Rabbi Avi ShafranThe writer is the Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America. He is also a contributing writer to Cross-Currents, an online journal of Orthodox Jewish thought and opinion.
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
The biker slapped his right hand onto his left wrist and pulled up his sleeve, revealing the unmistakable evidence.
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 entree into the world of Jewish observance.
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 it 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
I intend to lay out an approach toward making the case for the truth of the Jewish religious tradition.
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 next time.
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