By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Let us take one final column (for now) to address the questions from the student in New Jersey:
“In your answer to my third question, you stated, ‘If, however, Judaism is true and one would neglect to heed its commandments, the person would be in far worse shape than the first scenario [where it is not true and the person is keeping the commandments for nothing].’
“I have two points to make about this: a) This is only a reason to be religious, not to be Jewish. b) This means only to err on the side of caution, and is in no way a proof. It does not tell me how I know that I am not wasting my life. All I do know is that if I am wrong, all I lose out on is a few cheeseburgers; but if atheism is wrong: How is the weather down there? If one said this to an atheist he would respond, ‘Hell? What hell?!’”
As you point out, this reasoning was not meant as a “proof” in any way; it is a practical, pragmatic approach, one of a businessman investing not in the stock market but in his very life. It falls under the premise that the listener accepts no proof, and they remain totally in doubt as to the truth of Torah.
Just as an investor never has 100 percent proof as to the wisdom of their investment, but continues to invest in that which seems likely to bring the greatest return, we are investing in our own lives and futures by the actions we take and how we conduct our lives. We, like the investor, would do well to take the path that promises the safest return for our investment and the least likelihood of a difficult eternal retirement.
I agree with you that this reasoning would not resonate with an atheist, although it might compel him or her to rethink their position. After all, a true atheist claims that they have proof that God does not exist. I have yet to hear a cogent proof as to God’s nonexistence, and when questioned, the professed atheist usually retreats from that claim — their counterclaim being that I don’t have a positive proof of His existence. This turns the atheist into an agnostic, someone who simply doesn’t know. If they just don’t know, the pragmatic investment approach doesn’t sound so bad.
But, alas, if someone keeps mitzvos simply as an insurance policy without the belief in God as the commander of those obligations, they don’t get the reward of a mitzvah anyway. So all this argument does is to encourage a person to rethink their position. It’s only when they decide to reinvestigate and arrive at a belief in God and the truth of Torah, that it then makes sense to observe mitzvos.
I also agree with you that this line of thought would only give us a compelling reason to practice a religion, and not necessarily that of Judaism. The choice of Judaism depends upon the “proof” of its revelation before the entire nation, as we discussed last week. There are also many internal points within the Torah itself which make very strong arguments for its validity; we did not discuss these points, but I would strongly encourage every seeking, searching and thinking individual to investigate them.
Even gentiles do not necessarily have to choose one of the established religions as a “way to invest” in their futures. However, while the choice of Judaism per se over other religions is encouraged only for Jews, the nations of the world also have the choice to join the Torah as righteous gentiles who observe the seven Noahide laws. These gentiles are referred to in the Torah literature as “ger toshav,” a type of convert to the belief in Torah as the Truth; the difference in observance is between Jews who keep 613 mitzvos and gentiles who keep seven.
I urge you to continue questioning and probing our Torah for answers to your questions, until you are satisfied. Try, however, to be equally as probing within the recesses of your own heart — to ensure that the questions are coming from an inquisitive, intellectual desire for truth, and not from a longing to justify the lure of non-observance.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.