Of Questions, Answers, and Questions

A symposium on the compatibility of science and belief reminds us of the power of the Seder night.

The Templeton Foundation is committed to supporting rigorous academic exploration of what it calls “spiritual realities,” and is generally G-d friendly, without shying away from hard questions. It’s current “conversation” shows up in full on-line, supported by a two page advertisement in the current issue of Atlantic Monthly.

Hard scientists, soft scientists, philosophers and others weigh in on the topic “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” and the result is predictable. Many of the participants talk past one another, staking out familiar positions while dodging the volleys from the opposition by hiding behind the usual platitudes.

One theme of the anti-theists (אפ”ל) is that science has obviated the need, or even the allowable place, for G-d by answering the questions that generated belief in the first place. Typical is the contribution of Christopher Hitchens, who while certainly not the participant most familiar with science, is such an effective writer that he probably bats cleanup in the lineup of authors who have promoted atheism to the public.

The original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence. It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear. This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism, and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This of course is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

There you have the one-two punch against belief: First, people used to turn to religion to provide answers to intractable questions. Today, science has the answers to those questions; religion and belief are no longer necessary. Second, the religious mindset is the root of much global and historical evil.

Hitchens’ broadside succeeds where it does because it is arguably true that many people believe in G-d through one or more of the “G-d of the gaps” arguments. G-d, Who can do anything, explains those larger-than-life phenomena for which people cannot find any other explanation. The issue might be the origin of the universe, or the intricacy of its function, or the apparent near universality of certain ethical considerations. Whatever lies beyond the existing limits of understanding is attributed to G-d.

The argument is entirely true. G-d indeed is the explanation of what we don’t understand. He is also the source of everything we do understand. Simply put, He is the source of everything. We have Rishonim who used some of these arguments as evidence of His existence, so they cannot be taken lightly. An open question, however, is whether the same arguments remain as practically effective in different times and cultures. At some points in history, there were simply no attractive alternative explanations available – not even wrong ones. Amalek – which equals safek in gematria – has done a good job through the ages. Today, when everything can be doubted, there are alternative explanations available, and tomorrow there will be more of them than today. These alternatives – even if wrong – dilute the power of the arguments. People whose reason to believe is the lack of alternative often lose faith when provided with one.

Pesach reminds us, however, of the other approach to belief, the one in which answers came before the questions. This approach, often linked to Rav Yehudah Halevi and the Kuzari, puts national experience ahead of reason or philosophy. Jews believe because they were there, because they experienced the inyan Eloki, the manifestation of a Divine element, in their lives over an extended period of time, and in different ways. The reality of the shared experience may have generated different questions, but the order is decidedly the opposite of the “gaps” approach. Knowledge of G-d came first, because His Presence was unmistakable in our national history. At the Seder, we share the history first, and then wring from it principles and interpretation only after. We have been doing this for over 3300 years, and likely would never have survived without reliving the experience each year.

In short, Jews began with answers where others had questions. At times, we had questions where others would have found answers.

Rav Asher Weiss, shlit”a related this story a year ago in Los Angeles. As the situation in the Kovno ghetto deteriorated, there was no thought whatsoever about obtaining matzoh for Pesach. None, except for one Moshe Golding. He could not bear to think of Pesach without matzos, so set out to do the impossible. Before anyone else began to think of Pesach, he was scavenging for single kernels of grain, lovingly collecting them and secreting them away. When he had a small bag full, he took two bricks and ground them into a small quantity of flour. On erev Pesach, he carefully mixed the flour with water, and rolled small matzos out on a piece of metal over a flame.

It almost worked. As he was preparing his matzos, a German soldier burst in, and asked him what he was up to. He didn’t answer. The German swung his rifle butt at his head, again and again, knocking all his teeth out. Somehow, though, he did not break the matzos.

That night, the first night of Pesach, there was a late night knock on the door of Rav Ephraim Oshry zt”l, the Rav of the Kovno Ghetto (and later author of Shut Mi-Ma’amakim on responsa of the Holocaust, whose English language version earned him the National Jewish Book Award.) Rav Oshry opened the door, steeling himself for the worst when he saw Golding. He was sure that Golding would ask him to explain how it could be that in the midst of such fortitude in the performance of a mitzvah, such a fate could befall him. Rav Oshry did not have the answers to replace those that Golding might have found on his own.

That is not what happened, however. Golding had neither answers, nor the questions Rav Oshry supposed he would. Instead, he asked his rav a different question.

“I think I am the only person in Kovno with matzos. The problem is that I have no teeth with which to eat them. Yes, I know what you’ll tell me. If I soften them with water, I should be able to swallow them. The problem with that, rebbe, is that my father was always makpid not to eat gebrokts (matzoh that has been allowed to become wet). What should I do, rebbe? Under the circumstances, is it permissible for me to soak the matzos in order to fulfill the mitzvah?”

Rav Asher Weiss framed the story perfectly. Some people, he said, survive on answers. Klal Yisrael, however, has survived at times through questions – questions no one else would think of asking, and that reflect the tenacity of our commitment to HKBH.

In the merit of the answers we will share with our families in the approaching days, may we quickly find the answer to the question of when our long galus will come to an end!

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10 Responses

  1. JosephW says:

    An excellent and thoughtful piece.

    One is reminded of a story with a Rav (I think Rav Chaim Volozhiner?) who met a former talmid who had strayed from shmiras hamitzvos. After being asked “mai hai”, the student explained that he had many kashyos (questions, or difficulties). The Rav responded, “You don’t have kashyos, you have teirutzim”. (Teirutzim are answers, but can also mean excuses).

    The Rambam also makes the “Kuzari argument”; see Yesodei Hatorah Chapter 8. And the Ramban mentions it in his comments on the Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvos in his “Shikchas HaLavin LaDaas HaRamban”, Mitzvah Beis.

  2. Max says:

    JosephW: Many bloggers who have doubts about the truth of the Torah (most of whom sound very sincere) have quoted that well-known story as exemplifying the condescending attitude taken by frum society towards those who have intellectual difficulties with Judaism. Indeed, if one looks at the struggles these people have it seems absurd to say that they are looking for “teirutzim” to leave Judaism. On the contrary, they usually start out trying to desperately find answers which will allow them to remain religious.

  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Joseph W-there are variations of that story with the Chafetz Chaim and R Chaim Brisker as well. As far as Hitchens is concerned, his writings are IMO devoid of any understanding of Torah Shebicsav and TSBP. Arguments such as Hitchens’s illustrate why we should be leary about who is considered a “intellectual” or “thinker” by the secular world.

  4. Garnel Ironheart says:

    One thing people must remember is that there is a difference between Science and Scientism. Science is a body of knowledge. It is not a moral or ethical force, just a lot of facts about how things work. Scientism is a godless religion which poses as an ethical and moral force. And it doesn’t do a very good job.

    For example, science can study climate patterns and examine the hypothesis that the globe is getting warmer. Scientism concludes that that a warmer globe is happening and that it is a bad thing based on a particular value set and then condemns anybody who doesn’t agree with that, even if that person has adequate science behind him to dispute their contention.

    This is the model Chris Hitchens and his ilk fit into. With nothing more than their own personal opinions, they pose as modern day philosophers come to liberate us from our primitive superstitions. Yet the only reason Hitchens ever wins a debate is because he applies the rule “He who screams loudest has the floor” and he can scream quite loud.

    One only has to look at the holes in his theories to see how empty a thinker he is. For example, he condemns religion as the source of all evil but when confronted with the fact that two atheistic philosophies, Communism and fascism murdered tens of millions of people (if not more) during the 20th century he answers by saying “Yes, but that’s because they strayed from their roots and started acting like religions!”

    Science can tell me there was a Big Bang. It cannot tell me where the material involved came from or why it happened in the first place. Only Torah can give me the true answer to that question. But if I accept that God created the universe and me as well, then I must accept there is an authority in my life that I must answer to. I am not my own master. This is something an egotistical (I can’t use the word on this blog) like Hitchens can never accept.

  5. Charles B. Hall says:

    I have not read Christopher Hitchens’ work, but the quoted excerpt shows understanding of neither religion nor science. Science is limited to addressing matters that are amenable to empirical verification, and thus is a potential threat to religion only to the extent that a religion’s basic precepts are empirically verifiable. Science is therefore no threat to Judaism as only one of the Rambam’s 13 principles — the eighth — is even theoretically subject to empirical verification, and a practical verification of even that one is impossible. Judaism also has a long tradition of non-literal interpretation of its sacred texts so even an actual disproof of the most straightforward literal meaning, which of course has happened for parts of Sefer Bereshit, is no challenge to our tradition. As a scientist I have no difficult in reciting, “Ani maamim….” My understanding is that today the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches also find no inherent conflict between science and religion.

    It also goes without saying that while far too many humans have died in the name of religion, atheists like Stalin and Mao have done their best to catch up with the numbers in less than a century. The argument that overthrow of religion avoids totalitarianism is proven false by those two examples alone.

  6. Chaim Wolfson says:

    I don’t think JosephW ever suggested that every question is really an an excuse. Of course an honest seeker will have many questions. But a DISHONEST one will have many “teirutzim”. I imagine that Rav Chaim Volozhiner knew his talmid, and knew that he wasn’t an honest seeker. [Actuallly, the way I heard the story, Rav Chaim Volozhiner pronounced his talmid’s questions “teirutzim” after he heard them.] The point is, Hitchens is not an honest seeker either, as Rabbi Adlerstein implies and as all the commenters seem to agree.

  7. michoel halberstam says:

    These are old discussions which are not rendered unimportant for that reason, but which most do not really understand. As ytou correctly point out the Kuzari makes clear that the essential aspects of are fauith are accepted because of tradition. These include tha foreknowledge of G-d, the fact that He is the source of all morality, that he knows each and every one of us personally and cares about what we doe, etc. As in the case of all ideas that cannot be expressed in a meaningful way to the scientific mind, it is true if you believe it, and inexpressible ( which for many is the same thing as non-existent) if you don’t. Therefore the debate it self may lead nowhere. However,the idea of Pesach is to see ourselves as having been part of the exodus. Those who partici[pated did see, and for them proof was irrelevant. Maybe that’s what we need to do as well.

  8. Sholom says:

    The Kuzari argument is more rational than depicted in this article. I have no recollection of standing at Sinai. None the less I believe that it is highly implausible that a detailed national history, incorporating the various events of the exodus, could be falsely introduced into ancient Israel’s “history books.”

  9. One Christian's perspective says:

    My understanding is that today the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches also find no inherent conflict between science and religion. – Charles B. Hall

    Both science and religion can be corrupted by man and out of that corruption conflict arises. The Reformation that birthed Protestantism came about because G-d’s own words became twisted by man’s goals and desires to seek salvation outside of G-d and charging others for it. True church growth comes from seeking the wisdom and knowledge of G-d and the ability to understand both in humility and in sincerity. In science, I would argue that evolution is but an unproven theory spouted by those who refuse to see the magnificence of G-d in creating something so wonderfully complex that man is still gaining new knowledge of it…..and, if we allow ourselves to get beyond our own pride of intelligence and acomplishments,….. we can be swept off of our feet by the knowledge, wisdom, understanding, creation and skill of G-d who mercifully allows us a glimpse of a snippet of His work. When both science and religion become idols of man, man loses the ability and desire to eagerly seek the greatness of G-d’s work in all things. That G-d would gift us with intelligence, skill and desire in order to seek, search and discover how awesome is He……is hard to comprehend but even more amazing is to realize that G-d wants us to know Him intimatedly and be drawn to His side….so we can glorify His Name. When it is all about G-d, there is no inherent conflict in science and in religion.

  10. Raymond Blum says:

    I have a bit of trivia that probably nobody here will believe, but you can look it up and see that it is true, and that is, that Christopher Hitchens is Jewish. Christopher is the quintessential gentile name, but think about it. Even if you could not prove that Hitchens is Jewish, doesn’t he think like a Jew? He defies political categorization, he thinks for himself, he is a super intelligent man, he bucks authority, he hates human cruelty and recognizes the need to fight terrorism…if that is not Jewish, what is?

    I happen to think that these atheist books being put out by Hitchens, Sam Harris (also a Jew), and even to some extent Richard Dawkins (although he is too disrespectful to the Torah for me to like him), is a healthy thing for our society. Think about those societies where their certainty of G-d’s existence and their other religious beliefs are so iron-clad, that they experience no inner turmoil whatsoever when carrying out the most barbaric acts of evil, all in the name of their G-d. Then think about how different things would be if these terrorists had just enough theological doubt, to not go through with their terrorist attacks. A whole lot more Jews and other innocent people would still be alive today.

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