Shedding the Blinders of Faith
According to the teaching that they will teach you and according to the judgment they will say to you, shall you do, you shall not deviate from the word that they will tell you, right or left. (Deut. 17:11)
Rashi in the name of the Sifri:
Even if they tell you that what you think is the right is really the left or visa versa, and it goes without saying that you must listen if they inform you that this is right and this is left [and you do not know otherwise].
Even when you are convinced that they are in error, and the matter is as clear to you as the difference between your right hand and your left, do as they tell you. And do not say to yourself, "How can I eat this food when it is clearly fat [a forbidden substance], or how can I execute this clearly innocent person?" Rather say to yourself, "My Master who commanded me to observe His commandments, instructed me to observe them as the rabbis dictate."
Thus, according to this doctrine, we are commanded to follow what the rabbis tell us with blind faith, even if we know that what they are telling us is clearly wrong.
But how can the Torah command us to do such a thing?
LEAP OF FAITH
The uniqueness of the Jewish religion as a religion is that it does not require its adherents to make what is called a "leap of faith." Thus Christians have to believe in Jesus as the son of God and Moslems have to believe in Mohammed as the prophet of God. The entire foundation of their religions is the belief in the vision of a single individual. Their commitment to observance is therefore necessarily based on a leap of faith.
Let us contrast this with Judaism.
The children of Israel did not believe in Moses on the strength of the miracles he performed, for whoever believes through the power of miracles cannot help but retain some skepticism in his heart. It is always possible that the miracles were really some sort of magic trick or witchcraft [or, in our time, some sort of mental conditioning]. But all the miracles Moses performed were dictated by necessity and were not performed to verify the phenomenon of prophecy.
What is the basis of our acceptance of the authenticity of Moses' prophecy?
So what then is the basis of our acceptance of the authenticity of Moses' prophecy?
It rests on the encounter at Sinai when the entire nation of Israel (not just Moses) had an encounter with God.
How do we know that the encounter at Sinai demonstrates his prophecy beyond the shadow of a doubt? It is written:
Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever. (Exodus 19:9)
From this we understand that before this event they did not believe in Moses with an everlasting faith and only had a faith which was open to second thoughts. (Maimonides, the Basics of the Torah, Ch.8,1)
It is clear that God Himself was not satisfied to rest the Jewish belief in prophecy on the insecure foundation of faith in a single individual, or in the miracles that he performed. As He created human beings, He was aware that this is not a solid underpinning on which to base an everlasting faith. Therefore, He engineered an event where the truth of prophecy in general and the authority of Moses' prophecy in particular would be publicly established. He did so by raising the entire Jewish people to a level that allowed them to verify the truth of both these phenomena first hand.
In fact, whereas most religious stories tend to crop up in all cultures with only minor variations, the story of the encounter at Sinai is unique to the Jewish religion. No religious document apart from the Torah recounts a tale of a mass meeting between God and man. Such an extravagant claim can only be put forth when it is the presentation of a verifiable truth. The false claim of such an incident is too vulnerable to outright rejection as a lie.
Yet, Jews are hardly noted for their gullibility. If anything, Judaism is the religion of skeptics. The fact that the Torah dares to present the claim that such a public encounter indeed took place is the best measure of its veracity.
What is more, this tendency to seek factual verification for religious dogma is perfectly in line with the culture of Judaism. The Western world only adopted the goal of establishing universal literacy two hundred years ago, and it is only since then that public education has been generally available. But universal literacy has been the bedrock of Judaism for over three thousand years. The learning of Torah outweighs all the other commandments combined in importance (Peah 1,1).
After all, the major purpose of religion is the development of a relationship between humanity and its Creator. The Torah teaches us that the human being was created in God's own image. How is it conceivable that an ignorant, uncultured human being could possibly be considered an image of God? How could God develop any relationship with such a creature? Without the attainment of literacy and a sound education, how is it possible to attain wisdom or culture?
All Jews have always been expected to know the Biblical and Talmudic sources of their beliefs.
Accordingly, all Jews have always been expected to know the Biblical (and later Talmudic) sources of their beliefs. They are required to think and to question as their religious duty.
Before one can develop an actual relationship with God, one has to make oneself fit for God to relate to. The much-vaunted intellectual skills of the Jewish people grew out of this tradition and are more a consequence of nurture than nature.
In fact, the Torah itself views the breakdown of faith among the Jewish people to which we bear witness in modern times as mainly attributable to the ignorance of these sources that is our most sacred duty to study. This idea is expressed repeatedly in rabbinic literature, but perhaps its clearest statement is in the following passage: (Yerushalmi Chagiga 1,7)
Who is the wise man who will understand this? Who is he to whom the mouth of God speaks that he may explain this? For what reason did the land perish and become parched like the desert without a passerby? But God has said: "Because of their forsaking my Torah that I put before them." (Jeremiah 9:11-12)
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught on the basis of this verse: "If you observe cities in the land of Israel that have been uprooted from their place, you should know it is because they failed to hire scribes and teachers of Torah."
Rabbi Yudan the Nasi [following Rabbi Shimon's prescription] sent Rabbi Chiya, Rabbi Asi and Rabbi Ami around the land of Israel to arrange for the hiring of scribes and teachers. They came to a certain town and could not find a single scribe or teacher. They instructed the townsmen to introduce them to the guardians of the city. They brought the local police chief, and they said to them, "You think these people [the police force] are the guardians of your city? These are the destroyers of your city!" "Who then are the guardians of our city?" They told them, "Your scribes and teachers are your guardians, as it is written, if God will not build the house, in vain do its builders labor on it, if God will not guard the city, in vain is the watchman vigilant... (Psalms 127:1)
We find that God overlooks the sins of idolatry, licentiousness and murder, but He does not overlook the sin of belittling the importance of Torah study. Why? Because of our verse which declares that the reason for the desolation of the land is the abandonment of Torah study.
Rabbi Chiya bar Bo explained: "If they would have left Me but kept learning My Torah, I would have overlooked their sins because the light of My Torah would have brought them close to Me again."
As we have repeatedly emphasized in these essays, the Torah was not given to us to teach us what to believe. The Torah is a reality book. As such, whoever is familiar with its byways cannot escape the perception that he is walking around in the real world. The lack of necessity to make a leap of faith and to be able to accept Judaism does not end in the encounter at Sinai. The Torah was designed to replace the faith of the one who studies it with a solid intellectual awareness and understanding of a spiritual reality.
For not all of reality is exposed to the naked eye. To be aware of the world of atoms you have to study physics. To know that all living organisms are arranged in cells surrounding nuclei which contain DNA and RNA you have to study biology. The person who never studied these subjects can only accept this information as a matter of faith. For the person who immerses himself in physics and biology it is obvious reality.
The world of spirituality differs from science only in a single respect. Whereas the existence of atoms and the arrangement of living organisms into cells is verified even for the uninitiated by the existence of hydrogen bombs and blood tests, the world of spirituality cannot be observed in physical phenomena.
Without Torah study, Judaism is a matter of pure belief only.
Thus, although strictly speaking, anyone who has not studied physics or biology is nothing more than a believer in the existence of atoms or cells, belief is sufficient for him as it is verifiable by his everyday experience of the outside world. But all Jewish believers must study the Torah for their belief to survive, for without Torah study, Judaism is a matter of pure belief only, which cannot be verified by everyday experience of the outside world. The only way to transform Judaism into observable truth is immersion in Torah study.
There is a remarkable demonstration of this theme in the works of Maimonides. In his book on the commandments, the "Sefer HaMitzvot," Maimonides counts the commandment to have faith in God as the very first of the 613 commandments, and demonstrates from Talmudic sources that the obligation to accept the existence of God as a matter of faith is derivable from the first of the Ten Commandments:
I am the Lord your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt from the house of slavery. (Exodus 20:2)
He begins his greatest work the "Yad HaChazaka" with a discussion of this same commandment but there he phrases it differently. The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a prior Existence that brought all subsequent existence into being, and that all things that exist -- whether in the heavens or on the earth, or any other region in between -- derive their existence from the truth of His essence. (The Fundamentals of the Torah, ch.1,1-6)
The commandment to believe quoted in the "Sefer HaMitvot" becomes transformed into the commandment to know in the "Yad HaChazaka."
Belief in God is only the beginning. The Jew can only fulfill his obligation under this commandment if he manages to transform his faith into knowledge. The method of transformation at his disposal is the study of Torah.
But even the development of such knowledge is not the end of the story.
On the contrary, it is only the Jew who attains the level of transforming his pure faith into knowledge who is ready to face the test of faith. Such a Jew lives within a double reality, the reality of the physical world of his senses into which he is born, and the reality that is revealed to him through his knowledge of Torah.
The pursuit of success in these two realities often involves following mutually exclusive strategies. The test of faith is to choose the reality one wants to live in.
We are finally ready to return to the original question. God created two realities, the physical one that we are all aware of and the spiritual one that is revealed to us through the Torah.
Each of these realities was created for man. God Himself is not in need of either of them. Just as the physical reality with which we are all familiar is within man's power to shape according to the dictates of his intellect, so is the spiritual reality that is revealed by the Torah. When the Sanhedrin, the human body most expert in understanding the reality contained in the Torah, arrives at a determination of its shape, this reality will conform and adopt the shape determined by the human intellect. This is also man's world.
Nachmanides thus explains that the injunction to follow the rulings of the Sanhedrin even when it is clear to you that they are mistaken has no relation to blind faith. Mistaken or not, what the Sanhedrin decides determines the shape that the reality in the Torah adopts.
Unfortunately, this inspiring thesis has the enormous downside pointed out by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people specifically as a place to implement the reality discovered through Torah knowledge. The commandment discussed in this essay (as others of Parshat Shoftim) apply when Jews inhabit the land of Israel. In fact all the commandments, even those totally unrelated to agriculture or the establishment of public institutions have a special relationship with the land of Israel.
You shall place these words of mine upon your heart and upon your soul; you shall bind them for a sign upon your arm and let them be an ornament between your eyes (Deut. 11:18)
Rashi quoting the Sifri:
Even after you go into exile remain identifiable by your observance of the commandments: lay phylacteries, put mezuzot on your door posts; so that the commandments won't be strange to you when you return from exile. As it is written make road markers for yourself, set up landmarks for yourself (Jeremiah 31:20)
In exile the commandments are only obligations of the heart, but in Israel they are necessities of life.
The Jewish people are back in their land once again. Once again observing the commandments is a necessity of life. Once again God is willing to overlook all violations as long as there are scribes and teachers in the cities of Israel. God does not demand or value blind faith. He is perfectly aware of the circumstances which brought about the situation that the majority of the Jewish people are lacking in blind faith through no fault of their own. As long as Jews are willing to expose themselves to the light of the reality He presented in His Torah, He is willing to wait patiently. He knows that the Torah will bring the Jewish people back.