Sunday, May 22, 2005

Intellectual Cowardice in Orthodox Judaism

One of the problems I have with Orthodox Judaism is the intellectual cowardice. Orthodox children are usually kept separate not only from non-Jewish children, but from non-Orthodox Jewish children, in an effort to maintain a monopoly on the information which reaches them. In the more right-wing branches of Orthodoxy, the children are not permitted to watch television or read secular books. In some cases, they aren't given a good enough grasp of English (I'm talking about second- or third-generation Americans!) to learn anything beyond what they are told by people within their community. In yeshivas as modern as Ner Israel, college-aged students are not allowed internet access in their dorms.

I don't want to focus on the overt intellectual cowardice of censorship. The people reading this post are beyond that. Instead, I'd like to talk about what Chaim Potok (an author I love and respect) refers to as "compartmentalization:"

In The Promise the confrontation is between a fundamentalist religion and another gift to us from our general civilization. A gift right from the very heart of that civilization developed in the Universities of western Europe in the last century. A methodology we call scientific text criticism. It's a methodology that uses all the modern findings of archeology, philology, ancient languages, and the new things that we know about the cultures of the ancient world and their interactions to explore the developement of ancient texts.. It brings all this powerful instrumentality to bear upon the central and sacred texts of the western tradition. The texts of the Bible. For fundamentalists, these texts are in one way or another divinely revealed. They are the word of God to man. We touch and tamper with those texts at our great peril.

Indeed for the Jew the problem is considerably exacerbating, in that for the religious Jew all of Jewish law is predicated upon the idea that the first book of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, is literally word for word revealed by God to Moses at Sinai and may not be touched. The entire legal religious tradition of Judaism is founded upon the infallibility of that text. You are forbidden to touch that text, especially its legal portion, for once you begin to tamper with the text and alter the words all the laws predicated upon those words begin to totter. It's quite as if we discovered one day that there was another version of the American Constitution and that the one we've been working with all along isn't quite the one that they were supposed to have agreed on at that meeting in Philadelphia. To tamper with the sacred text is to do violence to the core of a tradition.

Yet what do you do with the truths that seem to come to us from the discipline we call Scientific Text Criticism? What do you do with the windows that it opens up for us on the development of species?. Do you throw out truths in order to maintain your uniqueness, your allegiance to your particular core? Is that the price that is being exacted from us? That's the tension that an individual like Reuven Malter is caught up in in The Promise. A tension felt by many of the people with whom I grew up, that of a core-core confrontation of ideas.

Reuven Malter resolves this particular tension in the following way. He will take this methodology and apply it only to the text of the Talmud. This is a vast work which took about 800 years to develop and create, and whose earliest texts are concurrent with the latest texts of the Bible. Now you will say to Reuven Malter, "What kind of sense does this make?" If you're going to apply this kind of methodology in order to understand the Talmud, why not apply it as well to the last books of the Bible? "Well," Reuven Malter will say to you, "if you want me to apply it to the last books of the Bible, I will. But then then you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to the books that are adjacent to the last books, after all aren't they also concurrent?" And I'll do that. And you'll say to me, "Why not apply it to those books that are adjacent to those books that are adjacent to those adjacent books?" And before you know it we're inside the first of the three volumes of the Hebrew Bible, the Torah, in which the legal portion is supposed to be inviolate. Then we begin to tamper with the legal portion and all Jewish law begins to totter. Therefore, I will simply make a hard and fast rule. The Talmud, yes. I will alter text, change things around, maneuver and manipulate pages in an attempt to understand what is in the Talmud's order, but I will not apply this method to the Bible." Thus Reuven resolves this particular confrontation.
--Chaim Potok: On Being Proud of Uniqueness

I believe that Orthodox Jews of even the most modern and intellectually inquisitive type make similar choices every day. Perhaps they are curious about evolution and they learn all about it but refuse to critically examine the laughably weak Six Days Means Six Eras hypothesis. Or they are troubled by the Torah's clear view of homosexuals and so give wishy-washy interpretations of what the verse truly means. Or they are willing to accept that much of Genesis is metaphorical but afraid to examine what that implies about the rest of the Torah.

Potok continues:
Now I would like to ask if this really an honest way to proceed? Danny Saunders chops up Freud, and Reuven Malter chops up the Bible and the Talmud, each for his own convenience. Is this an intellectually honest way to proceed? And the answer is probably yes. It is certainly the case that many do this kind of thing. And it is absolutely the case that the very founding fathers of Western Secular Humanism did precisely this as they went about creating this super-sophisticated secular civilization in which all of us live today. People like Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and others reached back into the civilization of the classical world of Greece and Rome and took from them what they regarded as it's loveliest aspects, it's cool and rational thoughts. They took its art, its eclectics, its stoics and thought that they were going to create a new world, a thinking world not locked into throes of religious thought. Those aspects were the ones they made the paradigms of this new civilization. They totally ignored the ugliness and brutality of this ancient world, its orgiastic elements, its lust for power, and its crude religion. They very carefully selected out of classical Rome and Greek culture those elements toward which they felt a significant affinity. They performed the same act of selective affinity that all of us do when we encounter an alien culture. We pick and choose those elements of that alien culture toward which we feel a measure of affinity. Then, adopting those elements, we reject the others, precisely as Danny Saunders does with Freud and Reuven Malter does with scientific text criticism.

Here Potok is himself being intellectually dishonest. Choosing aspects of an ancient culture to emulate while jettisoning the objectionable parts is common sense. Wielding the same logical tool in one area of your scholarship while willfully neglecting to use it on another because one doesn't like the inevitable result is the height of intellectual dishonesty.

Potok concludes:
The Chosen and The Promise, although dealing with how people feel on a daily basis when locked in this kind of confrontation, are essentially exercises in intellectual confrontation. Individuals caught up in that kind of confrontation compartmentalize rather than fuse reality. They section off their life and apply this methodology only to parts of it, but not to their faith system, or its core. The problem is thus by and large intellectually resolved.

I agree with his analysis of how people use compartmentalization to resolve that kind of confrontation, but his last sentence is absurd. The problem hasn't been intellectually resolved; it's been intellectually avoided. Orthodox Jews are often afraid to honestly follow their intellects for fear of what they will find.


hayim said...


thank you for this new blog; you might just fill in a gap after the unfortunate closing of GH, Mis-Nagid etc.

Two quick comments :

1. Not all Orthodox Jews are intellectually dishonest ; in Israel most notably you can find people who identify themselves with OJ, and yet embrace the totality of higher secular knowledge. I am thinking of people like Mordechai Breuer and Tamar Ross, since your point here is about higher criticism. And others.

2. To a certain extent, David Hume has explained that everybody is "guilty" of not internalizing his beliefs.

Take all the modern philosophers who hold that morality is necessarily relative (probably the majority today). Do they behavior reflect their views ? Many of them are quite decent people, but how do they justify this logically ?

Jewish Atheist said...

Hi Hayim,

I didn't mean to imply that all Orthodox Jews are intellectually dishonest. However, a large majority of American Modern Orthodox Jews appear to do some "compartmentalization."

As for relative morality, I'll probably have to devote a whole post to that topic. It's another Common Question. For now, suffice it to say that as an example of moral beliefs vs. moral actions, I believe that it is not immoral to be polyamorous even though I choose to be monogamous.

Ben Avuyah said...

This is an amazingly familiar theme.
Here we have Chaim Potok, an otherwise brilliant man, who outlines more eloquently than most, the array of tools that modern society has provided us with, to scrutinize our heritage for truth.
He sees the unfortunate probability that these methodologies do not bode well for our core beliefs.
He speaks nobly of the duties Intellectual honesty demands of us all…..
And then, inexplicably, falls short of applying them.

I share your bewilderment here, Jewish Atheist, but my incredulity is tempered by experience.

I recently had a several guests over for Shabbos Dinner. Suffice it to say a very intelligent and modern group including a college professor and others of high intellectual positions: Doctors, Lawyers, Internet entrepreneurs gone bust, and several others who thought far more highly of themselves than necessary…

We happened onto the discussion of Noah’s Ark, which quickly led to a discussion of core belief itself.

The more involved the discussion became the less I could keep my honest opinions under wraps.

This is what happened….. The more I used science and rationale to attack dogma and superstition, the more they used nihilism and philosophy to attack science.

Here’s the screen play…I’ll be played by Harrison Ford, yeah, Blade runner/ Solo, Harrison Ford….. not washed up, six nights seven days Harrison Ford……as for the other characters, who cares…

Me: Aside from the fact that you couldn’t fit that many animals in that Tevah, or that they would just eat each other, or that the authors of the bible didn’t realize that trees can’t live under water for a year and then just be there when the water goes away (photosynthesis), or that there is no archeological record of this happening ….

Nihilist Philosopher: Oh so you think science is going to prove anything do you, Let me tell you something, Science proves nothing !!! Errrr…..Pass the potatoes.

Me with a classic, roguish, Harrison, “I am nice people”, kinda smile: Whadda ya mean science doesn’t prove anything. It’s the reason your cell phone works and your car drives!!

Wife of Nihilist Philosopher: Not really, it could just be a phenomenon we’ve come to exploit for reasons we don’t understand. (Smugly munching on potato)

Me, wishing more than ever, that I actually had some sort of ray blaster strapped to my hip : “Even if that were the case, Science is the search for the truth, even if the truth has layers of understanding that we must peel back one at a time. Religion functions from a presupposed truth that can never be altered, and all additional information must be bent and molded into a grotesquery of natural law to fit it.”

Hippie college professor: “Why that’s just as true in reverse. Just look at evolution. Every new fact that science gets, it is bending over backwards to squeeze into its beloved theorem of evolution. That is no different than religion. Relinquish the moral high ground, your beloved science is no better than the myths and spirituality we adhere to.”

Me thinking ‘goddamned hippie’: “Now that’s just uncalled for, Science has on many occasions revised its most precious theorems when the evidence was there. This has occurred several times. For example Newtonian physics was surpassed by Einstonian Ideas.

Nihilist Philosopher: “What does that prove, other than science has led us astray before and will likely do it again”?

Nihilist Philosopher wife: chuckle chuckle. Potato munching smugly.

Me (what is this some kind of Jedi mind trick?): “What it proves is that science at its best is at least looking for the truth and holds truth in such high regard that it’s greatest contributors relinquish their lifelong opinions before it. Religion at it’s best can never begin to search for a truth outside the pre-established boundaries of it’s own ridiculous mythology!”

It is at this point that I recall I am sitting at my shabbos table with a Yarmulke and Tzitzis, drinking out of a Kiddush cup, with a dozen horrified guests staring at me and I decide to shut up.

My wife quickly rescues me with deft administration of small talk and desert.

Anyway, Jewish atheist, I think the point is that perspective is far more powerful than intelligence. Once people have latched onto an idea of belief without evidence or rationale, which is what “faith” is supposed to be…..then no amount of intelligence will allow them to see outside of the box they have created for themselves. Not even someone as bright and worldly as Chaim Potok is immune from this disease of perception.

hayim said...

Ben avuyah, lol, please invite me next time you're having your educated friends for a seudah !

I agree in general with your conclusion, but things are not so black and white against religion ; it's just part and parcel of being human.

The existentialist school of thought (Sartre, etc) have insisted on the idea that we are created by our own choices. By the decisions we take, consciously and unconsciously, we actually shape our own personnality, so that a path that was open at a certain point in your life will be unavailable later on, due to your having chosen another option.

Take Gil Student, who, by his own admission, came to Orthodox Judaism by choice : can you realistically expect him to be swayed by an argument, any argument, in favor of Atheism ?

Take Mis-Nagid, who, by hiw own admission, was raised observant and became later in life a skeptic ; does anybody envision him doing teshuva at this stage ?

(if I may cite psukim in such a sophisticated forum, that's actually how some people understand the idea of G.d strengthening the heart of Pharaoh after the first plagues ; pbs : how can He do that, it runs against freedom of choice ? And that's what G.d wants to show to the Jews before they receive their own freedom, that really humans are only puppets ? The answer to both questions is that freedom does not mean the liberty to change drastically from one extreme to the other ; Pharaoh became the prisoner of his own choices)

I do not mean to say that change does never happen, but it is usually gradual, not drastic. So yes, even science often fails to recognize the truth. Scientists tend to be conservative, with respect to the accepted paradigm of their own disciplin, when they write articles. Original articles have less changes to get published than revolutionnary ones. Etc.

Mis-nagid said...

I'd eat at your table, Ben Avuyah. We'd tag-team 'em! Shit, neither one of us can say what we really think.


Ben Avuyah said...

Hi Mis-nagid and Hayim,

You are both invited for lunch any time !!

Mis-nagid I could have used your help at that dinner!

However, what I think is more arduous and painful than the actual blow by blow of the battles of logic and will that I have with my orthodox friends, is the dread of my adopted fall back position.
Silence, when I know that I have brought the argument as far as it can go with me remaining a relatively upstanding member of the community.
Even the enlightened professionals of our faith are not yet prepared to follow the truth where it leads.

BTW: I just got Vernor Vinge from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it.

Hayim, I liked your rebuttal, and I see you are trying to pull me into the muddy waters of philosophy and determinism.

Allow me to resist thusly;

Pharaoh and his hard heart and accompanying Midrashim are a fable, it never happened, and it’s explanation and lessons are the result of trying to make a fable of the ancient world fit a philosophy of the medieval world. There are no lessons here for modern man.

Even if you accept this rabbinic interpretation as truth at face value, doesn’t this show that humans can make fundamentally enormous changes? Sure, he has outside pressure, but Pharaoh does at some point choose to let the Israelites go!

I think the jist of your argument was that we are formed by our choices and after a certain point there is no going back.. I see your application of this to the topic at hand as saying that religious people can either see the truth, but not be affected by it, or simply not see it, due to the fact that they have already crossed some metaphysical bridge beyond which there is no pathway back.

Here we must part ways, Hayim.

There is no bridge of no return.

I cite my hero as my best example, and I think one day soon I will put up a post just about him: Jonas Kepler, founder of planetary motion.
In short, a child misfit, he was sent to the clergy but found he could not answer Amen to the prayers. He believed only in God the geometer, and found proof of heavenly perfection in mathematics and the perfect solids.
He spent his spare time studying the motions of the planets, and then one day in the middle of teaching a grade school mathematics class was struck by an epiphany.
The motion of the planets, the perfect solids, his two passions, his two proofs of the Almighty…they were one!!

Kepler proceeded to spend the rest of his life designing models of planetary motion corresponding to a circle containing a triangle bounded by a square. He knew in his heart that this was not only correct, but also the beautiful evidence he had been searching the sky for, to confirm his belief in the creator.

In order to prove his theorem he borrowed from the greatest collector of planetary data of the time, Tycho Brach. A load flamboyant Dutchman with a fake gold nose he wore due to a dueling injury. Brach died shortly after and asked Kepler while on his deathbed not to let his life’s work be in vain.

Kepler with his hands finally on the data he had searched for a lifetime, would have had to fudge only a bit to announce his planetary laws for a circle, at least one of the perfect solids of God.

But through personal strength he had the courage to say, “I would rather be relegated to the dung heap of Geometry”, than falsify the truth. That is the reason we have an ellipse for planetary motion. Because Kepler gave up his life long beliefs, dreams, and passions, when the truth pointed the other way.

Hayim, a human being who has courage, can question and examine even their most preciously held beliefs, if they value the truth, and for this it is never to late.

Jewish Atheist said...

Silence, when I know that I have brought the argument as far as it can go with me remaining a relatively upstanding member of the community.

Ben Avuyah, I love your comments. I remember that feeling well and not being able to freely speak my mind may have been one of the biggest reasons I left the community. To some extent, I still feel the pressure to withhold my beliefs when I visit with Orthodox family and friends. I left Orthodoxy shortly after college. I was single and had few close ties holding me back. I imagine it must be really hard to feel compelled to stay in a community where you can't speak your mind for fear of ostracization. Obviously, you feel that the trade-off is worth it. Have you blogged specifically about that trade-off?

Ben Avuyah said...

Hi JA,
I have not had the chance to talk about that yet, perhaps on a future post.

BTW have you had a chance to read Auslander's book "Beware of God"? He has a great story in there about a guy who receives continuous and annoying prophecies from god. Its very funny.

hayim said...

Benny boy,

Which book from Vernor Vinge is that ? He is a.o. a specialist of Artificial Intelligence (is he that guy with the weird concept of "Singularity", that at some point the computers will be brighter than humans ?). I hope your dinner experience has not caused you to despair of finding human intelligence yet :)

Now, back to topic. I disagree with you insofar as you argue that the phenomenon you described is due to religious factors. I believe that it's basic human psychology, and happens in any field. I will try to argue the same point without splashing too much in the muddy waters of philosophy this time.

Let me try to put this graphically :


In any debate between two persons, A and B, there is by definition a divergence of opinions. You see that A and B are in two different spots.

Each one has a range of opinions that he is willing to consider and possibly accept ; I pictured that range in parenthesis. Some people are more open-minded, some less. In my illustration B is more tolerant as the space of ideas that he is willing to examine is larger than A's.

If B wants to convince A of his point, it is useless to argue his own position, since that is outside the pale for A. Instead he must strike within A's acceptable ideas, leading A to change his stance *AND* the range of tolerance. Gradually A will move to more radical ideas.

How the "range of tolerance" is defined is a question involving many different factors (culture, education, age etc).

I think this fits well with Sartre as I understand his ideas. Ultimately somebody can become so entrenched in his intellectual vision that he loses the potential for considering fairly contrary evidence.

Now, I agree with you that open-minded people deserve admiration. But I do believe that you find some in all fields, including religion, not only scientists. The opposite is true as well.

Since you like astrophysics, take Einstein for instance ; he can hardly be suspected of being a bigoted individual. Yet, when Hubbles pointed out that the now centenarian theory of relativity implied an universe with a beginning, he rejected that idea, and distorted his own equations by introducing an additional constant. Why ? A world with a beginning smacked of godly creation.

How do you look at this ? Was he stupid, senile, intolerant ? I hope not. He was human, like your guests.

Ben Avuyah said...


The book I was referring to was true names and other dangers, which is a collection of four short stories. Mis-nagid once cited this book on his website as a good example for illustrating the need for anonymity. The one you may be thinking of is called Singularity Sky, which I recently ordered from Amazon but have not received yet. I'll let you know how it is.

Now back to the melee.

I enjoyed your graphic representation of spheres of acceptance of ideas. And I think that I do agree that for most people, weather it be in regards to religion or anything else, you find that some are open minded and some are so inflexible as to be to rigid to function in our changing world. I agree with your assessment here, and I think it is an accurate portrayal of human nature. (Incidentally, my wife read my post, and argued something very similar to your argument, then read your post and said, "you see". So now I have been hit over the head with this for the third time….. Thanks.)

However, if I may be so bold as to persist, we should not base our ideas of what humanity is capable of, nor our ideas of right and wrong, on some arbitrary average of what most people can, or are willing to accept, when we have truth and rational to show us a clearer path.

Again, and correct me if this is a misstatement, I believe the crux of your argument is that people pass a certain point and then are no longer capable of being open minded, you may be right, but I have to hope that this is a small fragment of humanity.

Lets take your three examples. Gil, who I have never met. You tell me that at some point he decided to be orthodox, and pose the question, "could he now change back?".

I have to say the same question existed before he became orthodox…… but was phrased "could a secular person suddenly change into an ultra orthodox one", I think you are suggesting the answer to both is no. Clearly the answer to at least one, and I think both, are yes.

Who am I to speak about someone else's life, but aren't you forced to examine your views when you think of Mis-nagid, or myself, people who are well past what you describe as the point of no return, inundated with beliefs and superstitions from childhood, kept tightly within the fold of orthodoxy, and then able to shatter the entire experience, so late in life.
I for myself can tell you that I would again believe in religion, if anyone could present me with one that even made a hint of sense (not likely).

Doesn't this demonstrate that at least for some there is no point of no return?

Finally, Einstein, no small brain there, included the cosmological constant because he didn't like the idea of an expanding universe. It may have been due to religious belief or lack thereof, or due to the idea that an expanding universe was not widely accepted or even proposed at that point.

(Remember, Einstein didn't necessarily mind the idea of a creator. He did think there might have been some type of creative force behind the universe. He certainly did not believe in any type of an anthropomorphic god, who ran around giving Torah's and telling people how to wear their Shaitels.)

But I hope you know that he changed his views !! He called this error, the introduction of the cosmological constant, the most critical blunder of his life. If we are to accept your views, how was he able to do this?

Listen, this we can agree on, we all function under preconceived notions and ideas, that much is clear. We are all formed by our choices and experiences, that is also true.

But aren't all the examples you have listed, Gil, Mis-nagid, Einstein, all examples of how no matter how inundated we are with our previous perspectives, when new facts, or experiences, point us in a different direction we can take the path it suggests !!

chana said...

I am a practicing Orthodox Jewish 16-year-old girl.

I go to a Non-Jewish school.

I switched out of a Bais Yaakov school to go there.

There is a lot of intellectual cowardice, but there are those who survive and conquer= R' Hirsch and specifically R' Soloveitchik- he has guided me throughout the majority of my life.

When I switched out of school, the comment the principal made me was, "But what about your shidduch?"

I think that illustrates my point.

One can be Orthodox and intellectually interested. It is simply harder to be this way. One has to become very strong to be different.

Orthoprax said...


You're 16 from an Orthodox home (I presume) and your parentals let you switch out of a Bais Yaakov to a secular school? How did that happen?

hayim said...

Ben Avuyah,

> my wife read my post, and argued something very similar to your argument, then read your post and said, "you see".

You're lucky to have such a wife ! A good cook, a diplomat and somewhat of a brilliant philosopher, I'm impressed.

> However, if I may be so bold as to persist

You may, but by doing that you're proving my point, no ?

Now, seriously - the differences between you and me are not huge so there's no need to go on forever. I share your admiration for truly open-minded people, and am just a little bit more skeptic than you about the percentage of the population that qualifies, for reasons stated above.

You score a point with Einstein, but my argument from Gil and MN was a little bit more subtle actually ; yes, people can make life-changing decisions, like becoming frum or going off the derech - although you will admit that they are the minority. Panurge's sheeps are the dominant lifeform out there.

My question was : do you envision them changing back ? After having invested so much in a new lifestyle and/or outlook ? I, for one, would be extremely surprised (unless Mis-Nagid would experience some kind of personal revelation, but Judaism tends to be a non-prophet-organization lately).

So you see, our identity tends to be less and less fluid as time passes by and the choices we make crystalize it even more.

Hell, let me egocentric at this point ; I'm a BT. I chose to be frum, as I was absolutely convinced of the truth of the Aish-like arguments about Orthodox Judaism.

I'm a few years later now, and hopefully a little less dumb. I am now aware of many problems in Judaism, but would hate to go back to a secular lifestyle. I just love being frum, and intend on finding a resolution down the line.

I don't know what I would do if I had to conclude, with utmost certainty, that Judaism was not reveled. Close-minded ? Maybe.

David said...

With regard to the first comment, although I admire the valiant efforts of Mordechai Breuer and Tamar Ross to grapple with issues of modern biblical scholarship, their views are definitely "untraditional" in the way they understand divine revelation and could, perhaps, be seen as failing to be completely intellectually honest themselves(see Rabbi Louis Jacobs book We Have Reason to Believe (Fifth Edition)).

BenHaim said...

Are these people also intellectual cowards?