Intellectual pursuit important in Judaism

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Over the past year, I read all the books I could on the topic of Judaism versus other religions. It did not take long to decide Christianity is illogical. I don’t find it bothers me that it is the largest religion because they “just believe.” They are no different from the vast majority of my Jewish friends in yeshiva who “just believe” what they hear without putting much thought into it. Do you feel there’s any difference?
— Aryeh
Dear Aryeh,
We need to draw a vital distinction between the fact that Christians “just believe” and that many of your friends in yeshiva “just believe.” It is true that, when you compare people to people, the masses that accept things at face value without putting thought into it and do things by rote, you may not find much difference. They are oftentimes buying into different belief systems by rote. If many of them would have happened to have been switched and brought up by the families of the opposite beliefs, many would probably fall right in line with whatever is being taught to them. That does not show a similarity in the belief systems, rather a similarity in some of the people following them.
When it comes to the actual systems of belief, however, they could not be more diametrically opposed in their outlooks, especially with regard to taking their beliefs for granted! Often in certain branches of Christianity, to “just believe” is meritorious. Numerous times former Christians have approached me to discuss conversion to Judaism because they were not allowed to ask questions! When they would approach their religious leaders with difficulties about their religion, contradictions in teachings and the like, they were dealt with like heretics or told they need to “just believe” and not ask questions.
For some reason, otherwise inquisitive people, even people of science who are rigorous in their criticisms of scientific theories and in their peer reviews of the ideas and postulates of their colleagues, see fit to have a double standard about religion. They have been brought up since their youth that, with regard to religion, you are required to “just believe.” With regards to much of Christianity, to “just believe” is not a lack of effort by the masses; it goes to the heart of the belief system.
The Torah and Judaism, however, could not be more diametrically opposed to that outlook. The first thing a child is taught, at the Pesach Seder, is to ask questions! We have an entire, vast Talmud which consists largely of rigorous challenges to anything and everything stated, whether in verses, Mishnah, rabbinical statements, even acts of the Al-mighty! Our greatest teacher of all time, Moshe, strongly challenged God on some of His actions, and God accepted his challenges — not only without rebuke, but He changed many of His decrees due to Moshe’s challenges! We also point out the mistakes and misdeeds of our greatest leaders, those of Abraham, Moshe and others.
With regards to our essential belief system, the monumental work Daas Tevunos by the esteemed sage R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Italy 1700s) writes that we have an obligation to not take our beliefs at face value, rather to delve deeply into them, challenge them and come to a deep understanding — an understanding that sits well in our hearts and satisfies the inquisitive, intellectual part of our souls.
Most people, many of the friends you mention, may not be so intellectually inclined and they’re satisfied, perhaps, with what we call emunah peshuta, or simple belief. I’m not out to judge them, but that’s the people, not the religion. As a religion, certainly anyone who has an intellectual side to them needs to work on achieving a profound understanding of everything Jewish.

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