Prove It (Ideas #53)

As we leave behind our memories of Chanukah, we move back to the mundane world, requiring us to focus our attention on practical pursuits. We spend much of our time going to work, paying our bills, buying our groceries, and fulfilling various social and civic obligations. In these matters, we justifiably follow the norms of secular society. If our Judaism is expressed at all in these matters, it does so in complete coexistence with our Western cultural surroundings.

While there is nothing wrong with following the norms of secular society in mundane matters, we must still be quite vigilant in examining the possible impact of such behavior on our spiritual lives. To quote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, we cannot help but be influenced "by the ideas, opinions, principles and habits that have become current among (our) contemporaries." Willy-nilly, we live and breathe the values of general society. Rabbi Hirsch was unusually perceptive in his awareness of this and modeled his entire approach to Judaism, known as "Torah im Derekh Eretz," upon this observation. Whether we agree with his approach or not, we should still all be cognizant of the subconscious impact of contemporary Western values upon even our most cherished beliefs.

Many philosophies have come and gone in the Modern era. However, the schools and modes of thought in our liberal democratic societies are still very rooted in the rationalist thought of the Enlightenment and of the scientific revolution. With the tremendous breakthroughs made in the field of science, scientific inquiry has gained universal acceptance and prestige. This is so much the case, that for many, science has become synonymous with truth itself.

At the center of the scientific enterprise is empiricism. By empiricism, I mean the basing of knowledge exclusively upon phenomena that can be verified or disproved by observation or experimentation. Indeed, not only has empiricism allowed societies to progress in the natural sciences, it is also the basis of market research, as well as what helps us organize our personal finances - to mention only a few of its practical applications.

We may implicitly realize that religion is beyond true empiricism - it is not something we can test in the laboratory. As our Rabbis tell us, G-d is the place (hamakom) of the world and not vice-versa. Even so, faith is something that is becoming less and less compatible with our weekday lives, where that which cannot be measured has increasingly less of a role. In our mundane pursuits, we act like every one around us and demand hard facts. And as citizens of the modern Western world, we make almost all of our mundane decisions based upon these facts.

It is for this reason that various Jewish outreach organizations and professionals have felt a need to show the "facts" proving the correctness of Judaism. Perhaps this is the only way to attract many Jews entrenched in the empiricism of our times, yet it still remains a questionable proposition. This is not to say that we should not examine the rationality of our beliefs. Indeed, we can and should expect that our beliefs are rational. There is, however, a difference between rational and empirical: A person who looks to empiricism as the only source of knowledge will not be convinced.

Ultimately, religion requires us to believe from our souls. As such, all men are equipped with a soulful knowledge of G-d. Being intimately connected to G-d, our souls are intuitively aware of G-d, something which our minds can never "know," but can accept. Thus, we must hold the empiricism of our society at bay when it comes to these matters.

I have heard many people who claim to be non-religious as a result of not wanting to act based upon anything they cannot "know" with certainty. Such individuals may not realize the true short-sightedness of such a position. I am surprised that they can ever marry or form any meaningful associations - after all, how much can we "know" about any other individual? And for that matter, how much can we even "know" about ourselves? Beyond the obvious paralysis that radical empiricists create for themselves (if they would be consistent), lack of action is as much a choice as action. A person, who chooses not to act as if G-d exists, is automatically acting as if G-d does not exist. In this, there is no middle road. There is no possibility of waiting until greater research will clarify the existence of

In spite of our legitimate acceptance of empiricism in mundane matters, we must proudly and confidently proclaim the unempirical knowledge of the Jewish soul.

Again to quote R. Hirsch, "Any genuine, honest search after truth .. should not really ignore millennia of research conducted by such an eminent nation of thinkers as the Jewish nation" (Collected Writings, vol. 7, p. 288). In this case, the research conducted was not research purely of the mind. It was research of the mind looking into its soul. In this, we need to look back into our tradition and realize that we have the expertise not to prove the truth of our beliefs, but to validate them. We must struggle to realize that this is meant to be enough.

When we can come back to the world with confidence in our faith, we will be able to challenge the very dangerous trend toward radical empiricism, which threatens to deaden the soul of all mankind. We can then reclaim the mantle of the world's spiritual leadership, a mantle that has been taken over by other candidates such as the former Pope and the Dalai Lama. As in the past, it is when the Jew asserts spiritual truths with confidence that mankind responds by recognizing the G-dliness in their own souls. After the holiday of dedication (Chanukah), it is to this goal that we must rededicate ourselves.