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 us. Religion 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.