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In conversations with Rabbis, and in watching debates between Rabbis and atheists, I have often found that the response to questions which attack Judaism either on the basis of some of its perceived picayune laws (for example, “Why does God care what food we eat?”) or on the ramifications of its theology (for example, “Over the history of civilizations, Jews have historically been very small in number; why would God want only a minor percentage of his creation to experience ‘the truth’ and serve him properly?”), has been some version of “there are some parts of the Jewish faith which require a person to go beyond rational belief and simply have faith”.

My basic question is, Why would God create Judaism in such a way as to require irrational beliefs? If the goal is to lead a moral life in the face of temptation and to serve God, why not create Judaism in such a way as to be 100% rational? People would still have free will to do bad things, act irrationally, etc.

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    isn't the existence of "faith" inherently tied to belief without knowledge/proof? Though that might be arationality (if that's a word). – rosends Oct 20 '14 at 14:11
  • I would suggest taking a look at the book permission to receive by lawrence kelemen – Dude Oct 20 '14 at 15:00
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    "beyond rational belief" ≠ "irrational" – Kyle Strand Oct 20 '14 at 16:49
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    @Dude I have read it and seen his videos and do not find his material at all compelling – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 17:36
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    This reminds me of Winston Churchill's famous quote that it doesn't take all kinds there just are all kinds. Just because a lot of Jews behave irrationally doesn't mean that Judaism requires irrationality. – Robert S. Barnes Oct 21 '14 at 17:18
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You might just be asking the wrong Rabbis. However, to give you a sort-of answer to why this is the case regarding specific details of the religion (such as the food question, and similar questions), belief that the Torah in all its details as it's been passed down to us as the will of God is a rational belief. Therefore, even if certain aspects of it (either its laws or theological positions) seem irrational, we can presume that God knew what He was doing. It is a rational thing to believe a doctor when he or she tells me that a certain medication will help me and another one could kill me, even if I do not understand why (and might think he is wrong based on what instinct or what I have heard elsewhere), because it is rational to believe that the doctor, as an expert, knows what he is doing. Similarly, as the benevolent, omniscient creator of the universe and all its inhabitants, it is rational to believe that when God tells us something, as expressed through the Torah, it is right.

There's another question as to why God would give us laws that seem inherently unintelligible to human beings. Some, such as the Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 2:40 and elsewhere), believe that in fact all laws should be intelligible to humans and merely require some thought to figure out what their purpose actually is. The Ramban (Vaykira 19:19) indicates that God gave such laws in order to drive home the point that human intelligence is so vastly far from God's, so that we'd have a greater fear of Him. The Ramchal in Adir Bamarom gives a mystical reason for this, and though I don't understand it myself I'll quote it for the sake of completeness: חוקים הם דברים שטעמם נעלם, והקב"ה רצה להעלים הדברים כך, כדי שהסטרא אחרא לא תוכל להדבק.

R. Mecklenberg, the Ksav Vehakabbalah, also notes that כפי שהשי"ת נהג עמנו למעלה מהטבע, כן נעבדהו בעבודה נעלית משכל אדם - just as God acts on our behalf in a way that sometimes contradicts the natural laws of the universe, He obligates us in performing commandments that may not have any reason or function according to the natural order of the universe. However, almost all Jewish thinkers believe that even the חוקים, the commandments that don't seem to have any reason, do provide some metaphysical benefit. (see for example the Alshich to Shemos 20:8)

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    I've heard the doctor argument but it seems to be similarly flawed. You can actually explain to a child why something is medically healthy for them, we choose not to because it would be too time consuming, complicated, etc. But with God and man are we saying that God created man as too stupid to understand his real intentions? Why would he do that? – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 14:46
  • @user6641 yeah I was thinking of addressing that in my answer, but I don't have such a great response, though it has been addressed by other sources. When I have time I'll edit it in – הנער הזה Oct 20 '14 at 15:12
  • "Great answer," +1 ;-) – Shokhet Oct 22 '14 at 23:57
  • @Shokhet cool, can I get a badge for that? Who runs the twitter account anyway? – הנער הזה Oct 23 '14 at 1:44
  • That one is a SE robot. @mi_yodeya is run by Isaac Moses and some mods. – Shokhet Oct 23 '14 at 1:51
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I wanted to address the general question without getting into your specific examples of which beliefs require accepting irrationality.

G-d is infinite and we are finite. The most basic thing that we can understand about G-d is that He is beyond our understanding. The Rambam writes in several places (Hilchos Teshuva, Moreh Nevochim part 3) that G-d's "knowledge" is not in the same realm as our knowledge, and we cannot comprehend what G-d's knowledge is. Even the fact that G-d is unlimited is not a description of essence, but just an expression of the fact that we cannot assign any definitions (Vilna Gaon's explanation of אין סוף).

I once heard R' Yaakov Weinberg explain that this is a function of G-d's existence being absolute while the existence of everything else is not (Rambam Yesodei Hatorah 1:1-5 and 1st Ikkar). Thus, this state is inherent in the nature of existence, and not merely something G-d held back from us.

That being the case, there will obviously be some things that we cannot grasp, because they are beyond the faculties of human knowledge to grasp, and a person only understands what he can experience (Derech Hashem 1:1:5). The infinite is beyond our grasp, and how an infinite Being could create or relate to a finite creation is also beyond our grasp, and there will therefore be parts of existence which are inherently incomprehensible to us.

  • I believe this is a version of @ray's answer, see my comment for follow-up clarification - basically saying God can't create things in a way that people can understand rationally imposes and unfair limitation on God. Please note my question was on how God structured Judaism, not on knowing God himself. – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 17:43
  • @user6641 Ray's answer would be a version of mine, if anything, but I think they are very different. My answer explains why it should be and is that way. I think my answer addresses your comment there. I.e. it is not arbitrary that G-d decided to make the world this way - it is inherent in the difference between being infinite and finite, or perhaps better absolute and incidental. – Y     e     z Oct 20 '14 at 17:45
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    @user6641 I am saying that G-d is the only absolute being and there cannot be another, and another infinite being could not be created. The finite cannot understand the infinite. I assume you are bothered by the word "cannot." Rabbi Eliezer Lachman once said to me "yes, Hashem cannot get sick and He cannot die, and those are not imperfections." Being removed from limitations is not a limitation. – Y     e     z Oct 20 '14 at 18:47
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    @LieRyan That was a great way of dumbing down my answer and ignoring any salient points! Well done! My answer says much more than "I don't know." It says "I do know that G-d is infinite, and that we are finite. I do therefore know that G-d's existence is outside the realm of my experiences, and I do know that I will therefore not be able to comprehend it. I do know that this is not incidental, it is by definition in the nature of G-d's being infinite." Thanks for your comment! – Y     e     z Oct 21 '14 at 15:36
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    @LieRyan If a question asked "Why do we hold a lulav" and the answer was "we can't understand" you would have a (somewhat) valid point. But if the question itself is "Why can't we understand" and the answer is a logical approach to explain why it is reasonable that we can't understand, I don't see how it is comparable to dismissing the question - it is directly addressing the point of the question. – Y     e     z Oct 22 '14 at 18:09
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The second question about being small in number is flawed, because, we don't believe that everyone should be jews. There are 7 Noahide commandments for the rest of the world, and the 613 for us. Note that the seven basically amount to being an upstanding human being who participates in civilized life. Non-jews who keep the seven are considered by rabbinic judaism to be righteous gentiles and merit the hereafter. So clearly there is not one objectively right way to serve God.

As to the first question, in light of the above, evidently there are different roles in this world. My understanding of the role of Jews stems from Ex 19:6 and Isaiah 42:6. We are meant to be held to a higher standard of devotion to God, so as to set and example for the rest of the world, so that they can keep their seven.

Sometimes living an upstanding, moral life by the 7 is hard. Sometimes doing something wrong may feel right. Sometimes the reason you do something is not because you want to or because its fun and easy, but because it is for the greater good. So you disregard your own thoughts and feelings, and do what needs to be done.

As a holy nation of priests, and a light unto the nations is our role, our way of life takes that discipline to an extreme. We do many things that don't even make a particular amount of moral or rational sense, that put us out and inconvenience us, that draw attention and are strange, solely out of devotion to God; to principle. We do those things so that when people notice those practices, that commitment, and see the community it cultivates, the caliber of people it raises, and the favor it evokes, the can be inspired to maintain their moral code, one which is a purely rational and morally upright one, even when it is hard or their feelings and desires pull them away, and misconstrue basic morality to "not make sense".

So our role as Jews is to be held to an inconceivably high standard, that doesn't make rational sense, so as to help the rest of the world maintain the simple standards that do, even when their thoughts and feelings dissuade them from what is just bottom line the way you should live.

EDIT: It bears mentioning that, since we entered Canaan over 4000 years ago, we have at best tenuously upheld our end of the deal, (see also). Consequently, the curses detailed in the two preceding sources have come upon us, in place of the blessings. So currently our observance is a more introverted exercise, as we are attempting to show that we have changed and that we can 'do it', so that we may witness the messianic era, be restored to our position, and in earnest fulfill our role. see Ray's answer here.

All of that said, by design, the irrational portions of our faith in fact have an ultimately rational function. May we SOON realize that purpose!

  • I'm confused, are there 2 standards for morality, those for Jews and those for everyone else? If the commandments for non-Jews are rational then how can having a different set of commandments for Jews, many of which are not rational, serve as a model? It sounds as if you are saying that the reason for the non-rational commandments is just to prove that we will do them out of devotion to God. If that is the case A) that sounds rather capricious and B) why do we need more than 1? – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 14:50
  • @user6641 if we just did rational, mundane things, no one would even necessarily notice. to lead by example, one must set a noticeable, at times ostentatious example. – Baby Seal Oct 20 '14 at 14:58
  • @user6641 so to answer your question, yes there are two different standards, and the commonality between them is our commitment to principles that at times disagree with our subjective sensitivities. – Baby Seal Oct 20 '14 at 15:00
  • This is a very interesting answer and I signed up solely to comment. Is there an overriding "pastoral" duty that supercedes even the 613? For example, what if ostentatious commitment to principle came to increase scepticism of moral codes in general? A gentile may observe a Jew doing something irrational and put off their own adherence. – jl6 Oct 20 '14 at 16:58
  • So if I understand the argument your answer is that the reason Judaism requires irrationality is so that rational people will see irrationality being practiced and it will convince them to follow a certain code of behavior that they would have otherwise not followed due to psychological justifications? – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 17:51
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If you would talk to a computer about the factory worker who made the computer in Taiwan that would not make sense to the computer. Nor would it make sense to talk to the computer about what the world looks like when the computer is switched off.

The word chok, which relates to mitzvot that have no reason, also relates to the act of carving or chiselling. In other words, chukim are those mitzvot that define us and therefore we cannot understand the reason for the existence of the mitzva because that would require knowledge that is axiomatically external to the human condition.

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its pretty irrational to think we can understand God.

see this for example http://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/rmb-whyisthereaworld/

nevertheless, we can still answer these to some satisfactory extent. see these lectures by Rabbi Becher who answers most of these types of questions

http://www.simpletoremember.com/authors/a/rabbi-mordechai-becher/

he used to work for ohr somayach's ask the rabbi website and can pretty much handle all questions.

  • this sounds very circular to me. I assume that God can operate the world in a way that would make sense to people. For example as mentioned in another answer had God simply given everyone the 7 noahide commandments and said "be moral by following these 7 commandments" that would be simple and rational. By positing that God has to work in irrational ways aren't we imposing a limitation on him? – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 17:39
  • there you go again assuming you understand God - why not have a look at that lecture by rabbi becher. here's a bonus quote from the shaar bitachon ch.3 The ways of judgments of the Creator are too deep, hidden and lofty for us to understand part of them, and all the more so to understand their general principles. And the verse already says: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts [higher] than your thoughts" (Yeshaya 55:9). – ray Oct 20 '14 at 17:41
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    Having now listened to basically the entire shiur his approach seems to be the same as @Yez's answer and is fundamentally missing the point of the question. Taken as a given that we cannot ultimately "know the reason" God does something unless he tells us, does not mean that you cannot understand the intention. – user6641 Oct 20 '14 at 19:47
  • @user6641 what is the difference between reason and intention? – ray Oct 20 '14 at 20:19
  • @user6641 I dont see anything irrational of the points yo brought up by the way. for example, the reason so few human beings serve Gd is simply because they chose not to. the torah was offered to all the nations b4 being given to the jews. and perhaps if Gd revealed more of Himself, the balance of free will would not be optimal – ray Oct 20 '14 at 20:24
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In this lecture by Rabbi Shai Held he argues that there is a need to not "know" in absolute terms that there is a God, this allows one the space for belief. He does not say so explicitly but I believe he would accept the understanding that this is the role for irrationality in Judaism. It is what allows space for a person of faith to believe. In other words, if everything made complete sense a person themselves would never truly know if they are keeping God's commandments because they make sense or if he's doing so in order to fulfill the will of God. The former is self-serving, the latter is what Judaism is all about.

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I believe the Maharal explains chukim as gezeirot hamelech (decrees of the King) which are not kept because the keeper finds them independently compelling. Rather, by keeping them, he shows his subservience to the King. (Ultimately, even if one assumes the chukim have little independent purpose beyond this, that hardly means that their observance is irrational, inasmuch as serving G-d is rational which includes keeping the chukim.)

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