Thursday, August 04, 2005

no divine jukebox

Back on Lag B'Omer, I mentioned how I feel that God is not a jukebox "where if you put the right coin in, you'll get want you want." I'd like to develop this a bit more.

As I've discussed in the past, I'm a baal teshuva from around age 16. But as I've also revealed, I'm not the typical NCSY/Aish/Or Sameach baal teshuva type. Most people probably can't guess that I wasn't born religious (unless they ask me which parsha I'm willing to lein in shul.)

My path towards religion was in a strange place - San Francisco, with a non-typical organization - Bnei Akiva, at a difficult age -- 16. There simply wasn't a standard framework for the trek as I imagine many other older people in communities with larger Orthodox populations find. So a lot of the time I had to figure out things on my own. And in the process, I would make "deals" with God - help me with this, and I'll start doing this mitzva. The weird thing is, it worked. All kinds of small "miracles" helped me along the way. But they were rather private (even now I don't feel like discussing the actual details of the deals), and I didn't discuss them with others (although I certainly talked to people quite often about religion in general.)

I don't remember the exact texts I was reading at the time, but I'm sure many of them emphasized the concept of "hashgacha pratit" - (private) divine providence. And my own encounters with the divine probably seemed to confirm that aspect of Judaism for me.

I think the first time I ever started thinking a little differently about things was in Bnei Akiva's program for the summer after 11th grade - TVI (Torah V'Avodah Institute). We had a number of interesting guest speakers that summer, one of whom was Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. I haven't been a huge fan of him since, but I do remember him discussing an interesting topic to a small group of us one shabbat afternoon. He was talking about the history of the Jews interaction with God, from the giving of the Torah at Sinai, to the period of the prophets, until today. And in what seemed somewhat counterintuitive at the time, he proposed that the constantly decreasing level of prophecy over the ages was actually a sign of progress. As we (the Jewish people) became more mature, we needed direct signs of God's involvement in the world less, such as miracles and prophecy. We were able to do the mitzvot from a point of free will, to choose the path based on it being the right thing to do, not something we couldn't avoid from Heaven.

Later, this concept became even more clear to me after learning with my Rosh Yeshiva, Rav David Bigman. I remember early on in the first year of my yeshiva talking to him about something related to hashgacha pratit, and he said that while without a doubt it exists, you can't use it as proof to others. This theologically confirmed what I had felt in my dealing days. During my time in yeshiva I began to study the works of Rav Soloveitchik for the first time, and merited to learn them with some of his students, particularly Avram Stein. The Rav took a much more advanced approach to questions of good and evil in the world than I had ever seen before.

One pivotal moment for me was when Rav Bigman found me photocopying a section of Rav Eliyahu Dessler's Michtav M'Eliyahu. He picked up the book, looked at it, and told me, "I read that book, but he told me that by keeping the Torah I'd be happy, and I'm not always happy, so I stopped reading it." He was referring to the first chapter (which I had read in my early days of being religious and perhaps it had an effect on me then). Rav Dessler explains how everyone wants a happy life, but neither the rich nor the poor are guaranteed one. He then goes on to show that only the people observing Torah are happy. He writes

"The one who enjoys a rich spiritual life is happy. There is no other kind of happiness in existence...Happiness is when the goals are obtainable..The more energy, the more drive, we put into attaining these goals, the happier we shall be."

This is in stark contrast to Rav Soloveitchik, who writes in the famous footnote #4 of Halachic Man writes:

Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and mercy for the despondent and desperate, an enchanted stream for crushed spirits, but a raging, clamorous torrent of man's consciousness with all its crises, pangs and torments.

And in his essay Sacred and Profane he goes beyond the footnote, and declares:

The error of modern representatives of religion is that they promise their congregants the solution to all the problems of life -- an expectation that religion does not fulfill. Religion, on the contrary, deepens the problems but never intends to solve them.

He goes on to describe holiness as a paradox, not a paradise.

I can't imagine how I would have handled such ideas had I gone through the popular paths of baalei teshuva. Most likely, I would have simply chosen Rav Dessler over Rav Soloveitchik.

But I didn't. And by studying the Rav's Kol Dodi Dofek, I began to understand how this approach to religion translates into his understanding of history as well. If the Torah is guaranteed to make us happy, as Rav Dessler would claim, how do you explain the deaths of so many Torah observant Jews in the Holocaust? The only choice is to somehow explain or justify the Holocaust so it fits in a larger divine plan of reward and punishment. But if we understand that there are no promises, that we might end up not happy, then we don't need to explain the Holocaust, a tragedy so vast that it defies explanation. To do so would be to claim to understand the divine, something we simply can not do.

If Kol Dodi Dofek says we can't claim to understand the purpose of evil via the Holocaust, then Rav Lichtenstein's article L'Birura Shel Midat HaBitachon explores the flip side of that issue. He discusses how we can't claim to know God's plans for good, simply due to the fact that we have been worthy of receiving a State and all the accompanying miracles. Both essays reject the divine jukebox theory, since if we really can't understand God's plans, how can we know which coins to put in to get certain songs?

I'm obviously doing disservice to Rav Soloveitchik's essays, and Rav Lichtenstein's article, by quoting them so briefly. If you haven't read them, it's really important to do so. But if I'm already on a roll, I'll do it just a bit more with two other important thinkers. If we follow the Rav's ideas to an extreme, we'll end up very close to Prof. Leibowitz. For him, any attempt to understand the reason for any of the mitzvot is basically idolatry. While many of his ideas are fascinating, I'm not really pulled in by them. While he does a good job of disproving those who make all sorts of claims to the benefits of keeping mitzvot - both physical and spiritual - I think Judaism is too diverse a religion to claim that those views have no basis whatsoever.

On the other hand, in more recent years I've grown to admire strongly the works of Rabbi David Hartman. First of all, his books that I've read do a great job of describing many different approaches to Judaism. And what's even more interesting to me, that despite his being a student of Rav Soloveitchik, he does a very good job of (respectfully) challenging the Rav's approach. Hartman claims that for Rav Soloveitchik (as well as Leibowitz) the Akeda is the ultimate religious act. But Hartman claims that the covenental experience at Sinai was even more significant. For the Akeda was one way, but Sinai was both sides coming together to make a brit, a covenant. That, along with many other things he writes, ring very true to my ears. So again, I'm doing a disservice to Hartman as well. If this sounds at all interesting, please read A Living Covenant.

Where does all of this leave me? Often confused, but somehow relieved at my confusion. For if I wasn't confused when facing the divine, I'd either be a liar or a fool.

(This post is already much longer than I intended. In a future post I'll discuss how all this affects my views on popular religious jukebox activity, such as saying Tehillim for certain benefits, and particularly in regards to the current religious approach to the disengagement plan.)