Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Top Down or Middle Out
A debate rages across the United States about the best way to jumpstart an economy. Some believe in the top down solution; offer tax relief to job creators so they can pump more money into the economy. Others believe in the Middle Out solution; increase the tax burden on the wealthy so the government can extend more benefits to the struggling middle class.
I have my own opinion on the matter, but I’m sure you aren’t reading this article for my view on the economy. My purpose is to point out that a similar debate rages from a religious standpoint.
Some believe in a Top Down approach to religion; accept truths handed down at Sinai on pure faith and once you have an ironclad belief engage your mind in intellectual query and pursuit of knowledge. Others believe in the Middle Out approach; don’t believe in G-d unless you can prove that He exists. Once this truth is logically proven you may embrace G-d on faith. What is the Torah’s approach to trickledown as it pertains to religion?
Our sages taught that Abraham grew up in a pagan society where G-d was never mentioned. He arrived at the conclusion of G-d’s existence at a very young age on the basis of research and logical argumentation. Once he determined that G-d exists he became a passionate exponent of monotheism. He wrote books, taught classes, preached to the public and swayed many to his point of view, but it was all Middle Out, he taught them the way he learned it himself. His basis for faith was logic and reason.
Yet our national history was the polar opposite. The entire basis of our religion is our experience at Sinai, where we accepted Moses as G-d’s prophet and the Torah as G-d‘s word without question. It was only after this firm acceptance that we embarked on our quest for knowledge and understanding.
It wasn’t logic that led us to embrace the truth of G-d’s existence, it was conviction and faith. When G-d asked us to accept the Torah our response was, “we will do and we will listen.” It has often been said that the order of this response was deliberate. First we accept the commandment and obey it without reservation and only then do we allow ourselves to ask and listen for answers.
Even though we have a robust culture of intellectual investigation, questions and answers, ever since Sinai the bedrock of our religion has been faith rather than reason. The foundation of our religion is faith in the truths of Sinai and only after acceptance of that truth with full conviction do we allow ourselves to debate the intellectual properties of those truths.
The Sinai religious model is trickledown.
Costs Benefit Analysis
The reason we deviated from Abraham’s approach is obvious. The benefit of the ‘reason first’ approach is that the ideas we embrace our truly ours. One who accepts on faith alone is merely a recipient of truth. Such believers are hard pressed to give you their own opinion because they don’t have an opinion, merely a belief. Without an opinion it is difficult to truly invest. Part of you remains somewhat divorced from the doctrine you accept because it doesn’t really reflect you. The ‘reason first’ approach corrects this problem and lets you buy in to your doctrine.
The drawback of this approach is precisely the same. Because your acceptance of the truth is based solely on your own logical constructs your conviction is only as strong as your intellectual vigor. Should you encounter questions you cannot answer your conviction would be jeopardized. Should circumstances change and require you to invest a lot of energy in your day to day survival, the very same logic that previously supported your religious conviction would militate against it now. Your mind would urge you to put religion on the back burner because you have more urgent concerns to attend to.
This is clearly what happened to most Jews in Egypt. Jews came to Egypt as believers and practitioners of Abraham’s religion. Yet the subjugation and slavery eroded their conviction and religious life style and over time they came to emulate their Egyptian neighbors. Jews had to invest so much energy in survival that they couldn’t justify diverting energy to the practice and fervor of religion.
It had become clear that the ‘reason first’ approach would only work in times of comfort or for people of great intellect. Abraham’s conviction never wavered despite his challenges because his prodigious mind found answers to all his questions and his resourceful spirit enabled him to hold tight to his logical truths despite his life challenges. This was not going to work for the masses. To overcome the challenges it would be necessary to engage in a Top Down or trickledown approach, one that offers the truths of our doctrine on a faith that never wavers.
It is true that this approach compromises our ability to make our ideas our own. We try to make up for it by engaging in intellectual study, free questions and rigorous pursuit of logical answers, but since our convictions are not subject to question, our entire logical thrust is directed towards explaining, understanding and justifying a truth we hold dear irrespective of logic. Such opinions are somewhat scripted and not entirely our own. In the end, we remain recipients and students of these truths, rather than its originators.
Yet this very drawback is also a strength. The strength of this system is that the truths we embrace are pure and exalted. They are not subject to the filtration of our flawed and limited minds; they are Divine truths, pure and unfiltered.
A Jew today cannot hope to emulate Abraham’s passion and conviction, but then again, Abraham, whose basis of faith was his own prodigious mind, was never able to reach the unfettered and raw truth of G-d’s essence as handed down at Sinai. Abraham was a pre Sinai Jew, whose mind was his gateway to truth and he could only access the truths he could understand. Today we have a different model, one that takes our limitations into account, but one that opens a window on infinity.
For this reason even Abraham was advised to try the trickledown approach. When G-d told him to step away from his father’s home, birthplace and land, He was advising Abraham to let go of his ‘reason first’ approach that he had adopted in his youth and adopt the higher way – the one that ”I will show you.” Abraham would never fully adapt to the higher path, but he paved the road that ultimately led us to Sinai.