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Rabbi Nachum Braverman

Here's everything you always wanted to know about Judaism, but were afraid to ask:

(1) Hasn't science proved that life on earth evolved?

On simple reading, the Bible's account of creation seems like some kind of Vegas routine - rabbits popping out of hats on a grand scale. On closer attention, the Bible's account is far subtler and more complex. Medieval commentators suggest the Bible actually depicts a process of gradual evolution.

God created. Evolution may be how He did it.

* * *

(2) Didn't evolution take a lot longer than six days?

The six days of creation can't be 24-hour days. Light appears on the first day, but the sun and moon don't turn up until the fourth. Commentators suggest the six "days" of creation may be six epochs of creation. Each epoch may have lasted weeks, months, or - like Mrs. Magwire's ninth grade math class on a hot afternoon - billions of years.

* * *

(3) Isn't religion for people who aren't willing to think for themselves?

In most areas of knowledge, rote memorization of basic information lays the foundation for higher reasoning. You didn't discover the number system, the alphabet, the laws of grammar, arithmetic, or the postulates of geometry yourself. No doctor derives for himself the laws of organic chemistry or of pharmacology for himself. The foundation of knowledge we learn from others permits us to learn for ourselves.

The same is true with religion. The Bible states spiritual and moral postulates. Applying those principles - deciding which applies, when, and how - is the ultra-hard work of thinking that makes each of us unique.

* * *

(4) What happens when the Bible conflicts with human reason?

What if God tells you to do something you think is immoral - like sacrifice your son, or fling yourself into a mine field screaming, "Allah Akbar!"

The first question is whether God is really talking, or if you're being overly imaginative or schizophrenic. If it is God talking, then we assume God is right (it's one of the perks of the job). If you think God is wrong, it's possible you're not seeing the whole picture.

Imagine, for example, watching three people pin someone to a table and cut his leg off. You need history and context to know whether you're watching surgery or torture. The story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac explores this very difficult question.

* * *

(5) Who cares? So what? Why should I read The Bible at all?

Do you want to be happy? Do you want a good marriage and well-adjusted children? Do you want meaning? Is it easy to achieve these things? Show me someone who thinks life is straightforward, and I'll show you a two-year-old.

For 3,300 years, people have read the Bible for insight. That suggests the Bible's answers to life's questions are worth thinking about.

* * *

(6) I'm happy. Why should I get involved with religion?

They say you can never be too rich or too thin (which explains why many people are neurotic and their kids are anorexic). But it probably is true that you can't be too happy or too wise.

Put differently, a business that becomes complacent when things go well won't be in business very long.

* * *

(7) How could a book that's 3,300 years old be relevant to my life?

Ever read Plato? Aristotle? Sophocles? Shakespeare? In Athens, Portland, or cyberspace, life's key challenges haven't changed much in the past several millennia. Classics are timeless whether you wear a ring in your nose, your ear, or your belly button.

* * * (8) Isn't the Bible sexist and patriarchal?


The heart and the brain are different, but each is indispensable, and it's meaningless to ask, "Which is better?" Men and women are different - each has different strengths and weaknesses. Each is indispensable to a complete portrait of being human.

Assuming momentarily that men and women are the same, is reproduction the only reason to marry someone of the opposite gender?

* * *

(9) Isn't religion the cause of great suffering and violence?

Much blood has been shed in the name of religion. But history's sanguinary prize goes to secular zealots, from the French Revolution through Communism and National Socialism.

Violence actually has little to do with religion or with whatever ideological rationalization people offer for killing. It has a lot to do with the need to feel important by standing on someone else's head.

* * *

(10) Aren't the Bible's laws restrictive and oppressive?

Great ballet dancers evince breathtaking grace. But their evident freedom is only achieved through rigorous discipline and training. So too in the realm of the soul - the grace and beauty of true moral character are not forged through sloppy good intentions. They depend on discipline, training and hard work.

* * *

(11) Isn't the Bible authoritarian? Isn't there a conflict between religion and democracy?

The Ten Commandments are not the Ten Suggestions. On the other hand, observance under duress has no moral value. You can lead a cow with a ring in its nose. But you can only lead a human being by appealing to his mind. God asks us to freely submit to His authority.

* * *

(12) Doesn't religion just fill people with guilt?

The Bible actually considers guilt a cheap alternative to real regret and change. If you're walking down the street and discover you have a hole in your pocket, don't stand around feeling guilty. Transfer any remaining coins to the other pocket, and then go on. When you get home, sew up the pocket. Regret and change are useful. Guilt is pointless and destructive.

* * *

(13) Why are religious people so intolerant?

Tolerance means assuming the people you disagree with are honest and well meaning. It doesn't mean all opinions have equal merit or that no one is right. As Dorothy Parker said, "If two people agree, one of them is unnecessary."

It is also crucial to distinguish between loving people and loving all their actions or beliefs.

Rabbi Aryeh Levin lived in Israel during the British Mandate. One Shabbat, he was walking in the streets of Jerusalem when a secular Israeli came toward him, smoking a cigarette.

"My master," said Reb Aryeh, "it's prohibited to smoke on Shabbat."

"I'm not Jewish," said the Israeli.

"Oh my son, don't say that," said Reb Aryeh. "I love you as my own child."

The Israeli paused. "The Rabbi doesn't want me to smoke? I'll put it out."

"Don't put it out," said Reb Aryeh, "just put it down."

"I can't tell the Rabbi I'll never again smoke on Shabbat," said the Israeli, "but this Shabbat, I won't smoke."

* * *

(14) If I'm not perfect, does that mean I'm going to hell?

Alternatively, if I can't keep all the Bible's commandments, is it hypocritical to keep any of them?

Here's a guy with a real head case: The doctor tells him that his health is lousy. "Quit smoking," he says. "Cut down on fat. Exercise. Lose weight."

"I can't do all that," he says, "so what's the point of trying?" He goes out and has a double pastrami cheese melt and washes it down with chewing tobacco.

A sensible guy says, "Doctor, I hear what you're saying. I may not do everything you suggest, but I'll do the best I can."

For the good we do, we'll get reward. For the bad we do, we'll pay a price. Do your best.

* * *

(15) What is the Bible's view of abortion?

The Bible permits killing an unborn child when the mother's life is threatened, whether physically or by extremely severe emotional trauma. (The discovery she is carrying a Tay-Sachs child, for example, might be grounds for abortion.) Absent these circumstances, the Bible views abortion as murder.

Though the miracles of language can turn a "baby" into a "fetus," abortion is not an acceptable form of birth control.

* * * (16) What's really wrong with shrimp? Weren't those laws made because of health?

The commandments sometimes have physical side benefits, but in traditional belief, this is "just the gravy." The real benefit of God's commandments is spiritual. In the case of the dietary laws, this may mean learning boundaries for our appetites, or it may mean discovering we can sanctify the act of eating.

* * *

(17) If the Bible is so great, why have so many people turned away from it?

Lousy education.

* * *

(18) What makes me special? Where do I fit in?

The rules say each of us must forge a relationship with God. Each must give to others. Each is challenged to sanctify and uplift the world.

But each of us has unique assets, and each contributes something unique to the vision of God's presence in the world. Harness your skill-set to the task, and give it all you've got.

* * *

(19) What's the meaning of life?

God created us to have pleasure. Now go study what that means.

* * *

(20) What difference does it make that there's a God?

It means you're not an animated hunk of meat and fat on a rock orbiting the sun. It means you're more than top predator on the food chain.

* * *

(21) If there's a God, why do good people suffer?

In general, why isn't God's presence more obvious?

Inherited wealth is a mixed blessing. Our own achievements are the ones we value most. God is concealed in the world so we can find Him.

Suffering forces us to think more deeply about what really matters. Speaking personally, the most important things I know, I learned through pain.

* * *

(22) If the Jews are the chosen people, why are they so hated?

The Jews are the world's conscience. No one likes a conscience.

* * *

(23) I went to Sunday school and hated it. Why should I learn more now?

Kids love candy, but most gourmet pleasures are acquired tastes. This is true of wine, cheese, cigars, and coffee. Wisdom is an acquired taste.

* * *

(24) Who or what is the Messiah?

The Messiah will be a human being descended from King David. He will unite the Jewish People and lead them back to their relationship with God and Torah. When that occurs, the nations of the world will also acknowledge the truth of God's Law, and then the world will live in peace. (This is the meaning of the prophecy that the wolf will lie down with the lamb.)

* * *

(25) Is the Bible only for Jews? No. The Bible gives non-Jews seven commandments (the Noachide commandments, which establish the basis for a lawful and just society). The Bible gives Jews 613 commandments, relating to the sanctification of every aspect of life. Judaism isn't a closed club of gender or of race. Anyone who wants to share that mission is welcome to join.

* * *

(26) Does the Bible believe in life after death?

Yes. Think of the soul as a lens. Every act - every choice - either polishes the lens or scratches it. When the body dies, the soul remains. If we burnish the soul's lens, the soul's vision of God is glorious and beautiful. That is heaven. If we scratch the lens and occlude it, we obscure the soul's vision forever. The pain of that loss is hell.

* * *

(27) Can you read the Bible if you don't believe in God?

If every time the Bible says "God said ... " your response is "I don't believe that," you won't get much from the experience. You'll find it more meaningful to momentarily suspend belief. Ask yourself, "If there were a God, why would He say this?"


Reprinted from "THE BIBLE FOR THE CLUELESS BUT CURIOUS," a guide to Jewish wisdom for real people. Published by


InnerNet Magazine is published monthly as an on-line digest of fascinating articles from the Jewish world. Topics include relationships, spirituality, personal growth, philosophy, incredible true stories, and special editions for the Jewish holidays.

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