Coming to Judaism

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Dear Cross-Currents Readers,

I apologize for inflicting this essay (albeit in a different form) on you once again.

But C-C has asked me to share this version of an article that, as originally written, was intended for observant Jews, to encourage them to reach out to Jews who have not had the benefit of a Jewish education or upbringing.

After it appeared, I received many requests to recast it in a form aimed at precisely those Jews, so that it would be suitable for sharing “as is” with them. So I edited it accordingly and it appears below in three parts.

COMING TO JUDAISM

Rabbi Avi Shafran

1

A long, long time ago, when I was much younger, even more foolish and living in California, I used a motorcycle for personal transportation. I remember once riding my mid-sized Honda, tzitzit-fringes flying behind me, into a cycle shop for a part. As I entered a parking space and cut the engine, I heard a roar from behind and knew, even before it pulled up next to me, that a Harley had arrived. The behemoth’s rider, a man much older than I, with flowing white hair and dark sunglasses, clad in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, looked down at me – menacingly, I thought. But what I had tagged a scowl suddenly broadened into a smile, as the biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence of another time and place: a crudely tattooed number. “Another crazy Jew,” he said in Yiddish.

Flabbergasted by the unexpected, I squandered the opportunity to bond with another Jew. To this day that lost chance bothers me. I think I shook his hand and probably smiled, but I didn’t go the extra mile. Not only didn’t I invite him for a Shabbat meal, I didn’t even ask him to tell me his name or about himself, nor did I share with him anything about me.

I’ve become wiser with time and have come not only to reach out to less-than-obviously-Jewish Jews I meet but to cherish the meetings, and the Jews.

Many have actually reached out to me. My beard and kippah or hat tend to indicate I’m not Irish, and so a repair shop, waiting room, supermarket, bus or train will occasionally be the backdrop for a Jewish stranger to smile and pointedly drop a Yiddish or Hebrew word, or otherwise telegraph some Jewish connection. I always see it as a meaningful act, an invitation.

Not an invitation to “make them Orthodox” – although I am very happy when a less-observant Jew becomes more observant. But simply to interact with a fellow Jew, to reestablish a bond forged at Sinai when, the Midrash teaches, the souls of all Jews, present and future, were present and united. If Elijah the prophet appeared and told me that a Jew to whom I was speaking would never undertake any Jewish observance as a result of the conversation, I would continue it no differently than before.

But, needless to say, I want only good for a fellow Jew, and consider the Torah to be the epitome of goodness, something I want to share. And so, when possible, I try to offer Jews I meet entrée into the world of Jewish observance.

And indeed, some Jews connect viscerally to Jewish observance; all it takes is experiencing a traditional Jewish Shabbat or holiday, a circumcision ceremony or wedding. They feel in their souls that they have sampled a deeper reality. Others are similarly affected by meeting a truly righteous Jew, innately sensing his or her sublime nature, and moved thereby to explore what might yield such refinement. And then, of course, there are Jews whose sublimity of soul allows them to realize the power of Torah from… Torah. Its study, that is. Approached properly, it can be transformative.

Many Jews, though, even if they are intrigued by Judaism, will not entertain the possibility of changing their lives without being logically persuaded that there is a Creator and that He indeed gave a people His law. We live in a world that is as psychologically fueled by cynicism as it is physically powered by petroleum (and in the former case the supplies are unlimited), where books peddling atheism are sure-fire best-sellers, and faith in anything but science is portrayed as a sort of feeblemindedness. That an intelligent person who hasn’t personally felt the power of Judaism might react with skepticism to the notion that the Jewish faith is more than a mere cultural construct is understandable.

And yet, the basis of Judaism – that G-d exists and His Torah is true – can in fact, I believe, be demonstrated to a reasonable person. To be sure, once a Jew recognizes the Divine nature of Torah, reason plays an only very limited role in the living of a Jewish life. Doing G-d’s will, whether we understand it or not, becomes the operative principle. Still and all, the fundamentals of Judaism are demonstrably reasonable.

And so, in the final two installments of this article, I intend to lay out an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.

The approach will be based on two premises. First, that “proofs” – in the strictest sense of the word – are really only possible in mathematics and formal logic, and so we make the vast majority of our decisions, including many of the most important ones, on something else: reasonability.

And second, that an important principle of reasonability is what has come to be called “Occam’s Razor” (after a 14th century English logician), or the “law of parsimony.” It asserts that the less complex an explanation for an observation (or set of observations), the more likely it is to be true.

Take, for example, a medical diagnosis. If a patient presents a number of symptoms, one might choose to view each one individually. The fever could be the result of a bacterial infection, the cough might be an effect of the patient’s having unknowingly inhaled some irritant, the muscle aches from a possible mineral deficiency. But as the symptoms taken together are consistent with influenza, it is most reasonable to interpret the symptoms as a set, and to duly diagnose the flu.

Applying the law of parsimony to a set of historical and other observations, I submit, yields a compelling case for the veracity of the Jewish religious tradition. A case, that, with G-d’s help, I will begin to lay out in part two.

2

Occam’s Razor, once again, requires us to explain a fact or set of facts in the least complicated way. The darkening of the sky, for instance, might be a solar eclipse, and the pitter-patter on the roof a family of cats. More likely, though, it’s raining.

Let us begin with the fact that nowhere in the annals of religions is there a parallel to Jewish tradition’s claim to a mass revelation from G-d. Christianity is mediated by an individual, Paul; Islam, by Mohammed; Mormonism, by Joseph Smith. Moses, by contrast, brought the Jews to Mt. Sinai, but it was the Creator Who directly introduced Himself there to the Jewish people en masse.

That is no minor point. An individual’s claim to a personal divine communication is only as strong as his own credibility. The claim of a mass experience, however, cannot be effectively asserted unless it actually happened; if it were a hoax, the perpetrators will be unable to produce the claimed mass. That is why reasonable people don’t contest the facts of recorded history.

Despite its supernatural element, the giving of the Torah is no different from – and thus no less reliable than – any other historical tradition; it, too, is based on a mass testimony.

A cynic might suggest that such a claim could have been fabricated after the claimed event, and was somehow propagated without the masses’ corroboration. But a single, salient fact remains: Despite the obvious advantages of claiming a mass event-based faith, only one such claim has ever been made over the entire course of human history: the Jewish one. Even our cynic must admit the singular nature of the Jewish revelation claim.

Consider now a separate matter: the self-defeating nature of several of the Torah’s laws. One enjoins the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row), an unarguable recipe for economic disaster. No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure that the populace will not starve as a result could dare make such a promise.

Or take the three “pilgrimage festivals,” when all adult Jewish males were commanded in Temple times to journey to Jerusalem – leaving their homes and the nation’s borders open to attack from enemies. The festivals are closely connected to the seasons and phases of the moon, and would thus have become entirely predictable to the Jews’ enemies, of which, as always, there were many.

The skeptic might retort that maybe those laws were added to the Torah’s text (for reasons unknown) at some later time, and no one noticed the textual tinkering. But he would have no evidence for his speculation. Once again, the most straightforward (if supernatural) explanation points instead to the Divine authorship of the Torah.

Then there are the predictions, like the Torah’s foretelling of how the Jewish people will come to sin, be exiled from their land and scattered among the nations. And how Jews will seek to lose their identity but be rebuffed, often violently, by their foreign hosts. And how the scattered Jews will nevertheless persevere as a people (itself an unparalleled occurrence in history), and how the remaining Jews will eventually return to their ancestral land.

The doubter will likely attribute this one, too, to some post-facto text-meddling, or to plain chance. But his patchwork responses are multiplying and fraying. Occam would not be happy.

There are other unrelated hallmarks of the Torah’s uniqueness, too. Like the fact that, unlike every other tradition hallowed by a world faith, the Jewish Bible harshly highlights the foibles and sins of its greatest men and women. In the New Testament, the books’ hero is without fault; the Koran’s protagonist is a perfect prophet – just what one would expect from documents written by men to extol men. The Torah, by stark contrast, publicizes the mistakes of its greatest personages, including Moses and Aaron, evidence that it was created not by hero-promoters but an omniscient Judge. The naysayer may mutter “Not necessarily.” But the oddity points, once again, to the Torah’s Divine origin.

As does Moses’ singular and striking lack of qualification for leadership. He suffers from a speech impediment, lacks the self confidence that is the essence of every great leader, and doesn’t even want the job. Has there ever been a successful such leader? Other religion-forming figures possessed the natural ability to convince others of their connection to truth – and used it. Moses had no such ability, yet it was pointedly him through whom the Torah was given. No one could ever attribute the historic success of the Jewish message to the impact of oratory, charisma or self confidence. Only a defective product needs a talented salesman.

Each of the above observations independently points to the truth of the Jewish religious tradition; all of them taken together should be impossible to ignore. Were there as many indications of heart failure in a human being, he’d be rushed to cardiac surgery without delay.

And what is perhaps the most striking anomaly about the Jews and their religion has not even been mentioned yet. With G-d’s help, in part three.

3

One of the most compelling factors to ponder when considering Jewish religious tradition’s veracity is something that makes us uncomfortable – but something we are in a better position today to perceive than anyone at any other time in history: the power and persistence of anti-Semitism.

That the Jewish people have been historically significant is a truism. The nation described by the Torah as chosen to live by G-d’s laws not only introduced monotheism and morality to human society but has played a critical role in promoting a multitude of important ideas, from the legislature to textual analysis to educational systems to ethics to democracy itself (the principle by which a Jewish court operates). And, as observers as diverse as Mark Twain and Ann Landers have noted, even from a secular perspective, the influence has been overwhelmingly positive.

Which makes anti-Semitism not only unexpected, but astounding.

What other racial, ethnic, social, or religious group can claim the distinction of having been chosen as the target of one or another form of persecution during practically every period of mankind’s progression from ancient times to the present? What other group, removed from its ancestral land and scattered around the globe, can claim to have ever been subsequently singled out for extermination?

The aims of the persecutions have varied. Some of the hatred has been of a racial nature, some of a religious and some even personal. What all the animus has in common, though, is its collective focus on an unthreatening enemy: the Jews (and/or their beliefs). Whether the particular excuse was cultural (ancient Greece), religious (early Christian, or radical Islamist), racial (Nazi Germany), or national (Palestinian radicals), the mark has been the same.

The ancient Greek dedicated himself to knowledge and beauty; he hated the Jew. The Crusader championed the message of the “New Testament” (peace and love of mankind, no less); he hated the Jew. The Nazi strove for genealogical purity; he hated the Jew. The Palestinian opposes what he regards as Zionist imperialism; but in the end it is the Jew he despises.

Things might be more understandable were there in fact some World Council of International Jewry constantly plotting the next stage of the nefarious manipulation of world governments to its own evil advantage.

Or if, as large portions of the non-Jewish world once believed (and parts still do), religious Jews required Christian blood for matzos, an assertion for which countless Jews were tortured and killed.

But we members of the tribe know well that while Jewish organizational meetings can be hellish in their own way, they are rather more mundane than the fabled assembly of the “Elders of Zion” – and that matzo containing blood would never receive rabbinic certification, much less Jewish consumer enthusiasm. Yet the myths persevered for centuries – and, sadly, still do.

As do contemporary equivalents of ancient blood libels, in no less bizarre forms – like some Palestinians’ projection of their own murderous designs onto Israeli soldiers seeking only to protect their fellow citizens; or like much of the Arab world’s acceptance of the contention that Jews were really behind the terrorist attacks of September 11; or like media equations of accidental civilian deaths from Israeli self-defensive fire with the victims of “gunmen” gleefully seeking to kill and maim as many innocents as possible.

How is it, one can just as easily ask, that Jews are reviled in places like Idaho or Japan, where there aren’t even any members of the tribe to speak of?

One can try to address the persistence of Jew-hatred into modern times by invoking “rational” explanations: psychological concepts, social theories or geopolitical realities. But, here too, there is a less complicated, if more disturbing, solution to the riddle.

And it lies, at least for Jews unafraid to face Jewish verities, once again, in the truth of the Torah – here, its prediction about how the Jewish people, in exile, will neglect their spiritual heritage and suffer for the fact.

“And He will scatter you among all the nations… and you will worship other gods… and in those nations you will not rest… you will be fearful night and day (Deuteronomy, 28:64-66).”

And so, we step back to regard the entire canvas: the monumental singularity of the revelation at Sinai; the self-defeating nature of some of the Torah’s laws; the uniqueness of the Torah’s judgmental descriptions of its “heroes”; Moses’ utter lack of qualifications for leadership; the coming to pass of the Torah’s predictions; the illogical perseverance of the Jewish people; and, finally, the sheer astonishingness of anti-Semitism’s persistence.

Each of those anomalies can be countered with a different “explanation” that avoids the conclusion that the Torah is true. But at some point the thicket of complexity formed by the rationalizations must be contrasted with a simpler, straightforward, Occam’s Razor-respecting possibility: that a sort of Unified Jewish Field Theory permeates the unruly mess of oddities. The key to that UJFT is that the Torah has come to us from the Creator.

Rejecting that conclusion requires a considerable dulling of Occam’s razor, the invocation of a series of piecemeal mental contortions. One the other hand, embracing it carries life-changing implications, which can be a daunting prospect. No one ever said, though, that coming to Judaism was easy.

© 2008 AM ECHAD RESOURCES

[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]

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1 Response

  1. HESHY BULMAN says:

    Rabbi Shafran – Once again, a virtuoso piece. Some major arguments omitted, however. Alone among the World religions, Judaism does not require the acceptance of its Torah for a non-Jewto earn a place in Heaven. Judaism does not condone forced conversion and there is no instance of this having taken place in recorded History. Finally there are the arguments so often made by Rav Hirsch, zt’l, that various Laws, such as the treatment of Slaves, are at such great variance with socially accepted norms in any period prior to the modern era, or the fact that the Torah precisely at the critical juncture of Moses taking up his mission in returning to Egypt, interrupts the narrative to emphasize his origins, lest it ever be thought that he was more than an ordinary mortal.