Judaism: Faith or rational?

  • ParshaYitroRabbiSpinner
The age-old question theologians have been debating for centuries: Can religious beliefs be proven? Is religion synonymous with faith? Most religions entail a claim of prophecy or a transcendent experience by one person who then goes and reports it to others and demands that they follow him in service of a deity.

The listeners are faced with three possibilities to believe; either the report was an intentional fabrication, or the prophet sincerely believes he experienced something real when it may have been a fantasy or a hallucination.

Or thirdly, everything he says is real and true.

Should they choose to believe the account and follow the prophet into this religion, it remains nothing more than faith. The adherents have not witnessed anything themselves or experienced any revelation. They are relying on a secondhand report; there is no rational reason for them to follow it, rather they must rely on faith alone. 

Not so with Judaism. Close to three million people witnessed the same event, G-d's revelation at Mount Sinai. They didn't blindly follow Moses commanding them instructions from G-d, rather they all personally heard G-d speak to them.

Is that called faith? Faith is when you accept something as true although you haven't seen it. Contrary to the popular expression, seeing isn't just believing - it's knowing. If you would experience G-d talking to you and the three million people next to you, that is the biggest proof possible. As the Torah says in this week’s portion: "You saw that G-d spoke to you from the heavens." 

What about the generations that followed? They didn't experience it. They are relying on secondhand hearsay. Perhaps we're back to relying on super-rational faith?

But think for a moment what it would mean for someone to fabricate such an account: It would sound ludicrous. "All of your parents and grandparents witnessed something together." Everyone would wonder why they were never told about this awesome event by their parents. Something of that magnitude is impossible to fabricate, even so long after. The revelation at Sinai remains proof for all generations to come. 

Sure, one can try to deny it by simply refusing to accept this as proof. But by the same token, nothing in this world can be proven for certain; it is all a matter of probability. But if the same probability that we accept as proof for any other historical fact is to be applied to Sinai, then anyone with an objective mind is forced to accept it.

How many people were present at the Battle of Waterloo, or at any other historic battle or great event? Surely much fewer than three million witnesses, yet we do not hesitate to accept them as fact.

To deny an event witnessed by so many solely because it is miraculous and fantastic, would be to hold a double standard. This is why the Torah uses the word "Veyadata - and you shall know" that G-d is the L-rd. It is something that one can grasp rationally. 

Sure, Judaism has faith as well; we have 13 principles of faith, but we have the revelation at Sinai as proof. 

For those who are satisfied with faith alone, that is beautiful and admirable. And for those who have faith, but are also blessed with a questioning mind as is human nature, there's nothing wrong with that either.

The Torah was given to us to be studied using critical thinking in addition to faith, and the answers are all there. We need only to apply ourselves to find them.

Good Shabbos!


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