Is There One Right Way To Be a Jew?

Dear Stephen,

Now we’re both chagrined. You don’t know me so couldn’t know this, but there’s no reason to suggest (however tongue in cheek) that I’m a “better person” or indeed a “better Jew” than you. Alas, I’m a rather disappointing person, probably. Heaven knows, being religiously observant is not the same as being “good”–and my level and quality of observance leave much to be desired as well. I know “frum” (outwardly pious) Jews who are lousy individuals, and secularists who are angels. You surely have heard the Jewish teaching that says that only in the next life, after death, will we be told how G-d evaluates the relative importance of the good deeds we do or fail to do on earth. The kind word you said to a friend or colleague this morning may count for more in His eyes than all the by now thousands of times I’ve strapped the black leather boxes called tefillin on my arm and forehead for morning prayer.

However, regarding the truth of Torah, this fact–that ritual observance for a Jew isn’t nearly the whole story when it comes to evaluating his life–doesn’t let us off the hook intellectually. You ask how a frail human mind, such as my own, can dare to make assertions about the nature of G-d and what He asks of us. Well, a few points here. First of all, I’m extraordinarily far from considering myself, or being, the “wisest man” (as you say) in the world. What I believe about Torah is not my own idea, but one passed down to me by other Jews who know far more about the world than I do–approximately 145 generations of Jews since the Mount Sinai event, including your own ancestors all the way back. (Not mine, I’m afraid–I’m a convert.)

Second, if not to try to use our minds to seek out the Truth about him, why do you think G-d gave us minds in the first place? We have to work with what we’re given. Some 10 years ago, before I really starting thinking seriously about Judaism, I was in love with a religious Catholic girl. We wanted to get married, but I had scruples about intermarriage (for no particularly sound reason). We had these debates about religion–she asserting the truth of her faith and I the truth (as I feebly understood it) of mine. Anyway, we went to see a Catholic priest to talk about our compatibility, and I mentioned these discussions she and I had had. The priest pooh-poohed her ability to decide what’s true about G-d on the basis of reading Scripture. I loved this girl like crazy, and his condescending to her (as I saw it) really irked me. My face blushing with indignation, I defended her right as an intelligent young woman to think for herself and figure things out.

So when you shrug and say, sarcastically, Gosh, “I wish I had your faith,” I say to you you’re not thinking Jewishly. Thinking–figuring things out, using our brains–is a characteristic Jewish recreational activity. I offered you an argument, the bottom line of which is that liberal Judaism is internally incoherent–and that traditional Judaism and the denial of G-d at least both have coherence on their side. Don’t shrug this off. You’re smarter than that, Stephen. Tell me why I’m wrong. What alternative–to orthodoxy and denial–do you suggest?

A final point: We Jews don’t seek faith at all. We seek knowledge of G-d, which, as the Jewish sages teach, is achieved through the action of performing the Torah’s commandments. We don’t sit passively waiting for belief to fall upon us out of the sky. Torah says explicitly that it is not in the sky or across the sea, so that we should say: Who will bring it to us?

Yours rantingly,