Religion for Grown Ups (On R. Dr. Walter Wurzburger)

[Rabbi Dr.] Walter S. Wurzburger, God Is Proof Enough, NY: Devorah, 2000.

Review by Avi Woolf

I wish I had met Rabbi Dr. Wurzburger. From what I have read, he was not only a prominent intellectual, but also a real mentsch. If his writings are any indication, he was also a truly modest person, who did his work lishma. His works have the mark of a man more interested in making solid points rather than catchy headlines. He seemed more intent on presenting reality in all its complexity rather than making strident statements that are full of the empty bombast of the demagogue. Most importantly, he took pains to write clearly, in a way that a normal person can understand, and not in the indecipherable gobbledygook so common in academia nowadays.

Nowhere are these attributes more evident than in the book under review. A brief, well-written excursion on the question of faith, it is less than 200 pages long. It makes use of sources, both Jewish and non-Jewish, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, in a tapestry that is practically seamless. I would heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject of faith. However, for me, this book’s primary contribution is that it takes the popular understanding of issues of machshava and stands it on its head.

What do I mean by that?

Well, a big part of why a lot of committed Orthodox Jews avoid machshava questions and study is that it’s perceived as a sterile field with only negative results. They see it as an area of inquiry with lots of good questions but few, if any, good answers. It is a field where one’s faith can only suffer body blows of doubt, suffering and scarred psyche. And all for what? At most, they would argue, you would end up right back at the starting point of belief you were given as a kid. Except while other people grow in their devotion, you, the questioner, remain paralyzed, racked with doubt and afraid of your own intellect. In short, there is nothing but pain and no pleasure to be found in machshava.

Nowhere is this more evident in the question of God’s existence. As Wurzburger cogently points out, the question of God’s existence is not an issue that can be decided rationally. For every “proof” or “argument” that can be made in favor of God, there are powerful counter-arguments. To quote the book (p. 24):

There is no irrefutable evidence of the existence of God which could convince radical empiricists, who a priori rule out the possibility of supernatural intervention. Even if it were possible to produce video tapes of the Sinaitic Revelation, they would still say “let us find the natural causes of this extraordinary and puzzling event.” Any recourse to supernatural causes would be categorically rejected by them.

Thus, the attempt to “prove” God can, at best, result in a “teiku” (a complete stalemate). This is hardly a basis for which one can adhere to Torah and Mitzvot. So goes the common argument.

A Reversal of Priorities

What R. Wurzburger argues in this book is that everyone has it backwards. Belief in God is the starting point, not the end point, of machshava. While it is important to examine belief, this is an intensely personal endeavor, where the person maust ask him/herself what they believe – do I believe that the world is entirely natural or are there supernatural elements? Do I believe the world is created or that it developed free of any outside intervention?

R. Dr. Wurzburger does speak of how one can explore this issue, such as the development of devekut, openness to dialogue (moving from the “atomic self” to the “dialogic self”), &c. But ultimately, all of this rests on the individual’s existential choice as to what system to adhere to, what ideas to accept.

This is the “starting point” – the belief in God. Machshava, according to R. Dr. Wurzburger is the end point, or more correctly, the never-ending path to development of faith. All the methods (“proofs”) which are often used to create faith become by R. Wurzburger ways to reinforce and refine faith. Concepts of dvekut, eved hashem &c are ways of leaving the station on the way to become closer to the God whose existence you take as a given. Thus does R. Wurzburger demonstrate convincingly that there is much religious pleasure to be gained in machshava, and the pain is well worth it for the path to devekut.

If that was all the book accomplished, it would be sufficient. However, R. Dr. Wurzburger goes further, writing a series of “signpost” chapters which discuss different ways to understand and explore different facets of Jewish faith, including messianism, theodicy, family and the tension between competing values (individualism vs. collectivism, universalism vs. particularism &c). In many of them, he adheres to his attitude of maintaining a careful balance between values, rather than becoming too strident for any particular one.

The tenor emanating from the book is one of a patient and mature teacher giving sage advice to the student, and I enjoyed every minute of it. Some will probably complain, rightly, that the book is a little too brief, and that the signposts should have been lengthened.  This, however, does not detract from the ultimate importance of this book.

Faith, for R. Wurzburger, is not a clear-cut move from Point A (agnosticism) to point B (faith), but a fascinating, complicated journey across many vistas. Getting to the starting point is hard, but the rest of the way has much to offer, and can expose the journeyman to an experience of faith and God that no “proof” or closeted existence can provide.

It is a message many of us would be advised to heed. 

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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4 Responses to Religion for Grown Ups (On R. Dr. Walter Wurzburger)

  1. Moshe says:

    In my youth I had studied many Chabad texts.

    This idea, of Machshava supplementing Emunah. was the underlining reason for everything we had learnt.

    See also here of the obligation דע אלקי אביך
    http://chabadlibrary.org/books/default.aspx?furl=/zz/dm/1/24/44b

  2. fred says:

    sounds like avoiding the question that causes the pain, just in a clever way.

    • AIWAC says:

      fred,

      Hardly. I emphasized that there is pain, but also much pleasure. I’m sorry if that didn’t come across.

      • fred says:

        it came across; you did a good job. its just that ww begins where most people end. if you accept the premise of god then you can work with ww. but judging by your previous posts on the topic, the questions seem to begin with questioning god. [altho in my experience, the questions really start with the rabbis, but that is another issue…]

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