In a recent column for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Andrew Silow-Carroll identified a trend in American Jewry, which he called “fictionalism.” In the article, he defines it as “pretending to follow a set of beliefs in order to reap the benefits of a set of actions” and quotes philosophy professor Scott Hershovitz, who explains that he fasts on Yom Kippur and observes the Passover even if he does not believe in God.
“That’s exactly what we Jews do,” Hershovitz explains. “[It] keeps me connected to a community that I value.
For novelists, God is useful fiction, and Jewish practice has value only in its pragmatic utility. As Hershovitz says, “When I feel like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals, but not because I believe my prayers will be answered.
This trend requires a thoughtful and clear response because of the serious problems it poses.
First, the denial of the existence of God or the truth of the Torah narrative is totally incompatible with Judaism itself.
Take, for example, the Passover seder. According to fictionalism, the Haggadah that parents read to their children is the equivalent of a collection of the writings of Hans Christian Andersen. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, until the Almighty, the Creator, brought us out.” Welcome to Hansel and Gretel: “Once upon a time…”
When we read the article on the Exodus, when we tell our children that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt and that God freed us by miracles, it is a fraud, according to the novelist.
This approach drives a dagger through the heart of the Passover and puts Jewish parents in an odious position. When do you tell your children that the Exodus story is one of the greatest frauds in history, perpetuated by generations of Jewish parents and grandparents? Should the night of the seder begin with a warning: nothing you are about to hear is true?
The fact is, if you remove God from Judaism, he ceases to be recognizable as such. When we say “may the Omnipresent comfort you” at a funeral, or “God who blessed the bride and groom” at a wedding, or “God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh” during Kiddush, or “God is One” every morning and evening, and on our deathbed – is all this fiction? If so, Judaism is meaningless; becomes a system based on lies.
Get rid of the psychobabble, and it’s not just “helpful fiction” or “principled self-deception” – it’s just lies. And, who wants to live a lie?
This brings us to the second major problem with the novelistic approach to Judaism: it is a formula for the self-implosion of the Jewish people. If Judaism is a fairy tale, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our children dismiss it with the tooth fairy when they grow up, dismissing it as just another tale to make their childhood more charming. Why should they live an illusion? Why should they pay more attention to their legacy than the “Magic Faraway
A new generation of Jews is being born into a world overflowing with real, compelling, and competing ways of thinking and living. Nourished by a Judaism that is a quaint cultural relic, a fairy tale of misrepresentation, they naturally concluded that it could be abandoned on a whim. This is why we are hemorrhaging young Jews, who are leaving our people in droves, raising questions about who and what will be left.
The only form of Jewish identity that has proven capable of surviving more than a few generations is that which is rooted in the complete acceptance of the truth of all factual claims made by Judaism, including belief in God and in his authorship of the Torah. In our long history, no Jewish community has ever survived without believing in the foundations of our faith. A false Judaism will not suffice. Only the real thing is worthy of us and our children – and the guarantee of a bright Jewish future.
So where does this leave us? First, we must recognize the problem: that the novelistic approach is both incompatible with Judaism and untenable. This means that we cannot calmly embrace the trend of fictionalism and feel comfortable with it as the new norm.
We must formulate an appropriate response. There are many proud Jews with genuine doubts about their heritage and genuine crises of faith. The answer is not for us to dismiss those who harbor these doubts. Nor should these skeptics give up hope in faith, nor turn their doubts into a new philosophy that celebrates the fallacy of Judaism. The only way forward is to directly, honestly and fearlessly engage in doubt, to embrace the struggle to find faith and make it the goal. Many have grappled with these issues – and discovered their faith through intellectual inquiry and rational argument, rather than dismissing them.
Judaism makes specific claims of truth about the world and the nature of reality, and these claims are supported by rational inquiry. We must discover the irrefutable evidence and the powerful philosophical, scientific and historical evidence for the authenticity of the Torah and its assertions about the existence of God and all that He has made: the creation of the universe, the exodus from Egypt and give it the Torah to the Jewish people of Sinai with the mission of observing their mitzvahs forever. For thousands of years, until about 150 years ago, the vast majority of Jews did not dispute these historical truths.
Rabbis must address issues of faith head on. This has been my experience both as a synagogue rabbi and for the nearly 18 years that I have served as chief rabbi of South African Jewry. People are looking for the truth. We must articulate with absolute clarity that belief in God and the authenticity of the Torah are indispensable to Judaism. We must present all the many rational and scientific arguments to support these claims. We must be fearless and unapologetic about the fact that God exists and gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai, and how these claims are backed up with compelling arguments and evidence. But we must do it with love and kindness, not with anger and aggression.
And we need to teach Torah to as many Jews as possible, as often as possible. One path to a rich and authentic faith lies in learning Torah. Our sages (Midrash Eichah, Petichta 2 based on Jeremiah 16:11) tell us that when we feel estranged from God – even to the point of losing faith – learning Torah, with dedication and depth, offers us a way back, a means of knowing God and locating our values and our identity, and our connection to Him.
And there is hope. The very fact that those who have embraced Romanticism are so drawn to Torah mitzvah experiences despite not believing in them shows how appealing they find the system to be. It is remarkable that the Torah way of life is so compelling thousands of years after its introduction into the world that even people who think it is based on false assertions cannot abandon it.
The Passover seder as a model of generational transfer of values and narrative; Yom Kippur as an immersive and cathartic experience of personal growth and responsibility; Shabbat with its laws that create the space to rediscover and reconnect with ourselves and our loved ones. How have these mitzvahs and all of our other mitzvahs survived with us for thousands of years, while still feeling as relevant as they did thousands of years ago? This inexplicable phenomenon gives us a glimpse of the divine author of it all. And it is the bridge that awaits novelists to make the journey to a world of faith.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.