The Importance of Challenging Orthodox Belief

A few days ago I published an article exposing some of the main fallacies of rational belief in Orthodox Judaism, ultimately concluding that the idea that Modern-Orthodoxy is both fully ‘modern’ in terms of its rational worldview, and ‘Orthodox’ in terms of dogma, is a paradox (Click here for the article).

This last post inevitably led some people to send me messages challenging many of my attacks on Orthodox belief.  While I could spend all day debating these attacks, I will reiterate the point that I made on my last post: This blog is not meant to discourage people from being practicing and God-fearing Jews, and therefore I see no purpose in writing up a detailed post further challenging Orthodox belief.  There are enough articles and books out there for those who want further reading on any of these topics.

However, there is one question that I received from multiple readers — a question to which I have devoted many hours debating with myself–why should I have written my last post?  One reader summarized this question as follows:

Many of the points you address are interesting, and as you wrote, there are really no good answers to these questions.  With that said, what is the purpose in ruining people’s personal beliefs?

This is a good question, and one that I have been repeatedly asking myself for the last year or so.  When I first realized my iconoclastic mindset, I tried to keep my opinions in certain areas very quiet.  However, over the last few months, I have made a very conscious decision to publicly discuss my newfound views.  I have decided to write this article to provide you with some additional insight on my thought process.

I want to propose an interesting thought experiment:

Imagine you are going on a week-long hike in a previously unexplored forest.  On the fourth day, after not seeing anyone else since your trip started, you and your party notice a small village of a few hundred people.  Since you are surrounded by trees and brush, you are not visible to any of the villagers, but you can see them.  You then spend the next few days spying on this village and you learn many intriguing facts about their culture.  To your surprise, this tribe thinks that they are the only human beings in the universe.  Based off of this belief they have their own foundational myths, rituals, and way of life.

Now the first question I want to propose is: Should you reveal yourself to them, basically shattering all of their beliefs and way of life?

My answer to this question is that, all things being equal, you should not!  There is no reason for you to barge in on another culture’s way of thinking and radically shock their worldview.  Given that this tribe is not a threat to anyone else in the world, it seems like the correct thing to do is to allow them to continue their way of life, uninterrupted.

But the thought experiment does not end there:

As you continue to observe this community, you notice that their infant mortality rate is over 50%, and their average age of death is 40.  These facts are due to the dearth of technological knowledge throughout the community, and you know that if you introduce yourself to them, you can eventually convince them to accept modern medicine and ultimately better their lives.

In this second case, I would argue that if the hiker does not introduce himself to this society, he committing an immoral act.  In my opinion, if you have the power to radically help other people’s lives with relative ease, then it would be immoral for you to do otherwise.  In the Bible this idea is summarized by the verse:

“You shall not stand idly by your brother’s blood.” (Leviticus 19:16)

At this point, I want to take a step back.  If you agree with my arguments and answers thus far, then we can summarize as follows:

  1. All things being equal, there is no reason to ruin people’s faith and beliefs.
  2. If you can drastically change people’s lives for the better, it becomes a moral imperative to reveal your knowledge to them, even if their beliefs are ruined as a byproduct of this effort.

Now in my thought experiment I gave two extremes.  I initially posited that your introduction to the tribe would have no positive effect on the villagers’ lives, which is obviously impossible.  In the second case, I suggested that your introduction would directly save hundreds of lives, which is also a bit of stretch.  But, like any good question, the answer is seldom binary.  Some sort of threshold must exist regarding when you are morally encouraged to introduce yourself, thereby ruining people’s faith but simultaneously changing societies for the better.

The first time I thought of this little thought experiment was actually in my year in Yeshiva, after attending one of the notorious Aish HaTorah Bible Code lectures.  As I sat in the lecture listening to their claims, I decided (as any reasonable person should) to do a bit of research.  While still in the lecture, I was also reading a variety of articles which easily dunked the Codes.  Once I realized that the Bible Codes were a complete joke, I debated with myself as to whether or not it was morally acceptable to convince some of the other boys in my Yeshiva.  I ultimately decided that any kind of “Torah Proof” is negative in the long run.   If someone’s faith is based off of an easily disprovable “proof”, it can only be detrimental in the future. (For more on this, click here to see my further thoughts on this exact point)

When it came to my decision to publicly write an article pointing out some of the rational flaws in Orthodox belief, this same thought process came to mind.  Before explaining my reasoning I find it pertinent to reiterate the fact that the purpose of my blog is to ultimately enact positive change.  There are many blogs out their written by “pissed off”, ex-orthodox Jews, who get pleasure via pointing out every possible flaw within Judaism.  My goal is to do the exact opposite, I want to provide rational arguments as to the value of Judaism in our service of God and betterment of humanity.  With that said, I understand that it is inevitable that these articles will upset certain people, but I just want to publicly state that all of my posts are in accordance with the Tannaitic  dictum: “Have all your actions be for the sake of heaven.” (Avot 2:12)

Back to my argument, there were two main reasons that I decided to write my last article.  I will refer these arguments respectively as the Individual argument and the Universal argument.

The Individual argument

Similar to the Bible Codes, I do not think that it is helpful or fair to an individual to raise them with a world view that contradicts the facts on the ground, namely any fundamentalist upbringing.  Many people who grow up as a part of any fundamentalist community, run into a great deal of struggle later on in life, when they come to the realization that the world is not so black and white.  There is ample psychological research regarding the pain that a fundamentalist experiences when his/her faith is dismantled.  Some researchers argue that the pain of losing your religion is worse than the pain of losing your entire immediate family.    Dr. Marlene Winell, a psychologist who specializes in religion, actually coined the term ‘Religious trauma syndrome (RTS)’, and gives very convincing arguments connecting RTS to other types of disorders such as PTSD.

If religious education becomes less fundamentalist, meaning that questioning and doubt, along with an analysis of actual facts, become a crucial part of a religious education, this problem would become almost completely eradicated.  Jewish schools should teach the Torah and Talmud to their students, these are some of the most valuable books in the world, but don’t teach that these books are The Objective Truth in the world, when there are no good arguments to back up these claims.

The majority of people who read this blog are involved in the Jewish community, value Jewish education, and think critically about all of these issues.  I understand that it may be ironic that I am speaking of the negative effects stemming from loss of faith, when I may be causing it for people, but for the future of our students, campers, children, and the entire next generation I believe that teaching religion in a fundamentalist way will only hurt them.  To bring it back to my initial thought experiment, if I was watching this village and realized that a child would be at significant psychological risk if I did not intervene, I would be unable to remain quiet.

The Universal Argument

All throughout history, dogma has hurt human progress.  During the Dark Ages, from about the 6th-14th centuries, intellectual progress was heavily slowed in the West, due to the dogmatic views of the Church.  This continued until the Enlightenment was able to push back against this dogma via science and rationalism, leading to the technologically progressive society we all enjoy today (I know I am greatly simplifying things, but the general idea holds).

Moving into the world of Islam, we actually see the exact opposite happen.  Many historians of science believe that Islam, which was heavily influenced by the Greeks, was the intellectual precursor to our modern scientific world.  For hundreds of years Islam was at the forefront of worldwide philosophical and intellectual progress.  I do not wish to go into all of the various opinions as to what went wrong in the general world of Islam (for more on this look up the author Bernard Lewis, specifically his book Crisis of Islam), but I think we can all admit that we seldom equate intellectual progression and scientific advancement with the modern Islamic world.  Again, this is due to a dangerous fundamentalist worldview that stymies change.

When a group believes that all of their knowledge is hidden within their scripture, there is very little reason to strive for intellectual progression elsewhere.  Why learn science or math when learning Torah is more important?  While I know that many Modern Orthodox Jew do not feel this way, it is really only because they are slowly breaking away from a fundamentalist mentality themselves.  Returning to our thought experiment, if I knew that introducing myself to the tribe would have profoundly positive implications for the future of that society, I would make that introduction without a doubt.

This is not a cry against religion.  I am still a deeply religious person and a practicing Halachic Jew.  However, my end goal is not to mindlessly follow and believe a certain set of dogmatic points that will only hurt in the long run, but rather to better the world through my actions and thinking.  I know that my last article was eye-opening and upsetting to some, but to truly help the world, both on an individual and universal level, we must challenge all fundamentalist mentalities.

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