"Experiencing" God?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reader: A prophet is someone whom God, through direct communication to the prophet, has appointed to deliver a message to his fellow men. Accordingly, a prophet will require some demonstration that objectively supports his claim that he is a prophet, in order for his fellow men to have a reason to believe him.

A “believer” is someone who has determined God exists through subjective experience. He does not claim to have a direct message from God. If he wants to convince other people that God exists so that they’ll see it the same way he does, he does so by asking them to investigate their own experiences honestly and consider that their experiences may point to God. I am not aware of any prohibition in the Torah for someone who is not a prophet to do this. I don’t understand why you think my position of respecting a person’s right to claim personal belief based on personal experience, and allowing for the possibility that it is genuine, leads to requiring others to be convinced by that person’s belief. Do you believe that subjective experience in general is meaningless unless it can be objectively demonstrated to others?


Mesora: I too know of no “prohibition” to consider an experience as pointing to God. But the question here is whether an event displays undeniable proof of God.


Regarding the statement you make, “convincing other people that God exists”, I say that personal ‘opinions’ matter none. Someone may “feel” he has witnessed God’s actions in his life, but with no evidence of miracles, he may also view a given event as “nature”. What you describe is called “interpretation”. And based on the subjective nature of interpretations, combined with God’s wish that He may be proven without doubt, God did not allow man to remain in doubt. Therefore, He created the event of Revelation at Sinai. This is the means through which God desires we approach him: proof, and not one of belief or interpretation. God granted man the apparatus – the intellect – with which we can determine that something is 100% truth. He desires we use this apparatus in the most important of all areas: our belief in Him. He does not wish man to be unsure of Him, so He also does not wish that we rely on subjective experience, interpreted as we wish. This is not man functioning with his intellect, but with his faith. This is not Judaism.

Reader: Imagine a person who has exceptional hearing walking through a disaster site looking for survivors. He hears some breathing and movement beneath the rubble. No one else hears it. Do you think he should abandon his mission because he has no way of objectively demonstrating he is actually sensing the presence of a survivor? No Judaism I know even remotely suggests such a view. I understand that recognition of subjective criteria for determining reality invites proliferation of phonies. But denying such criteria causes the breakdown of trust in personal experience, which to my mind is a much more disastrous problem.


Mesora: Your example of a person hearing someone’s cries is a real phenomenon. And one who hears, sees or senses anything must be convinced of his sensations. He must act on what his senses tell him is fact. But you err when you compare this, to proofs of God. You just shifted from discussing when an ‘individual’ should “believe his senses”, to a discussion of when ‘masses’ may obtain “proof of an event.” The criteria for both are not similar. For one to determine what he just perceived, he relies on his senses…that is all. However, for there to exist a proof of any historical event, one man’s word is insufficient. Based on one man’s words, masses have no proof whatsoever of his accuracy, honesty, capabilities, perception, memory and so on. There are too many areas in which we may find ignorance or fabrication. But, when masses communicate the same story, fabrication and ignorance are removed, and the story is proven as fact. Bare in mind, this does not mean any story masses repeat is true. It must be a story attended by masses of “witnesses”. But stories such as Jesus’ miracles, Mohammed’s flight, and so on, simply repeated by masses, prove nothing. Here, we have mass “believers”, and not mass “witnesses.”

Regarding subjective events
without miracles, no proof exists that God was involved. So your position that one’s personal experience may be accurate evidence of God’s intervention, without a miracle, is baseless. It is merely a “wish” that God’s hand did something. But in fact, we do not know: perhaps it was Him, perhaps it was nature.






Reader: Thank you for your response. We are in agreement that when it comes to convincing someone else of God’s existence, communicating personal experience does not constitute proof. But you go further. You claim that even the person who had the experience is foolish to prefer that experience to rational argument. That is the crux of our debate.


Mesora: Incorrect. You are misinterpreting my words. This is what I wrote: “He (God) does not wish man to be unsure of Him, so He also does not wish that we rely on subjective experience, interpreted as we wish. This is not man functioning with his intellect, but with his faith.” I did not say man is foolish to prefer an experience to rational argument, but rather, that the very “experience” he assumes is God’s undeniable intervention, has never been proven as such. Without miracles, man has no proof of whether God intervened in his life, or not. But you say that man may assess an event as proof of God, a position that is unreasonable.


Reader: You seem to believe that anyone who believes in God without explicitly thinking through the logical steps that demonstrate rational proof of his existence is not only a fool, but is guilty of violating one of the pillars of our faith and outside the pale of Judaism.



Mesora: I don’t see where I called this personality a fool. However, Rabbi Bachaya (author of “Duties of the Heart”) calls him negligent, punishable and fail in what we owe God:


Whoever has the intellectual capacity to verify what he receives from tradition, and yet is prevented from doing so by his own laziness, or because he takes lightly God’s commandments and Torah, he will be punished for this and held accountable for negligence.”


“If, however, you possess intelligence and insight, and through these faculties you are capable of verifying the fundamentals of the religion and the foundations of the commandments which you have received from the sages in the name of the prophets, then it is your duty to use these faculties until you understand the subject, so that you are certain of it - both by tradition and by force of reason. If you disregard and neglect this duty, you fall short in the fulfillment of what you owe your Creator.”



God created Sinai, so there should exist a proof. However, this does not mean that Abraham’s conclusions about God are false. Sinai was to address a nation, even though individuals may arrive at proof of God independently. And both – Sinai and reason – must be arrived at through intelligence.


Reader: Of course, this would disqualify as heretics ninety-five percent of Orthodox Jews, including my, your, and pretty much all Jews’ grandmothers and great-grandmothers, as well as any Jew without formal training in logical argument who chose to accept God on trust and faith without the formal proof.


Mesora: Proof certainly surpasses faith. Do you argue this point? Again you impute to me something I never said: Where have I called these people heretics? I feel you are going to extremes unnecessarily.




Reader: It renders as fools and heretics countless Jewish martyrs who chose to give up their lives rather than their faith, even without formal proof of that faith, Jews we pray for every Shabbat. Throngs of yeshiva bochrim, observant baalei batim, and rabbis who devote their lives to Torah and are constantly aware of their obligation to be mekadesh shem shamayim are heretics and fools as well. Any reader of your writing should find this position disturbing, to say the least.


Mesora: Heretics and fools? Whose writing is now more disturbing?


Reader: The first half of your response raises an important point as to when a conclusion is merely an interpretation and when it is squarely facing the facts. Perhaps another discussion would focus on how to tell the difference, but it seems to me that the line is not as clearly drawn as you make it.


Since yours was a “final response,” I would like to conclude our discourse by calling your attention to the issue of your style of responding to other people’s ideas. I certainly enjoy a good discussion, and I feel I have grown from our give and take. I look forward to future correspondence on very important issues. I would ask that you consider giving your readers the courtesy of the benefit of the doubt. I have tried to be tolerant of your strident tone, but when you routinely disqualify your opponents’ ideas as “opposing Judaism” or “condoning Jesus” - mind you these include readers who toil daily in Torah study and teaching and are fully devoted to careful service of Hashem through meticulous Halacha observance and dutiful prayer - you are not only discourteous, but you undermine your position. You certainly don’t want your readers to be wondering, “Why is he reacting so emotionally? What’s his problem?” I would hope that in future correspondence you would not question the kashrus of your fellow Jews and stick to the discussion at hand within an atmosphere of mutual respect.


Mesora: I am surprised after your false accusations that I called the ignorant Jews “heretics”, that you ask ME to have respect. This is clearly a case of “Kol haposale, ha-mum bo”, “All who accuse others, they themselves possess that very flaw.” You seem to be projecting onto me, the very flaw you display in your writings.


It seems your studies are lacking, in that your words here indicate that you have never come across a debate in the Chumash, Rishonim, or the Talmud, where the Rabbis and Sages fiercely debated Torah issues, with no verbal restraints. Saadia Gaon called certain Jews “absurd”. Other Rabbis would say, “Heaven save us from your thinking”, “You share the same spit as him”, Ramban said about something Maimonides wrote, “It is prohibited to listen to this man”, and others said, “Even had Joshua bin Nun said it, I would not accept it.”


Niceties and courtesies – as you request – our Rabbis recognized as having no place when debating Torah issues. What this means is not that they sought to insult each other, that’s is prohibited. Rather, when they were studying, and their energies were peaked as passionate Torah study brings out, they had a tradition: since truth is the objective, nothing – even courtesies – were permitted to mitigate this search for truth. They felt that any restraint in speech hampered their search, and therefore, they all accepted that they might talk freely, provided it was to arrive at greater Torah knowledge. Thus, accusing someone of opposing Torah was required to make a point, so he did so. Others would say in the course of their opposition to another view, “Don’t listen to this man”. I know this may be surprising to you, but Torah discussions should yield some new ideas, including this one!


But there is one case that emotions are not tolerated in Torah debate: when they cloud the issue. Then, one person must inform the other that he is following an emotion, and not reason. This applies right now to you. First, you must separate your emotions from your Torah discussions. You seem to feel I am addressing YOU instead of what I am truly addressing: ISSUES. Secondly, it is irrelevant how much one is “devoted to careful service of Hashem through meticulous Halacha observance and dutiful prayer”. You feel this deserves recognition when discussing Torah…but it plays no role at all. If one says something idolatrous, it is. If he says something opposing Judaism, then he opposes Judaism. One cannot teach honestly, if his answer must be curbed based on the student’s devotion. Honesty demands this: a person must speak with exactitude, precision, and with ideas that are not mitigated by any consideration. Sure, some people do not want to hear when they are incorrect. In that case, one may be wasting their time engaging in dialogue with them. And if others find the passion in someone’s voice more of a concern than the ideas spoken, then, they are not interested in truth. I cannot tell you how many times I witnessed my own teachers raising their voices at myself or another student, arguing fiercely, calling suggested ideas “nonsense”, “infantile” etc. But these very same teachers possessed the greatest concern for these same students, taking hours, months and years, with no compensation, to lead them with their counsel. These same teachers and Rabbis possess the greatest compassion. Do look askance at a teacher’s passionate and at times heated Torah debate. Rather, admire his selection of career: to educate others in Torah, many times with no pay for long periods of time, or none at all.


Talmud Yuma 23a (very top of page): “Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yihotzadak said, “Any Torah scholar who does not take revenge and harbor vengeful feelings like a snake, is not a scholar.” Rabbi Yochanan condones the need by Torah scholars to fiercely defend Torah. The Haggadah also says to “knock the teeth out” of a wicked person. Depending on the student, the Torah scholar must respond accordingly.


Lastly, you take issue with me regarding my introduction to you in my last email; I wrote, “Here is a final response.” You seem bothered that I decided to end our conversation. I felt I gave my final comments on our issue. But in fact, you should be pleased. For if I did not end my conversation with the person who wrote me just before you, I would yet be engaged in dialogue with him, never responding to you.


But it is clear, I did not keep my word, as I am writing again.