Thursday, January 20, 2005

So what is a young person to do when faced with the following situation. He is told that a Jew must believe X but he knows that X looks awfully dubious. One solution, offered up by HaRav HaGaon (HRHG) Uren Reich shlit"a (henceforth: HRHG), an up-and-coming star of the yeshiva velt who sounds like my kind of guy, deserves to be quoted verbatim:

If the gemara tells us a metziyus, it's emes veyatziv. There's nothing to think about. Anything we see with our eyes is less of a reality than something we see in the gemara. That's the emunah that a yid has to have.

This solution must seem awfully compelling to someone as obviously over-invested in the system as HRHG. Possibly less so to a young person seeking his path with nothing to guide him but whatever is left of his common sense after enduring years of mechankhim like HRHG.

So let's consider some of our protagonist's other options. He could try to persuade himself that the evidence against X is unpersuasive: science and/or history is a speculative business, scientists/historians are divided on the issue, new evidence is emerging, etc. This might work for a while. What happens when this fails? (Health Warning: If this doesn't ever fail for you, you may have unwittingly wandered into HRHG territory.)

This leaves two options: 1. leave yiddishkeit or 2. stay frum without believing X

Apparently HRHG is less frum than I am because he clearly would reject option 2 while I accept it wholeheartedly.

Option 2 comes in at least two flavors. One could argue based on the full range of traditional sources that belief in X is not necessary (or even desirable) or one could not bother with that argument. The question that arises is: what is the absolute minimal core of belief necessary to sustain any meaningful adherence to Yiddishkeit?

I believe the answer is this: one must believe -- feel in one's bones through commitment and participation -- that the Torah and the community of its practitioners are collectively endowed with a unique spark which has miraculously sustained them from some founding revelatory event in the past and will continue to sustain them indefinitely through some redemptive phase in the future.

This covers in some abstract way pretty much all the main principles that have been articulated at one time or another as ikarei emunah. But it does so in a way that really doesn't tax one's credulity too much. Certainly this kind of faith is not likely to be threatened by most scientific or historical hypotheses. It is, unfortunately, sometimes put to the test by the fact that some of those with the most influence over the path of our mesorah are total jackas [Note from Ben: the above was written by a dibbuk. I have just regained control of my typing fingers. Disregard the above.]

13 Comments:

Blogger Russell said...

R. Nosson Slifkin addresses this in his book, "Mysterious Creatures." He suggests that there are 5 possible approaches to dealing with conflicts between what the sages tell us and what modern scholarship says about the physical world:

1. The sages possessed superior knowledge, while scientists are fallible
2. Both are correct; the world has changed since the time of the sages
3. Both are correct; the error is in our understanding of what the sages said
4. The sages spoke metaphorically, and we have misunderstood their intent
5. The sages' knowledge of the physical world was limited and error-prone

7:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Russel: those aren't mutually exclusive options.

"This covers in some abstract way pretty"

Pretty abstract all right. "will continue to sustain them indefinitely through some redemptive phase in the future" some redemptive phase? Reform Judaism is not excluded. You're slick.

3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"This covers in some abstract way pretty much all the main principles that have been articulated at one time or another as ikarei emunah."

Where's reward and punishment? One of the three pillars is so abstract it's been removed entirely.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Jesse A. said...

Does a commitment to Halakha fit anywhere into your definition? Because from everything else you've written indicates that it should, but it is not implied by this post.

Jesse A.

5:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually find that my emunah and bitachon is stronger BECAUSE I know that Chazal made mistakes. If I say the world is round even though they thought otherwise, how would HRHG answer it? He fumfers and tries to come up will all sorts of reasons, maybe they didn't mean it, they were talking about something else, etc. Me, I say they were great thinkers, but they were thinkers in their time. They were mistaken. It doesn't take anything away from them and I don't have to brainwash myself into believing some silly reasons why what they said thousands of years ago really means the same thing we know today.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Anonymous 1,
I don't know anything about Reform so I defer to your superior knowledge on that. What do you mean "slick"?

Anonymous 2,
Reward for participating in this miraculous process is that one gets to be part of this miraculous process. Punishment for not participating is that one is cut off from it.

Jesse,
I didn't mention action because I was discussing belief. I regard action as primary; belief is merely the perspective from which such participation becomes meaningful.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Shlomo said...

If they didn't mean it, then why would they say it? Remember Avos 1:11 "...be careful with your words..." Does that mean only the words and NOT the facts? Sounds like slick lawyering to me.

2:23 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

SL,
Her sich zi. I read what you wrote here and also what you wrote to Shtreimel re belief in a deity. I think you got something ass backwards on this topic. Emunah can *only* be a consequence of participation and not the other way around.
When you say "why did they say what they said if they didn't mean it", I'm not sure if you mean why did they say "believe X" if you don't have to believe X or if you mean why did they say X, if X is false.
Either way the answer is this: children understand the concrete, through direct experience with the tactile world, before they understand abstractions. Once we encounter an abstraction enough times to assimilate it, we "reify" it: it gets its own word which can then be manipulated and used as the basis for further abstractions. This gets done so smoothly in every day life that we don't notice the process. (Mathematicians, though, do it very explicitly.) Until we evolve the necessary abstractions, we are stuck sounding naively concrete. But we keep plugging and the vocabulary gets more sophisticated.
So it is with emunah. The mesorah needs to be passed down somehow. The only available vessels are words and these are inadequate so long as our vocabulary is limited to insufficiently abstract terms. This limitation is both collective -- as a culture we are inadequately evolved -- and individual -- we are born very young and are at each stage limited by our own mental development.
So, yes, chazal worked with the vocabulary they had. Did they know better but lack the tools to transmit their deeper understanding or were they, too, limited by the limitations of culture. I'd take the frum side of that machloikes but I agree it's a machloikes worth having. In any case, it's only by actually speaking the language (i.e. doing the mitzvos) that we can develop the necessary sophistication in emunah.

11:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"What do you mean "slick"?"

I mean that you leave room to be outside the pale of Orthodoxy (some kind of redemptive process can mean Michael Lerner's "politics of meaning")- or as frum as you want - and no one will ever peg you down. What you've written here is consistent with the Reform platform, not the Orthodox one. But if you throw in some yiddish, hey, who will notice? Puh-leez.

8:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

YES or NO: Do you think belief in the next world is a requirement of Orthodox Judaism?
No fancy statements, just a yes or no question.

8:30 AM  
Blogger mnuez said...

Awrightyy. Great post - really great - except for the end where you reintroduce the dogma aspect. BUT, the dogmatic necessity of your creation is one that, based on a scientific look at the matter, does seem possible. Not necessarily probable but quite possible. I'm not sure why you feel the need to reintroduce Ani Maamins though being as it seems to me that most folk who remain a part of the community despite their difficulty in believing much of its nonsense, do so for social reasons. Or if I may rephrase that - because they're so heavily invested in being a part of that society. Leaving, my friend, aint easy.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the reason one stays within the fold is cultural or social, and one just believes that without religious practice and learning one can't maintain the culture, one isn't religious. Dressing that up with a statement of vague allegiance to the people of Israel, the idea that the torah contains SOME revealed truth, that there is SOME redemptive phase --- that's garbage, not religion. Ben Chorin has taken the stance here and in other posts that what really matters is social allegiance, not religiousity, and he sees observance as a means of passing on culture, not religion. That's fine, but what he thinks is important isnt Orthodox Judaism.

There are lots and lots and lots of people who stay within the fold for social reasons but most of them arent so pretentious or so intellectually dishonest as to pretend that they are "really" religious. Ben Chorin is just used to sleazing it and covering it up with clever rhetoric.

1:29 PM  
Blogger Ben Mavet said...

Au contraire, Anonymous - I read BenC as saying something like:

1. There is this miraculous process called the Mesorah.
2. I want to be a full part of this process.
3. The way to do so is by observing halakha as the Mesorah demands.
4. Any "belief" or "emunah" will develop through my involvement with the Mesorah, and not the other way around. Mitokh shelo lishmah ba lishmah.

This sounds pretty religious to me (and strikes me as almost the only way to still be frum in the modern world).

I would also add that the use of "internal" terms such as "emunah" or "belief" to refer to propositions that one must "hold by" seems to be fairly recent (perhaps starting with the Rambam and his neoplatonist notions of "knowledge" as the be-all and end-all). The Gemara (in pereq heleq) uses the formula "ha'omer" - "he who says". I.e, it's about social action - believe whatever you want, but saying certain things will damage the Mesorah. (Of course, now that I've said that, maybe I'm in trouble...)

7:16 PM  

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