More On The Torah–Who Needs It?

Haim Watzman

In response to my post The Torah-Who Needs It, “Haskalah” asks:

Can a Jew “think hard about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be, without the Torah?” Did no one do so before the first Sha’vuot? In short, is it possible for a Jew to be moral and ethical and responsible without being observant?

It’s possible for anyone, not just a Jew, to be moral, ethical, and responsible without being religious or observant. And, as I noted in that post, observing the Torah’s commandments does not automatically make the observer a moral person.

Ultimately, I know of no rational argument that can convince anyone to be religious or observant. In the end, being religious requires an instinct that tells you that there is something beyond the empircal world. You need a sense of the sacred, and some people don’t have it.

But I can make this process-oriented case for the observance of precepts and ritual. When a ritual system is interwoven with your life, the study of your religion’s texts and laws directly affects your behavior. For example, if you are an observant Jew in Israel this year-a Sabbatical year-you have no choice but to grapple with the question of how you will observe the special laws pertaining to the produce grown in the Land of Israel during this year. The answers you reach in that study directly affect what and how you eat for an entire year.

So when you address larger moral issues in the same framework-to name some pressing and not specifically Jewish ones that Gershom and I have written about in this blog: homosexuality, organ transplant, health care, and the treatment of minorities and refugees-you already live a life in which study and abstract argument directly affect your everyday actions. I think that such a discipline encourages deep theoretical analysis and thought while keeping one’s feet on the ground and in the world of action.

That said, I certainly respect the many non-observant people I know who think deeply about moral issues and act to correct the injustices they see around them. They do God’s work.

2 thoughts on “More On The Torah–Who Needs It?”

  1. When we say someone is a lawyer, does that mean that person necessarily respects the law? No. When we say someone is religious does that mean that person is more likely to be moral than someone who isn’t? No.

    I was raised in a religious family and it was never evident to me that members of the church were a cut apart from the population in general. I could see the distinction of moral and amoral people but the dividing line twisted all through society regardless of faith.

    Judaism, to its credit, is rarely out to make conversions.

    To practice a way of life because one feels it is socially and individually rewarding for those involved makes sense. I think most everyone is looking for that.

    Trouble begins when the elation that may come from it, or the nagging doubts about the relationship between man and God brings a need to confirm it by the assent of others not easily persuaded.

    If a religion can stand on its own in the face of views that mock it, without any need to force itself on others, that’s proof to me of the strength of the convictions of those who practice it.

    The Shakers were open to new members but sex was forbidden. It was a recipe for extinction, and that’s what happened. Now that’s conviction!

    The Buddha is to have said, “work out your own salvation with diligence”. To which I would add, and let others do so as well.

  2. Mr. Watzman-

    Many thanks for your response to my query. I appreciate your comments on the the importance of study and abstract argument and their direct affects on everyday actions. I agree completely, and I wish that more of our observant co-religionists would take the initiative to do their own study and abstract argumentation, instead of depending on the opinion of particular rebonim, gaonim, and magidim.

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