Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Three Types of Rationalists

(Re-posted - I just discovered that Blogger posted it according to the date of when I started writing the post, not when I finished.)

There are three types of rationalists.

There are medieval rationalists.
There are 21st century rationalists.
And there are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century.

There are plenty of ideas and arguments that seemed perfectly rational in the twelfth century, but which have since been shown fallacious.

So, for example: Rambam believed that only a fool would deny spontaneous generation. That was a reflection of the scientific beliefs of his era, which a rationalist today should not accept. Many rationalist Rishonim believed that God's existence can be logically proven. But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence. Rambam believed that being a good Jew and receiving a portion in the next world is contingent on intellectual perfection, and therefore simple-minded people, children, and those making fundamental hashkafic errors simply cannot receive a portion in the next world. But this was a result of his particular hybridization of Greek philosophy with Judaism.

I have noticed a distinct group of people who consider themselves loyal followers of the Rambam, but they are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century. And as Rambam says, "A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in the front, not behind." Rambam did not believe Chazal to be infallible, and he would certainly not have rated himself that way, either. A rationalist today should follow Rambam's underlying guiding principles, not necessarily his specific application of them.

66 comments:

  1. "A rationalist today should follow Rambam's underlying guiding principles, not necessarily his specific application of them. "

    Chas v'sholom. That would without the slightest doubt lead to apikorsus. That's the reason you don't do it! Do you really apply modern rational thought to all aspects of Judaism, r'l? Of course not.

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  2. Agent Emes, check out this post: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2009/03/drawing-line-is-rationalism-futile.html

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  3. It was a lousy post then, and it's a lousy post now. Tzelophchad's kashya was much stronger then your teretz. Until you have a (much) better answer this problem will cast a shadow over your work.

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  4. I was under the impression Rambam found it hard to believe in spontaneous generation, but simply gave a din based on the chance of such a thing. Either way, irrelevant to the main point of your article.

    More to the point i'd like to bring up. you say:
    "Many rationalist Rishonim believed that God's existence can be logically proven. But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence"
    I can understand where creationists or (more specific to judaism) chareidi viewpoints come from, not that i agree with them. They generally believe that it is logical to believe in god and anyone who does not is either in denial or ignorant. But why is it that you choose to believe in (for a more general term) Judaism if you don't think it is logically provable?
    Apparently Rav Soloveitchik was not bothered by DH, or Evolution at all, not as i understand, because he outright dissagreed but because it simply made no difference to him. I'm not sure if you and he share the same approach or understanding. Can you please explain to me where you come from?

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  5. Rambam found it hard to believe in the spontaneous generation of mice, but considered it obvious that insects can be generated that way.

    With regard to your second point - there are lots of things that we believe in, often with good reason, without their being logically provable. To pick one common example - who you vote for!

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  6. Ah, thanks for clearing that up.

    Fair point, i'm not so sure if it's a good metaphor, but i'll think about it.
    That being said i'm fairly confident whoever i'm voting for actually exists. So the question would then be shifted,"what's the good reason?" I know you don't want your blog to deal with potentially ad nauseum topics like this, so could you name books or sites even that you find to be comprehensive and best represent your view regarding this?

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  7. Different people have different reasons. But you're right, I don't want my blog to deal with potentially ad nauseum topics like this! Email me and I'll tell you my reasons.

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  8. 1. "So, for example: Rambam believed that only a fool would deny spontaneous generation. That was a reflection of the scientific beliefs of his era, which a rationalist today should not accept."

    I like to quote George Wald (Harvard biochemist, Nobel Prizewinner, 1967) on this topic: ""It is no easy matter to deal with so deeply ingrained and common-sense a belief as that in spontaneous generation. One can ask for nothing better in such a pass than a noisy and stubborn opponent, and this Pasteur had in the naturalist Felix Pouchet, whose arguments before the French Academy of Sciences drove Pasteur to more and more rigorous experiments. When he had finished, nothing remained of the belief in spontaneous generation. We tell this story to beginning students of biology as though it represents a triumph of reason over mysticism. In fact it is very nearly the opposite. The reasonable view was to believe in spontaneous generation; the only alternative, to believe in a single, primary act of supernatural creation. There is no third position. For this reason many scientists a century ago chose to regard the belief in spontaneous generation as a "philosophical necessity." It is a symptom of the philosophical poverty of our time that this necessity is no longer appreciated. Most modern biologists, having reviewed with satisfaction the downfall of the spontaneous generation hypothesis, yet unwilling to accept the alternative belief in special creation, are left with nothing." "The origin of life," Scientific American, Vol. 191, No. 2, August 1954, pp.45-53)

    2. "Many rationalist Rishonim believed that God's existence can be logically proven. But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence."

    Some might say, "at best, it can be argued to be /exceedingly/ rational to accept God's existence."

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  9. Heck, might as well toss in another quotation:

    ""Once it was clearly established that spontaneous generation did not take place and that all life (as far as human beings were able to observe) came from previous life, it became very difficult to decide how life originated on Earth-or on any other planet. ... the defeat of spontaneous generation and the new suggestion that life came only from previous life, which came only from still earlier life and so on in an endless chain, made it seem that the original forms of life couldn't possibly have arisen save through some miraculous event. In that case, even if habitable planets were as plentiful as the stars themselves, Earth might yet be the only one that bore life." (Asimov, Isaac [biochemist and science writer], "Extraterrestrial Civilizations," Crown: New York NY, 1979, p.153-154)"

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  10. Alex, you have to bear in mind that there is a world of difference between the notion (as yet speculative) of very very very primitive life evolving from primordial soup, and the spontaneous generation of an insect!

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  11. "And there are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century."

    You got it so backwards. There are 21st century rationalist who think they are following in the footsteps of, and thus they are, medieval rationalists.

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  12. Eh? I don't understand. How are they not following in their footsteps?

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  13. R. Slifkin,

    1) As an aside, I've seen a quote regarding belief in an ancient universe making one unfit to become a ger. My intial action was to be depressed, the same as when I saw the ban against youir books hanging in shul. Such depression, I think, is simply a result of a conflict between issues and thinking and respect for eminent rabbinic authority. Being experienced, and hopefully wiser, I now anticpate such challenges, and am used to them!

    There is an interesting essay from R. Yerucham Levovitz(Daas Torah in Vzos Habercha) where he speaks of anticpating spiritual challenges so as not to be suprised by them, just as R. Akivah did in a much greater way("kol yami hayisi m'iztaer")

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  14. 2) As I've written before, I don't think isuees on ikkarei haddas, more fundamental than Science/Torah, have been discussed "ad nauseum"; I think that they haven't been discussed properly, and enough!

    If you are referring to the specific question whether emunah in God and Torah is rational, I might agree, in light of the *way* it's discussed. Part of the issue is that people don't know specifics of haskalic issues and the discussions are in generalities regarding biases, for example.

    There are certainly issues from haskalah which need to be dealt with. It is a disservice, IMO, to minimize them in the name of kiruv(not that you've done so).

    R. Adlerstein has written(not that he necessarily agrees with my ideas) that:

    "Alas, we have so few people in the yeshiva world today willing to take on any of the intellectual challenges of our generation!"(comment to "Artifical Halcha Two More Flavors")

    In "We Are All ID Dummies", he writes:

    "So much confusion abounds because for the first time in hundreds of years – perhaps ever? – we do not have Torah luminaries who have devoted themselves to taking on the challenge posed by general culture. (I do not fault them in any manner or form for this. They have enough on their plates. I can still feel sorry for us, and for the honor of Torah.) Those who oppose evolution as a matter of principle (certainly their entitlement) simply shrug their shoulders at the evidence for it (note: I wrote evidence, not proof), or even dismiss it entirely. They do not own up to the voluminous work supporting evolution. If evolution is incorrect, these phenomena need explanations – not appeals to outdated science, gross inaccuracies, and the citing of marginal figures. The same holds true in other areas, such as archeology and Biblical criticism. The standard conclusions are wrong – but the phenomena noted call for explanations, and no one in the Torah "

    In genearal, even the more emunah peshutah approach of the yeshivah world can be discussed a lifetime and is not ad naseum(R. Wolbe in Alie Shur II says even emunah pesuhtah requires depth; the difference, versus "chakirah" today, is perhaps whether one raises maskilic questions in *depth* and *directly*).

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  15. (cont.)

    An analogy to the previous paragraph is in the 3rd volume of Gesher Hachaim discussing the purpose of life; the author's son writes in the haakdamah something like "one can write books on the subject a lifetime, and still not be finished". The same, I believe ,is for many emunah and hashkafic issues, whether "peshutah" or not.

    Of course, you have a right to direct your blog as you see fit, especially when the discussion is often indeed "ad naseum", meaning, not adding specifics, facts, and questions. But that doesn't mean, as above, that there are not topics besides science/Torah which need to be explored.

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  16. Shades, I didn't mean that the topic is not important or should not be discussed! But it's a very complicated topic that needs a lot of very careful treatment, and it would be very difficult to moderate the comments on it appropriately. Topics such as that draw the wrong kind of attention, on both sides.

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  17. A paragraph I quoted from RYA was cut off, and should read:

    "The standard conclusions are wrong – but the phenomena noted call for explanations, and no one in the Torah world cares enough to provide them. People who have studied too much to just ignore these phenomena then often find it more satisfying to go far outside Torah circles for enlightenment."

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  18. Hi Rabbi Slikfin.

    First of all, on the modern consensus that God's existence cannot be scientifically or rationally proven, this was notably the position taken by the last great medieval Jewish philosopher, himself a harbinger of modern philosophy, namely Hasdai Crescas. Prof. Warren Harvey has a beautiful essay on the topic.

    Secondly, on the term "rationalism". I hesitatingly suggest that your blog would do much better to promote the value of "reason" rather than the ideology called "rationalism". An "ism" means that there is but one single value from which all other values derive. The "rationalism" of the medieval Maimonideans meant there was no true value in anything unless somehow derived from its service to reason.

    I highly doubt that you or almost any Jews today are true "rationalists", and that is a good thing. You believe that there are many human relationships and experiences of the deepest meaning that have nothing to do with rational argumentation.

    Therefore, it seems that what you are truly promoting on this blog is simply the great and undeniable value of reason, as one of God's greatest gifts to us. You promote a Judaism that values, promotes and exercises that outstanding gift. But by no means do you believe (I think) that it is ultimately God's only gift.

    So maybe "Rational Judaism"?

    Ketivah va-Hatimah Tovah,
    A Well-Wisher

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  19. Rabbi Slifkin - the problem is that once we are 21st Century rationalists - we don't have all that much left. If much of halacha is merely canonized scientific mistakes (e.g. Rav Shlomo Fisher's mehalech), and agadda in non-binding (as per R. Chaim Eisen's article), while the gemara generally lacks a deeper layer of meaning (as per pesachim 94), and the Rambam's quest for philosophical perfection is discarded as the mere application of Aristotelian notions to Judaism, whilst the rationalist Rishonim's approach to taamei hamitzvos often leaves much to be desired from our standpoint (e.g. egla arufa as a primitive form of detective work), and most post-Beshtian and especially post- Maharalic revival hashkafic discourse is rejected for various reasons (e.g. the ahistoricity of attempts to explain the Rambam and Ramban's machlokes about korbanos), then what are we left with?

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  20. Natan Slifkin said:
    "...there is a world of difference between the notion (as yet speculative) of very very very primitive life evolving from primordial soup, and the spontaneous generation of an insect!"

    It is pretty easy to believe in the spontaneous generation of a purely theoretical form of life for which we have no evidence that it ever existed or experimental evidence that it even could exist. It's like believing in aliens, or ghosts.

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  21. Hi Rabbi,
    I don't necessarily disagree with your post, but an idle observation: the current secular view of the origin of life on this planet ultimately resolves down to a form of spontaneous generation. Yes: I realize there is no consensus on how life began amongst scientists, but it ultimately entails a spontaneous transition from non-living to living.
    While this is not spontaneous generation as the ancients conceived of it, it is essentially spontaneous generation.

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  22. Well-wisher - you are correct that I am not using the term rationalism according to its dictionary definition. However I don't want to use the word "rational." First of all, some of the positions of these Rishonim are ideological rather than necessarily rational - e.g. the ideas of their taamei hamitzvos, and the idea of minimizing miracles. Secondly, if I use the word rational, then the other approach is irrational - and I don't want to be insulting the other approach in the very definition.
    My usage of the term rationalist is based on a definition given by Rabbi Dr. David Berger. Please see the link on the right for more info about how I am defining it.

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin - the problem is that once we are 21st Century rationalists - we don't have all that much left.

    I strongly disagree. While there's lots to be discarded, there's more than plenty left!

    If much of halacha is merely canonized scientific mistakes (e.g. Rav Shlomo Fisher's mehalech),

    Not much. A tiny fraction.

    and agadda in non-binding (as per R. Chaim Eisen's article),

    Still plenty to inspire and teach us.

    while the gemara generally lacks a deeper layer of meaning (as per pesachim 94),

    The RIshonim who held that still found plenty to work with.

    and the Rambam's quest for philosophical perfection is discarded as the mere application of Aristotelian notions to Judaism,

    Okay, but we still like the idea of refining our intellects.

    whilst the rationalist Rishonim's approach to taamei hamitzvos often leaves much to be desired from our standpoint (e.g. egla arufa as a primitive form of detective work),

    So we find different taamim!

    and most post-Beshtian and especially post- Maharalic revival hashkafic discourse is rejected for various reasons (e.g. the ahistoricity of attempts to explain the Rambam and Ramban's machlokes about korbanos), then what are we left with?

    We are left with lots and lots! The starting point is an intellectual enterprise that is so enormous, that even when you prune all this stuff away, there's plenty left!

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  24. If Rambam was forward looking in this manner, and his reasonings with the science of TODAY, not then, included philology, Hebrew Grammar, etc, would he then be compelled to amend his empirical determinations regarding the Hebrew text of the Torah in accord with Biblical Scholarship that accords different sections to different eras of Jewish history? These are, after all, among the sciences - and clearly there have been and are those who would claim, however incorrectly, to both abide by interpretations of Rambam 13, AND accept the date conclusions, but NOT the metaphysical presuppositions (which are pivotal for Rambam), of the critics. But if their conclusions on the dating of texts are so, but not their presuppositions, are they incorrect in their belief regarding the (halachic) 13 principles? Rambam, to be empirical, would seemingly have to at least consider THEIR reading of him - as he would obviously regard the science and logic of the scholars. thank you FranzPeter

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  25. "Rambam believed that being a good Jew and receiving a portion in the next world is contingent on intellectual *perfection*, and therefore simple-minded people, children, and those making fundamental hashkafic errors simply *cannot receive a portion* in the next world."

    Does he really say that? Or does he actually mean there is, so to speak, a sliding scale?

    Oh, and a related link:
    http://yediah.blogspot.com/2008/03/olam-haba-for-ignoramuses-insight-from.html
    http://yediah.blogspot.com/2008/03/olam-haba-
    for-ignoramuses-insight-from.html

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  26. Shadesof,

    Where do I find these RYA quotes first-hand?

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  27. R. Slifkin - Is it really the case that only a minute fraction of halachot are based on obsolete scientific notions?
    What about hilchot shabbat, with its notions of kli rishon and sheni? What about kashrut, with the whole notion of bliot? (Incindentally I once heard in the name of R. Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg that hilchot kashrut will be the first halachot to be changed when mashiach comes - although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the quote).
    Every single page of the gemara seems to contain antiquated scientific notions. I am not saying this is problematic per se, but we cannot deny the magnitude of the issues.

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  28. Ephraim,

    These are the links:

    1) "We Are All ID Dummies" (towards end of original post)

    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2006/11/24/why-we-are-all-id-dummies/

    2) "Artificial Halacha: Two More Flavors"

    (Comment # 3)

    http://www.cross-currents.com/archives/2009/07/17/artificial-halacha-two-more-flavors/

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  29. R. Slifkin,

    First, KVC'T.

    Second, how do you deal with R. Yitzhok Lamporanti quoted on FKM's blog?

    He writes, in part:

    "I think this entry provides strong evidence that the "famous" position he took on lice was only tentative and that he retracted due to his rebbe's sharp opposition. There is some evidence for this understanding in the lice entry itself too. "

    He seems to raise a good point; did he retract ? Even if not, it would seem to add nuance to his opinion.

    Here is the link to PY:

    http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=20180&st=&pgnum=174&hilite

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  30. An example of this, I think, would be the Ralbag's proof that the world was created ex aliquo (something from something). One of his proofs is that nature abhors a vacuum. We know this to be false and anyone using such an argument nowadays should not be considered following the philosophy of the Ralbag. However, there are other things that are brought down and other logical reasons that might be given.

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  31. Shadesof,

    Thanks for the links; I see you copied faithfully.

    Anyway, as far as what RYA says:


    (I do not fault them in any manner or form for this. They have enough on their plates. I can still feel sorry for us, and for the honor of Torah.)


    I disagree strongly. They should dump out whatever is on their 'plates' and devote themselves full-time to the issues of emunah, because dealing with them, even if only by admitting that they don't know the answers, will solve almost everything else that is hurting in Klal Yisrael today.

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  32. "I have noticed a distinct group of people who consider themselves loyal followers of the Rambam, but they are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century."

    Is this a reference to a specific community and or yeshiva - or stam an observation that such people exist and thereby constitute a distinct conceptual group?

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  33. If Rambam was forward looking in this manner, and his reasonings with the science of TODAY, not then, included philology, Hebrew Grammar, etc, would he then...

    I dislike these speculations about what Rambam would say today. It's impossible to know.

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  34. "Rambam believed that being a good Jew and receiving a portion in the next world is contingent on intellectual *perfection*, and therefore simple-minded people, children, and those making fundamental hashkafic errors simply *cannot receive a portion* in the next world."

    Does he really say that? Or does he actually mean there is, so to speak, a sliding scale?


    There is a sliding scale, but many people (such as those in my list) don't make the cut at all. See Menachem Kellner, "Must a Jew Believe Anything," for a good discussion of Rambam's views in these things.

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  35. R. Slifkin - Is it really the case that only a minute fraction of halachot are based on obsolete scientific notions?
    What about hilchot shabbat, with its notions of kli rishon and sheni?


    That's funny, I had been independently planning a follow-up post dealing with precisely that issue! Hopefully I'll get around to it today.

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  36. Shadesof said...
    R. Slifkin,
    First, KVC'T.


    And to you! My apologies for the neglect of this website, I have been busy.

    Second, how do you deal with R. Yitzhok Lamporanti quoted on FKM's blog?

    It wasn't anything that I hadn't already dealt with. I already pointed to a similar such position from R. Lampronti in a footnote in Sacred Monsters - Pachad Yitzchak, vol. 4 (letters yud-lamed) p. 72b, erech Klayos yoatzos, where he likewise talks about Chazal having supernatural insights into nature and knowing more than scientists, etc. But there he writes more at length and says that when confronted with a maamar Chazal that conflicts with science, he takes one of two approaches: either that of Rambam/ de Rossi, or that they had mystical insight. So he admits to having a bifurcated approach (to put it mildly - others might call it self-conflicting). He certainly wasn't a rationalist in the Rishonic sense of the term, but he was willing to adopt that approach in certain cases. I see no reason whatsoever to believe that he retracted in the lice issue; after citing R. Brill’s position, Rabbi L. again explains why he believes that one should be concerned for a scientific error. And the additional source that I quoted here shows that this does not conflict with him elsewhere saying that Chazal were correct.

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  37. "I have noticed a distinct group of people who consider themselves loyal followers of the Rambam, but they are medieval rationalists living in the 21st century."

    Is this a reference to a specific community and or yeshiva - or stam an observation that such people exist and thereby constitute a distinct conceptual group?


    The former.

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  38. Which communities or Yeshivot you are refering to?

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  39. I'd rather not say, for now. I'm sure some people can guess.

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  40. He must be referring to our Dor De'im community - students of Rav Qafih, n"e, who follow Rambam loyally in all areas of halakha and hashkafa.

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  41. Actually, I wasn't thinking of the DarDaim at all. I'm glad to hear that there are still some out there!

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  42. I thought you might have been referring to us because, following Rav Qafih, n"e, based upon Rambam, we still maintain that the first miswa is to know from philosophical proof that G-d exists, regardless of what modern philosophers think. (By the way, we maintain this unashamedly).

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  43. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I take issue with points you made on this post. (The quotes are not in order.)

    "Rambam believed that being a good Jew and receiving a portion in the next world is contingent on intellectual perfection, and therefore simple-minded people, children, and those making fundamental hashkafic errors simply cannot receive a portion in the next world."

    What do you mean by "simple-minded people," and where do you see they have no portion in the next world according to the Rambam?

    "So, for example: Rambam believed that only a fool would deny spontaneous generation. That was a reflection of the scientific beliefs of his era, which a rationalist today should not accept. Many rationalist Rishonim believed that God's existence can be logically proven. But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence."

    This is a faulty comparison. Science is based on incontrovertible, empirical evidence. Medieval scientists never performed the experiments we're familiar with, and thus did not have access to the facts which undermined their theories.

    Philosophy is based on thought. The rishonim had there arguments, and modern philosphers have theirs. What makes modern philosophers superior? The fact that they came later? The fact that there are a lot of them who agree with each other?

    Without knowing and understanding the actual arguments of both sides, you cannot evaluate who is correct. There are no experiments or newly revealed facts you can point to to demonstrate the veracity of the modern arguments.

    To put this another way, if 22nd century philosophers arrived at arguments that broke down those of 21st century philosophers, and hence declared that the existence of God is provable, would they be medieval thinkers or 22nd century thinkers?

    Again, since you seem to be going purely on authority, how do you know that the majority of modern philosphers are right, and are not flawed in their thinking? Since when does does the existence of a concensus of thinkers prove that they are correct?

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  44. David, please see Kellner's book for a full discussion of Rambam's views on the eligibility of people for the afterlife.

    What makes modern philosophers superior? The fact that they came later?

    I would think so, just like the principle of halachah k'basra'i - they have the advantage of being able to consider everything. I am not certain of this, and philosophy really is not my field, but people who I trust tell me that the philosophical views of the Rishonim in these areas have been rendered obsolete.

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  45. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I would first like to know what you meant by simple-minded. It could mean mentally challenged, or incapable of advanced thinking but capable of understanding simple arguments, or theoretically capable of advanced thinking but never choosing to develop one's mind.

    "I would think so, just like the principle of halachah k'basra'i - they have the advantage of being able to consider everything.I am not certain of this, and philosophy really is not my field, but people who I trust tell me that the philosophical views of the Rishonim in these areas have been rendered obsolete."

    Indeed, the last one always has the advantage, but this is no proof that he is right. In halachah, we must have rules of psak, so we follow rules that make sense; they are not hard and fast rules about who is definitely right.

    I would also add that the basra'i in the gemara tended to be on about the same intellectual level as the kama'i. It could be well argued that such is not this case with medieval vs. modern philosophers.

    My issue with your post is that you disparage an entire group of "rationalist" Jews as "medieval thinkers" without any knowledge of the area you are discussing. You have your people that you trust. Have you considered that these Jews have people they trust, or that they themselves have thought into the matter with greater clarity than others?

    Perhaps a broader question needs to be asked. Do you think it's possible (and I don't mean one in a trillion) that the academics\thinkers are capable of erring in philosophy (possibly because of emotions they have in the area)?

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  46. I would first like to know what you meant by simple-minded. It could mean mentally challenged, or incapable of advanced thinking but capable of understanding simple arguments, or theoretically capable of advanced thinking but never choosing to develop one's mind.

    Rambam would certainly exclude the first category. The second two would be hampered, but it's not clear to me how much.

    Indeed, the last one always has the advantage, but this is no proof that he is right.

    Agreed. But it is a strong advantage nonetheless.

    I would also add that the basra'i in the gemara tended to be on about the same intellectual level as the kama'i. It could be well argued that such is not this case with medieval vs. modern philosophers.

    How could it be well argued?

    My issue with your post is that you disparage an entire group of "rationalist" Jews as "medieval thinkers" without any knowledge of the area you are discussing.

    My main focus was not on the idea of philosophical proofs. It was on the idea of being rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes.

    Have you considered that these Jews have people they trust, or that they themselves have thought into the matter with greater clarity than others?

    The people that I trust are people who would love to believe that, for example, it is still possible to logically prove the existence of God, but reluctantly find themselves forced to concede otherwise. Are the people you mention drawing their conclusions against their bias? I think not. This doesn't mean that they are wrong, but it gives them less credibility in my eyes.

    Do you think it's possible (and I don't mean one in a trillion) that the academics\thinkers are capable of erring in philosophy (possibly because of emotions they have in the area)?

    Of course. Now let me ask you a question. Do you think its possible that religious thinkers are capable of erring in philosophy (possibly because of emotions they have in the area)?

    I have another question for you. Did you study at a yeshivah in New York?

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  47. Our scientific knowledge has surely progressed since the Middle Ages, and so the definition of rationalist should be updated. However when it comes to philosophical knowledge, a change of consensus among the experts does not necessarily mean the earlier scholars are wrong. Kindly read “Ten Philosophical Mistakes” by the highly prolific Mortimer J. Adler. He maintains that Aristotle was essentially correct on many core issues of ethics, epistemology and metaphysics, and that the questions raised by modern philosophers such as Descartes and Hume were themselves flawed.

    I’m not saying that Adler is right and therefore the strong majority of philosophers who disagree and wrong. I’m simply pointing out how hard it is to disprove a school of thoughts in philosophy, compared to how easy it is to do so in science. There is therefore no criticism of those who in science are 21st century rationalists, but in matters of philosophy are 12th century rationalist, as the burden of proof is very different in each case. It goes without saying that religious Jews, who are a minority within a minority, should not and will not be swayed by the consensus of experts on matters of faith when no conclusive proofs are brought.

    I see no inconsistency among those “21st century medieval rationalists” who follow the Rambam’s underlying philosophical approach and maintain (for instance) the next world is contingent on intellectual perfection. You may not care for their position, but I hope you understand and respect it.

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  48. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Given Slichos, work, chevrusas, and studying for exams, I've only been able to respond every 12 to 24hours. I understand this may be tedious for you; I want to be makir tov to you for bearing with me.

    "Rambam would certainly exclude the first category. The second two would be hampered, but it's not clear to me how much."

    Given this, the phrase "simple-minded" in your post is ambiguous. You should clarify your post, or many people may take you to mean that a psychologically healthy but intellectually unadvanced individual has no portion according to the Rambam.

    "How could it be well argued?"

    I think this would make for good discussion, but as you'll see below, this point is now moot to the current discussion.

    "My main focus was not on the idea of philosophical proofs. It was on the idea of being rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes."

    Thank you for this clarification. I initially took you to mean that one who holds by any single statement on your list has a medieval mindset.

    "Of course. Now let me ask you a question. Do you think its possible that religious thinkers are capable of erring in philosophy (possibly because of emotions they have in the area)?"

    At first glance, this would appear to be a good "back atcha!" question. However, it is in fact less relevant than my question.

    My objective here was to clarify 2things:

    a) What can the philosophical layman conclude about who is right among the "experts."

    b) If someone accepts 21st century science, but follows medieval phil. theories, is it appropriate to label him as a "medieval rationalist living in the 21st century."

    My question was not meant as an attempt to show bias on your part; I wanted to clarify your views on the 2 points above. Based on your clarification, it seems you agree that a layman cannot know for sure who is right, and you hold that the individual in "b)" is probably wrong, but might be right, and should not be dismissed as having a medieval mindset.

    Your question to me does not shed light on the content on this conversation; only on whether I'm biased (a perfectly legitimate point to be raised.) Given that we agree, I don't think it's necessary to pursue this line of thinking.

    I'm happy to see your clarification, but I'm still left in a quandary. What do you mean by "rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes"?

    I find it hard to believe that an entire community of Jews holds by medieval science, and you agree that one who holds by medieval philosophy does not (necessarily) have a medieval mindset. What else is there?

    Please provide some specific examples of what these people hold. I understand this may be difficult, as you would rather not reveal the identity of this community. However, without specifics, the entire thesis of your post remains unclear to me.

    Thank you.

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  49. By reading the comments here I noticed something funny. Rabbi Slifkin seems to be critical of a certain Yeshiva in NY for its position on how the Rambam’s philosophy should be applied today. Yet he was very happy to hear about the Dor De'im Teimani community which follows Rav Qafih and maintains the same exact position!

    Rabbi Slifkin admits philosophy is not his area, yet he says those who only reject the Rambam’s medieval science and not his medieval philosophy are inconsistent. Yet he goes on to say “I dislike these speculations about what Rambam would say today. It's impossible to know.” Quite right! It is impossible to know. How would Rav Hirsch change his Torah Im Derech Eretz position if he was dealing with the decadent 21st century culture and not 19th century culture? No one knows, and it’s pointless to speculate. You try to understand his underlying positions and apply it to the new situation as best as you can. The one thing you never do is to attack those with a different understanding as not being true followers.

    Before reading the comments I didn’t see what was going on here, but now it seems to me the tone and insinuations of this blog post are very wrong. Even those who study philosophy should not attack others who reach different conclusions. For someone who doesn’t even study the area and is simply following the consensus to make such an attack is very bad. He should revise the post and remove those parts which imply these people are wrong and are blindly following things the Rambam himself would no longer hold. If I’m mistaken in Rabbi Slifkin’ position, and I very well may be, then he should certainly rewrite it so that others don’t make the same mistakes I did.

    “But as far as I understand, in the world of philosophy, that is no longer true; at best, it can be argued to be rational to accept God's existence.” Hume showed that you can’t even prove causality is true. It may be “rational” to accept it, but you can’t “prove” it. I’m fairly certain that if you asked the Rambam if I’m “yotzei the mitvah” if I intellectually believe in G-d to the same extent I believe in causality he would say, Avada.

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  50. Rabbi Slifkin seems to be critical of a certain Yeshiva in NY for its position on how the Rambam’s philosophy should be applied today. Yet he was very happy to hear about the Dor De'im Teimani community which follows Rav Qafih and maintains the same exact position!

    Number one, everything is relative. I'm always glad to hear of people "holding of" Rambam. That doesn't mean that I'm not critical of certain ways in which they do so.

    Number two, my impression of the DorDeyim is that they don't try to read Rambam's positions into the other Rishonim, unlike the other group I was thinking of.

    “I dislike these speculations about what Rambam would say today. It's impossible to know.” Quite right! It is impossible to know.

    Right. But to automatically take the position that nothing has changed and nothing needs to be reconsidered is certainly wrong. One might decide that he would still maintain the same view, but one must at least seriously consider the alternatives.

    Even those who study philosophy should not attack others who reach different conclusions.

    As I already mentioned in the comments above, my focus was not on the aspect of philosophy per se. It was on the idea of being rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes.

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  51. How do you know they don’t “consider alternatives”, and that they’re “rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes”. Unless if there is more than one such Yeshiva in the NY area, and there very well may be, you’re simply mistaken. I don’t know who you’ve met from there, but based on my exposure I’d say you’re empirically wrong, as I spoken to them about these very issues. In all Yeshivos the bochrim rely on the Rosh Yeshiva’s judgment, and he doesn’t always share with them every nuance and obstacle he dealt along the way. So while not every bochur there can defend every critique of maintaining the Rambam’s Aristotelian positions, the ones higher up the ladder can. To be fair, the more thoughtful ones are generally too busy learning and reading than to hang out on blogs and step into controversies, so you may be suffering from a classic selection bias error.

    As a general rule the more specific the target, the softer the attack should be. There are certain phrases in your post which would be fine to write in general, but not appropriate to write about someone in particular, especially when you consider that your impressions about them may be mistaken.

    As you have a blog dedicated to Rationalist Judaism, and for the rishonim this usually included an Aristotelian perspective, you may want to read Adler’s very basic and introductory book “Ten Philosophical Mistakes”. Understanding is always the first step to defusing controversy, as you know much better than I ever will.

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  52. Could this criticism of a certain yeshiva be stemming from a recent theologic debate you were engaged in on your blog?

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  53. I fully agree with Keyser. I noticed a very disturbing trend, after having followed this blog for a few months now. When someone offers a convincing argument against what RNS put forward, or when someone asks a difficult kasha against him, RNS (not infrequently) turns the issue into an ad hominem one. My friends and I thought that RNS got trounced this summer in the debate he had, and were shocked when he turned the whole issue into an ad hominem one. Hey, RNS -- for the new year, how about just sticking to the issues? It makes no difference what yeshiva someone went to, or if they went to a yeshiva at all, or even if they're Jewish altogether. If they have a good kasha, how about just addressing the kasha??

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  54. Arnold, I am surprised at your take on things. I have no problem debating issues, even difficult ones. I had no problem in debating RAbbi Zucker, and we will be doing so in the next issue of Hakirah. But as I wrote several times, there is no point in having arguments that go on and on and on and on and on forever. I gave my reasons as to why I believe that certain types of arguments are futile, and that has to do with the type of person having the argument. What do you believe I should have done with, say, the anti-evolutionists who wanted to debate the scientific merits of evolution? And with my debate with Rabbi Zucker, how many back-and-forths should there be exactly? I spent hours and hours on the argument. How long do I have to spend so as to avoid the charge that I am avoiding the issues? Can you answer that?

    Besides, the issue of bias is not simply an ad hominem, but a very relevant issue when determining the framework of an argument. Most people will agree that when you have, say, an Xtian missionary at the door, there is absolutely no point in engaging in a theological argument. It's very relevant to discuss whether there is any point to having an argument.

    With regard to Keyser's comment - of course it was the blog discussion that led me to think about that yeshivah. But my comments were primarily not a result of the discussion on this blog, but rather a discussion that I had with someone by email about something else relating to that yeshivah.

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  55. By the way, from the very beginning of this website, I made it clear that I am not interested (nor do I have the time) to engage in arguments with people from different epistomological frameworks i.e. non-rationalists. I am not interested in endless arguments about whether the world is billions of years old, whether Chazal were infallible in science, etc. It's futile. The point of this website is to explore rationalism with like-minded people. I know that I have broken my own rule on this a few times, but I try not to. So discussing whether someone is working from the same epistomological framework is not an ad hominem (which means a personal attack that is irrelevant to the discussion), but rather something extremely relevant: is it worthwhile to have a debate with that person or not?

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  56. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Could you please respond to my most recent post?

    I still think you need to clarify the term "simple-minded" on your posting directly (with a footnote or something to that effect).

    I would also like to know if I am understanding your position at this point correctly.

    I would also like to know precisely what you meant when you said "rigidly locked into medieval positions and attitudes." Could you provide some examples?

    Thank you.

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  57. If your post was in fact directed at that yeshiva, I think your examples could have been chosen better.
    1) I would be shocked if anyone from that yeshiva believes in spontaneous generation (nor do they believe in a geocentric universe or any other scientific statements by the Rambam which by today's science are erroneous.)
    2) As for God's existence being logically proven, I will just say that I heard the head of that Yeshiva comment once on one of the "proofs" of God's existence in the Yad which today is shown to be based on faulty science. He stated that the point was that one's knowledge and recognition of God should resonate with the intellectual part of man, not that one should accept that particular proof at face value no matter what.
    3) As for the Rambam's belief that the next world is not open to those with mistaken beliefs and/or simpletons, one can agree or disagree, but I don't think any facts have changed in the last 900 years to prove or disprove that opinion.
    4) Your last point is the most puzzling. "A rationalist today should follow Rambam's underlying guiding principles, not necessarily his specific application of them." I am quite sure that no one in the yeshiva believes that, for instance, the planets and stars are really intelligences, etc., despite the Moreh discussing them so much, so Im not sure where that is coming from.

    I think what you might have meant to say is "It appears that some people try to erroneoulsy read the Rambam's approach into other Rishonim who in fact appear to have a different opinion and approach."

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  58. Keysor wrote: I think what you might have meant to say is "It appears that some people try to erroneoulsy read the Rambam's approach into other Rishonim who in fact appear to have a different opinion and approach."

    That has nothing to do with being a “Medieval Rationalist”, but is rather one aspect of a general disagreement between the Traditional and the Academic approaches. The Traditionalists assume that since there is one Mesorah, most Rabbis agree on most issues. When there are disagreements, Traditionalists primarily attribute it to differences in the nature of each Rabbi's intellect, and tend to downplay the impact of cultural and environmental factors. They also assume that opinions can be accurately transmitted across generations, so that when Rabbi X quotes Rabbi Y quotes Rabbi Z, Rabbi X is accurately and objectively conveying Rabbi Z’s opinion, and not simply using his name to convey his own idea.

    Academics disagree on all of these issues. And so it seems the one attack of Rabbi Slifkin against that Yeshiva which is in fact accurate, is a bias or difference of opinion which most Traditionalists share. Show me a Yeshiva which doesn’t maintain that until you see evidence to the contrary, Rishonim are presumed to be agreeing and not disagreeing. I for one have yet to see one in the current Orthodox world. They disagree on how strong that evidence should be, but then you are truly hairsplitting.

    This is what a blog is good for. You can post ideas on issues, and then hear feedback from those with more information. It’s much better than letting your initial opinions fester and build upon themselves.

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  59. As for the Rambam's belief that the next world is not open to those with mistaken beliefs and/or simpletons, one can agree or disagree, but I don't think any facts have changed in the last 900 years to prove or disprove that opinion.

    What has changed in the last 900 years is that we have come to realize (or should have come to realize) that Rambam's opinions of these things are not reflective of classical Judaism but rather stem from his being influenced by Greco-muslim philosophy.

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  60. I wonder what the Rav, zt"l, after having delivered his famous "makchish magideha" shiur, would say to your last comment...

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  61. What has changed in the last 900 years is that we have come to realize (or should have come to realize) that Rambam's opinions of these things are not reflective of classical Judaism but rather stem from his being influenced by Greco-muslim philosophy.

    What a poorly constructed sentence! The allegation that the Rambam was overly influenced by Greek philosophy was made during his lifetime and the generations which immediately followed him. That is not a new innovation that unfolded over the past 900 years.

    What I assume Rabbi Slifkin meant to write is that 900 years ago there was a consensus among philosophers that Greek philosophy was (in essence) True, and since Torah must be compatible with Truth the Rambam worked hard to reconcile the two. Now that the veracity of Greek philosophy is no longer universally accepted, and in fact the philosophical consensus rejects it, the Rambam may not have been so influenced by it.

    To use an analogy, Kant held that the paradigm of what we know to be true is Euclidian Geometry and Newtonian Physics. That was before Relativity and non- Euclidian Geometry. Had Kant of lived a century later, his position would almost certainly have changed.

    My question here is here for Rabbi Slifkin. By his own admission he doesn’t even know enough to be an informed spectator of this debate, let alone a contestant. For someone who hasn’t even read introductory books on this subject to publicly attack those who’ve spent years and decades thinking about the issues is not just foolish and imprudent. It’s rude.

    One would think that someone who was unfairly attacked by those who didn’t even know enough to ask intelligent questions would refrain from making the same mistake himself. One would expect that he would want to meet a Rosh Yeshiva in person before attacking him and the whole approach of his Yeshiva. What we see from here is that life is full of surprises.

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  62. I didn't admit to not even being an informed spectator, and I didn't publicly attack anyone.

    But I am curious to know what you meant with this sentence:

    "Now that the veracity of Greek philosophy is no longer universally accepted, and in fact the philosophical consensus rejects it, the Rambam may not have been so influenced by it."

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  63. "I would think so, just like the principle of halachah k'basra'i - they have the advantage of being able to consider everything. I am not certain of this, and philosophy really is not my field, but people who I trust tell me that the philosophical views of the Rishonim in these areas have been rendered obsolete."

    The above words are yours, Rabbi Slifkin, from this very thread, on September 22. You absolutely did admit to not being an informed spectator!

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  64. I guess we have different definitions of "informed spectator."

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  65. I don’t see how that sentence could be simpler. Would the Rambam have worked hard to reconcile Torah with a minority position in philosophy? Reread my other comments and the book I recommended and you’ll understand what I meant.

    This conversation though is beyond pointless. Whatever could you mean by “informed spectator”?

    By “informed spectator” I meant someone who understands the issues being debated. In the evolution/creationist debate, an “informed spectator” would be able to define the term “punctuated equilibrium” and explain why some feel it may or may not be evidence for one side or the other. Presumably the philosophy people you trust would fall into this category.

    I realize others may have a much more liberal definition of “informed spectator” and would go so far as to say anyone who can parrot the major buzzwords, even if they don’t understand them at all, is an “informed spectator”. To return to evolution/creationist, an “informed spectator” can recall the words “punctuated equilibrium”, and even though he can’t define them he knows they have some relevance to the debate.

    I find that second definition to be absurd, as I’m sure you do. However, even if someone were foolish enough to accept it, you would still not be an “informed spectator” when it comes to the debates between modern and Greek philosophy. Modern philosophers for the most part have rejected Greek metaphysics and epistemology. They’ve done so for several reasons. I’m not asking you to explain the questions they’ve raised or to critique the strength of them. I am asking you to state them, or at least one of them. Any of them. Throw a single buzzword at me to indicate that at one time in your life you’ve read a single article discussing the issue.

    I gave you a book recommendation to help rectify that deficiency. As it stands, you don’t even know enough to ask an intelligent question on those who accept much of the Rambam’s metaphysics. For if you did, your whole post would have been written differently. You may still have rejected their position, but you wouldn’t have dismissed it as you did. Your post indicates you don’t have an ounce of respect for those who take that position, and find it inconceivable that they may be correct, which is due ignorance on your part. The analogy to those who’ve attacked your evolution work is striking. I won’t even go into the ungentlemanly ad hominem aspects of attacking the yeshiva and philosophy of someone you just had a debate with.

    I like your work in general, which is why I find this post so bothersome. It would be best for me to pretend that I never read it, which is what I will try to do. It would be best for you to get at least a layman’s understanding of the issues, so that you can rewrite this post in a manner that doesn't discredit yourself.

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  66. Please clarify. Are you saying that this group of people does not maintain some of Rambam's philosophical positions against the contemporary consensus, or that they do but they are justified in doing so?

    Also, I truly do not understand what you meant by "Now that the veracity of Greek philosophy is no longer universally accepted, and in fact the philosophical consensus rejects it, the Rambam may not have been so influenced by it." Why does the fact that it is no longer accepted mean that Rambam was not so influenced by it?

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