Castles Made of Sandby Rabbi Jacob Rupp November 5, 2019
I live for those moments when my reality cracks around me.
Growing up, I thought the Torah contained stories and anecdotes, ancient mythology and moral principles. I felt it was predicated on belief and completely unscientific, historically invalid, and just a cool story written by some old people that my ancestors embraced.
Much to my surprise (read: shock and horror) I found out that it wasn’t so easy to just dismiss 3,300 years of Jewish thinking as a naïve teenager growing up on a steady diet of Mad Magazine and NBA Jam (remember that? Yep, you’re old). There were people out there, smart people, educated people, who actually thought G-d was true and the Torah was true. I gained only a small amount of intellectual humility in high school, when I reasoned for a moment that despite the fact that I didn’t know who Rashi or the Rambam (Maimonides) was, I figured they were smart, and maybe they had some information I didn’t. So I didn’t write the whole thing off as ridiculous totally, just mostly.
Fast forward to college. Up until that time, the rabbis I knew mostly agreed with me; the Torah had some cool stories, some outdated ideas, and that being Jewish meant being a good person (we will of course leave that undefined because hey, it’s easier that way). But then I met an orthodox rabbi who actually believed G-d was true and the Torah also actually really happened. Like the sea actually split.
Much to my horror, our initial mental jiu jitsu match didn’t go as well as I thought. He brought proofs. He asked questions on my theories. He spoke using logic, historical evidence and even fact. I was so intrigued. Whoa. Maybe I didn’t have all the answers. I went to Israel. I started learning a lot more. I found out that Judaism isn’t like all the other religions in the world-we want you to ask questions. Our religion is built using logic. You can actually make a rational argument using deductive reasoning to show that G-d’s existence is the more likely than the alternative.
And you can even use the same logic, and historical evidence to verify that the Torah is true. At the same time, I started to recognize that our own perspectives on things, and those things we held to be ‘absolutely true’ usually required a lot of assumptions and a lot of unquestioned truths. I recall when my history professor at UCSD said that in no uncertain terms that the vast majority (she said 90%) of what we know to be true about ancient Egypt is conjecture. Whoa.
Fast forward a bit and a few years later I was fresh out of rabbinical school and had become somewhat of a force to be reckoned with when it came to debating religion and Judaism. I knew my craft, I knew my answers, and for those who wanted to debate, I was always ready to roll. Even when people would dare call me brainwashed, I would kindly point out that I had grown up with a completely different viewpoint and had changed it because of my new understanding of reality. Judaism was true and I could prove it based on hard Aristotelian logic as Maimonides had done hundreds of years before.
Imagine my horror when I discovered decades later that much of Aristotelian logic was suspect and subject to intense intellectual criticism. Imagine my shock to realize that other leading rabbis, living at the time of Maimonides, took serious objection to his using proofs and logic when it came to G-d because inevitably the finite mind cannot know the Infinite, and eventually we reach a point where our questions go unanswered.
I was even shocked to find that parts of the Torah I thought were for sure true (like the story where Abraham was visited by the angels) was, according to the Rambam, a vision Abraham saw, instead of reality. My whole world was upside down. Turns out I was awash in a lack of information.
In my current worldview, I think my intellectual journey reveals a few points. First, most of us are stuck in our perspectives, even when we change them. One of the main critiques against Maimonides was that it is dangerous to ask questions because life is hard when you question. But the point of my article cannot be ‘yes, live with the questions’ because that’s so trite. Don’t think ‘well, the other side of the political aisle might have some valid points.’ Rather, look deeper. There are things we don’t dare question. The bedrocks upon which we have built our lives. Those are the points that should be up for debate.
I like to tell my clients and my students that G-d is bigger than we are. So no matter where we go, or what comes out, G-d is bigger than that. We have to be free to ask deep questions. Admit that sometimes what fuels our religious fervor isn’t truth but arrogance, or what makes us so sure our spouses are loyal to us is our pride instead of the fact that we are such great spouses. Sometimes we have to admit that maybe we aren’t blameless in the fact that the things around us fall apart, or that maybe things around us fell apart and there was nothing we could have done about it.
These are the tough questions that we shouldn’t be afraid to face because once you do, you’ll realize your perspective can grow by leaps and bounds. And, as they say, the truth will set you free. And, I might add, if you aren’t free, if you don’t feel free, then there are parts of your life that are lies.