It would never occur to us to ask someone to explain why he is an English speaker. It is evident that English serves a useful purpose for an English speaker. Nor does it seem incongruous for someone to speak more than one language. Each serves a purpose.
Judaism is a process like English. Yet it seems evident that being a “speaker” of Jewish requires explanation and that being a member of one moral community precludes being a member of others. Why should this be so? The easy answer is that moral systems make claims about the world that we call “beliefs”, that these beliefs require defense, and that different moral systems have conflicting beliefs. The easy answer is way too easy; it’s not clear why any of the propositions in the previous sentence are true. Let’s try to do better.
Just as one can speak a language fluently, one can “speak” a moral system fluently. Sometimes, when one speaks a moral system fluently, one can achieve a sense of transcendence, of being part of something larger than oneself, something directed, enduring and deeply meaningful. It is this fleeting sense that constitutes true belief.
Precisely because this sense is so fleeting, we often feel the need to articulate it. Sometimes, we articulate it (or at least try to) in order to persuade others to stick with the system even in the absence of that sense of transcendence. Sometimes, we try to articulate it for ourselves, to keep that sense of transcendence in our pockets even when can’t actually experience it. But this attempt to articulate a sense inevitably cheapens that sense. Here’s how one wise man expressed it:
The need to think about the whole God idea is just a comedown that’s necessary for people as a sort of cure. Denying it is an unfortunate prerequisite for the ultimate “high” in which there won’t be any need to think about the God idea because life itself will be “God’s Light”.
(Can you guess who wrote that? The answer will be in the comments.)
Let’s try to get a bit more specific about how such belief might be articulated in terms of specific claims. Think of it this way. If speaking Judaism fluently can (sometimes) give us the feeling that we are part of something uniquely directed, we want to concretize the claim that, as a process, Judaism is itself uniquely directed. Minimally, we’d capture this in the claims that the process evolved organically from some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that revelation at Sinai), that it is headed towards some non-arbitrary point (let’s call that the Messianic era) and that being part of it is uniquely rewarding (let’s call that sekhar ve-onesh).
So you’re probably thinking that that’s too clever by half, that there is something cynical about determining proper beliefs according to the purpose they serve rather than according to the evidence for their truth. There is nothing cynical about it at all. Let’s digress a bit.
Think about how science is done. We observe, say, that the sun has risen in the East many times and that there are no records of it ever having failed to do so, and so we propose that it is a law that the sun rises daily in the East, past, present and future. Our underlying assumption is that we are able to generalize from observations to laws. But how can we justify this assumption? It would be circular to justify it on grounds that we have observed that it works. While heroic attempts have been made to rescue this argument from circularity by translating it into a kind of bootstrapping argument, in the end none of this works. Rather the justification for our most basic methodological assumptions concerning science is entirely pragmatic. If we hope to render our lives coherent, we need to make these assumptions.
Well, if we wish to render our moral lives coherent, we also need to make some assumptions. And that’s exactly what we do. There is no more shame in it than in the methodological assumptions scientists use every day. Here’s how William James puts it:
[Pragmatism’s] only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us, what fits every part of life best and combines with the collectivity of experience's demands, nothing being omitted. If theological ideas should do this, if the notion of God, in particular, should prove to do it, how could pragmatism possibly deny God's existence? She could see no meaning in treating as 'not true' a notion that was pragmatically so successful. What other kind of truth could there be, for her, than all this agreement with concrete reality?...
The notion of God, … however inferior it may be in clearness to those mathematical notions so current in mechanical philosophy, has at least this practical superiority over them, that it guarantees an ideal order that shall be permanently preserved. A world with a God in it to say the last word, may indeed burn up or freeze, but we then think of him as still mindful of the old ideals and sure to bring them elsewhere to fruition; so that, where he is, tragedy is only provisional and partial, and shipwreck and dissolution not the absolutely final things. This need of an eternal moral order is one of the deepest needs of our breast. And those poets, like Dante and Wordsworth, who live on the conviction of such an order, owe to that fact the extraordinary tonic and consoling power of their verse. Here then, in these different emotional and practical appeals, in these adjustments of our concrete attitudes of hope and expectation, and all the delicate consequences which their differences entail, lie the real meanings of materialism and spiritualism--not in hair-splitting abstractions about matter's inner essence, or about the metaphysical attributes of God. Materialism means simply the denial that the moral order is eternal, and the cutting off of ultimate hopes; spiritualism means the affirmation of an eternal moral order and the letting loose of hope.
The problem actually lies elsewhere. We need to be sparing with our pragmatic assumptions. They need to be sufficiently unobjectionable that they don’t run up against everything else we know. But, in the absence of direct experience of transcendence in performance of mitzvot, people need to translate rather abstract beliefs about the directedness of Judaism into considerably more concrete and specific beliefs that may be difficult to reconcile with other beliefs about the world. For some, it may be enough that Judaism evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past; others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is now can be traced directly back to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. For some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely understood positive direction, while others need for the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and/or miraculous interventions and for signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. For some it is enough that the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, while others need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most concrete and prosaic ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight.
There really are two conflicting pressures here. Belief must be substantive enough to grip the soul and abstract enough to grip the intellect. The direct experience of Judaism can reconcile these two. But when belief migrates from the realm of experience to articulated belief, there is risk of disequilibrium.
Beliefs themselves are part of the moral system. The affirmation of some proposition might itself be regarded as obligatory. It might therefore happen that those who seek to make beliefs as concrete and specific as possible, to tighten their grip on the soul, will see others, who seek to abstract beliefs in order to tighten their grip on the intellect, as apikorsim, whose diluted beliefs do not count in establishing communal standards regarding obligatory belief. Concomitantly, the others will view the concrete believers as child-like primitives whose beliefs do not count in establishing communal standards regarding obligatory belief.
When this happens, sub-communities are driven further and further apart, each insisting upon a set of beliefs that is either too concrete to be believed or too abstract to engage the soul.