Why are there poor people

The gemara tells a story on Bava Basra 10a:

שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר”ע: אם אלהיכם אוהב עניים הוא, מפני מה אינו מפרנסם?
א”ל: כדי שניצול אנו בהן מדינה של גיהנם.
א”ל: [אדרבה!] זו שמחייבתן לגיהנם. אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שכעס על עבדו, וחבשו בבית האסורין, וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו, ושלא להשקותו. והלך אדם אחד, והאכילו והשקהו. כששמע המלך, לא כועס עליו? ואתם קרוין עבדים, שנאמר …
אמר לו ר”ע: אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה. למלך בשר ודם שכעס על בנו, וחבשו בבית האסורין, וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו ושלא להשקותו. והלך אדם אחד והאכילו והשקהו. כששמע המלך לא דורון משגר לו ואנן קרוין בנים, דכתיב …
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: If your G-d is a lover of the poor, why doesn’t he support them financially?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: To save us through them from the decree of gehennom.
[Turnus Rufus] said to him: On the contrary! This is what will obligate you in gehennom. I will give you a parable of what this thing is similar to. To a king of flesh and blood who gets angry at his servant, and throws him into jail, commanding about him that he not be fed nor given drink. Then one person cam and gave him food and drink. When the king heard of this wouldn’t he be angry over it? And you are called “servants”, as it says…
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: I will give you a parable of what this thing is similar to. To a king of flesh and blood who gets angry at his son, and throws him into jail, commanding about him that he not be fed nor given drink. Then one person cam and gave him food and drink. When the king heard of this wouldn’t he give the man a gift for it? And we are called “children”, as it is written…

This story is part of a pattern. In Medrash Tanchuma (Tzaria, Buber #7, Warsaw: second half of #5) Turnus Rufus acts another question of Rabbi Aqiva:

ביום השמיני ימול בשר ערלתו (ויקרא יב ג). אין כתיב כאן שיוציא הוצאות, ראה כמה ישראל מחבבין את המצות, כמה הן מוציאין הוצאות כדי לשמרן, אמר הקב”ה אתם משמחין את המצות, אף אני אוסיף לכם שמחה, שנאמר ויספו ענוים בה’ שמחה (ישעיה כט יט).
שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר’ עקיבא איזה מעשים נאים של הקב”ה או של בשר ודם.
א”ל: של בשר ודם נאים.
א”ל טורנוסרופוס הרשע: הרי השמים והארץ יכול אתה לעשות כהם?
א”ל ר’ עקיבא: לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות, שאין שולטין בהן, אלא בדברים שהן מצויין בבני אדם.
א”ל: למה אתם מולים?
א”ל: אף אני הייתי יודע שאתה עתיד לומר לי כן, לכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך “מעשה בשר ודם הם נאים משל הקב”ה.” הביאו לי שבולים וגלוסקאות.
[אמר לו: אלו מעשה הקב"ה ואלו מעשה בשר ודם. אין אלו נאים?
הביאו לי] אנוצי פשתן וכלים מבית שאן.
א”ל: אלו מעשה הקב”ה, ואלו מעשה בשר ודם. אין אלו נאים?
א”ל טורנוסרופוס: הואיל הוא חפץ במילה, למה אינו יוצא מהול ממעי אמו?
א”ל ר’ עקיבא: ולמה שוררו יוצא בו, לא תחתוך אמו שוררו. ולמה אינו יוצא מהול? לפי שלא נתן הקב”ה לישראל את המצות אלא כדי לצרף בהן. לכך אמר דוד  “אמרת ה’ צרופה וגו’ (תהלים יח לא).
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Aqiva: Which acts are more pleasant, those of the Holy One, or those of flesh and blood?
[R' Aqiva] said to him: Those of flesh and blood are [more] pleasant.
Turnus Rufus the wicked said to him: Behold heaven and earth — can you make anything like them?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: Do not talk to me about something which is beyond creatures [to do], which they do not have mastery of them, but of things that exist among people.
He said to him: Why do you circumcise?
He said to him: I even knew you were going to say to me something llike this, therefore I preempted and said to you “the acts of fless and blood are more pleasant than those of the Holy One.
[Then R' Aqiva said to the staff:] Bring me sheaves and cakes.
He said to him: These [sheaves] are the Holy One’s work, and these [cakes] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
[Again R' Aqiva asked of the staff:] Bring me flax stalks and [linen] garments from Beis She’an.
He said to him: These [stalks] are the Holy One’s work, and these [fine garments] are made by people. Are they not more pleasant?
Turnus Rufus said to him: Since [G-d] wants circumcision, why doesn’t [the baby] emerge circumcised from the mother’s womb?
Rabbi Aqiva said to him: And why his umbilical cord emerge with him, if his mother were not to cut his umbilical cord? Why doesn’t he emerge [already] circumcised? Because the Holy One only gave Israel the mitzvos in order to be refined by them. That is why David said, “the speech of G-d refines” (Tehillim 18:31)

In the Timeaas (36c-d) Plato concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

Aristotle thought that time was a quality of change. Not that things change in time, but that change and motion have a property, the time in which they occur.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. And this is Turnus Rufus’s worldview. A universe that would be roughly the same a millennium after his death as it was since time immemorial. And so if Hashem wanted the poor to have want they need, or babies to be circumcised, it would only be reasonable for Him to make them that way.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. (See also the roles and language of cyclic and linear time “Miqeitz: Time and Process“.)

Because Turnus Rufus’s worldview didn’t include the notion of time as a progression, he conceived of the ideal universe as a perfect one. Rabbi Aqiva explained that the ideal universe is not one that is in any one moment perfect, but one that is constantly progressing to the ideal. And it’s such a universe Hashem created.

Similarly the Divine Ideal is infinite. A human, being finite, cannot ever be close to it. In fact, the most transcendent thing about people is our very ability to transcend. Hashem loves the poor, and He considers the circumcised male to be closer to perfection. For that matter, babies are more complete after the umbilical cord is cut by another person — and Turnus Rufus couldn’t argue about that. Hashem could have made a world in which people could have bread, fine clothes, even computers with their web browsers, without human effort. But better than a world without poverty or one where babies are born perfect is a world where people can make ourselves, can progress.

Kosher, Tahor, Qadosh

The pasuq (still in parashas Re’eih) discusses the various species of kosher and non-kosher mammals (Devarim 14:3-8), marine animals (v. 9-10), and flying creatures (v. 11-20). And the terminology is that this species is tamei, whereas that is tahor.

Then, in the final pasuq (14:21):

לֹא תֹאכְלוּ כָל נְבֵלָה, לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ, אוֹ מָכֹר לְנָכְרִי, כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לַה’ אֱלֹקיךָ; לֹא תְבַשֵּׁל גְּדִי בַּחֲלֵב אִמּוֹ.  {פ}Do not eat from anything which died on its own; give it to the stranger who is in your gates, so that he can eat it, or you my sell it to a foreigner; because you are a holy  nation to Hashem your G-d; do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.

There is a shift. When discussing which animals we may or may not eat, the Torah frames it in terms of tamei vs. tahor. But when describing the requirements of shechitah and separating meat and milk, the attribute in question is our qedushah.

As I wrote in a comment on the haqdamah to Shaarei Yosher:

When the Torah speaks of taharah,  the proposition is “mi-”, from, e.g. “vetiharo min hatzora’as”– and he [the kohein] purifies him from the [tum'ah associated with the spirito-somatic illness,] tzora’as“. What is taharah? While many object to translating it as “spiritual purity”, the word is used to describe the “pure gold” of the menorah, “zahav tahor”. Taharah is freeing the soul from a kind of adulteration, just as it describes gold that is free of impurities.  The tahor soul is one that is free from the habits and effects of living within an animal body.

On the other hand, qedushah is about pull. The golden tzitz on the kohein gadol’s forehead reads “qadesh Lashem”. Qedushah is being set aside for a given purpose. The wedding formula, “Hereby you are mequdeshes li…, committed to me…” uses the term where the “to” isn’t Hashem’ purpose. But in usual usage, if the “le-” is not provided, it means creation’s Ultimate Purpose, “for My Honor, lekhvodi, I have created it”.

(And then continued in R’ Shim’on’s vain that the Ultimate Purpose is to partner with HQBH to share His Good with the rest of creation.)

This dichotomy may explain the shift here as well. When the subject is what we eat, avoiding certain foods is staying away from what’s wrong, and thus is a path to taharah. But having rituals for how we eat, that elevates eating into a means of remembering our higher calling and serving him, and thus is part of striving for qedushah.

Earning one’s livelihood

The pasuq reads:

 וּבָא הַלֵּוִי כִּי אֵין לוֹ חֵלֶק וְנַחֲלָה עִמָּךְ, וְהַגֵּר וְהַיָּתוֹם וְהָאַלְמָנָה אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, וְאָכְלוּ וְשָׂבֵעוּ, לְמַעַן יְבָרֶכְךָ ה אֱלֹקֶיךָ, בְּכָל מַעֲשֵׂה יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה.  {ס}And the Levi, because he doesn’t have a portion nor an inheritance with you, and the ger, and the orphan and the widow, who are within gates, shall come, eat and be satisfied; so that Hashem your G-d may bless you in all the work of your hands which you do.

As this is right at the end of shelishi of parashas Re’eih, the last phrase caught my attention. “All the work for your hands” describes it, what is added by “which you do”?

The line reminded me of a thought I had to answer a different question. The ninth berakhah of the Amidah is called “Birkhas haShanim — Blessing of the Years” (the following is Nusach haGra, but the point remains in all versions):

בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה אֱלֹקֵינוּ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת כָּל מִינֵי תְבוּאָתָהּ לְטוֹבָה. וְתֵן [טַל וּמָטָר לִ]בְרָכָה עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, וְשַׂבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ, וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּוֹבוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה, מְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים.Bless for us, Hashem our G-d, this year and all its kinds of crop for good. And give [dew and rain for] a blessing upon the face of the earth, satisfy us with its good, and bless our years like the good years. Blessed are You / You are the Source of Blessing, who blesses the years.

Why does this berakhah mix two ideas? Are we asking Hashem to bless all the crops and the land (and in the winter: the rain and dew) which provides them? Or are we asking Him to bless the year to be among the best ones? To understand the berakhah, I turned to my favorite source, Rav Shimon Shkop’s introduction to Shaarei Yosher (in what I called sec. 6: Refinement, part 4:

ותחלת קבלת התורה על ידי משה רבינו ע״ה היתה דמות ואות לכל בני ישראל מקבלי התורה, שכמו שאמר הקב״ה למשה רבינו ע״ה “פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים”, כל כך הוא רמז לכל מקבלי התורה, שיכין כל איש ישראל לוחות לעצמו, לכתוב עליהם דבר ה׳, וכפי הכשרתו בהכנת הלוחות, כן תהיה קבלתו, מתחילה וכן גם אחרי זה אם יתקלקלו אצלו הלוחות, אז לא תתקיים התורה, ועל ידי זה לא יהיה מצוי כל כך ענין פחד משה רבינו ע״ה, שלפי ערך מעלת האדם ביראת ה׳ ובמדות, שהוא לוח לבבו, לפי ערך זה ינתן לו מן השמים קנין התורה, ואם יפול אחר כך ממדרגתו, לפי ערך זה תשכח התורה ממנו, וכמו שאמרו חז״ל שכמה ענינים גורמים לשכחת התורה ר״ל, ועל דבר גדול זה אמרו חז״ל לפרש את הכתוב בסיומא של תורה, “ולכל היד החזקה שעשה משה לעיני כל ישראל”,The beginning of the receiving of the Torah through Moses was a symbol and sign for all of the Jewish people who receive the Torah [since]. Just as Hashem told Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone Tablets”, so too it is advice for all who receive the Torah. Each must prepare Tablets for himself, to write upon them the word of Hashem. According to his readiness in preparing the Tablets, so will be his ability to receive. If in the beginning or even any time after that his Tablets are ruined, then his Torah will not remain. This removes much of Moses’ fear, because according to the value and greatness of the person in Awe/Fear of Hashem and in middos, which are the Tablet of his heart, this will be the measure by which heaven will give him acquisition of Torah. And if he falls from his level, by that amount he will forget his Torah, just as our sages said of a number of things that cause Torah to be forgotten. About this great concept our sages told us to explain the text at the conclusion of the Torah, “and all the great Awe Inspiring acts which Moses wrought before the eyes of all of Israel.” (Devarim 34:12, the closing words of the Torah)

Hashem doesn’t just hand us our needs, He created the notion of having to work for them, because that’s the process by which we hone the middos necessary to embody the Torah. And so, we ask Hashem to bless us with good crops, but we don’t only mention the success at the end, but  ask for His berakhah on the year of process it takes to get those crops. Bless for us this year, that it not only be prosperous, but that we too grow and flourish.

And perhaps that’s what the Torah means here too. We give ma’aser to the Levi “so that Hashem your G-d may bless you in all the work of your hands” — that we have financial success, and blessing in “that you do” — that the activity itself is blessed in how it refines us.

Seeing and Listening

Thinking about the title word of yesterday’s parashah, I wondered about the two sensory metaphors we use for learning. Here our parashah opens “re’eih”– see. But usually the Torah uses “shema“, to listen. In fact, shemi’ah appears later in the very same paragraph.1

כורְאֵה, אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה.26 Behold, I put before you today a blessing and a curse:
כז  אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְו‍ֹת ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם.27 the blessing: if you listen to the commandments of Hashem your G-d, which I command you to day;
כח  וְהַקְּלָלָה, אִם לֹא תִשְׁמְעוּ אֶל מִצְו‍ֹת ה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם, וְסַרְתֶּם מִן הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם,  לָלֶכֶת אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדַעְתֶּם.  {ס}28 and the curse: if you do not listen to the commandments of the Hashem your G-d, but turn way from the way which I command you today, to go after other gods, which you have not known.

Notice that there are two differences between shemi’ah and re’iahYes, they refer to different senses. But also, whereas shemi’ah is an active process — it means to listen, not to hear, re’iyah is to see, not specifically to look.

I realized over Shabbos that the question of theodicy is consistently associated with vision. For example, after the Golden Calf, Moshe asks to see Hashem’s ways:

יג  וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ, לְמַעַן אֶמְצָא-חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ; וּרְאֵה, כִּי עַמְּךָ הַגּוֹי הַזֶּה.13 Now if I have found Grace in Your Sight, show me now Your Ways, that I could know You, to the end that I may find grace in Thy sight; and consider that this nation is Thy people.’
יד  וַיֹּאמַר:  פָּנַי יֵלֵכוּ, וַהֲנִחֹתִי לָךְ.14 And He said: ‘My Presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.’
כב  וְהָיָה בַּעֲבֹר כְּבֹדִי, וְשַׂמְתִּיךָ בְּנִקְרַת הַצּוּר וְשַׂכֹּתִי כַפִּי עָלֶיךָ עַד עָבְרִי.22 And it will have been that as My Glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and cover you with My “Hand” until I have passed by.
כג  וַהֲסִרֹתִי, אֶת-כַּפִּי וְרָאִיתָ אֶת-אֲחֹרָי, וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ.  {פ}23 And I will take away My hand, and thou shalt see My back; but My face shall not be seen.’

And the Chasam Sofer explains in a thought that often gets quoted, that this is a deep truth about how Hashem runs the world. We can not see Hashem’s plan as events unfold. We can hope, someday, after the fact, to get some glimpse of it, “from behind”.

Similarly here. Hashem asks us to “listen” to the commandments and “see” His reward and punishment.

Moshe’s prophecy is “Vayedaber Hashem“, Hashem “speaks”. A prophet’s mind clothes his message in visions, as in “Chazon Yeshaiahu“. An earlier pasuq in Shemos makes this point:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹקְים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי ה.2 And G-d spoke to Moses, and said to him, “I am Hashem
ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּקֵל שַׁקי; וּשְׁמִי ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.3 and I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as G-d Who Sets Limits, but as My name Hashem I did not let them know Me.”

Which then made me think of a difference in language I noticed between the two Talmuds. In the Bavli, when a conclusion can be derived from something we “shema mina — we listen from this”. But in the Yerushalmi, such conclusions are more often “chamei” — “we see”.

At this point I think I saw a pattern. The Yerushalmi has a lot less confidence in deductions than the Bavli. To the extent that the word “ba’ei“, which means “to ask” in the sense of requesting someone to teach the halakhah in some case (as it does in the Bavli), is also used to introduce a proposed novellum. An amora requesting a ruling is the same language as if he were suggesting one from his own reasoning.

Moshe’s prophecy is more sure than that of other prophets, except when it comes to theodicy, understanding suffering or for that matter why there are wicked people who are enjoying their lives, for which there is never a sure answer. Again, sight being used as a metaphor for the less sure mode of learning.

Which is an interesting contrast to “seeing is believing”.


1 If you look at the wording, Hashem doesn’t say that there is a blessing that Hashem will give us if we listen to the mitzvos, and a curse if we do not and instead pursue idolatry. Rather, the listening to the mitzvos itself is the blessing. The Sifri makes a point of this. See “The Gift of Justice” in the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah Reader.)

So, Should I Believe?

If the topic of how far we can stretch Orthodox believes, and whether Dr Farber’s paper violates those limists bore you, you might want to skip ahead to the subtitle “Toward an Orthodox Epistemology“.

Well, now that we spent two posts on the topic of a man who is considered to be an Orthodox Jewish rabbi and dayan but doesn’t believe in the historicity of any of the events of the Torah, including its revelation, we need to honestly explore our own motives, in disagreeing.

It’s not enough to simply declare some idea heretical as a means to discourage an honest exploration of the facts. More important is to ask how I can be sure he is wrong. When I say “Ani Maamin“, I am saying that I accept these ideas… not really as articles of faith, although that’s what we call them in English, but as ideas I trust, I can rely on. Maamin is from the same root that G-d will use when asking us at the end of life, “Nasata venatata be’emunah – were you trustworthy in your buying and selling?”

To Dr Farber, accepting a documentarian theory about the revelation of the Torah is just one more paradigm shift in a long series, like our confrontation with Greek philosphy, when our place in the universe was moved from the center to one planet that goes around one stars among “billions and billions” in a galaxy that is merely one among “billions and billions”, or the grappling with 19th and 20th century science on the subject of origins — cosmogony (Big Bang Theory, Inflation, etc…), Historical Geology, and Evolution.

To quote the closing:

The sum of the matter, when all is said and done: Every generation has its challenges, both intellectual and social. In the Rambam’s day, the challenge was Greek philosophy, and he wrote the Guide for the Perplexed. Greek philosophy is no longer the challenge, and our day needs its own Guide. … As committed observant Jews, it is our job, it is our job to keep the tradition alive by adapting the message of God to respond to these challenges, without fear and without apology, but with intellectual honesty, ethical sensitivity, and spiritual integrity. We must always be ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts. Only in this way will we succeed in facilitating the growth of Torah observance in our day and allow the Torah and its message to flourish.

There are two basic differences between Dr Farber’s examples and his proposal.

The first is that until Orthodoxy hit the 19th century Counter-Reformation, it was rare to insist that the universe is less than 6,000 years old. Whether it’s the Rambam saying that the “days” of creation are causal steps that did not happen within time altogether, or the Ramban saying that the creation of the first pasuq was earlier in time to the world as we know it being laid out in a week, or Rashi saying that the Torah isn’t spelling out the historical sequence of events, or even back to the mishnah telling us that the Act of Creation is esoterica not to be taught in public.

This claim that belief in a young universe was rare among rishonim and early acharonim might be questioned by people of our era (products of the Counter-Reformation). But we can agree that there were such voices in the Oral Torah even without a scientific challenge, at a time when any finite age equally challenged the then-accepted the eternally old universe of Natural Philosophy and science. This is unlike the version of revelation Dr Farber would wish to invoke this as a precedent for. And as discussed in the previous post, the entire discomfort with the text of the Torah as we have it is based on the same error — that the Written Torah was ever written as a stand-alone document. We didn’t adapt Torah to these other ideas, they were part of the Oral Torah all along.

The second is that he is conflating the scientific and religious questions. The question of whether or not we evolved would be that of how Hashem created usReligion sets to pursue the purpose He created us for (the “why” to the extent we can understand it), or more accurately: to give us better tools for grappling with that problem.

The question therefore isn’t whether the contemporary Jew is “ready to face our Creator and our Torah with open minds and open hearts”, but whether we are willing to accept the reality of non-scientific questions and their answers. The difference between the heretic and the believer (in any religion) does not begin with the difference in their givens, but one step before — the epistemology each uses to assess which givens to accept.

Toward an Orthodox Epistemology

The gulf in communication is that the Jew who found his way in observant life has data points that the academic does not. We will differ therefore on which theory explains more of the data, more plausibly. To the Jew for whom the redemptive power of following halakhah is a first-hand experience, derashos cannot merely be a game, and the Oral Torah cannot be reduced to post-facto apologetics. The notion that the Torah was not dictated word-for-word, that any uniqueness in its style reflects something other than its supporting a far larger body of wisdom simply doesn’t fit experience: The way a piece of lomdus can find a consistent pattern from monetary law explaining an issue in Pesach. Or the way a Shabbos built on nit-picky details about how to make a cup of tea can provide a more rejuvenating experience than a more straightforward day of rest. Or…

People wish for a clear proof that would be easy to share with others. They feel that if I can’t prove it to an atheist or a Christian Fundamentalist, the justification for my own beliefs has no validity.

Scientism

The first obstacle to overcome is “Scientism”. (A term that unfortunately the Christian Right abused in debates over Creationsm, but a term in epistemlogy nonetheless.)

We live long enough after the industrial revolution that progress is thought of in terms of advances in science and technology; our ability to “fill the world and control it” (Bereishis 1:28). And so we overestimate the role of science, of the empirical world, in knowledge. Yes, science is our most reliable way of collecting facts, but only facts about the empirical world.

If you start out favoring theories that minimize Hashem’s Hand in history, that will shape your resulting conclusion. If you decide in advance that the only justification you’ll take seriously.

And then, ironically, most people don’t know enough of the topic to actually accept the science on its own merit, and for the man in the street it’s not so much scientism as reliabilism (deeming a source reliable). And you never hear about the details, that the final theory as it exists today could have one verse by three or more authors, that the original J vs E word usage thing doesn’t always work, etc… All that “cleanly comes apart” stuff isn’t true once you get beyond oversimplified tutorials.

Nor is any literary analysis really scientific or ever possibly freed from subjective bias. This is liberal arts, after all!

RYBS notes in the Lonely Man of Faith the effect of the spectacular success of scientific and technological progress on that loneliness:

Let me spell out this passional experience of contemporary man of faith. He looks upon himself as a stranger in modern society which is technically minded, self-centered, and self-loving, almost in a sickly narcissistic fashion, scoring honor upon honor, piling up victory upon victory, reaching for the distant galaxies, and seeing in the here-and-now sensible world the only manifestation of being. What can a man of faith like myself, living by a doctrine which has no technical potential, by a law which cannot be tested in the laboratory, steadfast in his loyalty to an eschatological vision whose fulfillment cannot be predicted with any degree of probability, let alone certainty, even by the most complex, advanced mathematical calculations — what can such a man say to a functional utilitarian society which is saeculum-oriented and whose practical reasons of the mind have long ago supplanted the sensitive reasons of the heart?

- Tradition Magazine v7n2
The Lonely Man of Faith, pg 8

Scholasticism

A second source of false certainty is a certain approach to philosophy.

The Rambam places great value on being able to prove things from first principles. And so the second section of the Guide to the Perplexed opens with a list of 26 propositions, which the Rambam then uses to prove that there is Creator who continues to run the universe. In the same vein he requires that the articles of faith not simply be accepted because that is what he was taught, but that it be a knowledge based on proof.

Arguments of the sort the Rambam demanded we base our faith upon only get embraced after we are already leaning in that direction. After all, philosophical proofs are “just” mountains of logic built atop first principles — and first principles too rise and fall on whether they correspond to our own experience. These 26 Propositions may have been self-evident to the Rambam, but today we don’t speak in terms of form and substance, or that time is a property of a process rather than a dimension in which processes can occur.

As it says very early in the Kuzari (1:13, tr. modified Hirschfeld to modernize archaicisms in the English):

The Rabbi: That which you express 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 proven.

And in the millennium since, few of those disputes have been resolved. And since the Rambam’s acceptance of Scholasiticism, philosophers like Des Cartes and Kant have shown that that isn’t the proper direction for philosophy altogether. Which is how we moved to movements like Existentialism, and its focus on explaining the world of our experienced.

To the Kuzari, and the Ramban (Shemos 13:16) after him, the strongest evidence for the Torah is tradition. “There is an excuse for the Philosophers. Being Greeks, science and religion did not come to them as inheritances.” But we do have a reliable tradition.

But this reliabilism has become weak in our era. Too many of us grew up in communities that rejected that tradition, so that even those of us who did grow up with it

Experience

I think the alternative is to work toward an inspiring avodas Hashem and limud Torah. The more one sees for themselves the redemptive properties of halakhah, the more confidence you have in the original revelation of laws, process and culture that gave you that din. And the more evidence it would take to convince them that the Torah wasn’t written didactically in order to serve a the seed for an Eitz Chaim, notes for a body of knowledge far larger than the text and a process of analysis, mode of thought and culture.We need to develop more self-confidence in our own non-empirical experiences, so that they too carry conviction.

I believe that  reason for the philosophical unreliability Rav Yehudah haLevi describes is that 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 existence, they must first accept all my givens, as well as the validity of each of my implications. (See “The Kuzari Proof part II” for a longer discussion of this point.)

So, by experiencing the redemptive power of Torah, we increase our confidence in the postulates that support the halachic process that gave us those practices. The outsider would think this is “faith” (which is a misleading word, given how many forms of Christianity developed the idea and colored its connotations). Or that it’s an argument from what one wants to be true, from liking Shabbos or whatever.

Rather, it is more like our confirming the Euclidean postulate that parallel lines never meet. We can mentally picture two lines that have the same slope, and we “see” in our minds that they never meet. We can’t show anyone else this “evidence”, but we then accept this postulate (at least in flat space) and build complex geometric proofs with this given. But no proof is more sound than our acceptance of the 5th postulate — which still rests on an internal mental experience. (See “The Kuzari Proof part I“.) And in fact, the more rigorous we try making our proofs, the bigger the structure we have atop our experience and the resulting set of posulates we are willing to work with, and thus the less confidence we have in the result. (As per The Argument from Design ver 4.0. At this point you might realize this blog has a whole category on this epistemology.)

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.

There is just an elegance to Torah in all its complexity of the sort one finds in a “beautiful” math proof, and not in human-created systems. I can’t articulate it to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s not an argument from the beauty of Shabbos, but from that within Shabbos that is there to find beautiful. And because it itself is a data point, not an argument build from the data points (givens / postulates), it can’t be articulated to those who haven’t experienced it themselves.

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?

But to me, Farber’s argument reads much like that of someone who did work on nuclear fusion and proved that sunlight must be orange. Someone who never found a clear sunny day for himself might buy into the theory. Those who have experienced a yellow sunny day would not find its issues pressing, and would shelve looking for flaws in it for later.