Friday, March 27, 2009

How Smart Intellectuals Believe In Orthodox Judaism

Chana has a bizarre post today that I think explains one of the most confounding questions for us OTDers: how could smart, intellectually curious adults possibly believe that stuff?

The answer can be found in a paragraph she quotes from every Modern Orthodox intellectual's favorite rabbi, "the Rav," Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik:
The religious Jew accepts the entire Torah as a hok, both in regard to its immutability and also its unintellegibility... To be a loyal Jew is to be heroic, and heroes commit themselves without intellectual reservations. Only one who lacks the courage of commitment will belabor the "why"...


Do you see that? It's "heroic" to commit oneself to something admittedly unintelligible without intellectual reservations.

This is related to, but slightly different from the other technique I've identified that intellectual Orthodox Jews use to believe: compartmentalization. In compartmentalization, the intellectual simply chooses not to apply his/her full range of intellectual techniques to certain religious questions. (An example of compartmentalism is applying the techniques of textual criticism to the Talmud but not to the Bible, or using skepticism during one's day job as a scientist but not applying it to religion.) I've always understood compartmentalization as a technique people use when they are too scared to question their foundational beliefs.

But this is something different. This isn't turning away from the truth in fear, but rather turning away with pride. Somehow the Rav and many like him convince themselves that there is something noble ("heroic") about believing the unbelievable.

What should we call this technique? "Heroic denial?"

34 comments:

Ezzie said...

Funny, because I thought of you when reading this part:

There are borderline situations which confuse the mind, and
consequently it finds itself helpless in applying its moral norms.
Since our intellect must weigh pros and cons and is slow and deliberate
in deciding, society starts to nibble away at the edges of marginal,
borderline problems. Life must be lived; before our logic can
formulate an opinion, society will already have weakened all
restraints. Permissiveness will have replaced orderliness and the
amoral in man will have emerged triumphant.

For example, the mind certainly condemns murder. This is particularly
true of the killing of a young working mother who leaves behind
orphaned children. But does the abhorrence of murder also apply when
the victim is an old, cruel, miserly woman who in the eyes of society
was a parisitic wretch, as in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment ? May
we murder her in order to save a young girl from the clutches of
degradation? May euthanasia be practiced to relieve the elderly or
terminally ill of further suffering? Here the logos hesitates, is
uncertain, and imparts no decisive guidance. We can easily rationalize
in either direction and no external norm is compelling.

Apikores said...

As a yeshiva bochur, I was always being told about the greatness of "Kabolas Ol" (accepting the "yolk of heaven" without regard to logic). I could never understand why people would want to "surrender their mind to God"; after all, isn't our intellectual capacity the thing that distinguishes us from animals? It seems like such a waste to give that up.

And anyway, how do you decide which god to give up your mind to?

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

I find the illusion of objective morality more dangerous than the acknowledgment that there are no easy answers. Did you have any comment on the substance of my post?


Apikores:

And anyway, how do you decide which god to give up your mind to?

Yes, that's it exactly. Why not submit one's mind to Allah as the Muslims do? Would the Rav argue that Muslims are correct to accept the Koran as chok? What about Hindus and the Vedic scriptures?

Baal Habos said...

You guys are all missing the point. They're operating from the supposition that the Torah is perect and Divine. Going on that assumption it could very easily be argued, though it could be debated, that yes, you should follow the torah even if you don't understand.

The real problem I have is why believers rarely entertain the possibility that the Torah is not divine.

Apikores said...

Or the FSM, boruch hu.

Baal Habos: I'm not sure what point we're missing. It seems like the Rav is also saying that it is courageous to accept "the supposition that the Torah is perfect and Divine" without intellectual justification (isn't that what he means by immutability?).

LM said...

I think this is one answer to the question, but not the one for everyone--i.e., don't think the Rav speaks for all frum intellectuals.

As I intimated in the previous thread, there are (some) believing intellectuals who have read Hume, Dawkins, etc., engaged with the issues, and still believe.

My personal theory is this: commitment can sometimes determine the role of the intellect. If a person is committed to a theory (scientific or religious), they will require a far higher level of counterproof to leave it behind.

So someone else who heard my counterarguments about something might pass them off as minor, but for me, they will seem like a very big deal I cannot see past. I'd see the same thing with religion.

Now, you can obviously argue that if they're intellectually honest they should realize their commitment itself is unfounded. I think they'd argue it is well founded, though again, the argument might convince them but not you because of the difference in commitments. And thus the subjectivity loop.

Baal Habos said...

>(isn't that what he means by immutability?).


I don't think so. Immutable is to be le'afukei Christianity. At least that's how I take it.

LM said...

Oh. I also understood the Rav in the way Baal Habos did, as saying that once the Torah is accepted, one cannot question the mandates within it (as it's a system of revelation, not reason).

Baal Habos said...

LM, about your first comment, it's really complicated. I and every skeptic have tried to address this. Here's one of my recent attempts, done a bit tongue in cheek. http://baalhabos.blogspot.com/2009/02/you-skeptics-think-youre-so-smart.html

Apikores said...

BHB,

Now that I read the subsequent paragraphs of the Rav's essay, I think you are right that he is talking about people who already accept the divinity of the Torah. But now that raises another problem: You don't need to be "heroic" to commit to something which you already assume to be true.

XGH said...

The Rav was either saying something very profound, or just a bunch of intellifundie nonsense as JA points out. I would like to be dan the Rav lekaf zechut, but try as I may, I can't see anything profound in here.

Holy Hyrax said...

>But now that raises another problem: You don't need to be "heroic" to commit to something which you already assume to be true.

I think to understand what he is trying to get at, you basically have to understand the Rav's whole hashkafah, about the inner tension that exists within a person. I think he talked about in Halachik man

LM said...

BHB,

I enjoyed that post of yours. I think that what you wrote, though, is a different explanation of the phenomenon that what JA posted here--I was trying mainly to propose an alternate psychological explanation that does not involve compartmentalizing, and I don't really think it's that different from yours (perhaps I didn't express that well). The difference between us may just be that I see a few more shades of gray in what they are doing, partly because of how I came to skepticism etc.

LM said...

"But now that raises another problem: You don't need to be "heroic" to commit to something which you already assume to be true."

Tried to post this earlier, doesn't look like it worked:

Hmm. If I recall correctly, I think the Rav elsewhere defines "heroism" as self-sacrifice (there's an oft-quoted passage about the bride and groom retreating from each other at the first sign of a drop of blood). Perhaps he intends it in this sense here as well, i.e. giving something of oneself up despite not rationally understanding why.

Ezzie said...

JA - I think my opinions are pretty obvious. That *was* my comment. :)

Hilarious word verif: funda

First Time said...

Is the main point of this blog to convince people to not believe in G-d/religion, or only to serve as a home for them if they do come to that realization, on their own?

Jewish Atheist said...

FT:

Not sure this blog has a "main point." I definitely don't hold myself back from arguing for what I believe to be true, though. I guess one big purpose of this blog is to be able to make all the arguments I was discouraged from making when I was religious. And the Orthodox are so good at pretending that serious dissent does not exist, that OTD kids don't exist, that when I found a platform they can't control, I couldn't help myself from standing up and shouting everything I believe that they don't want to hear.

Nobody's beliefs should be immune to criticism. That goes triple for people who raise kids to believe what they believe and who shun people who don't.

First Time said...

Thank you for your response.
As a follow up:
Is the blog's presumption that G-d does not exist, based on a lack of proof for his existence, or because of a proof against his existence?

Baal Habos said...

>You don't need to be "heroic" to commit to something which you already assume to be true

Apikores, not necessarily true. For example. Say one joins the military. They are encouraged to listen to their commanding officer, no questions asked. Unless, it's immoral. IOW, it doesn't ask for total obedience (See movie - A few good men). Likewise, some bibilical comentatators claim that Avraham failed his nisayon because he was willing to sacrifice Yitzchak. You can always say that God wants you to use your seichel. I don't think your conclusion is inevitable.

Baal Habos said...

> The difference between us may just be that I see a few more shades of gray in what they are doing, partly because of how I came to skepticism etc.

How did you come to skepticism?
__________________________________
First timer sounds like a Kiruv attempt.

Jewish Atheist said...

FT:

Is the blog's presumption that G-d does not exist, based on a lack of proof for his existence, or because of a proof against his existence?

Which god? Zeus? :-)

Check out this round-up of my earliest posts.

LM said...

BHB,

There are a few answers to that question. Some of it has to do with philosophical study, leaving yeshiva/growing up and realizing what a bubble I had been in, etc. Some of it had to do with lifestyle and the realization that I had given up things that were seriously important to me without good cause, and with dishonest prompting from others.

The aspect I was referring to is something like this, though: When I still fell on the believing side, I could think of flaws in some religious arguments. But it seemed like I could more or less get around those, and they just didn't "seem" major enough to stop the argument as a whole. As I became more questioning, those flaws seemed liked much more obvious hindrances to accepting such a huge and demanding system, and made the argument just seem weaker on the whole, as I wasn't committed to the system. (Perhaps it's the difference in approach between "is this enough to reject this system" and "is this enough to accept this system.") So I don't believe I was ONLY compartmentalizing to begin with, but I was accepting a level of conviction that was predicated on my commitments. It might still not be fully honest, but it seems to me slightly unavoidable. To clarify: I'm NOT just saying "everything's subjective, let's all believe whatever, religious or not." I am saying that I think there are some religious people who make arguments with intellectual merit to them--but they are much more easily accepted by someone who wants to defend this theory than by someone critically evaluating it.

I recently posted on this on Apikores' blog (with the name "Sam" at the time--sorry for the switch, which I think will be permanent), and I'd be happy to fill in more what I mean. I'd also be happy to play the advocate for those arguments and see if I'm the only one who finds them intelligible, even if I ultimately don't accept them.

jewish philosopher said...

'Do you see that? It's "heroic" to commit oneself to something admittedly unintelligible without intellectual reservations.'

Like people who believe evolution created them so that they live a self centered, hedonistic lifestyle.

LM said...

JP, if you could explain exactly what the connection is between the comment you quoted and the comment you wrote, I think I'd be a lot less confused.

I assume you are probably aware that the person who first articulated the idea of evolution was a religious man who thought he had figured out part of God's workings (after years of research and probing).

Baal Habos said...

>(Perhaps it's the difference in approach between "is this enough to reject this system" and "is this enough to accept this system.")

Yes, I know the feeling. The former describes how I was for many years; a middle aged man with a strong suspicion that things were not as seemed to be and then years later I stumbled onto keptics blogs and the DH which confirmed it all for me.

Shalmo said...

You falsely assume textual criticism is an accurate way at arriving at truth

not speaking for Torah; but from experience if you are clueless about all the basics on a literature, yet come up with crappy theories and propagate false positions all in order to maintain a tenure at a university, then generally the evidence you come up with is false and biult on weak foundations

I have a plethora of criticisms of the Torah mind you, but I find it interesting how the secularists all at one point claimed that the biblical Babylonians never even existed, until ofcourse they found evidence of their civilization. Similarly they advocated that the Torah couldn't have been written because writing hadn't been invented 3500 years ago, until of course more archaeological findings proved them wrong.

What makes you think any of the modern secularist theories on the Torah will similarly not undergo similar refutations based on evidence?

That said I accept part of the DH as I believe its irrefutable, though the dates proposed for the redaction are not credible

Baal Habos said...

>You falsely assume textual criticism is an accurate way at arriving at truth

I assumed nothing of the sort. Had you read what I said, you would have understood that the DH was the last step in my apostacy. The DH was simply a possible explanation of how the Torah got started.

sunnyskeptic said...

It wasn't too long ago that I realized that some people actually do take religion seriously... I wasn't raised religiously, and as a child had always assumed it was something people just did for show, but didn't really believe in. In some ways, I still feel that from time to time.

DrJ said...

I answer this question from a brain physiology point of view.

During critical periods of development a maturing human formulates a whole world view-- political, philosophical and religious. (This is of course is influenced by environment and personality). This then becomes hard-coded in the brain, much like firmware. It can be changed, but it becomes more difficult with age. Your brain simply looks at the world in a certain way.

So, for example, even an intelligent Palestinian views Israel as an evil genocidal occupier whose Jewish supporters everywhere conspire to manipulate the world, regardless of the "objective" evidence presented to him otherwise. Why don't they see "the truth"? Because truth is in our heads.

People can and do change their views during adulthood but it is an exception that proves the rule. So religion is just one of those sets of beliefs (albeit a strong one) along with many others that shapes a person's conception of the world around him.

Shalmo said...

Jewish Atheist:

"I find the illusion of objective morality more dangerous than the acknowledgment that there are no easy answers."

You do realize you are contradicting previous paradigms established by you on this blog.

You believe for sure that gay marriage is a human right. That resistance to abortion is misogyny. Right?

Yet here you are taking a position that makes your previous positions suspect. If there are no easy answers at determining morality than why the zealous defense of moral positions contrary to the Orthodox world-view

The problem with you, and most atheists who follow your example, is that you are not consistent in your world-view. If morality is subjective, or as you say "there are no easy answers", then why take these absolute moral positions

Or you could just come out right and admit that you have a view of right and wrong which hold to be absolute, just as the Orthodox do. You may not believe it is absolute, but your zealous defense of it, like the religious fanatics you criticize, says otherwise

"Yes, that's it exactly. Why not submit one's mind to Allah as the Muslims do? Would the Rav argue that Muslims are correct to accept the Koran as chok? What about Hindus and the Vedic scriptures?"

Well you examine each religion's truth claims and judge from there

You are wrong about the Vedas. Modern hindus don't use them, except in matter of giving them lip service. The gods in the Vedas aren't even existent today. Hindus change gods like every century. There are things in the Vedas that the average hindu would choke if he knew they were there, such as the horrifying queen and horse sex ritual.

"Nobody's beliefs should be immune to criticism. That goes triple for people who raise kids to believe what they believe and who shun people who don't."

Indeed. And that includes former frummy atheists such as yourself

"Which god? Zeus? :-)"

This is perhaps the most refuted argument laid by atheist. Theists are not arguing for Zeus, Thor or any other deity, they are arguing for the theistic God.

Baal Haabos:

"Likewise, some bibilical comentatators claim that Avraham failed his nisayon because he was willing to sacrifice Yitzchak. You can always say that God wants you to use your seichel."

Such silliness is one of the reasons I thank God for not making me a Jew. We have a real conundrum here. If YHWH orders you to kill a child, and then when you follow suit, he punishes you for following his will, well he is being very inconsistent. Often enough due to the subjective nature of morality, we turn to religion to lay down absolute principles. Whatever God says is right, whatever contradicts what he says is evil. Simple.

Jewish Philosopher:

"Like people who believe evolution created them so that they live a self centered, hedonistic lifestyle."

You still bumping that after I explained to you that even religious people accept evolution.

Nasir Al Din Al Tusi came up with evolution centuries before Darwin conned his ideas. And he was a marja, the highest authority in shia islam.

So you argument that evolution leads to unbelief in God, hedonism or whatever is unfounded and not true.

DrJ:

"So, for example, even an intelligent Palestinian views Israel as an evil genocidal occupier whose Jewish supporters everywhere conspire to manipulate the world, regardless of the "objective" evidence presented to him otherwise. Why don't they see "the truth"? Because truth is in our heads."

I'm not Palestinian but I see Israel as a genocidal monstrosity as does the rest of the world. When you live in a isolated bubble, it is indeed impossible to for you to know you alone are the one who holds on to the view of Israel as innocent.

Perhaps this vid from Jonthan Ben Artzi, Netanyahu's nephew, will bring you to reality: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8LNe0oBNN7w

Truth is the truth. But there are always those eager to say otherwise.

DrJ said...

Shalmo said: "I'm not Palestinian but I see Israel as a genocidal monstrosity as does the rest of the world. When you live in a isolated bubble, it is indeed impossible to for you to know you alone are the one who holds on to the view of Israel as innocent."

If you're using majority as a criterion of truth, then you can say anything absurd that you want, including the earth being flat or that witches caused diseases which was once a majority opinion. I'm won't be dragged into politics, I'm here to demonstrate that neuropsychologically people are only capable of seeing things through their own eyeglasses, which is very subjective.

When confronted with evidence that contradicts this world view, people experience cognitive dissonance-- then use all kinds of mental tricks to maintain their illusions, despite the evidence.

What's your story, Shalmo? Are you a Muslim? A convert? Neturie Karta? What "glasses" do you wear?

Anonymous said...

"When confronted with evidence that contradicts this world view, people experience cognitive dissonance-- then use all kinds of mental tricks to maintain their illusions, despite the evidence.
"

Umm, that isn't cognitive dissonance...

Cognitive dissonance is believing that government knows what is best for society, and at the same time believing that an individual has the right to demand things from the government.

They are two ideas where when taken to the logical end point, contradict eacother. However on the simple level, they appear to co-exist just fine.

Anonymous said...

I also have to comment on the missrepresentation of what Rav Solvetchik wrote.

He did not write that it is heroic to deny your intelect. (I'm pretty sure he writes explicitly against that).

What he wrote, is an analogy. Just as a hero (as seen in literature) is a person who will "just do it", and does not think question why he must do what he is doing, a commited Jew, also will "just do it" and doesn't spend the time to ask why.

The reason why the Jew does it, and the hero does it, is the same. "because it's what must be done." That is as far as the analogy is intended to go. And I believe, regardless of what theology one has, that it s an accurate description of the mental process of a commited Jew.

His analogy is descriptive, not prescriptive.

Shalmo said...

DrJ:

"What's your story, Shalmo? Are you a Muslim? A convert? Neturie Karta? What "glasses" do you wear?"

A covert? a covert to what?

You seem to have a nice bunch of labels up there, but none fit me.

If you do wish to assign a label to me, I suppose you could consider me the modern day 'Amalek'.