By Aaron Giannini
Dear Abbyraham is a column in which anyone can write questions or voice their opinions pertaining to Judaism and Jewish issues. Well, not anyone. Not illiterates. Although, they could get someone to write for them. But I digress.
Feel free to submit your questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve recently come to a crossroads and I’m not sure how to act. As a rationalist and someone who is thoroughly convinced that faith (belief without evidence) is an irrational, dangerous and divisive tool of religion, I feel that my instinct to address religious belief in an aggressively critical way may overwhelm my sense of empathy for other people. My tolerance towards their subjective worldview as equally valid to my own is overshadowed by my need for hard evidence to back up any and all beliefs. I feel I’ve begun to alienate my friends, many of whom believe in “fundamentals” like God, the human soul and the power of prayer, all of which are beliefs that I interpret to be manifestations of their desire to believe in something greater than themselves, or evidence of their indoctrination to their arbitrary religion from birth. I can’t engage in honest conversations with these people; whenever I attempt to point out the assumptions behind their religion, or the irrationality of such beliefs, they get defensive or offended in such a way that turns me into the bad guy. Should I stay true to who I am philosophically, a fierce rationalist with little toleration for misguided belief, or appeal to my empathetic side, which tells me to allow people to believe in whatever they wish?
Compassionate But Confident
Part of what makes Judaism so cool (and what makes us argue with each other so damn much) is the variability of Jewish belief. There are orthodox Jews, who believe the Torah is the literal word of God and must be revered as such, and atheist Jews, who think of it as a historical work comprised of superstitious stories and a now obsolete code of morality that is thousands of years old. One can subscribe to either of these beliefs, or anywhere in between, and still strongly identify as a Jew. What makes
this kind of question difficult to answer, however, is that while tolerance is certainly a Jewish (and hopefully humanist) value, so is the questioning of beliefs and accepted standards. Culturally and historically speaking, we are the people of the book; part of what that entails is a critical eye for fallacious reasoning and blind assumptions.
The best advice that I have to offer is to find a balance. Systematically attacking every belief based on purely conjecture or without hard evidence may understandably alienate you from your friends who don’t think in the same way. Not everyone has such a scientific worldview; just because one forms their beliefs based on feelings or on faith doesn’t mean one’s existence is less legitimate than yours. You can learn something from everyone if you allow yourself to be open to their beliefs in the same way you expect them to be open to yours. You may not be converted at the end of your conversation, just like they might not abandon religious belief, but your debate can be productive and honest while giving you a window into someone else’s consciousness. In this way, rational discourse and empathy can certainly overlap.
There is also a time and place for everything. Sometimes, simply realizing you can’t convince someone to accept your line of reasoning and moving on is the right thing to do. Other times, you’ll have to choose which is more important: your relationship with your friend, or the act of convincing them (often fruitlessly) that you’re right. To find a balance, it’s often good to test the waters before you dive in. Not letting your emotions get in the way, challenge a friend’s belief and see where it goes. Depending on their reaction, gauge how much of an honest discussion you can have without getting aggressive. Sometimes, you just won’t agree, and that’s that. Everybody’s perspective is unique, and while some friends are good for talking about the meaning of tikkun olam over coffee and kugel, others are good for discussions about rationalism and atheism over a fat ham sandwich. There’s nothing wrong with either. Just be sure to keep an open mind, lest you fall victim to the “fundamental” way of viewing the world you so criticize. Part of being a critical person means questioning your own beliefs as much as anyone else’s. Rationalism may be an unforgiving philosophy, but it’s our capacity for understanding that makes us human.
Reason soundly; question thoughtfully,
I’m a Jewish girl who recently started a relationship with a guy I really like. One problem: my mother wasn’t happy at all when I told her I’m dating a goy. This relationship is getting somewhat serious, but the fact that he isn’t Jewish drives my yente mother absolutely crazy. What should I do?
Dear Mommy Issues,
An upset Jewish mother? Can’t help you there… Do you like this boy enough to change your name and start a life with him in another country? This might be your best option.
Or you could talk to her. Let her know that while it’s serious, you may not have plans to marry this guy, at least while you’re still in school. And even if you do think that’s where it’s headed, let her know that loving another person who isn’t Jewish isn’t tantamount to abandoning Judaism.
Plus, a Jewish mother has Jewish babies, and we all know that’s what’s important. Right?
Published on page 8 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.