www.TheLogician.net © Avi Sion - all rights reserved
© Avi Sion
All rights reserved
© Avi Sion, 1995. All rights reserved.
In this essay, we consider some of the psycho-social factors underlying
religious modes of thought.
As soon as one begins to express opinions on issues
related to religion, one is confronted with an exceptional dilemma, not found in
other fields. The first horn of this dilemma is a possible antipathy of the
religious camp, Rabbinical or lay; while its second horn is a possible discredit
in the secular camp, academic or amateur. It is a case of "damned if you do
and damned if you don't", very likely without a fair hearing either way.
The philosopher of religion has to be attentive and find some way to take this
dilemma by the horns.
I have chosen, here, to leave a certain ambiguity in the term ‘secular’, letting it range from a neutral position with regard to religion to the more ideological anti-religious position, which is more accurately called ‘secularist’. This is, I think, justified, insofar as individuals themselves are not always clearly positioned, but may start from a purely secular perspective and travel over to more decided opinions, or vice versa. Also, of course, being religious does not normally imply rejection of all secular opinions.
For the religious, the accumulated beliefs of the orthodox Jewish
religion are unshakably true; and the (oft inspired) intellectual processes
which have brought about this accumulation of beliefs from an initial Divine
revelation at Sinai are not open to any doubt, at least no longer so ex post
facto, once their result has become established with general approval of close
to contemporary rabbinical authorities. The function of scholarship, here, is
essentially study: retracing steps previously traced; those before knew it all,
those after must try to recapture this knowledge.
For the secular, ideally, any belief must be subjected to independent and
fair-minded scrutiny and appraisal, both empirically and rationally; and any
belief may be abandoned or be adopted, according to the faults or merits that
the investigation may uncover in the light of all available information and
insight. This is an ideal image of the secular pursuit of truth, because in
practise of course different people (or a person at different times of his/her
life) may be more or less capable of developing within themselves and sustaining
the right attitudes, more or less aware of available information and logical
methods, and more or less gifted with native intelligence.
These two epistemological approaches are significantly different; yet
they also have notable common aspects. For the religious, no single factor in
the body of received beliefs can be doubted because that would open the whole
structure to collapse. For the secular, all reviews and changes in beliefs are
in principle acceptable, no matter how radical, provided of course such
proposals are convincing. In both cases, there is an implicit threat, a
controlling fear, accompanying any pronouncement: in the former, excommunication
or untold Divine punishments, in the latter, ridicule and professional
exclusion. But the two approaches also make some similar demands on the human
intellect: demands of effort, demands of research and understanding; and they
also share a great many logical processes.
There doesn't seem to be a way to really reconcile these approaches.
Albeit their common grounds, they are apparently on the whole radically opposed
principles: there is a limit and a reticence in the religious, an overriding
faith in received tradition, and an ultimate skepticism in the human mind; the
secular optimistically believes in the powers of free thinking, and looks with
suspicion on any prejudicial attachments to particular data or interpretations.
I would like here to propose certain meditations on Truth, which may help
a little to resolve the issues on both sides.
For the religious.
Faith is an attitude of the human Will in the face of an
uncertainty. It signifies an assumption of truth beyond the recommendations of
empirical/rational judgement: where normal cognition leaves blanks faith is free
to step in, and frequently faith steps in against the probabilities conceived by such uncommitted judgement.
Thus, faith is a measurable concept (roughly, intuitively): it is a will to
believe which is inversely proportional to empirical/rational judgement. If the
probability that some proposition be true according to experience and reason is
say 90%, then the faith that it is not
true (which has going for it only a 10% probability) needs to be proportionately
strong. It does not, obviously, take
much faith to adhere to a belief which reason and experience already
It would seem to me to follow that religious people should welcome the
challenges posed to their faith by secular thinking. To maintain one's faith by
staying or being kept in ignorance, is not therefore a sign of piety, but a sign
of weakness in one's faith, if not simply of intellectual laziness or stupidity.
Blind fanaticism is not a demonstration of faith, but a use of force; forcing
oneself or being forced by others to adhere to some belief has no place in the
pursuit of truth. A strong, confident faith is generously open and unafraid of
challenge: like true love, it holds firm over the long term, unmoved by the
appearances of the moment, always grateful to receive new information and
insights, always searching for solutions to problems.
The judgement of any proposition, any item of knowledge presented for
consideration and appraisal, is like a
court trial (individual and collective), and the person(s) taking up this
job is/are judge(s), court officers. It is like the judgement of a person: there
is an ethic to it, a morality is necessary. This ethic is well documented in the
Torah (see for instances Exod. 23:1-9, Deut. 16:18-20, also even Deut.
25:13-15), and as a consequence in the Talmud, and in Rabbinical writings.
Witnesses or judges may have some intuitive opinion of the outcome of the trial,
but in their roles within it they have a moral duty to maintain an absolute
open-mindedness and will to truth. Truth, we are taught, at all times requires:
treating litigants equally,
without prejudice in the face of their poverty or respectability, their
exclusion or inclusion in an in-group, or their virtue or vice beyond the issue
being uncorrupted by fear of
reprisal or promises of reward, and unmoved by peer-group or public opinion and
finding honest and fair
witnesses, and diligently inquiring into their testimony, as well as giving an
equitable hearing to all parties;
distinguishing between hard
and circumstantial evidence, and judging with knowledge of the law and its
using the same scales and
standards for all (under the law); intent on doing justice, and on neither
condemning the innocent nor failing to condemn the guilty.
All this applies as well to the judgement of ideas
as to that of men, for is not the judgement of men ultimately determined by the
judgement of ideas? But what distinguishes theoretical research from practical
jurisprudence is that in
the general pursuit of knowledge, the trial never comes to an end, so faith is
never really endangered. Even so, one is duty bound to keep track of
developments as they occur, and not just shut one's mind: there are almost
always valuable lessons to be learned.
For the secular.
The challenges for the secular are different. It is all too easy to be
moved by an anti-religious prejudice, which, as much as a pro-religious
prejudice, may distort one's perceptions and conceptions of truth, through the
desire to be unbound by the restrictions and duties which religion may
eventually impose on one. Often, the secular thinker, much as the religious one,
is subject to unadmitted subconscious motivations, and uses the forms of
scientific thinking but without its essential spirit, to arrive at preferred
results which serve to justify desires. What is needed in such case is
introspective lucidity and honesty. For the secular, as for the religious, the
basic epistemological requirement is attitudinal.
In certain academic circles, a distinction is made between apologetic
works and critical works. An apology
for religious beliefs is usually rejected offhand by secular academics, without
serious consideration or evaluation, as inherently biased and unscientific,
whether traditional (old) or original (new). For their part, religious people
usually avoid critical voices and writings, sensing in them provocation and
unfair negativity. One could equally well view apologetic works as
"critical" of secular trends, and critical works as
"apologies" for atheism and immoralities. From the point of view of
philosophy, atheism is as problematic as religious belief: given ordinary
cognitive means, neither is capable of absolute proof or disproof. Making
intimidating accusations, one way or the other, does not serve the cause of
The scientific mind, in the broadest and purest sense of the term which
refers to any attentive, logical and intelligent pursuit of knowledge, is
scrupulously fair. Fairness, or evenhandedness, is considering all theses with
equal care, if not enthusiasm. A secular thinker is duty-bound to take into
consideration the apologetic explanations of the religious, and a religious
thinker likewise for the criticisms and doubts and proposals of the secular. If
one is presented with two or more hypotheses, they must all be equally carefully
analyzed and tested within the widest possible framework of thought and
knowledge-context. One may not just concentrate one's own pet theories,
and ignore or put-down all others offhand. At least, if one is content to pursue
one's own specialized studies, one should not comment negatively on others'
fields; but mutual communication and transparent integration is preferable.
In both cases, the religious and the secular, the basic epistemological
error is that of rushing
to judgement. The religious, faced with criticism, rush to judgement and
condemn the speaker in their fear that their faith will be shaken, if not
shattered; it is hard to be religious (or anything which calls for sustained
discipline) without firm certainties and deep enthusiasm, one doesn't get far.
The secular, faced with apologetics, yawn with boredom or get cold with
hostility; their mind is usually made-up already, final judgement was passed
long ago. Of course, each side would claim that its judgement was quick rather
than rushed; quick - as when one quickly spots the errors in a stupid or
The error of the religious is to forget the infinity of knowledge: new
data, new insights, may always eventually reverse previously held secular
beliefs. As for the secular, they forget that a proposition which seems
far-fetched and unlikely may still in the end turn out to be true; a low
probability is still a probability. These are essentially one and the same
error, which calls for an effort to keep going however things look to be thus
Knowledge, all knowledge, knowledge of truth, requires observational
skill, logical powers, and a great deal of imagination; but, most of all it
requires the right mental attitudes: intellectual
honesty and intellectual courage, i.e. intellectual integrity. Whatever
one's technical abilities or intelligence, it is ultimately one's will to truth that counts most, and for that openness, patience, and plain hard work are necessary. Knowledge is
not the mere manipulation of data, ideas or symbols, but primarily a moral act.
If its goal is superiority or privilege, it will soon transmute plausible
reasoning into a "whitewash job" or a "hatchet job".
Knowledge as a sword, as source of power and authority, is not true knowledge.
True knowledge is free, yet altogether sustained by a moral will; it has no
credibility otherwise, descending to the level of ideology and slogan.
Most of all, for any individual, what the pursuit of truth requires is a
personal commitment to realism: the
conviction that facts are facts, that
wishing they were otherwise or turning one's eyes from them will in no wise
change them. If something I believe in, whether of spiritual significance or
whatever, is at all false, I want to be the first to know it; ignorance is not
bliss, or not a very respectable form of bliss.
Realism demands transparency ("glasnost"
in modern parlance); for problems to be solved, they must be brought out
into the open and consciously dealt with, rather than waved-off or
covered-up. And having come face to face with the difficulties, one should not
respond to them with panic, assuming the worst, throwing the baby out with the
bath-water; but coolly, considering the pros and cons with a level-head, looking
for credible resolutions.
It should be noted that the basic issue is not tradition versus change, but thought versus thoughtlessness. Whereas in the old days, conformism rhymed with immobilism, nowadays, especially in America, it rhymes more with trendism. Before, people would unthinkingly submit to institutional authorities, nowadays they unthinkingly follow, hither and thither, slick, media-generated, flavor-of-the-month panaceas. Today's population, for all its veneer of freedom from authority, is really little different from yesterday's.
Of course, there is no denying it, the word 'critical'
need not have a pejorative sense, connoting bias, but may signify a commendable
refusal to be fooled or misled. And, indeed, 'apologetics' (especially, you'll
concede, those of another religion or sect than your own!) are often, if not in
most cases, artificial constructions, whose purpose is very obviously to give a
mere illusion of explanation or proof, and bypass problems or sweep them under
It must be admitted in this context that a decision-maker in Jewish law
(as probably in any other religion's law), as well as any scholar or student in
the field, may allow his judgement to be distorted in various ways. The
possibility of such distortions does not imply that they occur in all cases, or
ever; but it is well to be aware of these possibilities, anyway, in the name of
The first issue is one's scale of
values. In religion, factual truth, whether in matters of principle or with
regard to the historicity of stories, is not necessarily the paramount value.
One may well consider that playing some fancy role or making a certain pious
statement will advance the cause of the religion, and uphold that pose without
having evaluated its factual truth or, worse still, while vaguely and
subconsciously aware that it is questionable or even tenuous. The problem here
is that the religious frequently confuse "good" with "true",
or more precisely, they believe that what seems to them good has got to be true;
and accordingly dismiss as false any idea which seems to them bad.
Such a premise is unfortunately epistemologically unsustainable, for it
is impossible to predict at what stage of its development truth intersects with
goodness; the event may not occur at a superficial level, but may actualize in a
much later stage of the proceedings. Some truths are at first unsavory, but
later one realizes the depth and maturity they taught us, and the improvements
in one's character they caused in us, as well as the broader and more accurate
world-view they generated in one. Conversely, simple faith or rigid fanaticism
may give one an initial aura of moral achievement, but in the long run their
only residue may be a stifled mind out of contact with reality, a rigid person,
a wasted life.
Another pitfall is that of oneupmanship
(in French, la surenchère).
In order to be accepted, respected or admired by one's peers, one may rather
easily judge issues with a leaning towards severity (or, more rarely, leniency).
In Judaism, the more difficult your level of observance, the more virtuous you
seem. The ability to judge leniently is a luxury permitted
only at the higher levels of the hierarchy, when your severity credentials are
well established, and you can now afford the snobbery of emulating Hillel,
adding further veneer to your appearance of virtue.
Whereas in the preceding issue (scale of values) the error may stem from
excessive idealism, in the case of oneupmanship the motive is essentially more
selfish. It is a very human desire to fit in socially and climb the social
ladder, under the guise of spiritual responsibility and spiritual pursuit. It is
selfish, because, by imposing on other people unrealistic norms of behaviour, it
may cause them serious hardships. The problem is inherent to a closed system of
knowledge like Judaism (but not only Judaism): the only way to really have an
impact within it, is literally to add to it, which means for the most part to
make it still more stern, since all relaxation may be viewed as a retreat, and
as evidence of personal decadence. The intellectual who wants to flex his mental
muscles in public within the system is therefore virtually bound to engage in
I like to think that all responsible and sincere Jewish decision-makers
were and are aware of such pitfalls, and had and have the power of introspection
and psychological acuity needed to avoid them. These are probably in the
majority, granting that "you can't fool all the people all of the
time". Still, perhaps some fail to avoid them. But we must also admit that
unorthodox Jewish religious thinkers (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and likewise
secularist thinkers, are equally subject to similar pitfalls, though in opposite
directions, and also need to look into their own souls and consider their own
motives and honesty. In all fairness, some of those also perhaps fail to avoid
The reader should not be one-sided in his scrutiny and evaluation, but
see that fallacious and shallow thinking is found in all camps.
In any case, I say: truthfulness is a mark of human
dignity and decency. There is, in normal circumstances, no beauty, no purity
and innocence, no saintliness, no honour, no kindness, in faking truth. There
are always people around for whom truth is not an absolute and not an
indispensable value. They will twist facts or stretch inferences, invent legends
and make myths, coat their lies with sugar, misuse their credit, or passively accept such behaviour from others, for all sorts of
motives, positive or negative, noble or depraved, none of them nice.
Vain ego-trips, selfish willingness to sacrifice others for one's ends,
the refusal to acknowledge one's errors and admit facts or uncertainties, the
willingness to draw unwarranted conclusions from doubtful data, wishful
thinking, blinding oneself and blinding others, weakness of character,
conformism or cowardice, the inability to say 'no!' or 'enough!' for fear of
rejection or 'yes!' for fear of the action-obligations implied - these are some
of the "human, all too human" possibilities in every camp, the
strictly or weakly religious, the Jewish or non-Jewish, the non-religious or
anti-religious, the educated or uninformed, wherever.
How do I know these things? Simply because I have often caught myself
doing them or tempted to do them. No one has a monopoly on intellectual virtue
or vice; we must all always try to be careful.
One can well see why most Rabbis (Maimonides was a notable exception, but
his efforts in this respect have not been generally appreciated, to say the
least), have such a fierce antipathy to philosophy. Their reaction to it is very
similar to their reaction to physical nudity or to immodest sexuality. 'No holds
barred' rational reflection bares all the faults and weaknesses of dogmas, and
tends to shatter faith. In their view, doctrines may be subjected to a certain
amount of scrutiny; but there are limits to respect.
For all that has been said so far might well be cheerfully admitted (in
principle, though perhaps not always in deed) by wholly-secular thinkers, or by
reform-minded religious ones; but frankly it would hardly be accepted with all
its implications by the less modern-minded orthodox religious establishment.
Because the implications are clearly that some past Rabbinical decisions may
have been faulty or weak. This does not tally with the veneration they are all
held in, which effectively credits them with a sort of unassailable
The explanation put forward to counter such inferences is that the
religious leaders of the past were beneficiaries of a privileged
level of consciousness, with the capacity for insight into percepts,
concepts and logical relationships, inaccessible with ordinary cognitive means.
In Biblical days, this was hanevuah,
prophecy (at various levels); in Talmudic times, it was ruach
haqodesh, translated as the holy spirit (also considered as having various
degrees); and thereafter, a more prosaic but still Divinely-favoured
intellectual acuity, reserved for the pure and obtained by deep study of the
Talmud, call it chokhmah, wisdom.
Thus broadly put, the explanation is effective, because it changes the
equation considerably. A new epistemological factor is thereby introduced into
the discussion. The criticisms previously considered were applicable under the
assumption that normal perceptual, conceptual and logical cognitive equipment
are the common lot of all humans, though their database and intelligence may
vary; and therefore that all are subject to the same methodological pitfalls,
and are to be evaluated in their judgements by uniform standards. If, now, this
assumption is open to doubt, anything goes.
Let us both attack and defend this viewpoint. It is not in principle
inconceivable (we can refer to variations in levels of consciousness in the
animal world); it is just difficult to define, delimit, and demonstrate. Anyone
might claim a privileged or supernatural consciousness, and indeed adherents of
many religions (not just Judaism) do and have done so: how should an individual
without similar claim know whom to believe? There is no conceivable standard,
other than strictly checking explicit predictions; this may apply to precise
concrete events, but many abstract pronouncements are broad-ranging and
Furthermore, in Judaism (at least) the recipients of such special
dispensation (prophets and sages) are all placed far in the past: out of reach
of any present verification of their historicity or of the historicity,
timeliness and exactitude of their pronouncements, safe from any controlled
experiment. It is all too easy to project whatever one wishes into the past, to
ex post facto reorder events as one sees fit, to invent legends, to find in
subsequent events the concrete realization of vague and ambiguous earlier
predictions. How reliable are word-of-mouth or even written traditions, anyway?
Witnesses, even assuming they witnessed something, may have been gullible,
superstitious, easily fooled, because lacking scientific methods and knowledge.
Let me make this clearer. We have, here, a theory that there are two
categories of knower: the Divinely-inspired, like Moshe Rabbenu (to take an
extreme case), and the common, uninspired Jew (among others). For a man like
Moshe, the epistemological problem of Revelation is simple enough: being a
present and direct recipient, he has only to have faith that what he has
heard/seen was indeed the word of Gd; and supposedly that attribute of the
message is convincingly carried within it, as an inherent and undissociatable
component of it. (Of course, we may well say that Moses must have earned this
great gift, just as we say that a man born rich must have had good 'karma'.)
But for the common Jew, who may sincerely try to think things through,
the issues are honestly much more complex: his source of knowledge is indirect,
just hearsay; he has not himself experienced Gd, nor any phenomena he can
identify unequivocally as communications from Gd; living long after the Sinai
events, he has no proof other than a document (the written Torah) and a
tradition (the oral and written culture surrounding the Torah) that these events
ever took place, that Moshe ever existed, and even if so that the subsequent
transmission of the data and the interpretations by umpteen generations of
teachers was accurate, and neither distorted, nor censored, nor amplified.
Thus radically distancing oneself from the issues, one can well see how
difficult is the common lot of human beings in the matter of religious faith.
People who in all humility have trouble believing in anything might well be
excused, with much understanding and compassion. And even those who need to and
are willing to believe, are presented with very difficult choices between
competing scenarios and alternative doctrines; it is hard to blame them if they
betted on 'the wrong choice' of faith, and it is frankly difficult to believe
that they could justly be damned for it. And as for those who made 'the right
choice' of faith, whatever that be, they are surely highly to be praised, for
their epistemological task was much more difficult than the task of anyone who
has been blessed with inspiration.
Past Rabbinical 'deciders' (poskim)
are claimed today to be effectively infallible, if not implicitly omniscient,
and there are supports for this view in the Talmud itself. But this claim does
not seem compatible with the differences of opinion between these deciders
recorded throughout the same document, and through later history. A general
principle is enunciated, to the effect that these and those are words of the
Living Gd (elu vaelu divrei Elokim Hayim);
and that the Torah has 'seventy facets', all equally true even though seemingly
contradictory. But such a statement is more an expression of faith, than a
detailed practical solution to the evident problem: some Rabbis won the debate,
some lost: that is fact.
How to evaluate the defeats? Was it perhaps a momentary breakdown of
privileged consciousness; in which case, how come the Rabbis concerned were not
aware of this breakdown, and continued to maintain their erroneous positions? If
they could not tell the difference, how could they claim privileged
consciousness at all; and if they knew their positions erroneous, what was their
game in maintaining them? In truth, the inductive,
rather than mystically privileged, nature of their thought and debate is very
But the critique can be pushed further: there are cases where errors
surface much later. Consider, for instance, the Midrashic claim that there are
ten a-fortiori arguments in the Tanakh; or its claim that the sex of children is
unknowable before their birth. For close to two thousand years, such
pronouncements were claimed to be infallible. Now we find that there are more
than ten a-fortiori arguments in the
Tanakh, or that modern medicine can predict gender. Sure, we can always try to water-down the original
statements to make them more or less compatible with new findings, one way or
another; but the fact remains that for a score of centuries they were taken
literally by countless Rabbis! What then happens to their credibility?
However, if now we take the 'revisionist' position that the issue need not be "all or
nothing", and accept reluctantly that some
Talmudic and Rabbinical (and even, more extremely, Biblical) statements may be
erroneous: where do we draw the line?
If we do not admit everything, must we perforce reject everything? Perhaps it
suffices to say (cautiously, generously): admit whatever is received from
tradition, until and unless it is proved wrong and must be rejected. We actually
find examples of this approach in Rabbinical discussion.
This is, after all, the way with empirico-rational research: appearances
are accepted as reality, until if ever they are shown to be illusory. We do
not reject all knowledge just because some
of it has turned out to be wrong after being long believed in. That would be
self-contradictory, because it would require rejection of the rejection.
Therefore, it is axiomatic that some
knowledge is right, though that axiom does not specify just which.
However, in the case of specifically religious knowledge, no such clear-cut
epistemological axiom can be constructed.
Our only appeal, it seems to me (and many people throughout history and in all cultures have had a similar impression), can be to the insistent intuition that the existence of Existence as such, of a World, of the complexities of Matter, Life and Consciousness, is an utter surprise (sometimes mixed with joy, sometimes with dismay), an ineffable and unfathomable mystery, which can only be somewhat toned-down to our satisfaction by the assumption of Gd, even though such an assumption itself posits even greater mystification.
And once Gd is thus acknowledged, then the attente for a communication of some sort from Him, an explanation and a guidance, if not individually then collectively, by whatever means, would seem necessary and inevitable. To me, at least; that some people lack such expectation would not prove its vanity, for not all people stop and reflect much, and even those who do might well be moved by incidental considerations. This expectation and need in turn opens human beings to religion, all sorts of religions; and here, their ways part to varying degrees, and the epistemological issues multiply. Some thinkers answer them enthusiastically, some skeptically, some carefully.
Even if anyone seemingly settled some of the issues, what would be
achieved? No more than one more religion, one more sect. Some people would
become more religious or less religious, this way or that way. But certainly (contra Nietzsche) religion will never die; there will always be Jews
and others who uphold religious beliefs. And likewise, the spirit of independent
thought, which is one of the aspects of human greatness, will surely live on;
and people will continue to ask questions and do research.
In any event, no side can or should, cavalier fashion, ignore or dismiss
the other(s), or be satisfied with a preconceived and shallow traditionalism or
modernism. And it is good that the debate continues, with mutual tolerance and
respect, because it is a dialectic of value to all, reflecting the psyche and
destiny of humankind.
Knowing all this, and having said all this, I do not think that any final
and thorough resolution of the big issues is ever possible, one way or the
other. The task is impossible: nothing much can be firmly
proved or disproved. Nothing much is ever likely to change at the level of deep
theoretical questions. In practise, everyone must still always make a personal
choice, and take a gamble on one doctrine or another, be it a belief-system or a
pattern of behavior. Yes or no, this or that, day by day or in gradual or sudden
ways, choice is inescapable. In any case, ultimately, choices are made more with
existential considerations than on theoretical grounds.
So let us remain content, I say, with a simple faith (constant, but
devoid of arrogant pretensions), and enjoy the (doubtlessly very limited)
illuminations stemming from questions and investigations in pursuit of truth.
The Judaic tradition, which includes the Halakhah
(strict law, the 'unvarying' core of Jewish law), the minhagim (subcultural law, varying from community to community), and
the Hagadah (non-legal stories and explanations), tries to make room for and fit
in every statement and interpretation made by all the influential Rabbis. If
such a Rabbi contradicts himself, or another equally important Rabbi, all the
propositions involved are given credit, and viewed as different aspects of the
It is all claimed to be Torah, "leMoshe miSinai," passed on orally if not in writing. Yet this
claim is gently balanced and toned-down by the paradoxical story of Moshe Rabbenu
being momentarily transported to the time of R. Akiba, and sitting at the back
of one of the latter's classes, and not recognizing or fully understanding what
is being taught, even though it is all being presented as a faithful
transmission of Moshe's teachings.
But the tradition has a history, which can be traced to some extent, and
this history displays change - laws added, laws removed, laws changed, new
minhagim, extinct minhagim, new texts, new influences, lost texts, extant texts
losing their influence, new interpretations, new viewpoints, people no longer
convinced by certain claims or explanations, people with new values and emotions
unmoved by past arguments or appeals, and so forth.
Can one honestly maintain that this near-infinity of data was already
actual, if only orally, at Sinai? It is not inconceivable,
since: (a) supernatural means of data acquisition and transmission are not
excluded, and (b) a whole people, that is a culture, was involved, and (c) what
is possible now was possible then (though today's collective "memory"
is mostly in writing, whereas in those days it was mostly not so). But it does
not seem to us very likely, given the
historical facts as we know them.
Granting the existence of real change in Jewish law, evidently some of it
has been in the direction of leniency (e.g. the prosbol
or the interruption of Temple sacrifice), and some in the direction of severity
(e.g. the abolition of male polygamy or the increased volume of daily prayers).
With regard to changes in the direction of leniency, some religious people might
well regret them, and even yearn for more restrictions and duties, regarding
them as opportunities for "performing mitzvot", i.e. for serving Gd.
But frankly most people nowadays would rather feel relief at any lightening of
the burden, and furthermore look askance on any changes in the direction of
From a philosophical perspective, one might wonder at such change, even
in a changing world. Is it a change in the price of heaven? Perhaps some
generations are further away and have to pay more to get up there. Is it
alternatively a difference in mission? Perhaps some generations are weaker, and
therefore can be entrusted only with a relatively low responsibility.
Whatever the reason for it, such change is clearly not inconceivable.
There is no logical reason why the law has to be immutable, just as there is no
logical reason why all creatures or all peoples or all individuals have to be
subject to the same law. The formal logic of ethical propositions allows for all
quantities (general, particular, singular) and all modalities (unconditional,
conditional; constant/permanent, occasional/temporary). It sets no preconceived
standard of universality and invariability.
These reflections arose in the following circumstances. Back in late
1991 or early 1992, after a couple of months of writing, I had a first draft
of some 60 pages, which I distributed copies of to a few local Jewish
academics and Rabbis. Some declined to read it; some found it interesting,
and one had a negative reaction. The latter was Prof. Simon Lauer, to whom
my typescript had been sent by Dr. Esther Starobinski of the Société
suisse d'études juive. I do not know how much of it he actually read,
but he (I was told) rejected it as an 'apologetic' work. I was at first
rather upset that he had not noticed and appreciated the constructive
elements in it (in particular, my original theory of a-fortiori argument!),
but after a while I had to admit that his criticism was in many respects
appropriate. I wrote this essay to clarify the issues in my own mind, and as
a result resolved to be more critical. More precisely, I resolved to be as honest
as possible, neither pandering to the Jewish religious establishment nor to
academia, but admitting difficulties openly wherever I found them and trying
to resolve them as fairly as possible, with neither religious prejudice nor
secularist bias; I would simply record a sincere search for truth.
To give an example, an archeologist finding mention or pictorial
suggestion of the Adam and Eve story or of the Flood story in cultures
preceding the Torah would be wrong to infer that the Torah versions of these
stories are derived from those other cultures. The Torah nowhere denies that
peoples other than the Hebrews may have remembered those events, and it is
quite conceivable that the memory was carried by many different families.
I found a good example of this oneupmanship in Bergman (p. 120), who
describes R. Eliahu Mizrachi as amazed that Rashi initiates a certain
interpretation, with reference to Num. 30:2, and quotes the former as
saying: '...since only the Sages of the Mishnah, who received these
explanations as traditions, are authorized to do so and no one else, not
even the early Geonim, and
certainly not their successors.' The way I see it, these men are riding on
Rashi's solid reputation as an orthodox commentator, and establishing their
own credentials by criticizing him for insufficient commitment. In the case
of R. Mizrachi, the attack is 'original'; in the case of R. Bergman, it is
just an echo: but for both the psychology and social goal is the same.
A book I enjoyed recently and recommend, concerning the specific
field of Bible study was Exegetical
Fallacies; it is written by a Christian scholar, D. A. Carson, and
refers mainly to the Christian Bible, but his remarks are incisive and of
general value, showing many of the errors both would-be defenders and
would-be critics of Scriptures can commit.
Currently through 'echography', if I am not mistaken; but more
sophisticated methods are on the way.
It should be clear that I use this word quite innocently, without
intending any political connotation (with reference to Zionism, or to
An example of such inductive change is given by Mendell Lewittes, in Principles
and Development of Jewish Law: "after quoting statements of Rashi
and Tosafot, he [Moshe Sofer, known as the "Hatam Sofer", a major
Halakhic authority, 1762-1839] writes, 'all this was said only according to
their understanding (of the process of menstruation). However, begging their
pardon, they are not correct in what
they say, for the truth is... according to the scholars and surgical
books... and I have in front of me other books from expert physicians who
are not Jewish.'" (italics mine). That 'begging their pardon', by the
way, is a reflection of the intimidation weighing on him, his fear of
rejection for unfettered thought; yet he had the integrity to pursue truth
and add 'but they are not correct, etc.'