Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I was watching this incredible video of an underwater volcano explosion, and it reminded me of an incident that occurred to me a few years ago, one chol hamoed, back when I was still pretty frum. I had gone to visit the Soreq Caves near Jerusalem. These are caverns with incredible stalagmite and stalactite formations that have built up over hundreds of thousands of years from the slowly dripping minerals. (According to wikipedia, the drip rate is approximately .005 inches / year. At that rate, it would take around 2,400 years for just one foot to build up!)

One nice thing that the frum world does is that people are always encouraged to seek out the natural beauty in the world, being that they consider it a testament to the handiwork of the creator. So witnessing this magnificent natural beauty really moved me. It truly was an awe-inspiring sight. But then the guide told us an interesting tidbit: up until only a few years ago, no human had ever laid eyes on these caves because they were entirely sealed off to the world. They were only discovered because of excavation blasting that was being done for a construction project. Surprisingly, hearing this detail had an unexpected effect upon me. It just made no sense whatsoever - if god wants us to marvel in his beautiful creation, why would he have kept this treasure hidden away from the world all this time? I was really thrown off by this piece of information.

This issue continued to bother me as I saw more and more of these fantastic formations, each more stunning than the last, and I tried coming up with some plausible resolution to my dilemma. The best answer I could muster was that god had chosen to save this cave for our generation, and I should be grateful for this 'gift' that was denied to everyone but us. Kind of like getting exclusive entry to a prestigious art gallery. It was an answer, but it didn't really satisfy my discontent.

I'm not saying that this incident caused me to stop believing in god, or that as result of it, any dramatic changes occurred in my life. I probably went home, forgot about it within a short time, and my life continued pretty much the same way.

But it did definitely affect me. Like so many other similar incidents that I encountered. Every one of those experiences, regardless of how trivial they were, caused another chink in the armor of my faith. When people ask me what caused me to stop believing it all (an entirely different, though not unrelated, question than 'why did I leave frumkeit?'), I usually have a hard time answering that well. This partly explains why - it's hard to pinpoint any one specific idea that thoroughly changed my view. In fact, I don't think that there really ever was one. Rather, like the accretion of minerals that formed these amazing structures, it was a slow and steady accumulation of countless small experiences, incidents, conversations, and personal revelations that finally tipped the scale of my belief towards a more skeptical worldview.

It's kind of ironic though, how seeing god's beauty can contribute to losing faith in him.

Photo credit: flickr user Sagipolley


Larry Lennhoff said...

I think your reaction may have been magnified by the general ahistoricity of the frum world.

Growing up as a secular Jew, the notions that things change and progress, usually for the better, was fundamental to my world view. It made sense to me that Hashem gave laws about slavery in the torah - slavery was part of the culture of that time period, and the laws made slavery more bearable than the institution say, in the American south. And of course those laws aren't applicable today - we understand today that slavery is fundamentally wrong, and therefore the laws are inactive.

Similarly the idea that Hashem gives each generation their own new ways to see examples of His greatness also makes intuitive sense to me. Advances in physics are the same way - I can appreciate that the fact that 80% of the Universe is dark matter or dark energy is a physical allegory of Hashem's hidden love for us. Rambam (or Chazal :>))couldn't appreciate that, because he humanity hadn't discovered that bit of physics yet.

Rabba bar bar Chana said...

While I understand your feelings were real, I don't agree with your analysis. The universe God created is magnificent. It's only a "bishvili nivra ha-olam" hashkafa that assumes that all the beauty in the universe was meant to be seen by human beings.

I guess it begs the philisophical question - is beauty still beauty if no one is there to say "that's beautiful"?

The Hedyot said...

> ...humanity hadn't discovered that bit of physics yet.

I had obviously known this idea already, and understood that certain discoveries were granted to certain generations, and that this fact didn't impinge on god's greatness at all.

I think that possibly the reason that the caves impacted me in that way is that unlike the discovery of some mechanism of nature, like an intricate biological process or an elegant rule of physics, these caverns didn't seem to serve any real purpose, other than as a purely ornamental addition to god's world. And what would be the point of making something who's whole purpose was to be admired for its beauty if people couldn't see it?

G*3 said...

Larry, there are situations where it is not merely permissible to take slaves, but mandatory.

As for giving each generation their own way to see examples of His greatness, that's a pretty new phenomenon. until very recently scientific discoveries were few and far between, and generations could pass without any changes in the way we understood the world.

Here's an interesting question. Why do people find rock formations beautiful?

Rabba bar bar Chana said...

That assumes that everything in creation must serve a specific purpose.

I believe in God and I believe he set the universe in motion, but didn't specifically create every atom. The universe evolved.

I agree that if you were taught in Yeshiva that God had a specific intent for everything in the universe that the real world presents a problem.

Anonymous said...

I've often thought that the reason why today we are privy to see so many things previous generations couldn't even imagine was to make up for all the pollution and lack of space we (esp. in the city) have to deal with.

Anonymous said...

It had to be hidden in order to evolve into the masterpiece that it became. If it was visable it wouldn't have been able to evolved.

Anonymous said...

Probably because you hadn't learned the concept of an ecology yet

Hasidic Rebel said...

I get your overall point of how apparently small and insignificant matters slowly chipped away at your faith. But this particular line of reasoning seems faulty:

"these caverns didn't seem to serve any real purpose, other than as a purely ornamental addition to god's world."

You seemed to claim authority to know the purpose of all natural phenomena; very presumptuous, if I may say so.

Michael said...

I love your posts. Great writing.

Anonymous said...

You obviously were mistaken