Along with countless Jews throughout the ages, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about how to justify belief in the Torah through rational argument. It is certainly possible to maintain a belief in Judaism or anything else through simple faith, without regard for whether there is any rational underpinning for one’s beliefs. However, I don’t believe that God intended us to suspend our capacity for rational thought in the realm of religion; the God in which I believe would not give us such a wonderful gift and then expect us to ignore it in what he would obviously consider the most important aspect of our lives.
There is one argument that I have returned to, over and over again, in my search for “rational faith.” We have texts, preserved for millenia, proven more or less authentic through various means, written by the first generation of Jews to live in the land of Israel. These texts refer prominently to the exodus from Egypt and the miracles experienced by the Jews during their wanderings in the desert. To the people who wrote these texts, these experiences were not ancient history but rather were first-hand experience; either they, or at worst their parents, were present when these events occurred. It has always seemed to be that it is absurd to believe that an entire nation could be hoodwinked in a single generation into a belief in completely made-up texts. Therefore, I have always reasoned, independent of whether the history related in our texts is completely true, there is certainly some truth to it.
(Contrast this, e.g., with the Christian gospels. It is my understanding that they were all written several hundred years after the death of Jesus. by people who were therefore at least ten generations removed from the events related in them.)
I have also reasoned that since many of the restrictions placed upon the Jewish people by the Torah (e.g., the laws of Kashrut) yield to no rational explanation, and since it’s hard to imagine any reason why any human being would have contrived such restrictions at the time when the Jewish nation came into being, and since these restrictions have proven themselves over time in ways that could not possibly have been imagined then, it seems reasonable, at least to me, to believe that these restrictions were inspired by a higher power.
However, the more I learn about Mormonism and Scientology, the more I find myself wondering whether in fact I’m kidding myself about how just how easy it is to hoodwink enough people to start a religion, while at the same time convincing them to believe in and follow a body of irrational, contrived restrictions completely invented by human beings.
I believe that Mormonism and Scientology are both religions that were completely, 100% invented by their founders, with no “divine inspiration” whatsoever. I don’t think Joseph Smith had any ulterior motives; I think he was simply nuts. In contrast, I think L. Ron Hubbard knew exactly what he was doing; as the story goes, he founded Scientology to win a bet that he could start a made-up religion and get people to believe in it.
Yet clearly, despite the fact that these two religions were completely made up and involve all kinds of irrational, unexplainable beliefs and practices, their founders managed to get enough people to believe to reach a critical mass, such that both Mormonism and Scientology are now successful, growing, self-sustaining religions, even though they were founded less than two centuries (Mormonism) and less than sixty years (Scientology) ago.
So, tell me, why is Judaism any less weird than Mormonism or Scientology?