Sunday, April 4, 2010

Traditionalist vs. Academic Torah Study

Growing up, I learned exclusively in charedi institutions, including eight years in yeshivah gedolah. Now that I have moved into academic Torah study, I am fascinated by the differences between the charedi/ yeshivish/ traditionalist approach to Torah and the academic/ rationalist approach. I do not feel that one or the other is better in absolute terms - rather, each has its advantages and disadvantages. The academic/ rationalist approach is superior in terms of ascertaining the historical reality of what is actually going on in the Chumash/ Nach/ Talmud/ Midrash/ Rishonim. But the charedi/ yeshivish/ traditionalist approach is generally superior in terms of imparting religious devotion. Of course, in some cases, and for some people, the charedi approach is a major turn-off from Judaism. But in general, it is a more inspirational and motivational approach.

This dichotomy is unavoidable. Reaching truth requires intellectual honesty and objectivity; this requires a detached, critical analysis, which harms the reverential experience required for religious inspiration. Whereas those who devote themselves to Torah study with passion often end up unable to evaluate matters objectively.

Which is ultimately more important - reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth? I certainly don't feel qualified to answer that question.

77 comments:

  1. Both. I simply refuse to accept the fact that religious devotion can only come at the expense of lies. I know this may often the case and I understand the reasons. Nonetheless, I cannot believe that G-d wants His people to reject searching for truth.

    I don't have any easy solutions, but I think one simply has to find a proper balance of being truthful and being a true yirei shamayim -- one way or another I think this should be our goal.

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  2. Natan Slifkin - Which is ultimately more important - reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth?

    I don't think they are mutually exclusive. Some people can do both and reach historical truth and attain religious inspiration and growth (and some can only do one or the other with satisfactory results).

    Mark

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  3. Have you read James Kugel's book "How to Read the Bible?

    He does a wonderful job explaining both approaches, and makes an attempt (in my view unsuccessful) at reconciling the two.

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  4. Rabbi Slifkin:

    You say, “This dichotomy is unavoidable.” I say it is difficult to avoid. You say, “Reaching truth requires intellectual honesty and objectivity; this requires a detached, critical analysis, which harms the reverential experience required for religious inspiration.” I say it “threatens, but does not necessarily harm” the reverential experience.

    “Which is ultimately more important - reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth?” That’s like asking: Which is more important – the brain or the heart? We can and must acquire and teach both intellectual honesty and passionate devotion to develop successful and effective servants of Hashem.

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  5. Rabbi Slifkin - you write that academic study is more worthwhile in terms of ascertaining the historical reality even when it comes to Chumash. How far to you take this approach? Does this mean that you are prepared to grant legitimact to critical Bible Scholarship? If not, why do you draw a line when between ascertaining the historical truths of the 'pre' and 'post' Chumash eras?

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  6. Does the academic approach allow one to be religiously devout and spiritual? I certainly hope so. That said, why not choose the more spiritual and devotional items to be taught to younger people until they reach spiritual maturity, generally stressing the "traditional" approach (at least until college age), and only then adopt a more scientific approach.

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  7. Regarding the academic/rationalist approach, I'd like to see you discuss James Kugel some day!

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  8. "This dichotomy is unavoidable. [...] reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth"

    In other words, the religion isn't true. If it were, there would be no dichotomy. I'm sorry, but that conclusion seems unavoidable.

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  9. I think the two choices you present may be misleading. Religious devotion can come from the meeting of historical truth and reverence -- there is such beauty in both the Torah and the world that we don't have to tell "untruths" in order to see it. And any society or culture that survives by getting devotion out of falsehood is ultimately doomed to become overbearing and is also in danger of being corrupted, because it has to protect its story. I don't believe Judaism needs to tell untruths in order to inspire. The Torah, and the incredible intellectual history of the Jewish people, is certainly enough to do that. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his wonderful book Covenant and Conversation, uses the Torah, traditional sources and Jewish tradition itself to elevate his readers, and I haven't noticed any untruths in his writings.

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  10. HaRav Slifkin-let us try to both seek truth fiercely and improve our devotion intensely. You have presented a problem-the fact that one can tend to negate the other. May that recognition of the problem serve as a springboard towards solving the problem by us
    attempting to forge forwards in both realms.

    Let us strive to be exceptions to the rule. The question of how-this can make a very useful further discussion.

    One suggestion-I know some will find this impossible-try to maintain a simple faith while not letting this stop one from pursuing a sophisticated faith. I am for a fusion approach.

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  11. The traditionalist approach only works to inspire religiously if a person is never exposed to the academic approach. What often happens is that once someone starts to seriously explore the academic side, he/she realizes that much of what they had been previously been taught is misleading at best and downright false at worst.

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  12. The scholars at Hildesheimer's were able to, IMO, combine both.

    More recently, the Daat Mikrah series on Tanach is, IIUC, another example of this type of approach.

    KT
    Eliyahu

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  13. Rabbi Slifkin,

    You pose a set of opposing alternatives. I feel that it behooves you to struggle more with how to make the synthesis viable. I will admit that is not easy. But as the Rav, R. JB Soleveitchik pointed out eloquently the life of the halachic man is truly demanding. Simplistic judaism is lazy Judaism, however much it is loaded down with minutae.

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  14. I don't see the style of study as an either-or situation, but as a both-and one. Why not take the best from both methodologies and discard what appears to be mistaken? I am surprised, however, at your inclusion of the academic study of Chumash as being more appropriate for arriving at truth. Are you intimating that the DH hypothesis of whatever flavor is a more reliable indicator of the actual history of its creation? If so, then your evolving ideas about the nature of torah, both written and oral, follows that path which the Hareidi world has predicted and inveighed against. Don't allow the shortcomings of the current crop of religious leaders to dictate your own ideology.

    Have an enjoyable remainder of Yom Tov.

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  15. Some words on this topic from a shmues of my then-Rosh-Yeshiva R' Naftali Elzas in November, 2003. It's my personal belief that this shmues was brought on at least in part by my visit to R' Slifkin the previous week, where I brought back two of your books to the yeshiva. I'm submitting this as a contrast to your approach, a pre-ban example from IMO one of the more intelligent, well thought-out and tenacious movers (if perhaps less well-known) in the anti-Slifkin/academic Torah camp.

    I would transcribe more, but it's an poor, unclear recording and takes a long time to do. Begin quote.

    There is a breath of unfresh air which blows into the olam ha-Torah from the academic olam, from what we would call the olam of the university; and people who are basically university-trained people who either have become baale teshuvah, or [?] become baale teshuvah, or somewhere in the middle.

    And the problem is that they utilize the analysis system of the outside world on ma'amare Hazal without knowing the analysis system of [tape change]

    [...]

    There is probably one of the biggest hurbanot of our generation; and even bigger, the hurban of the English part of the generation. On the one hand, the ba'al teshuvah movement is so flourishing, it's a gevaldike brachah [...] it's bringing ever more [...] people who came from the other side of the Iron Curtain, and other curtains, and baruch Hashem, they've become shomer Torah u-Mitzvot, yare shamayim and lamdanim; but at the very same time, there has infiltrated a tremendous lot of [?] de'ot kozvot [?] opinions which blow from the Western society [?] haskalah into the English Torah.

    And that creates hurbanot kede-en [?] with no intent whatsoever. I saw an English commentary with my own eyes, I'm not going to say which one at the moment, on a particular point [?] Ya'akov Avinu, Hashem yerahem; I think that the person who writes that and said that is probably en lo helek ba-olam ha-ba. Why? He didn't do anything wrong. He learnt a piece, he did his analysis, he came out with a conclusion, very logical; but it wasn't Torah. Do you follow? It wasn't a shtikl Torah, it wasn't an analysis which he learnt in yeshivah; it was an analysis which he learnt in a different system. You can't learn Torah with that system! You come out with wrong conclusions; his conclusion was wrong.

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  16. Rabbi Slifkin--
    When you gave a talk at my high school (SAR)this issue came up and prompted a discussion in an online forum between many of the faculty and students. It revolved more around the question of whether chareidim are more "passionate" religiously than the modern orthodox. I quote:

    Devorah Zlochower: I think the depiction of the two communities is overly simplistic. I am not convinced that we have no passion and I do think he got into a little trouble by depicting MO as being solely a Rambamesque, super-rationalist approach to Judaism. While that describes some of MO ideology it is incomplete - it, for example, leaves out those who have been seeking and building a more spiritual or activist based approach. It also doesn't sufficiently acknowledge that critique can lead to passionate activism and calls for change. Witness the Orthodox feminist movement, movement to free agunot, movement to get meat plants to be more consciously ethical in their treatment of animals, witness the passion that interdenominational dialogue or interfaith dialogue can create. At the same time, I do think that self-critique is important and that as MO Jews, we should evaluating ourselves personally as well as our community and thinking about these issues.

    Rabbi Jonathan Kroll: I know many MO Jews who are very passionate about their Judaism, careful observance of halakha and about making a difference in the Jewish community and the broader world. These passionate MO Jews believe in Modern Orthodoxy as a lechatchila approach to understanding God, his Torah the world and our role in it. Jews who identify as MO, however primarily as Orthodoxy lite, do lack passion and single minded commitment to Torah and Mitzvot. This is not a result of open-mindedness. This is a result of not really buying into the philosophy. While I hope to be able to build a community that cares deeply about the philosophy and therefore is also passionately committed to Torah and mitzvot, I realize that the open-minded approach does make it more sociologically acceptable to be less committed in certain ways. On the other hand though, the closed minded approach while making it socially unacceptable to be less committed to keeping certain mitzvot, also has plenty of negative consequences- most notably in my mind- it is not the most genuine way to serve God.

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  17. It is unclear whether you subscribe to the Kugel approach (that traditional interpretation and modern biblical scholarship cannot be reconciled) or whether you reject it. If the former, then you can't possibly combine the two in any coherent approach. If the latter, then how do you reconcile modern biblical scholarship's conclusions that historical events in the torah (the mabul, krias yam suf etc.) Did not happen and the traditional/chareidi "inspirational" approach which insists that they did?

    Your post reminds me of a conversation I had with an intermarried coworker who told me that she plans to raise her children both Christian and Jewish. I then quipped "so you plan to teach them that Jesus was the son of God and that he was not the son of God?"

    It seems to me that you are trying desperately to have your cake and eat it too.

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  18. "Which is ultimately more important"

    More important for what?

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  19. I'm religiously inspired by the academic approach. I suspect many are.

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  20. I think that much frustration is created when the academic approach is not allowed to have an effect on halachic decision-making. Rabbi David Bar-Hayim's approach allows for such a melding which is qute refreshing.

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  21. LAWRENCE KAPLAN

    Rabbi Slifkin: I would respectfully suggest, indeed urge, that you read the very important book by Rav Shagar, Z"l, "U-Ve-Torato Yehegeh." There he addresses how one can combine lomdus and the academic study of the Talmud. His point is that it is both possible and imperative to harmonize the search for truth and for religious meaning (mashmaut).

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  22. " This dichotomy is unavoidable. "

    A few comments:

    1) "Academic approach" is a broad topic and specific examples might be helpful. I would think, for example, that objections to the "tone" of your book are one example of the dichotomy(I would note that the Charedi/traditional side does not see any dichotomy in its approach!).

    2) Religious passion can't be based on obscurantism; if a person is aware of an issue or question whether through academic sources or in any other way, it must be at least acknowledged. It is better, IMO, to live with bifurcation and doubt, than give a bad, simple answer.

    3) Gedolim such as R. Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg or R. Avroham Chaim Heller can serve as role models of how to deal with the two worlds in a sophisticated and scholarly manner.

    4) Your exact dichotomy applies to questions on fundamental issues of Jewish belief. The Charedi kiruv seminar approach is basic and inspirational, and certainly has it's place in religious life, but I am not sure if it can be called a "detached, critical analysis", and it would not satisfy everyone. How to deal with those not satisfied by such an approach is a good question(for starters, such people should attempt to attain the knowledge of R. YY Weinberg , et al !).

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  23. Which is ultimately more important - reaching historical truth, or attaining religious inspiration and growth?

    Professor Haim Kreisel tries to answer this question in his essay Interpreting Judah Halevi's Kuzari.

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  24. I am truly fascinated by your description of learning gemara as an inspirational/devotional experience, and how on that basis you question whether the yeshiva world manages to "come to truth", as you put it.

    You must have learnt in some really interesting places. Come to think of it, I remember seeing on wikipedia that you learnt in Medrash Shmuel. Maybe if you had been in a more normal enviroment you would have a different viewpoint.

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  25. All the yeshivos that I learned at, and especially Midrash Shmuel, professed to be interested in reaching the emes. They really thought that this is what they were doing. But learning Gemara did not involve, say, checking to see if the version in the Vilna edition was accurate, or if their assumptions about Chazal's way of thinking were correct.

    Read Heilman's "People of the Book" to see what I mean.

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  26. Who in the traditional camp are you referring to when you say that the academics are more truthful? Ketzos, Nesivos, Reb Akiva Eiger?

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  27. Religious devotion is a function of one's relationship to G'd. This can be a very personal one, independent of the critical view one can have on, say, the Talmud.
    You can trust G'd, pray to G'd, talk to G'd as if the passage in Pessachim 94 did not exist.
    How did Dovid HaMelech relate to G'd?
    Was he bothered by Chazal's 6000 years?
    That's my point. Be like him!

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  28. All dogmatists call their dogma "emes". However, prophets are not accepted without tests. A minimal test of "emes" would be:

    1. A man of "emes" agrees that validation of the "emes" whenever possible is a good thing, and can only refine and improve the "emes". A man of "emes" is not afraid of cricital thinking.

    2. If a certain "emes" does not pass validation, we expect the pronouncer of that "emes" to reconsider and ponder the consequences. We do not expect him to ban validation.

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  29. I think that there are different shades and nuances that can adopt while not rejecting the academic approach. One can take a mixed Kugel-Rabbi Louis Jacobs approach. We experienced divine Revelation at Sinai but perhaps the Torah as we have it was redacted as academic scholars argue. This may mean that not all historic events recorded in the Torah occurred literally as recorded, but this does not mean that they did not happen approximately as such. In other words the events happened but we know about them through the prism of Torah which at times can be seen as involving metaphor.

    This does not detract from our devotion to Torah as what Hashem gave to us through the Jews who received and redacted it. Just as we should support Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel regardless of "how it happened" so too the same thing with the Troah we have. The same can be said regarding evolution
    -so what if Hashem decided that human beings would come into being
    in such a manner?

    Taking a Kugel-Jacobs approach may simply be making our understanding of Torah more sophisticated, more enriched, but it need not and must not detract from our fervor in our
    Avodat Hashem.

    How a text came into being does not change the fact that what we have was decided by Hashem. Why do I bring all of this up? No I am not claiming that one must accept the documentary hypothesis. I myself am not certain regarding DH.
    I am simply saying that one may if one so wishes and at the same time reconcile one's academic approach with a traditional approach.

    An academic approach must not cause us to damage our frumkeit!

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  30. new article on the topic:

    http://hsf.bgu.ac.il/cjt/files/Knowledge/Berger.pdf

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  31. head and heart, that is like saying "who cares if its true or not...we think its true so its all good"

    that is not acceptable.

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  32. I urge all who are benefiting from this highly stimulating blog to make a donation to Rabbi Slifkin which will enable him to devote more time its upkeep. Donations can be made through PayPal by pressing on the donations button under the posting regarding the evolution of the olive.

    Give generously (or as much as you can)!

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  33. "The academic/ rationalist approach is superior in terms of ascertaining the historical reality of what is actually going on in the Chumash/ Nach/ Talmud/ Midrash/ Rishonim."

    Really?

    It is documented and well known that virtually all archeologists until relatively recently maintained that the domestication of camels did not occur until at least hundreds of years AFTER the time of Avraham Avinu. This was used as a means of saying that the Torah account was false, written thousands of years after the events depicted, by people who didn't know the truth of the earlier times.

    Let's do a "freeze frame" here. Rabbi Slifkin, at that point in time, when the universal consensus of professional archeologists was that there were no domesticated camels, would YOU have said that the Torah is historically false on this point???

    Unfreeze-frame. Archeologists discovered cave painting datable to well before the time of Avraham Avinu, where camels are being lead around by servants. The archeologists revised their view, saying that the wealthy did have domesticated camels earlier than did the masses.

    It is time to realize that what many people recognize as FACTS espoused by historians and archeologists is often (usually?) hypotheses and theories built on limited evidence. THAT is "superior" to the Torah as presented by G-d at Sinai and by the great Sages of Israel based upon mesorah? Is this rational?

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  34. Ultimately, the problem is that these two paradigms (science and religion) are trying to answer each others' questions.

    Science is very good at answering questions like "what is happening" and "how does that work." Questions of fact that do not involve morality or the intangible.

    The Torah is very good at answering questions like "why did it happen this way", "for what purpose does this exist" and "what should I do." Questions of morality and spirituality that do not involve explaining physical observations.

    Any time one paradigm tries to answer the others' questions (in either direction) the result usually ends badly.

    As for some of the classic examples often cited, where people say you have to choose one or the other, my personal belief is that the choice itself is a bogus question. I don't think there can be an actual contradiction between science and Torah, only a lack of sufficient knowledge to resolve apparent contradictions.

    The alternative is to either (God forbid) ignore the Torah or believe in a universe deliberately designed to confuse people. If our best observations of the world inevitably must lead to incorrect conclusions, then it paints a picture of a Creator that doesn't deal honestly with his creations - a picture that is directly contradicted by the Torah itself when it says (Bamidbar 23:19) "God is not a man, that He should lie..."

    Based on this, I believe that if our Torah understanding doesn't agree with our scientific observations, then we need to spend more time studying both and be prepared to accept the possibility that we may not have sufficient knowledge of one or the other (or both) to come to a satisfactory conclusion. To simply dismiss science or the Torah as "wrong" doesn't do anyone any good.

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  35. Shalom, Cherry HillApril 9, 2010 at 6:23 AM

    To Barbara,

    If your point is that NO human today--scientist or rabbi--has a direct line to G-d and can only present theories, then you are right.

    However, if a scientist demostrates that the world is billions of years old, then ignoring that information and calling him/ her a kofer is weak and foolish. On the other hand, if one tries to see how that can be understood to conform with the Torah, so as to better understand G-d's creation to the best of our limited abilities, then that is praiseworthy.

    If more accurate information later proves the scientist's theory about the age of the universe was wrong-- then what harm, as it was merely an avenue to try to understand G-d better? Ignoring science, however, merely serves to undermine faith, as most people will be conscious that they lack the emunah to confront difficult questions.

    A hundred years ago, many frum Jews refused to have their pictures taken, afraid that it would steal their neshama. Should we emulate that kind of attitude?

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  36. With regards to the choice between using rationalism or simple faith as a basis for one’s beliefs, it seems that many commentators here fail to understand something crucial that goes to the heart of the matter and that is that many shomer Torah and mitzvot, like myself, are “hard wired” so that it is impossible for us to accept anything on faith that has overwhelming evidence/arguments/reasons against it.

    The list of beliefs that I was taught that traditionalists (I hate the word Orthodox) accept as “truth” contain many beliefs that my intellect (i.e. science, knowledge and rational thought) tells me are simply false. And this includes some of the 13 Ikkarim.

    Further, the fact that traditionalists have chosen to mandate strict acceptance of the 13 Ikkarim as a requirement of belonging to the fold, makes it extremely difficult for us. The first step, I see would be a loosening of these mandated beliefs and that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

    Barbara, 2 points.

    1. Its ironic that you accept the opinion of archaeologists on dating these cave paintings to refute their opinion on camels.
    2. Believe me, camels, being anachronistic or not is totally irrelevant, there are dozens and dozens of solid reasons for the “rational” disproof of the divine authorship of the Torah.

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  37. Shalom - it seems to me that you completely missed the point of my comment. I very purposely spoke about "historians and archeologists" and not about scientists. Scientists usually have hard data to support their conclusions, and one ignores their hard data and logical conclusions at the peril of one's mind. Historians and archeologists, on the other hand, have guesses and hypotheses built upon a relatively small amount of hard evidence. Moreover, in the area of science, where the Torah speaks of Ma-aseh B'reishit, and the mishnah in Chagiga implies that this is not to be taken literally or simplistically, one can interpret according to scientific knowledge. This is not the case with the narrative of the avot, etc. Shalom - what would YOU have said about the Torah's account of Avraham, during the years when archeologists were all claiming the Torah's account to be anachronistic? Would you have said that the account is merely an allegory? Would you have said that the Torah was false?

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  38. "Let's do a "freeze frame" here. Rabbi Slifkin, at that point in time, when the universal consensus of professional archeologists was that there were no domesticated camels, would YOU have said that the Torah is historically false on this point???"
    ********************

    Barbara, let us do some other "freeze frames". Once, the universal consensus among rabbis was that the Old City of Jerusalem (It HaAtika, West of the Kotel) is the site of ancient Yerushalayim. At that time, would YOU, Barbara, have insisted that this is so?

    Once, the universal consensus among rabbis was that the stars circle the Earth every day, and that the Earth was the unmoving center of the Universe. At that time, would YOU, Barbara, have insisted that this is so?

    Forgive me for reusing your words: It is time to realize that what many good Jews recognize as FACTS espoused by rabbis are often (usually?) hypotheses and theories built on limited evidence.

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  39. Moshe Refael - my reponse to the issue your raised was contained in a comment that I sent to answer Shalom's post as well. Rabbi Slifkin apparently chose not to post it. I simply do not understand your objection. There is no comparison between what is considered Ir Hakodesh and the veracity of the Torah. I have no problem saying that I would have followed the rabbis' view of Yerushalayaim and then would have admitted that I was wrong once it was proven otherwise. But no violation of any basic tenet would have been involved. There is no insistence on the part of the Torah or Chazal that we must maintain that Ir Hakodesh was located on area X. On the other hand, saying that the Torah is false because archeologists thought that domesticated camels were an anachronims (which later turned out to be a huge mistake on their part) violates a basic tenet. Your objection to me seems to be irrelevant and misleading.

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  40. Shalom, Cherry HillApril 11, 2010 at 5:47 AM

    Barbara—It seems to me that you completely missed my point, as well as that of Rabbi Slifkin and Moshe Rafael.

    You write that “Scientists usually have hard data to support their conclusions, and one ignores their hard data and logical conclusions at the peril of one's mind.” My first response is to ask what you mean by ‘the peril of one’s mind’? Beyond that, there’s really not such a big difference if you are referring to one’s having belief in Torah. For example, you might be aware of the Scientific American survey of scientists in the late 1950s where the large majority believed that the universe was eternal; of course, the Big Bang theory changed that point of view just a few years later, allowing those scientists to accept that the idea of a point of creation, as the Torah describes, is true. To ‘freeze frame’ at the point of the survey, you or I could have disagreed with the scientists, because at any point in the past or the future, human knowledge and expertise is limited.

    The fact that historians and archeologists use fewer facts and more speculation than chemists or biologists makes the issue different in degree, not in kind. Regarding the Torah narrative of Avraham or anyone else, I would say that I believe that the Torah is entirely true, but my understanding of what it means may not be the correct one. For example, regarding Avraham and camels-- my belief is that what the Torah said is true—but whether camels were commonly used in the region, or only by the wealthy (which Avraham was), or if their camels were a different, unknown breed that were domesticated before the ones that we are familiar with today, or if there is a different way to reconcile the historian’s beliefs and the Torah, or whether the historians are simply wrong, I neither know nor particularly care.

    However, if historians were able to ‘prove’ that only the wealthy used camels at the time, then it would be an interesting point and provide another angle to appreciate what the Torah is trying to convey. After all, since the Torah does tell us of Avraham’s great wealth (such as in his ability to overpay for the Ma’arat Ha’Machpelah, and in describing how large his flocks were) and his ability to successfully wage war to save Lot, we are certainly meant to understand and appreciate this aspect of his life.

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  41. How are camels a basic tenet of Torah?

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  42. Elemir - In terms of your point #1 - there is no irony here at all. I merely pointed out that the professional archeologists themselves denied the authenticity of the Torah based upon something that they themselves later had to admit was a mistake. Their first position was arrived at due to a hypothesis stemming from "absence of evidence" (no evidence of domesticated camels in the historical "record") and their admission was arrived at due to a hypothesis stemming from carbon dating (of cave drawing of domesticated camels). Where is the irony?

    In terms of your point #2 - Please enlighten all of us foolish ma-aminim: what is your best "solid reason for the rational disproof of the divine authorship of the Torah"? Perhaps then we can discuss it rationally rather than just - as you requested in your comment - believe you.

    Moshe Refael - you're kidding right? Who said that camels are a basic tenet of Torah? The authenticity of the Torah is a basic tenet of Torah. What are you talking about here?

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  43. Barbara, I am not kidding, and I concur: Yes, authenticity of the Torah must be a basic tenet of Torah. Permit you to notice that you wisely used a word that can be interpreted in many ways - authenticity. I do not see what it implies about camels.

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  44. Barbara, you cannot claim that every detail of the Torah is historical. The animals of the world did not survive a world-wide flood via Noach's ark. And if you want to go by cave paintings, there are cave paintings that were created tens of thousands of years ago.

    With this remark I do do wish to imply that I dismiss any and all historical implications of the Torah. Rather, I wish to say that we must combine all sources of truth. We should never reject objective truth, and we should never forget that the purpose of Torah is not to teach us history.

    Regarding your original question: When there was a consensus that camels were not domesticated until about 3000 years ago, one could hold three positions:

    1. I do not commit to the consensus position. The data are not sufficiently convincing.
    2. So what? The mention of camels in Torah is not necessarily historical.
    3. Avraham must have been at the cutting edge of camel domestication. If he had camels and others not, this would shed light on his position of power, as exemplified in his engagement in war.

    Now that we know that camels were domesticated close to 5000 years ago, this is perhaps sad for who wants to hold by the standard rabbinical chronology (which is wrong if taken literally), because it weakens the third position.

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  45. Elimir, I second Barbara’s challenge to you. What is your best "solid reason for the rational disproof of the divine authorship of the Torah"?

    Ladies and gentlemen, I believe anything can be said in this forum, but we must be responsible for our words.

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  46. Moshe Refael -

    "So what? The mention of camels in Torah is not necessarily historical."

    Leaving aside everything before Genesis chapter 2, since Chazal in T. B. Chagiga (perek 2) imply that it is not to be understood superficially, please pray tell - what "facts" in the Torah are not necessarily historical. Perhaps the existence of the person we refer to as Avraham Avinu is "not necessarily historical." Perhaps the Israelites in Egypt is "not necessarily historical." Perhaps Moshe Rabbenu is "not necessarily historical." And before you go off saying, how can you compare camels to Moshe Rabbenu, please enlighten us as to your criteria for deciding when ANYTHING in the Torah is or is not necessarily historical. After providing those criteria, please provide a source within the mesorah - any source - that supports the criteria that you provided. Thanks.

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  47. IMHO, there is no one single “smoking gun” piece of evidence. However, I am not sure that R. Slifkin cares to turn his blog into a debate over TMS.

    For now, I’ll simply respond to your question about what is or is not historical.

    Science in general and (from the hard evidence parts of) archaeology are fairly unanimous in their opposition to the following narratives in the Torah. Off the top of my head.

    1. The world/universe is not 6000 years old
    2. the story of creation, read literally, as given in Genesis makes no scientific sense that is, simply taking the order of the daily descriptions of what came into existence
    3. the age limits of humans in Genesis is highly dubious
    4. That there was flood that destroyed the world 4000 years ago. The evidence against this story is overwhelming and is considered conclusive.
    5. Also, the entire flood story as described begs a whole slew of impossibilities, unless you say the whole thing was miraculous and for some reason the Khumash leaves out many of the miracles and that Hashem then destroyed the evidence and put the world back to the way it was before the flood.
    6. That the entire world spoke only one language up until 3700 years ago. And the implication is that this language was Hebrew.
    7. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings left Egypt approx. 3400 years ago. (never mind questioning the description of the circumstances surrounding their departure)
    8. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings traversed the Sinai desert (the logistics of the movement of such a mass are mind boggling…. I know it was a miracle, just the Torah forgot to point out many other aspects of this miracle, besides food, water and clothing)
    9. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings invaded and destroyed dozens of Canaanite cities and occupied the land of Canaan about 3200-3300 years ago.

    And there are dozens of other historical details, but of a lesser degree, in Khumash that are questionable based on archaeology.

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  48. talking about camels in the Torah, i always wondered, why does the camel appear all over the place in Bereshit, about 2 dozen times, and yet almost disappears from the narratives in the rest of Khumash (except once in Shemot)

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  49. ?Leaving aside everything before Genesis chapter 2, since Chazal in T. B. Chagiga (perek 2) imply that it is not to be understood superficially, please pray tell - what "facts" in the Torah are not necessarily historical."

    The Mabul for instance, at least its details. Barbara, how do you know the scope of what is mentioned in Chagiga? Wouldn't be logical that you should actually know the secrets that the Talmud in Chagiga hints at in order to know how far it extends?

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  50. "After providing those criteria, please provide a source within the mesorah - any source - that supports the criteria that you provided. Thanks."

    Who does not know the Sod of a Pasuk, cannot be certain about the Pshat. That is from the Gaon MiVilna. That Pshat can very well be Mashal, even if the Pasuk seems to describe reality. Such is the nature of Mashal. The Rambam gives examples. Torah is written in terms of this world, but that, the sippur, is only a language. The true reference is to higher concepts. Rav Ashlag (Ba'al HaSulam) stresses this principle in many places, using very sharp words regarding those who do not see wish to see this...

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  51. "1. The world/universe is not 6000 years old"

    Straw man. The Torah itself never says that the world was created 5770 years ago.

    "2. the story of creation, read literally, as given in Genesis makes no scientific sense that is, simply taking the order of the daily descriptions of what came into existence"

    Another straw man. The Mishnah in Chagiga says that the entire Ma-aseh B'reishit is not to be understood on a superficial/literal level.

    "3. the age limits of humans in Genesis is highly dubious"

    What scientific FACT does this contradict? It is contrary to the ASSUMPTION that lifespans then must be parallel to lifespans now. ASSUMPTIONS and FACTS are not the same.

    "4. That there was flood that destroyed the world 4000 years ago. The evidence against this story is overwhelming and is considered conclusive.
    5. Also, the entire flood story as described begs a whole slew of impossibilities, unless you say the whole thing was miraculous and for some reason the Khumash leaves out many of the miracles and that Hashem then destroyed the evidence and put the world back to the way it was before the flood."

    Of course it was miraculous! Overwhelming-so-as-to-be-considered-conclusive (another expression of people's ASSUMPTIONS) is not the same as FACT.

    "6. That the entire world spoke only one language up until 3700 years ago. And the implication is that this language was Hebrew."

    Let's divide this into two issues: that there was originally one common language, and that the split occurred 3700 years ago. What FACT contradicts the first issue? As to the second, I will point out that all Egyptologists originally KNEW that the dynasties of Egypt spanned thousands upon thousands of years, until the timeline was revised, and more than a thousand years were "cut out" of the timeline, because the Egyptologists realized that they were based upon assumptions, not facts. The timelines are not conclusively demonstrated as precise facts.

    "7. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings left Egypt approx. 3400 years ago. (never mind questioning the description of the circumstances surrounding their departure)
    8. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings traversed the Sinai desert (the logistics of the movement of such a mass are mind boggling…. I know it was a miracle, just the Torah forgot to point out many other aspects of this miracle, besides food, water and clothing)
    9. That 2,000,000+ people and their belongings invaded and destroyed dozens of Canaanite cities and occupied the land of Canaan about 3200-3300 years ago."

    What FACTS contradict this - and please remember that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Moreover, you seem to indicate that miracles are impossible, and that the description of anything miraculous is therefore false. Is this your assumption? If so, a different discussion is in order here.

    "how do you know the scope of what is mentioned in Chagiga?"

    The mishna is very clear - "Ma-aseh B'reishit..." This refers to Genesis chapter 1. Anything else is not part of the Torah's "ma-aseh b'reishit."

    "Who does not know the Sod of a Pasuk, cannot be certain about the Pshat. That is from the Gaon MiVilna. That Pshat can very well be Mashal, even if the Pasuk seems to describe reality."

    My fault - I should have specified - a source in CHAZAL - i.e., until setimat haTalmud. Furthermore, you haven't answered my question: according to you, can the entire existence of Avraham, Moshe, etc. also be non-historical? How do you know what is and what is not historical? You have sidestepped this question. I wonder why...

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  52. Okay, this debate has shown itself to be occurring between rationalists and non-rationalists. As such, there is no point in continuing it, you are coming from completely different worldviews and epistemologies.

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  53. Rabbi Slifkin -

    Two observations regarding your response above:

    You imply that my view is not a rational one. I humbly beg to differ. Asking for facts and for logical conclusions based upon facts, not assumptions, is the hallmark of rationality. I think that perhaps you meant to say that my worldview is not "academic" in nature - that is completely true.

    As a self-proclaimed rationalist, can you share your view about things like miracles, the mass exodus from Egypt, etc., where the academic world denies the historicity of these things? Do you accept their historicity or do you agree with the academicians? I think this is crucial in defining the limits of the parameters of the "rationalist movement" - and is therefore central to your "mission."

    Thanks in advance.

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  54. Barbara, you appear to be new to this forum. You are mixing up the terms "rational" and "rationalist." Please see the post "Defining Rationalism."

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  55. Thanks for the clarification. I would still appreciate if you could respond to my second question from above. Particularly in light of what you wrote on your post "Defining Rationalism":

    "NATURE - Valuing a naturalistic rather than supernatural interpretation of events, and perceiving a consistent natural order over history, past and future."

    When the Torah says that G-d caused the sea to split such that there were two walls of water in between which the Israelites walked on dry land, or that every first born Egyptian human and animal died at exactly the same moment, or that fire and ice combined in Barad to fall upon Egypt, do you, as a rationalist, accept the historicity of these events?

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  56. Please see the chapter on miracles in my book The Challenge Of Creation. By the way, the Torah does not necessarily say what you think it says.

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  57. Rabbi Slifkin -

    I purchased your book, and will read the chapter on Miracles (along with the rest of the book), as you suggested.

    In the meantime, I was reviewing the exchange of this thread's comments in my mind, and I would like to ask two questions:

    1) You seemed to imply that the argument put forth by Elemir was one based upon the "rationalist" world-view. Elemir explicitly stated as a conclusion of his argument - based upon the rationalist view - that divine authorship of the Torah is false. Does this mean that the rationalist view, as you represent it, agrees that G-d did not write the Torah? If it is not your position, would you say that there is any room in the rationalist camp for that position nevertheless?

    2) It seems to me - and I do not base this on evidence, just on a feeling - that despite the fact that you have a post which defines "rationalist Judaism," the similarity of the term "rationalist" with "rational" is confusing and (unintentionally) misleading. It's hard for me to believe that I'm the only one who made this mistake. (True, your longtime readers may already be familiar with your terminology; but I assume you are also addressing thinking people who are not long terms readers of yours). Therefore, would you consider changing the term to "Passionate Academic Judaism"? - this contains the essential points that you seem to espouse, and it is not at all confusing. I think it would be clearer and more helpful.

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  58. Rabbi Slifkin -

    I hope you don't mind this feedback from a relatively new reader of your website (although I don't know how much longer I will be a reader - as I will explain). I participated in a discussion on this thread, probing, asking questions, and agreeing to do further reading when suggested to do so. The last thing I sent in was a probing, challenging question, which, I believe, touches on the very core of the rationalist approach, and which was highly relevant to the discussion of this thread. My question was asked in a very respectful tone. It has been a couple of days - and I understand that you must be terribly busy - at the same time, I see that you have posted others' comments, and have begun a new thread as well. This leads me to believe that you are choosing not to address the question that I asked. (If I am wrong about that, I apologize sincerely and profusely, and I withdraw this entire letter). If my conclusion is correct, I infer that when presented with a probing question that may challenge a basic tenet of yours, you choose to ignore it. If this is the case, I cannot subscribe to what you present in general - this is not the mark of an open, honest "seeker." Please don't ask me to e-mail you privately (I have spent hours looking at past threads just to see what your overall approach to things is, and noticed that a few times you asked questioners to do this). I am interested only in an open discussion; none of this is personal, and so should not need to be explained "behind closed doors." I am profoundly disappointed. I thought I found a site that would discuss Yahadut rationally. Apparently, all I found was a site that discusses Yahadut "rationalistically," not necessarily rationally. I am sad for me, for you, and for all those who might wish to find a "real" discussion out there.

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  59. I appreciate your noticing my "feedback" comment - but you *still* did not post the 2 questions that I had asked, which prompted me to send the "feedback" comment in the first place. (As a reminder: 1- The "rationalist" approach as demonstrated by Elemir, whom you yourself included within the camp of rationalists, can include the denial of divine authorship of the Torah. I asked you if you subscribe to that view, and if not, do you maintain that that view CAN be included within the rationalist approach? 2- Since "rationalist" and "rational" are rather easily confused with each other, why not call your approach "Passionate Academic Judaism" - it is clear and encompasses all that you espouse).

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  60. Apology accepted.

    Please read this post:
    http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2010/02/new-comments-policy.html

    I have a very limited amount of time to devote to this blog. I have many writing projects, teaching commitments, and b"h a growing family. In the limited amount of time that I have to give to this blog, I prioritize new posts and dealing with new comments rather than ongoing discussions on previous posts, especially with people who are anyway coming from a different epistomology. I am sorry if that is not satisfying for you; if you would like to pay me for my time, then I will gladly answer any questions that you have.

    In response to your questions:

    I think you misunderstood Elemir. I don't think he meant that the Torah is not divine; I think that he meant that it is not historically accurate. I don't really understand what your question is. Are you asking if a person who denies the divine authorship of Torah should be discouraged from keeping mitzvos? Or if Judaism should say that it's okay not to believe in the divinity of the Torah? The answer to both of those seems rather obvious.

    In answer to your second question - no, I will not be renaming this blog. Rationalism is a known term with a specific meaning; I did not coin it. Furthermore, in my view there is a sufficient overlap between rational and rationalism that it is okay for the latter to have overtones of the former. If someone believes that there was a global flood a few thousand years ago which wiped out all life and civilizations except for that on the Ark, then that person is either lacking in knowledge of various scientific facts, or irrational (or both). But I don't have time to go into that right now.

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  61. Rabbi Slifkin: "I think you misunderstood Elemir. I don't think he meant that the Torah is not divine; I think that he meant that it is not historically accurate."

    Elemir: "there are dozens and dozens of solid reasons for the “rational” disproof of the divine authorship of the Torah."

    What did I misunderstand?

    Rabbi Slifkin: "I don't really understand what your question is."

    I am asking if, in your opinion, a rationalist approach leads to the conclusion that the Torah is not divine. If the answer to that is "no, not necessarily," I am asking if, in your opinion, a rationalist approach can legitimately include the idea that the Torah is not divine.

    Again, I do apologize for arriving at an incorrect conclusion before. Thanks.

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  62. Just as an aside - and I clearly respect your choice of sticking to the name that you have given your website - the "dictionary.com" definition of "rationalism" is:


    ra·tion·al·ism

    –noun

    1. the principle or habit of accepting reason as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct.

    2.Philosophy.

    a. the doctrine that reason alone is a source of knowledge and is independent of experience.

    b. (in the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, etc.) the doctrine that all knowledge is expressible in self-evident propositions or their consequences.

    3. Theology.

    the doctrine that human reason, unaided by divine revelation, is an adequate or the sole guide to all attainable religious truth.

    I would have thought that you would be uncomfortable with all 3 of these definitions (I omitted the "architecture" definition, as it is not relevant) for the following reasons: in #1, the word "supreme" (revelation trumps human reason in Torah); in #2a, the word "alone"; (#2b is not relevant to your website idea); in #3, the phrase "unaided by divine revelation."

    Is there something I'm missing here?

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  63. Rabbi Slifkin: "I think you misunderstood Elemir. I don't think he meant that the Torah is not divine; I think that he meant that it is not historically accurate."

    Elemir: "there are dozens and dozens of solid reasons for the “rational” disproof of the divine authorship of the Torah."

    What did I misunderstand?


    I'm not sure why he said this, but I checked his other comments and he always seemed to accept Torah min HaShamayim.

    I am asking if, in your opinion, a rationalist approach leads to the conclusion that the Torah is not divine. If the answer to that is "no, not necessarily," I am asking if, in your opinion, a rationalist approach can legitimately include the idea that the Torah is not divine.

    My answer to the first question is "no, not necessarily," and I still don't understand what you mean with the second question. Do you mean "legitimately" from the point of view of Judaism? Of course not!

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  64. Thanks so much for responding. You last asked,

    "I still don't understand what you mean with the second question. Do you mean "legitimately" from the point of view of Judaism?"

    No - I mean as follows: If the approach of rationalism can legitimately include the idea that the Torah is not divine, then, if rationalism is the approach by which you look at the world, evaluate claims, judge truths, etc., then you would have to say that the divine authorship of the Torah may be true or it may not be true - since rationalism allows for both sides. Now how do you decide? You cannot use rationalism to decide, since it allows for both possibilities. You cannot use rationality, since by saying that rationalism allows for both possibilities you are ipso facto saying that both are rational conclusions. (I myself do not agree with that, but I am going with your premise). If you use faith to decide, then your ultimate arbiter of this greatly important issue is not rationalism, but faith. And if that is true, then in an ultimate sense you differ from other "faith-people" not in kind but in degree. Is this an accurate assessment?

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  65. First of all, I personally do not believe that there is no place for faith.

    Second, I disagree with your premise. I think that rational people can be Republicans and that rational people can be Democrats, but this does not mean that they are not making rational decisions in choosing which to be.

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  66. So are you saying that choosing whether or not the Torah is of divine authorship is akin to choosing whether the Republican party of the Democratic party is superior? That is, it isn't a matter of truth, but of opinion?

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  67. No, that's not what I was saying at all.

    I was saying that the fact that different people can come to different conclusions does not mean that they are not using rational decision making to arrive at those conclusions.

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  68. So in the end, which rationalist path to choose - the Torah IS of divine authorship, the Torah is NOT of divine authorship - is a matter of faith. Whatever rationalist approach one side can point to, the other side can point to an equally rationalist approach for its conclusion. And so, for you, it all boils down to faith (in something that can be legitimately included within a rationalist approach). Am I correct in this assessment?

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  69. No, not remotely.

    Please re-read my previous comment and think about it.

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  70. >>> So in the end, which rationalist path to choose - the Torah IS of divine authorship, the Torah is NOT of divine authorship - is a matter of faith. ?

    i think you’re assessment is right. Faith places a major role even in the face of rational thought. However, I think (its my own theory) there is another crucial factor that places a role and that is that different people are wired differently in their capacity to have faith or accept something on faith in the face of circumstantial contradictory evidence.

    So, looking at the extensive arguments or “evidence” against divine authorship of the Torah, may result in differing capacity to accept or reject these arguments.

    Yet both individuals claim they are approaching the problem “rationally”

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  71. I did reread your comments, and cannot understand at all why you say that my assessment is wrong. (As a teacher, I think that just asking someone to "reread and think" is not as effective as pointing out the mistaken path, and clarifying with an explanation). Oh well - I take comfort in the fact that Elemir - someone whom you yourself defined as a rationalist - thought my assessment is indeed correct.

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  72. R' Slifkin, I believe that this thread illuminates a gaping hole in the philosophy you are trying to present. If scientific theory is the basis for our understanding of the Torah, then how can we accept the Torah at all in light of the major contradictions between the two? If we are to change how we understand the Torah in light of the scientific arguments against the veracity of a global flood, then how can we accept the Torah in light of the arguments of biblical criticism? How can we accept a creationist viewpoint when scientific theory is famously opposed to that point of view? How can we accept an Exodus story without extra-biblical evidence? How can we accept any of the facts which are logically necessary to have a rational approach to Torah when such facts are either unproven or in some cases contradicted by scientific theory? The Rambam was content to allegorize the Chumash to rectify it with the beliefs of Aristotle, but we aren't talking about allegorizing the _Chumash_ in the modern era, we are talking about allegorizing _God_. It seems to me that adapting a rationalistic viewpoint necessarily dismisses religion and the existence of a personal God and if you can provide a cogent argument to the contrary, I'd love to hear it.

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  73. Barbara - my point is that in all fields of knowledge, you will find dispute. That doesn't mean that both sides cannot be using rational arguments.

    Levi - Hey, I'd never thought of that! Just kidding. Your question is very fundamental and is what I am attempting to address in my various writings. But it's not something that has a one-paragraph or one-essay or even one-book answer. I'm working on it piece by piece.

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  74. I am sorry - genuinely sorry - that I just don't understand your response to my question. I know that "both sides can use rationalistic arguments." I am asking - that since, in the end, one uses faith to determine which rationalistic side to follow, then isn't it true that your philosophy is faith-based (with the important proviso that it is faith in something that is rationalistic)? If this is so, then when facing a rationalist who came to the conclusion that the Torah is false, the best you can say is, "well this is what I have faith in." Is this correct?

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  75. Who says that in the end one is using faith to decide which path to follow? Of course, many people are doing that, and are adopting the rationalist approach for other things. But who says that everyone is?

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  76. Then please explain how a rationalist, when facing two opposing conclusions, both of which come out of a rationalist approach, decides which one to embrace. You cannot say that s/he decides on conclusion A over conclusion B rationalistically, since conclusion B itself came from a rationalistic approach just as much as conclusion A. So s/he must be using some other approach to decide. Is it a feeling? intuition? some psychological drive? something else? Whatever it is, it cannot be rationalism itself, since the opposite conclusion also claims rationalism as its source. And whatever it is that the person uses to decide (the feeling, the intuition, etc.) is the ultimate arbiter of his/her decisions. That feeling etc. itself is not rationalistic.

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  77. If you're not using faith to decide which path to follow, what *are* you using?

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