Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Is judasim the handmaiden of rationalism?

Some "out there" have concocted the following philosophy of Judasim: mitzvos and Torah are meaningful in so far as they lead us to a greater good - a means to an end. Mystical tikkunim are irrelevant; social and ethical norma are all that we should be interested in, and unless you understand it, don't believe it. Of course, not every mitvah will fit neatly into a rationalist box, but they argue that halacha wholistically creates a society that is more moral and ethical than would be possible without it. Is such a world view meaningful? Has it been espoused by talmidei chachamim who came after the Rambam (or even by the Rambam himself)? Should it be our approach to avodas Hashem?

R' Soloveitchik, "Halakhic Mind", pp. 92-93:
"The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiousus to accept Maimonidian rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify nor inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely, valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart…
In rationalizing the commandments genetically, Maimonides developed a religious instrumentalism. For example, should we posit the question: why did G-d forbid perjury? The intellectualistic philosopher would promptly reply, "because it is contrary to the norm of truth." Thus he would explain a religious norm by an ethical precept, making religion the handmaid of ethics. ...If the Sabbath is to be seen only against the background of mundane social justice and similar ideals, the intrinsic quality of the Sabbath is transformed into something alien. It serves merely as a means to the realization of a “higher” end. Maimonides’ efforts foreshadowed failure from the very outset of his “how” approach. "

Noam Elimelech, P' Pinchas:
"A person who serves G-d based on his own intuitiuon and understanding is constrained and cannot escape the limits of his own mind, his own nature, and his own understanding..."

Worship based only on what one rationally accepts is nothing more than self-worship. Because the human "I" recognizes a value as important, it ascribes that value to G-d and makes it a point of religious conviction. Defined as such, religion can never transcend human limitations, it can never cause man to aspire to levels of greatness beyond what he can see, and it is always the handmaiden to a subjective morality that fluctuates with the human perception of what is good and just. Far more meaningful is a religion which offers man a transcendent objective truth and challenges man to escape his own limitations of mind in discovering it. As discussed yesterday, intuition or ruach hakodesh can inspire a worldview not reducable to a positivistic list of equations or reasons, but is an nonetheless reveals a true vision of reality. Tzadikim and talmidei chachamim are those whose lives are infused with such perspective, but the Piecezna writes (Mavo She'arim ch 2) that each and every Jew can rise to such heights - such is the goal of avodah.
Two contrasting world views: the skeptical-rationslist, and the view of the "olam haTorah". Much more to be said on this topic, but enough for now...

(I am sorry for taking so much time away from lomdus to spend on these themes, but there are many voices offering "competing" perspectives and far fewer voices explaining basic hashkafa. If even one person gains some perspective and mareh mekomos , it's worth it.)

16 comments:

  1. Don't be sorry.

    I think you should devote a series of posts to these topics. It is a voice that is seriously needed and you are more than qualified to provide the sources. Also, even if you feel that you ar epreaching to the choir, I still think there is what to be gained by seeing these ideas brought out in a coherent and intelligent framework.

    One question I have is if there is a danger to the rationalistic Rambam approach then a) why did the Rambam take this approach and b) was the Rambam aware of these dangers?

    ReplyDelete
  2. You have to read the end of Halakhic Mind for the full answer - the Rambam in Mishne Torah adopts a different (and according to the Ravm nore meaningful) philosophicqal system. Moreh was written for a different audience - perhaps for them the dangers were offset by the gain, but I am only speculating. The bottom line is the rationalist model is an anachronism of jewish philosophy that went out with the end of the middle ages. It is not espoused by the majority of jewish thinkers who lived afterwards. Its appeal is to the academics in the ivory tower, not to bnei torah. What do you think is studied more in batei medrash - ramchal and nefesh hachaim or moreh nevuchim? Do you think that is just because everyone is misguided?

    ReplyDelete
  3. >fewer voices explaining basic hashkafa

    With all due respect, I think labeling your hashkafa basic hashkafa is slightly gaavadik.

    As is this snipe

    >Its appeal is to the academics in the ivory tower, not to bnei torah

    If you would point out that its gaavadik to denigrate the intelligence and motives of those who take an arational approach, I will agree. But why must you denigrate those who honestly disagree and can't force themselves to "correctly" believe "basic hashkafa"? Are they (yes, me too) not entitled to some space where we can make sense of Torah and the world we live in?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Tal Benschar12:40 PM

    Frankly, some of the approaches used by the Rambam are very dochak and it is hard to believe he thought that was the end of the story. For example, he says that the reason pork is ossur is because whereever pigs are raised the country is a mess, as (says the Rambam) France was in his day.

    I find that reason so unsatisfying that I would never be impressed with keeping the Torah if that were the only reason. I am dubious that the Rambam thought that was the whole of the issue.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I do not have Halachik man here but will look at it tonight again. Rambam in Moreh and Yad is the same as R.Meir Simcha repeats over and over in Meshech Chochma. You set up a red herring and then develop an argument. Rambam undestands that some mitzvot are societal others are hashkafah driven. However Mitzvot in themselves have no meaning other than to create a man that will get to know HKBH. Having accomplished that and understanding HKBH"s derachim he will emulate them by doing Chessed Mishpat and Tzedakah as a Shutaf to HKBH. If you call this a cold rationalistic approach so be it. To me just writing about it raises my temperature and Tzama'ah Nafshi L'elokim.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tal Benschar12:44 PM

    Chaim:

    I think it is good you are raising this issue.

    However, let me add one thing. The alternatives are not only rationalism and mysticism. The Brisker approach to taamei ha mitzvos is really neither. Rather, it posits that the mitzvos ha Torah are the ratzon Hashem, and that ipso facto molds the world to conform to the halakha.

    As R. Chaim once said, the Torah states that Pesach has to be Chodesh ha Aviv. People think that that was set because Yetzias Mitzrayim occured in the spring. The opposite is the case -- the Torah already stated, 2000 years before the creation of the world, that Pesach had to be be Chodesh ha Aviv. The hasgacha simply worked it out that the historical yetzias mitzrayim corresponded to the halakhic Chodesh ha Aviv.

    ReplyDelete
  7. >The opposite is the case -- the Torah already stated, 2000 years before the creation of the world, that Pesach had to be be Chodesh ha Aviv. The hasgacha simply worked it out that the historical yetzias mitzrayim corresponded to the halakhic Chodesh ha Aviv.

    This is a great way of explaining Rambam's Yediah of HKBH and Bechirah of man. It fits with his understanding of the ten things that were created erev Shabbat, Ratzon and miracles. It is pure Maimonidean! (No wonder just stating the obvious)

    ReplyDelete
  8. > For example, he says that the reason pork is ossur is because whereever pigs are raised the country is a mess, as (says the Rambam) France was in his day.

    You have to read him in context. Issur Chazir is a Chok according to him. It has therefore no fixed reason. This is just one that he understood in the context of his time. Ramban's idea of Dag Tameh because they are bottom feeders and Ofot Dorsot because they transmit Achzaryut is too very far fetched. I understand that for Chukim there is a wide range of ta'amim. See my post here
    http://yediah.blogspot.com/2006/05/why-practice-argument-for-dynamic.html

    ReplyDelete
  9. I am sorry you read this as ga'avah, which is not intended. As for the specific points you raise - your complaint should not be directed at me, but at the Rav. In claiming the rationalist approach devoid of religious meaning, did not he, not I, deny you your 'space' in avodas Hashem? Was it not ga'avadik on his part to assert in such an unqualified manner that the rationalist model is sterile and doomed to failure? I do not see how your position is consistant with the quote I offered.
    Please reread what I wrote - I do not question anyone's 'intelligence' or 'motive'. I do question whether those who read the superficially inviting arguments of skeptics and rationalists on the internet without context of exposure to the machshava writings of gedolei hador are making the best choices in avodas Hashem.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Anonymous2:47 PM

    I'm the "at least one person" who gains(immensly)from your haskofah postings.Please continue with them.

    ReplyDelete
  11. >I am sorry you read this as ga'avah, which is not intended. As for the specific points you raise - your complaint should not be directed at me, but at the Rav. In claiming the rationalist approach devoid of religious meaning, did not he, not I, deny you your 'space' in avodas Hashem?

    I am glad that you highlighted the fact that R. Soloveitchik advanced this view, because he was actually a very tolerant person (let's not debate the meaning of tolerance or its value--suffice it to say, RYBS was neither a tzitzis checker nor did he demand that people fit into one mold, even though he held strong opinions and could be very blunt).

    But 'basic hashkafa' were your own words. Perhaps I read too much into that. Also the reference to ivory tower academics, as opposed to bnai Torah (academics can't be bnai Torah?).

    However, I don't think hiding behind his authority really gets us anywhere. Are you tolerant? (It seems like you are, so that's sort of rhetorical.) If not, then such an approach ("My hashkafa is right and all else is dangerous") is gaavadik, or rather slightly gaavadik as I called it with restraint (at least I think it was restraint).

    >I do question whether those who read the superficially inviting arguments of skeptics and rationalists on the internet without context of exposure to the machshava writings of gedolei hador are making the best choices in avodas Hashem.

    Fair enough. But some people are independent thinkers and aren't being seduced into being rationalists.

    ReplyDelete
  12. >>>"My hashkafa is right and all else is dangerous"

    I will clarify tomorrow bl"n, but may make things worse : ) The bottom line is that the personal tolderance of the Rav does not change the fact that he saw grave shortcomings in a purely rationalist approach to Judaism. In the same vein, I apologize if you took my words as a personal affront, but at the same time do not think it smacks of intolerance to point out the inherent weaknesses of the rationalist position, especially when I can substantiate it with quotes and reasoning. Ovbviously one can find personal inspiration in many derachim, including rationalism - what works for me does not work for everybody. But I call your attention to the multitude of websites that focus on the rationalist school and get stuck in questions that call the whole concept of faith into doubt and offer no answers. Should we ignore the issue and assume no one is persuaded by these arguments, everyone is aware of the alternative viewpoints and can place issues is context? I think not. Reliance on the critical discrimnation of the reader alone who may or may not be aware of sources, context, or attitudes of talmidei chachaim seems to me to be insufficient - I think we should be raising awareness to these sources and critiques, and of the alternate approaches. That's my intention. For those who have considered all the evidence and have a derech, kol hakavod, but for those reading and hearing questions and struggeling to make sense of it all, it is fair game to offer the advice that better options with more satisfying answers than rationalism are out there. You read too much into my use of 'basic hashkafa', but yes, I deliberately use the term ivory tower academics - not because an academic cannot be a ben torah, but to distinguish the world of beni torah who are exclusively yoshvei beis hamedrash and eschew rationalist philosophizing from the world of academia, where medieval jewish philosophy still has revelance. I don't think I misread reality in thinking that the shelves of batei medrash these days are filled with seforim of the chassidic/mussar camp that deal with judaism from an a-rational standpoint more than with sadya gaon and moreh.
    In any case, thank you for your comments and feedback.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Firstly, everyone bashes the Rambam on this point: RSRH, RYBS and Rav Kook too.

    Secondly, you write:

    'Far more meaningful is a religion which offers man a transcendent objective truth and challenges man to escape his own limitations of mind in discovering it.'

    Sure, not many people would argue with that. Who wouldn't want transcendent objective truth? I would love to have that. The problem of couse is, which religion (if any) gives you that, and how on earth can you tell?

    ReplyDelete
  14. > What do you think is studied more in batei medrash - ramchal and nefesh hachaim or moreh nevuchim? Do you think that is just because everyone is misguided?

    Clearly, those espousing the rational view would answer a resounding 'yes' to that question. But on a more serious note, it's clearly true that a mystical approach to Mitzvot is more appealing to most people than the rationalist, historically based approach of the Rambam. Rav Kook makes this point clearly in an essay devoted to this subject(I forget the exact source right now).

    However two important points:
    1. Just because people find the mystical more motivating, doesn't make it right. On the contrary, it could be borderline avodah zoroh.
    2. Stressing the mystical side can have it's downfall, with way too much attention paid to ritualistic mysticism, and none to underlying morality and ethics. Examples of this abound in religious circles today. Have some tzorres? Check your mezuzah. But don't bother checking your middos or your tax returns.

    ReplyDelete
  15. >I don't think I misread reality in thinking that the shelves of batei medrash these days are filled with seforim of the chassidic/mussar camp that deal with judaism from an a-rational standpoint more than with sadya gaon and moreh.

    I agree and the problem is that the Batei Hamidrash is not geared to dealing with the existentially questioning person. They are geared towards the Tamim who believes on faith and wants to find a higher experience. That is fine though I believe lacking in Avodat Hashem which requires rational Yediah which can only be found when questioning and searching for the answer. It does not talk to the questioning rational thinker. Mysticism comes across as a fable. The century we live in has a hard time accepting magic as real - science has advanced too far for it to make sense. As the next generations get more and more educated and inevitably entwined in the world around us, rationality is the only possible Derech that talks to man. Unless Yeshivot realize that and address it they will lose many, the best ones with the greatest potential, and be Atidim Litein et Hadin. It is the rationally questioning genius that has real leadership potential not the conforming ones.

    ReplyDelete
  16. >>>Mysticism comes across as a fable. The century we live in has a hard time accepting magic as real - science has advanced too far for it to make sense.

    I completely disagree. The scientific worldview has robbed life of meaning as the popularity of new age philosophy and pseudo-kabbalah demonstrate. People are searching for that sense of transcedent or existential truth that science cannot provide. Yeshivos certainly can do a better job.

    GH, your points on the dangers of myticism are well taken. But 'what is appealing' is irrelevant. The question is which philosophical system can better articulate and provide meaning for the religious experience.

    ReplyDelete