Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?

In a comment to an earlier post, Tzelophchad raised an important issue:
...There really isn't any way to makes Orthodox Judaism a Rationalist Judaism. Where does one draw the line? ...It's not that a rationalist Judaism isn't a smashing idea, it's just that it's never going to be compatible with Orthodoxy
Tzelopchad's argument is one that I have heard from several people (on both sides of the divide) - it was all very well to be rationalist in the 12th century, but rationalism today is simply incompatible with Judaism, so one shouldn't attempt to go on the path of rationalism to any degree. I have three responses to that.
1. Many people believe that acceptance of the tenets of Judaism is rational.
There is heated debate as to whether it is rational to believe in the Divinity of Torah, as well as debate as to what the parameters of this belief actually are. Many people believe that it is indeed rational to possess such belief. This topic is discussed ad infinitum and ad nauseum in other forums. It will not be discussed on this website, because that is not the goal of this website. My goal here is to explore what rationalism meant in the times of the Rishonim, and how those positions are understood today.
2. Many of those who feel that faith is irrational still possess it but feel that the rest of Judaism should be as rational as possible.
Even if one’s attachments to the fundamentals of faith are not rational but rather a conscious leap of faith, a strong case can still be made for saying that one should implement a rationalist approach for the rest of Judaism to the extent possible.
3. Even for those who lack faith, it is beneficial to show that Torah is rational to the extent possible.
There are some people who have tragically lost faith in the Divinity of Torah altogether, but are still members of the Orthodox community, either because it is too difficult for them to leave or because they appreciate the lifestyle. For such people, it is valuable to show how so much of Torah and Judaism makes sense and is beneficial from a purely rational perspective.

I do agree, however, that rationalism has its dangers; I have made that clear on many occasions. However, so does the non-rationalist approach - it leads to obscurantism, and alienates many intelligent people. It's a case of different strokes for different folks.

It's probably a good idea for a post defining rationalism.


  1. For communities that listen to what the Rabbis say without question, then rationalism can be detrimental. However, for communities where everyone is thinking and reads philosophy and learns science then I think rationalism is essential in order not to lose anyone. This is especially true for communities where Rabbis or other prominent members of the orthodox community do not act appropriately. This is in order to show that Judaism is not based on the Jews that follow it, rather it is based on G-D and His ultimate truth.

  2. I didn't think I needed to subscribe to the Rambam's 13 icarim. But my rabbi asked me to make an effort. After a tremendous effort & soul-searching, I just can't make the leap of faith on many of the icarim.

    I can't seem to force myself to believe many of them. It seems to me that the Rambam is not such a rational person when it comes to the icarim. In fact, each of the icarim are statements of an irrational leap of faith....or perhaps hope. And it appears on at least a couple of the icarim that the Rambam either doesn't subscribe to them himself or has a very different view than most rebbeim. For example, his view of the times of the moshiach are more mundane than the typical fantastic stories one usually reads. & his preamble to "reward and punishment" seems to indicate that it is a sophisticated extension of the concept of reinforcing a child to learn with the use of candy.

    Nobody who has ever learned a Talmud for more than 5 minutes believes that the Torah has not changed from the time of Moshe. The entire thing is made up of arguments about what the real Torah is [complete with democratic decision making].
    I wanted to give the examples above so I don't come off as a person who is scoffing [which I don't do].
    Now, when davening, I focus my wishes that, for example, techias haMeisim should happen. But frankly, I have absolutely no idea what I'm davening about. I make sincere efforts to learn what these unknowable concepts are about. Every explanation comes up very, very short in the plausibility department. So I'm left hoping for something with no essence attached to it.
    My basic feeling is that when HaShem chastises Iyov at the end of that book, He pretty much says it all. I could summarize it as "humans are completely, utterly, totally unable to have ANY understanding of HaShem". & I am, of course, disappointed when humans go around claiming to be neviim with the knowledge of why HaShem did such-and-such. But my disappointment is also with my klal...that we have such clarity [in the Iyov example above, for instance] in Tanach about the impossibility of even imagining anything about HaShem; yet these exhortations don't seem to have any standing in the training of our klal.
    I think I'll stop at this point to get criticism.

    Thank you for your consideration,
    Mordechai from Seattle

    1. Have you finished the Talmud yet? Have you learnt it from a master who has the context of the Torah?
      "Torah can be an elixer for life or an elixir for death." Context is very important. "Don't trust yourself till the day of your death. Make for yourself a Master."

    2. Mordechai from Seattle thank you for sharing I feel so similarly

  3. The goal is to define core Tora truth without added subjective strictures. We can develop a core of Tora beliefs and laws. There will be points of differences among Rishonim. A common core can be constructed.

  4. first i want to thank you for your courage -- there are many Jewish blogs, this is a top blog.

    Is it tragic to think that Torah may have come to fruition in a way that belies the masorah?

    I would like to think that Judaism could withstand the opening of the door to other ideas about the masorah than the one that states that Moshe received it at Sinai.

    I am probably crazy to believe Judaism could withstand it. Probably any religion dies when its mesorah is considered a false tale.

    Can a religion survive without a genesis tale that followers must believe? I doubt it.

    But this forces another thought: those who kept and built the mesorah were not interested in emmes. They were interested in emunah (keepig it hight) and Judaism (keeping it going).

    Anything that would seriously impair emunah was non-masoretic on the face of it.

    Finally, in film we have the notion of "suspended disbelief." We know we are sitting munching on popcorn, but we still get scared at the horror film because we "suspend disbelief," in order to gain something from the film.

    Will all religions survive their encounter with modernity because of this? We know there are reasons to not think it is the emmes, but we gain something from suspending our disbelief.

    You don't have to be a religious person to cry at a wedding, or a bris, or (of course) a funeral.

    But in each case, are we gaining something from the experience, and therefore silencing our thinking selves?


  5. I think you should define rationalist judaism as the Rambam himself defines it:

    "For the multitudes of the religious, it is more dear to them and pleasant to their foolishness, to make to Torah and the intellect two extremes that contradict each other. They explain everything against that appears to be against reason to be supernatural, and they avoid assuming that anything can happen according to the laws of nature …

    We however strive to unite Torah and reason. We explain all things according to natural laws as much as possible except when it is stated explicitly that it is supernatural and there is no other way to explain it at all. Only then are we forced to day its supernatural."

    Igeres Techiyas HaMeisim section 6.

  6. I think what you may mean by "Rationalist Judaism" is closely related to some work by Chaim Perelman. I tried to find a good link to his work on the internet but, unfortunately, one has to study his longer work "The New Rhetoric" to get a correct or full view of what he is trying to express.

    Basically the critical ideas that are relevant here is, I believe, captured by the following terms: A) Universal Audience; B) Univocal. Meaning that the structure and nature of a "Rationalistic Judaism" consists of premises and augmentation acceptable to all rational and thinking beings (i.e. the Universal Audience). It strives for a single truth compatible with all the facts (i.e. Univocal). In many subjects, two opinions on the truth of and assertion is regarded as an error. In Mathematics, for most things, a theorem is either true or false--I know about Godel's incompleteness theorem but this is largely irrelevant to a practicing mathematician. Similarly, calculations in physics that come up with two numerical answers to the same problem is regarded as an error.

    The practical question is whether this is possible for Judaism. I am a scientist who is also a Lubavitcher. As a "radical behaviorist" I take a very different approach from the "Rationalist Judaism" advocated here. Although I find Rabbi Slifkin's work extremely useful and well researched.

    I, like the Lubavitcher Rebbe, take the accounts of creation and the narratives in the Torah literally. This is the reality I live with on a daily basis. Of course, as a scientist, I am familiar with and use the other narratives as well. The "behavioral engineering problem," in technical terms, is how to have these two repertories of verbal behavior coexist or, even better, be synergistic. I find Chassidus the "super-glue" that makes this possible for me.

    I admire the work of Slifkin but I am not sure it will be successful if propagated on a large scale. What will be taught to children? Also, there are many other areas that the Universal Audience objects to in Judaism outside of that ones that are commonly discussed on this blog (e.g connected with transmission of Judaism and its texts).

  7. The Rambam has a good line. He says the type of people that are rational are such a small group and so few, it's like categorizing the sun as a group. I think he says that in chullin maybe 8th perek in an essay.

  8. Very few people are pure rationalist. The question I've always had is where can you be on the rationalist scale and still not be rejected?


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