Our Search For Meaning


Religion is one of the greatest inventions in human history.

Now before everyone jumps on me for that last comment, please let me clarify:

Let us take any world religion as an example.  In my case I will chose Judaism since it is my personal religion.  Jews, or at least Orthodox Jews, believe that the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai and he came down and subsequently shared it with the Jewish people.  In classical Jewish thought, Moses did not only receive the written Torah (the five books of Moses), but he also received what is called the Oral Torah – basic principles of Biblical exegesis and traditions received at Sinai.

Now let us suppose that one had the entire text of the Torah in front of him, alongside the traditions and hermeneutic principles of the oral Torah that were supposedly given at Sinai.  This person would know very little about Judaism.  This person would have no idea what Shabbat and holidays are like, they would not know how to keep Kosher to any modern standard, and they would be completely lost in a Beit Midrash.  Even if the Torah was given to Moshe on Sinai, the religion that we know to be Judaism is man made – a human invention.  We can argue about whether or not the invention of Judaism was initially sparked by a divinely given Torah, but certainly no one (or no rational person for that matter) would argue that what we know as Judaism was given on Sinai.

To reiterate this idea, and to alleviate any doubt, I wish to bring up one of the most famous passages in the Talmud:

R. Yehudah said in the name of Rav:  When Moses went to heaven he found God sitting and affixing crowns to the letters [of the Torah].  Moses said:  “Master of the Universe, who detains your hand?“ [I.e., why do you take so long to add these crowns to the letters?]  God said to him:  “A man will come to be at the end of many generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name.  He will interpret  on each and every tittle,  piles and piles of laws.”  He said to him:  “Master of the Universe:  Show him to me.”  God said to him:  “Turn around.”  He went and sat at the end of the eighth row, but he did not know what they were saying.  He was ill at ease.  When he arrived to one point, his students said to him:  “Teacher, how do you know it is so?”  He replied:  “It is halacha given to Moses at Mount Sinai.”  And he was comforted. (Menachot 29b)                                                                                                                                                                                         

In this perplexing story, the Rabbis of the Talmud admit that the Judaism that they were living and practicing was very, very different from the religion that Moshe would have been practicing at Sinai.  The Rabbis of the Talmud were a crucial step in the evolution of Judaism, and although one may argue that they were divinely inspired every step of the way, their enactments and changes to Judaism were nonetheless man made – this they knew.

Now what if we take this idea a step further and rather than apply it to just the Talmud and what is known as “Rabbinic Judaism”, we then apply it to Judaism, or basically any other religion, as a whole.

What if, due to historical records and archaeological finds, one can no longer believe that the stories in the Torah happened in the ways that they were written?

What if in depth literary analysis clearly shows that the Torah is a document produced by various authors with various different view points and agendas?

What if, due to my innate sense of morality, I can no longer accept certain verses in the Torah, for instance the one about killing a homosexual or genocide, as stemming from a divine source?

What if…yes what if?

 At this point one has a number of options.  One can just simply reject the entire idea of God or religion, a position that I argued against in my last post.  Or, one could shift their philosophy to that of many conservative or reform Jews who –  even after rejecting the idea of a single authored, God given Torah – feel that the Torah was authored by prophets who were in some way, shape, or form communicating with God.  But this position seems difficult for a few reasons including: how do we separate what is from humans and what is from God?   How exactly were these people communicating with God and what does that even mean?  And finally if these texts were written by prophets in contact with God, how much should we be able to change the laws over time?  While many do feel comfortable with this position I personally cannot accept it.

Assuming that one believes in God, it should effect the way in which they go about their lives.  Whether this change is in the form of greater social awareness, spiritual experiences, or living up to a higher level of morality – the knowledge of God’s existence must change who you are as a human.  Now taking a step back, let us assume that we are all in agreement that God exists, in other words – It is a objective fact that God exists in our universe.  This objective fact is true the same way the 1+1=2 – a universal truth that will not change throughout space, time, or desire.  The problem is that even once we accept the existence of God, we do not know what to do next.

Many people mistakenly think that the oldest form of worship in human history, the worship of idols and celestial beings, is an outdated, archaic model of religion.  The Jewish prophets laugh at these people saying “they make statues from their silver, idols of their own manufacture, smith’s work all of it” and  “They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see”.  However these people, including the Jewish prophets, are mistaken.  Idols were never meant to be viewed as gods themselves, but rather it was people’s attempt to connect to a higher power through something that they can understand. (See my older post here for more on this idea)

Humans are pattern recognizing machines.  We are able to very quickly recognize patterns in nature or make certain observations about how the world works.  Then, given that humans are deep thinking and conscious creatures, they attribute their patterns or observations to different causes.

Since our current idea of science and nature was non-existent thousands of years ago, people assumed that different aspects of nature were controlled by multiple, disconnected powers.  Given that people were not able to connect to these invisible and distant powers, they created images, idols, and statues to represent them.  Once people had ways to represent these powers, since they figured that these idols represented things that they have observed or trends in nature – lets say for example rain – they then tried to appease or serve these representations.  For instance if a tribe needed rain they may do a dance, offer a sacrifice, or create another ritual that they would do any time they fear that rain will not come.  As time goes on etiological myths will be created and spread regarding things pertinent to any specific culture.  Going back to our example, now that our tribe has a representation of their rain god, they might then come up with an elaborate myth as to how the rain god originally gained control of the clouds, or how the rain god and sun god are locked in an eternal battle for dominion of the sky.

Over time, these tribes or groups may come into contact with other groups each of which have their own unique stories.  Many times the stories and rituals of these two tribes will have a heavy influence on each other.  Maybe a third group will come and influence both of these original groups…you get the idea.  In some cases, eventually, these stories and rituals will be written down into texts.  These texts will then be given power and will be the scripture of the newly created religion.  Over time these scriptures will be interpreted by future communities – each using their own societal norms and subjective view points to give new light and meaning to these scriptures.  Later communities will read various lessons and meanings into these texts.  Lessons and meanings that the initial community that produced it would have never even considered.  (Take for example when creationist try to read the first 2 chapters of Genesis as science, there is very little chance that the creator of that text was writing it to try to give a scientific history of the universe!)

Going back to my opening sentence, religion is a man made invention.  Although the exact rituals, stories, and details of each individual religion are completely subjective, they all had and have the same goal – to connect to God.  If God is the objective truth in the universe and our goal is to connect to him, can we honestly say that there is one perfect way to connect?  People who believe that there is one ideal and perfect way to connect to God create a danger for both themselves and the world around them.  This is the mindset that leads directly to violence and religious persecution.  If people from religion A think that their methods are The Truth, then they will think that they are better than people from religion B.  At best this leads to looking down at fellow human beings, but at worst it can lead to forced conversion or execution.

So why despite all of this am I still a practicing Jew?

I think that rather than viewing Halacha as God’s direct commandments we can view it as our ancestor’s methods and ways to try and connect to God.  Rather than view the Torah as a historical truth we can view its stories as a conversation about how our ancestors – beginning as individuals and ending off as an entire nation – saw their relationship with God.  The Torah therefore is not an Objective Truth but rather a Subjective one.  When I study Torah and keep Halacha I am doing it because, more than anything else, I attribute a supreme value to the process that has created it.  The thousands of years of conversation and debate, that is Judaism, demands constant thought and inquiry – all with the purpose of learning more about ourselves, our history, our community, and God.

In this light it makes no difference if the history of the Torah is contradicted by archaeology or if the Torah is a text composed by multiple authors in different generations.  Furthermore, it makes no difference that the Torah has very blunt statements that contradict out modern sensibilities.  Rather than view the Torah and the entire Jewish tradition as an Objective Truth given to us by God, we need to view it as a spring board for conversation.  Whenever a question comes up whether it be abortion, euthanasia, white lies, taking revenge, or even family values, we, as Jews, have thousands of years of debate to aid us in our discussion and opinion.  At the end of the day one may even conclude that they disagree with the Torah view (or views, more likely) on a specific subject, but the journey and learning that it takes to get to that opinion is worth every minute.

Being a practicing Jew means that within every action I do, I am trying to ask myself if it is something that would reflect good on God or desecrate his name.  Every opinion I have, has been filtered (not necessarily decided) through thousands of years of discussion on the subject.  And finally, every moment of my day is viewed as a precious opportunity to  better both myself and the world around me.

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2 thoughts on “Our Search For Meaning

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