Tuesday, July 23, 2013

My Faith and Zev Farber's Faith

On March 19, 2003, I was shipped off to a boarding school for defiant teenagers. It was a crazy place and while "scam" might not be technically accurate, I think that term will cover my alma mater for most purposes. Still, I learned some things there. If I had to choose one overall message that really sums up the lesson they were trying to push there, it would be "Get Out of Your Comfort Zone." I had to direct a skit about arguing with my parents in front of both the entire school and, the next day, in front of my parents. I had to repel and climb,  despite my fear of heights. I liked to read, but the day before the 5th Harry Potter book came out, I was put on bans with pleasure reading and my books confiscated. &c.

It was at my old school that I decided to become an Orthodox Jew. My faith was one based in proofs (or evidence, call it whatever you want), but not Kuzari and the like. No, for me, the Teleological Argument, the Cosmological Argument, and the Argument From Jewish History were quite compelling. I had looked into other religions and denominations (despite the ban on reading, I had a way of getting around that for religion), but I thought Orthodox Judaism just made more sense. While there was a haredi rabbi who came up to the school once a month to give a lecture, nobody "mekarved" me, and in fact that rabbi and I never saw eye-to-eye. I had only a dim sense of skepticism at the time and as a teenager, I immaturely just thought that I had personally figured out The Obvious Truth. Still, it took the lessons about leaving my comfort zone for me to change my life plans and decide to take gradual steps to become an Orthodox Jew. After graduating in 2005, I started attending an Orthodox synagogue which I'd never previously been aware of, and soon ended up in yeshivas in Israel. The rabbis were haredi and I was very into the Rav's writings, so I soon found myself at loggerheads. The conflicts led me to understand they didn't know everything, and I eventually engaged in my own theological navigation on more complex matters of rabbinic authority and what is considered an acceptable Jewish belief; I lost friends over minutiae, e.g. the fact that I didn't think Judaism had necessarily always required that Moses wrote the entire Bible. I was not the only bachur to find some of the proofs sketchy. Still, I agreed with my more extreme brethren on the matter of why we believed. Some of my more Modern Orthodox friends -- and even one of my moderate haredi rabbis! -- saw Judaism as a matter of faith and emotion, but this made no sense to me; as kiruv rabbis told us, that would make Judaism just another emotionally-driven religion. My religion was a litvishe religion, a religion based on facts on the ground. We were different precisely because we had proof that made us different! 5 years after first starting to daven Shacharis consistently, I accidentally caused another friend to leave Orthodox Judaism and he pushed me to reconsider my own beliefs, eventually leading to my going OTD.

I thought of this journey from my life after reading Rabbi Zev Farber's recent essay. His Judaism is foreign to me. My Judaism was a religion of proofs, evidence, and an uncomfortable journey. I think his understanding of the Talmud's fish and fox story demonstrates that his is one of somebody with a historical conscience seeking a comfortable faith in divinely inspired myth. Mine was what Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb calls "living up to the truth," with all the sneering/condescending implications; his is one of finding a narrative which will frame the myths in a way where he both can be a Torah Jew and be comfortable that he's been intellectually honest enough to accept the historical facts.

Some of my friends were disappointed in Rabbi Farber, both on the left and right. A rabbi told me it was just an explication of Conservative Judaism, while an atheist said that he couldn't understand how the guy doesn't recognize the logical implications of his findings. I sympathize with their sentiments and I myself jokingly told Farber on Facebook that he's sooo close to the real red pill, it's right there if he's interested. But I'm not upset; on the contrary, I commend Farber for so lucidly and bravely introducing Orthodox Jews who might otherwise be unaware of the facts to them and I think it's a positive development. I believe that anybody who wants facts should have access to them, and much of the literature is not as straightforward and candid as Farber was.

I wonder though about this Judaism of faith, Judaism of comfort, Judaism of divinely inspired myth. The reasons to believe are, in my opinion, not much different than others' reasons for believing in their own religions. Perhaps I'm just too litvishe, but I don't understand such a faith. This is not to say I think everybody should leave. I certainly understand that after years -- in some cases decades -- of being in a community, it is often impractical for people happy with their shuls and communities to just walk away (and tomorrow I'm going to have a post about failures of us nontheists). I was a young, single, baal teshuva nobody when I did, quite different than people I know who are married to rabbis or who have been entrenched for decades in the same world. But it seems to me that the best solution for them be a slightly subversive skeptical Orthopraxy, perhaps not explicating on exactly what you believe, but always asking questions to show the issues with problematic doctrines. But at the point we admit this is just another myth, who needs it, and why say it's divinely inspired?

Search for more information about the comfort zone at4torah.com

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