Monday, December 28, 2009

Between Reason and Faith, part I

From the introduction of Between Reason and Faith: Anti-Rationalism in Italian Jewish Thought 1250-1650 (The Hague: Mouton 1967), by Isaac E. Barzilay:

During the five centuries which separate Sa'adyah Gaon (d. 942) from Joseph Albo (d. 1444) a supreme effort was made by Jewish intellectuals to reinterpret Judaism in the light of Greco-Islamic philosophy and science which, from about the tenth century on, began to penetrate the Jewish world, exerting a marked influence on it. A tenacious loyalty to an ancient law and culture, on the one hand, and a growing awareness of the intellectual and scientific trends in the milieu, on the other hand, prompted such an interpretation and made it imperative. The creative minority within Jewry, it seems, could not respond to the challenge of the philosophical and scientific awakening in both the Islamic and, at a later period, the Christian world in any way other than by absorbing the new ideas and attempting to reconcile them with Judaism.

The product of this effort was, indeed, a new synthesis necessitated by the historical reality. This synthesis had twofold implications. On the one hand, the interaction with the wider intellectual currents of the time caused Judaism to emerge from its insularity, enriched it, and demonstrated its vitality and adaptability. On the other hand, this process was wrought with grave dangers as far as the spiritual survival of the Jewish people was concerned.

Since Jewry was deprived of the natural prerequisites for a normal national existence, its preservation in the Diaspora depended primarily on the integrity of its religious beliefs and practices, as well as on the preservation of its national hopes and aspirations. These foundations rationalism, by its very nature, tended to weaken and undermine. Although the spread of rational speculation and knowledge generally constitutes a positive force in the life of normal societies, enriching their ethos and elevating them to higher cultural levels, it has proven throughout exilic Jewish history to have had a rather adverse effect on the national Jewish ethos, evoking in the people centrifugal tendencies of social dissolution and religious decline.

Being both individualistic and universal, enlightened and skeptical, rationalism is bound to have an adverse effect on Judaism, an essentially national religion centered on the community rather than the individual, and based on practices rather than abstract creeds. Notwithstanding the fact that medieval Jewish rationalism evolved its concepts and attitudes within the framework of traditional Judaism, its character was essentially individualistic.

21 comments:

  1. The phrase "between faith and reason" is very apt for this discussion. I have read a bit of your blogs and would like to ask the following question: are you a proponent of the extremes of the faith-reason spectrum, or are you a proponent of something in the middle. I assume from the name of your blog that you are not a proponent of the "faith" extreme of the spectrum. Are you, however, a proponent of the "reason" extreme - as an extreme, i.e., that *everything* must be in accordance with the realm of reason? Or are you a proponent of some type of mixture of the two? If the latter, can you (and I'm not saying that you do this) object to someone who has a different ratio of faith-to-reason than you do? If faith enters the picture at all, then it seems, by definition, that one cannot deal with that part of the picture in a rationalist way, and likewise, one cannot criticise or object to someone who has a different blend of faith and reason, or a different emphasis. I am asking just to clarify your position.

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  2. The date on R. Albo is missing a digit.

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  3. @Unsure

    How to decide when to be rational and when irrational?

    If that decision is made irrationally, one is essentially always irrational, even when one happens to do the reasonable thing.

    If that decision is rational, it will be to never act irrationally.

    Where is this middle ground that people can have different ratios? Is it a description of how often one randomly chose to act rationally?

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  4. After reading that excerpt from "Between Reason and Faith," I found myself asking myself, "why is that?" after many of the assertions (assertions that seem reasonable to me). Can I gather that the book does a good job answering these whys?

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  5. Where is this middle ground that people can have different ratios? Is it a description of how often one randomly chose to act rationally?


    What is the etymological relationship between the words 'ratio' and 'rational'?

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  6. Some people have faith that they will always act rationally.

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  7. What about Karl Popper and critical rationalism...

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  8. @ephraim

    I assume no relationship, I was using the language of the comment I was addressing.

    @Issac Balbin

    How hard one is trying to be rational is an issue separate from either how often one succeeds or how often one thinks one succeeds. Some people (pretend to) idealize (partial) irrationality simply because they can't be perfectly rational all of the time. It's hard for me to relate to that.

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  9. I cannot find your shiurim in video.The only thing I can find is audio. What should I do?

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  10. There are certain times when exclusive use of reason is essential, times when it's important to combine reason with other factors, and other times when reason is counterproductive.

    In mathematics or adjudicating a court case, when exacting analysis is called for, one must utilize reason to the exclusion of other faculties such as personal sentiment.

    When buying a house or deciding whether to marry someone, reason is important but requires support from intuition and emotion. Also, talk to any great scientist they'll likely say that some of their best ideas came entirely out of left field intuitions, later proven by reason.

    In creative, inspirational activities like painting or music composition, or physical, experiential activities such as dancing or love-making, reason can actually function to block and disturb the process.

    The same is true in Torah and mitzvot. In observance, too much emphasis on rationalization or justification can block enjoyment and experience. In conceptual matters, I heard quoted from Rav Chaim Zimmerman z"l that if one feeds the mind too much emunah (and not enough reason) the mind eventually regurgitates.

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  11. I assume no relationship, I was using the language of the comment I was addressing.


    I didn't say you assumed a relationship.

    I would like to know this in general, since I think it would help us understand what is meant by 'rational'.

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  12. I think that a healthy balance needs to be struck between reason and emunah. Too much reason will inevitably lead to a spiritually deficient, empty Judaism, or to its becoming irrelevant.

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  13. >>>>> I think that a healthy balance needs to be struck between reason and emunah.

    BL,
    No insult intended, but you do realize what a meaningless statement this is. Are you able to define “a healthy balance” or at least give me an idea.

    Quite awhile back, I stopped reading any midroshim on Tenach whatsoever. And the reason is because as a child I was taught by my rabbei-im who conveyed to me the impression that they believed all of them down to the last letter. As I grew up and realized that so many were out and out nonsense, I was told that the most ridiculous ones were not to be taken literally. Well it has been 60 years and no one has ever been able to tell me where to draw the line… so as far as I’m concerned its all non-literal, which in effect makes it useless to the average joe so why bother.
    I think the same might be true for faith vs reason. unless you define the balance (reasonably) its worthless.

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  14. I also certainly don't believe that we need to take nonsensical midrashim literally.

    Regarding balancing faith and reason-this is obviously an extremely complex and detailed subject but I think that one guide can be that if one's following the rationalist route is leading one to have less enthusiasm about performing mitzvoth and avodath Hashem then this may be a sign that one's faith-reason ratio has become imbalanced.

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  15. "so as far as I’m concerned its all non-literal, which in effect makes it useless to the average joe so why bother."

    Wow, what a leap!

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  16. >>>> Wow, what a leap!

    Granted, I was obviously being hyperbolic, for effect, but the sentiment holds.

    What i meant was that without a clear “rule-book” to claify the meaning and/or interpretation, how can any statement made in Midrash be believed as to its historicity.

    Now, many midrashim are obviously absurd, eg. moshe being 15 feet tall,Og being 1000+ feet tall, etc.

    However, many other staements are not all that absurd, in that they can be scientifically possible, but at the same time are not really very rational.
    so are they factual???

    Off the top of my head, from recent parshi-ot, here are some random examples and as reported by Rashi,

    All the rocks under yaakov’s head became one rock.
    Yaakov spent 14 years studying Torah
    Yaakov sent real angels, i.e. spiritual beings
    Yaakov kept the 613 mitzvot
    Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to build a yeshivah.

    Etc. Etc … i think you get the idea.

    to me, obviously none are very likely true, so why doesn’t rashi tell me this..or did he believe them to be literally true?

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  17. Elemir,
    Does it matter if Rashi believed them to be literal? Can't we try to uncover the ideas which these midrashim are trying to teach us without worrying about whether they are historical?

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  18. >>>>>> Does it matter if Rashi believed them to be literal?

    To me it matters very much, because it goes to the credibility of Rashi and others. Imagine if some future candidate for presidency had on his CV “ex-president of the flat earth society”. What would be his chances of being elected?

    Also, the entire basis of our many beliefs is a so-called “mesorah”. For me the credibility of the many links in this chain would be paramount. And it’s hard to name a “bigger” link than Rashi.

    >>>>> Can't we try to uncover the ideas which these midrashim are trying to teach us without worrying about whether they are historical?

    Sure as an intellectual exercise, but for a life prescription would you not then simply be fabricating all kinds of new twists and ideas and how would you assign validity to them?

    you always boils down to rationality.

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  19. " didn't say you assumed a relationship.

    I would like to know this in general, since I think it would help us understand what is meant by 'rational'."

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rational_number

    The words are closley related. But what they have to do with rational thought vs irrational thought is probbably a different topic.

    I would not be surprised if "irrational thought" is something that is never ended having no way to form a correct conclusion on the subject.

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  20. The words are closely related. But what they have to do with rational thought vs irrational thought is probably a different topic.


    My guess is that a ratio involves comparison, and similarly rational thinking is concerned with intelligent comparisons of ideas and phenomena.

    Maybe someone has a real source about this?

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  21. "However, it is possible to trace the origin of the word ratio to the Ancient Greek λόγος (logos) appearing in Book V of Euclid's Elements. Early translators rendered this into Latin as ratio, meaning "reason". However a more modern interpretation of Euclid's meaning is more akin to computation or reckoning.[7] Medieval writers used the word proportio ("proportion") to indicate ratio and proportionalitas ("proportionality") for the equality of ratios.[8]"

    Like all interesting things in english, it appears to be a misstranslation :)

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