Chabad at Stanford
Wisdom Center
Judaism: A Faith of Waves and Particles Bookmark and Share
Judaism: A Faith of Waves and Particles
By: Herman Wouk

Secular thinkers are far from helpless in the face of this odd fact, which is all they will grant it to be.

Historians and social scientists, speculating on the staying power of our people, all converge on the one element of our life that marks us off from other nations: the Mosaic law. In the religious legislation by which we have lived so long, the modern mind finds an institutional system, a web of habits of thought and conduct, remarkably calculated to enable a small nation, even when fragmentized among other nations, to go on existing against all odds, under all possible adversity, from millennium to millennium.

The traditional view starts at the other end, as it were. It holds that the survival system is the law of God, the law is to be obeyed because it is the will of God, and the eternal people survives by the grace of God. All the lore of our folk, exploring and defining Judaism, begins with this concept, ends with it, and burns steadily with it.

The rational man prefers to construct his theory of Judaism out of the plain visible facts: the strange durability of the Jews, the stature and power of the Bible, the important Hebrew strain in Western culture. He leaves out God as a fact, but is willing to admit him as a work of human imagination, an element in the Jewish problem like other elements. He traces in Hebrew law certain resemblances to ancient Semitic legislation which indicate that the general time and place of its origins are what the tradition says they are. He concedes differences in the Jewish law: its literary grandeur, its charge of moral light, and its striking survival scheme. He concedes no more.

The traditional view has lasted thirty centuries. It has heaped-up knowledge and natural authority of an old com­munity wisdom. To hear a learned rabbi expound the Torah, and then to read a rationalist appraisal of Judaism, is a little like the descent from hearing a Mozart opera to reading the next day's criticisms. The chief claim of the skeptical view is that it is up-to-date, scientific, nearer the truth. It holds the religious view, for all its accumulated resources and majestic structure, to be naive; a dream, albeit a charming, durable, well-wrought dream. The religious thinker regards this as the lifeless estimate of an uninformed outsider. And there the matter stands.

And there, for the moment, can we let it stand? It is an old stable dilemma; we are not likely to resolve it with more words on one side or the other. Perhaps we can take our lead from the mental heroes of our time, the physicists. They tell us that light acts in some ways that make sense only as a kind of wave action, while other effects prove light is a stream of particles. This could be a paralyzing dilemma. But the physicists, with the cheerful horse sense that distinguishes the modern mind, use combinations of the wave and particle theories to work their experiments as they labor toward a clearer idea of the truth; reserving final judgment, and pursuing their tasks with the best knowledge in hand.

That is what we can do here. I am sketching Judaism for those who want to know about it, whatever the source of their curiosity. We will not part company over our theories about the mystery. The light of this faith has burned longer than any other. It is the oldest living religious light, the source of Western religion, and even of the ethical humanism which proposes to discard religion. This light challenges our study. We can study it together, whether you call it waves or particles - or an odd mixing of both.