Believe It Or Not
In the eyes of many commentators, the Book of Vayikra, which we finish reading this Sabbath, occupies a very special place among the Five Books of Moses. It is the midpoint of the Torah, surrounded on each side by a pair of holy books. It deals specifically with the topics most related to holiness and contains some of the most sublime commandments of the Torah such as "Love your neighbor."
This climactic portion of God's Torah ends on a particularly negative note, with the curses of Bechukotai. The Maharal taught us centuries ago that there are no coincidences in matters of the spirit. If this is the rule regarding spirituality in general, how much more applicable must this be to the Torah itself. The Chumash was laid out and edited with the utmost care by the Great Editor Himself. It is therefore fair to ask why God chose to end this most special book of His Torah on such an ominous and discouraging note.
THE ETERNAL TRUTHS OF JUDAISM ARE CONFIRMED BY TRAGEDIES
One of the remarkable aspects of Jewish history is the fact that the eternal truths of Judaism are verified by its multiple tragedies. Even non-Jewish thinkers have employed the incredible phenomenon/feat of Jewish survival as the prime indication of Divine providence. For example, when Louis XIV asked for proof of God's controlling hand in the historical process, the great Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal responded, "Why, the Jews, your Majesty, The Jews!"
Mark Twain, himself a self-acknowledged skeptic penned these words (Harper's Magazine, 1899):
"The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch up high for a while, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?"
THE NEED TO PROVE JUDAISM TO JEWS
Ironically, demonstrating the truth of Judaism to the descendants of Abraham, the very people who have miraculously survived these tragedies, whose own grandparents stood at Mt. Sinai and heard the commandments from God Himself, has become a difficult task in our modern post-industrial world. Wherever we lived scattered in exile until the beginning of the twentieth century, we were mainly among believers. But the turmoil of the past century and the rigorous separation of church and state practiced by modern democracies have marginalized the religious life style. The Bible testifies that we have always found it extremely difficult to resist the pull of the outside world. As the culture became secular, so did we.
Despite the miraculous rebirth of the Jewish state, an unparalleled event in human history, fully equivalent to an actual encounter with a singularity in physics, most Jews currently living have lapsed into indifference or outright agnosticism and the survival of the Jewish people is threatened by assimilation.
JEWISH HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF
In the Jewish homeland, Israel, which has served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people from the moment of its re-establishment and which will also house the majority of Jews according to demographers within the next decade or so, we have reproduced the religious tensions prevailing in the second Temple period. The internal history of Israel in the second Temple era was dominated by the fierce and sometimes even bloody battle between Jewish Hellenists, who perceived themselves primarily as citizens of the modern world and only secondarily as Jewish, and the followers of traditional Judaism who believed in the unique destiny of the descendants of Abraham.
A SECOND CHANCE
Tradition tells us that the destruction of the second Temple and the subsequent exile was caused by our failure to reach unity and solve our ideological divide. God has given us a second opportunity in the same locale and in much the same circumstances. Once again we are a divided people surrounded by enemies that we can overcome only by reaching internal unity. This time we must not fail.
Under the circumstances, it is important to present the fundamentals of Jewish belief in a language that will impact on the modern secular mindset with which a large portion of our fellow Jews confront the world. We Jews are all in the same boat and will share a common destiny in spite of the diversity of our ideological outlook. Our most important task is to learn to stand united so that we can release the incredible might latent in our people. The Torah states and history confirms that we can only unite around our common heritage. It is crucial for us to reach out to our fellow Jews with love in language they can relate to so that we can attain this desired union with as little conflict and pain as possible.
As a first step, let us make an observation that is entirely self-evident but one that shocks most people when they first encounter it. A good way to make the point is to examine why/how thinking people choose their careers. We shall adopt journalism as a typical example. Let us assume that people who enter the field choose the career of journalism not only for the security and financial rewards that it offers, but because they relate to what they are doing as being significant and meaningful.
HOW TO CHOOSE A CAREER
What makes the potential journalist think that journalism is significant and meaningful? We all know the answer.
Journalists keep the public informed, and it is important for the public to be well informed. Why?
The public needs to be informed so that it can make intelligent decisions regarding its representatives. Are they doing a good job, or should they be thrown out? Not only is information important in the selection of representatives, it is also crucial to keep politicians honest. Without accurate news there is no accountability. Without accountability there is no honesty.
Now let us ask ourselves, how do the potential journalists know that these assumptions on which the importance of their careers rest are true? They are certainly far from being self-evident.
Are people in general, whose doings never make the news, honest? The answer is obviously that they are. Does anyone report on what they are doing? Obviously not. If public reporting is such an essential factor in the maintenance of honesty, what keeps most people honest?
Perhaps you will say it is their bosses and families. The employers who pay them make sure that their employees are honest and productive. In personal life, the watchdog of integrity is the fact that dishonest people tend to be rejected by their spouses and families. That is why they do not need the scrutiny of journalism. But politicians pay themselves. They have no political spouses or bosses to keep them honest. They need the journalist.
But isn't this merely a belief? Perhaps people will always throw out the incumbents when the economy doesn't function well, and they will always keep the incumbents when they prosper, even if they know beyond a shadow of a doubt that their politicians are dishonest, as many people indeed argue. That would make the career of journalism irrelevant except as entertainment.
WHEN WE SAY WE KNOW WE REALLY ONLY BELIEVE
What is the true response? The potential journalist will answer the following. "It is true that I haven't thought through all these questions carefully. But there are people who have. Who are these people? The professors and intellectuals who write the books on political science. When I say I know that journalism is important, I am really accepting their conclusions."
This answer is perfectly reasonable and correct. The intellectuals and philosophers who have studied the political process have clearly stated over and over again that honest journalists are the essential watchdogs of democracy. Without free access to information democracy will die.
What the potential journalist is really doing is placing his trust in the intellectuals who spend their lives researching and thinking about abstract questions. In effect, he has delegated the need to think about something that is very central to his life to the experts whose conclusions he accepts on the bases of trust and belief.
IT MAKES PERFECT SENSE TO TRUST THE INTELLECTUALS
There is nothing unreasonable about any of this. There is no reason to distrust the political scientists who came up with these conclusions regarding the importance of journalism. Most people that we meet are reasonably honest. There is no reason to think that intellectuals are any different and that they are misrepresenting the truth in their conclusions. It is obvious that just as this scenario applies to the potential journalist, it applies to any other career. Only the experts have the information that establishes the importance of any activity that is not clearly necessary to bare survival. We all place our trust in the intellectuals.
But if we grant the reasonableness of this process, shouldn't this equally apply to the study of Judaism? There is a fairly large group of very bright Jewish intellectuals who spend their working lives immersed in the study of Torah in every generation. The vast majority of these intellectuals invariably conclude that the Torah and all its teachings are absolutely true and relevant. Do we have any reason to mistrust their conclusions, when we are so willing to accept the conclusions of the experts in every other field?
THE IMPORTANCE OF VERIFICATION
Perhaps you will object and say, in all these other areas the conclusions actually work! We can look around the world and see that everything functions substantially as predicted by the experts! This amounts to objective proof that the conclusions of the experts are trustworthy, but in the case of the Torah and Judaism, how can we verify the conclusions of the Torah experts?
It was to meet this objection that God offered us the dire predictions contained in Bechukotai and in the rest of the books of the Bible. In a manner that is unique among all the world's religions, God put Himself out on a limb and made predictions. In effect He gave us the means to test if Judaism works or not. Have the predictions of Bechukotai worked? The answer is clearly in the affirmative.
We Jews are still here vigorous and strong, just as predicted. We have suffered just as predicted, when we have behaved in a manner that triggered the dire predictions offered just as predicted. Yet, in the case of Judaism we are not prepared to trust either the experts or the objective evidence of the predictions that have been historically verified. Why not?
FAITH VS. REASON, A FALSE DICHOTOMY
At fist glance this question sounds naïve. We have been so brainwashed by our society, that our instinctive reaction to religious questions is to dismiss them on the grounds that religion is based on faith, whereas the important portions of secular life are the products of reason. It is startling to discover that actually everything in life is based on faith.
Jews should be especially aware of this just by glancing at our situation in the world. I reside in Israel where I am subjected daily to the arguments between the left and the right. The left claims very strongly that there is no possible military solution to the current Mid-east problem. The only possible resolution is to reach a political accommodation with the Palestinians. There are weekly demonstrations against the 'occupation' and strident calls for us to take the army out of the occupied territories.
The right answers that there is no one to negotiate with, and until there is, we have no other choice but to protect ourselves militarily against the terrorists. The left answers that as long as we oppress the Palestinians through our 'unjustified' military occupation, they will never negotiate. We must demonstrate our good will by leaving first, and then the 'peaceful element' among the Palestinians will force the rest to respond. The argument always ends in a standoff.
THE PREPAREDNESS TO BET YOUR LIFE ON YOUR BELIEFS
Aren't both sides merely expressing their unverified beliefs? No one actually knows what will happen if we actually gave up our military option, dismantled the 'settlements' that most favored of mantras in the leftist lexicon? Presumably if someone could prove scientifically that there would be no response to such a grand gesture on the part of the Palestinians other than to resume the terrorist attack with greater force, the leftists themselves would agree that such a course was suicidal. In other words, these most intelligent people are willing to bet the collective survival of the people of Israel on their belief in Palestinian human nature.
But perhaps they believe in the sympathy of mankind. Perhaps they think that in this worst-case scenario, we could turn to the world for protection and say, "You see, we are such upright humanitarians, it is your moral duty to protect us." Isn't this also a belief? Looking at the history of the Jewish people, can any one honestly maintain that the world has ever shown its willingness to prevent the slaughter of innocent Jews? Perhaps it would be different this time, perhaps not, but is this anymore than a belief?
JEWS CANNOT AVOID BELIEF AS THE BASIS OF LIFE
Why is the belief in God any less sensible than the belief in people? If we believed in God we would attribute the source of our problems to the predictions of Bechukotai. We would know how to fix them instantaneously by simply returning to God and His Torah. Would believing in Bechukotai be any more unreasonable or naive than placing one's trust in Chairman Arafat's good will? How can someone who is willing to risk his life on Palestinian good will patronize the religious believer who prefers to place his trust in God on the grounds of naivete?
WE WANT THE WORLD TO MAKE SENSE
But the matter goes deeper. Thinking human beings have set up societies that are based on the dictates of reason. We legislate against the world that natural reality would produce if it were left to its own devices. We protect the weak against the strong, and extend everyone equal rights under our laws, a clear reversal of the situation that would prevail under natural law. We absolutely abhor all types of oppression and pat ourselves on the back for having eliminated to the best of our ability the horrors of slavery, of the oppression of women, of racial discrimination, and of the heartless exploitation of child labor and the sweatshop. We obviously feel very strongly that the world should be based on reason rather than naked physical strength.
Yet, we choose to believe that we live in a universe where every life form is the product of the dog-eat-dog process of natural selection, where actions are devoid of natural moral consequences without a shred of evidence to support this proposition. Whoever has the slightest expertise in the sciences knows that there is no evidence to support the theory of evolution, or the fact that the universe brought itself into existence through some sort of Big Bang. At best, the position might be described as a standoff.
There is no evidence that God created the world as written in the Bible, and there is no evidence for the position that it could have come about spontaneously through the blind forces of nature. In such a situation, the choice of which type of world one chooses to accept is a matter that rests entirely on belief.
A WORLD OF REASON
Parshat Bechukotai presents us with a world that is run according to the dictates of reason. Actions have moral consequences and the human values we treasure are built into the design of nature itself. Secular science presents us with a world that runs according to the morally indifferent rules of physical force. If there is no proof on either side, and the choice of the world we choose to accept has to rest on the power of belief, why would any reasonable person choose the morally insensitive world of the scientist as his reality?
As there is absolutely no reason not to, let us accept the world presented by Bechukotai as the real one just for the sake of argument. When you strip away all the trimmings what is the real difference between that world and the one in which most of us have chosen to live?
WHAT IS OUR DESTINY
Where is the world going? What is the secular vision of Utopia that the Western world is striving to actualize? Those who are at all into science fiction know that the most common projection of the world of the future comes in two forms in the imagination of writers.
Science has overcome the problems of scarcity and population control. The world has finally unified into a single political entity where everyone has civil rights. Robots and computers manage everything. There is no need for anyone to struggle or work. Staving off boredom is the greatest human problem. Everyone is plugged into a machine that keeps him fed and stimulated and in a state of pleasure. In short, according to this common vision, we are facing a destiny as glorified couch potatoes should we manage to solve all our problems.
The second common projection found in works of science fiction is related to exploring the universe. We will leave this planet and tame new horizons galaxies, and explore new eco-systems. There we will have new problems to solve before reaching the local Utopia and will be able to revive the challenging world of our pasts. This projection of the future is really reliving the past which is obviously more appealing than the here and now.
DOES THE FUTURE HAVE A PURPOSE?
Is there any purpose to such existence in either view? Is there any wonder that God rejects it?
What does God really want of us in the vision of Bechukotai? He wants us to accept that we have a purpose in life that leads to something more glorious than these scenarios. The world is vastly richer and more complex than the one that can be discovered by exploring the aftermath of the Big Bang. There is a wonderfully rich world of spirituality that we have not yet even entered to look forward to.
The truth is that nothing has changed very drastically since Bechukotai was written at Mt.Sinai. Human beings are still a race of believers just as they were back then. The nations still believe in God but also in the sun the moon and the stars. God may exist but nature runs according to natural law. We Jews still believe in the transcendental God who created a world that makes sense and functions according to moral rules. The beliefs haven't changed, only the words. It's time to wake up and smell the coffee.