How do you motivate yourself or others to be a religious Jew?
(The above image was generated by the StarryAI artificial intelligence program, after I asked it to create a picture of a man in a synagogue seeking inspiration. Among the concerning aspects of the picture are the number of fingers that he has. I don’t know much about AI art and I’d welcome suggestions as to which program to use!)
What motivates people to observe Jewish law and be part of the Jewish community? It’s usually one or more of the following factors: childhood conditioning, belief that Judaism is true and therefore binding, a sense of responsibility, and because they find benefits in doing so. (If I’ve left anything out, please let me know!)
So how do you motivate other people (or oneself) to be religious? You can try convincing people that Judaism is true. But the problem with this is that many intelligent and intellectually honest people realize that this is naive. There are no intellectual proofs that Judaism is true, not from hyraxes and not from the Kuzari argument; in fact, there are a number of serious challenges.
You can inspire people by talking about such things as the extraordinary history of the Jewish People, the impact of Torah, and personal stories. I think that this is tremendously valuable, and you can find great examples of this approach in the wonderful writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. But while some people (such as myself) draw faith and motivation from such things, it is not necessarily convincing or motivating for other people.
Moreover, even for those who are satisfactorily convinced in the truth of the tenets of Judaism, this does not necessarily translate into actually being a loyal member of the religious community. There are people who are totally certain that God created the universe (and they believe that it happened just a few thousand years ago!) and that He gave the Torah at Sinai, but they are not particularly motivated to observe halacha. This can be a particular problem with teenagers.
The same goes for instilling a sense of responsibility. Some of us feel that the fact that our ancestors committed (and in some cases gave up) their lives for Judaism means that we have an obligation to carry on this commitment. But others just don’t find that to be sufficiently motivational.
Accordingly, it’s valuable to understand how Judaism is actually beneficial. No matter what the source or level of a person’s commitment to Judaism is, that commitment can be strengthened by understanding how observing Torah law and being part of the Jewish community can be of great benefit in numerous ways.
The Torah itself clearly feels that promoting benefits is a valuable way to motivate people - it promises various rewards for keeping mitzvot. And yet we don’t see a clear correlation between mitzvot and reward, or sin and punishment. The Talmud says that Moshe Rabbeinu asked why bad things happen to good people and did not receive an answer. And the Talmud also says that the reward for mitzvot is not received in this world. But I don’t think that we have to ignore the plain meaning of the Torah that we receive reward for mitzvot in this world. Nor do I think that it is necessary to rely on the afterlife in order to understand the benefits of halachic observance.
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his extremely important books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, explains the many benefits of religion and how they come about. Although himself a liberal atheist, he acknowledges that liberal atheism is a weaker framework than conservative religion for creating a happy, moral and successful society. Drawing extensively on his work, I’ll be writing a series of posts (interspersed with posts on other topics) about how religion provides numerous benefits.
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