Sunday, May 16, 2010

The fourth approach (or, Tradition, tradition! (Part 6)

I am often accused of stereotyping, labeling, and general bigotry. Well, alright, not so often, from time to time, but in any event, I try to attend to the rebuke (why, incidentally, does the End button never work on Macs?) and correct myself.
     How much more depressing, therefore, when the members of the groups that I practice my bigotry against act to strengthen the basis for it! (My complaint is not dissimilar to that of Douglas Adams recalling the cases when one meets a German lacking sense of humor. Here you were, working on this stereotype that you had held the whole life, and then, when you feel you almost succeeded overcoming it, comes a German with a sense of humor similar to that of a cork. Anyway, this is actually a very serious post, so enough about humor.)
      In any event, over this Shabbos I started reading Maimonides: Torah and Philosophical Quest by David Hartman. The author starts discussing "what options are available to someone who, while living within [religious] tradition, is exposed to different world views" from the society (especially, its intellectual elements) around him. He provides four options:
  1. The way of insulation: ignoring that the secular views exist and thus not allowing them to contradict the tradition by submitting one's intellect to the tradition and community. "My thoughts are not your thoughts"; therefore, no contradiction can happen. "Thus has G-d spoken" and no other view can exist.
  2. The way of dualism: being a Jew on the street and an intellectual in private; i.e., behaving according to the tradition, but knowing, in the privacy of one's mind, that rationality disagrees with Torah. This, according to the author, is a way of elitism, of aristocracy. Those holding to it sacrifice their intellect to their body, and their body to the community.
  3. The way of rejection: unable to sacrifice one's mind, one rejects the community and the tradition (r"l).
  4. The way of integration: an attempt to integrate rationality and tradition into one whole.
     It is this last approach that I wish to quote verbatim from the book. Although I may be accused of stereotyping again, I should like to say that this approach -- and the agenda born of it -- is rather stereotypical of the approach I have seen from most members (that I have encountered) of the school of thought within Orthodox Judaism to which the author belongs. For myself, I shall not say that I believe this approach is treif gomur, but I do believe that it is treif v'toiv loi (I wonder how many people will get the pun). I quote, again, verbatim, only omitting certain passages and hyphenating G-d. At first it's all theory, but then the author gets to practice (if you wish to skip the theory -- although I advice against it -- see the label "practice").

 * * *
The fourth option regarding this conflict is one in which the individual takes both knowledge-claims seriously: the religious as grounded in revelation and in traditional authority, and the human as grounded in reason. He does not assume an either/or posture. He refuses to believe that man must choose between G-d's mind and his own. "Your thoughts are not my thoughts" does not lead irrevocably to the complete severance of religious knowledge-claims and rational human-claims; it does not imply the impossibility of common areas of discourse. [So far so good -- ASH.]
     Divine revelation need not be in discord with human understanding. In fact where they share a common domain, in principle, they are never in discord. Man's rationality participates in the divine system of knowledge. There are not two truths.
      This participation does not mean that man can grasp all that the divine mind knows. But to say that man does not know what G-d knows is not to say that the divine mind can know, as truth, that which the human mind knows to be false. [Uh-oh.] The two minds do not contradict one another. To say that G-d's thoughts are not human thoughts is only to admit the limits of human understanding, and does not imply that the two contradict each other.
     The statement merely denies any claim of the human mind ultimately to judge what may count as true and as false. The human mind is not the sole source of knowledge. There are limits to human understanding. Nevertheless, that which stretches beyond the limits of human understanding does not negate that which is within its limits. That which the human mind knows to be logically impossible from within its sphere of competence cannot be proven logically possible by the claim that the divine mind knows it to be true.
     The human mind is prepared to admit limitations and yet claim absolute sovereignty within the legitimate scope of its understanding. [...] Revelation, as mediated through the tradition, does not cause the individual to doubt that which can be known within the human sphere. He feels confident that he can maintain a posture of critical loyalty to the tradition because he knows that the tradition encourages and values the use of human reason. G-d does not play tricks nor does He deceive the human mind. [Which is why we do not live in Oilam Ha'sheker. Indeed. -- ASH.]
      G-d cannot square the circle. G-d cannot make possible that which is logically impossible. It is the human mind which defines the logically impossible that G-d's mind never violates. The same logical rules that apply to human understanding apply to the divine mind as well. The individual within this fourth, integrative, option applies the principle of limit, which is not a principle of negation, to the religious knowledge-claims of his tradition.


[...] If truth is not determined exclusively by tradition then he can demand that tradition make itself intelligible within the categories of the established truths of reason.
     The fourth way makes possible an integration between the claims of tradition and claims of reason by expanding the possible meanings of religious language to include symbolic meaning. [When I hear the word "symbol", I reach for my gun -- ASH.] A literal understanding of one's religious language limits the possibility of its being modified by new intellectual claims. The key epistemological criteria used to determine whether one is to read the language literally or symbolically are defined by the claims of reason. Rational demonstrative truth has the power to alter the literal meaning of religious language.
     However, in order for a re-evaluation of religious language to be in harmony with tradition, and in order that it not appear as a total distortion ["not appear" -- how generous!], one must demonstrate that tradition itself justifies the use of symbolic interpretation. Unless the tradition has within it the category of symbolic language and an awareness that religious language can be understood in multiple ways, the encounter between demonstrative truth and tradition forces a total abandonment of the latter. In order to feel that the re-evaluation is itself a traditional mode of understanding, one must show that the tradition has built into it the awareness that its own language can be taken symbolically. [...]
     The way of integration requires not only cognitive re-interpretation of tradition, but recognition that the community itself points to the goal of individual excellence, a recognition that the normative system of the community encourages individuals to move ahead according to their spiritual capacities. What is involved in the way of integration, therefore, is a total attempt to reconstruct the meaning of the normative system. If the normative system does not point to individual excellence, then the way of integration has failed. The individual will still be acting within communal rather than individual categories. [Now, you would think this would appeal to me, who dislikes socialism and loves liberty. Not so fast. -- ASH]
      The way of integration rejects the first option [isolating one from the outside intellectual influences] not only for its insistence on tradition as the criterion of truth, but for its concomitant behavioral emphasis on submission to authority. [Now you see why this does not sit well with me. I may be a libertarian, but I am also a chossid. Vos mir zeinen, zeinen mir; ober chassidim zeinen mir. -- ASH.] For the first option to succeed, for one to believe that the tradition claims both the actions and thoughts of an individual, one's own criteria of understanding must not be allowed to question the criteria and content of tradition, as mediated through community. One must have an obedient nature to admit that authority defines truth [oy, vey's mir].
     To encourage this total regard for authority, the tradition must develop the capacity for obedience through its norms. If, however, the individual is encouraged to think, and if the mind's discovery of demonstrative truths is considered sufficient reason for rethinking the tradition, then something is set in motion. [Indeed. Something is set in motion, and no mistake.] This is the individual who does not look upon obedience as the highest virtue, but recognizes that to understand is greater than to obey. The trust in human reason creates a new relationship to G-d: a love based upon understanding. [Hey, it's almost Chabad! Minus the "Rebbe" and "Chassidus" parts.]
      The way of integration will not revel in norms that are not reasonable, nor consider the soul to be spiritually nurtured when it is obedient to that which it doesn't understand. On the contrary, actions which grow from understanding will be seen as the highest form of religious achievement.
     A whole new way of life emerges when we maintain that community does not define the contents of truth. Once tradition need to justify itself in the court of universal reason, it can no longer demand obedience to itself as the highest virtue nor can it regard such obedience as the way to spiritual excellence. [...] Arguments from authority [that] presuppose acceptance of the authority which derives in turn from a loyalty to the community which legitimates that authority [shall be abandoned].

[Ad kan.]
* * *
And that, my friends, is what this particular school of thought, in my opinion based on the experience of encounters with the representatives of this school of thought and their ideas, is all about. I may be wrong in applying it to the whole group (I hope I am). Then it applies to a significant segment of the group. My goal here is not witch-hunting or labeling. I am criticizing, after all, the ideas, not the people.
     I think the above passage is absolutely beautiful. It is wonderful. It is rather well written. Somewhat verbose (although, I can hardly be the one to throw that stone), but magnificent in its clarity and explanation of its message: abandon the authority of the community and the tradition and place the tradition under the judgment of the court of reason. If found guilty, it must be re-evaluated, replacing the literal with the symbolic, until the traditional view does no longer contradict the rational reason. And why? Because G-d cannot do anything which goes against our, human logic and understanding -- the immediate and current version of it. (Of course, as the understanding changes with time, so shall the verdicts of the tribunal of rationality over tradition.)
     In my very humble opinion, the above approach, needless to say, is erroneous and goes against what Orthodox Judaism has stood for throughout centuries. And this is not a mere appeal to the tradition that one could label circular. It is an argument that we cannot call this approach as one belonging to authentic Judaism.
     Not only does the above approach contradict the way I view Judaism -- through the lens of Chassidus Chabad -- but also does it contradict, in my humble opinion again, the very logic and rationality that the author worships, seemingly above all. I shall write more about this, with G-d's Will, on a later occassion. The essence of my counter-argument, however, is in the links below. Both to the understanding of the importance of community’s authority and tradition and to the claim that G-d cannot contradict human logic.

More on the topic:


Michael said...

The two most remarkable things from the excerpt:
1) This is the individual who does not look upon obedience as the highest virtue, but recognizes that to understand is greater than to obey.
It's remarkable because of how different it is from the way Chassidim are trained to think - it is almost the opposite of the words of Shmuel "Does G-d desire burnt offering or Zevach, as He desires obedience to the word of G-d. Behold, obedience is better than Zevach, to listen, than the fat of rams".
2) It is the human mind which defines the logically impossible that G-d's mind never violates.
It is absolutely amazing to me that someone living in the 21st century, who believes that the watch of a person walking down the street ticks more slowly than the watch of a person standing still, that there is an object in the universe (many, many billions of them, in fact) that occupy more than one place at one time, and that a solid wall is 99% emtpy space - all beliefs which, if presented in the 19th century would have been laughed out of the building, can speak of the "human mind defining that which is logically impossible, which the divine Mind cannot violate."
If the last hundred years of science have taught us anything (besides for airplanes, computers, genetic engineering and xBox), it has taught us that the human mind is very bad at figuring out what is logically possible.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

1) I think the problem is also that this approach destroys our rational confidence in the already-existing tradition. If we do not believe in s"d of the community and authorities, why believe in tradition in general? Why refrain from eating chicken with milk in private? Why not use electric appliances on Shabbos in private?

2) Indeed, the 20th-century science teaches us humility. Not only in limitations of our knowledge, but also in limitations of our imagination — not just about what can be added to and changed in our worldview, but even regarding what is a part of it already. Brian Green, the author of Elegant Universe quotes some famous physicist saying that nobody really understands what Quantum Mechanics really means (although everybody understands what it is on paper and confirm the results experimentally), and while a few people actually understand what Relativity means, most don't have a good idea what it really is.

3) I think such attitude may actually be the descendant or at least a close relative to the doctrine of tzimtzum ki'pshutoi. When G-d is in “His realm” (so to speak), He cannot be understood by logic, since He is G-d, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. But when He is in our realm, He is forced to obey the logic He created for us. In order not to commit an act of blasphemy, it is almost easier to say that G-d never Himself enters “our realm” and merely rules it from the “outside”, through a kav.
This way, our realm can be G-dless, in terms of His expression of His unknowable logic (or, indeed, being beyond logic).
This is almost exactly opposite from the idea of gilui haTzimtzum as expressed by the Rebbe in the teachings about Purim and Chanukah (and times of Moshiach).

Anyway, some may say that these ideas are ravings of an individual over-rationalizer. But they can also be found in such works as Hirsch Chumash or different editions of Artscroll Chumash. The ideas found there are also usually in completely contradiction to Chassidus. So, it’s not just thoughts of an individual — the whole communities’ thinking is being influenced by this philosophy.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

I mean, gilui ho’Etzem.

A Suede Ḥossid said...

See, this is why everyone — even the people in Humanities and Social Sciences — need to be taught hard sciences and Math.

The Real Shliach said...

Wow, that was a long post.