A Sigh of Belief

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R. Yitzchok’s post, specifically his recounting of Rav Avigdor Miller’s story, led me to consider once again something that I’ve pondered over the years. In my experience, people constantly and unsuccessfully use physical evidence and events to argue for or against the Divine. Post-Enlightenment, certainly, there has been a stridency about the need for external tangible evidence, but it is clear that the roots of this go far deeper – by way of illustration, tales of Avraham Avinu’s own recognition of G-d relate entirely to his deductive reasoning from observations about the working of the physical world.

And, as a corollary to this, it generally seems that moments of contemplation are triggered by physical events which illustrate the immediacy and absolute nature of the reality that we are not in control of our own existence. But those moments of clarity also are moments of confusion, because they tend to elicit emotional responses akin to panic and a desire for pattern, security, reassurance.

I think that all this says much about psychology and the need to provide explanations, but little about belief qua belief; neither its nature nor its validity. I have never in my personal experience found it useful to contemplate the physical in search of my faith. Yes, the physical helps me imagine the Creator’s relationship to this creation – or, rather, what I imagine He wants me to perceive as His relationship to creation; but in all honesty, the physical has no impact that I can perceive on whether or not I believe. To answer that question, I’ve always had to find silence and search inside myself. The greater the stillness around me and the quieter my thoughts, the closer I get to knowing (feeling?) the quality of my belief.

I remember once in law school a conversation with a very close friend, Jewish and an adamant atheist (apparently from a household of active family-table-discussing atheists) who loved to engage in discussions about belief. We were sitting in his rooms at a window overlooking the law school courtyard. He asked me if I believed in miracles. I told him that I do. He asked why G-d doesn’t perform miracles to guide people towards Him. I told him that I believed miracles surrounded us daily. He said that he meant some gross deviation from the “natural” course of events; a splitting-of-the-Red-Sea miracle. I asked – “You mean, like an elephant appearing this instant on command in the law school courtyard?,” (we were at a window overlooking the courtyard). He said, yes, like that.

I considered. Then I told him that I thought I could do it; that I could call out to G-d and that He would make the elephant appear right then and there. He looked surprised, incredulous, but smilingly told me to go ahead. I told him that I would on one condition – that he could describe whatever kind and size of elephant he wanted, but if I made that elephant appear, he’d have to believe it was an act of G-d; that I would not ask G-d to do it if in the face of even this openly miraculous event, he would deny G-d and seek to rationalize the event.

I didn’t tell him he’d have to keep kosher, or Shabbos; just that he’d have to believe.

He thought for a moment – perhaps he searched his self as best he could – and acknowledged that he’d deny G-d regardless of how many elephants showed up. He didn’t know how else he’d explain the phenomenon to himself, but that he would have to think of something because he would not, under any circumstances change his position about the (non)existence of G-d.

Conceding that I’d made a point about the blind faith which underlies atheism; he then had to know: could I really invite G-d and have Him respond with the miracle? Or was I just anticipating his response? I told him that his question made him sound suspiciously like a believer. In fact, that if he had been absolutely certain that the elephant wouldn’t appear, he would’ve accepted the condition.

I told him that I never planned on going through with it – explaining a bit the concept of “ain somchin al haneis” – but also that I did, in fact ask G-d to do things all the time. In any event, for his purposes and mine, I didn’t think the answer mattered; G-d is constantly performing miracles greater and more surprising than elephants in courtyards, the issue is how we see them.

What I’ve wondered is whether this is a universal truth about belief. I think it is. And also an insight into psychology.

Physical phenomena – birth, death, tragedy – no matter how breathtaking, simply do not impact on belief. But, do emotional realities impact on belief? I grew up as a child in a society dominated by Holocaust survivors; the range and variety of reaction to that life-experience was a testament to the struggle of man to accommodate emotionally the physical reality of his circumstances. But, even there, looking past the surface, I’m not sure that I ever saw belief challenged – I saw different relationships with G-d, but even the ones who’d turned to look away had the most obvious confidence that the G-d they’d turned their back on was just over their shoulder, waiting for them to turn back.

Even the ones who shouted their disbelief, they were shouting at G-d. They more than anyone were pouring out their hearts to Him.

So, what then of my friend? The one who looked inside and saw only immovable disbelief in the face even of the splitting of the Sea? Aren’t Yisroel ma’aminim b’nei ma’aminim (“believers, the children of believers”)?

I don’t know. Maybe that is not meant as a universal truth. Maybe he is an unbeliever in as primal a way as I am a believer.

Or maybe it only applies to bnei ma’aminim – maybe parents can break that chain in every meaningful way if they present themselves as unbelievers and a world devoid of G-d to their children.

Or maybe what my friend saw inside was not that he’d disbelieve; perhaps he saw that he might believe, that he would believe, that deep down he really already doubts his disbelief and perhaps he was afraid because, in the face of the inexplicable, he’d be left struggling to make his way back to his emotional comfort, his psychological security, the atheism of his youth. I am not arguing that belief cannot take the same form – a manifestation of a need for security, obviously it can – this is not a discussion about the relative rationality of belief in G-d and disbelief – amidst a discussion about theodicy and the Jewish response to cataclysm, I am just trying to parse the difference between rational thought, emotional need and belief and suggesting that, though we think that they should, in the end, tsunamis and Holocausts and beautiful new babies and acts of great human goodness, while they may elicit deeply emotional responses, do not really impact on belief.

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1 Response

  1. Jeff,

    This is not really a comment on this post as such, but I have another post on the same issue here that I thought you might find interesting.