Living up to The Truth

1: The Relevance of Religion

by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
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The question is whether religion is relevant. The truth is that this question is incoherent. The question makes no sense. However, I am afraid that if I argue this directly you will take it as an excuse for not being able to answer the question. So, I am going to adopt the following strategy. First I will pretend to answer the question, and then I will tell you why it is illegitimate.

Is religion, or in our case historical Traditional Judaism, relevant? Yes, of course it is. Historical Traditional Judaism is relevant because, given the concerns that people typically have, the Torah has a very good track record of producing results.

Take for example the quality of family life. Marriage and the family are still fairly popular institutions in the United States and the Western World. No one goes into marriage looking for a divorce. No one goes into marriage looking for the kinds of tensions and unhappiness which make people wish they had divorces. Stable and fulfilling family life is a goal for many people. Those of you whom have had any contact with the Traditional Jewish community know very well that the Torah way of life has a very good track record in producing successful families. Granted the record is not perfect, but it is greatly superior to the general society. For example, the divorce rate is comparatively low, and quality of relationships between parents and children, and between husband and wife, is something of which the traditional Jewish community is proud.

A second area of concern is freedom from addictions. I don't have to tell you that if we put together all the alcoholics and all the drug addicts, and include in the drugs the middle and upper class pills which are openly prescribed by doctors and which are perfectly legal and to which people are also addicted, we would have a large percentage of the population battling addictions. If 10-15% of the population is addicted to alcohol, and another 5-10% are addicted to drugs in the sense that we described, we would be talking about approximately 20% of the population that has a problem with addictions. The Torah community is very proud that it is relatively free of these addictions. I say relatively free because again the record is not perfect. No one is claiming that it is perfect, but vis-a-vis the general society, if you would observe the phenomena the way a sociologist would observe it, plot a curve, and do a statistical analysis of the information, you would see that the incidence is much smaller.

A third area of concern is crime. Everyone wants to live with as little crime as possible. Again, Jewish Tradition is very proud that within Torah communities, crime, violent crime in particular, is almost unknown. Imagine interviewing the presiding police officer in a precinct in Williamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, Monsey, Monroe, or any place where you have large concentrations of Traditional Jews. Ask him how many times he is called out on a murder charge, rape, assault and battery, mugging, child abuse, etc. The incidence of these sort of crimes in Orthodox communities is very low.

A fourth area is literacy. In traditional communities the rate of literacy for children with the capacity to read is 100%. And this usually means competence in two languages. This is far in excess of the national or regional averages.

No one is claiming that the Torah way of life makes all its adherents perfect. This is obviously not true and is not being claimed. However, what we do expect, and what we do find, is that it makes the Torah community significantly better than the average surrounding communities. So much so, that if we return to our original question, in asking whether the Torah is relevant, and given the standard concerns for quality of life, then the answer is yes, the Torah is of course relevant.

A fifth concern that most people share is the meaningfulness of life. As Viktor Frankl (the founder of existentialist psycho-therapy) said, we suffer from an existential vacuum, the angst, or the ennui that the existential philosophers have written about. We want to know where we are going, why we are going there, and what the importance of going in one particular direction or another is.

Meaningfulness is a function of relationships, of context, of consequences, and of connections. In order to understand the meaning of one's life, one has to have a picture of the historical perspective of the past, a vision of the future, and how one's life relates to that historical perspective. Judaism provides that kind of perspective. There is a recording of important episodes of history, and a view of the dynamics of history, the laws of history if you will, where it comes from, where it is going, and what its purpose is. One can achieve for oneself a picture of one's own position in that flow, and the meaningfulness of what one does.


Judaism is relevant because it contributes to our goals - specifically to successful marriage, reduction in addictions and crime, universal literacy, and a meaningful life.

In addition to viewing life vis-a-vis the outer environment, we also analyze different periods of life. For example, each year, or each crucial event whether it be birth, achieving adulthood, marriage, having children, or experiencing death. Each of these is a stage on an integrated path, so that each step on the path is related in a determinate way to the preceding steps, and contributes in a determinate way to the following steps, and hence gives oneself a clear picture of the meaning of each particular step. There is an integration of life, a plan which enables one to organize all the details of life around a central theme, so that each detail contributes to the expression of that overall theme. Even though they are tiny details, they contribute to the overall impact of the theme which is trying to be expressed. Likewise, that in turn confers a meaningfulness on those individual choices, and enhances the meaningfulness of life. So, in so far as we are concerned about the meaningfulness of our lives, the Torah is again quite relevant.

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Finally, in addition to being beautiful, profound, noble, challenging, mind expanding et cetera, the Torah is true. And since it is true, of course it is relevant. If I want to live successfully in the world around me, if I want my actions to be intelligently related to my ends, then I have to know the nature of that world.

Also, not only is truth relevant to choosing means, but also in adopting ends themselves. The reason is that goals are sometimes incompatible with one another. One may no longer be able to realize all his goals because the world does not allow all of them. If you realize one, you will therefore prevent yourself from realizing one of the others, and then a choice must be made. Ignorance of the world can lead one to extend oneself and to commit one's efforts to goals which cannot be simultaneously realized, which is of course a tragedy.

For example, it could be argued that the failure of communism was due to the incompatibility of two of its goals: centralized control of society and a successful economy. If individual freedom is necessary for the effort and innovation needed to drive the economy, then communism is futile.

As a second example, consider the twin goals possessed by many people that Judaism should survive as a distinct culture because it has an important distinct contribution to make to the world, and simultaneously should be modified with some sort of cultural compromise to current Western ideas. Now, if one studies history, in particular Jewish History, one will quickly come to the conclusion that those two goals are incompatible with one another. This path of cultural compromise, of accommodation with host civilizations, is a path which has been tried many times in the past. In each case it has resulted in cultural failure, complete cultural disintegration. [For the full argument on this point, see below Historical Verification of the Torah, Part V.]


Judaism is relevant because it provides truth about the world which helps us to make fruitful decisions by choosing appropriate means and realizable ends.

Similarly, someone who wants to simultaneously contribute to the moral maturation of mankind, and also wants to contribute to Western Civilization, for such a person the experience of Germany should give him second thoughts. Germany represented the flowering of Western Civilization. They were great in art, literature, science, poetry, music et cetera. Yet, morally speaking, they were capable of sinking, in one decade, to the lowest depths that humanity has ever trod. So, one has to ask whether Western Civilization, morally speaking, is only skin deep and does little if anything to tame the beast that rages within. (Perhaps it helps in creating that kind of bestiality?) At any rate, surely those two goals have to be scrutinized to see if they can be made to live together. This is an example of how knowing the truth is crucial not only for choosing means to our ends, but also for choosing our ends intelligently by making sure that they are jointly realizable.

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So much for the treatment of the question in a serious fashion. Now, what I want to tell you is the truth, which is that the question is really no question, that it can't be asked, and that it is really incoherent. Why?

What does relevance mean? Relevance is a relative term. We have to ask: Relevant to what? When I say that something is relevant, what I mean is that it is relevant to some given concerns, goals and values. For example someone is applying for a job. Is the fact that he is 5'2" tall relevant? It depends: if they want an accountant then no, but if they want a basketball player then yes! Every question of relevance presupposes a context of accepted goals and values. For me to ask whether religion is relevant is to measure religion against my goals and values. But, this presupposes that I already have goals and values. We could raise the question: How were they chosen? How were they established and justified?

Now in our case, the Torah doesn't allow itself to be a tool with which we can realize our extra-Jewish or our extra-Torah goals and values. The reason is that the Torah itself provides a complete set of values. The Torah itself dictates what our goals shall be. Thus, the Torah contains its own complete standard of relevance. The only way in which I can ask if the Torah is relevant is to decide not to treat it as true, not to take it in terms of its own self-conception. This would mean deriving the standard of relevance from another source. The Torah dictates for itself its own standards of relevance, and so to ask whether it is relevant or not is to ask an incoherent question.

I'll give you an analogy. There is an international commission which determines the rules of international chess competition. Now when they publish the latest rules we cannot ask: "Are those rules really valid? Are they correct rules of chess?" We can't ask that because they determine the rules of chess. Similarly here, if the Torah is going to dictate my ultimate values and goals, and these are my standards of relevance, then I can no longer ask whether the Torah is relevant. The Torah is that which determines relevance for everything else. The question then becomes not: Is the Torah relevant to me, to mankind, to society? and so forth, but rather: Am I relevant to the Torah? Is my life a relevant life? I become the subject matter of the question, not the one who asks of the question.


Relevance is relative to a standard set by our goals and values. To ask if religion is relevant is to evaluate religion by a standard external to religion itself. Judaism contains its own goals and values, and thus is itself a complete standard of relevance. Therefore it falsifies Judaism to assess its relevance to external standards. Judaism is the standard of relevance for everything else.

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This idea that the Torah can dictate goals and values is going to run counter to the intuition of many. Many people think that they think that values are relative. (Or rather many people think that they think that, because I am going to argue that they don't really think it.) Relative values means that each person chooses his own values, each person makes his own commitments, no one can tell anyone else how they are going to live and what they should pursue. In short, the question of values, ethics and morals is purely a personal question, a subjective question. I am not drawing fine distinctions between relativism, nihilism, subjectivism et cetera. Let's just lump it all together: there is no objective standard of right and wrong. That, anyway, is what they think they think.

Now, I am not going to address this question philosophically simply because 2500 years of philosophical ethics has produced nothing conclusive on the question. We are still floundering around much as we were before Plato and Aristotle started the current tradition. So, instead of arguing about the question philosophically, I am going to argue to you as people. I am going to argue what is called ad homonym. I want to show you that you do not hold this position. You may think you do, you may have been taught the phrases, but I can pull out of you intuitions which are very much at variance with this conception. I will try to show you that you are believers in absolute universal binding values, and the only question is what particular values are the correct values.

Consider the following two conflicts. Number one, you have two conflicting desires. You want to go to the rock concert and you want to go to the hockey game, but they are at the same time. So, you have to decide what to do. So you say "Well let's see, the concert costs $35, the ice hockey game costs $45, that one's farther away, this one would be more exciting, but that one happens more rarely, but this one my friend wants to go to, or that one not," and so on. You make up a calculation and you decide "Okay, I'm going to the concert." That is the first case.

Number two: you have a rock concert to go to and you have a promise to keep, and there is a conflict and you cannot do both. Again you weigh up that the rock concert only happens once a year, but then again, I made this promise, these people need it and so on. Again, you weigh up all the factors, and you make a decision to go to the concert. That is the second case.


Many people think they believe that values are relative. But they recognize that a failure to live up to one's values makes guilt a relevant reaction, which is not the case for a failure to satisfy desires. This indicates that we experience our values differently from our desires.

Now let's suppose that in both cases, later, you feel as if you have made a mistake. You go back over it and you say "No, I should not have made that decision, I should have made the other decision. I wish I had made the other decision. If I could do it all over again, I would do it the other way."

I suggest to you that in the choice of the rock concert over the promise (the second case), it is relevant, reasonable, and coherent to feel guilty. I am not saying that you have to feel guilty, or that you will feel guilty. But, if a person does happen to feel guilty, it is a normal response to have that feeling. Whereas in the choice of the rock concert over the hockey game, guilt is completely inappropriate. It is not logically relevant to feel guilty for having chosen the wrong one of your desires. This is now not a point about psychology, but rather a point about logic. The conflict of desires on the one hand, and the conflict of a desire with a recognized obligation on the other hand, produce the relevance of an entirely different kind of emotion - the logical relevance of guilt. But if values are relative, chosen subjectively without any independent validity, the relevance of guilt is a mystery. Why should violating a value be any more serious than choosing the wrong desire? In both cases only my own feelings are at stake. The relevance of guilt indicates that we do not regard values as relative or subjective.

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Now consider this. The following story appeared in the Wall Street Journal a number of years ago. There was a student at a philosophy course who was assigned to write a paper on ethics. In his paper he defended the thesis that there are no universal objective values. Everyone can more or less do what one likes, choose one's own commitments and so on. He received the paper back with an "F" on it. He went to the professor and said: "Why did you fail me?" The professor replied: "Because your wrong," and the student said: "Prove it!" The professor took out all the standard arguments that prove why there are objective values, and to each argument, the student said: "I don't believe that...I'm not committed to that," or, "I don't accept that...that doesn't persuade me," and so on down the line. After a half an hour, the student said: "Well, see, you tried out all your arguments and I am unmoved." The professor then replied "I'm going to fail you anyway, and not only that, I'm going to fail you in the course." The student, feeling a little unsettled and worried, said: "You can't do that!" The professor replied: "Of course I can. I put an F right here, see? Then, I sign my name over here. There's nothing to it!" The student then said: "No, no, you have no right to do that!"

What did the student say? "You have no right to do that?" This is the student who has denied the objectivity of value, thus denying the universality of value. Who is he to tell the professor what rights he has? Suppose the professor says, "My value that I have chosen is the following. I fail all those who disagree with me, and I give A's to all those who agree with me." Now, the student, given his position, cannot criticize the professor because he has just defended the thesis that anybody may choose whatever values he likes.

Now let me ask you: with whom do you agree in this story? Do you side with the student, or with the professor? I think we should side morally with the student - he is clearly a victim. But then what about his paper? His thesis that values are relative gives him no room to complain when he is treated unjustly! If the student wants to condemn the professor, he needs to have objective values which apply to the professor no matter what the professor thinks.

If you reject objective values then you give up the ability to condemn even the most outrageous injustice. What can you say even to a Nazi? He will tell you: "You chose your values, I chose mine. Who are you to tell me what values to choose? You mollycoddle Jews; I kill them. The future will be decided by the stronger army!" When you protest that what he does is unjust, evil, you are only expressing your private choices. Why should that be of any relevance to him?


The fact that people are willing to condemn injustice in others despite their choice of different values shows that people believe in universal objective values.

The fact is that there is a deep inconsistency here. When someone wants to stifle a nagging conscience, when he wants to throw off the ideals of a society with which he disagrees, then he becomes a nihilist, a subjectivist, a relativist, and says that everyone can choose their own their own values and make their own commitments. But, the minute that someone tries to interfere with him, the minute someone tries to limit his freedom, he then suddenly becomes a universalist, an absolutist: he trumpets his universal values and expects the other person to pay attention.

We don't merely fight it out with the Nazi, we don't believe that the reason Democracy should triumph over the Nazis is because we have more guns than they do. We brand the Nazi as evil! Also, we expect all the people who have moral conceptions, and who are not evil themselves, to agree with us. When we declare the Nazi as evil, we don't think of ourselves as just letting off steam the way some philosophers would have it. We want our own freedom that we expect other people to respect. That being the case, we all believe in absolute, universal and binding values. The only question is, which ones are they?

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So, which absolute, universal and binding values are the ones which we should believe in? When you come down to cases there is a lot of difficult discussion, and that is where the real interesting and important issues lie. Some people will say that it is patent: The absolute value and the absolute responsibility is not to interfere with other people. But this is not so obvious. Interference can be defined in a variety of ways. Take for example zoning laws. When someone buys a plot of land you tell him: "No! No two family houses, just one family houses." The purchaser will respond: "But it's my plot of land, they are my bricks, I hired the workers, why can't I build whatever I like? I don't care about your desire to preserve a certain quality to the neighborhood."

Well that's too bad, because even though it is his land, he will still not be allowed to build whatever he wants. Social legislation in general is like this. You tell someone who owns his own restaurant that he has to serve the public indiscriminately. But suppose he says "I only want to serve blue eyed people, I like blue-eyed people. Brown-eyed people make me nervous." Well that is too bad. He can't keep brown eyed people out. Why not? What counts as freedom from interference is a difficult matter, and it is going to be discussed and debated because people have different ideas.

In any case the general point remains: No one believes across the board in the subjectivity or the relativity of values. That being the case, I hope that you can at least accept the possibility of a philosophy, like the Torah, which says that there is an objective, universal, binding standard.

People may still try to argue as follows. Values cannot be objective because in the last analysis, I have to choose my own values. I have to make the choice. You can talk to me, you can show me the relevant facts, you can ask me to read the important philosophical works or novels which will have an impact on me, but in the last analysis, I have to make the choice. So, how could it possibly be objective? How can there be a universal standard if everyone has to make his own choice?

Now, that is nothing but a complete, irrelevant fallacy, and I will prove it to you. We will compare it with truth, in particular with science. Suppose someone said: "There can't be an objective truth, there can't be a reality, because in the last analysis, I have to decide what to believe. You could present me with the evidence, you could present me with the arguments, you could present me with all the theories and how they fit the data, but in the last analysis, I will have to make the decision to believe it or not to believe it. Therefore, there can't be any universal objective standard. Each person's standard is his own standard for himself."

No one is going to buy that in science because science distinguishes between my choice of what to believe on the one hand, and the standard for correctness of belief on the other hand. Of course I will decide what I am ultimately going to believe. But that means I can decide to believe what agrees with the real world, and is true, or I can to decide to believe what disagrees with the real world, and hence is false. The fact that I am making the decision does not imply that there is no correctness or incorrectness to the decision. The same thing is true with respect to values. The mere fact that I am going to decide what values to espouse and what values to commit myself to has nothing to do with the question as to whether or not there is an objective, universal standard.

[This argument does not rest on equating values with science - that would be absurd. Rather, the point is purely negative. Just as the necessity for each of us to decide what to believe in science does not deprive science of objective standards determining which beliefs are true, so the necessity for each of us to decide on our values does not imply by itself that there are no objective standards determining which values are correct. If other differences between values and science are thought to support that conclusion, that is another argument.]

As we will see in detail in chapter II, there are two basic attitudes toward religion. There is the pragmatic attitude and the realist attitude. One either looks at religion as a tool for self-realization, for self-actualization, for development of character, all as part of our cultural heritage. Or, one looks at religion as the picture of reality that we live in. Now then, from this point of view, if someone is going to look at it as reality, reality now not only includes factual reality, not only where did the world come from, how is it governed, where is it going, what is the essence of mankind and so on. It is also going to give us an objective account of what are values, of what are obligations, and what are goals that are universal and binding. So, in a rather convoluted way, we can come back in the end to the question of relevance.

If one is committed to understanding the world in which we live, if one wants to grasp reality mentally so as to live in it consciously, then discovering the truth of religion becomes one of life's most relevant projects. If there is a possibility, if there is some evidence for the truth of Judaism in particular, then one has an overriding interest, it seems to me, in sifting that evidence, in investigating the possibility so as to come to a reasoned and informed conclusion as to whether or not it is true. Because, if it is true, then it will contain the objectively correct values and so it will then become the standard of relevance: it will dictate the ultimate meaningfulness and significance of our lives.


There is controversy in particular value judgments, but that does not contradict the existence of objective values. Nor does the fact that each person must make his own value commitments contradict objective values; just as in science each person decides what he will believe and yet there is a standard of correctness, so too for value.

Next: Chapter II - Religion: Pragmatism or Truth?

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