Email your questions to Judaism@staff.Beliefnet.com

Q. Is Judaism a rational faith?

Anyone who studies Judaism must recognize that it is filled with laws that offend common sense, that seemingly insult reason. Why on the Sabbath can one lift heavy stones up the stairs of one's house but not carry a handkerchief outside? What can split hoofs and a chewed cud possibly have to do with the eligibility of an animal to grace a dinner table? Is the chicken really more "pure" than the giraffe?

In the last two centuries, there have been many attempts to prove that Judaism is a "religion of reason." Contrasted with Christianity, which enshrines a paradox (three in one/one in three) at its heart, Judaism was said to be rational, clear, easily assented to. The famous declaration of Tertullian, the Church Father, "I believe it because it is absurd" (in reference to the Trinity), was thought to embody the difference: A Rabbi would never, it was confidently asserted, say such a thing.

The attempt to prove Judaism's rationality had a specific cultural purpose. Jews sought the acceptance of Enlightenment society. Prominent Jews sought to be part of the great drive toward modern, rationalist thought. Mendelssohn, the great 18th-century German-Jewish thinker, was friendly with Lessing, apostle of enlightenment, and Mendelssohn spent his life trying to prove the compatibility of Judaism with modern society, which in practice often meant Judaism and reason.

There were older precedents as well. In the 12th-century, Maimonides put a rational spin on the commandments wherever possible. In kosher laws, he saw health benefits; in animal sacrifices, gradual behavior modification. Yet there is a stubborn irrationality (or at least a-rationality) that is hard to avoid. After all, a bad piece of fish can make you just as sick as a bad pig.

The program of "proving" Judaism to be rational has had its effect. Many traditional beliefs are all but unknown among modern Jews. Many Jews with a conventional Jewish education do not know that Judaism classically had a strong belief in an afterlife; that Jewish texts are saturated with beliefs about angels, demons, mythological figures, and fantastic tales; that many rituals are clearly not "rational" (like swinging a chicken above one's head in an atonement ritual, or the old Moroccan custom in which the night before a bris there is a tahdid": a ceremony where one walks around the room of the newborn, unsheathed sword in hand, waving it as if to kill the demons, all the while reciting blessings).

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.

See Other Questions

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad