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Heidi of Princeton

In defense of religion: Why virtues and traditions are primary and beliefs derivative, not the other way around

Moshe Koppel
December 23, 2020
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Exodus painting, five elements from a painted hanging depicting the Crossing of the Red Sea, Byzantine, mid-second to mid-fourth century A.D., artist unknownHeritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

It was in the kosher dining hall at Princeton where, in the 1980s, I lost my innocence. It was my first foray into life outside the strictly Orthodox Jewish confines of a yeshiva. Heidi was a graduate student in the humanities who had taken it upon herself to educate me about the special duties of the Jewish people to humanity. “How can you justify your narrow tribal loyalty and commitments? Isn’t the lesson of the Holocaust that we Jews must never put our parochial concerns ahead of those of others?” That was the moment I realized that I had never encountered true Orthodoxy before.

My own thoughts about Jewish obligation were somewhat less righteous than those of my interlocutor. My first lessons in the matter had been learned in the small shtiebel (prayer hall) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where my grandfather prayed along with his fellow Gerer Hasidim.

The regulars at this particular shtiebel were among the few survivors of their families and communities. They retained their loyalty to the ways in which they had lived before The War, but without beards or the fur hats (known as shtreimlekh, or in the case of the taller version worn by Gerers, spodeks) typically worn by Hasidim on Shabbat and holidays. They were God-fearing Jews, but they felt sufficiently at home with God to take liberties as necessary. They were worldly, cynical, and fiercely independent, but had chosen to remain loyal to the ways of their fathers. Although some were fully committed, others and maybe most might better be thought of as semi-lapsed Gerer Hasidim who nevertheless wouldn’t think of jumping ship after what had happened to their families.

My grandfather and Shimen, his best friend in the community, were of the latter variety. Shimen told many stories, all about the same topic. Here’s an example: a Nazi officer in the Lodz ghetto demanded that he hand over either his son or his daughter within 48 hours. One of Shimen’s profoundest sorrows, and he had many, was that his daughter sensed he had fleetingly thought to choose to keep his son. Up to the time both she and her brother were murdered, she never spoke to him again. After the war, Shimen got his hands on a pistol and went from house to house on a mission to extract Jewish children from the Polish families with whom they had been left when their parents were deported to the camps.

Elie Wiesel, who often prayed in that Gerer shtiebel, relates a story about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in Auschwitz. One of his fellow inmates announced to the rest of the assembled in the barracks that though they had no wine, “we’ll take our tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush (a holiday blessing made over wine) heard before God.” That inmate was Shimen. Of course, Shimen had no patience for drama, and whenever the story was told he would scrunch up his eyes behind his thick black-framed glasses and say, dismissively, “Nu, Wiesel. He makes a living telling maiselakh (tales) about me.”

The Gerer shtiebel gang were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way, they were devoted. But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pomposity and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit, old-fashioned Judaism, as a way of life, and to the Jews as a people, were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.

The very cosmopolitan Heidi of Princeton patronized old Shimens as addlebrained relics out of touch with contemporary doctrines. First, Shimen’s old-fashioned views evince what Heidi regards as an immoral preference for the welfare of Jews over that of others. Second, Shimen is committed to social norms that are mediated by rabbis and thus, in Heidi’s view, insufficiently respectful of the autonomy of individuals. Third, Shimen’s understanding of the world is rooted in a set of beliefs that are, to Heidi’s understanding, ahistorical and unscientific.

Making the case for Shimen’s view of the world will require addressing in detail all three of Heidi’s claims—and I’ve written a book to do it. I’ll focus here, however, only on the third claim, the problem of belief. I should say up front that this focus is merely a matter of convenience and is not motivated by any conviction that the disagreements between Shimen and Heidi about how to live are second-order differences that follow inevitably from their irreconcilable beliefs about nature, history, and theology. On the contrary, my main point will be that the direction of the causality is exactly the opposite: virtues and traditions are primary and beliefs are derivative.

To begin, let’s get on the same page that Shimen was on as a boy in ĥeder (religious elementary school) in Poland long before the war.

God created the universe, including the laws of nature. These laws hold most of the time but can be broken when God sees fit to intercede in the course of events by performing miracles. God revealed Himself to the forefathers of the Jewish people, promising that their descendants would be plentiful, would face special challenges, and would reap special rewards.

Our ancestors, the chosen descendants of these forefathers, were enslaved in Egypt and redeemed by God’s hand amidst many miracles. The proto-nation redeemed from Egypt received the Torah in the desert at Sinai, through the agency of Moses, the greatest of all prophets. The received Torah consisted of the Written Torah, dictated by God to Moses in the precise words of the Five Books of Moses that we have today, along with an accompanying Oral Law that served as the basis of interpretation of the Torah. With God’s direct help, the nascent nation conquered the Land of Israel, as had been promised to its forefathers, established the Davidic line of kings, and built the Temple in Jerusalem. But then, in retribution for various sins, the First Temple, and eventually the Second Temple, were destroyed, and the Jews were banished to the four corners of the earth.

The subject matter of Jewish belief is Jewish practice.

The Written Torah and the Oral Law, as faithfully transmitted from Sinai and further interpreted by rabbis over all subsequent generations, are binding on all Jews. The law unfolds over generations through a guided process that accurately reveals its original intent: leading rabbis of each generation are divinely inspired, and the Jews as a nation possess the collective intuition of the “children of prophets,” though in diminishing degrees with the passage of time.

The Jews are rewarded and punished, collectively and individually, in accordance with their observance of God’s laws. Those who, for some reason, do not get their just deserts in this world are compensated or called to task in another world, obscure to us. One day, when they merit it, the Jews will be redeemed by God through the hand of the messiah and returned to the Land of Israel, where they will rebuild the Temple and live harmoniously according to God’s law. They will be ruled once again by kings from the line of David and by the renewed Sanhedrin, and will be free of the yoke of foreign nations. Ultimately, some of the dead will be resurrected and will share in this idyllic existence.

That, in a nutshell, is what Shimen—and every other ĥeder student in the past millennium—received as the basic truths of Judaism. Some of those ĥeder students went happily through life believing exactly that in a perfectly literal way. But others, including many who remained faithful to the tradition, found it more congenial, as their intellectual lives matured, to distinguish the essence of these beliefs from secondary elements or to interpret some aspects of this narrative in a more abstract form than the one they had received in ĥeder.

Heidi isn’t having any of it at any level of abstraction. Let’s see why.

Heidi is proud to be a rational person; she is committed to accepting only what follows from evidence and reason. In her view, this criterion is not met by any of the traditional Jewish beliefs I’ve just enumerated. She notes with no small amount of disdain that Shimen and those like him seem never to have critically contemplated any of their beliefs in the light of readily available scientific and historical facts.

Heidi strives to be objective, to believe only what an unbiased person would believe. In her view, such a person would not place Jews at the center of the cosmos. Many tribes imagine that the world revolves around their own petty comings and goings, and they are all obviously wrong. The Jews are just another such tribe. From an objective point of view, their myths about their own chosenness are delusional, if not dangerous.

If she bothers engaging with specific canonical Jewish beliefs at all, she doesn’t find much of value. It isn’t so much that these beliefs are demonstrably false as that they are far-fetched and there is no particular reason to believe them.

As far as Heidi can tell, modern cosmology, geology, and astronomy yield immeasurably more insight into the formation of heaven and earth than does the biblical narrative, and so does the theory of evolution concerning the origins of plant and animal life. She’s not quite sure what it means for God to have created these things—and she’s pretty sure Shimen doesn’t, either—but she’s reasonably confident that it doesn’t add much to the picture that scientists have painted.

The probability that Heidi intuitively assigns to any book having been written by God is vanishingly low, and there isn’t much in the Torah’s inconsistent patchwork of dubious legends and rituals that screams out to Heidi that she needs to revise her assessment with regard to this particular book.

Reports of miracles, in the Torah and elsewhere, are more plausibly explained as the products of imagination or deception than as actual breaches of the laws of nature. All modern tales of miracles with which Heidi is familiar are either the products of wishful thinking on the part of religious enthusiasts or misinterpretations of random events. Somebody has to win the lottery, but to the lucky winner it always looks like a miracle.

Heidi is also not persuaded by claims that rabbis, ancient or modern, are divinely inspired. Some of them are indeed unusually clever, but she finds it hard to fathom how men in direct contact with the Holy Spirit could be so wrong about so many things. The rabbis seem to live in a parallel universe in which insects are spontaneously generated from inorganic material, human and animal anatomy do not resemble any form recognizable to moderns, the earth is flat, the sun circles back behind an opaque sky at night, and provable theorems of geometry and trigonometry are false.

Nothing in Heidi’s experience suggests that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished; as often as not, the opposite seems to be the case. The invention of an invisible world where things are evened out is an embarrassingly artificial rationalization that only highlights the salience of the problem.

The claim of chosenness and the belief that the entire course of human history is directed toward Jewish political redemption strike Heidi as nothing less than a form of national narcissism. As for resurrection, she has no clue what to make of it. If she were to be resurrected (in what form? at what age? with which memories and emotions preserved?), she could hardly imagine what connection her resurrected self would have with her present self and why she should care.

In short, for Heidi the whole package of canonical Jewish beliefs does not hold the slightest credibility or appeal. But does the package of ĥeder beliefs that Heidi rejects reflect the true substance and nature of the adult Shimen’s beliefs?

Consider first the substance of adult Shimen’s beliefs. Like any rational person, Shimen draws conclusions about the workings of nature, including human nature, from his own experience and from the reported experience of others. Nevertheless, Shimen differs from Heidi in that he does not presume to construct all his beliefs about the world on the basis of evidence alone. In particular, Shimen’s most fundamental religious beliefs can be defined only subsequent to and in light of his prior commitment to Judaism.

The canonical Jewish narrative we laid out above can be conveniently reformulated as elaborations of three principles: that the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people by God; that those who follow the Torah will be rewarded; and that Jewish history is directed toward messianic redemption. The rest of the narrative consists of amplifications and embellishments of these principles. Thus, the narrative of events leading to the Jews standing at Sinai gives context to the revelation of God’s will to a specific nation. Miracles performed at various historical junctures demonstrate God’s ability and determination to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. The rise and fall of the Davidic dynasty and of the First and Second Temples and the implied trajectory of subsequent Jewish history set the stage for future redemption.

Each of these three principles is an aspect of the single belief that Judaism is a directed process linking the Jewish past with the Jewish future. The aspects of this single claim are that (a) the process developed organically from some non-arbitrary point (“revelation”); (b) the process is headed toward some non-arbitrary point (“redemption”); and (c) participation (and non-participation) in the process is self-reinforcing (“reward and punishment”). The rest is commentary.

As an empirical matter, different people understand these principles at different levels of abstraction. That’s because there is a trade-off here between gripping the soul with the narrative power of concrete beliefs and gripping the intellect with the plausibility of abstract beliefs.

For some, it may be enough to believe that Judaism developed helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past, but others might need the conviction that every detail of Judaism such as it is today can be traced directly to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time.

For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely understood positive direction, but others might need the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and miraculous interventions, and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible.

For some, the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, but others might need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most prosaic of ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight.

Each person strikes the balance that works for him or her. In short, if we were to characterize actual Jewish belief such as it appears in the wild, we would find that different people codify it at different degrees of abstraction.

The key point for this stage of my argument is that the subject matter of Jewish belief is Jewish practice. The principles of Jewish belief, as we formulated them, are about the unfolding of Jewish tradition and the destiny of the people committed to that tradition, so that Jewish belief is empty without some prior definition of Jewish practice. This point becomes much sharper when we consider not the content of belief but the experience of belief, in particular for a Jew like Shimen.

So let’s take a deep breath and have an unflinching look at the true nature of Shimen’s belief.

Shimen’s two children, Leibele and Chaya Sara, were taken from his hands and murdered. He witnessed countless friends who died al kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) with the words of Shema or Ani Maamin, the most primal Jewish creeds,on their lips. He devotes his life to teaching young people about the suffering and the nobility of righteous Jews in the camps and ghettoes.

I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Shimen holds no naïve beliefs about God’s benevolence and the worldly rewards bestowed upon those who follow in His ways. What, then, does Shimen believe?

Shimen believes, as deeply and as viscerally as one can believe anything, that the Jewish way—Yiddishkeit—is the life force that animates the Jewish people. He believes that this Yiddishkeit is what sets apart the Jews, whom he watched die with nothing left but an inner dignity rooted in their devotion to each other and to their shared way of life. He believes in his gut that Yiddishkeit—not vague professions of high-minded virtue, but Yiddishkeit in all its detail—is so fundamentally right that it must be God’s will. He believes instinctively that devotion to the Jewish way is its own reward: he would not hesitate for a second to trade away the circumstances under which he lived, but he would not in a million years prefer to belong to any other people. And he believes that whatever is left of the Jews is sufficiently healthy at its core that it will regenerate and flourish.

Shimen’s approach to halakha is principally mimetic; he has internalized the ways of his parents and his community. The halakhic codes are just for fine-tuning. The same is true of his beliefs, which are thoroughly internalized. For Shimen, codified principles of Jewish belief are just ways of expressing that internalized belief; he doesn’t need them.

Still, if we were forced to codify Shimen’s internalized belief as a set of assertions, what might the code look like?

Shimen’s belief that the Jewish way expresses God’s will could, for example, be codified as the claim that God revealed the Torah at some specific time and place. Shimen’s belief that, whatever the circumstances, it is profoundly satisfying to be a God-fearing Jew might be codified as the claim that acting in accord with the Torah is rewarded and acting contrary to the Torah is punished. Shimen’s belief in the fundamental viability of the Jewish way of life could plausibly be codified as the claim that collective loyalty to this way of life will ultimately lead to its ascendancy.

In short, at least one codified version of Shimen’s ineffable beliefs would be more or less the set of claims that we’re calling Jewish belief.

But this codified version doesn’t capture what’s going on in Shimen’s mind; Shimen’s belief is emotional, not intellectual. If you insist that he expound on his belief, he’ll trot out the standard story, the one he learned in ĥeder. But the fact is that he hasn’t got the slightest interest in exploring evidence for the veracity of any of the historical claims on which his most basic commitments ostensibly rely.

To understand why this is so, we need to understand the relationship between his internalized belief and his assent to the claims surrounding it. Think of it this way. Shimen loves his children, Leibele and Chaya Sara. He remembers them as sweet and innocent and wise beyond their years, almost angelic. But were they actually as angelic as he chooses to remember them? Were they never cranky or ornery, foolish or immature? Should Shimen undertake archival research and interviews of surviving neighbors to replace his fond memories of Leibele and Chaya Sara with more accurate ones?

I hope you see how utterly idiotic this is. Shimen doesn’t love his children because they were angelic; he recalls them as angelic because he loves them. And recalling them this way only intensifies his love and his longing for them. Similarly, Jewish belief is only coherent and meaningful to those already committed to the Jewish way of life, who experience its vitality viscerally. For those who experience Jewish life as instinctively as Shimen, assent to codified Jewish belief might frame and intensify the experience, but is not the basis for that experience. And subjecting these claims to historical analysis makes as much sense to him as subjecting his memories of his children to historical analysis. Both his religious beliefs and his family memories are true for him not because of historical research but regardless of it.

Conversely, since these claims are merely outer expressions of inner experience, for those who don’t share some form of this experience, the claims are empty shells. Attempting to prove the truth of the canonical Jewish historical narrative from outside Jewish practice is nothing but a fool’s errand.

In Judaism, belief can only be the residue of practice.

Excerpted from ‘Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures’ with permission of Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers. Copyright © Moshe Koppel 2020. All rights reserved.

Moshe Koppel, a professor of computer science, is the author of Judaism Straight Up: Why Real Religion Endures.