Faith vs. Proof: The Lemming


Nissim Ben-Chaim


The Lemming is a perplexing creature. In packs, they seem to follow one after the other into the sea in an apparent mass suicide. In truth, they are merely creatures without intellect that instinctively emigrate en masse to find broader resources when their populations become overcrowded and exceed their local resources. Well, they are considerate at least.

Living life on faith alone is desirable as it asks little of its adherents. It is an inferior lifestyle to be certain, as it is rooted in the emotions, not the intellect G-d granted to us to understand, learn and for some of us, to teach. One who investigates and even questions the universe and G-d’s wisdom with the intent to find proof of the truth of His Torah, will find irrefutable evidence of such truth, and will be motivated by his intellect to follow the Taryag (613) Mitzvos conscientiously. Perfecting oneself is to follow the intellect, not the base emotions and following the Taryag will indeed refine the individual to the extent of how those truths revealed through such study are integrated into one’s lifestyle.

Today, it seems that Orthodoxy has taken a turn toward conformity over individualism, to operate on spoon fed faith over personal growth, frequently mimicking the same dynamics endemic to the consumerist secular population. Most adherents to popular culture do so from an emotional, hedonistic orientation. The mediocrity prescient in today’s society is the result of following the cults of acquisition, celebrity and personality with the exception of those who have “seen behind the curtain” and rise above as individuals regardless of the social consequences they may experience. Every Jew, indeed every human has access to Torah knowledge to actualize his potential as a perfected individual.

Pirkei Avos is a wonderful resource for the individual who wishes to better himself. There are many people who can recite its tenets yet are arrogant in their ignorance, acting boorishly and rude, with little consideration for how these behaviors sully one’s character and make a mockery of Judaism in the eyes of the gentiles and unaffiliated Jews. Children are taught to fear and despise the aforementioned on the basis that they are inferior, undeserving of any consideration or esteem. This attitude, rooted in the irrational emotions of fear and trumped up superiority, are carried into adulthood with little examination of its origins. By operating on faith rather than logic we are handicapping ourselves, and those who will follow. Insular attitudes then effectively prevent us from exercising the knowledge and ethics of the Torah to maintain our spiritual purity. Instead we are throwing in the towel and admitting that we lack the conviction to keep the Mitzvos in the face of any temptation, which may arise. Avoidance of our problems today can only go so far and is beginning to have broader impact on many other important aspects of our lives.

Some 15 years or so ago, while driving along a busy state highway approaching a green traffic light, another vehicle made a left turn directly in front of my car with barely enough time to get through unscathed had evasive action not been taken. Directly behind that daredevil was yet another vehicle following the first one. There would be no missing this one and was headed for a near head on collision. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to yank the wheel sharply to the left, getting my car into a sideways skid such that the unoccupied passenger side of my car would take the brunt of the collision and spare myself and possibly the other driver of the serious, if not fatal injuries resultant of a head on collision.

Our cars did indeed collide rendering the other driver’s car totaled; however I found that my quick reaction had actually allowed my car to be driven away with only superficial damage. Composing myself, I approached the other driver who happened to be a religious Jew in her fifties. I inquired why she almost killed the both of us. Did she not see me approaching? Did she think she had the right of way? Was she yet another inconsiderate driver in this area following the norm of routinely cutting another driver off? Was she having a debilitating seizure that caused her to lose control? No - her reasoning was, I kid you not, “I was following the other car in front of me”. That sounded an awful lot like trying to blame the driver of the first vehicle for leading her astray or that she simply put her faith in the first vehicle. Either way, it did not seem that she was taking responsibility for her poor judgment if she was using any at all. If she had only looked before she leaped, applying a bit of logic or common sense, we would all have been en route to our respective destinations. I reminded her that her actions almost killed us but she really didn’t seem to get it- perhaps she was in a state of shock, but it seemed more like denial.

As I mentally reviewed her reasoning with disbelief, I realized that I was dealing with something far deeper and endemic to a certain modus operandi prevalent in some religious, and to a degree, the lower functioning individuals of secular cultures. This person was playing follow the leader in a deadly weapon in this situation, as she and so many others are doing in various aspects of life. Her inconsiderate and reckless actions were symptoms of a broader cause and were not defendable under any circumstance.

Well, I received no justification but did learn an important lesson about the arrogance and ignorance of such people.

There are myriad practical ramifications of applying faith over logic in the material and spiritual realms. In the aforementioned instance, it is perplexing that this offender subscribes to the only authentic religion; one based on logical proofs and yet, has apparently been conditioned to operate on faith alone. I still live in the very same area, and as segments of our population have run roughshod over limited space and natural resources with overbuilding and without consideration to aesthetics or the infrastructure, such near misses can happen several times on a routine local trip. More and more sidewalks are being installed and roads are improved yet pedestrians and drivers seem to fight and even ignore the other motor vehicles in the same limited space. If epithets are hurled at us they may have some credibility. We may want to consider being more conscientious behind the wheel and remind ourselves that with courtesy, comes safety, not to mention the higher esteem we would earn as drivers. We must do more to ensure that we are sending new drivers out who are fully apprised on the rules of the road and that our streets, as overburdened as they are, is no “free for all” where the most aggressive driver wins. Good citizenship is a requirement we are actually commanded to employ Chutz L’Oretz (in exile) - an issue beyond the scope of today’s piece which we hope to treat separately in the future.

Recently, an unsupervised toddler no more than 2 was observed on the edge of the street about to wander into traffic. It was inquired of a man standing twenty feet away whether the child was his- he shrugged his shoulders and went back to what he was doing. The mother was eventually located even farther down this street leaving one to wonder how the toddler escaped her attention long enough to get so far out of her control. Not too far away a 5 year old is pushing a baby in a carriage in the street without any adult supervision or concern on the part of others on this street. Irresponsibility? Fatalism? No matter, the cause may be the same and change is required.

I digress but have only scratched the surface regarding the material problems faith driven behavior creates. We have become more of a “Blight” rather than a “Light Unto the Nations”. This is no Kiddush Hashem.

What is our Mesora’s position on Faith vs. Proof?

R. Bachaya ben Josef ibn Paquda states in the following excerpts from his book on ethics “Duties of the Heart”:


"Our sages have said that if a person performs a mitzvah but have no intention of doing it for the sake of Heaven; he receives no reward for it."  

"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 G-d'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."  

Devarim 17:8-10 states: "If a case should prove too difficult for you in judgment, between blood and blood, between plea and plea, between (leprous) mark and mark, or other matters of dispute in your courts, must act in accordance with what they tell you."

Regarding this passage, Rabbi Bachya states: "the verse does not say,.....simply accept them on the authority of Torah sages,...and rely exclusively on their tradition. Rather, (Scripture) says that you should reflect on your own mind, and use your intellect in these matters. First learn them from tradition - which covers all the commandments in the Torah, their principles and details - and then examine them with your own mind, understanding, and judgment, until the truth become clear to you, and falsehood rejected, as it is written: "Understand today and reflect on it in your heart, Hashem is the G-d in the heavens above, and on the Earth below, there is no other". (Ibid, 4:39)


What are some the spiritual origins and ramifications of such behaviors? There are many indeed and worse, such a modus operandi finds its way into the material aspects of everyday life. Let’s begin to address some of them from the spiritual perspective.

Faith seems far more alluring than proving to oneself the objective truth found only in Torah. It is far easier and more attractive, than the work involved in individualism as we see in most of western culture to operate on an emotional basis than that rooted in logic. This sort of materialism and lust for instant gratification, predominantly feeding our emotional needs is alive and well in the Jewish communities too. In reality we are not really setting ourselves apart but rather simply feeding our infantile needs in a slightly different manner. Maturity requires one to operate on a basis of reason, not hiding behind Torah and just going through the motions to appear pious. Why is this so hard and lost on so many of us? After all, it takes years of study to appreciate the relevance of Taryag Mitzvos so that one may observe them with understanding as we are commanded whether we are in the spiritual or material realm at any given moment. Following traditions on faith alone falls short of our responsibility as Jews. Further, some traditions that are followed by masses are not necessarily correct simply because they have endured for a few centuries. Others are based solidly upon our Mesora. Others yet are a result of a few leaders who would prefer to reign in absolute power by keeping its “followers” in the dark rather than have them employ their G-d given intellects to verify for themselves the proper course in life. To these sheep and their shepherds, I say there’s no danger to abandoning their insular ways and to reap more of the wisdom the world at large has to offer, provided that they are taught to think critically and to apply our Torah to their lives practically and spiritually. Further what of the Jews’ responsibility of improving the world G-d gave us to “create”? To what benefit is insularity in this responsibility?

Abraham logically deduced the concept of monotheism by observing and applying critical reasoning. King Solomon took his wisdom into the world at large, participating in hedonistic endeavors to write Ecclesiastes for our benefit.  Are their examples no longer relevant? There is only one truth and we cannot arrive at and practice such truth by relying on others to tell us what to do. We need to do our own work and build upon our appreciation of such truth. We should participate in the world at large, as we have much to offer.  Ultimately, we will see far more antisocial behaviors and may even attract a few more of the unaffiliated back to observance of Taryag Mitzvos. Frequently I cannot address the questions and criticisms leveled at our endemic antisocial behaviors as they truly defy logic and indeed the many mitzvos concerning the treatment of our fellow Jews and humans in general.

Let me posit then that faith in tradition, while it has its place, is an inferior position to logic by itself and stems from infantile emotional needs. True, when children are first introduced to the Torah it is done so with stories and other methods attuned specifically to their nature at that stage in life. Later, they are taught the commentaries, Mishnayos and around Bar Mitzvah they are already delving into the Gemara. Many teenaged Jewish boys have memorized page upon page and chapter upon chapter and can recite them with great fluency. Whether they have integrated such lessons into their lives are completely different stories. Sterling middos seem to be the exception rather than the rule today.

It is around this time that a properly matured individual would begin to integrate their lessons into their realities, let go of their infantile needs to view their parents and rabbis as their “invincible protectors and providers” and to begin to take responsibility for their actions, livelihoods, and beliefs. The stories they were reared on should be replaced with the understanding that some things are hidden for practical reasons. Are they then following Judaism as cult members or as active participants? Instead, many trade in their parents for “Rebbes” whom they then follow without question and remain in Kollel without any practical consideration to learning ability, and therefore whether they are suited to lead in the community or if their future responsibilities will be more mundane. Pretty soon though, they’re married and raising, or worse, leading another generation of “lemmings” who will inevitable carry out the very same antisocial behavior ad infinitum. Only now, with each succeeding generation we get a little worse, a little less conscientious, bring unnecessary blight and arrogance upon our neighbors and provide more fuel for the anti-Semites. To be clear, I do not advocate appeasement and assimilation, however, courtesy and consideration for your fellow human is indeed a worthy Judaic ideal.

We are raising children who are followers and lack decision making skills. How are they to make a livelihood or be of any benefit to our world? Are they to be a help or hindrance to the cause of bringing the Light of Torah wisdom into the world at large? What furtherance of Tikkun Olam can they possibly offer? Today social chaos and divisiveness is running rampant through our insular suburban and metropolitan shtetls. Those of us who know of or remember Orthodoxy as it was a brief half century ago would tell you quite a different story. So where is the disconnect? How do learned people who know Pirkei Avos and other mussar then go out into the world and violate such ethical tenets a few moments later? Avos clearly teach that Torah without livelihood is just as perilous as pursuing a livelihood bereft of Torah. This of course would negate today’s practice of full time study for the masses over those select few with the aptitude for true chochma (wisdom) and who have toiled to be culled as the next generation’s leaders.

Fifty years ago, under the tutelage of such great leaders such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Soloveitchik, Orthodox parents stressed the importance of secular knowledge and higher education while imparting the lessons that would keep their children on the proper derech regardless of the outside influences they would encounter. Today, University is “off limits” for many Yeshiva graduates.

By employing faith over proof, an individual sacrifices the opportunity to take the responsibility of making the Torah “His Torah”. He sacrifices the opportunity to appreciate G-d’s wisdom in the formulation of the Mitzvos specifically attuned to the psychology of His creations. This individual may have externalized Judaism in his appearance but – will he be able to refute those who wish to “go off the derech” or address the Conservative, Reform Jews or the gentile missionaries on any logical basis or just fall back on tradition as his modus operandi? Is he meeting his responsibility to G-d or just going through the motions?

There is only one true way to have faith, and that is to study to the extent of your capacity to prove to yourself the truths evident in our Torah: the basis for such faith is rooted in reason. Trust in G-d’s system as the best path for man is superior to blind faith. We are not commanded to have faith. Your intellect should be insulted by this ignorant position and be motivated to find logical reasons to trust in the truth. To say “I believe” is meaningless, instant gratification. We will discuss the effects of the faith driven lifestyle in further detail in the next installment.