Theodicy

Here is a domain in which the split between philosophy and relationship that we’ve been exploring for the past few posts comes to the fore.I developed a philosophy about theodicy, tzadiq vera lo, why tragedy visits people who live far more righteously than others who seem to be free of it. I explored four different reactions to tragedy, comparing them to the different kinds of tragedy named by chazal, and suggested their role in our lives. See my essay “The Four Sons Confront Tragedy” written uncoincidentally the Pesach after 9/11.

However, when news of the tsunami reached me, I was still devastated. Because I was in downtown Manhattan on 9/11 it became my emotional yardstick for tragedy. I still carry around a huge burden of anger toward the people who perpetrated the attack. Now we’re facing a tragedy that current estimates place at forty times the cost of life, with the real possibility of that number doubling due to the secondary effects of disease and hunger.

How can I not be angry? Or at least overwhelmed, shocked, and confused by my Father’s actions? The words that came to mind were those of Avraham avinu, when he learned of the fate of Sedom and Amora. “Chalilah lekha mei’asos davar kazeh, lehamis tzadiq im rashah — It should be far from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked; Chalilah lekhah, hashofeit kol ha’aratz lo ya’aseh mishpat — that the Judge of the entire world would not do justice.” I wrote something to this effect to an email list. As pointed out to me, and my brain knew this without their help, Avraham didn’t voice his anger after the fact, but was pleading with G-d to avoid the tragedy.

And if our goal in life is to “walk yourself before Me and be whole” then we should be looking to see how everything we witness was intended to be witnessed by us.

But to be satisfied with the explanations means that one is willing to settle for ideas about His existance than actually connected with Him. My response, although certainly inappropriate, was at least a real one. I think that much of the reaction that my comment garnered was from our habit to think about G-d, rather than to truly relate to Him as Beloved, Father and Master (c.f. Yedid Nefesh).

Another problem is that kiruv has focused on our ability to market traditional Judaism rather than our ability to teach it. Not everything can be tied up in a nice bow with a simple and satisfying-sounding answer. First, with respect to effective kiruv, admitting to a student that we simply don’t know is both more honest and more trust-gaining than pretending we have the answers to all the questions. As I wrote in “Four Sons”, tragedy exists to be confronted, not explained away. For much of Judaism, the beauty is in its ability to let us frame the questions meaningfully and productively, not answer them.

Argument by Design ver. 4.0

Ver 1.0:Medrash Temurah:

“G-d created” (Gen. 1:1): A hereic came to Rabbi Aqiva and asked, “Who made the universe?”. Rabbi Aqiva answered, “Haqadosh barukh Hu“. The heretic said, “Prove it to me.” Rabbi Aqiva said, “Come to me tomorrow”.
When the heretic returned, Rabbi Aqiva asked, “What is that you are wearing?”
“A garment”, the unbeliever replied.
“Who made it?”
“A weaver.”
“Prove it to me.”
“What do you mean? How can I prove it to you? Here is the garment, how can you not know that a weaver made it?”
Rabbi Akiva said, “And here is the world; how can you not know that Haqadosh barukh Hu made it?”
After the hereitc left, Rabbi Aqiva’s students asked him, “But what is the proof?” He said, “Even as a house proclaims its builder,a garment its weaver or a door its carpenter, so does the world proclaim the Holy Blessed One Who created it.

One can argue that Rabbi Aqiva’s students realized that his proof was far from rigorous. His reply revolves around giving a parable to make the conclusion self-evident. Not contructing a deductive argument.

Ver 2.0:

The Rambam’s version of the proof in Moreh Nevuchim II invokes the Aristotilian notions of form and substance. We find that without an intellect giving the process a desired end product, natural processes reduce forms from functional to non-functional. People make objects out of metal, nature takes the substance and eventually turns it into a useless lump of rust.

Therefore, the notion of an infinitely old universe is untenable. In an infinite amount of time, all functional forms would have disintegrated.

Ver 3.0:

This is roughly the same argument as the Rambam’s, brought up to date with 19th century thermodynamics. Rather than speaking of functional forms, we recast the question into one of a lack of entropy.

All processes require an increase of entropy. Entropy is simply a fancy word for what boils down to randomness in the small scale. A visible state has more entropy if its molecules are more random. When you spill a drop of ink into water, the ink spreads until it’s all a light blue liquid. Entropy increased. In microscopic terms, the molecules of ink and water started out nearly ordered, with all the ink in one spot at the surface of the water, and ended up an even random mixture of ink and water molecules.

Given an infinitely old universe, entropy would be at a maximum. All of existance would be a thin mixture of nuclear particles, or perhaps hydrogen atoms.

The requirement that entropy increase does not rule out evolution. Entropy could be decreased in the order and design of living beings at the expense of increased randomness elsewhere, say in the arrangement of molecules in the air, or of energy or even a thin stream of atmosphere leaking off the earth. If the increase in entropy offsets the decrease inherent in life, the ledgers are okay.

ver 3.5

In the 20th century science accepted the notion of the Big Bang, and finally realized the universe has a finite age. The challenge shifted from proving the universe has a finite age to proving that the origin shows intent.

The entropy version of the argument can make the transition. By definition, low entropy states are unlikely ones. In fact, Roger Penrose in The Emperor’s New Mind computes just how unlikely. Given the current estimate of 1060 nuclear particles in the universe, the probability of the universe begining in a low entropy state is 1010123. That’s a number so huge, it has 10123 zeros in it!

To assume that the universe shot odds that long is irrational. Clearly the moment of origin wasn’t random, and statistics isn’t a meaningful way to model it.

ver 4.0

However, using information theory we can raise questions about the existance of ordered items, from atoms to stars and solar systems to the evolution of life.

Much has been made of the notion of “irreducible complexity“, introduced by Michael Behe, a biochemist. If some living system requires multiple parts, each of which serve no purpose alone, how did the system evolve? How can the mutations that produce part A be coordinated with those that produce part B? He therefore argued that evolution demonstrates intelligent design, that there is a Designer who is loading the dice, doing that coordination base on his desired end goal.

However, there is also a standard reply. Perhaps the organism had an A’ that was part of a different function, and a B’ used either for this function on its own, or in a third system. Then, as A’ and B’ shifted to make this new system, the new system made the old functions obsolete (e.g. there’s a new means of locomotion, and now the fins are redundant) and A and B emerged to more simply address the new, more efficient, method of solving the need.

Chalmers definition of “information” (as opposed to Claud Shannon’s earlier definition, still used in telecommunication) makes a distinction between two kinds of unpredictability: information and noise.

Take a stream of information. Fortunately people today are pretty well exposed to the notion that any such stream can be transmitted as a sequence of ones and zeros. If there are patterns in that sequence, we can reduce them by simply describing the pattern rather than sending each one. A message that is composed of 10101010… for 1 million bits (spots that could be either 1 or 0) can be sent quite concisely, as something representing (“10″ repeat a million times). One needn’t send 2 million bits to do it. Even if certain sequences of bits are more frequent (such as that representing the word “However” in one of my postings) we can give them a shorthand and sent the sequence in fewer bits. This is how information is compressed in zip files or the advertised 5x speed enhancement on dial up connections. Claude Shannon, the father of Information Theory, defined information in a message as the minimum number of bits (spots that could be either 1 or 0) with which it could be represented. Therefore randomness, which can not be reduced to a description of an algorithm, contains the most information.

John von Neumann, in his seminal speeches on Automata Theory (published as a book in the 1950s), spoke about the information content inherent in a machine. You can compare two machines by looking at the number of bits it would take to describe them. If the machine has fewer parts, it will require fewer bits. Similarly if the parts are simpler. Also, if the parts do not require the same precision in order for the machine to work, one can describe them in fewer bits. von Neumann found that machines below a certain information threashold can only make machines simpler than themselves.

These automata, this interacting collections of parts, is Behe’s irreducibly complex system presented in other terms. And von Neumann usefully gives us a method for measuring them.

As opposed to Claude Shannon’s definition of “information”, G J Chaitin launched a feild called “algorithmic information theory” that gives a generalized version of von Neuman’s measure to define “information”. Randomness comes in two sorts: information that is useful to the message, and noise, the static that garbles it. Information is only that which is necessary to describe the message to the precision necessary to reproduce what it describes.

So how did complex automata, such as life, emerge? Invoking the roll of randomness and evolution, von Neumann argues that proto-life (or the proto-solar system) did not produce the information in the resulting system itself. Information came in from the outside.

That outside information is provided by evolution involves two basic steps: the introduction of mutations, and the filtering process of which mutations survive. Yes, mutations add randomness and Shannon-information to the system. But why would that randomness be Chaitin-information rather than noise? In fact the leading cause of the static on your radio is the very source of many of the mutations that evolution requires — cosmic radiation. It would be like the probability of static just happening to produce the recipe for an award winning pie. (Actually, that’s a huge understatement.) Needless to do the math to show that even in 5 billion years, it just won’t happen.

To make the probabilities more likely, one needs to invoke “survival of the fittest”. It’s not billions of years of distinct rolls of the dice, but the successful rolls are links and combine. The flaw here is a shift in the definition of “successful”. Successful at surviving is not correlated to the notion of being part of an automaton in the future. The evolution of “part A” in some irreducible system is not more likely because it can come from A’, which is useful alone. One needs to also look at the likelihood of A’ arising, the likelihood that it could be reused, that there is a path from one system to another, etc… Since they’re uncorrelated, once you multiply the probabilities together, you couldn’t have improve the odds over simply tossing a coin for each bit.


Which argument is most convincing? Version 4.0, based on math, many models of the cosmology, geology and biology of our origins, but very rigorous, or Rabbi Aqiva’s simple appeal, using a comparison, to show how the point should be self-evident? The ver 1.0, being closest to reducing the claim to a postulate, carries for me the most appeal.Rabbi Aqiva gives us the tools for emunah. Building on that emunah, we can understand it in greater depth, subtlety and beauty using these more formal forms of the argument. But the formality hides the dependence on assumptions from which to reason, not replaces them.

The Kuzari Proof, part II

All proofs require first principles. A proof starts with givens, postulates, and derives a conclusion from them. Regardless of how sound the proof, the conclusion could never be more solid than those givens. In other words, if I want someone to accept my rigorous proof of G-d’s existance, they must first accept all my givens, as well as the validity of each of my implications. Making a proof more rigorous will involve spelling out more givens and more deductive steps. Ironically, getting someone to accept the more rigorous proof requires that the person start out agreeing with more of your perspective, not less.We could ask someone to experience Z and therefore believe Z. Or, to agree that he has grounds from experience to accept X and Y — and don’t X and Y combined imply Z? But if he doesn’t accept X as a given? Well, we can prove X from T and U, and Y from V and W. There is an infinite regress possible, continually trying to prove our first princples. Getting to ever more self-evident statements.Perhaps this is why in practice we are more moved by the experience of a Shabbos than by an argument proving its Divine origin. Even if we accept the argument, we know how many givens we’re not bothering to question. And every once in a while the mind speaks up “But what if…?” There are so many more “if”s to wonder about than if someone builds his faith on his shemiras hamitzvos.

But at some point we rely on postulates, things that are so in consonant with our experience, generalizations from our experience, or things we learned from reliable sources that we don’t require proving. Even in a proof, there is where we begin our proof.

The deeper faith is one in which the principles of Judaism are postulates, not theorems that require proving. If we can, after the fact, gain greater appreciation for them through proof, or understand their implications, connotations are less fundamental details by giving them philosophical treatment, great.

This is what I meant when I wrote that while there is an obligation to engage in machashavah amuqah, emunah itself is a middah — an attitude, not the product of that deliberation.

Just as we rely on information from our senses and generalizations from them to produce postulates about which we reason, we can also rely on mental experience. Einstein’s heavy use of thought-experiments is one example. So is our acceptance of Euclid’s posulate about parallel lines — despite the impossibility of parallel lines of infinite length ever really existing.

Yes, people convince themselves that they had experiences they did not. They can confuse the line between the experience itself and their judgement of it (liking or disliking it, etc…) This is true of mental experiences as well as sensory impressions. We color our memories, often quite profoundly, but we don’t go through life questioning conclusions based on what we recall. Simply, we trust ourselves, particularly after repeated experience. We develop a fear of falling well before we learn anything formal or rigorous about gravity. Why shouldn’t religion be accepted on the same terms?

Proofs have a role in deepening understanding — after the basic principles have been accepted. This is why the Kuzari has much to say philosophically, as long as one’s belief is not on philosophical foundations.

The rejection of deriving Judaism philosophically is not only Rav Yehudah haLevi’s approach. It’s also a central feature of R’ Chasdai Crescas’s objection to the Rambam in Or Hashem.

A final note about other faith communities and their experiences: It’s not really my problem. I shouldn’t need to be able to validate my experiences in the eyes of others before accepting them myself. After reaching that point, I can use philosophy to try to understand questions like this one. Just as the Kuzari does. After invoking the superiority of tradition over philosophical proof, the rabbi does offer rationals. But only after.

The Kuzari Proof, part I

[I later found I had a more formal presentation of this idea in Mesukim MiDevash for Yisro.
This post was updated Apr 18, 2007, with a quote of Luis Ginsberg taken from Hirhurim.]

Rav Yehudah Halevi makes a statement in The Kuzari which is usually taught as follows: No one could invent a story that alleges all of the target’s audience’s ancestors experienced some miraculous or otherwise special event. It is implausible that a lie could be consistently retold by millions. And, the audience’s reaction would be one of disbelief, “Why does he know all about this event, and we never heard of it before from our grandparents?”Since Judaism uniquely makes claims of national miracles and national revelations, events with audiences of millions who are the ancestors of nearly all of the target audience (excepting geirim) this gives Judaism a unique claim to authenticity. The commonality of the story amongst so many and the acceptance of the story by their descendents is unique. (In contrast, Jesus’s alleged miracles were only said to be witnessed by at most the 500 attendees of the wedding at Cana, and the target audience isn’t primarily the descendents of those guests.)

I do not believe this is the Kuzari’s point. But for what it’s worth, this argument is flawed for two reasons:

First, there are counterexamples, other cultures that had myths about their origins that they all believed. For example, the Theban origins myth.

Second, and this may explain how the counterexamples emerged, the assumption is made that the claim is made out of the blue, in a single stroke. It doesn’t account for gradual acceptance of a story. Say something starts out as a myth about a subset of the people, and it’s known to be a bed-time story. The next generation it’s “some say”. Over several generations, it can become “official history” about everyone, with no one generation expressing the disbelief that is critical to this argument.

The reason why I doubt that this is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s intent is because he had the king already approach a philosopher as well as a Christian Scholast, and the king already rejected philosophical proof as unconvincing. The Rabbi provides as a counterpoint to his statement (Kuzari I, par 13), “The Rabbi: That which you describe is religion based on speculation and system, the research of thought, but open to many doubts. Now ask the philosophers, and you will find that they do not agree on one action or one principle, since some doctrines can be established by arguments, which are only partially satisfactory, and still much less capable of being proved.”

In other words, the Rabbi’s basis for belief is not one based on “speculation and system”. It’s not philosophical proof. Reducing his words to an argument of the style described above defeats the whole point Rav Yehudah haLevi is trying to make! As he later writes (par 63), “There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Grecians, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.”

The Kuzari can be seen as a response to Rav Saadia Gaon’s “Emunos veDei’os”, “The Guide for the Perplexed”, “The Ikkarim” and other such philosophical text. Rav Yehudah haLevi rejected the entire tendency of placing Jewish belief on Greek Philosophical underpinnings.

Instead, he says that Judaism is unquestionable for the Jew because it is our heritage.

What is being mistaken for the above proof is the Rabbi’s argument to the king, who didn’t yet accept this heritage as his own, and needs to assess that entire choice. But not the approach advocated for a Jew.

I see a kindred — but still very different — approach in existential thought.

One of my signature files, the only one that’s a self-quote, reads, “The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached.” This echoes the King of the Kazar’s objection, that for any philosophical position justified by argument, there are conflicting opinions whose adherents claim equally valid arguments.

The Kiruv Movement is not founded on philosophical dispute. The most effective kiruv tool is the experience of a Shabbos. People do not accept the proofs of G-d and the Divine origin of the Torah and halakhah and therefore keep Shabbos. Rather, they experience Shabbos, get first-hand experience of the power of halakhah, and based on that believe in the authenticity of the Torah and its own claims about its origin.

In addition to the experience of performing mitzvos, Torah study too has this defining characteristic. Torah has an elegance one finds in the most “beautiful” of mathematical proofs despite tackling concepts far less simply defined. A discussion of the laws of theft could explain a seemingly unrelated point in the laws of Shabbos with a single theory (sevarah) uniting both.

I should be clear that I’m not speaking of the emotional reaction of liking Shabbos. Rather the experience of Shabbos, the first-hand but internal to the mind qualia of Shabbos, that that reaction is based upon. It is as real and as objective as the experience seeing a ball. And just as I unquestioningly accept that a ball is red if I see that it’s red. I similarly accept the reality of Shabbos.

To extend this metaphor: What if many of us see the ball as red, but others, perhaps even a far larger group, insist they see it and it’s blue? Would their claims shake my faith in my own group’s perception, or would I trust my own eyes? (Assuming they work in general.) Why would the claims of another faith community (even the community whose faith is agnosticism or atheism) shake my belief in Torah?

Torah is based on first-hand experience of Torah, not on its “principles of faith”. My belief in those principles is because they explain that which was experienced, not the other way around.

Rabbi Prof. Shalom Carmy posted something similar to Avodah:

People who throw around big words on these subjects always seem to take for granted things that I don’t.

The people who keep insisting that it’s necessary to prove things about G-d, including His existence, seem to take it for granted that devising these proofs is identical with knowing G-d.

Now if I know a human being personally the last thing I’d do, except as a purely intellectual exercise, is prove his or her existence.

R’ Gil Student posted the following quote from Louis Jacobs, We Have Reason to Believe, pp. 25-26, 28-30 on Hirhurim:

Since Kant, these proofs [of God's existence] have been heavily assailed…. Many theologians, nowadays, accept the validity of these refutations and admit that there can be no proof of God in the sense that there can be no proof of a mathematical formula… But they go on to remark that we can be convinced of a thing beyond of a shadow of a doubt by means other than that of mathematical proof. There is no such proof, for instance, of the existence of other human beings beside ourselves, yet we are convinced that they do exist… In other words a distinction must be drawn between proof and conviction — proof is one of the ways to conviction but there are other ways, too…

Many have arrived at this conviction as the result of a personal experience which convinces them that God exists. These men would rule out of court the very discussion of whether God exists, for, they would say, if a man is truly in love he does not ask himself if he is in love. The experience of God’s Presence is sufficient…

Other thinkers, again, hold that though each of the traditional proofs in itself is unconvincing, taken together they are convincing… Granted that the proofs carry no weight as evidence, they are indications and as such have the power of supplementing each other…

What it all amounts to is this, that while the existence of God cannot be proved if we start from the beginning, none of us do, in fact, start from the beginning. We are presented with two alternative beliefs about the ultimate reality and we have to choose between them. According to one view God exists–it is He Who created us, Who fashioned our minds and implanted the moral sense within us so that we are capable of recognising beauty, truth and goodness and fighting ugliness, falsehood and evil. In this view the difficulty is how to account for the existence of evil. According to the other view there is no God… In this view the difficulties are how mind came from matter, how life emerged where there was no life before, how the universe itself came into being, how the good is possible of realisation and how man came to strive for it–how man as a tiny part of the universe came to pass judgment on it?

Judaism neither stands on proof nor ought to be about proof. (In this approach. Obviously R’ Saadia Gaon et al disagreed.) Rather, it stands on our having a relationship with Hashem and His Torah.

This goes back to my position, described in the entry “Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah“, that emunah is not an intellectual indeavor, but a middah. Emunah is the response to an experience, machshavah is the development of a philosophy based on that emunah to give it enough detail to add further meaning to that experience, aid in decision making, etc…

It also presumes that someone takes experience of the non-empirical to be as strong of an argument as those of the empirical world. A conclusion implied by the first part of “The Troubles of Relativism“.

Psychology and Mussar

The story so far from the previous two entries:
Contemporary western society puts its trust in science to the extent that things outside its domain are assumed to have a lesser reality. The current stance toward morality is therefore one of uncertainty, which is paraded as the virtues of tolerance and relativism. It also means that instead of lauding free will as the ability to choose to be good, the west values it as an end in itself. There is no common moral code, since morality is perceived as only “true for” a given person, not absolutely real the way gravity is. This then translates into America’s oft-copied rights-based legal system, one in which the law’s only goal is protecting rights, rather than one based on duties to serve a higher goal.This disbelief in an absolute moral standard also shapes the self-help and psychology industries. The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM IV is a guide to diagnosing mental illness. Its definition of illness is that which interferes with the person’s function. IOW, the goal of psychology is to help a person gain the internal freedom to be what they desire to be. Not to align those desires to some particular, more productive goal.The following is from my notes taken of R’ Ephraim Becker’s lecture at the Mussar Kallah in Houston (2-May-04).

Self-help addresses (1) loss of productivity; and (2) personal pain. In Torah (including Mussar) we’d call these yisurim (trevails). But Mussar wouldn’t want you to attack yisurim. Yisurim are triggers, part of the solution. They aren’t the things that need changing, they are causes to get up and change something. Mussar adds to self-help the notion of duty. One doesn’t try to eliminate yisurim, but their causes — which reside in flaws in our ability to carry out our mission.

Self-help, tries to eliminate the bumps in life’s paths, eliminate the restrictions of one’s autonomy. Mussar, being about growth as a Jew, sees them as tools.

One presumes that the person is his own best moral guidepost, and therefore the unwanted in one’s life is certainly appropriate to eliminate. The other is based on the idea that the Torah describes for us an absolute objective morality. It’s our job to study that terrain and live by ever-improving maps of it as we learn more over time. Problems in our lives wake us up to inconsistencies in that map.

Miriam Adahan’s EMETT is “Emotional Maturity Established Through Torah”. Its goal is not to find the Torah’s definition of the emotional ideal. It’s to help someone with a Torah-based lifestyle find “emotional maturity”. The goal is defined by the zeitgeist, as are nearly all of her tools (despite the words “established through Torah” in the acronym). Similarly, Rabbi Avraham Twersky’s variant of the 12-Step approach is self-help, not Mussar.

I don’t see this as an inherently negative goal. The self-help movement is to my mind a positive thing. But it’s not Mussar. In both cases of the Orthodox writers I named, they believe in the Torah ideal, that there is an absolute goal to which one should be working. However, they keep it distinct from their psychological advice. (With the exception of citing traditional Jewish texts to make their points.) The approach is more that one first strives through self-help and psychology to be a fully productive being, then one applies that increased productivity to being a good and happy Jew.

Mussar is truly a synthesis — fully religion and fully psychology. It’s not psychology as a precursor to being able to live a religious life, but shaping oneself into an eved Hashem. Mussar is the approach to Judaism in which the self-improvement is a defining feature of the Judaism. Inseparable. One is improving oneself not simply in order to be able to reach the spiritual goal, but because that very goal is to constantly “shteig” (Yiddish: climb) as they’d say in Slabodko.

(Because of this relationship, it’s possible for Mussar to use self-help techniques — and still pursuing a distinctly different goal. R’ Leffin of Satanov can adapt Benjamin Franklin’s diaries to produce Cheshbon Hanefesh, and perhaps Rav Dessler’s notes on tolerance are based on a Reader’s Digest version of “How to Win Friends and Influence people” by Dale Carnegie. But they were put into drastically different use. Not merely “how to win friends” but how to embody gemillus chassidim (supporting kindness) and mitzvos bein adam lachaveiro (mitzvos between a person and his peer). Even the very title, giving it a value in aiding you produce (“winning friends” “influencing people”) rather than a moral goal, speaks volumes about the difference between self-help and mussar.

Psychology is internal work. Without an anchor in an external value system, its goals tend toward the narcissistic. Mussar is entirely about living in step with the true moral terrain of creation. Therefore, while it too is internal work, it doesn’t end there. The shteiging is to improve relationships that bridge outward from you by improving the one thing in your control – yourself.

Very existentialist. The ideal is to be striving for the ideal. The constant process of becoming, rather than to statically be.

The Troubles of Relativism

Science has proven a fundamental boon in comtemporary culture. To the extent that the word “fact” has taken on two meanings: a single true idea, and something which can be verified experimentally. Thus blurring the reality, the truth, of the non-empirical. What can’t be proven to others is presumed to be less true, or “true for him” — the one who had the experience — alone.As an Orthodox Jew, I believe in an absolute Truth. G-d exists, whether or not I can prove the fact experimentally or even if I can’t prove it in any way shape or form. That’s an absolute truth, not simply true for me.Similarly, the existance of my mind: either I have a mind or I don’t. The fact that I can never share my mental life with another person doesn’t change that. Artificial Intelligence experts tend to discuss the “Turing Test”. The idea is that rather than create a computer that has a mind, if we can create a computer whose output can’t be distinguished from a person’s, we have succeeded. That would be in itself an admirable acheivement. However, it must not be confused with the original goal of actually creating an intelligence. Yes, I can only assume that other people are like me and have minds based on their behavior. Yes, there is no way to disprove sollipsism. But still, there either is a mind or there isn’t. The unanswerability of the question doesn’t make the answer less real. Just less knowable.There’s a saying that the scientist is climbing a cliff, and someday he will reach the top only to find the theologian is already there. I read in an e-zine the suggestion that he would then continue his climb, confusing the theologian with being more cliff, only to find nothing. I think we’ve had so much success with our hammers that we’ve denied the reality of everything but nails.

There is also an absolute moral standard. People may be more or less aware of this standard, but there is one “out there”. People deal with maps of the terrain, some maps closer to reality, some further. Again, I may not be able to prove which is closer, but that doesn’t make the terrain less real.

Moral relativism is really a lack of belief in the reality of any moral position. Uncertainty parading as virtue.

As Orthodox Jews, we should resist the current tendency in language toward relativism. The dictionary defines a fact as an item of truth. If people do not also use it to mean “an fact that was demonstrated experimentally” they keep their own thoughts clearer, as well as slow the pace of society’s drift.

(This entry is not really an end in itself. It’s a prelude to one on “Rights and Duties” and another on “Psychology and Mussar”.)

Love, part II

If we look at the portrayal of the avos, both in their relationships with Hashem and with their families, I believe you find three distinct models for loving relationships.

Avraham is noted by Chazal for being a baal chessed, for being generous, giving. As we saw in part I, this is in imitation of G-d. The purpose of creation (to the extent that we can know the mind of G-d) is to provide Hashem a recipient to whom to give. I would like to suggest that for Avraham, love was not primarily expressed by giving to the beloved, but by giving of oneself to further the beloved’s goals. This is also how Chazal portray the relationship between Avraham and Sarah. “‘And the soul[s] which they made in Charan’ — he brought the men close [to G-d], she brought the women.” A couple sharing a common dream. This kind of love is described in words Antoine Saint-Expaury places in the mouth of “The Little Prince”, “Life has taught us that love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

However, the word ahavah only appears once in the naarative of Avraham’s life. “Take your son, your only one, asher ahavta, whom you love, Yitzchaq” to the aqeidah. The word itself first appears in a relationship to Yitzchaq. And in fact, when we get to Yitzchaq the word appears often. When he takes Rivqah into his home, “… and he took Rivkah, and she was for him a wife, vaye’ehaveha, and he loved her…” In their relationship to their sons, “Vaye’ehav Yitzchaq, and Yitchaq loved Eisav, for he hunted with his mouth, veRivqa oheves, and Rivqah loves Yaaqov.” (BTW, note the change in tense: Yitzchaq loved Eisav, but Rivqah loves Yaaqov.) At giving the berakhah, Yitzchaq asks Eisav to bring him sweets “ka’asher ahavti, the way I love”, and Rivqah tells Yaaqov that she will make Yitzchaq those sweets “ka’asher aheiv, the way he loves.”

Yitzchaq’s love was more straightforward. It was giving to the beloved. That’s why it warrants explicit use of the term ahavah rather than letting it remain implied. Avimelekh knew that Yitzchaq and Rivqah were spouses when he saw him “metzacheiq es Rivqah ishto”, making her laugh or perhaps otherwise acting intimately. (Not sexually, as this was in public.) The word-playused in the Torah, “Yitzchaq” and the more rare usage of “metzacheiq”, gives us a sense that this behavior is inherent to what it is to be a Yitzchaq.

When Rivqah arrived at Avraham’s home, Yitzchaq was returning from prayer. He went “lasu’ach basadeh, to talk in the field”. The word “lasu’ach” is not the usual one for prayer. The mishnah uses the root to caution us “Al tarbeh sichah im ha’ishah, don’t overly engage in sichah with women.” Sichah has a connotation of flirting; Yitzchaq’s prayer was one of flirting with G-d.

When we get to Yaaqov, we find a synthesis of the two. Yaaqov’s avodas Yashem is identified with “titen emes leYaaqov, give truth to Yaaqov”, “veYaaqov ish tam yosheiv ohalim, and Yaaqov was a pure/whole man, who dwelled in tents” and chazal add: in tents of study. Yaaqov worshipped G-d by studying what was known so far of His Torah, by trying to understand him. This love through understanding the other is also what we find at the end of his life, when Yaaqov blesses each son according to that son’s personal strengths and weaknesses. This focus on the essence of the individual might be how Yaaqov succeeded keeping all of his sons within the proto-Jewish fold, while Avraham and Yitzchaq only were able to succeed with one of their sons.

Yaaqov’s love is unconditional. It’s getting beyond the beloved’s behavior to the essence of the beloved underneath. Loving someone just for who they are. This directly bores through the barrier between “me” and “him” (again, see part I), even that of the barrier the beloved himself put up. You therefore naturally give to the other the way you provide for yourself. And, by knowing what the person truly stands for and aspires to, perhaps better than the beloved does himself, you share in their dreams and work together toward them.

Love, part I

Rav SR Hirsch relates the word ahavah (love) /ahb/ to the roots /hbh/ meaning “offer” and /hbb/, “bring forth”. To love is to give.In his Kunterus haChesed, Rav Dessler writes a truth fundamental to Mussar. We think of giving as an expression of love, but moreso giving is the cause of love. There’s a famous story of Rav Yisrael Salanter that makes this point.

One time Rav Yisrael was riding by train from Kovno to Vilna. He was sitting in a smoking car, smoking a cigar. (This was the 19th century, smoking wasn’t known to be a dangerous vice.) A young fellow boarded and sat near him. The man complained, yelling at him about the smell of the cigar and the thickness of the smoke. Bystanders tried to quiet him, pointing out that if he didn’t want the smoke, the man could move to a non-smoking car. Rav Yisrael Salanter put out the cigar, and opened the window to clear the air. A minute later, the man slammed the window closed, screaming at Rav Yisrael for letting the cold air in. Rav Yisrael apologized to the young man, and turned his attention to a seifer.

When they reached Vilna, crowds of people had come to the train to greet the elderly sage, the great Rav Yisrael Salanter. The man was mortified when he realized who it was he had offended through the entire train ride. He went to the home where Rav Yisrael was staying to beg forgivenes. Rav Yisrael was gracious in granting it. A trip, after all, can make you edgy. He asked the man why he came to Vilna. It turns out he was looking for a letter from a rav to help him get started as a shocheit. Rav Yisrael made a connection for the man, contacting his son-in-law, Rav Elya Lazer, asking him to give the man the test.

He failed it, badly. For the next several weeks, Rav Yisrael taught him the laws himself, and arranged teachers and tutors for the more hands-on skills of shechitah. After retaking the test, he earned Rav Elya Lazer’s letter of approbation. Then, Rav Yisrael Salanter continued to help, contacting communities until he could find the man a job.

The shocheit was ready to leave Vilna. He came to Rav Yisrael with a question. He could understand how Rav Yisrael, the founder of a movement that teaches a focus on middos, was able to forive him. But why did you then commit your next few weeks to helping me so much?

Rav Yisrael explained. It’s easy to say “I’m sorry.” However, how do you know that deep down you really forgive the person, that you’re not bearing a deep-seated grudge? Deep down in his heart, Rav Yisrael was not so sure. Therefore he had to help the aspiring When you help another person, you develop a love for them.

This idea is akin to one Rav Shimon Shkop makes in the introduction to Shaarei Yosher. The Torah says, “You shall love your friend as yourself.” Notice the Torah’s ideal is not the impossible goal of destroying one’s love of self. This is why Hillel states in the negative, “That which you hate, do not do to others.”

It is easy to provide for one physical needs — it’s driven by strong personal desire. Slightly loftier than that is caring for our emotional or even spiritual beings. We also freely give to our children, who we intuitively see as extensions of our selves. Similarly, we give to our immediate family. Someone truly generous extends their sense of “self” to include their entire community, the Jewish People, or even the world.

This is the meaning Rav Shim’on gives Hilel’s enigmatic mishnah: If I am not for me, who is for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? If I am not for my greater self, my entire “me and mine” which in the ideal includes all of humanity, who will be? And when I am for atzmi, my inner core self (etzem is both “core” and “bone”) with no bridges beyond myself, what am I?

According to Rav Shimon, the key to giving is not negating the self, but the exact reverse — extending the notion of self to realize our unity with others. Love, a sense of unity, is intimately tied to giving. By giving we create a love for others because giving is an expression of our realization of that unity for others.

In part II, I hope to discuss the avos, Avraham, Yitzchaq and Yaaqov, as archetypes of distinctly different expressions of love.