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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Belief vs. Conviction: A Primer

(Originally posted on soc.culture.jewish.moderated, 11 August 2002)

A certain escapee from my killfile (don't worry; that won't happen again) wrote:

>Lisa does not claim to believe in
>the truth of Torah. She declares the truth of the Torah as being something
>outside the realm of belief, as something that isn't "believed,"

And added:

>And further, she declares not just that "Torah" is truth, but
>that the set of traditions that she declares as being the Torah to be
>truth, and that this declaration too is outside the realm of belief, but
>is objective fact.

It's amazing to me that this person has once again twisted what I wrote and attributed to me the exact opposite of what I wrote. But of course, that's what earned him entrance to my killfile before. Sometimes I'm a slow learner.

So for anyone else who may be reading this, since I've given up trying to get this person to read what I actually write, here's the difference between belief and conviction.

Belief is inherently a-rational. I won't say "irrational", because you can believe something that turns out to be rational, but belief itself is 100% detached from any rational process. It lives in the guts; not in the brain. A person can believe in elves or fairies without ever having seen any evidence for or against the proposition that elves and fairies exist, because belief doesn't care about evidence.

I remember a man I met once when I was in college. It was a Hillel House activity, and this was some older guy from the community. And we got to talking. And during the course of this, he explained that since the Torah says we're supposed to be a Holy People, that means we need to be unified. Why? Because, he explained, he believed that there must be some connection between the words "holy" and "whole". I explained to him that there wasn't, and that in fact, we weren't told to be "holy", but rather "kadosh", which has a connotation of separateness and uniqueness, rather than wholeness. He got a stubborn look on his face and said that he believed otherwise, and that was that. Nice.

The early Christian theologian Tertullian (bear with me, O Mods), when asked how he could believe the absurdities of his religion, answered "credo, quia absurdum". "I believe because it is absurd". And there's hardly a better definition of belief than that.

Belief doesn't want to hear about information to the contrary. Belief spits in the face of logic. Belief is just a matter of whim, and nothing more.

Science tells us that the speed of light in a vacuum is a constant, and they can tell us to a very high level of accuracy what that speed is. I don't "believe" this to be true. I do not "believe" that every molecule of water is made up of one atom of oxygen and two of hydrogen. I accept those facts not because my emotions require me to and not out of some intrinsic or Platonic "knowledge" (which is no knowledge at all), but because the information comes to me from sources which I consider, based on the learning I have done and based on the areas where I have checked for myself, to be trustworthy.

The same is true of anyone who accepts a piece of knowledge that they haven't personally seen for themselves. If they accept that information as valid, it's either because they've seen evidence which convinces them of its validity, whether direct or indirect, or because they want to. The latter is belief. The former is conviction.

Conviction, by its nature, requires an act of convincing. That's simply what the word means. A conviction can be wrong, just as a belief can be right. But the fact that they can each be right or wrong doesn't make them the same thing. Not by a long shot. Conviction requires an act of reason. It might be poor reasoning in some cases, but the process is going on in the brain, and not in the kishkes.

Torah is not about belief. If religions are based on belief, then Judaism is not a religion. The Torah is about knowledge. Information. The reason it was revealed in front of about 3 million men, women and children was so that people wouldn't need to rely on belief. Other religions have a man receiving a revelation in a cave all by himself. Or have a dozen individuals witnessing a resurrection. How convenient.

I can never quite grasp what people are thinking when they try and imagine the Torah having been other than what it claims to be. I'm picturing Moses in the desert trying to convince everyone that they'd personally witnessed God giving the Torah at Sinai. Or Ezra trying to convince an entire nation, most of whom were still in Babylon, that they'd been passing the Torah down for a thousand years and just didn't remember doing so. How stupid do some people think our people were?

If you sit down and think about it, the vast majority of the information in your lives is information that you did not acquire first hand. You're told that the earth is 15 billion years old, but I assume you haven't been around that long to verify that claim. You're told that the sun is a big fusion reactor in the sky, but you almost certainly have not seen any of the evidence for that.

It can be rational to be convinced of something even without having witnessed it personally, but only if you approach it rationally. If you slam your eyes and ears shut to any evidence that goes against your cherished beliefs, you've left the realm of reason.

Are there Orthodox Jews who operate on the level of "belief"? Sadly, yes. But Judaism itself doesn't care a whit for belief. And to respond to another chacham on this newsgroup who felt himself capable of giving me a lesson in Hebrew, the word "emunah" is the same root as the word "emet", or truth. Nun-tav dipthongs often blend in Hebrew to leave only a tav. The words "at" and "ata" (you, in masculine and feminine) are a classic example. In Arabic and Aramaic, they are still "ant" and "anta". The dagesh (dot) in the tav in "ata" is a remnant of the nun that dropped out.

"Emet" is the noun form of the verb alef-men-nun. Amin means trustworthy, and also true, as in "a good man and true". When we say "amen", we are affirming the truth of what was just said. The person who decided to instruct me in Hebrew is much like the guy who wanted to tell me that we're supposed to be a "whole" nation. Simple translations for simple use lose the nuances of the words in the original language. It's one of the nice things about Everett Fox's translation of the Torah. For all its faults, it preserves nuances that are lost in dictionary-style translations.

Judaism is about living according to the Torah that God gave us, and passing it down intact to the next generation. And operating on it with the system that was given as part of it. The people who were there at Sinai (in body) didn't need either belief or conviction. They saw it with their own eyes and heard it with their own ears. And vice versa to a certain extent. Their children all heard about it from their parents, and only a nut would have denied it at that point, because they all heard the same thing, and their parents were all alive. Sure, it becomes more removed with time, but that's the reason that it was given to so many people at once, and that's why the accurate transmission of the Torah is such a vital issue in Judaism.

Those people who want to just close down their minds and say, "I don't want to be bothered, so I'm going to disbelieve", they are the ones who are operating on belief. They have an emotional reason to push the Torah away, and reason doesn't faze them. Although that's not true of all of them. Jews do come back to the Torah, and Jews always will. And Orthodox Jews are not going to apologize for placing our knowledge of Torah above the cavalier and emotional rejection of what the Torah says by those who think with their kishkes.

As far as the individual who started this nonsense by inverting what I said and presenting his invention as what I said, I hope that even those of you who disagree with me will know better than to ever listen to anything he says when it involves presenting the views of someone else.



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