China, Skepticism and Belief
China used to bother me quite a bit when I was younger. A lot of people seemed to live there, but it was notoriously absent from the world view of Chazal. (At that point in life, I had assumed that if something was real, it had to be explicitly featured in the chief texts of our mesorah.) How could something that big escape the notice of Chazal? One could follow a thread in Chazal that reduced the course of human civilization to a clash between Yaakov and Esav (after a few minor intrusions). There were many supporting actors besides the ones with top billing, but the Chinese didn’t rate as understudies or even extras.
Years later, I would often be asked the same or similar question by talmidim. What purpose, they would ask, do the Chinese serve? (Those were the years in which they were the Bad Guy Commies, not our trading partners and major consumers of our debt, so the question made at least limited sense.)
As the years went by, I modified my expectation of what I should find explicitly mentioned by Chazal and what I should not find. It’s a pity, because I think I found the answer to a question I no longer have. It was somehow not a surprise to find it in a thought of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, as I was preparing my weekly The Timeless Rav Hirsch shiur for publication.
It wasn’t just the words of Rav Hirsch. Hashgacha, and my role on a beis din for gerus had plenty to do with it.
Within the last year, I have had the privilege of meeting a few wonderful gerus candidates from China and other parts of the Pacific Rim. As is my wont, I first push hard – really hard – to convince candidates that they have no need to convert. They can be fine people without it; Judaism does not expect everyone to become Jewish; Jews face new insecurities and uncertainties about the future in a world in which “itbach al-Yahud” (Slaughter the Jews) is a more familiar cry than “Play ball!”
They push back, and I resist some more. Eventually, it becomes clear whether I can succeed in cooling a would-be convert’s ardor.
Several times in the past year, we got to the point where I almost gave up, and had to use my trump card. This card is reserved for those from the Far East. It has worked each time.
“OK, I see I am getting nowhere with you. You are determined to become Jewish, despite having had your eyes opened to the risks. You know how difficult and detailed halachic life can be, and you still want to go ahead. You are prepared to (pick all the ones that apply to your gender) give up easily available food; stop eating cheeseburgers; get up every morning for minyan; throw out your wardrobe and wear hot frumpy skirts in the summer; deal with a pool of potential mates smaller than the number of fiscally responsible people known to Nancy Pelosi. You claim that the discipline resonates within you, and that you cherish the values of traditional Judaism. You have looked at the heterodox movements and have come to believe that they are a sham. One small problem remains. Living the life style isn’t enough, and won’t even work, unless you firmly believe in the assumptions behind it. The most important assumption is the existence of G-d, a Being about Whom you were completely unfamiliar until very recently. He just is not part of the working vocabulary in your former part of the world. You cannot convert without a G-d concept, and I cannot figure out where you are going to find one, coming from your background!”
Stops ‘em dead in their tracks, each time.
But not for long. It sometimes took them months before they returned, but they did come back, with clear, articulate responses that were inspiring to listen to. They are not for publicizing now, as they would violate the privacy of some wonderful friends. I can share a sense of wonder at the ability of some deeply intelligent people who have never known of a deity to look back at their lives and discover G-d within them. The idea of G-d, so absent from parts of the East, can trigger inner conviction when presented to people in the proper manner. I guess that if I were a Presbyterian missionary in Taiwan at the end of the 19th century I would not be surprised, but that experience has (mercifully) escaped me.
As a believer, I was pleased that the idea of G-d could resonate deeply in those who had never heard (literally!) of Him. I was even more struck by the realization that billions of people simply had no need for the concept in the first place.
How could this be? Many important Rishonim treated emunah as a tautology hundreds of years ago. Prime Mover and First Cause arguments presumed that a person needed to know how the universe got here, and would understand the need for a Being that was responsible for creation in order to answer the question. There is no shortage of people in our community today who maintain that belief is tautological, that compelling evidence of His Existence is apparent to all those who do not deliberately close their eyes to it. How could it be that there are billions of people for whom the answer not self-evident? Moreover, they are not concerned with the question either!
Rav Hirsch provided some insight. With their backs to the Sea and the Egyptian army closing in on them, the Bnei Yisrael cynically confront Moshe. “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us here to die?” Don’t be shocked by their lack of bitachon, says Rav Hirsch. Their disbelief is of great use to us to this very day. If our ancestors were the kind of people to be taken in by a charismatic leader who produced some great victory for them, we could not really trust their acceptance of our faith. They weren’t. They were stiff-necked skeptics who challenged Moshe again and again. Yet by the end of Devarim, their skepticism had turned to belief and commitment so firm that their descendants would endure the privations of the Galus rather than turn their backs on their beliefs. Something of significance had happened to make firm believers out of them.
Among the arguments of the New Atheists is the notion that there is a G-d gene, a byproduct of evolution that predisposes humans to belief in a higher power. If this were true, the effectiveness of all arguments for belief would be compromised. (NB – I used the word “arguments,” rather than “proofs.” At least to the people with whom I have dealt, the latter just do not work.) The Gra is supposed to have urged people to substitute Kuzari for Shaar ha-Yichud in Chovos ha-Levavos, claiming that Kuzari represents the authentic mesorah of the Jewish people. It might follow from this that the authentic argument for Jewish belief is R.Yehudah ha-Levi’s (author of Kuzari) argument that Jews know G-d because they were there, because they enjoyed a historical relationship with Him.
If all human beings were possessed (as I had been led to believe in my youth) of a real need to believe in a higher power, we would be more likely to doubt our mesorah of such a relationship, as surely as we would if we thought that earlier generations were gullible pushovers. Billions of Chinese demonstrate that there is no such compelling need. Like the skepticism of those who questioned Moshe moments before the splitting of the Reed Sea, the Chinese fortify our mesorah for belief!