Letters Nov. 2020

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Religion: Knowledge vs. Faith

Reader: You should consider that advancing arguments that are inherently weak could engender skepticism, not belief. The divinity of the Torah as proved by the mass revelation at Mount Sinai is an argument that convinces only current believers. As a believing Jew, and one who accepts the traditions handed down to me, I accept this. A skeptic can raise numerous logical flaws, e.g., the event never happened but was circulated among a group who promulgated the tale of its occurrence; or the people were primitive and witnessed a natural event that they interpreted as revelation. 

One can provide archeological confirmation of events in the Torah, provide literary theories to support a unitary text by a single author, but ultimately, we cannot prove God or revelation. For those not raised in a Torah home or who have doubts, must in the end take a leap of faith and live life a life of Torah and mitzvot. When they do so, they will find the meaning they seek as their faith is strengthened. Logically flawed arguments may decrease faith not increase it.

Rabbi: You have not advanced any theory explaining what is lacking in the proof of Sinai; you simply assert an opinion, which is meaningless alone. Furthermore, you must now reject all world history on the same grounds that you reject Revelation at Sinai. But I am sure you would not reject this. So you must now investigate what compels you to lodge a rejection against Sinai—“they were primitive ; it was a natural event [only] interpreted as revelation”—but you don’t reject other histories using this argument. If you are reluctant to consider that one can accept miracles or Torah obligation because of their unnatural quality that you’ve never seen, or due to their restrictive qualities, these are no grounds for rejection. Any history that passes the test of mass witnesses and clear phenomena, validates it. 

Maimonides finds complete proof of God and Torah in Revelation at Sinai:

Wherein, then, did they believe in Moses? In Revelation at Mount Sinai; for our own eyes saw and not through a stranger's, and our own ears heard and not that of another; the flame, the thunder and lightning, and he drew near the thick cloud and the Voice speaking unto him, which we heard saying, “Moses, Moses, go and tell them thus and such,” for so he also said: “The Lord spoke with you face to face in the mount out of the midst of fire” [Deut. 5.4] (Maimonides, Laws of Torah Fundamentals 8:1).

Maimonides says, “our” eyes and “our” ears witnessed this event. Of course neither he nor we were there. But he means that subsequent to that great event, mankind has no less proof than those who stood at the foot of Sinai 3333 years ago. History is history. Whether it was miraculous or if the event threw upon us great responsibility, these considerations in no way discredit events witnessed by masses. 

And your suggestion that faith must be applied, that too is a mere opinion, and not what Torah and our great rabbis say. Torah asks for, and offers proof, because man can grasp proof, and proof is what God demands in recognizing Him and His will. Belief and faith are alien attitudes adopted from other religions and cultures. Both require no use of the mind, and offer no validation. To “know” something means we are convinced without doubt. This quality of conviction is what God says we can attain, it is what He asks of us, and its is required precisely because God gifted mankind with the unique faculty of intelligence and reason that can arrive at 100% proof: 

The foundation of foundations and firmest pillar of all wisdom is, to know that there is a First Being, that He caused all beings to be, and that all beings from heaven and earth, and from between them, could not be, save for the truth of His Own Being. (Maimonides, Laws of Torah Fundamentals 1:1).

Know, therefore, that only the LORD your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps His covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love Him and keep His commandments (Deut. 7:9).

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the LORD alone is God in heaven above and on earth below; there is no other (Deut. 4:39).

Conquering our Drives

Reader: It seems that you identify the yetzer harah (evil inclination) with emotions and yetzer tov (intellect/reason). My question is whether using one's intellect over emotion is really the effective way to defeat the evil inclination. How do you understand the gemara in Berachos that the first way of defeating the yetzer harah is “be brazen and do not sin.” Is that a case of using intellect over emotion? Thanks.

Rabbi: You quote Psalms 4:5, “So tremble, and sin no more; ponder it on your bed, and sigh.” Trembling is certainly an emotion. We are to “love God with all or hearts” (Deut. 6:5). Rashi says this refers to loving God with both of our inclinations: with our instincts and with our minds.  At times it is proper that one agitates himself emotionally to avert himself from sin. In a greater measure than daytime, nighttime lends itself to catering to the instincts. On one’s bed at night, undistracted from human interaction, is a prized moment to focus on God. Pirkei Avos 3:4 states:

Rabbi Chananya ben Chakhinai says: “One who is awake at night, and one who travels on a road alone, and one who turns his heart to idleness (entertainment), such a one is liable for [forfeiture of] his life.”

Rabbeinu Yona comments:

Since they are desirable times, he should only think during them about things that are desirable before God, may He be blessed. And those [things] are words of Torah. How grand and desirable are these times for thinking about Torah, since he has no work to do and does not hear the voices of [other] people. And one who turns his heart to idleness, such a one is liable for [forfeiture of] his life: As he wastes time in which he could have clear and correct thought, and diverts it from thoughts of Torah.

Rabbi Israel Chait comments:

Maimonides also discusses the benefits of learning at night (Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:13). Nighttime is a psychological phenomenon: “To proclaim Your steadfast love at daybreak, Your faithfulness each night” (Psalms 92:3). At night, there is a state of mind of being alone, which should be used to remove oneself from psychological [social] reality and to engage in absolute reality: God and Torah. For at night, psychological reality is not prevalent [and this offers the added benefit that one can more readily advance his mindset into absolute reality.] As Rabbeinu Yona says, “One does not hear the voices of others.” Night is when one is most removed from psychological reality. If one forfeits using this precious time properly, he is liable with his life. This is because he violates his very purpose: to be in that state of absolute reality [relating to reality/God]. At night, when God offers man the opportunity to step right into absolute reality, and instead, he engages in fantasy and entertainment, he forfeits his entire purpose as a tzelem Elohim, an intellectual being.

Although at times, and with some people, emotions help one’s battle against sin, the perfected person does not engage fear (emotions) to fight sin. For he has attached himself to Torah wisdom and God through love. His attachment is positive, what we call “lishma,” for the sake of the Torah itself. He is drawn to Torah wisdom for no ulterior motive, and wishes to relate to its Source, and he is not tempted by sin. Sin is the farthest notion from the perfected man.  

Chauvinism in Torah?

Reader: What is the reason/idea behind a woman not being able to give testimony and serve as a witness? Many, even observant Jews, claim that the chachamim (sages) upheld the patriarchy.  I find it hard to maintain such an idea that they were chauvinists. Thank you.

Rabbi: Rabbi Reuven Mann offered this answer: 

Rabbi Israel Chait said that women are exempt from time-bound laws. Offering testimony too is time-bound (being summoned to appear on a set date) explaining why they are exempt from being witnesses. The reasoning for this exemption in general is, for if they are summoned to court, they must drop everything, thereby interfering with their ability to care for their children. I would add that there is another reason. Witnesses must be subject to tough cross examination (drisha v’chakira) and men are afraid to be too tough in questioning women. As we see lawyers must go very easy in challenging women for fear of coming across as too harsh. But a witness is not valid if they are not subjected to drisha v’chakira so women cannot serve as witnesses.

I would suggest a read of this important essay by Rabbi Chait on gender equality in Judaism:  http://www.mesora.org/GenderEquality.html

Jewish Lineage

Reader: What if the mother was only a Jew in name, and an idolater on the inside, who married into a non-Jewish family. How are she and her children still Jewish, as in part of the Jewish nation? The flip-side as well: what if a father was a devout Jew who married a  non-Jew, followed normative Jewish Halacha to the letter, and sought to teach his offspring the same. How are their children not Jewish because of him? 

Rabbi: “I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God” (Gen. 17:7,8).

God’s covenant with Abraham is with him and his seed. Seed is defined by the mother, as we know from whom a baby exits, but not from whom the seed entered the woman; the father cannot be observed. Thus, the mother certainly defines lineage. If the mother becomes idolatrous, she no longer shares in the Jewish nation due to her sin, but her children who have not sinned are fully Jewish. The father’s religion is irrelevant.

Are All Religions Acceptable?

Reader: Rabbi Tovia Singer says that the reason the majority of Christians don't want to leave Christianity is because they love Jesus, and no proof [refuting Jesus] matters to them. I agree with him and have met many people who will accept the proof of our only true religion but cannot leave Christianity because of their imaginary relationship with Jesus. How does one deal with such people and make them understand? I also warn most people [truth seekers] about Islam, even though we know that its foundation is false. Most people seeking truth and monotheism, unaware about Judaism’s proofs, tend to seek Islam because of its monotheism, widespread nature and biblical figures. How does one fight this? At a very young age around 13-14, I was first looking into Islam before knowing about Judaism. Thank God I studied more carefully and was only convinced 100% when I came across Judaism. What does one answer to people who consider Judaism and Islam similar religions, or rabbis who say it is okay to pray in a mosque, and to those who say Christianity and Islam can be considered a Noahide faith, i.e., acceptable to God? Thank you.

Rabbi: Sometimes a person’s emotions blind him/her to reality. Those emotions must be undone, in addition—and perhaps prior—to presenting truths. We can ask someone why they love Jesus: “What has Jesus done for you?” When they can’t cite any certain cases, this is an opening. And if they imagine some fortunate event and attribute it to Jesus, ask them to prove it. Show them how they follow proof when applying for a position, asking for a contract. Ask why religion should demand anything less? Try helping the person recognize that his position is a mere belief, without any support from reality. 

Another issue is the masses that love Jesus, causing one to follow based on “conformation.”  That too must be exposed as a baseless reason to love Jesus.  You might say, “Even more masses follow Islam…why don’t you follow Mohammed?” Masses also worshipped idols, believe in superstitions, etc. 

Concerning  praying in Churches or Mosques, both should be avoided. Christianity is certainly idolatry, as they pray to man. I am not certain what Islam preaches today. But if they pray to the Creator, but think the Creator authorized anything heretical in the Koran, this too is a great problem. This would be no different than Jews praying to God, but thinking God is Jesus. One might start with the correct identity of God, but due to associated beliefs, one no longer possesses a correct notion of God, and what he prays to is imagination.