A manual of Jewish belief (a guide to real Judaism) for the thinking individual.

Copyright © 1977 by R' Avi Shafran

[Web Page Last Revised: Tuesday, June 29, 2004 02:33 PM ]


Chapter 9. Great Thinkers and Their Hangups

One of the most persistent problems which afflicts the faith of the modern-day common man is the denial of G~d by men famous for their intelligence or insight. Though many, probably most, of the world's great thinkers have believed in G~d, there certainly were some who did not, and even some of those who did, believed in a different kind of G~d, not the traditional Jewish concept of G~d. If these men deemed it correct to think as they did, shouldn't we average men follow their examples?

In truth, a similar question, equally bothersome, should be added here: How can every man be expected to find faith and realize the true religion when apparently the deduction of G~d's existence seems to be such an extensive intellectual endeavor, the subject of the arguments of the world's greatest minds? Judaism unconditionally requires the belief in G~d of every adult human being, regardless of intellectual capacity!

This second question is not as pressing if we accept the outlook of R. Yehudah Halevi, as mentioned in the first chapter. (He pointed out that G~d can be realized through history and experience, rather than through logical thought.) But the question remains as regards the views of the other great Jewish thinkers, who used philosophy to prove the basics of their religion. And, aside from this, even according to R. Yehudah Halevi, the first question remains, since some philosophers have even claimed to have "proven" the impossibility of a Supreme Force.

The answer to these questions is to be found in the writings of two giants of Torah-learning, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman and Rabbi E.E. Dessler.

Rabbi Wasserman begins by asking yet another question, on the choice of words in a talmudic statement which mentions the heart as the source of disbelief and rational atheism. The heart in all biblical, post-biblical and talmudic literature is figuratively used to indicate the source of the will, the emotions or the desires of man. But the seat of rationale and intellect is the head or brain. Why trace disbelief to the heart?

Rabbi Wasserman explains: (and I liberally paraphrase)

Every man, woman, and child capable of intelligent thought can see the obvious truth that there is a Creator of the universe. They can feel His existence. They can realize with almost no effort at all the astoundingly simple fact that there must be a G~d, just as simply as they realize, for instance, that they themselves exist. They can see clearly the absurdity of any theory which writes off the creation of the world and its creatures as a chance happening, or which proposes the nonsense-idea that the cosmos has always existed and that eternity has taken place up until now.

But any point can be argued and any point can really be logically "proven". "Proving" the non-existence of G~d is no exception. The Sophists, for example, an ancient school of Greek philosophers are mainly known for their willingness to have argued logically any side of an issue just for "the hell of it". And they would win, leaving their opponents bewildered, wondering what happened, ignorant of the location of the tiny flaw or misconception which the other blended into his argument. A sly prankster with a knowledge of logic can prove to an intelligent man that his navel is on his forehead, if he so pleases.

Now the question is, why would so many seemingly sincere philosophers try so cunningly to trick us into non-belief? The answer is that they really are sincere and they really aren't tricking anyone – at least not consciously.

A person's desires unconsciously dictate to his will what his actions and attitudes should be. This is a natural and very automatic occurrence and cannot be denied. The Talmud states that a man who has accepted any favor, no matter how small, from his fellow, cannot serve as his judge in a legal judgment, for surely in some minute but definite way his view of the case has been biased. The Talmud then relates a case concerning Rabbi Yishmoel ben R. Yosi, a scholar of talmudic times, who refused to hear a case where the defendant, who happened to be his gardener, had once brought him a basket of his own (R. Yishmoel's) fruit a day earlier than expected. R. Yishmoel sat in on the courtroom proceedings, the case finally having been accepted by another judge. He caught himself unconsciously finding legal loopholes in favor of his gardener. We are speaking here of a tanna, a leader of Torah-learning who lived at the beginning of the Common Era. Tannaim do not as a rule let anything resembling a bribe influence their decisions in any respect whatsoever, yet this tanna saw the harm which had unconsciously impaired his judgment because a basket of his own fruit had been brought to him early by the defendant.

When a philosopher sits down in his philosophizing chair with every sincere intention to obtain truth as his result, and undertakes to prove logically the existence or non-existence of G~d, unless he is a man who has overcome and denied his every desire and urge, he starts out with two strikes against him. He will not find truth. For, while he thinks, his primitive desires are, without his conscious knowledge, biasing his judgment, reminding him, for instance, that if he establishes G~d he may be forced by his convictions to forego earthly pleasures in the future, in order to follow up his results and serve his G~d.

The influence is of course much more subtle than this rather blunt example, and man's unconscious temptation is much more intricate and diverse, but the idea is generally the same. A man who admits to having desires and urges – ulterior motives – admits thereby to his incapability of judging philosophical (and many other types of) points fairly.

Realizing the truth of the preceding points the reader will see that the questions which we asked are answered, including the talmudic question of Rabbi Wasserman. We now understand that the root of atheism and disbelief is indeed the "heart" (the emotions and desires) and not the brain.

This is why we can trust – even in matter governed by nothing more than strict logical thought – only men who have denied their base instincts in favor of truth. Such men were the Torah-scholars of the Talmud. Today we can find the highest level of such clearmindedness in the Torah-scholars of our own times.

(Incidentally, the judgment of men is also affected by the sins which they have already committed. These sins cloud the mind's eye which, if only left unmuddled, has the ability of recognizing G~d's existence as a matter of fact.)

Rabbi Dessler goes on to note that the only way for us to cleanse our intelligence-souls of the taints which dim our sensible judgment is to become perfect people, people who imitate to the highest degree the characteristics which G~d has deemed "good" (such as mercy, kindness, fairness, etc.) in their dealings with others, and people who carefully adhere to all of G~d's laws. The achievement of the latter is begun by carefully and diligently studying and restudying the law, something religious Jews never cease doing throughout their lifetimes. But what of the achievement of ethical perfection, the correct attitude to be acquired for dealings with other human beings? One cannot develop this attitude totally through the study of dry laws. Without knowing how to resist the desires and urges to wrong other people financially, emotionally and even physically, as sometimes occurs, we cannot claim to have reached the apogee of clearmindedness.

Rabbi Dessler explains that the secret to achieving this particular perfection of emotional feeling is in the study of a certain type of book, the volume of "mussar". There are four or five universally accepted books of this type and countless lesser ones. They are unique in Jewish religious literature and very valuable to the man fighting his passions, trying to attain real fulfillment. We will not attempt a description of these books, for their style is varied. Their purpose has already been explained. Orthodox rabbinical students are generally well versed in these books and study them regularly.

Once the judgment is distorted, it cannot be trusted to deliver an accurate judgment even regarding a subject heretofore undealt with by the man concerned. Therefore if we know of a man who has human passions and makes anything less than an all-out effort to suppress them when they need suppressing, a man who therefore is influenced by his innermost desires, we may assume that his judgment concerning even the most remote philosophical point is as worthless as a balloon with an ever so tiny hole in it.

Let us now go one step further and make a new point concerning the subject at hand. Even if there would be a man who was as free of sin as possible and who suppressed his animalistic passions when it was necessary, he could still remain faithless and not experience the natural inclination to feel and love G~d. For there is yet one important condition which must be fulfilled to allow this recognition to flow. The man must want to believe. Possibly the most important of all the requirements for faith is the will to acquire it. This is why studying Torah and keeping all the commandments with only the intention that it is an insincere mere "try-out" to see if anything more concrete develops is not the type of "insincerity" which the Talmud states will lead to sincerity. What the Talmud is referring to is the leading of a Torah-observant life even though the faith of the individual is dwindling or absent altogether. But he must want the faith to come. Without this will, the rest is undermined and worthless.

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