Not everyone is quite like Shimen. So let’s consider the question of belief from a more typical perspective.
For our purposes here, I’ll regard canonical Jewish belief as consisting of the three principles I mentioned earlier: that the Torah was revealed to the Jewish People by God, that those who follow the Torah will be rewarded in this world or another one and that Jewish history is directed towards messianic redemption. How do these beliefs contribute to the viability of Judaism? Specifically, how does Jewish belief contribute to sustaining Jewish norms? And how can Jewish belief itself be sustained in the face of Heidi’s arguments against its plausibility?
It’s quite straightforward how belief strengthens commitment to action. Clearly, the belief that the Torah was revealed and so represents some transcendent truth implies that there is an objective moral order and a human capacity to live by it. It is this belief that instills in us the humility to respect tradition even in the face of our base inclinations and our grand moral theories. Moreover, it is this belief that renders coherent our moral intuitions regarding non-fairness flavors of morality: restraint (kedushah and taharah) and loyalty (kavod and yirah). As we saw in the first two parts of this series, respect for tradition and the broad scope of morality are the keys to Judaism’s viability.
Similarly, the belief that good deeds are rewarded and bad deeds are punished, even if only in another world, incentivizes good deeds and disincentivizes bad ones. What is most important is the sense that one is being watched, rather than the salience of the punishment. The conviction that infractions are seen is so crucial to deterrence that experiments have shown that even the mere exposure to an image of a watching eye sometimes deters moral infractions. The belief in punishment in another world is a meaningful deterrent simply because it suggests that there is an eye that sees and an ear that hears and that all of one’s actions are recorded.
Finally, the belief in eventual redemption gives a life lived in accord with the Torah direction and purpose. It orients the believer to a view in which the Jewish way is dynamic and not stagnant and in which a participant is advancing some larger historical process. In addition, a less appreciated point about formalized messianic belief is captured by the joke about the fellow who is offered to serve as sentinel entrusted with heralding the Messiah’s arrival: it doesn’t pay much, he’s told, but it’s very steady work. The anticipatory nature of redemption in Jewish belief paradoxically softens eschatological fervor and prevents the calamities associated with “hastening the end” that afflict cultures in which messianic longing is repressed.
Here we face the hard question: Jewish belief encourages and directs the Jewish way of life, but can such belief be sustained? To put it bluntly, how can we be enjoined to assent to claims that do not seem credible?
First, observe that the three principle beliefs mentioned above are all aspects of the single belief that Judaism is a directed process linking our past with our future. The aspects of this single claim are that (a) the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (we call that “revelation”), (b) the process is headed toward some non-arbitrary point (we call that “redemption”), and (c) being part of the process self-reinforces (we call that “reward and punishment”). The rest is commentary.
Next, observe that the belief that the society we live in is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future is a necessary belief, like the belief in the reality of free-will, scientific induction and morality. As we saw earlier, every society must believe that or face debilitating collapse. In short, the core of Jewish belief is the bare minimum that a society requires.
If we are sufficiently socialized, we can default to this belief without giving it much thought, just as Shimen does. The default belief is simply part of our emotional character; in such cases, we call it yiras shamayim (fear of heaven). Yiras shamayim is almost orthogonal to the issue of one’s opinions: you can formulate clever arguments in favor of Jewish belief and yet lack yiras shamayim and you can formulate clever arguments against Jewish belief but nevertheless have yiras shamayim. Think of David Hume formulating clever arguments against scientific induction, but fully expecting to see the sun set in the evening and rise in the morning.
It should be obvious that the benefits of belief for sustaining Jewish norms, as we enumerated above, accrue not from intellectual assent to claims but from yiras shamayim. Not for naught is all of classical Jewish literature prior to Saadia Gaon and the Rambam – biblical, tannaitic and amoraic literature – filled with exhortations and narratives extolling the importance of yiras shamayim and almost free of discussion regarding the importance of assent to claims about the world. (I overstate my case here a bit: it’s true that the Torah makes claims about how the world works and, by implication, we are meant to believe those claims. But the meta-discussion about the state of mind that the Torah wishes us to have is never about doctrine and always about yiras shamayim.)
Of course, we aren’t all socialized quite as well as Shimen. We can’t default to the belief that the society we belong to is a link in a directed process that connects our past with our future without a very strong sense of which society we belong to. Gerrer chassidim, committed Jews, heimish Jews, all Jews, educated westerners, human beings, sentient beings, Met fans? Similarly, we don’t have the luxury of defaulting to beliefs that are explicitly challenged in some of the cultures with which we interact. In such cases, we might be inclined to make explicit and defend our beliefs.
At a sufficient level of abstraction, Jewish default beliefs are easily defensible. There is ample evidence that Judaism is indeed a uniquely viable process. Jewish tradition has proved itself to be viable over millennia; it is well-adapted to human moral intuitions, carefully balancing the universal and particularist flavors of morality; it strikes a balance between a living oral tradition and a written tradition of analysis and codification. As I have been arguing throughout the first two parts of this series, if I have to bet on the viability of one culture – and, by the way, I do – I’m putting my money with Shimen.
I know that my definition of Jewish belief “at a sufficient level of abstraction” doesn’t work for everybody. There is a tradeoff here between gripping the soul with the narrative power of concrete beliefs and gripping the intellect with the plausibility of abstract beliefs. Shimen doesn’t face this conflict, but many others do. For some, it may be enough to believe that Judaism has evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past, but others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is today can be traced directly to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely-understood positive direction, but others might need for the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and miraculous interventions and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. For some, the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, but others might need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most prosaic of ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight. Each person strikes the balance that works for them.
I’ll discuss the sociology of all this in the fourth part of the series. For now, the important take-away is that for Shimen – as well as for other committed Jews with more explicitly articulated traditional beliefs – Jewish belief is subordinate to action. Jewish belief motivates and frames commitment to Jewish norms and is meaningless in the absence of such commitment. If we define ideology as a commitment to specific beliefs about the world that logically and chronologically precedes and defines one’s normative commitments, then Shimen’s world is not an ideological one.
As we’ll see in the next post, this is not the case for Heidi’s world.