Monday, July 04, 2005

On Lively But Narrow Debate in Orthodox Judaism

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

--The Common Good, Noam Chomsky.


Chomsky's talking about the mainstream media, but his words apply even more to Orthodox Judaism. Jews are famous (at least amongst themselves) for disagreement. There's the saying, "Two Jews, three opinions," and the joke about how if you lived on a deserted island, you'd need to build two shuls, the one you go to and the one you don't go to. People constantly disagree about standards of kashrut, what kinds of clothing to wear, and how much you should spend on an etrog. The center of Orthodox study, the Talmud, is a compendium of such arguments.

But where are the meta-questions? Why don't yeshiva students study the arguments for and against God's existence? Why don't they study textual criticism? Why don't they study the great non-Jewish theologians? Why don't they read philosophy? Non-Orthodox religious scholars do all of the above. Why don't yeshiva students?

One answer is that they already agree on the fundamentals. This is true, but it's missing the point. They agree on them not because of previous study and debate, but because they aren't allowed to believe in anything else. It's not as if in elementary school or even high school, they were introduced to a lively debate about the existence of God and the historicity of the Torah.

If you study Talmud, you must believe in the importance of debate. If all that mattered were the conclusions, we wouldn't study that Bet Shamai said this and Bet Hillel said that. We would just read the final rulings of our corner of Judaism. If argumentation is so critical to understanding the narrow issues, why do the Orthodox passively accept answers to the biggest questions around and not debate them with vigor?

I think Chomsky's on to something.

26 comments:

The Rabbi's Kid said...

I disagree - many Modern Orthodox institutions allow and encourage debate, investigation, etc. Textual criticism is a seperate argument, asgain based on axioms and parameters. In Ultra-O institutions, there is no value placed on debate or investigation into Ikarey Emunah, it is dangerous and must be shunned.

Jewish Exile said...

I love it when people "discover" a way in which judaism (orthodox or otherwise) is a self-perpetuating meme and think of it as some insidious plot to fool everyone instead of recognizing it for what it is; a survival mechanism that has worked spectacularly.

mushroomjew said...

Wow, that is a great quote from Chomsky.
There are very bright people in yeshiva and I have long believed that Gemorrah study successfully "consumes" their intellect. Because Gemorrah study is so complex and multi-layered even very smart people feel fulfilled. That explains why many Yeshiva students/rabbis don't feel a need to look at other intellectual pursuits such as biology, philosophy or whatever. The Gemorrah keeps them very occupied.
I have heard many orthodox rabbis say that Orthodox Judaism relishes questions- indeed the Gemmorah and its commentaries are rife with them. However, as you and Chomsky explain, the questions are all based on minutiae- never on the fundamentals of the whole system.
When I first started to doubt, I would often ask my Chevrusa why Tosfos doesn't ask a question from Dickens. What I was trying to say, but could adequately express, was that I felt that the Gemorrah was a closed world. In academia, the hard sciences are based on one another, and even the social sciences sometimes borrow ideas from the hard sciences. All academic disciplines are bound together and fit nicely together. Torah lives in its own bubble.
When I finally broke that bubble and read about what modern scholarship had to say about Torah, TOrah study lost most of its appeal. I understand why yeshivas wouldn't want to teach that stuff. But they are being intellectually dishonest and will one day be reveleaved for what they really are- a fraud.
You're doing great, JA!

-Mushroom Jew

Ben Avuyah said...

You’re onto something here JA,

I have been under the impression for some time now, that the Talmud is the most fantastic intellectual diversion ever devised. Instead of stewing over the important contradictions inherent in an omnipotent God, the odds of his existence, the frailty of a pure faith belief system, and the clear evidence of lack of supernatural events evident in our lives; we are instead completely preoccupied with wading through the knee deep sludge of a superstitious, ritualistic, dark ages legal structure with no visible end.

All proponents of the Talmud feel they are spending their intellectual capitol, studying about oxen and pits, as wisely as they know how; because they believe the system to be divinely ordained, but that belief itself they choose never to examine with the same acumen they so proudly apply to everything else.

Avi said...

Ah Ben, now you are going too far. First of all Noam Chomsky is an anti- semite. Whatever he has to say I am not interested in. He is contantly railing against the Jewish Homeland, so bringing any article from him is a wasted effort to prove anything. Second, do you really expect Yeshiva students to read books on the existence of God? What if they come to the conclusion that there is no God? Do they keep on learning torah? What if they decide that the Christian God or the Muslim one is correct? What then? One can be a republican and study the ideas of the democratic movemen One can work for IBM and study other computers companies but certainly not to put their own parties or companies down.
However I sure would like to see more Jews mingle with each other. Charedi Jews wont dream of talking to a Modern Orthodox Jew. Modern Orthodox Jews dont usually discuss theology with Conservative Jews. Each group keeps their own ideas to themselves. And of course to the more religious Jews, the idea of studying science is as alien as studying Christianity.They would rather be ignorant then come up with new ideas about the world they live in.

Anonymous said...

There Are orthodox places that encourage questions and discussions.

see globalyeshiva.com

ohr.edu international branchs

and nevey.org in Israel and America

LostSpirit said...

Just came across your blog for the first time; I do not think atheism is my cup of tea but I still enjoy the rainbow of views and I like reading the self discovery trips of others so keep the art up.

2R said...

I'm with Jewish Exile on this one. It is a survival technique. I grew up in a chareidi enviroment, and went to chareidi school. Any question that I had about the greater world, or religious questions were welcome to be asked after class. My teachers had no problem discussing them with me, but did not see them appropriate to bring up in class where others did not have these questions. Why welcome questions that just bring more questions, when in truth without a inner knowledge there is no black and white answer.

Mis-nagid said...

"Why do the Orthodox passively accept answers to the biggest questions around and not debate them with vigor?"

Because they lost the debate in the 1800s, and now shrink from revisiting it. If anything, their case has gotten even worse.

Ben Avuyah said...

Avi, I will let a freind of mine answer your question...


Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.
Thomas Jefferson

Avi said...

Thomas Jefferson was your friend, WOW. What a small world, he was my friend also

Avi said...

Avi said... What a difficult heading I picked. "Only the truth" Do you realize how difficult it is to dig out the truth from the mountain of lies that the truth is buried underneath. I read the comments on President George Bush. They call him a liar. So what? Bill Clinton was also a liar " I did not have sex with that woman" Does anybody tell the truth anymore. I know a rabbi ( no names mentioned) who does not know what the word truth is. Thats ok, there are plenty of preists who also dont know what truth means. One of the names of God is " Emes" which means truth. That is probably the ultimate truth. That there is a God . The world belongs to someone. The world has an owner.

Kyaroko said...

Avi, what if the world didn't have an owner? Can something not exist unless it is owned by something else? What, in your reason and logic, would fall apart if all that you see in the mirror and all around you simply existed on its own accord, unbeholden to a cosmic deity? Could it be that it's just too scary for you to imagine otherwise? The idea of a deity makes us all feel better about our daily existence and serves to give our lives meaning, but that doesn't prove its existence.

ClooJew said...

It is very easy to find targets within the Orthodox spectrum, if, lulei demistafina, that's what you're looking for.

If you want clear, insightful debate, there is no better place than the Torah world!

Mis-nagid said...

Cloojew, one word: Slifkin.

David said...

But where are the meta-questions? Why don't yeshiva students study the arguments for and against God's existence? Why don't they study textual criticism? Why don't they study the great non-Jewish theologians? Why don't they read philosophy?
I think you answered your own question. Yeshivah students don't (usually) study what you call "meta-questions" because we don't believe them to be nearly as important. The arguments for and against God's existence almost always fail to be compelling. These arguments, in their traditional form, often fail to consider the dynamic nature of the Jewish God and the halakhic system. "The trouble will all rational demonstrations of the existence of God," argues R. Soloveitchik, "consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstrast logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted." Soloveitchik, a card carrying member of the yeshivah world, certainly knew these arguments well. His wide-ranging references to the entire spectrum of western philosphy (and his PhD in the field) certainly attests to his concern with so-called "meta-questions".

Soloveitchik is not alone, though. Rabbis Abaraham Isaac Kook, Marvin Fox, A.J. Heschel, Walter Wurzburger, Aharon Lichtenstein, Shubert Spero, and Yeshiah Leibowitz (these are just a few off the top of my head) all summon the best of western philosophy into the world of traditional-halakhic Judaism. It may be easy to make your case against Orthodoxy by tapping into the stereotype of the yeshivah bocher hunched over a gemara who is concerned only with minutiae of the laws of kashrut. But maybe there's an even deeper issue. The yeshivah bocher you mock believes that the questions he's concerned with are the fundamental questions. The back-and-forth of halakhic discourse is Jewish way of delving into God's world.

Jewish Atheist said...

The yeshivah bocher you mock believes that the questions he's concerned with are the fundamental questions.

First, I did not mock yeshiva bochers, nor did I imply it.

Second, this is exactly my point. The yeshiva bocher has been convinced that such minutae are the fundamental questions. He does not learn philosophy or science or history and so will never come to question the assumptions around which he is basing his entire life.

Your point about Rabbi Soloveitchik and others is good. I think at the highest levels of Orthodox scholarship, the debate (at least within one's own mind) is broader. However, I also believe that the younger generation is moving even farther away from such multi-displinariness. Furthermore, even if some of the best scholars do have a more rounded education and worldview, they often neglect to share it with "the masses," since they think the average yeshiva bochur couldn't handle it. Hench, the "masses" end up believing all sorts of ridiculous stuff and the whole society ends up being founded on what amounts to a lie.

I think the leaders would rather have an ignorant but obedient flock than an educated one which might start to make some of its own decisions.

David said...

I apologize about the "mock yeshivah bochers" comment and have edited my own blog post accordingly. Firstly, I don't think it's fair to claim that Orthodox leaders "would rather have an ignorant but obedient flock." Although I studied philosophy in collge (and plan to continue in grad school), much of the philosophy of religion that I'm familiar with I learned with my rabbis.

Furthermore, even if some of the best scholars do have a more rounded education and worldview, they often neglect to share it with "the masses," since they think the average yeshiva bochur couldn't handle it. Hench, the "masses" end up believing all sorts of ridiculous stuff and the whole society ends up being founded on what amounts to a lie.

While I agree with you that the lack of open intellectual questioning is a serious problem in the yeshivah world, it's not nearly as bad as you make it sound. I don't think you can point to any religious community, Jewish or otherwise, where everybody is schooled in philosophy. It's not a fair standard.

Jewish Atheist said...

I don't think you can point to any religious community, Jewish or otherwise, where everybody is schooled in philosophy. It's not a fair standard.

It's not that I want them to get doctorates; I want them to bring the same intellectual rigor to the most important questions in life that they do to the minutia.

Cornell West said, "We must think critically. But it takes courage to think... Intelligence engages in immediate evaluation of various particular contexts in order to gain access to a short term gain. Intellect evaluates the evaluation, looks at the hidden presuppositions, the tacit assumptions, what holds the whole framework, a vision, a paradigm together."

I'm looking for yeshiva bochrim to show West's idea of intellectual courage. A scholar must have the courage to ask the questions that get to the bottom. Otherwise he risks building an elaborate structure on a faulty foundation.

Mis-nagid said...

The reason they keep their noses in the gemara is exactly because of the list David posted. R' Soloveitchik fretted that his students thought him an apikores, and many of the others on the list are (Leibowitz is practically a Deist). It's very difficult to approach frumkeit knowing what scholarship has discovered: comparative religion, archaeology, philosophy, textual criticism, higher criticism, etc. Sure, some will continue to be fully observant, but they're the minority by far, and the reasons they give are usually not the Orthodox ones anyway. When most frum people realize that Jacob's sons are eponyms of later developed clans, they stop seeing the point of keeping separate dishes. They did it because they thought it was true, not because they thought it was good, and the transition is too big a break. The rare Orthoprax people who were part of the Orthodox world are the exception that proves the rule: ignorance is the reliable way to stay frum. The Orthodox leadership learned this in the 1800s and put it into full effect after the holocaust. In today's world of copious disconfirming knowledge, those who hold it would have to be frum despite the evidence, and most people are not that foolhardy.

Jewish Atheist said...

Great comment, mis-nagid.

Anonymous said...

Ah Ben, now you are going too far. First of all Noam Chomsky is an anti- semite. Whatever he has to say I am not interested in. He is contantly railing against the Jewish Homeland, so bringing any article from him is a wasted effort to prove anything.

makes no sense. So what is Chomsky is anti-semitic, or even just anti-Israel (more likely)? Deal with his argument on its merits, not over the person who made it.

David said...

Mis-nagid, your comment is based on gross generalizations. As I already conceded, I agree that the lack of interest in philosophy and modern scholarship is a problem in the yeshivah world. Nonetheless, there is serious academic work being done by Orthodox Jews who believe that their scholarship enhances their religiosity. If you have a simplistic understanding of religion, then innovations in scholarship will often undermine it. I think that a more mature perspective on both frumkeit and scholarship is in order. I recommend reading R. Soloveitchik's introduction to his The Lonely Man of Faith on this point.

Abu Gingy said...

awesome post, see my blog entry on it

RabBipolar said...

My God, I actually agree with Noam Chomsky. My world is flipped upside-down.

Jewish Atheist said...

rabbipolar, a lot of what you hear about him is distorted or taken out of context. If you listen to or read him directly, he's not as crazy as he's made out to be, even if I don't agree with everything he says. He's one of the few people out there who makes really interesting and fundamental criticism of how the country and media work.