Sunday, October 25, 2015

Intro To Machshava: Rav Sa'adiah Gaon II - The Root of Heresy (Part 2 of 2)

Rav Aryeh Leibowitz
Adapted by Micah Hyman

Last week we discussed Rav Sa’adiah Gaon claim that one of the reasons people become heretics is due to taivah - unbridled passions and unchecked desires.  We began to explore this perspective by noting R. Yehudah Ha-Levi’s argument that the world itself is the greatest proof of a creator. 

Based upon R. Yehudah Ha-Levi argument, Rav Elchonon Wasserman establishes a sweeping principle: belief in God is obvious and simple. According to Rav Elchonon, it does not require great intellectual prowess to believe in God.

Of course, such a claim just begs a further question: Why then, are there so many atheists in this world? Rav Elchonon answers with the principle of shochad – bribery. Any judge, no matter how sagacious or pious, is prohibited from judging a case where he received even a penny from one of the litigants. This halacha is predicated on the principle that human psyche cannot resist the effects of a bribe. So too in the realm of belief, claims R. Elchonon.  We are all bribed by our physical desires, and this fact of human psyche affects our ability to see the truth.

In other words: There are many pleasures in this world, and the main obstruction to hedonistic impulses is a religious system that dictates behavior and curbs indulgences. Once a person’s desires have control over him, it is very challenging to accept the yoke of a religion, and therefore a person who does not appreciate the beauty of Torah, see its laws as extremely limiting and constrictive. 

However, unbiased eyes look at the world and see the hand of a Creator.  For this reason, says R. Elchonon, heresy is tied to the heart.  Hersey is not truly an intellectual issue, but instead is the product of a desiring heart.

Rav Dessler also raises the question of the sincerity of many people’s doubts.  He acknowledges that some people do have sincere intellectual questions whose answers are not forthcoming.  These are real doubts and should not be disregarded or ridiculed.  But, there are other doubts that only exist because a person wants to have a doubt.  Rav Dessler says one needs to determine if his questions would truly bother an outside observer, or are they crafted (often subconsciously) in order to achieve a different purpose.

Hence, we are not claiming that it is impossible that a person might have a sincere doubt or question about the veracity of religion.  We are merely noting that in the case of many doubters, the questions did not begin as intellectual problems.  Rather, often the desire to not have to believe leads to the intellectual problems.  R. Sa’adiah Gaon encourages a person to be brutally honest with himself, and seek to determine the source of his doubts.

Indeed, it is unfortunately not uncommon for people to seek out (consciously or subconsciously) intellectual arguments to justify their pre-decided upon lifestyle and to “intellectualize” their unwillingness to sacrifice their personal agendas for the will of God.  Hence, we find a person who reads an abridged article in Reader’s Digest on biblical criticism, and then decides that he is enough of a bible expert to feel vindicated that he does not follow halacha.

I heard once from a kiruv professional at a major institution that caters to brilliant college educated baalei teshuvah that 99% of the time that a student is “hung-up” and unable to overcome an intellectual problem with Judaism, there ends up being a behind-the-scenes personal issue, such as a non-Jewish girlfriend, a strong desire for certain vices, monetary issues, etc. 

This is why it is important to speak to someone about your doubts – so they can help you distinguish if your questions are truly intellectual questions (and if the pursuit of answers has a chance of ever resolving your doubts).  If, indeed, a real intellectual problem arises: that’s great! Look into it! Study it!  Rav Sa’adiah Gaon writes that only a perfect mind doesn’t have doubts, and Rav Wolbe is quoted as saying that there are no “heretical questions, only heretical answers.” Judaism as a religion encourages questions – just look at the Gemara! Doubt is a healthy manifestation of a thinking Jew. It is imperative, however, to clarify what kind of doubt one is dealing with.

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