Religion is constantly in the news usually for the wrong reasons. It’s either how a rabbi committed a crime, or how entire religious communities are rallying around a criminal who is about to be sentenced or was just sentenced to time in jail for financial fraud. Or we read how haredi Jews are rioting in Jerusalem or how rabbis in Israel are not sensitive to issues facing woman. All these stories are about the people who claim to practice religion. And whilst the people represent the religion they are not the religion itself.
There are many people, those who are antireligious in particular, who argue that religion is no longer relevant. They maintain that since we now have most of the answers through science, religion is no longer necessary. This is nothing short of wishful thinking. Whilst we do have answers to some of the major questions, the most vexing questions still remain unanswered.
One may be able to divide knowledge into three categories. The first is made up of the things that we know empirically—the undeniable facts that we can see, feel and hear. Religion has very little to say to this category. It does not have to tell us something that we know entirely without it. In fact the opposite is true: any time religion contradicts what we know to be an empirical reality we must question the religion and not the reality.
The second category is the things that we are unable to actually experience empirically but evidence points in a certain direction. There are numerous examples for this. Many articles of faith are subject to competing arguments and each side brings evidence to support their view. The argument for the existence of God is one such example. There is no empirical iron clad proof the God exists. However, there are very good arguments that point to an existence of a deity. Atheists will make counter arguments some of which are very powerful. In this case religion is helpful. It gives the one who chooses to accept the arguments, for the existence of God a language with which to talk about it and it also provides a framework for worship and a community of fellow believers.
Where religion is most helpful, however, is in the third category: the things that are unknowable using the regular methods of obtaining data and knowledge. What happens after we die? What is the nature of the spirit? What is the makeup of the life force of the universe? Why are we really here? And list of the unknowable goes on. These are questions that we humans yearn to have answered. Science cannot answer these questions for us. Religion, however, provides possible answers to these questions that a believer can feel comfortable with and then live their lives accordingly.
Granted that the veracity of the answers religion provides is impossible cannot be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But that is beside the point because religion is a belief system that by its very nature depends of the willingness of an individual to accept the proposition without the evidence. If there was solid evidence it would be considered fact rather than an article of faith.
So, in essence religion gives us options to believe where knowledge is no longer applicable. This is an important distinction, because there are some religions which offer ideas that conflict with established fact. This is dangerous and must be opposed as illegitimate. Maimonides in his “Guide for the Perplexed” (2:25) was clear that if Aristotle would have been able to prove that the Universe was eternal he would have reinterpreted Genesis to fit in with that. By saying this Maimonides established an important rule: Judaism will never tell you to believe in something that is against an established fact. Judaism is here to help you make sense of things that without which we wouldn’t have a framework to understand, interpret or believe.
Clearly, even today when the floodgates of scientific knowledge are open wide, there is a tremendous amount that we do not know and will never know. We simply don’t have the capability to gather the data that will then guide us to the facts. Religion therefore will always be relevant.
There will always be a place for a spiritual doctrine that uses different tools to gather ideas and concepts that answer questions we crave answers to. Thus, religion was never and can never be instead of science, rather religion picks up where science leaves off and cannot go further. The foibles of so-called religious are more a reflection of human frailty than religion itself. It is the religion itself that we should focus on, after all human imperfection is not only all around us it is within us as well.
The ultimate irony of our preoccupation with the misdeeds of religious people is that whilst it may assuage our own guilty conscious, when taken seriously our religion can in fact help us mitigate many of our personal and inherent deficiencies. It’s unwise to allow the perceived crimes and misdemeanor of others to hold back from availing ourselves of resources (Judaism) which can help us reach greater human perfection.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts
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