist intuition is quite perceptive. In our struggle for meaning, we may often place our intellectual and emotional comfort before the truth, and that is indeed unacceptable. What this thought teaches us is the need to embrace G-d and religion on their own terms, rather than in a way that fills our voids or comforts us per se. The comfort must ever be a corollary of the truth but never itself the goal of our efforts. And the best way to achieve that, in Judaism at least, is to find a coreligionist and speak with them for five minutes. They will be sure to say something about our religion with which we disagree and which might even make us uncomfortable…

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 5)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

Part 4 of this series dealt with whether or not an infinite G-d would know or care about what takes place in our finite world. We concluded that it is indeed necessary to reconcile the infinitude of the creator with His famed involvement in our lives, and touched on two different ways that was possible.

This week, we will touch on a related issue, from a different angle. We will briefly mention understanding it and, in the process, see how atheist thoughts can often help our theism. Which is the so-called “point” of this entire series of posts.

5. If there were a G-d, he would be totally beyond our comprehension.

I love this idea for several reasons. There is that lovely “there’s only one G-d and Him we don’t believe in” flavor to it. There is the irony of asserting positively that certainly we cannot assert positively about the deity. And there is the fact that it’s true.

It’s true that G-d is totally beyond our comprehension. So the real question is, why is this an atheist argument in any way? How does it support an atheist worldview if religious leaders have been saying it for millenia?

Here, we once again come to realize that the atheist often has a profound understanding of religion — far deeper than that of the non-reflective believer. The theist generally has no problem not comprehending G-d. After all, he or she has G-d’s commandments, directives, rituals, etc. They know what they need to do, and hte means to access their eternal reward or whatever. Why would understanding G-d even enter into the picture?

“Because,” I imagine a patient atheist responding, “your religion is not just supposed to be a game. Is G-d real, or isn’t he? If He is real, real like a table or a dog or an atom, then it should make a difference. It should change everything. It should be the most remarkable truth ever discovered, and you should want to know it.”

For that, after all, is how a human being connects to something; by knowing it. We are creatures of curiosity and knowledge. And if G-d cannot be known, says the atheist, then the religious enterprise is incompatible with the human enterprise. Even if somehow (whether through revelation or pure reason) we knew what that G-d wanted, we would still be mere lab rats in the universe, and man balks at such self-enslavement.

I agree.

It is absolutely incumbent upon the theist to explain how a human, a creature of meaning, can have a relationship with an infinite, incomprehensible being.

In Judaism, there are at least three ways of answering this question. The philosophical answer is that though it is true we cannot know what G-d is, it can take a lifetime of learning and deep though to truly understand what He is not. The general kabbalistic approach takes a different tack and says that while He cannot be known, He has revealed to us different modes of his spiritual expression, and these can be studied and known. The mystical/Chassidic approach says that being itself is non-being and that the soul is one with G-d, and though He may not be known intellectually He may be known as one knows oneself.

Obviously, each of these answers is problematic in its own way, and each requires careful thought to understand. The modern atheist would probably be most inclined toward the philosophical answer, which relies least on revelation and most on “bottom-up” reasoning. But I suspect from the very nature of the inquiry that a negative theology like the Rambam’s would be to the atheist most unsatisfying. The other answers propose that a communion with the creator is in some sense possible, but their answers leave the realm of the atheistic intellect and embrace revelation and mysticism.

Alas, the conundrum of the inherent limitations of intellect and the infinite nature of the creator persists. It is the obligation of ever religious believer to wrestle with it, whatever way they see fit.

On thing remains constant, at least: Think like an atheist, and your relationship with religion only becomes deeper.

10 Atheist Arguments I Like (part 4)

~ Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 ~

We finally continue our series on atheist arguments that help us improve our faith in G-d. Our previous installment spoke about the perennial question, “What caused G-d?” Indeed, it is a good question, and we spoke about how we need to think of G-d as the uncaused cause of the classic Cosmological Argument, how G-d is qualitatively different from everything else.

This time, we will be dealing not with the existence of the creator per se, but rather a problem with religion.

4. The infinite creator of the universe cares about what we do? Preposterous.

Rather than say G-d is such a trifling matter that His existence is irrelevant, this argument takes quite a different tack. It is incredibly hard to understand, we are told, that the same being of infinite power who created the universe would care at all about the humans on earth. He is too big to care about our behavior, our feelings, or perhaps our existence as individuals at all.

There are several ways to answer this argument, and several ways in which it thus helps us improve our theism.

The theistic preconception many of us naturally have from our childlike understanding of G-d is that the creator essentially exists for our purposes, rather than vice versa. It is indeed this approach, wherein G-d is the solution to all of our problems and we are the solution to none of His, so to speak, that turns many people off from religion. When the deity is constantly on our side and helping us live our lives, the whole enterprise begins to smell somewhat…artificial. Man-made. A put-up job.

And so, the atheist points out: Either your guy is infinitely powerful and the creator of the Universe, or He is your own personal cheerleader, warrior, confidante, etc. How can He be both?

The obvious answer to this question is also a bad one, and that is, “He’s G-d; He can do anything.” There we go. You don’t have to think. You don’t have to question or self-evaluate. All the atheists’ favorite things…not.

The truth of serious religion, as any thinking theist knows, is that we exist for G-d, rather than the other way around. The question is, how can we possibly exist for a being who is transcendent and infinite and totally beyond us in every way?

In Judaism, at least, there is more than one answer to this question, and each leads to a different way of looking at the entire G-d/Man dynamic.

The philosophical, nonmystical position, especially in the Maimonidean view, maintains G-d’s simplicity and infinitude as the ultimate truth, to which all other aspects of reality, including Judaism, must conform. Thus, on the matter of whether G-d cares about us or anything that happens on earth, the answer is a resounding no. G-d doesn’t care about anything. G-d doesn’t have feelings; feelings are a logical contradiction to being G-d, as is caring, thinking, or anything else we know from our experience. After all, if G-d feels, then there is Him and His thoughts, and they exist in some kind of unity, and any unity must indeed comprise some third, higher category, and this leads to some sort of strange holy trinity that falls flat on Jewish ears, not to mention it means G-d has parts and is not truly infinite.

No, the Rambam is forceful in his insistence that there can be no positive knowledge of G-d, that what he is totally incomparable to anything we know of. And that includes emotions like concern, love, hatred, compassion…

So, what is a human being to do? What does it mean to serve G-d? And what does the Rambam make of the religion of Judaism, with its famous 613 precepts and a metric ton of moral responsibilities demanded of mankind?

Suffice it so say, there is an entire way of looking at man’s service of G-d that allows Him to “remain still” as we do all of the moving. We work to refine ourselves and achieve a connection to the Good, and the more we refine ourselves, the more we are transparent vessels for the truth of G-d, though He will never feel or care about our efforts. Though there exists an ultimate reality that creates and sustains the world, whose existence the atheist denies, there is nevertheless no interaction between that reality and us. The historical revelation in our religion, says the philosophical view, is, on the whole, to teach us how we can refine ourselves and become vessels for knowing G-d.

If all of this sounds to you a bit like Cthulhu, impersonal and cold and far vaster than anything to which man can relate, you’re not alone. But there is another option open to the theist that is as rationally consistent and in consonance with religion, divine revelation, and man’s moral responsibility to G-d.

Such is mysticism, in which G-d’s unity and transcendence are not the ultimate truth to which everything else must bend. But instead of relying on a dismissive “G-d can do anything” approach to the Creator’s relationship with the creation, Chassidus, Kabbalah, and Jewish mysticism write at great length about the G-dly desire for revelation in a place of darkness, and how the Creator’s simplicity and transcendence are not contradicted by His reaction with the world. This is achieved by the kabbalistic concepts of G-dly light and the ten sefirot, concepts absent from Jewish philosophy and claimed as part of the divine revelation of the oral tradition of Kabbalah.

And so, once again, those who believe in G-d must indeed confront, and try to understand, a contradiction it sometimes takes an atheist to see.