Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
BUY THIS BOOK! Now available on Amazon! IT WILL MAKE YOUR LIFE COMPLETE!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Limits of Rationalism

One of my favourite showdowns between the Rambam and the Ramban (can you imagine them meeting after t'chiyas hameisim?) comes in last week's parasha. In short, the Rambam believes that the entire encounter between Avraham Avinu and the three malachim was a prophetic vision, that it never really happened.  The Ramban furiously takes him to task for this because the implication is, as Ramban states, that then the whole story of Lot's rescue and the destruction of S'dom were also merely prophetic visions, yet the Torah describes them as historical fact.  How, asks the Ramban, can the Rambam simply dismiss the whole thing as a vision?
In truth, the Rambam is being true to his style by suggesting that the encounter was a vision.  After all, he was the consummate rationalist.  It's not rational for people to run into angels and have conversations with them, therefore the need to explain it as a vision.  He does a similar thing later on when Bilaam converses with his talking ass... I mean donkey.  Further, he quite controversially describes the entire ma'aseh Bereishis as being an allergory not to be taken literally, again in opposition to the Ramban who takes the entirely opposite approach.
Who's right?
In our day and age we are also seeing this conflict played out between different factions in the frum world.  On one side there is Rav Nosson Sliffkin who has taken up the banner of the Rambam and attempted to create a completely rational approach to all things Jewish, most famously the first chapters of Bereishis.  Rav Sliffkin's approach leaves nothing to faith or chance.  Through precise elucidation of the text and with the support of various sources from a wide range of backgrounds, he is able to piece together a completely logical way to understand what the Torah is telling us about how the world was created.  Unfortunately he didn't quite stop there and, like Ramban's accusation against Rambam, he has gone on to extend his rational approach to much of the first fifth of the Torah, something even many of the supporters of his earlier works are not comfortable with.
On the other side there are his opponents who reject the rational approach entirely and who insist on understanding the Torah in as non-rational a way as possible, the strictly literal one.  They too have their supports in the authoritative literature and have some philosophic arguments to support themselves.  However, in their strident attempt to silence their disputants, they have created a serious of positions that independently thinking people find hard to support and have distanced many from Torah through their "it's our way or you're a kofer b'ikkar" approach.
Who's right?
In my opinion, neither side has a complete lock on the truth and I think a careful understand of the Rambam shows this.  It is the Rambam, after all, who codified the currently definitive list of what we consider articles of faith, the 13 ikkarim.  A look at this list demonstates one unusual finding: none of them are rational.  From unconditional belief in an invisible all-powerful God to accepting the integrity and unity of the text of our Torah to expecting the dead to return to life in the (near) future, his ikkarim all fly in the face of what we known about our normal, logical and rational world.  They are all based not on cold reason but on passionate faith.  One might have expected a list like this from the Ramban, but from Rambam, the great rationalist?
Yet this shows that Rambam himself accepted that there are limits to rationalism.
There is a reason the gemara tells us that it is not advisable to investigate the matters of Creation and what came before.  The reason is that these matters involve the deep mysteries of the Divine essense itself, something no human being can properly understand.  The rationalists, by explaining everything away, remove this essence from recordable history.  The anti-rationalists tell inquiring minds not to inquire.  Neither approach is satisfactory.
Rather we as believing Jews must inquire but at the same time recognize that there are limits.  We cannot know what creation was truly like.  What was it like to live in a universe suffused by the primeval light created on the first day?  Who can possibly answer that question?  What did Adam and Chavah look like before eating from the Etz HaDaas?  What exactly was the Etz?  We can surmise and guess but we cannot know, despite our best attempts.
So then what is the best way to approach the text?  We must recall that the purpose of the Torah is not to teach us history or archeology.  It is to teach us moral truths.  If God chose to reveal the Creation of the world in the manner that He did, the point is not to try and resolve its contradictions with science but to concentrate on the moral lessons that the story gives us.  We must redefine the world "rational" to understand it the way we understand "truth".  Just as God is "truth" itself, so He is "rational" and if we wish to be as well we must second our understanding of reality to His.

35 comments:

E-Man said...

Well, is it really irrational to believe in a G-D that spoke to you? I could understand it being irrational if a prophet one day said we have to believe in some G-D that the nation had never met. However, believing in G-D is like believing in George Washington, if you are someone who believes the Bible. Just like history books say George Washington existed so too we believe that G-D spoke to the Jews.

So if you believe the bible is true then there is nothing irrational about believing in G-D. However, if you believe the Bible is false then believing in a god is irrational, because there is no reason to believe a god exists.

Off the Derech said...

Garnel doesn't believe the Bible is true.

He does think they're nice myths, though.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hush OTD, the adults are talking.

E-man, imagine if God were to annoint a new prophet today and he were to start walking the streets of Yerushalayim with genuine prophecy. What would the reaction of people be? Especially us religious folk?

The most important thing you said was "if you believe the Bible". We do but we do so on faith and this leads us to belief in God, matan Torah, etc.

David said...

"We must redefine the world 'rational' to understand it the way we understand 'truth'. Just as God is 'truth' itself, so He is 'rational' and if we wish to be as well we must second our understanding of reality to His."

Huh? What's "His" understanding of reality? And, what's so wrong with the current definition of "rational" that it needs you to fix it? Is this some kind of German Romanticism ("If facts don't conform to theory, so much the worse for the facts")?

David said...

E-Man:
Believing in God is not like believing in George Washington. We have more than "history books" to prove George Washington existed. We have multiple contemporaneous documents which discuss him from varying (and opposing) points of view. We have various documents which contain his signature. We have numerous eye-witness accounts. We have the home he lived in and various personal items which belonged to him, including his teeth. If that were not enough, we could dig him up.
Seriously, E-Man, think outside your kiruv box for a few minutes.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

With all due respect, there is no way that I would match up Rav Slifkin's detractors with the Ramban (in Ramban vs. Rambam), or make such a simile. Ramban addressed his objections directly to his antagonist with clear substantiation for his objections and position. What's more, Ramban usually couched his polemic in terms that show he is aware that he is engaged in 'the battle of Torah'; not just disparaging and invalidating his opponents and their viewpoints and rationales.

When I read the Ramban take Rashi or Rambam to task, I am engaged in a confrontation of minds and intellects. When I read some of the pronouncements and bans today, my primary response is wanting to hide my head in shame for what is being passed off as Torah.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Rav Scher, you make an excellent point. It's not so much the tactics as the opposing positions I was trying to get at.

Chaim B. said...

>>>Further, he quite controversially describes the entire ma'aseh Bereishis as being an allergory

Can you please point me to the Rambam you had in mind here.

>>>they have created a serious of positions that independently thinking people find hard to support

Such as....?

E-Man said...

David I would disagree with you. We have so much from G-D, as long as you believe that our mesorah is not made up. We have several eye witnesses. We have the luchos that the letters were written by G-D. Fine I will make the analogy of G-D and Josephus if that makes you feel better.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Hi Chaim,

The Rambam is in the Moreh Nevuchim.

The positions include
1) God created dinosaur bones and planted them in the Earth to test our faith
2) Carbon dating and the scientific method cannot be relied upon
3) the Earth is flat (yes, there are some who still believe this) and the sun revolves around it.

I'm not saying these are widepsread beliefs but there are some out there amongst the anti-Sliffkinites who would have you believe that accepting these ideas is a principle of the faith.

David said...

"We have so much from G-D, as long as you believe that our mesorah is not made up."

And that's the difference between God and George Washington. In George's case, it really doesn't matter what you think about a "mesorah." There is ample evidence to satisfy any rational person. Which is to say that your initial analogy was completely inaccurate.


"We have several eye witnesses. We have the luchos that the letters were written by G-D. Fine I will make the analogy of G-D and Josephus if that makes you feel better."

We have eye witnesses to God? Who? Also, I was not aware that we had the luchos. I had not seen these. If you can produce them, I will yield this point cheerfully.

E-Man said...

The Jews at Har SInai. Otherwise, what eye witnesses do we have for george washington, they are all dead also.

I have not seen his wooden teeth either, can you produce them and prove they are george washington's?

E-Man said...

David, if you noticed my statement it was if you believe in the bible then any belief in G-D is rational. This is because if you believe the bible is true then it tells a true history. Therefore, an orthodox Jews belief in G-D is just as real as George Washington.

E-Man said...

Just like a history book tells you there was a man named George washington so too there is the Bible that tells us that G-D spoke to the Jews as a nation.

SO if G-D spoke to you as a nation I don;t think a belief in G-D in that situation would be irrational, the proof is that He spoke to you face to face.

I am not making the argument of whether there is the same historical proof and evidence to back up this event. Rather, I am just saying, just like we nowadays know George Washington existed as a rational thought, because the people in his time period knew he existed, so too a Jew who believes the bible to be true would have the same rational thought. It is not irrational to believe in G-D in this way, just like it is not irrational to believe in George washington.

All of this is predicated on the fact that these events happened in history.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Eman, the problem with George Washington is that we have a wealth of evidence of his existence, up to and including his skeleton. Yes he could be an elaborate historical hoax but it's extremely doubtful.
Matan Torah is based on faith. Other than the generation than stood there, it has always been accepted as a transmission of tradition.

E-Man said...

Garnel, I know that there is more evidence for George Washington's existence, that is not what I am saying. You would not believe in G-D if someone told you there was a G-D and that was it. The reason we believe in G-D is because we believe that He spoke to the entire nation of Israel. That is the only reason we believe in G-D. Had our religion been based on a single man telling us there is a G-D without actual having every single person in the nation see it, then that would be irrational. However, our belief is that every single person in klal Yisroel heard G-D speak and therefore verify His existence.

If you have a tradition that Sherlock Holmes spoke to your father, but the only evidence you have of this is a letter that he gave your father, would it be rational or irrational to believe that he spoke to your father?

Chaim B. said...

>>>The Rambam is in the Moreh Nevuchim.

What perek are you referring to so we can check if he really says this? Thanks.

Can you also identify which gedolim today you think believe the earth is flat or do not rely on the scientific method and how you know this?

David said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David said...

E-Man:
I think you're confused as to the concept of "eye-witnesses." Yes, the people around Mt. Sinai might have been eye-witnesses if anything had happened there. However, there is no witness who can attest to God's having spoken to the entire nation; you are citing a folk-legend and calling it proof. It isn't.

If anybody saw anything at Sinai, they left no recorded testimony and there are (unlike the case with Washington) no documents or artifacts at all which can be identified as contemporaneous. Call your next witness.

E-Man said...

David, the bible says the entire nation saw G-D. Also, if the luchos exist, which the bible says they did, that would be proof as well.

E-Man said...

David, the bible says the entire nation saw G-D. Also, if the luchos exist, which the bible says they did, that would be proof as well.

E-Man said...

Also, what eye witness can attest to George Washingotn having ever been alive?

David said...

"David, the bible says the entire nation saw G-D. Also, if the luchos exist, which the bible says they did, that would be proof as well."

So, the Bible says that those people were eyewitnesses. However, those people did not leave accounts, so that's problematic. Same problem with the luchos. Using the Bible to prove that the Bible is true is absurd. The Koran opens up with the phrase 'This Book is not to be doubted.' By your argument, it must also be true.

"Also, what eye witness can attest to George Washingotn (sic) having ever been alive?"

Are you serious? There are countless contemporaneous documents, newspaper articles, artifacts, real estate deeds, memoirs, medical records, etc. which attest to Washington's existence. Moreover, we have contemporaenous writings about Washington from both supporters and opponents. We even have his grave and, if we wished, we could dig him up. There is no rational basis for doubt as to his existence.

As to the stuff in the Bible, there is nothing at all to prove that anything happened at Sinai. No eyewitness accounts, no contemporary writings, no artifacts. Nothing but the Bible. And, as I mentioned, you can't prove that something is true by saying that the thing itself says that it's true-- that's circular.

E-Man said...

I am curious as to how you rationally say that the events of the Bible did not happen. When were they made up? If they were made up, how did so many people (Over 2 billion) get tricked? Why would a nation believe this non-sense? There is the oral tradition. However, you are missing my real point, this was just side discussion.

My point was, if the events of the bible are true, or you believe them to be true, then the belief in G-D is not irrational, it is a rational step. However, if the bible is not true, or the belief in the bible is not there, then a belief in G-D is irrational.

E-Man said...

Oh an please tell me what you mean by eyewitness accounts. Do you mean documents of people talking to washington that we do not have eyewitnesses that they existed?

Well, I guess I could tell you we as Jews have eyewitness accounts, but as opposed to written letters we have the tradition of father son to father and son which was written down sometime after the entrance into Israel.

David said...

"I am curious as to how you rationally say that the events of the Bible did not happen."

The burden's with you; you're the one claiming they happened, and the only evidence you've got for the Bible is... the Bible.


"If they were made up, how did so many people (Over 2 billion) get tricked?"

So, if Jesus isn't God, how did so many people get tricked? If Mohammed isn't the Prophet of God, how did so many people get tricked? Sorry, that's not proof.

"My point was, if the events of the bible are true, or you believe them to be true, then the belief in G-D is not irrational, it is a rational step. However, if the bible is not true, or the belief in the bible is not there, then a belief in G-D is irrational."

That's gibberish. If the Bible is true, then it's true. If it's false, then it's false. Seriously, do all your ideas come from having been drunk at an Aish seminar?

"Oh an please tell me what you mean by eyewitness accounts. Do you mean documents of people talking to washington that we do not have eyewitnesses that they existed?"

We have contemporaneous first-hand accounts the authenticity of which is not really in any doubt.

"Well, I guess I could tell you we as Jews have eyewitness accounts, but as opposed to written letters we have the tradition of father son to father and son which was written down sometime after the entrance into Israel."

Again, you're missing the point. This "father to son" stuff is all well and good, but there's no proof that it really goes back all that far. Your father didn't tell you that he saw anything. He told you that he heard something from his father, who heard something from his father. And, frankly, my father didn't tell me anything of the sort. That adds up to a folk tale. You keep trying to confuse it with documentation or testimony. It's not the same-- I can't even testify to what my father saw, much less to what he heard that his father heard that his father heard that his father heard (etc.). Ever play whisper-down-the-lane?

E-Man said...

"So, if Jesus isn't God, how did so many people get tricked? If Mohammed isn't the Prophet of God, how did so many people get tricked? Sorry, that's not proof."

No one knows if Jesus is G-D, they know that he told them he was G-D, or more specifically, his followers said he was G-D. That is a historical fact. That is why I said to believe he is G-D is irrational. However, by Judaism everyone saw G-D, so a belief in G-D is not irrational. What are you not getting here?

I am not arguing whether it is true or not. Try to understand this and stop thinking about Aish, is that the only thing you can argue against? If G-D spoke to all the Jews then it is not irrational to believe in G-D. Contrary to this, if G-D only spoke to one man and he told the entire nation he spoke to G-D then it would be irrational for anyone he told to believe in G-D because no one else saw G-D or knows there is a G-D, they are just taking some guys word for it.

E-Man said...

"We have contemporaneous first-hand accounts the authenticity of which is not really in any doubt."

Does this mean we have letters from people who wrote to George Washington?

And my point here is that you are trusting everyone to say George Washington existed because they say they have first hand accounts. Just like the Jews trusted the former generations to say they spoke to G-D on mount Sinai.

But again, let us forget about George Washington and talk of Josephus. Why are you sure he exists? This is more comparable because it is older yet we know Josephus existed, but how do we know that?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Chaim B.,

In answer to your questions:

Moreh Nevuchim 2:29: "First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal... The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our faith."

Second, the Lubavitcher Rebbe wrote a sefer in which he tries to show that the scientific method is erroneous, that the Earth is the centre of the universe with the sun revolving around it, etc. I'm told in hushed whipsers he also believe the Earth was flat.

Check out the statement of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita, in this post as to the number of teeth gentiles have.
http://parsha.blogspot.com/2009/06/do-gentiles-have-more-teeth-than-jews.html

Further, anyone who insists that everything Chazal said, even if it has nothing to do with halacha and Torah, must be literally understood as true, even if it contradicts reality as we observe it, has to explain how he resolves the contradiction:
http://torahandscience.blogspot.com/2006_04_01_archive.html

Garnel Ironheart said...

E-man, the problem with the argument is that you and I are using a different frame of reference than David is. For us, the Torah is a legitimate work which means it is as authoritative as an obelisk in the middle of the Egyptian desert for teaching us history.
David is approaching from what might be termed a more rationalist approach. He wants corroboration of the event from an outside source.
To use your George Washington example: if the only evidence Washington existed were American sources, if there was no mention of him in British, French history or elsewhere, then he would probably be equally suspect as to whether or not Washington was created by the American founding fathers as a convenient figurehead who never really existed.
Similarly, it would probably change his mind if there were contemporary non-Israelite accounts of matan Torah in history.
There are one big problem with his requirements:
The Torah's account of the entire period in the desert, as amplified by Chazal, shows that God is quite fastidious. The ananei hakovad leared the way forward and swept up behind our ancestors, leaving no trace of their passing. Har Sinai is a lonely, forgotten mountain in the middle of nowhere. No one else was around for Matan Torah other than our ancestors (and us ourselves al pi Chazal). Thus there can be no contemporary witnesses outside of the Jewish people.
Therefore there is nothing we can say to change David's mind. We cannot satisfy the requirements he has set for changing it.

The other problem with having this argument is that our side is quite prepared to bring God into history and have Him play a role while the other side is not. If Paul of Tarsus could successfully start a new religion based on some hippie who got nailed to a cross because of his megalomaniacal amibitions, and if ol' Mo could convince millions of pagan shepherds that God spoke to him, both events boggling the mind, to me that suggests that there was a divine purpose to their success. Rambam himself notes that both Paul and Mo were successful in increasing the spread of monotheism in the world. Would such a thing happen against His will?

Chaim B. said...

Garnel,

The M.N. in context explains why ma'aseh braishis is not publically taught. If all that was required to understand the chapter is a translation of the words, every child could understand it and it would not be sisrei Torah. Do you not think even the Rambam agrees that there is more to ma'aseh braisis than simple translation?

As for the rest, you claimed gedolim believe the world is flat and the best you can come up with is what "some people" (who are these people?) say the rebbe believed but never said? I think you should retract your original statement if that's your evidence. I would beg of you and your readers to not buy into unsubstantiated claims about what gedolim hold and use that as a means to discredit their opinions.

No one takes everything Chazal say as literally true, be it R' Chaim Kanievsky or anyone else, so you are beating a straw man.

I fail to see the connection between a contemporary acharon getting a fact wrong and the statement that Chazal were wrong or the conclusion that vast portions of the Torah are to be read allegorically. Non sequitor.

E-Man said...

Garnel, my point has nothing to do with historicity. It has to do with Judaism being rational or not. The idea here is that if the bible is true then it is rational to believe in a G-D that spoke to u. The idea about george washington was that just like we know he existed and it is rational to believe that he existed, so too the Jew who believes the bible to be true has a rational belief in G-D.
However, u are arguing whether it is rational to believe the bible. I do not think this is a rational vs irrational argument it is one about how verifiable is the book.
I think it is rational to believe in the authenticity of the bible for several reasons.

I think any religion that says only one person saw G-D contains an irrational belief in G-D because if only one person saw G-D how does everyone else know G-D existed? Must be they have an irrational belief in G-D. However, the Jew has a belief in G-D because all the contemporary Jews of the time saw G-D.

Off the Derech said...

EMa: See my recent post "Nach" and Nechemia 8. The Kuzari proof is weak because there were periods in Jewish history where only one or two people "remembered" "facts" like ma'amad har sinai.

Garnel: You've said before the Torah is not "intended" as a science or history book, now you're saying it is. Which is it?

SJ said...

Garnel it's nice to know you think that a talking donkey is perfectly rational. -_-

David said...

"The Torah's account of the entire period in the desert, as amplified by Chazal, shows that God is quite fastidious. The ananei hakovad leared the way forward and swept up behind our ancestors, leaving no trace of their passing."

That's cute. There's no proof, because God came by and removed all the proof. Honestly, Garnel, that's not a problem with my requirements, that's (yet) a(nother) problem with your beliefs. I could tell you that I'm God, and that the reason that you and most other people don't recognize that obvious fact is that I've chosen to wipe it from your minds in order to give you free choice.

And, E-Man, you're being absurd. As to Josephus, I'm inclined to believe he existed, because nothing that I've read attributed to him strikes me as all that peculiar. There is an ancient written text attributed to him which seems plausible enough. That said, am I prepared to swear that there was a Josephus? No. Am I prepared to state with certainty that everything I find written by Josephus (or whoever wrote that) is accurate? No. Indeed, from what I've read, scholars of Josephus do believe that some later materials were interpolated into his original text. Now, why is it so hard for you to acknowledge that this is possible with the Torah?