Wednesday, November 15, 2006

the excesses of fundamentalsim

The critique of “fundamentalist” atheism which I excerpted yesterday (which I would extend to any form of fundamentalism) begs the question of what exactly is meant by the term fundamentalist. A comment even questioned the applicability of the term outside the realm of religion. Is anyone committed to an ideology a fundamentalist? Were that the case, the term would be meaningless, as we are all fundamentalists with respect to certain issues/beliefs. It seems to me that what defines a fundamentalist (as the term has come to be used) is the inability to step outside one’s own perspective and see things from the "others" point of view, the inability to recognize that being committed to a position does not demand deprecating and dismissing the other side's arguments as completely without merit or validity, or denying that one’s own position might suffer deficiencies that require refinement and better explication. A fundamentalist looks down from the pinnacle of having arrived at the TRUTH, and truth brooks no compromise and requires no nuance. No matter what the argument or evidence to the contrary, the fundamentalist has a response that affirms the superiority of his/her position - there is no such thing as an unresolved dilemma, a challenge that cannot be met, or even a weakness in an argument, for to acknowledge any of these is to surrender debating points to the other side. The religion/atheism debate is a classic case in point. I want to focus on the side of religion because I am admittedly biased in favor of belief, and therefore the excesses here trouble me more than the excesses of the likes of Richard Dawkins. Much written in defense of religion bothers me as failing to be honest in recognizing the weak as well as strong points in arguments for belief. When learning a sugya a lamdan worthy of that title can distinguish a chiluk that has the ring of emes, and an answer which b’dochak may solve a problem but is unsatisfying, and a kashe that remains b’tzarich iyun because no answer has been discovered. Religious fundamentalism of the Torah variety has lost sensitivity to these gradations in the zeal to defeat the opposition and “defend the faith”. There is no sense of humility, no recognition that sometimes the challenge is stronger than the teirutzim proposed, no acknowledgement that sometimes it is OK to say tzarich iyun or recognize a position as a dochak, and worst of all, there is a cavalier dismissal even of objective evidence that poses a challenge, replacing ‘ain l’dayan elah mah she’einav ro’os’ with a solipsistic denial of what is before one’s own eyes. Yes, when R’ Akiva Eiger said tzarich iyun he did not have someone waiting in the wings to pounce and say “Aha! If you can’t solve that it proves your religion is defective”, which is very much the case in the charged debates on religion and atheism. But in the long run, the extremism of the opposition does not excuse tone deafness to what constitutes a reasoned argument and what constitutes intellectual gymnastics, hair splitting, or worse. Tzarich iyun is not surrender, but a recognition that the struggle for answers is an ongoing process of learning. The same holds true in the debate of science vs. Torah - sacrificing mesorah to the god of science is not the best approach, but neither is glibly asserting truisms that contradict reason or evidence. What is the answer? It is the claim by anyone to know THE answer which troubles me - perhaps for many individuals there is an answer of one sort or another, but that is not the same as a total resolution of the issue with no nettlesome details that need to be worked out (at least I haven't discovered one yet, which will inevitably draw the critique that I have either not read enough science or my emunah is lacking otherwise I would see the truth.) The argument for religion is not that faith provides neat and simple answers to all life's questions, but that in spite of lacking answers to a great many questions, a life of religious faith is a far better choice than a life of disbelief.

15 comments:

  1. "The same holds true in the debate of science vs. Torah - sacrificing mesorah to the god of science is not the best approach, but neither is glibly asserting truisms that contradict reason or evidence..., but that is not the same as a total resolution of the issue with no nettlesome details that need to be worked out..."

    Chaim,

    I think that we are on the same [Mishmar blog] page.

    I don't like giving answers or proofs and not working them through vigorously, and/or admitting any perceived weak points of my position. One needs to be totally honest and open in these areas, and know when to say that "I have reached a difficulty at the current moment".

    There is also humility in saying "Hashem yair einei"...

    I would also note that the Rambam at the beginning of Yesodie Hatorah says that the Mitzvah is "leida sheyish matzoi rishon"; but one does not necessarily reach this level from Day 1 of his or her life.

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  2. Excellent post. You write:

    'A fundamentalist looks down from the pinnacle of having arrived at the TRUTH'

    Doesn't that imply that all Orthodox jews are by definition fundamentalist, since all OJ's believe 100% (at least in theory) that God exists and that He wrote the Torah, and nothing you could ever say will dissuade them of those facts?

    Also, you say:

    'The argument for religion is not that faith provides neat and simple answers to all life's questions, but that in spite of lacking answers to a great many questions, a life of religious faith is a far better choice than a life of disbelief.'

    Are you saying that religion should be followed for pragmatic reasons?

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  3. >>>Doesn't that imply that all Orthodox jews are by definition fundamentalist, ... and nothing you could ever say will dissuade them of those facts?

    I think chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla and you can never change my mind - does that make me a fundamentalist? You grabbed one line out of context, but what I am trying to say is holding that belief alone does not make me a fundamentalist - not being able to see why someone could disagree and like vanilla and thinking I have logical irrefutable proofs that chocolate is better does. Not every issue is like ice cream, but you get the point.

    >>>Are you saying that religion should be followed for pragmatic reasons?

    Not sure where that conclusion comes from. The pragmatics of my life would be much easier without having to leave work early on Friday or worry about what I'm eating and lots of other stuff. And as discussed, I am perfectly content to accept that one can be a secular humanist and leave a morally upstanding lifestyle. Religion should be followed because it is the means to have a relationship with G-d and no secular discipline (by definition of its being secular!) offers such a benefit.

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  4. Chaim, I don't know if matters of taste can be brought as proof for a theological debate. "Al ta'am vare'ach ayn lehitvateach" means that there is no point in argument on matters of taste. (In other contexts, it also is an expression to mean that no words could do justice to the taste and smell) There is no point in convincing someone he should like vanilla better than chocolate. There is no absolute truth here. At best, you culd try to argue that the caffeine in chocolate may have harmful effects that would be absent in vanilla.

    But there are axiomatic truths that we accept based on what we've seen and experienced, even though we cannot offer a formal proof. That is something we should remember from the dreaded geometry classes we had to go through in high school. In the book, "As A Driven Leaf" [that should be in italics not quotes, but I can't do italics on this thing ;-(] the author posts the character of Elisah ben Avuya confronting his doubts and then "going off the derech," as we would say today. By the end of the book, though, he comes to the realization that it is impossible to have all the answers. He is always searching for certainty, but he is taught that even in the discipline of geometry, one must begin with acceptance of the basic axioms without proof.

    So we believe that anything is equal to itself. And for all intents and purposes, we still define a line as the shortest distance between two points, even though a more sophisticated version of geometry than the plane we're taught in high school can offer an alternative view (I believe it is based on the curved nature of space, but, hey, I'm an English person ;-))

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  5. anon19:00 AM

    Excellent post.

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  6. Baruch, before saying we are on the same [Mishmar] page, let me quote for you from a recent mishmar post -
    >>>People often rule out the rapid creation of a fully functioning world, saying that the scientifically observed age of the world (whatever that is, lately) has to be real, because otherwise these observations would be the result of deception! Have they not heard our Sages call this a world of "sheker", while the afterlife is a world of "emes"?...Looking at the final paragraph of the Shema, I note that our hearts and our eyes should be disregarded if they provide input injurious to our mitzvah observance or faith. I don't think this is limited to lustful thoughts and sights; there is reason to believe this applies also to very rational, scientific thoughts and sights. <<<
    This approach is completely incompatible with my post. Firstly, it ignores objective evidence in favor of solipcism (alma d'shikra). It takes what chazal express as a moral principle (alma d'shikra in the sugya in baba basra in which it appears means that there is more than meets the eye in this world to the concept of schar v'onesh) and rips it from that context to apply it to scientific realia. Would someone insist that his doctor ignore an x-ray that says a bone is broken because we live in alma d'shikra?! If this is the mishmar position, it advocates blind dismissal of fact as the means of sustaining faith. I completely disagree.

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  7. > I think chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla and you can never change my mind - does that make me a fundamentalist? You grabbed one line out of context, but what I am trying to say is holding that belief alone does not make me a fundamentalist - not being able to see why someone could disagree and like vanilla and thinking I have logical irrefutable proofs that chocolate is better does. Not every issue is like ice cream, but you get the point.

    OK, so now you seem to be saying that just holding a belief in God 100% is not fundie, but maintaining that you can prove it 100% is being a fundie. Assuming you are not a fundie, this means you believe in God 100%, but you recognize that you cannot prove it 100%. This being the case, why is your belief greater than the evidence? If the evidence/proof is say only 60%, then surely your belief should be 60%? How can you have more belief than evidence? That doesn't seem rational. Maybe you can have 'hope', but not belief. Please explain.

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  8. Chaim,

    Mishmar is a group blog; by definition, this means that there is more than one view.

    On my post titled "Big Tent Blogs", I quoted from an e-mail I received about Mishmar:

    "[although] I think am more with you on this specific issue... I recognize that chareidim are not monolithic. I also feel that this blog tends to be intellectual honest and there is room for people to agree to disagree (which is one reason I really like it)."

    The author of the post which you refer to is one of my favorite people on the internet, but I happen to disagree with the way he expressed the idea.

    R' Shimon Schwab in his essay on the Age of the Universe says, IIRC, that before resolving any particular challenge to faith, a person must theoretically be prepared to undergo an "akeidah of the intellect", rather than reject one's faith.

    An alternate approach, if one comes to a truly irresolvable difficulty might be to say "teiku" or to say "fuhn a kashe shtarbt mehn nisht". I think that this was the intent of the post's author.

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  9. >>>This being the case, why is your belief greater than the evidence? If the evidence/proof is say only 60%, then surely your belief should be 60%? How can you have more belief than evidence?

    A few possible answers. Scientists don't speak of theories that are 86.7% true or 91.03% true etc. based on whatever statistical threshold they set for their experiment. A theory is given the 100% stamp of validity if it cannot be falsified - we are not measuring success, we are measuring the rate of failure. Assume a reasonable proposition is true unless you can conclusively demonstrate otherwise.
    You are basically raising the problem of induction, with a little twist.

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  10. However, our sechel, or intellect is our tool for daily existence. We shouldn't throw around these terms lightly. Rav Schwab in the aforementioned essay, continues to the effect that "fortunately one might never come to that point".

    What he means to say, I think,is that if it in theory came to a point when there was an absolute contradiction, then one must ignore one's rationality rather than reject the Torah or be megaleh panim ba'Torah shlo k'halacha; however, the "Akeidah of the intellect" is certainly not the preferred method in Yahadus.

    On the post in question, I commented:

    "By the way, I prefer to recognize a perceived conflict to one's rationality. One person writing online about Amalek wrote:

    "But to ignore a psychological fact, to deny what we are feeling, is unhealthy. It is better to formulate the question directly and to attempt openly and honestly to deal with it. "Then I shall not be ashamed, when I look at all Your commandments." (Tehillim 119:6)."

    The greatest of the Rishonim told us to use our minds in trying to understand the Torah. I might be forced, in order to uphold the Torah, to take an approach that is in conflict with a simple interpretation of the data, but I am using my faith to interpret the data in a different way.

    Philosophers may call it "rejecting rational thoughts", but others might call it interpreting the data in a non-mainstream approach, or in a revisionist way, in order to allow one's faith which was previously established(separate topic), to prevail."

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  11. I also like to approach emunah from a psychological perspective; this is not a contradiction to Bechirah Chofshis. From a psychological perspective, the above approach of acknowledging a difficulty makes eminent sense.

    The author I quoted above was talking about morality of Amalek, which is one example of a contradiction between the Torah and Western ethics. Thus, I would acknowledge the question, and tell someone: " Good kashe. According to our ethics this appears to be difficult, but Hashem is the ultimate rachaman, even if we can't comprehend it". I would then proceed to give the standard answers which are given for these types of questions.

    I would not say, "Our thinking is warped; slavery, Amalek, or corporal punishment must be good--we have to be "mevatel our sechel to daas Torah".

    My goal is the same, to resolve difficulties and strengthen the Torah, but I am doing it, I think, in a more sophisticated and effective way.

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  12. >>>Philosophers may call it "rejecting rational thoughts", but others might call it interpreting the data in a non-mainstream approach, or in a revisionist way, in order to allow one's faith which was previously established(separate topic), to prevail."

    And this is precisely the problem - the inability to distinguish mainsteam ideas from revisionism, rationalism from mysticism, and the forced molding of data to meet an agenda.

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  13. Chaim,

    By "revisionism", I meant that rather than reject the Torah, one must be prepared to accept an approach not recognized by mainstream scholars.

    I've written on a different blog that modern Orthodox academics also recognize when they need to disagree with scholarly opinion.

    Dr. Moshe J. Bernstein, in Torah Umaddah Journal("The Orthodox Jewish Scholar and Jewish Scholarship: Duties and Dilemmas, Volume 3, 1991-1992), while certainly not agreeing with me in all areas of my hashkafa(the sentences I've quoted in part because of time, disagree with my hashkafa), writes:

    "On the other hand, we have axioms more precious to us than those of scholarship." And... "The Orthodox graduate student or young scholar.... must be prepared... to conclude zarikh iyun gadol or the equivalent and to step back spiritually whole." In his last paragraph he refers to the Yiddish Proverb of "quesstions are rarely fatal"(fuhn a kashe starbt mer nisht).

    My big tent idea is for the Mishmar blog. Mishmar, as least as I see it, is not the Jewish Observer nor the Yated, although all authors recognize the primacy of Torah, the sanctity of the Mesorah, and the crucial need for Kavod Hatorah. I've written frequently on the net about the need for periodicals in the charedi world that express a more "breidt" approach, and tolerate dissent. Maybe this makes me "centrist charedi" or LW Yeshivish :)

    As far as the Agudah convention I would like to see a broader hashkafa represented. I am interested in starting my own convention called "Between the Agudah and the OU". Thursday night, there will be an option for people to have turkey or not to have, if they so wish. More important than eating Turkey, we will indeed "talk turkey", ie, frankly discuss many social and philosophical issues discussed on the blogosphere.

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  14. Baruch,

    I am curious as to which aspects of the quote you provided would contradict your hashkafa.

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  15. Rabbi Maroof,

    Actually, the paragraphs themselves do not contradict my hashkafa. But I was being honest that Dr. Bernstein's approach is that of a religious academic, and that his standards were different than mine.

    But my point was that anyone Orthodox, even a Judaic studies scholar, at some point, by definition, needs to ignore conclusions of modern scholarship and be willing to be iconoclastic.

    A writer in the YU Commentator, linked below, states the following:

    "But there is one catch. The benefits that can be attained through the supplement of academic Judaic Studies require the scuttling of preconceived notions. We cannot fear the content of these courses, even when some of their material forces us to view aspects of Judaism in a new light - a light not regularly seen in the beit midrash. When it comes to one's core beliefs, such shifts in perspective can be difficult. But when these courses are properly given, the foundation of one's Judaism no longer rests on faith alone, but rather on faith supplemented with understanding."

    If one's "core belief" is that certain statements of chazal are historical(and this is certainly a core belief in the Yeshiva world, and possibly beyond, where for some in the former world, even the opinion of the Rambam and his son on science and chazal, or that of Rav Aryeh Kaplan on the Age of the Universe is today heresey !), then changing them is indeed a red line, and is non-negitiable.

    But in this sense, one is in the same position as the Orthodox academic, who attempts to synthesize Orthodoxy and scholarship, and by definition has his own lines.

    Some will say that I have engaged in the slippery slope fallacy and failed to distinguish between two categories, but the Orthodox academic himself will admit that were he not Orthodox, he would not have "axioms more precious that those of scholarship".


    http://media.www.yucommentator.com/media/storage/paper652/news/2006/10/23/Editorials/Defending.the.Bible-2350917.shtml?sourcedomain=www.yucommentator.com&MIIHost=media.collegepublisher.com

    http://www.yutorah.org/showShiur.cfm?shiurID=704628

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