Thursday, March 6, 2014

Is It True?

from the pages of Kadima, the newsletter of Congregation Adas Emuno:

From the desk of …                    
 Rabbi Barry Schwartz

Is It True?

Not long ago an anxious parent came to me with the concern that her son did not want to come to religious school. That, in and of itself, is unfortunately nothing new. But the reason was not what you would expect—the desire to sleep late, or do something else. This young boy did not want to attend because he felt that what he was learning was not true.

Upon further inquiry I learned that this boy could see no real purpose to our Sunday morning religious school service or the telling of Bible stories. Why pray if you don’t believe in God? Why listen to the Torah if it didn’t really happen that way?

I’d like to try and respond to this middle school student (little did he know that would happen in a rabbi’s column!) because it raises the important question of cognitive dissonance. Of course there are many reasons legions of us avoid prayer and Torah study, two of the most important activities of “religious” Jews. But surely for some of us it is because reason gets in the way of faith. We are skeptical of our tradition’s claim of a Creator who rules the world. We question the biblical version of history, with its miracles and revelations and acts of divine intervention.

While standing on one foot (as the traditional Jewish expression goes) I tried to explain to the parent that there are several kinds of truth. If we accept only scientific truth, I don’t think we can prove the existence of God, miracles, or revelation. But there are other kinds of truth. When we seek the moral of a story we are after “the truth of the heart”, or what can be termed moral truth. The Torah may not always record actual history, but it teaches us values by which to live. Prayer may not change anything on the outside, but it can change us on the inside. Maybe nobody is listening… except ourselves. In the words of one reading in our Siddur:

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will.

When I happened to mention this incident to a colleague, he nodded sympathetically. To some extent all of us experience this disconnect between “Athens” and “Jerusalem”; between secular and religious ways of viewing the world. Then my colleague said, “What’s important about the Torah is not that it happened, but that it’s happening.” In other words, the Bible is less a record of what was, as it is a guide to what should be.

Sometimes we have to dig below the surface to find the deepest truths. As The Little Prince said memorably, “Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

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