Thursday, April 30, 2009

Why were/are you Religious?

In the last week I've run into a few discussions as to the basis of our religious beliefs/practices. Over at this thread at Three Jews, Four Opinions I had an exchange with Evanston Jew which turned on the basis for a sustainable Judaism.

I won't focus as much on what brand of Judaism is sustainable in the long run (if any). What I want to explore is the reasons we believed/believe in whatever religious beliefs we have/had. I had a discussion with a former Chossid last week, and we were talking about why we were Frum. In the end it came down to the difference between our upbringing; he was a Chossid, I wasn't. Now let's backtrack, why are/were we Frum, or better yet religious, regardless of particular orientation.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will combine the possible reasons for belief in two categories:

1) Because one believes in the truth claims of, and evidence for one's religion, which logically brings one to follow it since it is the right path based on the truth.

2) Because one feels a spiritual/emotional connection with his religion. It speaks to him, it fulfills some need in his 'soul' if you will.

Within the two categories may lie a wide variety of people, laymen and clergy, the more and less intelligent, the old and the young, newcomers and people born into their faith. Let's explore each category separately. In the first category we have people who believe in the historical claims of their faith, be it God's existence, revelation, an afterlife, divine providence and so forth. Based on these beliefs, they understand that they have an obligation to follow the prescriptions of their faith. Going against their faith would mean defying God, and doing harm to oneself. It must be noted that people in this category need not be mechanical robots. They could have a very thorough understanding of how and why the practices of their religion are meaningful and carry a weight that gives them an actual impact on reality. Nevertheless, the basic foundation of their belief is the factual truth claims of their faith, in which they believe. Why they believe in these claims varies from person to person. Some simply take it as a matter of tradition or authority, others have taken it upon themselves to investigate the matter, and have come to the conclusion that the tenets of their faith are logically deducible. Regardless, the deciding factor in their belief is a conviction in the truthfulness of these claims for whatever reason.

In the second category we have people who feel that the spirit of their faith speaks to them. They get some inner fulfillment from their religious practices or beliefs, or the see their faith as some manifestation of how they see and feel the cosmos. Here we also have a wide variety of people. For example some have a strong desire in helping their fellow man. They see this as the ultimate goal in man's life, and their religion is the channel through which they express this goal. Others may think of God and his connection to man, and employ their faith as an arena where this manifests itself. The common thread is that these people feel that their faith fulfills them in some way, which is independent of the particular truth claims of their given religion. In other words, if they were to become convinced of the falsehood of positions their faith holds as true, and that all the particular facts that it puts forth as proofs of its veracity in fact never happened, they would still be left with the basic reason for continuing with their religion. It would still speak to them on some level.

The differences are not as easy to perceive as it may seem. For example people in the former category can be stereotyped as those that get hung up on insignificant details at the expense of internalizing their faith's main message. The latter group can be generalized as those who are floating in the clouds, without a grasp on reality. But the opposite may in fact be true. Certainly these generalization are often true. Nevertheless, some people may be very pedantic in their faith, thinking that these minor details carry some cosmological significance (Mekubbolim for example). Others may have a very rationalistic approach to their faith, which is solidly built upon the findings of their investigation. And in spite of believing that all the laws and practices of their religion are a product of God's will, they may attach little importance to them, preferring to focus on the fundamentals.

Now which faith is stronger, more sustainable. It would certainly seem that the latter kind of faith, which is based on the heart and is part of the person himself rather than some external reasons, which are always subject to change. But it isn't that simple. For some, the latter path is not an option. There is no inner feeling that is strong enough to nurture a whole religion. There simply isn't anything there. This is the type of faith I had. Truth be told, it was very strong in its time. Why, because I truly believed in the main tenets of the Torah, and as a logical consequence felt obligated to follow the Torah. I did have somewhat of a connection to the religion on an emotional level, but it was very insignificant. Consequently, when my conviction that the Torah's claims about revelation, history, and God were either false or a guess just as good as anyone's, the floor was taken from under my faith. I remember that the only tough time I had on an emotional rather than intellectual level during my transition, was when it hit me that there is no afterlife. I couldn't eat or sleep for three days, but after that I was as fresh as spring flower. But this was the only faith I could have had. And when the foundation went, I was left with nothing but hot air.

This is how I am, and I know that there are others who would say the same for themselves. If someone is to say that it's shallow, I won't argue. I will say though that the other way is too speculative. I don't mean to trade barbs. I mean to point out that it depends on the person. What for me was based on a clear and (what I believed then) an airtight logic, is to you shallow. And what for you is a life based on spirituality and an inner sense of self and the world, is to me baseless speculation and Chalomos.

EJ, on the aforementioned thread seemed surprised at my remark, and wrote:
"No one, not one, ever says what you say "I am or was religious but not spiritual."

Well you have one, and I think that there are more. I won't argue with you if you meant that no one ever says that "I was religious but not at all spiritual" but you seem to be implying that spirituality is an important and even self sustaining factor for everyone. With this I strongly disagree. Some people are decidedly "nonspiritual" in the sense that it plays a very minor if any role in their life. By spiritual, I mean something that can't be grasped either by the senses or the intellect, something in the soul (again, for lack of a better term).

I hope I got the main idea across, it's a hard line to pinpoint. For this post, I ask the readers to comment more than other times, because I think we can clarify the issue with a view from different angles.


evanstonjew said... are a man of your word. You promised a post and voila here's the post. First and briefly I want to put to bed our earlier conversation. We are talking at cross purposes. I accept your report that your relationship to Orthodoxy was intellectual, religious but not spiritual. And I agree within Orthodoxy and even within shul going Conservatives and Reform there are others just like you. (See the Heschel on Lieberman quip in a recent post on Hirhurim.) I was talking about a different group, begining with the median of Jewish life, and my proof text was how people represent themselves on Match where most everyone can't say the words Jewish and religious without an excuse and an apology. One of my concerns is how to frame Torah and tradition for that community which at this point is around two thirds of the Jewish people. They hang by this thread of spirituality, and without tying this spirituality to our mesorah it is not Jewish.

One more point...I reject the intellectual-spiritual dichotomy. There are many I would call neither intellectual nor spiritual but determined. People who through very bad times and good times remained committed to keeping mitzvot. They refuse to fold. Plain people, but very good Jews.

I want to turn to another aspect of your general view. You said two days ago on XGH "If someone does not accept the divinity of the Torah, he doesn't have a advice to people is, if you're an Apikores, man up and admit it... It's their rules and they get to decide who fits in and who doesn't."

Neither Tanach, nor the Talmud nor any sefer is, as far as I can tell, owned by anyone. They are books in the public domain and part of the legacy of the entire Jewish people. It is for each Jew and his stripe to read, interpret these books in the way they choose. Why is it impossible to read kabbalah in a naturalistic way? A sefer can't exactly dictate how it is to be used, read or misread. Shakespeare can't command that his tragedy Romeo and Juliet not be turned into West Side Story.

Why is it good or sane advice to "man up" and acknowledge out of the blue that one is an apikoris. Are there inquisitions being held daily in Monsey? Are they drilling into people's heads in Lakewood to discover their beliefs? Yaakov Avinu who deceived his own father is bivchinat emes. He didn't volunteer anything more than he needed to get the bracha. Why should a Jew trying to get along in a frum world say witness to ideas that will get him kicked out, shamed and depreciated in front of his family? Why? And why is this self destructive behavior an essential part of masculinity?

It is true any stripe, say charedim, can make a rule that govern who is a member. But why should someone who has left with no intention of returning to the group continue to understand and define himself by those rules. A Reform or secular Jew doesn't say "I admit I am an apikoris." What he says is that under the rules used by Orthodoxy, and selectively at that, he would be counted as an apikoris.

I feel the task when a frum person leaves Orthodoxy is not to remain what he was but with a negation sign attached, but rather to create the new ideals and values that will best fit with who he is and who he will become. Allowing the Orthodox to brand who he is, accepting the appellation apikoiris which goes frequently together with shaiygitz and oisvorf, becomes an obstacle to the process of self discovery and self creation. Emerson would not approve.

Acher said...


על ראשון ראשון, ועל אחרון אחרון

I think the first two parts of your comment, namely where you refer to most people whose Jewishness hangs by a thread of spirituality, and secondly that there are those who are neither spiritual nor intellectual, can be taken together. I want to reiterate that just because someone cares to call their connection to Judaism spiritual, doesn't carry that much weight in reality. This is often an easy and neutral way of describing yourself, which doesn't have any strong religious connotation on the one hand, while allowing for some connection to one's past. It's about these people that it's proper to say that they are neither spiritually nor intellectually religious. what it really is, is a cultural connection to one's past, and a social thing. Some are spiritual, but again as you say about Poshuter Yidden, I say about your profiles, Es Meint Gornit.

Secondly, those who you say stayed through thick and thin and remained committed to Mitzvos. I don't think that people go through all that without it having some deep foundation. I was careful to note in my post, that the two types of people include those who may not stop and think much about what they're doing, but if you ask them, they will give a justification, however simple minded it is. And I take what they say seriously, at some level, because of the commitment they exhibit, so it's not just empty words of a person trying to write a nice profile of themselves.

>It is for each Jew and his stripe to read, interpret these books in the way they choose.I happen to disagree with this statement, because I believe that if someone is ascribing a view to an author, they should do justice to the author, and not present him in a way that is contrary to his intent. But I won't get into that. My barb on XGH was much more narrowly targeted.

What was the discussion there? XGH claimed it incredible that the London Bes-Din ruled that someone who denies the divinity of the Torah can not participate in the community (basically). To which some commenter mentioned that there are Rishonim who would disagree with the ruling, a la RAVAD in Hilchos Tshuvah, or Marc Shapiro's book. To which I wrote that these have absolutely no bearing on someone who denies the divinity of the Torah. That's qualitatively different than any technical disagreement on the boundaries of Apikorsus.
That's why I can't stand when people quote disagreements in Halachah such as this in regards to someone who denies the Torah's divinity. It's just so disingenuous. Getting back to the point. Given that this is the unanimous traditional Halachic opinion, why should we be surprised if an orthodox Bes-Din rules accordingly. Isn't an orthodox Bes-Din by definition bound by Halachah?
This is what I meant by "manning up." It seems that some people can't face the facts, and try to distort them. I simply can't stand for this.

Now if someone realizes this and wants to stay within Frum society, Avadah he shouldn't scream from the rooftops. I don't do it, and neither should others. And if an orthodox Rabbi wants to disagree with the London Bes-Din, as does XGHs Rabbi, Gezei Gezunt. I think it's great and it would do many Jews well if they expanded orthodoxy, the only brand of Judaism that seems to work (without getting into a particular flavor thereof).

I also agree that it's very important not to become just someone who is NOT Frum. My only requirement is: don't distort the facts. That's it. It's the only thing I ask for. After that, you're free as a bird.