Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah

A basic problem when approaching Jewish philosophy is the appropriateness of studying it altogether. As Prof. Sholom Carmy wrote on Avodah:

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.

Focusing on the Philosopher’s G-d makes it difficult to see the Personal G-d. On the other hand, without theology, our picture of G-d is blurry, and often wrong.

So the question is, what is the appropriate balance between the two?

I found a variety of opinions:

1- The Rambam seems to belittle emunah peshutah. Yedi’ah is the key to olam haba. The hoi palloi may have to settle for the vague approximation of emunah peshutah, but the philosopher’s machshavah amuqah is superior.

2- The Baal haTanya invokes a mystical resolution. The conflict is a function of pursuing machshavah amuqah from a source other than the Yechidah Kelalis. (The one sage each generation who is like “Moshe in his generation”.) Through the unity of the national soul’s yechidah, a single view of G-d emerges even at both planes of existance.

3- At the other extreme, Rav Nachman miBreslov discouraged the study of theology, placing all value on having a relationship with HaQadosh barukh Hu. The philosopher’s G-d, while logically sound, is cold, transcendent and incomprehensible — very unconducive to this natural parent-child style relationship which is at the center of his definition of “deveiqus” and man’s tafqid.

4- The Brisker approach is to avoid the whole subject. As Rav Moshe Feinstein put it, it’s a hashkafah of not studying hashkafah. It differs from Rav Nachman’s position not so much in that they feel it’s wrong, but that it’s pointless. The ikkar is learning halakhah and man’s duty in this world.

R’ YB Soloveitchik puts forth this position in his essary Qol Dodi Dofeiq: The Jewish question [of tragedy] is not “Why?” but “How am I supposed to respond?” Rabbi Soloveitchik simply wasn’t curious about theological questions. His philosophy has an existentialist agenda. It doesn’t deal with questions of how G-d is or how He runs the world, but rather he presents a detailed analysis of the human condition and the world as we see it. Because our dilemma is part of the human condition, he discusses it as a dialectic. Rabbi Soloveitchik has no problem with the idea that we simultaneously embrace conflicting truths. However, he leaves little record of his own personal confrontation with the tension of this particular dialectic. I believe it’s his Brisker heritage.

The problem with positions 3 and 4 is that they do not have the support of either the scholastic rishonim (eg: Rav Saadia Ga’on, the Rambam, R’ Albo), the antischolastic rishonim (eg: R’ Yehudah haLevi), the kabbalistically inclined (eg: the Ramban), nor the Ramchal, the Besh”t, the Gra, R’ Chaim Vilozhiner… Their nature is that only an explicit discussion of our particular problem would turn up antecedents. One can’t argue from silence that some rishon agreed with them because perhaps he simply chose to commit his time to publishing in other areas.

5- When thinking about this further I realized that I assumed a different stance when writing AishDas’s charter. I think it warrants mention because I believe it’s the position of the Mussar Movement. It reflects the approach I see utilized by Rav Dessler in Michtav MeiEliyahu.

R’ Lopian defines mussar as dealing with the space of an amah — getting ideas from the mind to the heart. We often think things that don’t reflect how we feel and many of the forces that influence our decision-making. Akin to RYBS’s dialectic, we embrace different ideas and motives in different modes of our consciousness.

As for our contradiction, the question is one of finding unity between mind and its ability to understand and explain, to philosophize about G-d and His governance of the universe, and the heart and how we feel and react toward Him.

Emunah, bitachon, ahavas Hashem, yir’as Hashem, etc… are middos. They are not acquired directly through study, but through the tools of tiqun hamidos. (With the observation that constant return to a subject operates on both levels.) There is a reason why the kiruv movement is built on the experience of a Shabbos, and not some ultimate proof of G-d. (Aish haTorah’s “Discovery” program, the only counter-example that came to mind, is intended to be a hook, to pique people’s interest to get them to that Shabbos, not kiruv itself.)

Rather than seeing this as a dilemma, I saw it as a need. We can embrace both because each involves a very different component of self. And since avodah must be bekhol nafshekha, we actually MUST study both machshavah and mussar. Meaningful avodas Hashem must require involvement of both mind and heart.

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“.

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.

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 III

A recent email from Yeshivat Har Etzion of a shiur by Rav Chaim Navon included the following quotes from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s essay “Uvikashtem MiSham“. Notice the poetic treatment of the idea that knowledge through proof is indirect, yet one’s belief in and relationship with the Creator should be first-hand.

While the philosophy of the Middle Ages and also that of the early modern period expressed the search for infinity and eternality in an objective manner, through the formulation of definitive proofs, which were thought to be logically valid, the modern view presumes to deny the logical-objective worth of these proofs…

This view came to uproot, but ended up planting; it came to deny, but ended up believing. It denied man’s ability to draw indirect conclusions through proofs… But instead of eradicating all these proofs from its book, it accepted and reaffirmed them as non-mediated experiences that are not based on logic, but rather are expressed through sudden revelation and illumination. (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Uvikashtem Misham, pp. 127-128)

The experience of God in man’s confrontation with the world expresses itself not through proof based on an act of abstraction, but through a feeling of sudden revelation of an unmediated fact in the consciousness of reality. (Ibid., p. 131)

In this shiur, Rav Navon associates the approach of emunah through proof with the Rambam, as we already discussed in parts I and II of this discussion. Emunah through direct experience, the position I believe is Rav Yehudah haLevi’s, is shown to be shared by the Raavad. Which is why the Rambam depicts Avraham avinu as being an accomplished philosopher of 40 when he finds G-d, whereas the Raavad says he was three. (Hil’ Avodah Zara 1:3; both positions were previously taken in medrashim.) See the shiur for more…

The Devastating Power of Leitznus

President Ford a”h‘s passing brought something into sharp focus for me.

Here is how the OU remembers Mr. Gerald R. Ford:

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish Umbrella organization mourns the death of former President Gerald R. Ford. Mr. Ford, our country’s 38th president, took office amid tremendous internal divisions domestically and complex, dangerous challenges internationally.
With grace of personality, humility of character and nobility of spirit, Gerald Ford led our nation through those turbulent times, making difficult, and sometimes, intensely unpopular decisions that history would prove correct.
For the Jewish people, he remained a stalwart friend, demonstrated by his successful efforts to bring a cease fire between Egypt and Israel and committing the Soviet Union to the Helsinki human rights accords, a pact that helped Jewish prisoners of conscience. Gerald Ford’s leadership through the Middle East crises of the period remained guided by his principled support of Israel:

America must and will pursue friendship with all nations. But, this will never be done at the expense of America’s commitment to Israel. A strong Israel is essential to a stable peace in the Middle East…My commitment to the security and future of Israel is based upon basic morality as well as enlightened self-interest. Our role in supporting Israel honors our own heritage.

We join with all in offering our prayers and sympathies to former First Lady Betty Ford and President Ford’s family.

Here’s what I remember of his presidency:

The President of the United States
President Gerald R. Ford…..Chevy Chase

My fellow Americans.. ladies and gentlemen.. members of the press.. and my immediate family. First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. [repeats his script] First, may I thank you all for being here. And I am in my immediate family. Thank you all for being here, and I am truly honored to be asked by you to open the “Saturday Night” show with Harvey Cosell.
[Ford chuckles, as he pours water into one of the glasses then proceeds to sip from the empty glass]
I do have — [confused by the empty glass, he puts it down] I do have two major announcements. [awkward pause] To make. Whoop! [suddenly falls to the fall behind the podium ] Uh-oh! [stands back on his feet] No problem. No problem, no problem. Okay.
My first announcement is one I think you’ve all been waiting for. [lowers his head and accidentally bangs it on the podium] Whoop! No problem! Nope! Okay! No problem! Sorry, no problem.
[Ford again reaches over to pour water into one of the glasses, then picks up the empty pitcher and sips from it instead. He is again confused by this action, and thus returns the pitcher to the table.]
[yelling] I know a fellow who is going to enter the New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Florida, and every other primary! And I know he is going to win! And if he has any other competition, right up to the end of 1976 – thank you! Hey. [he again falls behind the podium] Uh-oh! [picks himself up again] No problem! No problem! [continues his speech] And if I don’t win, I will continue to run in the primaries, even if there are none!

A couple of minutes of well placed barbs can undo memories of untold hours and months of presidency.

That’s the power of leitzanus. Leitzanus is more dangerous than kefirah (heresy). Exposing oneself to opposing viewpoints can hone one’s opinions. After all, as long as it’s on the level of the mind, one can choose to reject an opinion, to shelve open questions for later, etc… Ridicule and sarcasm go beneath that, changing one’s attitude on the emotional level. There is little defense.

This is the flipside of one of the points I made in the “Faith and Proof” entries on this blog. There I argued that while there is an obligation to develop one’s philosophical understanding of how G-d runs the universe and our role in it, proof doesn’t work well as a basis of religion. People need to experience a religion, to found it on the strength of relying on only a single postulate, that what I felt that Shabbos was real. Only then can that stance be deepened and filled in with detail through philosophical explorations. Proofs only convince those ready to be convinced, and therefore the opening of the mind to the idea or the willingness to believe a question has a yet unfound answer are the greater challenge.

Emotions lead us to decide which questions are insurmountable, and which ones we can shelve for later. Leitzanus can therefore lead the mind to places it never otherwise would have agreed to go.

(It is for this reason I have a very strict policy about which blogs can be pointed to on emails to the Areivim discussion group. Pointing to a challenging or non-Jewish idea is not as hazardous as pointing people to someone’s forum for venting about everything and he doesn’t like in our community.)

Like the Laws of Pesach

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹקֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

The wise son of the Hagaddah asks, “What are the laws of testimony, the metarational laws, and the more intuitive laws which Hashem our G-d has commanded you?” The wise son already knows much about the structure of halakhah, he is implicitly asking for a breakdown by asking for the laws by category: The eidos are comprehensible to people, but only after being taught the background of what it is they commemorate. Chuqim are laws that are beyond human comprehension, that we keep out of loyalty to and trust in the One Who commanded them. And mishpatim are laws that make intuitive sense based on human notions of law and ethics.

The answer we are told to give him is to “tell him like the laws of Pesach. Do not eat dessert after the Pesach [offering].” Usually this is understood to mean that you are to teach him all the laws of Pesach up to the very last one — do not eat after eating from the qorban.”

The Sefas Emes points out that this explanation is quite a stretch. It doesn’t say “teach him the laws of Pesach until” the one about not eating afterward. Rather, it says, “teach him kehilkhos haPesach, like the laws of Pesach, one may not eat…”

Why isn’t one supposed to eat after eating from the Pesach offering? Because you should be left with the taste of the mitzvah in your mouth.

The Sefas Emes explains that this is the point we must teach the Chacham. He is very focused on the intellectual pursuit of understanding the mitzvos of the night. With that fixation, he might miss experiencing the Seder, the lessons that can only be learned by living through it, rather than trying to comprehend it. Torah study is important, but it can not supplant the changes one undergoes by actually performing the individual mitzvah.
Therefore we teach him that all of Torah is “like that law of Pesach: do not eat dessert after eating the Pesach offering.” Savor the experience, the taste of the mitzvah.

Tam, what does he say?

The text of our Haggadah for identifying the third son is somewhat ambiguous. The word “tam” means “simple”. It could refer to someone who is simple minded. And this is the interpretation assumed in most translations of the Haggadah — “The simple son”. And then there is the frequently repeated thought on the words “At pisach lo — you shall open [the discussion] for him”, or perhaps even “you shall Passover for him”. The verb “pisach” is in the masculine, but the noun “at” is feminine. Because teaching the simple son requires a woman’s touch, or in this case, that the father be in touch with his feminine side.

However, I have seem commentaries that note that “tam” is used in the Torah as a compliment. Simple in the sense of having a pure faith, a first-hand relationship with the A-lmighty. And so while the Chakham (who may very well be a different aspect of the same person as the Tam) is taught the laws of Pesach, the Tam is given the heart of Pesach. We could say that the Chakham is the ideal pursued by the stereotypical Litvak, whereas the Chassid is trying to be this understanding of the word Tam.

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When R’ JB Soloveitchik was “Berel, the Rabbi’s son”, a boy living in the predominantly Chabad town of Chaslovitch, the cheder he attended was in a room rented from the carpenter. The carpenter was a “pashuter Yid — a simple Jew” as they would have said in Yiddish. Whenever he worked, the carpenter would say Tehillim. The future Rabbi Soloveitchik noticed that he had things timed; whenever the carpenter drove in the last nail it was just as he finished the last verse of Tehillim. Regardless of the size or complexity of the piece, the man would say Tehillim at just the right speed to match.

It is like the Zohar’s comment on the words “Chanokh walked himself with G-d, and he was gone for G-d had taken him” (Bereishis 5:24). The Zohar states that Chanokh was a shoemaker, and with every stitch he not only attached the uppers to the soles, he also pronounced names of G-d and unified the worlds. And at some point his soul simply sored upward and left this world without dying. (Similar in kind to Eliyahu’s mode of passing.)

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Rav Soloveitchik would repeat the Vilna Shoemaker Dilemma. While the Gaon studied Torah in Vilna, there was another man, not recorded by history, who was Vilna’s shoemaker. He wasn’t a gifted genius, nor capable of sleeping in half-hour installments and accomplishing work 22+ hours a day. Of course, in terms of Torah the Vilna Gaon knew more and taught more. But the shoemaker spent his days banging at his shoes and saying Tehillim with pure thought. He too accomplished everything he could with what Hashem gave him. Who was holier?

And in a statement one would have expected from a chassidic story, not this heartland of Lithuanian learning, the answer is simply “We can’t know.”

I think it’s no coincidence that Rav Chaim Volozhiner, a student of the Vilna Gaon, tells a story which concludes: “And there I hear a voice from the street. I put my head out the window and I see Eli the shoemaker running excited. ‘What happened Eli? What happened to the light of the sun? Why are the birds singing so loudly? Why are all the trees suddenly blooming?’ The shoemaker responded ‘Don’t you know rebbe?’ The shoemaker gave me a look at said, ‘Moshiach came'”

♦ ♦ ♦

The version of the four sons in our Hagaddah follows the Talmud Bavli. In the Yerushalmi, there is no such ambiguity — this son is call the Tipesh, the child who isn’t as bright as most of us.

As a procedural question, textual variants can be taken two ways. The first approach would be to assume there is no dispute, that these are simply two different expressions of the same basic idea. Which would imply in our case that “tam” would have to mean “simple minded”. The other is to assume that the Bavli intentionally used a different word than the Yerushalmi in order to express a difference of opinion. And therefore “tam” here would be someone who is “spiritually unconflicted”, wholeheartedly a servant of G-d.

I happen to have a son who would be called a “tipeish” if the term hadn’t been turned into an insult. Shuby has Downs. But he truly is tam in both senses of the word: because his understanding of the universe is so uncomplicated, if I tell him “Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere” — He is. To Shuby, when reminded of the fact, Hashem’s Presence is just as real and immediate as mine.

The Vilna Shoemaker or Chaslavitch Carpenter were not among history’s Chakhamim (although there is no reason to believe they were any less bright than most). But they were Temimim; they lived their lives with only one goal — to serve Hashem with the upmost of what He gave them.

Their worldview is captured by Shalom Aleikhem in the mouth of Tevye the Milkman. He may mangle every verse or statement of Chazal that he tries to repeat, but his life is a continuous dialog with the A-lmighty. We meet him coming home moments before candle-lighting on Friday afternoon. He is pulling his milk cart, and muttering something. As we get closer, we hear him ask the A-lmighty, “But did You have to break my poor horse’sWas that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty, that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse’s leg?” And so he continues, his constant discussion. In his own little way, Tevye fulfills “Shevisi Hashem lenegdi tamid – I place Hashem before me constantly” in a manner matched by few who have greater erudition.

Of course, the true goal would be to have both.

Eizehu chakham? Halomeid mikol adam.” Ben Zoma teaches us, “Who is wise? Someone who can learn from anyone.” Finding what to learn from the Vilna Gaon is trivial. But what are we to learn from the third son? “Tam, mah hu omeir?

This temimus, this purity of belief and personality is accessible even — no, let me write “more so” — to the Yerushalmi’s tipeish, the simple boy who may not be able to understand everything going on around him, but who uses the all the beauty Hashem gave him to touch heaven with his fingertips.

How Great Are Your Works

Not my usual speed for a blog entry, but I saw this and was nispael (awed). It’s a video of what does on within a cell. How much Divine Wisdom there is in just one microscopic little spot within the world, and how easy it is to take for granted!

(If you do not see a video below this sentence, try this link.)

The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia

(Version 3.)

In the previous entry, I wrote: “Rav SR Hirsch argues that the Rambam only failed to find the meaning to the details of the mitzvos because his assumption that mitzvos serve to either (a) teach true monotheism, (b) wean us away from idolatry, or (c) create a society which enables us in these pursuits is based on Aristotle’s emphasis on abstract knowledge rather than the Torah’s emphasis on ethics and personal refinement.” And that this orientation came from the Rambam’s embracing of Greek Thought, and its placement of knowledge as central to the human quest.

We saw quotes from Hilkhos Teshuvah ch. 8  that the Rambam considers the cause of eternal existence in the World to Come and of all of the Torah’s blessings to be the soul’s knowledge of G-d.

Similarly, when they said that the righteous people have crowns on their heads they were referring to the knowledge because of which they inherited a place in the World To Come. This knowledge is always with them, as is their crown, as Solomon said, “…with the crown with which his mother crowned him.” It is also written, “and everlasting joy shall be upon their head”—this is not physical pleasure that they will receive, but the crown of the Sages, i.e. knowledge. When they said that they will benefit from the radiance of the Divine Presence they meant that they will know and understand the existence of God in a manner that they couldn’t while in their gloomy and paltry bodies.
Whenever the word “soul” is mentioned, it does not mean the soul-body combination but the actual soul itself, which is the understanding given by the Creator and which causes other understandings and actions. …

This theme of the primacy of philosophical grasp of G-d is so central to the Moreh, it both opens and closes on this point. Quoting 1:1, on man’s creation in G-d’s image (demus):

As man’s distinction consists in a property which no other creature on earth possesses, viz., intellectual perception, in the exercise of which he does not employ his senses, nor move his hand or his foot, this perception has been compared–though only apparently, not in truth–to the Divine perception, which requires no corporeal organ. On this account, i.e., on account of the Divine intellect with which man has been endowed, he is said to have been made in the form and likeness of the Almighty, but far from it be the notion that the Supreme Being is corporeal, having a material form.

And continuing in 1:2, when he discusses how this image was sullied by the sin of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge:

… Similarly our language expresses the idea of true and false by the terms emet and sheker, of the morally right and the morally wrong, by tov and ra’. Thus it is the function of the intellect to discriminate between the true and the false–a distinction which is applicable to all objects of intellectual perception. When Adam was yet in a state of innocence, and was guided solely by reflection and reason–on account of which it is said: “Thou hast made him (man) little lower than the angels” (Tehillim 8:6)–he was not at all able to follow or to understand the principles of apparent truths; the most manifest impropriety, viz., to appear in a state of nudity, was nothing unbecoming according to his idea: he could not comprehend why it should be so. After man’s disobedience, however, when he began to give way to desires which had their source in his imagination and to the gratification of his bodily appetites, as it is said, “And the wife saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to the eyes” (Bereishis 3:6), he was punished by the loss of part of that intellectual faculty which he had previously possessed. He therefore transgressed a command with which he had been charged on the score of his reason; and having obtained a knowledge of the apparent truths, he was wholly absorbed in the study of what is proper and what improper….

It is also the thesis of the closing chapter, 5:54:

The ancient and the modern philosophers have shown that man can acquire four kinds of perfection.


The first kind, the lowest, in the acquisition of which people spend their days, is perfection as regards property; the possession of money, garments, furniture, servants, land, and the like; the possession of the title of a great king belongs to this class. There is no close connexion between this possession and its possessor…


The second kind is more closely related to man’s body than the first. It includes the perfection of the shape, constitution, and form of mans body; the utmost evenness of temperaments, and the proper order and strength of his limbs. This kind of perfection must likewise be excluded from forming our chief aim…


The third kind of perfection is more closely connected with man himself than the second perfection. It includes moral perfection, the highest degree of excellency in man’s character. Most of the precepts aim at producing this perfection; but even this kind is only a preparation for another perfection, and is not sought for its own sake. For all moral principles concern the relation of man to his neighbor; the perfection of man’s moral principles is, as it were, given to man for the benefit of mankind. Imagine a person being alone, and having no connexion whatever with any other person, all his good moral principles are at rest, they are not required, and give man no perfection whatever. These principles are only necessary and useful when man comes in contact with others.


The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man. Examine the first three kinds of perfection, you will find that, if you possess them, they are not your property, but the property of others; according to the ordinary view, however, they belong to you and to others. But the last kind of perfection is exclusively yours; no one else owns any part of it, “They shall be only thine own, and not strangers’ with thee” (Mishlei 5:17). Your aim must therefore be to attain this [fourth] perfection that is exclusively yours, and you ought not to continue to work and weary yourself for that which belongs to others, whilst neglecting your soul till it has lost entirely its original purity through the dominion of the bodily powers over it. The same idea is expressed in the beginning of those poems, which allegorically represent the state of our soul. “My mother’s children were angry with me; they made me the keeper of the vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept” (Shir haShirim 1:6). Also the following passage refers to the same subject, “Lest thou give thine honor unto others, and thy years unto the cruel” (Mishlei 5:9)….

In my humble opinion, Rav Hirsch’s critique stands, but the Rambam’s distance from other rishonim is greatly diminished by taking the his explanation of akrasia (ἀκρασία) into account. Akrasia is an ancient Greek term that means “lacking command [of oneself]”. I still see the consequences that bother Rav Hirsch standing, though.

As a philosophical term, the question of akrasia was posed by Socrates in Plato’s Protagoras, who asks how it is possible that someone can know that action A to be the best course of action, and yet may end up actually doing something other than A? Central to the Mussar perspective is that religion is about akrasia — not only theoretical moral knowledge, but having the character by which one’s behavior reflects that knowledge.

In Plato’s opinion (which most assume was that of the historical Socrates as well), akrasia can only be the product of ignorance about the realities of the situation, or about what is the person’s best interest. In other words, bad decisions come from ignorance.

Aristotle breaks down the problem into two — a failure of opinion, or a failure of appetite (desires of the body). Rather than being due to ignorance, opinion is subjective, a produce of disposition.

I mention the Greek debate as a backdrop to explaining how I see the Rambam’s position. Yes, the Rambam values philosophical knowledge in a way that is atypical for the mesorah. In particular in his placing it as more important than moral refinement. However, he also fuses such knowledge to our ability to be moral beings in an way other baalei mesorah do not.

In “Text & Texture“, the RCA blog, R’ Alex Sztuden suggests answers from R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings to questions given on R’ Soloveitchik’s 1936 final exam in Jewish Philosophy. (Thereby showing that these questions were ones R’ Soloveitchik considered during much of his life.) The first question, which had two parts:

I.a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?

In Halakhic Mind (41-43), the Rav distinguishes between 3 different views of emotional states (and by implication, of religious states):

1.       Emotions are non-cognitive. They do not express any facts or statements about the world. In a footnote, the Rav cites Hume as a typical example of this view: “Hume denied the intentional character of our emotional experiences: ‘A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick or five feet tall…’” (116, footnote 49).

2.       Emotions have a cognitive component. In fact, “every intentional act is implicitly a cognitive one…by way of simple illustration, the statement ‘I love my country’ may be broken down into three components: I. There exists a country – predication; II. This object is worthy of my love – valuation; [and] III. I love my country – consummation of the act.” (43). According to the Rav, I. (“There exists a country”) is a statement of fact that is in effect contained by and in the emotion. Emotions are not irrational outpourings of the heart. They make claims about the world.

3.       Emotions are cognitive, but they are confused ideas. This is the Intellectualist Theory of Emotions (and religious states). “Of course, the intellectualistic school, regarding the emotional and volitional activities as modi cogitandi, had to admit some relationship between them and the objective sphere. Owing, however to the contempt that philosophers and psychologists had for the emotional act which they considered an idea confusa…”

b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

The intellectualist theory correctly perceived that emotions were cognitive, but incorrectly assumed that they were inferior forms of cognition, confused ideas. For the Rav, all psychic states are intentional, and religious acts therefore contain a cognitive component, subject to elaboration, refinement and critique on its own terms.

The Rambam appears to follow the position that Aristotle’s primary focus in answering the problem of akrasia is on our holding bad opinions. Of the three answers to 1b, the Rambam appears to answer “3. Emotions are cognitive.” I think this shows through in his naming “hilkhos dei’os“, his discussion of what we today call “middos“,  words that literally mean “laws of opinions”.

In Litvish and Yekkish derakhim, they define self-completion in ethical, moral, and personal refinement terms. Even Litvaks, with their/our emphasis on learning, expect the immersion in learning to cause a character change by the miqvah-like experience of learning — not by the knowledge. See the opening chapters of Nefesh haChaim cheileq 4. (Yes, that really is an online copy of NhC that those words link to!) This is how R’ Chaim Volozhiner emphasizes the lishmah experience rather than the knowledge gained. Something the Rambam’s approach wouldn’t allow for — the more you know of G-d, the greater your soul. The Rambam describes the hoi paloi whose beliefs never get beyond the 13 principles of emunah as possessing a  nefesh qetanah, literally possessing smaller souls. Because it is knowledge, not the experience of gaining knowledge, which is essential in the Rambam’s worldview.

According to Aristotle, the Rambam, and to a lesser extent R’ Saadia Gaon, the goal is knowledge. It’s not just that knowledge prevents akrasia, that the person who knows G-d well will not sin. But it’s the knowledge itself that is the highest perfection. We usually speak about imitating G-d in order to know how one should give tzedaqah. The Rambam would have you give an a poor person “dei machsero — according to what he lacks” in order to emulate and thereby better understand the Creator.

Now let’s add in another factor. The Rambam had confidence in philosophical proofs above other forms of justification.  This is in contrast to the position of rishonim like R’ Yehudah haLevi and R’ Chasdai Crescas, as well as running against the general trend of contemporary philosophy and the field of psychology. To quote from my post “The Kuzari Proof, part I” (in which I argue that the Kuzari itself argues against the so-called “Kuzari Proof” — because he rejects dependence on philosophical proof altogether):

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…

Combining the Rambam’s emphasis on knowledge and his position that philosophical proof is the surest way to know something, we can see why to the Rambam:

1. Emunah is knowing things philosophically.

2. It is through such knowledge that one gains persistence after death, that one enters the World to Come.

Both of these notions are expressed in his introduction to his commentary to chapter Cheileq (Sanhedrin ch. 11), and are made his foundation for making his famous list of 13 Articles of Faith. The mishnah upon which he comments says that “All Israel has a place in the world to come”, and then Maimonides adds that only those who believe these articles, and not just by faith but via philosophical proof, are “Israel” in this context.

3. Ahavas Hashem is wanting to know more about Him philosophically. Quoting Yesodei haTorah 2:1-2:

וְהֵיאַךְ הִיא הַדֶּרֶךְ לְאַהֲבָתוֹ, וְיִרְאָתוֹ:  בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁיִּתְבּוֹנֵן הָאָדָם בְּמַעֲשָׂיו וּבְרוּאָיו הַנִּפְלָאִים הַגְּדוֹלִים, וְיִרְאֶה מֵהֶם חָכְמָתוֹ שְׁאֵין לָהּ עֵרֶךְ וְלֹא קֵץ–מִיָּד הוּא אוֹהֵב וּמְשַׁבֵּחַ וּמְפָאֵר וּמִתְאַוֶּה תַּאֲוָה גְּדוֹלָה לֵידַע הַשֵּׁם הַגָּדוֹל, כְּמוֹ שֶׁאָמַר דָּוִיד “צָמְאָה נַפְשִׁי, לֵא-לֹהִים–לְאֵ-ל חָי” (תהילים מב,ג).

And what is the way to love Him and be in awe/fear of Him? When a person contemplates His acts, His amazing and great creations, and his wisdom sees from them that there is no length or end to it, immediately he loves, praises, glorifies, and desires with a great desire to know [His] great Name/Reputation. As David said (Tehillim 42:3), “My soul thirsts for G-d, for the ‘Living’ G-d.”

Love comes from and is a draw to knowledge, not an experiential relationship with the Almighty. (See my post on Emunah Peshutah vs Machashavah, on how others balance the philosophical transcendent and the experiential immanent.)

Similarly from the third mitzvah in Sefer haMitzvos (tr. David Guttman):

היא הציווי שנצטווינו על אהבתו יתעלה שנתבונן ונסתכל במצוותיו ופעולתיו, כדי שנשיגהו ונתענג בהשגתו תכלית התענוג – וזוהי האהבה המצווה [עלינו].

The third mitzvah is that we were commanded to love Him. [Meaning] that we should contemplate and look into His commandments and His actions so that we apprehend Him, thus experiencing [lit: enjoying] the ultimate enjoyment through that apprehension of him. That is the love that we were commanded.

4. Providence is a function of how well one knows about G-d. The Moreh (3:17) argues that only people get providence, and (3:18) the borders of who is a person with regard to providence are blurry. Greater knowledge of Hashem earns one more providence. To quote:

It is an established fact that species have no existence except in our own minds. Species and other classes are merely ideas formed in our minds, whilst everything in real existence is an individual object, or an aggregate of individual objects. This being granted, it must further be admitted that the result of the existing Divine influence, that reaches mankind through the human intellect, is identical with individual intellects really in existence…

… and so on. We’re talking about what the Rambam calls the fourth and highest kind of perfection — knowledge, and in particular knowledge through philosophical proof.

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.


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


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


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.

Bread, Meat and Wine

Rav Aharon Rakeffet recently noted a contrast in wording between the Rambam and the Rama, and mentioned that someone might find “a whole pilpul” in the difference. (Listen to the shiur on YUTorah.org: Responsa Literature #14 – “Rav Baruch Ber Leibowitz” 12-30-13, the observation starts at 8:24, in the opening review of the prior shiur.) Here’s my attempt.

Rambam, Hilkhos Yesorei haTorah 4:13:

… וַאֲנִי אוֹמֵר שְׁאֵין רָאוּי לְהִטַּיַּל בַּפַּרְדֵּס, אֵלָא מִי שֶׁנִּתְמַלָּא כְּרֵסוֹ לֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר; וְלֶחֶם וּבָשָׂר זֶה, הוּא לֵידַע בֵּאוּר הָאָסוּר וְהַמֻּתָּר וְכַיּוֹצֶא בָּהֶן מִשְּׁאָר הַמִּצְווֹת. …

And I say that one isn’t fit to stroll through the Pardeis except someone who filled his belly with “bread and meat”. Which is to know what is permitted and what is prohibited and the like from among the rest of the mitzvos.

Rama, Yoreh Dei’ah 246:5, citing this Rambam:

… ואין לאדם לטייל בפרדס רק לאחר שמלא כריסו בשר ויין, והוא לידע איסור והיתר ודיני המצות.

… and a person should not stroll through the Pardeis until his belly is full of “meat and wine”. Which is, to know prohibition and permission and the laws of the mitzvos.

There are differences in grammar, but I want to focus on the difference R’ Rakeffet pointed out. The Rambam describes Jewish Thought and secular knowledge as “bread and meat“, but the Rama changes it to “meat and wine“. Why?

As I noted in the past (see The Rambam’s Philosophy and Mesorah, and The Rambam, Knowledge and Akrasia), the Rambam’s philosophy is unique in emphasizing knowledge over character. It is the subject of Rav Samson [ben] Raphael Hirsch’s criticism of the Rambam in Nineteen Letters (letter 18). The Rambam opens the Moreh discussing how the ideal, pre-fruit Adam, chose between truth and falsehood, and the need to choose between good and evil was part of man’s decline due to the sin. He closes the book with a discussion of four planes of human perfection, the lowest being wealth, then health, morality, and the final highest level — intellect. In between he attributes prophecy to mental perfection, to the point that he considered Aristotle a near-prophet; individualized Providence (hashgachah peratis) is proportional to man’s understanding of G-d; mitzvos are defined as a means to learn about Him, unlearn the mistakes of idolatry, and setting up a stable society so that we have the peace and time to study; the Rambam requires knowledge of G-d by philosophical proof, not ecstatic experience or relying on trusted sources; etc…

So the Rambam’s notion of mastering Judaism would be very intellectual, and therefore would be to the mind much like bread and meat are to the stomach — the staples.

If the Rama understands Judaism as would the majority of Jewish tradition, then he would understand Judaism as having more of an emotional or middah component. Therefore, instead of bread, the Rama invokes putting into our “stomachs” something more connotative of emotion — wine.

This might also explain the difference in sequence. The Rama could have simply been repeating the idiom as it appears in the gemara‘s discussion of the laws of Yom Tov, “there is no joy except through meat and wine”. Or, perhaps the Rama — or even the original thought about Yom Tov joy — could not put emotions ahead of intellect, wine ahead of meat. We do not know because we are passionate, we are passionate about what we know.