Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Staying in the Fold: Does Belief Actually Matter?

Rabbi Yakov Horowitz is in the process of writing about keeping Jewish children "on the Derech" (in the fold). So far he has written a top ten list of things parents can do to have a decent chance of being able to pass on their values to their children.

1. Belong to a kehila [community] with a Rov [rabbi] who can guide you, and live spiritual, meaningful and inspired lives where you are true role models for your children.
2. Create a happy and nurturing home environment; avoid corporal punishment and refrain from sending them to settings where it is condoned.
3. Spend quality time and nurture your relationships with your children and seek help should you find yourself exuding negative energy with them.
4. Be flexible – treat them as individuals and allow them to chart their own course in life.
5. Protect them from abuse and molestation.
6. Live in a forbearing community where the members have good Torah values and guide your children to develop friendships with peers who have good middos [character traits] and share those values.
7. Provide them with a good and broad-based education – in Judaic and general studies.
8. "Stay in the Game" – never give up on them no matter how bumpy the road educationally or socially, and professionally identify and address any learning disabilities.
9. See to it that your values and those of their schools are consistent and maintain congruence between your words and deeds.
10. See that they exercise (very) often and have varied hobbies and interests.
And … always and above all, daven [pray] to Hashem [God] for siyata dishmaya [heavenly assistance].

These are things that apply to any faith. I do not think the fundamental issues of passing Judaism along to children in this country are really that different from parents trying to pass along Christianity or Islam. What is of particular interest to me here is that nowhere on this list does Rabbi Horowitz say anything about belief, sitting down with your kids and convincing them with "powerful" arguments that certain things, like God's existence and the Exodus from Egypt, are True.

This illustrates a basic problem with how our society engages the question of religious belief. Both sides, religious and secular, like to maintain that religion is about belief. Both sides make the pretence of fealty to this myth because each side finds it useful. Religious people would have us believe that they are religious because they believe specific claims while secular people claim, as rational people, to have refuted such claims and moved beyond them. Can we be honest with ourselves that the decision to follow a religion or abandon it has nothing to do with belief? How many people have actually become atheists from reading Spinoza or even Richard Dawkins? Religion is a way of living and a society in which one chooses to live. If you wish to pursue a certain way of life and live in a certain society then you will "believe" in the accessory religion. If not then you will not "believe" and find yourself another way of life, another society and accept their "beliefs."

Now the issue is muddled by the fact that religious people claim to believe things and secular people claim to not believe certain things and, in a certain surface sense, this is true; most religious people and their secular counterparts, in their own minds, honestly do see themselves respectively as believers and non-believers. The question is what is the basis for such beliefs. To put it simply, most people are social thinkers, not idea thinkers. Abstract ideas such as universal principles of right, wrong, true and false are not real to them and, therefore, have no meaning. What is real and meaningful to most people are relationships; you live in a specific society according to a specific code of conduct. One does not "believe" or "disbelieve" in God; one believes in parents, siblings, friends, Saturday morning Kiddush or the Sunday church social. There are no "big questions" to be answered; people need to be born, become adults, married and put in the ground with due ceremony and reverence. Once the decision to "believe" is made, it simply becomes its own reality, true by definition. If it so happens that this reality is challenged then arguments will be mustered in a fixed game of formulating arguments to suit a given conclusion; in essence drawing targets around the arrows. Since most people do not have a concept of universal principles, they cannot be tied by any notion that arguments have consequences; that accepting an argument means accepting its underlying principles and their potentially undesirable conclusions when applied in other places. (See My Search for Meaning.)

Would it really be so bad if we could be honest and straightforward about things and take belief out of the picture? In the case of Orthodox Judaism, this would mean Judaism as envisioned by Moses Mendelssohn. If you are willing to make an honest effort to keep halakhah (both as to pertains to human beings and to God) you can be part of the Orthodox community. For practical arguments sake, I will even throw in a general belief in God and divine providence.


S. said...

Some Orthodox Jews and rabbis try to do that, but the more rightward you get the more literal adherence to texts claimed to be authoritative enter the picture. From the point of view of a kind of Orthodoxy constructed on an ideological viewpoint apart from straightforward halachic observance, how can Orthodoxy without belief (=hashkafah) be justified?

no one said...

People do believe but decide on their beliefs because of motives that are not based on reason or evidence.
I would like to suggest that at least a sincere honest effort at torah can result in devekut. (Though I think the same would apply to a Christian but I think being born Jewish means that devekut would come only through the path of Torah and Talmud.) Devekut comes not through deciding theological questions

Izgad said...

And what percentage of even very Orthodox Jews are capable of engaging in devekut? Particularly in the case of Judaism because I cannot think of any mainstream Orthodox institutions that actively encourage devekut as a mass ideology. This is in stark contrast to Evangelical Christianity which is built around the personal experience of salvation and the Holy Spirit on the part of the individual believer. What shuls do you know of where people can come up to the bimah in middle of davaaning and talking about the Ruach Hakodesh coming over them?

Skeptic said...


In particular, segment 17, where he discusses religion, is on your point.

Izgad said...

Thank you for pointing the interview out to me.