Not Quite Reasonable

Judaism has an undeserved reputation for rationality. But reason is overrated anyway.

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Jews in their own minds became Apollonian figures--praising reason, light, and the austere beauty of thought--against the Dionysian dark forces that seemed to drag us back to a primitive world.

But human beings are not so simple. If a faith were solely about reason, we would not need faith. Reason carries its justification on its own back. To do something because it is reasonable is sufficient. Religion is also about reason, and much more.

To some, this will sound apologetic. But that depends upon your conception of the human being. We do not have timetables and grids inside ourselves. We have souls. They are ignited not only by what is logical but also by what is beautiful.

In the autobiography of the renowned English philosopher John Stuart Mill, he talks about how after a rigorous classical training in his youth, he suffered a nervous breakdown. He was eventually cured by taking long walks in the woods and reading the poetry of Wordsworth. His was a powerfully logical mind, one of the foremost reasoning tools of the 19th century. But logic alone was a dry root, from which soul-nourishment did not grow.

In keeping kosher there is a kind of poetry, in keeping shabbat there is a dark, mysterious rhythm. What does it mean? As the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote, "A poem should not mean, but be." Judaism is not irrational, simply deeper, different, more variegated than reason alone. That is a truth of faith that all religious souls know.


We need faith to open dark and secret doors inside, to make us see, to startle and uplift us, to give us back our souls. Reason is hardly the enemy, but it is also not the only answer. God gave us minds to use them, and they are a great gift. But unfettered reason loosed on the world has done great harm; and Judaism recognizes the imperative of wonder, of depth--of reasons, as Pascal put it, that reason knows nothing of.

There are symphonies in our souls. Faith helps strike the music so we can train our spirits to live in God's complex, mysterious, and wondrous world. Is Judaism a religion of reason? No. It is a religion where reason plays a powerful, a vital, an irreplaceable role. But is a religion of something even deeper than reason: a religion of beauty, of truth--of God.

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