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The Answer to Bertrand Russell

Many years ago, the Nobel Prize winner, mathematician and thinker, Bertrand Russell, was interviewed by Look Magazine. The topic of the interview was Russell’s well-known position on agnosticism to which he lent his enormous intellectual powers to support.

After many questions were asked and answered (you can read the entire interview in the Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, a Touchstone Book, published by Simon and Shuster), Russell was finally asked, “What kind of evidence would convince you that God exists?” This was his answer:

I think that if I heard a voice from the sky predicting all that was going to happen to me during the next twenty four hours, including vents that would have seemed highly improbable, and if all these events then proceeded to happen, I might perhaps be convinced at least of the existence of some superhuman intelligence. I can imagine other evidence of some sort which might convince me, but as far as I know, no such evidence exists.”

When I read this interview and his response years ago while in college, I was unimpressed then and how much more so now.  I was expecting that he would say something along the lines of: if I heard a voice come from the sky that told me some advanced or revolutionary idea in mathematics or physics that fundamentally changes our understanding of how the universe works: or it told me some great insight into human behavior, some universal principle to live by, then I would be convinced. The great Bertrand Russell gave a very unsatisfying response. Here, the great thinker replied with the same response we would expect from a child: simplistic, narrow minded and self-centered.

This week’s Torah portion, Ve’etchanan, records the event and better evidence than Russell asked for to be convinced of the existence of God. Not only was God’s revelation at Har Sinai a voice from the sky, but it was heard simultaneously by millions of people. And the voice communicated deep and insightful universal principles of life for all mankind. Each command by God is : perfect, refreshing the soul; faithful, making the simple wise; just, gladdening the heart; radiant, giving light to the eyes; pure, enduring forever; true, altogether righteous. (Psalm 19)

Our Torah lays down two challenges: First, Devarim 4:6 “Guard them and do them for it is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples who shall hear all these decrees, they will say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation.’” This statement is telling us that when the decrees, חוקים, mitzvot that seem not to have a reason or make any sense, like not to mix wool and linen in one garment, are explained properly, non-Jews will say “Wow, what a fantastic idea! This Jewish nation has a brilliant way of life.” This reaction should of course occur to us when a true explanation is given to any of our mitzvah. It should parallel that which we have when finally comprehending a law of science.

Second, Devarim 4:32 “Inquire regarding the early days that preceded you, from the day God created man on the earth and from one end of heaven to the other end of heaven. Has there ever been anything like this great thing (the revelation at Sinai) or has anything like it been heard?” Here the Torah is making a remarkable statement. From the time man has been on the earth until this very moment, no other people claim that God spoke to their entire nation at the same time and imparted His wisdom to them. Why not? Because they can’t. It never happened to them.

Not the founders of Christianity or Islam, not the divine right kings of England and France, nor even Hitler, may his memory be erased, all who claimed appointment or communication from God ever said that all the people together with them heard God’s voice declaring such and such. It is impossible because no such thing ever occurred. It only occurred once, to the Jewish nation. Where, at Mt Sinai with the giving of the Aseret Hadibrot, Ten Statements. No such thing would ever occur because the Torah is the true and eternal word of God, “I am God, I do not change.” (Malachi 3:6)

It is unfortunate for the Bertrand Russells of the world that they either didn’t know these facts or didn’t want to consider them because they would hamper their self-made rules. Better evidence than what Russell was looking for exists. But we should never waver in the knowledge and truth of God’s revelation to our ancestors at Mt Sinai. Know that we are not at a loss today that we weren’t alive at that event. We have the same Torah they had, the same principles of life as they were given and the same opportunity today to study them and perfect ourselves as they had.

Let us take comfort in these facts and recommit to fully embracing our Torah way of life

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan