It is of great importance to reinforce the foundations of our Torah beliefs and lives. We need to be able to convince ourselves as well as the succeeding generations of Jews of the rational basis of our practices. Thus, I wish to share with readers of Kol Torah an extended discussion as to why I am completely convinced of the truth of Hashem and His Holy Torah. I wish to present a number of approaches that I have found exceedingly convincing. One should also consult other Rabbanim and discover other approaches should one not find my thoughts convincing. There are many portals to belief in Hashem and the divine origin of Torah. Not every approach is suitable for every individual. One should search for the Rav and approach that is the “right fit” for one’s mindset and personality. A good source of essays and presentations on this vitally important topic appear at www.simpletoremember.com. Rav Lawrence Kelemen’s “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive” as well as Rav Shmuel Waldman’s book “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” are good resources as well.
One methodological note - I follow the Rambam’s example from the introduction to his commentary to Pirkei Avot (called the Shemonah Perakim) and cite some ideas from outside our Tradition. The Rambam teaches us “to accept the truth whatever its source.”
It is important to clarify that I do not seek to “prove” Hashem’s existence, because as modern philosophers have noted, this is not a productive exercise. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in his classic essay The Lonely Man of Faith cites Soren Kierkegaard’s (a major mid-nineteenth century religious philosopher) reaction when hearing that the medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury engaged in prayer an entire evening beseeching God to help him formulate his celebrated Ontological Proof of God’s Existence. Kierkegaard, in turn, asked, does a bride in the embrace of her beloved bridegroom require proof of his existence? Kierkegaard argues that Anselm’s intense prayer constituted a more authentic “proof” of God than the Ontological Proof.
Moreover, modern philosophers (such as Descartes and Kant) have demonstrated that one can “prove” very little, if anything. Descartes notes that one cannot prove that other people exist, as perhaps it is merely an evil demon that is painting a false image on one’s brain to fool one into thinking that others exist. Despite the inability to prove the existence of others, I nevertheless am one hundred percent convinced of the existence of others. Similarly, I am thoroughly convinced of the Truth of Hashem and His Torah. Moreover, I believe that denying the existence of God and the divine origin of the Torah is as unreasonable and irrational as denying that other people exist.
As one who majored in philosophy and did extensive graduate work in Jewish philosophy, I deeply respect philosophic discourse. However, one does not use philosophic reasoning to arrive at the most important decisions in life such as choosing a spouse, career, place to live, physician or even a financial investment. Instead, one uses intuition, common sense, and experience to make sound decisions. It is entirely unreasonable to abandon intuition, common sense and experience to arrive at the most important decision of all, the belief in Hashem and His Torah. Thus, in our discussions we will be using the tools of life – intuition, common sense, and experience – and not the tools of pure theory, philosophic discourse, to arrive at a reasonable decision regarding Hashem and His Torah.
Rav Elchanan Wasserman – The Argument from Design
Rav Elchanan Wasserman (in his Kovetz Ma’amarim) argues that it is obvious that there is a God from the fact that we see order in this world. Common sense teaches that this is impossible for this to happen by itself and thus it is obvious that the world has a Creator. Regarding an exquisite painting, it is absurd to say that it was created by a long series of fortunate coincidences. It is just as absurd to say that something as intricate and accurate such as the human eye came about without a Creator. Philosophers have traditionally referred to this type of proof as the argument from design. Many earlier Jewish philosophers such as Rabbeinu Bachya espoused this argument for Hashem’s existence.
Rav Elchanan takes this argument one step further arguing that it is also obvious that the Creator would provide a manual on how to function in the world He created. We may draw an analogy to a car manufacturer who provides a manual on how to operate the car he has created. So too, argues Rav Elchanan, common sense dictates that Hashem provided a manual, namely the Torah, for all human beings (both Jews and non-Jews) to know how to act.
Rambam on Ahavat Hashem
The Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) writes that an appreciation of nature can draw one close to Hashem and love Him (Ahavat Hashem) and stand in awe of Him (Yir’at Hashem). In our generation, we are given an even greater opportunity to draw close to Hashem due to the magnificent scientific discoveries of the last hundred years. One who contemplates the magnificence even of the tiny E. coli and certainly the intricacies of every part of the human body has the ability to profoundly enrich his Yir’at and Ahavat Hashem. Far from undermining
Torah, science has the potential for a reasonable person to draw inspiration to deepen our admiration of Hashem and the magnificence of His works.
Ramban and Kuzari – Mesorah
For the Ramban (commentary to Shemot 13:16) and the Kuzari the most persuasive argument for faith in Torah is Mesorah (tradition). As the Kuzari notes, the miracles associated with great events in Jewish history, Yetziat Mitzrayim and Ma’amad Har Sinai, were witnessed by millions of people who passed this information to their descendants year after year at their Seders. This is unlike the miracles claimed by other religions that are described as having occurred before a very limited number of people. In addition, it is important to emphasize that we are the only religion to believe in a mass revelation that has been passed down in an unbroken chain from generation to generation. Indeed, most Jews today are the biological descendents of the people who experienced the mass revelation. (For DNA evidence that Jews today constitute one nation despite their dispersion throughout the globe, see Dr. Karen Bacon, The Torah U-Madda Journal 3:1-7; there have been further DNA studies demonstrating that Sephardic, Ashkenzaic and Yemenite Jews share a common Middle Eastern ancestry.) For further elaboration on this idea see Rav Lawrence Kelemen’s “Permission to Believe” and “Permission to Receive” as well as his video presentation “A Rational Approach to the Torah’s Divine Origin” which may be accessed at www.simpletoremember.org Rav Kelemen stresses that we are the only religion-people in the entire world who make claim mass revelation and are the descendents of the witnesses to these events as stated in Devarim 4:32-36, especially Pasuk 33, “Has a people ever heard the voice of God speaking.” Pasuk 32 notes, “Has there been anything like this great event or has anything like it been heard.” No one else makes a claim of mass revelation since it can be verified as a lie. Only we make this claim because only our claim is true.
One might argue that Bnei Yisrael accepted the Torah because they were a docile and gullible people who accepted anything and everything that Moshe Rabbeinu told them, because of his seductive and persuasive oratory. However, this is hardly true as Bnei Yisrael regrettably were constantly bickering and disobeying Moshe Rabbeinu. Moreover, Moshe Rabbeinu was a very poor speaker. Virtually the only time we were unified was at Har Sinai (see Rashi Shemot 19:1). The reason we united at Sinai was that the authenticity of the Har Sinai experience was profoundly compelling and unquestionably persuasive.
Similarly, we find in every generation that observant Jews are not passive and gullible people who are accepting of everything. Every significant Talmudic and Halachic issue is carefully examined by both great experts and laypeople who vigorously and rigorously analyze every new and old opinion. Despite these many disputes, observant Jews agree upon core values and beliefs such as the divine authorship of the Torah. The Rambam (Hilchot Mamrim 1:3) indicates that if there is no dispute regarding a particular law then this law must originate as a tradition from Sinai. Examples of such laws are the Halacha that our Tefillin must be colored black and that our Mezuzot contain only the two Parshiot of Shema and VeHaya Im Shamo’a. I surmise that most undisputed matters must be of heavenly origin; otherwise, we would be fighting rigorously about these laws in the manner we do about so many other Halachot.
Incidentally, it seems that this is the reason why the Sefer HaChinuch (21) rules that women are obligated in the Mitzvah of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim (recounting the story of our Exodus from Egypt) even though it is a positive and time bound Mitzvah from which women are normally excused (see the Minchat Chinuch’s criticism of the Chinuch’s ruling). The essence of Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim is the transmittal of faith from one generation to another by recounting and authenticating the Exodus story. Women are thus certainly included in this Mitzvah. This also explains why grandparents play such an important role to in Sippur Yetziat Mitzrayim (see Shemot 10:2 and the comments of the Oznayim LaTorah ad. loc.). Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate Josh Strobel uses a similar argument to explain the Ramban’s opinion (Kiddushin 34a) that women are obligated to count the Omer, despite the fact that it is a positive and time bound Mitzvah. Josh notes that Sefirat HaOmer serves as the link between the Exodus story and the Sinai revelation, the two pillars of our Emunah (see TABC’s Bikkurei Sukkah section 60).
A Culture of Brilliant Argumentativeness that Believes in Revelation
Indeed, Amos Oz (a prominent Israeli author) is cited in “Start-Up Nation” (page 51) as commenting,
Judaism and Israel have always cultivated a culture of doubt and argument, an open-ended game of interpretations, counter-interpretations, reinterpretations, opposing interpretations. From the beginning of the existence of Jewish civilization, it was recognized by its argumentativeness.
Mr. Oz, an avowed secularist, is correct regarding this point. Nearly every page of Gemara is filled with arguments. The intense arguments persist with great vigor throughout the period of the Rishonim and continue with the myriad of debate concerning the Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch. Until this very day an excellent Shiur and Yeshiva are distinguished by intense debate and argument. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 84a) relates how Rabi Yochanan experienced severe depression because his students were not challenging him after the death of Reish Lakish. Rabi Yochanan longed for the time when Reish Lakish’s persistent questioning allowed for the refining of his Torah thoughts and approaches.
One could argue that it is for this reason Hashem chose the Jewish People, the stiff-necked people, to be His witnesses (Yeshayahu 43:10). If such an argumentative and contentious people report on the veracity of the Sinai revelation despite the extensive demands it makes upon its adherents, then it certainly must be true.
In addition, it is inaccurate to state that Orthodox Jews who remain steadfast in their belief in the Sinai revelation are docile and gullible personalities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today, while there is some variety within non-Orthodox approaches to Judaism, they are essentially variations on the same theme. To experience traditional Jewish argumentativeness one must encounter the dizzying array of varieties of Orthodoxy. Sephardic, Yemenite, Ashkenazic, Chassidic and Modern Orthodox are only a basic outline of the groups of which there exist dozens of sub-groups. Orthodox Jews vigorously debate thousands of Halachic and Hashkafic issues. The contentious nature of contemporary Orthodox Jewry becomes abundantly clear when purchasing a kosher food item that bears the certification of no less than four different kashrut agencies. Yet, what unites all of the myriad subdivisions within Orthodoxy is the belief in the Sinai revelation and the other pillars of traditional Jewish faith.
In addition, the Jewish people have contributed an unparalleled proportion of Noble Prize winners. As a nation we are an extraordinarily intelligent people. No one can deny the genius of the Talmud and its commentaries. Hashem seems to have chosen a most argumentative and brilliant people to serve as His witnesses for the simple reason that if we were convinced of revelation then it must have been true. The difficulty of many of the Torah’s laws, such as Brit Milah, Shemittah and Aliyah LeRegel further clinch this point. A brilliant, argumentative and contentious nation could not have been convinced to accept the Torah (which does not always portray our behavior in the most flattering manner) as the binding command of God had they not been thoroughly convinced of its divine origins.
In the coming issues (to be available at www.koltorah.org) we shall continue with more common sense reasons for why I am thoroughly convinced of the truth of Hashem and His Torah.