Jewish Belief: Round 1

For the past 25 posts, I have been harping on the differences between Shimen’s and Heidi’s respective values and traditions. One frequent objection I’ve gotten is that I should be talking about their beliefs, not their lifestyles. After all, aren’t the disagreements between Shimen and Heidi about how to live merely second-order differences that follow inevitably from their irreconcilable beliefs about nature, history and theology?

Well, if you insist, we can talk about these irreconcilable differences of belief. But, I’ve got to tell you right up front that the answer to your semi-rhetorical question is (spoiler alert!) no. Young Shimen didn’t contemplate nature and history and conclude, like our forefather Abraham, that there must be a “ruler of the castle”. He was raised to honor particular values and traditions long before he had the most rudimentary ability to contemplate the stuff of belief. And among the traditions that he honors is the affirmation of certain claims about the world.

Simply put, the direction of the causality implicit in the question above is exactly backwards: in fact, values and traditions are primary and beliefs are derivative. This raises lots of obvious questions (how can we choose to believe something?) all of which we’ll get to soon enough. For now, I want to briefly outline, in a perfectly naïve way, traditional Jewish beliefs about the world. In subsequent posts, we’ll take a deeper dive and reconsider both the content and nature of traditional Jewish belief, but at this stage let’s all just get on the same page – the page that Shimen was on as a cheder boy in Poland long before The War.

God created the universe, including the laws of nature. These laws hold most of the time but can be broken when God sees fit to intercede in the course of events by performing miracles. God revealed himself to the forefathers of the Jewish people, promising them that their descendants would be plentiful and would face special challenges and reap special rewards.

Our ancestors, the chosen descendants of these forefathers, were enslaved in Egypt and redeemed by God’s Hand amidst many miracles. The proto-nation redeemed from Egypt received the Torah in the desert at Sinai, through the agency of Moses, the greatest of all prophets. The received Torah consisted of the Written Torah, in precisely the words of the Five Books of Moses that we have today, along with an accompanying Oral Law that served as the basis of its interpretation. With God’s direct help, the nascent nation conquered the Land of Israel, as had been promised to their forefathers, established the Davidic line of kings and built the Temple in Jerusalem. However, in retribution for various sins, the First Temple, and eventually the Second Temple, were destroyed and the Jews were banished to the four corners of the earth.

The Written Torah and the Oral Law, as faithfully transmitted from Sinai and further interpreted by rabbis over all subsequent generations, are binding on all Jews. The law unfolds over generations through a guided process that accurately reveals its original intent: leading rabbis of each generation are divinely inspired and the Jews as a nation possess the collective intuition of the “children of prophets”, though in diminishing degrees with the passage of time.

The Jews are rewarded and punished, collectively and individually, in accordance with their observance of God’s laws. Those who, for some reason, do not get their just desserts in this world are compensated or called to task in another world, not visible to us. One day, when they merit it, the Jews will be redeemed by God through the hand of Mashiach and returned to the land of Israel, where they will rebuild the Temple and live harmoniously according to God’s law. They will be ruled once again by kings from the line of David and the renewed Sanhedrin and will be free of the yoke of foreign nations. Ultimately, the dead will be resurrected and will share in this idyllic existence.

That, in a nutshell, is what Shimen – and every other cheder student in the past millennium – received as the basic truths of Judaism. Some of those cheder students happily went through life believing exactly that in a perfectly literal way. But others found it more congenial, as their intellectual lives matured, to distinguish the essence of these beliefs from secondary elements or to interpret some aspects of this narrative in a more abstract form than they had received them.

If you are of the first type, I beseech you to skip this part of the series; it will only do you harm. (I’m dead serious.) For those of you who continue along, in the next post we’ll hear all about Heidi’s objections to the cheder version of Jewish belief.


7 thoughts on “Jewish Belief: Round 1

  1. >If you are of the first type, I beseech you to skip this part of the series; it will only do you harm.

    I knew that this whole thing reminded me of something…the Rambam’s Hekdamah To Perek Helek. Waiting for the next installment impatiently.


    1. >If you are of the first type, I beseech you to skip this part of the series; it will only do you harm.
      I knew that this whole thing reminded me of something…Everyone rushing out to buy a book that Donald Trump said not to buy.


  2. I assume you’re about to get to this, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that, when you refute the idea that practice comes from basic philosophical principles, you do so for Shimen but not for Heidi. Heidi believes that she reasons from first principles, which she thinks she has subjected to critical and objective analysis, and then on the basis of her conclusions on those topics moved to less abstract issues. She hasn’t actually done that, as I expect you will argue; but her commitment to that belief forms an important part of Heidi’s assessment of her self-worth and of the value of her opinions.

    Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to the next installments.


    1. Whether or not she is aware of it or willing to admit it, Heidi follows intellectual fashions, fashions which change with time. Clearly Heidi is a “progressive”. In the early 20th Century one of the core beliefs of the then “progressive” ideology was that the license to procreate should be governed by the latest (at the time) scientific fashion, i.e., generics. This gave rise to the eugenics movement which constituted the avant garde of the progressives. Nowadays “progressives” would be horrified by this (except for Meirav Michaeli and her ilk) but then it was considered the “scientific” way to run society (see for example Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World).

      You could well argue that Shimen also follows a particular set of intellectual fashions, except that his are not fashionable and would have not been all that different in the early 20th Century. Put both Shimen and Heidi in a time machine, set the dial to go back 100 years or so. Shimen would quickly find a community with his comfort level while Heidi would be lost.

      The beliefs to which Shimen adheres do evolve, albeit very very slowly and conservatively (small C) and hence withstood and withstand the test of time. They are far more likely (though not 100%) to be passed on from one generation to the next than Heidi’s.

      Heshy G.


  3. Your summary of traditional Jewish belief is a precis of Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s “Rejoice O Youth”, which I read more than 50 years ago as part of adolescent searching and angst. I doubt Shimen ever read it, and am sure he never felt the need to rebel against its dogmatic message. I and you and most of your readers constitute those “others” who “found it more congenial, as their intellectual lives matured, to distinguish the essence of these beliefs from secondary elements or to interpret some aspects of this narrative in a more abstract form than they had received them”. The traditional beliefs that Shimen received and that we were taught are the only ones that can practically be transmitted on the grade school and even high school level; every honest and thinking modern Jew must then come to his own personal accommodation with and adaptation of those beliefs – and those personal compromises can’t be taught or transmitted.


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