Tsemakh Atlas, the tortured protagonist of Chaim Grade’s classic novel, The Yeshiva, was besieged by religious doubt. “He felt someone unknown pounding at his mind, as though beating fists on closed gates… ‘Do you even really believe in a Creator who gave the Torah?’ Trying desperately free himself of these doubts, Tsemakh began to burrow into medieval philosophical texts. But the old Jewish philosophers, whose style and ideas were Aristotelian, asserted that it would be incomprehensible to conceive of the existence of the world without a Creator – and that sort of philosophy exhausted Tsemakh; it bored him and made his head ache with despair at finding nothing there to help him. It also left him with a feeling of nausea, as if he were chewing a hard, tasteless piece of meat that did not stay his hunger but lodged in his cavities and between his teeth.”
We live in a world in which rationality and reason rule the roost. Rationalists insist that our beliefs be based upon the pillars of knowledge and reason – upon hard facts, if we are fortunate to have them, and upon clear minded, logical thinking. Clear thinking and “modern” people are happy to argue for or against the existence of God, but those “vague” emotions, those ineffable impressions and experiences of God – these feelings are deemed irrelevant, even unworthy of acknowledgement in the public square. And so blockbuster movies that are based upon Biblical stories – like Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings – bend over backwards to remove any experiences of the Divine from the story. In today’s movies, God does not (or cannot?) speak to Noah directly, and Moshe is portrayed as a schizophrenic who hears voices – not a prophet who actually speaks with God.
But in reality, the opposite is true. Focusing on the rational aspects of religion – such as the interplay between religion and science, and proofs of God’s existence – is to focus on the most superficial, external part of religious life. As William James explains, rationalism “has the prestige undoubtedly, for it has the loquacity, it can challenge you for proofs, and chop logic, and put you down in words. But it will fail to convince or convert you all the same, if your dumb intuitions are opposed to its conclusions. If you have intuitions at all, they come from a deeper level of your nature than the loquacious level which rationalism inhabits… Something in you absolutely knows that the result must be truer that any logic-chopping rationalistic talk, however clever, that may contradict it.” (William James, The Varieties Of Religious Experience: A Study In Human Nature)
The irrelevance of rational philosophy to our actual experience of faith is evident even when rationalism is used in support of faith. As the Piacetzner Rebbe writes, “woe for you if you need their proofs! Have you not felt, have you not seen, how your soul is so sure it sees God? You speak to Him in second person… because the truth is that your soul does see Him present, right there before you… So why do you need abstract proof that God exists if your soul knows and sees for itself? King Shlomo said that abstract wisdom is for fools and the empty hearted (Proverbs 1:20, 9:4), because who needs proof beyond personal experience – only the fools and the empty hearted.” (Piacetzner Rebbe, Tzav V’Ziruz 13)
Rationalist philosophy is intellectually stimulating, but in the end, it doesn’t satisfy – like a hard, tasteless piece of meat.