Judaism as Rational, Judaism as Truth
Passover, now upon us, apart from being an occasion for family reunions and indigestion is the right time for a more serious activity:
I mean, reflecting on the claim that our religion is highly rational and even the claim that Judaism is “true.”
Far from being ethnic chest thumping, this assertion of truth can be defended with a straight face.
I realize I’m inviting controversy, not least among Jews. We live in a funny world, as I’m frequently reminded when speaking to audiences at bookstores and synagogues about my book, “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus.” The book addresses Christian proofs of the Christian faith, and yet it’s often Jews who bristle at being told their religion is “true.” At one large suburban Conservative temple where I spoke, the organizers brought on a professor from the Judaic studies department at the local university to dispute me.
But before we get to truth, let’s discuss rationality. What makes Judaism rational is the reality that Passover, the most widely celebrated of all Jewish festivals, is incomplete without the holiday that follows 50 days later, Shavuot, one of the least celebrated or observed by American Jews. Passover recalls the Exodus from Egypt. Shavuot commemorates the revelation of the Torah to Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai. Without Shavuot, Passover would be meaningless.
The reason has to do with whether the principles of Judaism are to be believed because of long-ago miracles. The Passover story of liberation from pharaoh’s slavery, told in the haggadah, is studded with miracles. There are the 10 plagues, called down by Moses, which devastated Egypt while leaving the Jews unscathed. There is the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, which Moses parted, allowing the Jews to pass between walls of water — which then drowned the Egyptian army that tried to follow.
Yet in Maimonides’ epic-length distillation of Jewish oral and written tradition, the Mishneh Torah, that arch-rationalist sage explains that the people “Israel did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the signs he performed, for he who believes because of signs is subject to doubts in his heart.”
In the story of Shavuot, no miracles figured in the Jews’ acceptance of the Five Books of Moses. And were it not for Sinai and Shavuot, the newly freed Jews would have wandered off, disappeared into anonymous history, never becoming the eternal Israel.
Only at Mount Sinai, where the escaped slaves personally encountered God and heard His voice for themselves, did they come to believe as Jews. It was that personal experience of God that created the Jewish people — not any miracles, however impressive, conjured through a human being. To reinforce that connection, each generation of Jews serves as a witness to every subsequent generation in an uninterrupted succession down to today.
Had that unbroken chain passed down only the testimony that signs and wonders happened, those wonders could be dismissed as sorcerers’ tricks or natural occurrences. There is a radical difference between hearing God speak the Ten Commandments, on one hand, and seeing a human being apparently split a sea, on the other. Someone who believes the main claim of Judaism — that God gave the Torah to Moses — does so on the basis of eyewitness testimony regarding the main claim, a more rational standard of belief than testimony about miracles.
So Maimondies teaches. And based on the Bible’s narrative, he makes a strong case. At Sinai, God told Moses, “Behold! I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever” (Exodus 19:9).
From then on, future prophets who followed in Moses’ footsteps were to be accepted not simply on the basis of miracles they might perform. Though miracles were one criterion for establishing a true prophet, the main factor was faithfully upholding Moses’ prophecy, the Torah.
Future miracles only mattered in establishing new prophets because Moses said they did (Deuteronomy 18:15-22). The experience of Sinai, through which the Jews came to believe in Moses’ connection to God, serves as the guarantee of future prophetic authenticity. Maimonides writes, “If there arises a ‘prophet’ who performs miracles and wonders but seeks to deny the prophecy of Moses our teacher, we need not listen to him.” Indeed, such a person is to be executed (Deutronomy 18:20).
Jesus comes to mind — a man whose claim to authority is based on miracles — from feeding the multitudes with a few loaves and fishes to reportedly being resurrected. And by dint of these miracles, he and his followers dispensed Jews from following Moses’ Torah.
The odd thing is, when I explain such matters to groups of mixed Jews and Christians, even as the Jews grumble, it’s the Christians who are uniformly encouraging and cheerful about a Jew asserting the truth of his faith, even when that assertion contradicts their Christianity. At Passover and year-round, it is, as I say, a funny world. n
What Men Want (To Say)
On a typical coffee date, because we’re meeting for the first time, awkward conversation comes with the territory. Neither of us completely reveals what we’re thinking or feeling. We’re shy, holding back, concealing, putting on a good face, feeling the other person out.
How much more interesting the first date would be if we both were to communicate our true emotions. Still, those actual thoughts and feelings are definitely present, whether uttered or not. They’re simply bubbling under the conversation’s surface; biding their time until we feel more comfortable and trusting with one another.
For instance, take this (nearly) verbatim transcript from one of my coffee dates. All un-uttered thoughts have been italicized for the protection of the emotionally fragile.
Here I go again. Date No. 163, but who’s counting? At this rate, by next May I’ll have dated every unattached woman in the city. At which time I’ll have to start importing them from other countries and taking Berlitz classes.
Lauri: Hi, Mark. Nice to meet you.
Dear Lord, please don’t let this one be a stalker, a jerk or have serious psychological issues like the last six. I believe I’ve reached my annual quota for restraining orders.
Me: Should we get some coffee and sit down?
And then decide within 10 minutes whether there’s a chance we might eventually see each other naked or, and most likely, never see each other again?
Lauri: Sounds good.
Looks like I’m gonna have to train this one how to dress, make eye contact, speak, stand up straight and do something with that hair. Yep, this one’s a definite fixer-upper. Again. Dear Lord, just shoot me now.
Me: So, have you been doing this Internet dating thing long?
Exactly how many guys have you rejected, and how many have rejected you? Be specific. You have five minutes to answer. Show all work. Begin.
Lauri: You’re actually only the first coffee date I’ve been on.
Today. The sum total of all my coffee dates could fill Dodger Stadium. And it’s always I who do the rejecting, because I am perfect and they are flawed. Capiche? So unless your own perfection level approaches mine, you might as well start heading over to the stadium right now.
Me: What are you looking for in a relationship?
Are you a) High maintenance? b) Emotionally needy? c) Nuts?
Lauri: Oh, I don’t know. I guess the usual — chemistry, shared goals, friendship.
A man with Brad Pitt’s looks and Bill Gates’ bank account who can make me yodel in bed. That specific enough for you, Sparky?
Me: What kinds of things do you like to do for fun?
And please know that the red flag goes up immediately with any hint of chick flicks, shopping or eating at restaurants whose names begin with a “Le.”
Lauri: I’m pretty down-to-earth. Just the usual.
That is, if you define “usual” as a) Frequent, “where is this heading?” talks about our relationship; b) Having my mother visit us as often as possible; c) Making it my lifelong mission to interest you in ballet and opera.
Me: Is it just me, or am I sensing some chemistry here?
I’m picturing you without your clothing right now, but I’m gonna have to do some up-close and personal research in order to get the full effect.
Lauri: You might be right.
It’s just you.
Me: May I walk you to your car?
And check out your rear view as I, the perfect gentleman, allow you to walk in front of me?
Lauri: Sure. Can I contribute something to the bill?
And need I remind you that a “yes” answer on your part will forever brand you as a cheapskate of the highest caliber?
Me: Oh, no, I’ve got it. Thanks.
I accepted one of those invitations to contribute once before and ended up as the featured newcomer on www.cheapdatestoavoid.com for two months.
Me: Well, here we are. It was really good to meet you.
Because I enjoy taking two-hour chunks out of my day to spend time with people I’ll never see again.
Lauri: You, too. You seem like a really nice guy.
And we’ll have our next date when Paris Hilton becomes a nun.
On second thought, perhaps those dates are better off with the actual thoughts and feelings remaining bubbling under the conversation’s surface. After all, if you start off a romantic relationship with absolute honesty, no telling what madness and chaos would result.
Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional
stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.