A few days before writing of this article, the United Nations renewed and strengthened it’s call that peace be along the lines of the 1949 armistice lines set in the first war fought by the modern country of Israel. Jerusalem has gone back and forth between all sorts of conquerors for thousands of years – it’s name, according to Jewish sources is a mix of “yeru” meaning to fear or be in awe of G_d because of Abraham’s fear of G_d there … and “salim” which the people before him called it. It was a compromise.
Maybe one day I will get to reading books as they come out – while I was about 60 years too late commenting on Lawrence of Arabia I’m only about ten years behind for the Jews in the Dominican Republic and this one. However, this is not a new topic for me and in many ways, one needs to find an older book to find something more scholarly on the subject of Hasidic Jews who leave the path. Today, what I largely find on the topic are sensationalist “self-accounts” and Facebook rants by angry people that I’ve found by accident . . . but I stuck around for some great intellectual discussions with them.
Hella Winston on Hasidim
Anyway, on to Hella Winston’s book. She’s a Jew raised with no religious background who describes her own great ignorance about Judaism. She, in one extreme, set out to understand the other extreme and ended up writing about those who leave or want to leave their Hasidic groups which proved more interesting to her. Almost all of the stories focus around Satmar, one of the largest Hasidic groups and the one known to be most strict and insular. While the author goes to great lengths to simply provide the information without bias, she’s less successful at this at the book goes on but no person can truly write without bias and overall, she does a wonderful job.
One of those biases is the repeated rebuke of the premise that Hasidim who leave will get into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. The book mainly tells the tale of “Yossi”, a former Satmar Chasid who gets into drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity. At one point, she quotes him as saying, “I eat anything. I shtup anything.” (The word used wasn’t in yiddish.) Then there’s an interesting insight about how Chasidim often do believe that being a liberal and being on the outside involves just that … doing anything without bounds. Meanwhile, the few Lubovitch stories (a group which has a goal of being connected to the outside world and bringing them in) are far, far less dramatic though still heart-wrenching.
What Do I Think
For my own biases, which you can find all throughout this blog, one of the best biographies I have ever read was on the Satmar Rav – you can read that review over here. He was a man of amazing intellect, principal, and the drive to replace a community that was destroyed in a way which was more exacting and more extreme than the one he left and with great success where his predecessors largely failed. He wanted to make it better and in his community, there were no compromises and no exceptions. Meanwhile, no matter who you are, you can’t go through a situation like he did, barely escaping with his life while your world is destroyed, and come out unscathed.
While I certainly admire the man, what I haven’t written about is that after I read the biography, I went and found a book purity based on the writings of the Satmar Rav … I couldn’t get very far. Let’s leave it at that.
The striking part for me is what I’ve heard about, but Winston brings a whole lot more understanding to – it’s all or nothing. The problem is this, and this is straight out of Mesilias Yesharim, the chapter on purity: the higher levels of purity are meant for some, not all. By requiring it of those who are not up to the task, you are suffocating them. What then happens is they become requirements in a community, and worse, many of the requirements have nothing or little to do with Jewish law – e.g. there is no requirement (that I know of) in Jewish law to have long peyos though I can and do appreciate those that say “I want to do more than the minimum” and leaving the corners of your face unshaven, as we leave the corners of our fields for the poor. There is no requirement (that I know of) to have a long beard – it’s a kabbalistic thing of sorts (though I have one because it beats shaving every day). There is no requirement to wear a long black coat. However, these are things that people can see and since there is no leeway for doing anything but the highest levels of “purity”, people end up doing them not out of purity but out of “what will the neighbors say?” It’s kind of like “what will my friends say if I drive a Volvo while they have Benz’s?” only with a Volvo, your kids can still be accepted into the local schools.
The same goes for secular education – Winston aptly brings up the point that the Hasidim of old were involved in trades and secular education, but today it’s largely fallen by the wayside especially as funds have dried up with huge growth and low incomes to support it. If you ever want to see how government assistance can ruin the work ethic of a community, no need to look at the inner city black population (at least not that black population). The funds could be better directed to providing better educational opportunities, but alas, in the United States and more so in New York, again we’re faced with an “all or nothing” situation … funds are provided for public schools devoid of specific religious instruction or you go to a religious institution which struggles to provide secular education (or gives up in others).
Where We Go
I am a Torah observant Jew and I can say I experience some of these issues, while not seeing the others. A world where people’s interiors sometimes are far different than what they keep up on the exterior? Not in my circles. A world devoid of secular education? Not in my circles. A world where we struggle to find the balance between religious and secular? Yes! That’s in my circles.
What is needed is the place where one can find the middle path and where children can grow to find theirs. I have the utmost respect and the utmost support for a Jew who is Chassidish and is totally into it just as I do the Modern Orthodox Jew, so long as they are true to themselves and true to the Torah, and ultimately, what G_d wants. G_d gave us the Torah and mitzvos as a vehicle for joy, meaning, and purpose in life. At the same time, we have to live within the world and we are the only major belief system that says we have to do both.
As someone who went “the other way”, going from secular to religious, I also say that we must be sensitive to where our children are. While we guide them and of course want every Jew to be Torah observant, even Avraham, Yitzchok, and Yaakov were completely different in their approaches to serving G_d but all completely observant of the mitzvos.
I’ll leave it at that.
In part 1 I discussed living for meaning and how that brings one to go towards an infinite purpose beyond our lives and world which is destined to end.
In part 2 I discussed which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
Now in part 3, I discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
How Does Judaism Provide a Positive Answer for How to Live?
We have to deal with “bad things” if we are going to discuss the observable world. These “bad things” do not happen without purpose in Judaism. “Bad things” are not desired by the Creator. They happen to bring about good. They happen to help us grow. Everything is a lesson for us, and every “bad thing” teaches us something or jolts us to do better because we should be doing something more. If never tested, we could never grow to do more. You can’t be “great” if you are never given the chance to overcome challenges … and succeed. This is for the individual and this is for society as a whole.
Thus, while we lament 2000 years since the destruction of the second Temple for example, on a day of mourning each year, Judaism believes that it’s not the fault of the others who did the destruction. The Jews could have been doing better and it was done with the angelic creatures in the holy of holies facing towards each other … out of love. We strive for greatness by breaking something and putting it all back together a whole lot better.
On a personal level, this goes throughout our day and our life. Adversity and seeming “bad things” become good … because Judaism believes they are, no matter how small or large. You can test me with my life and you can test me with my keeping of the Torah. The latter is actually a test which is able to hurt us much more, but still, the test allows us to achieve. As long as we look at the world in this manner, we will always be happy. It’s not always easy, but this does fit within what we observe in the world – all people go through trials and pains. We are all meant to realize what we are going through is for us to have and for us to overcome in our personal struggle. It is, after all, the struggle that brings meaning. It is this struggle and this meaning which makes us greater, as a part of the Creator which is infinite, than just a hypothetical Creator with no creation.
How Does Judaism Fit Within the Observable Reality
As referred to in the previous article, the reality is that the whole world does not believe the same thing. The Torah accounts for this, pointing to many nations with different beliefs. The reality is that we don’t meet perfect people. The Torah accounts for this, telling us exactly what our prophets did wrong.
Muslims love to use this as an example of how their prophets were perfect, but we speak badly about ours. On the contrary, I say that all the others like to talk up the perfection of their holy person, whereas Judaism has no single holy person, but has a nation which struggles for greatness and with real faults. This is evidence, to me, that Judaism is much more likely correct since it’s impossible logically for all the contradictory “religious” belief systems to be true and contradictory, but yet they all, to my knowledge claim their leader was perfect … except Judaism. When Jews are described as “stiff-necked” in the Torah, is it an anti-semite writing or the Creator speaking truth?
When one looks as Ismael, father of the Arab nations and Esav, father of the Rome, Ham, father of the African nations … it all seems to fit well. Just as, in a silly example, Star Wars has staying power because it speaks to lots of people through time, so has the Torah. The proliferation of so many beliefs based on it seem only to show how much meaning is in there.
Then, take for example the prediction of the destruction of Israel, the scattering of the Jews, an the return to Israel described in Devarim [Deuteronomy]. What kind of man made religion predicts such a crazy thing? How is it turning out to be true 2000 years later? Who disperses around the world and then returns in any recognizable fashion to their original land?
Using the Physical World, But Being Spiritual
Judaism provides an intersection between the spiritual and the physical. The physical is “elevated”. The Talmud asks how one can eat anything – you’re stealing from the Creation. Answer: you say a blessing where you thank the Creator and have a relationship with the creator. You turn it into a spiritual experience (when done right).
We have six days a week of work and one day a week of spiritual existence where we disconnect from acts of creation in the physical world (the Shabbos). On the work days, we say blessings, we kiss mezeuzahs when we enter through doors, we put on tefillin, and we take time out three times a day for meditation. On Shabbos, we take are whole day out, but still eat and do physical things so long as they don’t remove us too far from the day or involve acts of new creation.
Then we have the exceptions – Yom Kippur, a day dedicated to the spiritual with no food, but not no food out of affliction. Rather, this is because completely spiritual beings do not need food. On the flip side, we have the physical day – Purim, where we use the physical as a tool to remove our inhibitions and connect to the infinite. Most times, however, are in the middle of the extremes … something like Pesach where we eat a full meal as thanks to the Creator and then finish with some matzah for dessert … flat bread devoid of having risen, which we eat when full for the mitzvah itself, not the sustenance. However, Jewish law says that we must have some room left over to eat it because, after all, we are still physical and must involve the physical.
What About Heterodox / Non-Orthodox Jewish Movements
Along with this question goes, “Why do I have to do all these things?” and “What if I don’t find meaning in them?” One of the tragedies of modern Ashkenazi Judaism is lack of education. Judaism is an entire way of life which works and has tremendous staying power. No matter the adversity, there is something to it. Still, most recently in history, Jews when through enormous physical struggles and came out wounded, but with a Torah system which is rebuilding anew and in many ways, much stronger.
The practical reality is that today there’s very little distinction between the different non-Orthodox variants. For example, the written Torah and every Jewish sect and breakaway known in our entire written history says that we don’t light a fire on Shabbos. This is an act of creation from which we refrain. Every modern heterodox movement will say something like, “that’s too hard for us today, so you can drive your car with combustion engine.” Some will say, “but only to synagogue,” as if this is more logical. In an attempt conserve, they’ve put a band aid on a huge wound and taught what is not Torah is the name of Judaism.
It’s a huge failure. If you don’t teach the children that it’s truth and strip the inner essence to leave some rituals that you view as antiquated … you won’t be left with many adherents. This seems obvious to me. The last time I heard a heterodox leader speak, it was at a great-uncle’s funeral. He asked why angels were going up a ladder and another set down in Jacob’s dream. He then went into some sort of attenuated comparison about my great-uncle’s volunteering for the WPA. I wanted to scream out, “Rashi [most basic commentator to the Torah] gives two answers to your question! Just pick one!” The problem is I’m pretty sure I’m pretty sure no one in the room would know what’s a Rashi.
Conservative Jews are so because Judaism meant something to their parents. Reform Jews are so because Judaism meant something to their grandparents. With this exception of a very small knowledge inner core, the substance of Judaism has been replaced with nastalgia and modern American liberal politics having nothing to do with a counter culture that has transcended continents and cultures.
If Judaism is So Great, Why Do Even People Educated Properly In It Leave?
People don’t run away from something good. I don’t think there’s one answer to this question. There are different groups of ‘leavers’. Many, I have found, come from very rigidly structured groups without the ability for self-expression. Others are rebelling from their parents to lesser or greater degrees. Others had social issues, especially as children – Jewish learning is demanding. A boy who has trouble learning can be at risk of leaving if he fails he is a failure and it is a wholly negative experience. A boy who is way too smart may also not fit in and may not find a suitable peer group and may be teased. Others don’t want to be “told” what to do; they want to have their version of “freedom” and don’t have room for another power greater, smarter, or better than them. These reasons for changing what one does in life are not exclusive to Judaism, I think tend to have an emotional underpinning, and is a topic that needs further exploration.
Part of my goal here, besides more content = better SEO = higher ranking for my work website which is linked to from here … where was I. Part of my goal was to put down in writing “What I answer myself” as well as common questions that come up in discussions on the topic.
I hope I have explained a rational basis for belief in a Creator. Added to this is that the more one believes in a Creator, the more one experiences a Creator. Things happen because of a Creator and answers come. One starts seeing a Creator everywhere. Here’s one example I see.
I hope I have also explained that a belief should be both positive and fit within what we observe in the world – I cannot test or rely on what is not here, nor do I choose a belief which negates this world or looks at it negatively.
Finally, I hope I have explained how Judaism best satisfies all of the above criteria, and is, in my view, correct and only re-enforced by other beliefs from scientific thoughts on creation and evolution to other Judaism-based beliefs. Still, there are of course questions and nothing is a proof, though I choose, with reason to place my belief over here.
In a first post, I wrote I chose to be an Orthodox Jew, focusing mainly on belief in a Creator. How does that get me from Creator –> this particular belief system?
In part 2 below I will discuss which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
In part 3, I will discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
Why Does Belief in a Creator Solve Anything?
First, I think it’s true that belief in a Creator does not fully satisfy an answer to a question of “then what? Isn’t there also some sort of end that way?” The physical world ends in heat death … if I survive on forever with my soul or return to the infinite … then what? For this I refer to things I’ve heard in the name of the Ari Z”l, a kabbalist, and the RamChal, a would-be kabbalist who died at 39 years of age.
In order for the infinite to truly be infinite, that infinite needs a finite part. The physical is that finite part and has within it all sorts of very big and complex things … the concept of hate and the concept of suffering being some of them. One cannot perfect oneself if one is never given the chance to do so. We are part and also the same as the Creator, in different senses. One can spend one’s life dedicated to a certain profession or study, and that’s fine, but even better is to couple and connect back.
An atheist once argued to me that this is no different than the physical world … one goes around in circles. Maybe true, but I’ll choose the biggest and most meaningful circle – the infinite one and not the limited duration timeline one.
How I Narrow Down What Belief System to Choose’
Referring back to the first sentence of the earlier article on What to Live For, I choose to live for something positive. This rules out arguments like the “reverse Pascal wager” which posits that maybe the Creator created us with a test not to believe and those who do will see punishment. No one actually believes such a thing … they just use it to try and win arguments.
As a starting point we also have to look at how the world is. If you want to start with, “If there was a G_d, then X would be different…” you lost me. You are pre-supposing that G_d wouldn’t create the world this way. I don’t pre-suppose such things, and again, such arguments are academic. I want to make a choice how to live my life based on what I observe and what gives meaning within the observable system I call my life.
This also involves intellect which says there is something more in order to achieve greater meaning and purpose. Even evolutionary theory points to this – evolution states that things get more sophisticated … we seek intellect and the majority of humans seek out and believe in a Creator. Animals, as far as we know have no such ability.
Applying the Narrow Down Method
As amply covered already, scientific inquiry and discovery not in the context of a world with a Creator is meaningless and purposeless. I want better than a Camus-type answer of something along the lines of learning to like pushing a rock up a hill to watch it come back down. Where is there meaning beyond working to eat food have the energy to work again? Further, where is this a positive way to live.
Buddhism was out for me pretty quickly. It’s founded by someone who, the story goes, engaged in flagellation and sat under a tree deciding that the world is suffering and he most escape. Nope – this is a negative world that I’m living in and the best I can hope for is escape from it? Not for me.
Hinduism actually holds a bit of appeal to me … if one finds a very monotheistic version.
Then there are the Judaism-descended beliefs. Christianity was supposed to supplant Judaism. Islam and Mormonism were supposed to supplant Christianity. Ba’hai was supposed to supplant Islam. Each of these has factions and sects and the like. All this proves is that Judaism has a really, really good foundation for which a whole lot of people and beliefs can use to try and claim some legitimacy. Further, it’s not really logical for the Creator to give an eternal instruction book that gets replaced with another one saying to do different things.
Yes, I know, each replacement theology will have it’s arguments … second coming, man corrupted the stuff before, or that sort of thing. Even if you say that, you still have to contend with things like most people being destined for eternal suffering, the ability to do terrible things and be “saved” because you say you believe the right thing, and so forth. Each of these, not coincidentally, also thinks that the rest of the world is supposed to believe like them. If so, then why don’t you see that in the observable world? I’m just supposed to believe this other guy because he tells he has faith in iteration 2, sub part 33 of the replacement theology and not the other guy with faith in iteration 4, sub part 5? No thanks. None of this fits either of my requirements – a) positive, b) fits with the observable world.
Which brings me to . . .
This brings me to why Judaism fits the test – it’s positive and fits with the observable world. It is positive in this world, here and now. It provides the ability and guidance to live within this world. It also provides a spiritual existence with meaning transcending this life alone.
In article 1 (below) I discuss living for meaning and how that brings one to go towards an infinite purpose beyond our lives and world which is destined to end.
In article 2 I will discuss which alternatives do not fit this criteria – they either do not provide a positive purpose for this world in which I am in and/or do not fit with observable reality where I find myself.
In article 3, I will discuss why Judaism fits into the criteria I used as my basis for part 2.
What Do You Live For?
The meaning of life is in the struggle for greatness. Those who are happy are those who have something to life for and a goal to seek. Some struggle for freedom from oppression, some struggle for food. Some struggle for power, some struggle for money. All those struggles end in death. I write nothing new here, as this is more or less the beginning of one of the first classes I ever heard from an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. His name was Noach Weinberg, and this speaks to me.
This immediately rules out, at least for me, a life devoid of connection to G_d, the infinite, the Creator, the spiritual plane of existence. You can have all the pleasures in the world, all the money in the world, all the power in the world, and even all the knowledge in the world. Then what?
I’ll tell you what: heat death of the universe. This is what science has to offer us. For all our struggles, we will die. Our ideas will die. Humanity will die. It will be for nothing. If all there is, is a physical world . . . that’s depressing. You can do something “lesser” or something “greater” but compared to heat death, all is nothing. Again, I say nothing new here. King Solomon said this long before me as did Iyov [Job], as did many modern philosophers.
Why Does Being an “Orthodox Jew” Give Something to Live For?
Every day, I wake up and thank the Creator for returning my life to me another day. This is, in Jewish law, the very first thing we say upon waking up every day. From the very beginning of the day, I arise with purpose. I head off to synagogue and continue . . . thanks for giving me eyesight, thanks for giving me the ability to walk, thanks for giving me the ability to . . . well, not be like an animal that seeks it’s food to live in an endless circle of food for life, living for food. Thank You because I can connect to You.
Sure, there are morning I don’t make it to synagogue and there are mornings I’m late and unfortunately rush through faster than I should. Still, I get up, and do this no matter what, the getting up with purpose culminating in a mediation session where it is just me and the infinite . . . who I talk to in the second person: You [ata in Hebrew].
How do Believe in That Which You Cannot Test?
That is all well and good, but the atheist will argue that one can run tests and experiments and write peer reviewed articles and come to a consensus on a great many things in the physical universe. I have spent many a conversation trying to understand the beliefs of an atheist, here, here, and here for example.
At the end of the day, however, a consensus does not bring truth. Consensus is often wrong. One can neither argue nor prove the existence nor lack thereof of a Creator, though the more one sees the world as though there is one, the more it becomes obvious that there has to be. One cannot know why the Big Bang did what it did. One cannot know why the laws of physics are just right such that ice floats, protons and electrons exist and form compounds … that carbon can bond with itself four times. The famous Dr. Crick, who discovered DNA, a wonder in itself that stems from life just spontaneously existing, declared that it must have come from an outer space seed because … how else could it have happened?
There is evidence of, and mathematical theories as to how evolution, for example, might have worked. These theories are usually written by people who don’t believe, don’t want to believe, and start with a premise of disbelief. They believe in it without ever having seen a fish grow legs and walk on land, for such a proposition is far from testable. It’s a tool to understand creation by a Creator, nothing more. The Talmud describes it in the second chapter of Chagigah, that such studies are like examining the King’s trash heap . . . see all the things the King discarded. You, the atheist will argue, “but you’re pre-supposing G_d exists when you call it ‘the King’s trash heap'” to which I rebut, “Okay, let’s examine from your perspective: you’re examining the dead remains of what came before you while on your way to heat death. Go find a hot tub and enjoy the moment instead.” That’s not a belief. It’s an attempt, all to often, to escape from G_d, not find a positive belief of your own. As Dawkins famously said, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
In a Dawkins world, one receives Intellectual fulfillment as long as one doesn’t think too long term as from where you came and where you are going. For this, the various Greek philosophies made more sense … go for physical pleasure how you desire here and now. What’s in it for examination of the past … unless you believe in G_d and then, hey, maybe it’s a trash heap, but it’s a heap of a King! Now I can understand something about how G_d functions and how the progression went from simpler to more complex as both the geological record and Judaism-based beliefs both tell us.
So an honest answer is – we all believe in what we cannot test unless we simply do not think about it. Some believe in “evolution” as a reason for us to be here, some believe in “G_d”. Most in either category do not think about it one way or the other. Once you begin to think, that’s when you get yourself into trouble. Absent emotional reasons to believe one way or the other, one cannot prove one way or the other, but one must logically choose to believe there is a Creator and then follow the evidence from there.
Why is Belief in a Creator Any Better?
Aren’t we still just going around in a circle, back to a Creator? What for? Part II will answer this.