Thursday, September 2, 2010

Futile and Misleading Arguments

On several occasions over the years I have had reason to note that the wrong kind of argument is taking place. It occurs when a debate is purportedly about a certain topic, but really there is a much more fundamental difference of opinion - or epistemology - which means that the debate actually taking place is not only futile, but also misleading.

The first time that I realized this was when debating certain frum Jews about the scientific validity of evolution. It dawned on me that their claim of wanting to debate and discuss the scientific merits of evolution was a sham. They were fundamentally ideologically opposed to it, rating it as heresy. A scientific discussion, on the other hand, means drawing conclusions from the physical evidence without any preconceived notions. So there was no scientific discussion taking place, and any pretense at such a discussion was futile and misleading without the underlying theological dispute being resolved.

I just noticed another example of this in a comment thread over at Hirhurim (which, incidentally, recently featured a fascinating post about the Torah-Science controversy). In a discussion about the ikkarei emunah, a ferocious and lengthy debate - 195 comments! - took place between one Rabbi Shalom Spira and some other people. The topic was whether there have been accepted Torah authorities who acknowledged that Torah scrolls are not word-perfect, and whether there is any evidence of this. Rabbi Spira insisted that there are no such authorities and there is no such evidence, while a number of people insisted that there were and there is.

I don't know why they wasted their time.

His opponents completely missed the point. This is not a matter of whether there is evidence supporting the conclusion that there were great Torah scholars who accepted that Torah scrolls are not word-perfect, and whether there is evidence showing that they are not word-perfect. It is a matter of a religious belief. Rabbi Spira was completely open about this! I quote:

...a Jew is indeed absolutely required to accept Rambam’s eighth principle, viz. that every single word in our Sefer Torah was dictated by HaKadosh Barukh Hu to Mosheh Rabbeinu.

...the Ibn Ezra will not inform us of the Halakhah on this matter, when the gemara has already clarified what the Halakhah is. Instead, it is appropriate to give a forced explanation to the Ibn Ezra in order to judge him favourably that he was an Orthodox Jew.

...Epistemologically speaking, history is a matter of belief – not science (because all evidence we have regarding events that occurred prior to our birth is circumstantial and second-hand in nature), and the Torah governs how we are to appreciate history. When the Ribbono Shel Olam reveals Himself at Mount Sinai with the declaration “Anokhi… asher hotzeitikha me’eretz mitrayim”, it is a declaration that we must interpret history in accordance with the theological norms of Judaism. And one of those norms is to recognize that our Sifrei Torah are word perfect.

To engage in a debate about the evidence is to further enhance the mistaken impression that there is an evidence-based epistemology being used. There isn't. It is a religious debate, not a scientific or historical debate. And that is why they failed to convince him. They were engaged in the wrong argument.

22 comments:

  1. There are no Torah authorities that talk about how the Torah text has run into trouble over time? The Mishna in Sofrim 6 is suddenly not a Torah authority?

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  2. "This is not a matter of whether there is evidence supporting the conclusion that there were great Torah scholars who accepted that Torah scrolls are not word-perfect, and whether there is evidence showing that they are not word-perfect. It is a matter of a religious belief."

    Don't you do the same about the Torah authorship?? Can you really says that you want "to debate and discuss the scientific merits of" the Torah's authorship and you're not "fundamentally ideologically opposed to it, rating it as heresy?" Otherwise, your moral authority on this is compromised and pretending to speak from a place of intellectual honesty—as opposed to that benighted plebe in the comment thread—is hypocrisy.

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  3. Don't you do the same about the Torah authorship?

    Er, no.

    Can you really says that you want "to debate and discuss the scientific merits of" the Torah's authorship and you're not "fundamentally ideologically opposed to it, rating it as heresy?"

    Er, no, I don't say that.

    Otherwise, your moral authority on this is compromised and pretending to speak from a place of intellectual honesty—as opposed to that benighted plebe in the comment thread—is hypocrisy.

    Right, it would be. Which is why I don't say that.

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  4. Garnel, it isn't about who is a Torah authority either. He'll just reexplain it to fit his pre decided view. He will write "it is appropriate to give a forced explanation to the Mishna in order to judge the Tanna favourably that he was an Orthodox Jew."
    Rabbi,
    How about if rationalists would focus more on insisting on intellectual honesty, and clarifying normative methodologies of halacha and hashkafa, and then we'll return to the science Torah discussion in about 10 years. It's like being in a boxing match with no rules.

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  5. I'm confused. You don't deny the evolutionary origin of the Torah, insisting on literary creationist idea that it was all written by one person in Moshe's time??

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  6. I've never written on that topic. But I wouldn't claim that my views on such fundamental religious matters are not biased and that my views on such matter are solely objective. Just as, although I am personally 100% certain that Israel is basically the good guy in the Israel vs. Palestinian issue, I likewise would entirely agree that I am fundamentally biased.

    It disturbs me that you jumped to conclusions about me without any basis whatsoever.

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  7. SQ,
    I think you may be making the fairly common error of failing to differentiate between being open to everything and being open about what one is and isn't open to.

    I, for instance, am open to many claims about nature, religion, etc. - but I am not open to certain claims - like those negating the existance of God or the divinity of the Torah. However, I am open and honest about this fact. You may have fantastic proofs, but I will not accept them because I will not, ultimately, be rationalist in these matters of faith. If you are engaging me in debate to convince me otherwise, you are wasting your time, and I will say that openly. (You may convince me that my rational arguments for God's existence fail, but that won't change my non-rationally based faith in God.)

    I don't want to put words in R' Slifkin's mouth, but I don't think his post commented in any way on whether R' Spira is "right" or "wrong" - he seems to be saying (and I totally agree, for what it's worth), that if the point of the debate is to convince R' Spira, the posters are wasting their time, and if R' Spira is claiming to be open to honest debate on the subject (and I think he's been pretty clear that he's not) then he is deluding himself and others.

    cheers,
    Hillel

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  8. Hillel,
    I think you're right. It is a fine point and I cannot blame people for missing it.

    I love you all. (especially you NS). [I know this might not be posted but I would like my last comment for the year be mesaymim bi'ahavah]

    Shanah tovah!

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  9. That said, the Rambam himself could be cited without having to "resort" to Ibn Ezra. So rather than asking the question, how can we make Rambam (or Ibn Ezra for that matter) an Orthodox Jew as we view one, shouldn't we really be asking how do his various statements fit together given the indisputable fact that they did observe traditional real Torah Judaism.

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  10. What amazes me is that the focus is on the written text of the Torah. What about the oral explanations/laws that were given simultaneously with the written text.? Were they not verbatim too? Does the Ikar not apply to that too? Obviously the superficial reading of the Ikar is flawed and there is much more to it. It is in this area that superficial readers of Rambam, both in the traditional community and among the scholars err tremendously and cause havoc in rational thought.

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  11. David Guttmann said: What about the oral explanations/laws that were given simultaneously with the written text.? Were they not verbatim too?

    Where did you get that from? And BTW one kiruv scholar claims that the EXAMPLES found in the Mishnah (an ox goring a cow etc.) were current in the time of the Mishnah but Moshe Rabbeinu used perhaps other examples that were relevant to his age. Had the Mishnah not been cannonized by RY Hanasie (out of necessity), we would study the PRINCIPLES of oral law, using current examples such as a car 'goring' a store window, and other things such as fill our current Halachic literature--instead of oxen and cows.

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  12. >What amazes me is that the focus is on the written text of the Torah. What about the oral explanations/laws that were given simultaneously with the written text.? Were they not verbatim too? Does the Ikar not apply to that too? Obviously the superficial reading of the Ikar is flawed and there is much more to it. It is in this area that superficial readers of Rambam, both in the traditional community and among the scholars err tremendously and cause havoc in rational thought.

    Not necessarily. If the Rambam meant to include Karaites - and why not? - then it is indeed possible that it does not include the Oral Torah.

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  13. On the topic of rationalists versus mystics - I came across this fascinating debate in the Tzohar journal regarding a sefer dealing with a certain topic 'shehatznius yafa lo', in which one of the issues at stake is clearly the divide R. Slifkin discussed. See:
    http://www.tzohar.org.il/upload_doc/tzohar2463.PDF

    http://www.tzohar.org.il/upload_doc/tzohar2618.PDF

    http://www.tzohar.org.il/upload_doc/tzohar2916.PDF

    On another topic, R. Slifkin was quoted in the London Jewish Chronicle this week, regarding hooliganism in RBS. See:

    http://www.thejc.com/news/israel-news/37509/charedi-extremism-divides-israeli-city

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  14. What is a "kiruv scholar?"

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  15. What this post is really about is cognitive dissonance. Every person wants to see himself as rational, intelligent and moral. When confronted with evidence otherwise he can react in various ways-- denial, rationalization, aggression/anger, etc. Therefore, it is the rare and honest individual who will admit to being "non-rational" or dogmatic about a deeply held idea. More likely, he will claim that it is you that is being illogical and irrational, and that his position is the most logical and based on evidence.
    This is why R Yeshayahu Leibovits used to compare his allegiance to Torah and Mitzvot to love for one's wife. One doesn't argue over the logic and rationality or evidence justifying one's love, you just make the decision and you have it.

    Thus, paradoxically, it is the so-called "rationalists" among the orthodox who have the bigger problem, who try to intellectualize their allegiance to traditional views. The non-intellectual Heredi, for whom his orthodox dogma is a matter of unquestioned allegiance to his family and community, has no such dilemma.

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  16. DrJ - your comments are worthy of a good deal of consideration.

    I might counter that "rationalism" is a matter of degree of emphasis, rather than a binary on-off switch. The rationalist observant Jews amongst us will accept revelation at Sinai as a basis of the "irrational" concept pursuing a personal relationship with the Infinite.

    Likewise, consider the "non-intellectual Heredi" that you mention. Such a person will presumably place a high value on talmudic scholarship. Without discounting the "kedusha" of this endeavor, I suggest that this is a highly intellectual pursuit!

    Also consider the husband-wife metaphor that you presented. Here too there must be a rational basis for the loving relationship.

    Furthermore and quite obviously, while a private "love affair" metaphor might be perfectly valid for an individual's basis for acceptance of torah and mitzvot, it carries no validity outside of the most insular realm. Thus we all have a need to engage in "rationalism" if we are to engage the not yet torah and mitzva aligned Jewish world.

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  17. So in the end, the entire basis of the rationalist's view is not rationalistic. He reserves his rationalism for the detailed area that follows after the fundamental - while the fundamental is something that he bases not on rationalism. Now it seems to me that a purist rationalist would say to the person described above that he is only a "fair weathered" rationalist. In the main area, he is not really a rationalist. Going one step further then, the difference between the charedi and the "rationalist" is one of degree not one of kind. Am I reading this correctly?

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  18. Michael - you can't generalize like that. Some people fall into the category that you describe, while others consider that the basics of their emunah are also rational.

    But all this is nothing to do with the point I was making. Which is that sometimes one is extremely biased, and there's nothing that can be done about it. Returning again to the mashal that I gave - I believe that for 100% rational reasons, Israel is the good guy vs. the Palestinians. But I simultaneously acknowledge that I am extremely biased, and even if, hypothetically speaking, there were powerful rational arguments against this, it would be very difficult for me to acknowledge them.

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  19. Note to would-be commentators:

    The subject of this post is Futile and Misleading Arguments. Not: Every Tom, Dick and Harry's opinion about the text of the Torah.

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  20. Student V said...
    What is a "kiruv scholar?"

    I don't know the dictionary definition; I mean a certain individual who formerly taught at a well known kiruv yeshiva and gave shiurim on Judaism 101. My quote is from one of those shiurim. He is also widely regarded as a great Talmid Chacham. If my choice of words gave the false impression that he is a member of the academic world, my apologies.

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  21. Another example of a non-scientific debate appears in Jeffrey Satinover's "Cracking the Bible Code." (Without going into what Bible Codes prove.) He cites those who mathematically dispute Bible Code proof. Then he has a remarkable quote (sorry I dont have the book and page number with me) of some expert who will not agree to Bible Codes no matter how good the math is(!). The argument is over before it began.

    The video of R Ahron Schechter at Cong Yeshurun has 2 more examples. One from R Schechter himself ("haster davar") and one from an optics scientist who refuses to think what happened before the big bang. (In fact the optics scientist is Dr. Presby, and he asked the question to one of the Nobel winning discoverers of background cosmic radiation, either Wilson or A Pensias. See Dr. Presby's article in Jewish Observer, same issue in which Rabbi Keller and Jonathan Rosenblum wrote against evolution.)

    KVCT to all!

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  22. Dear Rav Slifkin,

    I tried to read the link that you mentioned above: ferocious and lengthy debate. But the page could not be found. Is there any way where I can read that debate? Is there a post on your blog which deal with the changes of the bible during time?

    Kind Regards

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