Earlier this week, I had the privilege of speaking to a group of 12th grade girls from the Bnos Menachem high school here in Crown Heights. After telling them “my story,” and explaining how one of the major draws into Chabad for me was how intellectual everything is, a girl interrupted with a pretty pertinent question.
“You talk a lot about how Judaism is intellectual and so it worked, but when did you finally realize that it’s more than just intellectual?”
It’s funny, a few years ago the words “just intellectual” would have made me cringe. “What do you mean just intellectual?!” But the girl was right, and she had a very valid point. Judaism, however intellectual it is, is far more than just intellectual. There always have been, and always will be, certain depths of Jewish thought that the human mind simply cannot grasp. So her question remains… when did I finally realize that? As a scientist and academic, was it hard?
To be honest, I remember the exact moment when I admitted (both to myself and to others) that there was something far beyond my comprehension level about the entire concept of G-d. I was sitting in the senior design lab sometime in late 2008, working on one of many projects that kept our class up at all hours of the night. Nor was I alone; at least half the class was there with me, well after normal office hours. I was speaking to a colleague, my friend Chris, about something to do with G-d and religion and Judaism. It was a frequent topic of discussion between us, him being a very religious Christian and myself being an observant Jew, but the conversations were always cordial. He had a lot of questions about Jewish practice and how it differed from his own, and there was no “conversion” pressure on either side, just open and honest discussion and debate. I actually really enjoyed it… it gave me the opportunity to examine how strong my own convictions were and whether or not I could communicate them to other people.
It was during one such conversation that we stumbled on to one of the “big questions.” I don’t quite remember what it was… maybe why good people die young, or the holocaust, or pain and suffering… Chris asked how Judaism explained it. What was the reason behind it all?
I paused and thought about it for a second, clearly at an intellectual cross-roads. I could feed out one of the standard explanations that you hear on TV every time a natural disaster happens: warning, punishment, cleansing… Explanations which (quite honestly) completely disgust me. So instead I opted for the truth. “I don’t know, Chris.”
He seemed surprised. It might have been the first question he had asked me that I didn’t have an answer to, but I wasn’t done yet.
“I don’t know. I’m glad I don’t know. I don’t want to know, because if I know, then it becomes justifiable. Then there’s a reason for it, just like everything else. I don’t think G-d wants us to know. We would lose our sense of humanity. There are some things that just don’t have answers, and I think it’s better that way.”
The conversation ended for the evening. Chris went back to his lab project and I sat in silence for a few minutes, replaying what had just occurred. It may not have seemed like anything unusual, but a monumental shift in my outlook on the existence of this universe had just taken place. I had just admitted, for the first time, that G-d had answers to things that science would never explain. I had admitted, painstakingly, that I was giving up a place in the atheistic scientifically elite ranks that I had made myself comfortable in for so long. That tower that I had built up for myself on a foundation of physics and chemistry and quantum mechanics, the notion that everything could be explained in a perfectly reasonable and logical way, came crumbling to the ground.
Immediately, panic set in. Maybe I really was being brainwashed, like my mom had warned me against all those times. I was giving up my faith in empirical evidence and solid mathematics for a faith in something I couldn’t observe or test or even describe. Had I lost my mind?
It took some time until I realized what exactly had taken place that night. It didn’t have as much to do with the fall of science as it did with a crushing blow to my ego. I had prided myself for so long on always having the answers… and if I didn’t have the answer, I knew there was some scientist out there that did. Stephen Hawking knew. Brian Greene knew. One day, I would know too, it was just a matter of time. My seven-year stint as a “devout atheist” had served my ego well. To finally admit, after keeping Torah and Mitzvahs for months already, that there really was something that I didn’t (and never would) have the answer to was the equivalent of taking a nice pointy needle to an over-inflated balloon. The needle wins.
I’m not the only person in modern times to build such a tower for the sake of ego… it unfortunately runs rampant in modern society. Just like the citizens of Bavel, we want to make names for ourselves. We want to be able to see far and wide when we look down from our towers, and we want people to see us from wherever they happen to be. We want social status, fame and fortune. We want respect. And so we build our towers. We even work with others to get the job done, displaying total unity within the scientific community for the sake of progress, for example.
The only problem is that my tower was on the wrong foundation. I was constructing it for self-glorification rather than nullification to a greater good. I was using numbers and formulas as my bricks and mortar, instead of faith and love. I was reaching up towards status instead of reaching up towards G-d. And so it was only a matter of time until the unstable construction broke down, leaving the shreds of my ego as scattered as the bricks of a collapsed building. And so I was back to the bottom, to lowliness, to not knowing.
Little did I realize then that this “regression” to a level without intellect was not a fall at all, but an enormous ascent to a higher level of faith than had ever been possible for me before. It’s easiest to think about it in terms of levels.
At the bottom level you have faith that is “blind.” This faith is below intellect. Don’t ask questions, just swallow the answers you’re given and move on.
The middle level is the faith within intellect. Judaism prides itself on the fact that we never stop asking questions. We always analyze and struggle to understand our place in the world. The faith that we reach as a result of our own mental battles is unmeasurably stronger than the blind faith of the first level. Yet there is a higher level still.
The highest level is back to faith without intellect. The difference is that instead of faith below intellect, we’re now at a level of faith that is wholly above intellect. We’ve battled it out in our minds, we’ve analyzed and over-analyzed. We’ve drawn conclusions. We’ve even reached answers. And yet, despite all of this, we come to the realization that there are some things that are completely outside the realm of human comprehension. It’s like trying to wrap your mind around the concept of infinity. Or what lies outside the edge of the universe if it’s even more nothing than the nothing of a vacuum. Our limited number of brain neurons cannot fire rapidly enough to grapple with such concepts. How much more so should the true knowledge of the Creator, who is so infinitely powerful that he was able to create such concepts, be a complete and total mystery to us! To say that we truly understand His will is to confine a being so unlimited that He isn’t even limited to being unlimited! (Think about that one for a minute.)
And so, over the years I’ve come to the realization that sometimes a crumbling tower and the wind-scattered shreds of our own egos can actually be the greatest blessing in disguise. It allows us to reach a level of connection with the Infinite that is impossible if our own greatness stands in the way. And I’d much rather stand at ground level on a solid foundation of Torah and love and holiness anyway.
May we all be blessed to realize what the solid foundation in life is without having to experience a crumbling tower first. May we join together in unity for holy purposes rather than selfish ones, and may we merit to see the greatest level of unity possible with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days!
With prayers to the true Tower of Strength, G-d, for the immediate redemption, Rucheli
[For more on the Tower of Bavel in this week’s Torah portion, check out the Chabad.org library.]
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