In an exploration of traditional Jewish belief, Moshe Koppel explores the worldview of “Shimen,” an archetypal figure based on someone Koppel knew in his youth. Growing up in an East European ḥasidic community, Shimen came to America after the Shoah, in which his two children were murdered by the Nazis. Koppel writes:
[Shimen’s] beliefs . . . are thoroughly internalized. . . . Shimen’s belief is emotional not intellectual, though if you insist that he expound on his belief, he’ll trot out the standard story, the one he learned in ḥeder, [about the revelation at Sinai and so forth]. But the truth is that he hasn’t the slightest interest in exploring the veracity of any of the historical claims on which his most basic commitments ostensibly rely.
To understand why this is so, we need to understand the relationship between his internalized belief and his assent to the claims surrounding it. Think of it this way. Shimen loves his [murdered] children, Leibele and Chaya Sara. He remembers them as sweet and innocent and wise beyond their years, almost angelic. The specific representation of them that he holds in his memory allows him to focus his love on actual human beings. But were they actually as angelic as he chooses to remember them? Were they never cranky or ornery, foolish or immature? Perhaps Shimen should undertake archival research and interviews of surviving neighbors to replace his fond memories of Leibele and Chaya Sara with more accurate ones? I hope you see how utterly idiotic this is.
Shimen doesn’t love his children because they were angelic; he recalls them as angelic because he loves them. And recalling them this way only intensifies his love, and his longing, for them. Similarly, Jewish belief is only coherent and meaningful to those already committed to the Jewish way of life, who experience its vitality viscerally. For those who experience Jewish life as instinctively as Shimen, assent to codified Jewish belief might frame and intensify the experience, but it is not the basis for that experience. And subjecting the claims [of Jewish belief] to historical analysis makes as much sense to him as subjecting his memories of his children to historical analysis.