Thursday, October 18, 2007

Intro: Truth vs. Meaning

I had always thought of myself as an ardent pursuer of truth. Most of that was probably wishful thinking -- a message ingrained in me by the powers that be of Judaism, suggesting that, naturally, Judaism itself was an outgrowth of pursuing truth. In retrospect, only the past couple of years were spent earnestly pursuing truth; pursuing truth at any cost -- no matter what the truth says and how much it hurts.

I have recently come to the realization that the pursuit of truth can be counter-productive. As Jews, it denies us other very powerful and important elements of our existence. 'Meaning' in particular is one of the first casualties to go once the truth is unraveled. And meaning is of prime importance to us as religious Jews. In many ways, it is the bedrock of our lives, or at least our lives as we were used to them.

This really shouldn't be that surprising. Take evolution as an example. Evolution is fact; particularly the theory of common descent (I suggest if you don't believe me), but the knowledge that it is true does little to uplift our lives or to make them more meaningful; to give them that ineffable quality of being "worth living". In reality, the opposite is the case. If we are simply more developed animals, and our existence here is pure chance, then we have no reason to overcome our animal nature. Better to cavort with our ancestors and have mindless fun.

Another random example is Hinduism. Hinduism's claim to fame is its longevity -- it claims to be the oldest religion in the world. But scholars claim that it's really much younger than it thinks it is. Does that help Hindus live a meaningful life within the context of their religion? I highly doubt it.

Of course, I didn't start out this way. I started out, perhaps naively, thinking that by discovering the 'truth' (meaning the truth of Judaism as it sees itself nowadays) I would also discover more meaning for myself. But it just wasn't meant to be. Uncovering the reality behind Judaism as we know it today unearths the many layers that developed over time, starting with the Tanach itself and ending with modern interpretation. All these layers built up over time, each misinterpreting or reinterpreting the previous layer as it saw fit, each unaware of the history of preceding interpretation and change and thus, each believing it is part of the great, divinely ordained chain of perfect transmission of the Mesorah.

There may indeed be ways of dealing with this realization and making it more palatable, but for the most part, it highlights the point that for now, I endure having two very distinct mindsets in my life . That of pursuing truth, of digging ever deeper and thereby uncovering the heterogeneous layers that make up Judaism. Sometimes I want to dig deeper, regardless of how much my remaining faith in Yiddishkeit will be shaken. Alternatively, sometimes I just want to feel that my existence means something in the overall scheme of things and that I can find something deeper behind the rituals of Yiddishkeit. Meaning becomes the driving factor for me, and truth can buzz off for all I care. By the way, this schizophrenia is precisely what drives XGH to blog the way he does.

In the next few posts, I hope to talk about how I got to have my current beliefs. I don't know how long it'll take and I don't want to commit to any schedule. Making plans about the future in blogland is precarious (take for example XGH's ill-fated 'The Truth Project'). We're not published authors with deadlines here, and blogging is mostly a cathartic activity. Right now I may feel like doing this but that could change at any point.

Why do I want to trace the evolution of my beliefs? Because I find the process of going from believing in the truth of Judaism to realizing the truth behind Judaism to be a fascinating one. Watching the perspective of people in the frum blogs and that of the skeptics in their blogs makes me realize how big the gulf is between them. It's clear that you can't just tell religious people about the DH and expect them to accept it. They'll find all sorts of ways to reconcile science and Torah, they'll turn to obscure Rishonim, and finally, they'll turn to Kaballah - the ultimate rejection of rationality - to make Torah work for them. But what is the process then? What needs to be questioned? What assumptions need to be shattered to get from one side to the other? Can these assumptions somehow be restored as well? I hope to explore these topics a little -- but no promises!