Depending upon the reality one must face, one may prefer to opt for illusion.
~Ordinary People, 93
The beauty of illusion.
Are illusions truly lies?
Is self-deception wrong?
Can one force truth?
These are the questions that I consider, the questions floating through my mind. To the point, what if the truth one finds is a harsh truth, a harsh, cold, uncompassionate truth, the kind of truth that breaks down walls and causes hurt, the kind of truth that sets you free against a clamor of tormented cries?
What is more important, truth or happiness?
Suppose that someone leads an unexamined life. He accepts the law of God on faith, he respects Rabbis because he has been told to do so. Suppose this person is a happy, simple man. Suppose he is content in his life, does not proselytize, remains concerned only with himself.
By what right do I judge him, by what right do I believe his religious foundation shaky, by what right do I claim that he cannot truly be happy because he has not examined what he claims to own?
If he is happy, do I leave him be?
And what is happiness? Do definitions differ? Is there one particular form that rises above all others? Is knowing the truth happiness? No, that cannot be. We all know that “the truth hurts.” The truth is not kind, but vicious; it ruins your illusions, it cuts through deceptions, it allows you insight into the characters of men behind their facades.
But is that kind of vicious knowledge at its core a kind of happiness?
With facts it is more simple. Facts are clear. Suppose I knew a woman whose husband deceived her with another woman. She is in a “happy” marriage. But, I rationalize and justify, the marriage is only a happy one because she does not know about this other woman. If she knew, she would no longer be happy. She deserves to know. She deserves the truth. And then she deserves to make her own decision about how she will proceed.
But there are people who would rather not ever know. People who prefer their illusions.
By what right do we give them truth?
I think with facts it is more clear. We believe in disseminating information; we believe in a free-flow of thought. We believe that people should have facts, knowledge and information at their disposal, after which they must proceed as they desire. Censorship and banning books must inherently be wrong, as it prevents the dissemination of information, and all have a right to information.
That provokes the question- how much information? After all, I am not privy to the government’s secrets. I do not know how the CIA operates. I do not know the names of our spies.
But suppose we all agree there is a basic modicum of factual information that must be provided to all. And suppose we agree that living behind walls, in ghettos, that sheltered communities, in other words, where people deliberately block this flow of information- well, this cannot be right. And in these cases, we feel justified in providing such information. We feel justified in giving these people the tools to choose, not merely to be candidates for a brainwashing process.
Okay. So very good.
But let’s take it further.
If someone is happy in their religious life, happy in their observance, feels committed, connected, feels like they have a personal relationship with God, by what right can I say that they ought to go out in search of a truth that might only hurt them? How can I state that this person ought to know about and research contrary claims, other myths, the Documentary Hypothesis, and so on and so forth?
Perhaps, once again, a person can claim this by stating that a person is not really choosing unless they have all this information at their disposal.
In that case, all would be relative, would it not?
But let us move forward. Suppose that I discovered a truth, what I believed to be an absolute truth, suppose that I decided religion was a sham, a mockery, something deceptive, wrong, cruel, and so on and so forth.
But then there are concepts to hold me back, such as the concept of debt.
I owe a debt, far more than I could ever repay, to my parents. My parents raised me. They gave me life, they gave me my upbringing, they gave me literature, they gave me love. Do I cause them anguish and worry simply because I have discovered what I believe to be my truth? How much do I owe? Do I owe them my life?
Do I owe them a pretense? Do I preserve their happiness by remaining in the religion?
Now, many will claim that if parents truly loved the child, they would want the child to be happiest, even if that meant denying the religion he was taught. I disagree. Parents who are deeply committed to a religion and believe in the God of their religion feel worry on behalf of a child who strays, because according to the tenants of their religion, that child will be punished. And no parent wants that for his child.
I think that a very real factor that prevents people from seeking the truth is that we stand so much to lose. If I sought the truth, and it is not the truth I believed I would find, my sense of honesty would compel me to accept it, even at the expense of family, friends, respect and status. And so, I am certain, many people do not embark upon this quest. Because how can you dare this? When you stand so much to lose.
And I especially know how much I owe my parents.
So how could I ever dare repay them with such cruelty?
And yet, despite all this, I think it is important to seek the truth. I think it is important to search through everything, or everything that one has the ability to understand, to learn of the problems, to comprehend what opposes and stands against your ideas, and to come to your own conclusion. And if that conclusion compels you to make a choice, I think one must make that choice.
But that is my personal belief. And I do not know if I can apply it to everyone. Can I claim that everyone must lead an examined life? Can I say that if it is my standard, it must be everyone’s? I do not think that is fair.
And yet what is life if it is merely self-deception in an attempt to mislead oneself into happiness?
I will tell you what is so seductive about leaving religion- for me. For me, it is about appearances. To leave religion is the hero’s choice, or so it is often depicted. It is the choice of the martyr, the one who cannot stand alongside family or friends any longer. He must give up hope and love in order to pursue something harder and more menacing, no friend of his. He stands alone.
He has the ability to pursue any dream, any goal. He renounces allegiance. He need not keep to a certain code, or wear a certain uniform, or refrain from performing in certain settings. He has a freedom I do not.
And what is more, I believe there is a God. So to leave religion, for me, would not be to deny its tenants, but for me to deny God. Is there any more heady feeling than a denial of God? You know God exists and you know what is owed, but you refuse to pay it. You refuse the debt, the obligation, you refuse to submit, you refuse to surrender, above all, you refuse! Your every action speaks defiance, your every action is cast in a hero’s light. You are the sacrifice to show others the way. What is more poignant or more tragic that the one who knows that God exists, and acts in defiance of Him?
In a guide for writing application essays to college, I read that admissions officers much prefer stories of how people left religion as opposed to people finding religion. Perhaps it is because the sense of tragedy and rebellion makes for a much more dramatic story.
Now, knowing that for me this is all about appearances, of course I do not leave. Because I realize that would be leaving for the wrong reasons. That would be leaving in order to act in a play, a drama, not because I believe Judaism is wrong or flawed. And hence, though it is seductive, I can see through its allure.
This is also one of the reasons that Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik is so fascinating- because he depicts religious observance as heroic, even in one’s mundane and immediate actions. He ascribes a sense of dignity and heroism to religious man that nowadays is often found ascribed to the individualist who rebels, the hero-rebel as an archetype. And so the very thing I seek I can find within my own religion.
But this still does not solve the problem of truth.
In order to be honest about oneself and one’s religion, one ought to investigate claims against it. The problem is that I am not yet secure in the religion itself; I have not learned the texts I need to learn. How can one hope to understand opposition if one does not even understand all that one believes? There are innumerable pages of Gemara, various commenataries, scribes, ideas. I would have to study all this, and know it well, before I could ever hope to look through the ideas countering it. For if I do not understand my religion, how could I hope to understand attacks against it?
This is why the concept of an apikores is so interesting to me. An apikores is not an idiot. An apikores is not a fool. An apikores is one who was learned, very learned in Torah, learned in the laws. And then, having that background and that learning, he studied the arguments against his views, and decided they were more logical, leaving in pursuit of this truth.
Probably one of the most fascinating aspects to Elisha ben Avuyah is that he was not an atheist. He did not deny God. He acted in defiance of God. He knew that God existed; there was no question of God’s existence. The question related to His precepts, His commandments, and the fact that ben Avuyah believed that he could not repent.
I do not know enough of history to make a claim one way or the other, but it would be interesting (and I think, more logical) if the apikores or heretic of the olden-days was the man who acted in defiance of God, while our generation, having lost that strength, simply denies God. See, in their generation they had the power to oppose, to realize what they ought to do but simply not to fulfill it. In our generation, we want to cut off the root of the problem- it would be difficult to rebel against a God who existed, hence we claim no God exists so that we need not even debate the validity of our actions.
I think the man who acts in defiance of God is truer than the one who, of his own cowardice, denies there is a God.
Of course, there may be exceptions, especially in the area of science or history, where people are really convinced, for whatever reason, that there is no God, and it is not simply a statement they make out of cowardice or in order to permit them to act as they like. And these people I can also respect.
The man who acts in defiance of God takes responsibility for his actions. “I know you exist,” he cries, “but I defy you, I defy you, I defy you!” The man who negates God does away with the necessity to take responsibility. Societal pressure forces him to do so, but if there is no God over all others, there is no necessity to do so; there is no force to make him act in one way or another.
And so the man who acts in defiance of God is a stronger and much more tragic figure. And the figure that appeals to me, the one who is so seductive.
Because then I could rebel against the ideas that I don’t feel are fair, or make sense, and I wouldn’t have to submit or surrender. I would know I was in the wrong, but I would do it anyway. And I would have the hero’s stance to back me up. To some extent, we all practice defiance of God. We are not termed a stiff-necked people for naught. Whether it is that I refuse to pray, or to serve, or to keep certain laws…we practice it. Do you know why? Because we have been taught submission is identical with the submersion of the identity. What is my identity if I submit to God?
Who am I but a servant?
And the idea of a servant is distasteful to any man who has his pride.
And as one who is choked on pride, I know how distasteful it is.
To surrender my will to God’s will? To admit that another knows best? To act in accordance to his laws, without fighting back, without defiance, to give up my pride?
There is a reason that humility is characteristic of one of the strongest men, of Moses.
Only the humble can learn.
Only the humble can seek.
Only the humble can acknowledge the authority of another.
And only the humble can submit- not out of a blind desire to obey, but out of loyalty, fealty, to honor the oaths they have sworn.
I am not humble, and so I am locked in a constant battle.
I can understand the men of the Tower of Babel, the men who, according to one approach, desired to war with God. I can understand their desire to defy him, to defend their own wills, their desires, their thoughts and feelings, to try to do away with this Deity that would ask them to act in accord with His will, to question, certainly, but still to surrender.
Shall I give you an example?
I do not pray.
Oh, I pray in words, in English words that spill out of my mouth or through my fingers onto paper. God hears me, I know, and He hears my thoughts. I feel I am better able to compose in English, better able to express my thoughts and ideas and words and what I want to say. There is originality in such a prayer. There is opportunity for pride.
I know the Gemara. I know about the man who composed his own prayer, who is likened to claiming that God was a Master of Silver Coins when that is poor praise, since He actually possessed Gold Coins. It’s in Megillah. I think of it often, I understand it, and still, still, I tell you that I cannot pray.
And do you know why it is? It is because I am proud.
It is my pride that instills a desire for creativity and originality in prayer, pride that states that I do not want to go along with the formulaic Hebrew words that have been set down for me on paper. I do not want to express myself using the words of others; I do not want to talk in a language that I am not comfortable using; I want to speak in English, the language that I can feel, I want to speak my words, not those of others.
I want my pride.
Now, there is no question that there is opportunity for individuality, creativity and originality in religion. I know that one who can compose a kinah, a lament, may do so. I know too what the Rav wrote:
The Rav once described himself and stated that he had very few good traits, but one trait which he did possess was the inability to imitate anyone else. He always wanted to be himself and to display his own “unique dignity in having been created in the image of God.” He believed that “the glory of the individual is exemplified by the singularity of every human being.” This concept was his motto. He stated that, “I never wish to wear the mask of another person in order to ingratiate myself with the masses.” It was hard for him to transfer to the American way of things. People advised him to Americanize, to fit in. The Rav fought them bitterly, for, as he said, “I knew that I would lose my originality if I tried to be what I was not. I would lose my uniqueness, and ultimately the Divine Image within me. I do not like to do what others can do better of just as well. I wish to do that which I am unique at! This is not an expression of haughtiness; no, it is a fulfillment of my intrinsic human dignity and individuality.” The Rav understood his desire to be unique, but what was more, valued that more than what others thought of him. He stated further, “I rejoice in being alone and individualistic. If I am found wanting, then my achievements may very well be inconsiderable. However, if I am a pygmy, at least I am a pygmy who possesses the Divine Image. I must chart my own path.” (Rakeffet-Rothkoff, Volume 2, Pages 226- 227).
There is a time for individuality and originality; I do not doubt it. But prayer is necessary, prayer is communion with God, and prayer begins with humility.
I do not have this humility.
I do not think I am capable of embarking upon any quests or truth-seeking before I have studied what there is to know of my own religion. And what is more, I can do nothing before I have succeeded in acquiring a kind of humility, because only the humble can seek. Humble people want answers, they want to learn, they want the truth.
Proud people want to be right. Or they want others to think they are right.
So when it comes to truth, illusions and happiness, I think in a large measure it begins with our very own character traits. Someone who is truly, sincerely searching, and who finds answers, unbiased answers, that force him to leave his religion or act in defiance of God- I may disagree with this person, but I will respect him.
People who are biased or angry, people who have not learned all that their religion has to offer before veering away from it, people who do not truly wish to know but who wish to disprove others, well, these people cannot really be truth-seekers, and somewhere they know this.
I want to be a truth-seeker.
And I want to have the ability to seek.
And it will take a long time before I become capable of either.
To truly seek, you have to undo the quest for approbation or flattery, the quest for others to think you are right. You have to be content in yourself and your own identity, and not need to rely upon the statements of others to support you. You have to be able to accurately assess your own self-worth, and to make this what matters.
“Had the spirit of music appeared before her, it would have spanked her, for there was nothing, absolutely nothing, in her performance except the desire to please. She would deform any sound or any group of sounds if she thought she could thereby please her audience’s ear and so bribe it to give her its attention and see how pretty she looked as she played her violin. And she was not presenting herself as the pretty schoolgirl she really was, she was affecting to be mindless and will-les as grown-ups like pretty little girls to be.” (The Fountain Overflows, 136)
There is a difference between a deformed group of sounds that pleases an audience’s ear and true music, whether or not that true music is appreciated.
I want to learn to play the music, and to be pleased with it in and of itself, and to be satisfied with my own good opinion of it.
Even if the audience jeers.
No approbation, no support, no flattery, and no compliments could be as sweet as a truth that you have found because you have deserved it- a truth you have earned because you have sought for it.
The music, the music- and not the deformed illusion.