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January 13, 2019 12:11 pm

How Fake News Harms Jews and Jewish Observance

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

We live in a world where, more than ever before, our ideas and values have come under scrutiny and assault. What makes our times more interesting is that we have ready access not only to ideas that challenge us, but also to ideas that support us. The question is how we can work out which ideas contain value, and which are dangerous or simply false.

The trouble is that so many of the arguments one hears on behalf of Judaism are either pathetically simplistic or sophisticatedly misleading. From the arrogant banality of Yossi Mizrahi to the sophisticated apologetics of Chabad or Aish Hatorah, they sometimes appear impressive but rarely survive rational scrutiny. The range is broad and baffling. And frankly, when it comes to mysticism, there is no room for discussion altogether.

I remember that in my yeshiva days, all the American bochurim I came across were enthusiastic about Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s book Rejoice O Youth. I found it intellectually banal, tarnishing the whole of the non-Jewish world as if there was not one good person there — and blaming assimilated Jews for the Holocaust.

Many religious people have Emunah Peshutah, simple faith, for which there are no questions. Secular skeptics are similarly dogmatic. In between are those who wrestle with trying to understand God and the challenges of living a religious life in a very different world than that of the past. Some say we cannot reconcile the two worlds. Others think we can.

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I was given a book to read last month called In Good Faith by Scott A. Shay, subtitled “questioning Religion and Atheism.” It draws on science, logic, and a range of non-Jewish theologians, to counter the arguments of atheists and opponents of religion, in between heavy academic philosophy on the one hand and literalism on the other. Yet it is clearly committed to Judaism and Torah.

The book is well written and intelligent, giving the sorts of answers that young, bright seekers of balance and fairness will find compelling and helpful in rebutting attacks on their religious beliefs. And yet it has inevitable limitations for one very good reason: Being religious usually rests on two pillars. First, by living and enjoying a religious way of life, which is normally something one is born into or comes to experience, rather than be persuaded of by logic. And secondly, God. As Maimonides said, we can only say what God is not. I do not believe it is possible to prove the existence of God rationally. Even if there was a first cause or a prime mover, that, itself tells us nothing about who or what that original cause was. Besides, even Maimonides’ “mentor” Aristotle thought the world was eternal, which was why Maimonides switched to Plato on that specific topic.

God is such a personal, subjective experience (and I use this word intentionally to contrast it with an idea or theory), which is why I believe the Torah does not have a commandment that is worded “you must believe in God.” It just states and assumes a reality — that God is. And it is up to each of us to make sense of this in our own way.

In the end, and throughout all the valiant attempts to defend Torah against its detractors, it has only been the passionate commitment that comes from an immersion in Judaism that can insulate one from assimilation to whatever degree. And even then, the temptations of the outside world are so powerful that it is hardly surprising if in every generation there are those who prefer the easy way out of joining the masses.

I also happen to think, controversially, that you can and should live a religious life even without God. The Torah is a framework for living, to encourage thinking before acting — and, of course, a practical way of connecting with a people, a tradition, and a culture.

The biggest challenge to my Jewish identity is the behavior of other religious Jews (whatever the denomination) and abuses of religious power and authority. I like to think for myself and I am fortunate in my education that I can find enough sources in the Torah and the Talmud to justify my choices. But most Jews don’t have the knowledge or the tools. They need direction and guidance. And they can frequently be misguided.

An article in The Economist last month drew on a range of experiments to show that people tend only to pay attention to opinions that reiterate and confirm their prior positions. An opportunity to just listen to an alternative point of view received virtually no interest. If this is true of politics, then how much more so is it of religion?

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