This is an edited transcript of a tape of a lecture provided by the Aish Hatorah Audio Center. We have smoothed it out for written publication, but have not removed the sound and feel of the talk on which it is based. That is how most of his many talmidim remember HaRav Weinberg, zt"l. It was originally published in 2000, and explains a basic approach to the events of Shavuos.
HaRav Yaakov Weinberg, zt"l
We can assume right away that there is something about what happened at Sinai that a reasonable person can believe because reasonable people believe anything. There is literally nothing that intelligent reasonable people have not bought (which is not an inconsiderable problem).
Obviously, reason is subject to wanting as well. It is not a pure act. Will has something to do with reason.
We have to identify that which is nonsense. It will be necessary if we are to talk intelligently at all, to make a statement very bluntly that all religions except for the Jewish religion are clearly nonsense. No intelligent, reasonable person who is using his reason has ever decided that he wants to be a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim. I will explain why this is the case.
I will tell you a story that goes back several hundred years among Jews. The joke goes as follows. A Rebbe died without leaving instructions as to which of his two surviving sons he wanted the community to install as his heir. There were those who favored the older son and those who favored the younger son. It was an unhappy situation.
One day, one of the two sons called together the congregation and said: "Last night in my sleep my father appeared to me in a dream and he said: `I want you to call together the elders of the congregation and say to them in my name that it is my wish that they appoint you as my successor.'"
Everybody was silent. One person got up, however, and said: "If your father wanted us to appoint you, he should have come to us in our dreams not to you."
If G-d had wanted Mohammed to be his prophet he should have come to the people to say "Mohammed is my prophet." He can't have talked just to Mohammed and told him to tell everyone that he is G-d's prophet.
How do you believe someone like that? What reasonable human being can buy it? There are liars, there are well-meaning deceivers, there are scoundrels, there are true visionaries. How can one know? Why believe a person who comes to you and says that G-d spoke to him and said that you should believe that he is a prophet? It is obviously nonsense.
No human being who wants to follow reason and has not made a leap of faith, an a priori decision to accept, can possibly believe it when a human being comes and says, "I am a prophet."
This applies to all of them. If people take them seriously, it is because they want, they need to fulfill something. They are looking for something. It is a leap of faith.
People believe anything. The people who say they believe are really telling the truth — they give their lives for it. But people even give their life for lies. Once they put their reputation on the line, people will die for a lie. Also for something that gave them position, strength, prestige, and power — they may also die for it.
There is no way that a reasonable person who is using his reason and subjecting his beliefs to the thorough scrutiny of reason can possibly accept the big, popular faiths. All of them depend on an individual or small number of people who received some sort of experience or revelation and then spread the word.
This is not the logical way to begin a system based on reason, and consequently it is not the way we would expect Hashem to do it.
The only system that we can discuss in a reasonable way is the Jewish faith because the Jewish faith claims that G-d didn't say to Moses go to speak to the people of Israel and tell them that he is His prophet. Judaism claims that G-d spoke directly to the people and said that Moses is His prophet.
That's the difference. Such a claim can be evaluated on the basis of reason. Reasonable people can now ask, "Should we believe this happened?" because at least the claim is one that a reasonable person can — and has to — deal with.
The claim isn't to believe Moses. That is nonsense. The claim isn't to believe the Rabbis. That is foolish. The claim is to believe G-d because G-d said Moses is My prophet.
This is something that a reasonable person must deal with. Why? Why of all the thousands of religions which we have recorded has there never been any that a reasonable person can deal with? No religion has ever built itself on a claim that does not reduce to: "Believe me, my heart is pure. I do not lie to you. Believe me when I tell you that the angel came and gave me books."
Can a reasonable person believe that the claim of Joseph Smith, who founded the Mormon faith, is one that we should use to build our lives on? Smith came with a story that an angel came and gave him golden tablets that included the Book of Mormon, and of course the Book of Mormon got lost after he saw it and read it. Is that serious; is that something one must deal with?
No one else, ever, in the history in mankind has made the claim that G-d told the whole nation, that one man is His prophet.
Parents don't lie to their children. They tell them the truth. A Christian father doesn't say to his son and a Christian mother to her daughter, I saw J. They say to him, "Your great-grandfather was a barbarian who worshiped stones and wooden idols. There came a man in a ship and this man brought them a message of the coming of J.C. and your grandfather believed him, and that is why we believe him today."
The Moslems don't tell their children other than the truth. They say, "Mohammed came and claimed that G-d spoke to him and some didn't believe him so he slaughtered all of those who didn't accept him. Therefore, we accept him."
No people make a claim to their children other than the one they accept in fact: you should believe because we were persuaded. "Father, mother, why should I believe that grandfather's decision was a good one? Because he was persuaded I should direct my life and build it on that kind of a base? Does that make sense? Yes, it makes good sense. I will have a nice social life, comfortable, security, and in the end, heaven on a platter. I am offered the world to come and the world that is on a platter. Why should I reject it?"
The Jew tells a different story altogether. He says we were there and we heard G-d speak. He said to us that Moses is His prophet. It was a unique event in the history of mankind.
Is there a fairy tale you have seen that hasn't been duplicated? There is only one unique story that mankind tells — that G-d spoke to all the people.
Don't we have to deal with that? Why of all the stories that the world has told, has there never been a duplicate of this claim that G-d spoke to the People of Israel and said to them Moses is My prophet, believe him.
Any person seeking the truth wherever it may lead will have to deal with this, will have to confront it. If it is a lie, why didn't anyone else claim such a gorgeous lie? It sounds contagious. Why not make it up?
In fact, this is a story that you cannot tell unless it is true, because in the very telling of the story you proclaim yourself a liar if it isn't true. Whom are you talking to when you say G-d spoke to all of us? You are talking to all of the Jewish people. Everyone has to know about it, including the neighbor down the street. You said all of us.
How do you tell this story if it isn't true? If you can proclaim this kind of story without it being true, why didn't someone else make it up? Why was it made up once — and once only — in the whole history of mankind? And it is the only such story that was made up once and only once in the whole history of mankind!
Now be reasonable. It is unreasonable to believe that these people made it up and got away with it and nobody else was even able to try. That is unreasonable. Reasonable people cannot make such a claim.
What about a different objection? Maybe it was some kind of fake. That itself is a fantastic thing.
The Christians say maybe what we believe happened. The Moslems say maybe what we believe happened. The Jews have to say maybe such and such happened to explain it away.
Do you hear the difference? All the other religions have to explain why you should believe them, but to the Jewish religion you have to explain why you needn't believe it. But you have to come up with a lot of "maybes" to explain it away. For every other religion you have to explain why you should believe it and for this one you have to explain why not.
There are a lot of things that must be explained away. There is a Bible. It was written by someone. If it was not written by G-d, then it must be that a man wrote it. Which human being? Not a Jew. No way. Do you believe that a Jew wrote that his ancestors were liars? That his ancestors kidnapped a brother and sold him into slavery? That these people preferred slavery to freedom, or that Jacob was a thief and a liar?
Why would they write unfavorable reports about their ancestors? It never happened elsewhere. You can't read about a single defeat in Egyptian recorded history. If you want to find out something bad about the Egyptians you have to read Syrian history. If you want to find out something uncomplimentary about the Syrians you have to read Babylonian history.
Even today with our modern, scientific historians, the difference between an American historian and a Canadian historian is amazing when they tell the story of the same Revolutionary War. In olden times there was no such thing as writing something unpleasant, uncomplimentary about my own people.
The funny thing about the Jewish Bible is not that it has some unpleasant things, but it doesn't have any nice things. There is nothing nice about the Jewish People. Nothing. From the beginning to the end it is a series of disasters. Who wrote it? It seems like it was an antisemite, who somehow persuaded the Jews to accept it. And of all the people who might have been persuaded to accept a fanciful history they are the least likely. They are an am keshei oref who, even when they see something with their own eyes, they still don't want to believe it.
One finds it difficult to assume that it is anything but the truth. The only way such a book could have been written and accepted is if it is the truth.
Therefore it is all true except for one little thing — except for G-d. That part maybe they made up. All the rest has to be true. There is no other way it could have been written.
This book is stark and straight. I remember reading a report of a sermon given by a priest in a Reform temple. The sermon went as follows: Do not despair, never give up hope. If Jacob could make it, anyone can. A robber, a thief — he fooled his brother, his father- in-law. If Jacob could make it, anyone can — it means that G-d is open to anyone.
He is right. He read the Bible and that's his picture of Jacob.
It is really very embarrassing. We try to explain it away, but who wrote it? Who wrote this book? It is hard to escape that G-d wrote it and gave it to us and we had to accept it whether we wanted to or not, whether we liked it or not — and we didn't like it. We twist and squirm because we don't want to have to live with it — but we have to live with it. There is no way out.
There is another question that you really have to face. What other religion makes demands of its adherents without guarantees? "Believe and your place in heaven is assured" — that's the least you can offer. That's what you buy them with. You may not have this life but you will have eternal life. You will go to heaven, and we can guarantee you heaven.
You come to Judaism and they give you a body of laws that they say is the truth. They offer you a lifetime of toil, a lifetime of effort, and after that, hopefully you will make it to Heaven. If you make proper judgments, make good decisions, use your mind, use your body, use your G-d-given free will — if you do all of these you will go to Heaven. Believing alone is not going to make it for you. Sorry, it is not enough. You have to live a good life.
"Can you give me peace of mind rabbi?"
"No, I can only give you work."
Are they crazy? Why should anyone do it unless it is the truth? Who makes that kind of offers to his customers? If you are making up a religion, is this the kind of religion you make up? Is this what you do to sell things?
Paul was a salesman, the supreme, superb salesman of all times. This was his proposal.
"Listen my friends. You know it was the Jews who taught the Empire that idol worship is no longer acceptable. G-d is transcendent. G-d is not man, G-d is not in a body. He is an infinite spirit."
"Sure, we all know that."
"But you are having trouble with that, aren't you? You are having trouble with a transcendent G-d — on how to relate to him. You can't see him, you can't talk to him, how do you pray to him?
"Listen. Here he is, transcendent, no limitations, infinite, no body — but he is also a man hanging on the wall. So you can look at him, pray to him, hug him, and carry him around in your pocket. You can relate to whichever part you like."
A believing Christian can pray to J., to the man. But maybe it is hard for them to pray to that man. After all he is not so attractive a figure, hanging there on a cross, with nails in his hands and feet. Ok, so pray to his mother. A mother is a delightful figure — warm and good hearted, you can relate to a mother well.
Is there a better sales pitch than that? You have got it made: a G-d whom you can intellectually accept but at the same time he can appeal to your emotions. It is a superb piece of market-driven packaging.
Judaism says that you have got to use your mind as well as your heart. You have to relate to an abstract G-d, no matter how hard that is. You have to pray to a G-d that you can't touch, see, feel, you can't represent — and you have to love Him, to revere Him, to relate to Him, to recognize Him and deal with Him.
Nobody else makes that demand. On the contrary, for most of the world, the first lesson of religion is: don't think, don't read, don't bother getting information. If you need to know something, go to the priest and he will tell you whatever you need to know. And they said the same thing to the priest: don't read too much; if you have deeper needs go to the bishop, he will tell you. For them, knowledge is a dangerous thing. For what do you need knowledge?
For the Jew, the first and foremost obligation is to study, to know, because you have to make decisions. No one is going to tell you what to do, you have to figure out the right thing. You are responsible. How are you going to do the right thing unless you study, unless you know, unless you think, unless you are aware? Do you know of any other religion that not only allows but demands study and learning as the foremost obligation?
Now, is it sheer coincidence that we are unique in all these peculiar ways? Can it really be that just by some crazy accident the Jews claim:
* - that G-d spoke to all of them in a way that you can't lie about;
* - that Moses is a true prophet;
* - He gives them a Chumash which shakes them up and makes them believe;
* - They have to swallow their pride to believe all that it says; but
* - it makes demands on them of extraordinary power; and then
* - promises them nothing other than opportunities. No guarantees, no certainty. And then
* - it tells them to learn, study, think.
None of these things is duplicated elsewhere.
End of Part I