Wednesday, July 28, 2010

An Error Worse than Ta'ut
From First Things, which may have a "friend" in a recently posted quote from Chomsky;

For a long time as a young teacher, I believed the danger of prostituting their minds by believing falsehoods was the preeminent, or even singular, intellectual danger my students faced. So I challenged them and tried to teach them always to be self-critical, questioning, skeptical. What are your assumptions? How can you defend your position? Where’s your evidence? Why do you believe that?

I thought I was helping my students by training them to think critically. And no doubt I was. However, reading John Henry Newman has helped me see another danger, perhaps a graver one: to be so afraid of being wrong that we fail to believe as true that which is true. He worried about the modern tendency to make a god of critical reason, as if avoiding error, rather than finding truth, were the great goal of life...

Critical reason, which Newman sometimes calls “strict reason,” and which he certainly did not reject, parses arguments, examines premises, and tests hypotheses. It filters belief. Strict reason is critical, not creative. The methods of critique “will pull down, and will not be able to build up.” Clear-minded and scrupulous analysis clears the underbrush of error, but it cannot plant the seeds of truth [having removed, or is confident it has removed - all possible contenders].

Therein lies the danger. If we fear error too much, and thus overvalue critical reason, we will develop a mind active and able in doubt but untrained to move toward belief, a mentality too quick to find reasons not to nurture convictions [welcome to the regnant Ashkenazi Jewish world...].

Ideally, we would like critical reason to minister to the more fundamental project of affirming truth. We picture ourselves scrupulously examining various truth-claims, weeding out the irrational ones, and then judiciously assenting to those that seem to have solid grounds.

As Newman recognized, life does not work that way. In the first place, our mental machinery isn’t so finely tuned. Of any one of our convictions, he says in a pithy formula, “That according to its desireableness, whether in point of excellence, or range, or intricacy, so is the subtlety of evidence on which it is received.”

In other words, answers to really important questions can’t be answered very easily...

The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal made a similar observation, which I formulate in the following way: The certainty with which we can know a truth is inversely proportional to its importance.

Neither Newman nor Pascal implied that we cannot reason about important things [it's another, more questionable claim, to say that we can reason to them]. On the contrary, Pascal famously formulated an argument designed to induce us to answer [but not formulate] one of the most important of all questions: Does God exist? As Pascal’s wager suggests, both Pascal and Newman recognized that truth outruns our powers of reason. Therefore, we need to risk error as we leap forward to grasp what we hope to be the deeper truth of things.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Strength to Admit Error
Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption, was the philosopher-theologian of this crisis moment. In Open Secret: Postmessianic Messianism and the Mystical Revision of Menahem Mendel Schneerson (Columbia University Press), his densely brilliant new study of the Rebbe’s mystical thought, Elliot R. Wolfson aptly quotes Rosenzweig on the function of the false Messiah: “The false Messiah is as old as the hope of the genuine one. He is the changing form of the enduring hope [certainty?]. Every Jewish generation is divided by him into those who have the strength of hope not to be deceived [about this, our Jewish certainty - can we be relatively certain? - could this, our generation, this religion/worldview manifest contain a certainty that proves Certainty is Jewish - Chabad Jewish to be specific?]. Those having faith are better, those having hope are stronger.” Those having faith are better: Rosenzweig outrages reason in that phrase, deliberately so. It takes strength to resist the temptation of believing in a false Messiah, but to risk belief, he suggests, takes something even rarer—the willingness to be wounded and disappointed, the willingness to be made a fool of."
Adam Kirsch, American Messiah, The Tablet.

Strong is a quantity, "better" a quality, a "certain something" - what the F is "rarer"? No really! Arguments for the truth and relative certainty of Judaism are based on such ill-defined 'rareness', such self-referential "specialness". They can always appeal to Western modes of thought and philosophy and sub-foundations of science (that were influenced by Biblical suppositions, etc), but that's because like the ancient Jewish defenders of studying Greek wisdom, they claim the yardstick to be originally Jewish (the Classic Philosophers ultimately had a Mesorah from Avraham for example). In ethics, they similarly claim "without God, all is permitted", therefore only through revelation, through Divine Command Morality - specifically in Torah, does ethics have a foundation. And of course their 'traditionalism' is refuted by THE Tradition itself - which challenges the exclusivity of this option (essay above). But Tradition itself has no exclusive claim to either - among many things, many reasonable, sound foundations of belief shared by other faiths, other worldviews.

There are, however, claims that Tradition does have claims that are exclusively "Jewish" - and yet again a many of them can be challenged by other facets of the Tradition itself, for its silence regarding those very claims on its behalf - R. Mordechai Breuer's parshanut, the "New Pashtanim", R Joshua Berman's research in "Created Equal", the evidence of archaeology of the region for Tanach for example. I would also suggest (I, II), that even the Kuzari "Argument from Sinai" is not exclusive where it matters for most of the "Tradition" held by Orthodoxy today - I think it is even amenable to the radically non-exclusive claims of Biblical Criticism, given the "competing" narratives about the Sinai revelation (as claimed by BibCrit), if one assumes multiple sources, the Kuzari argument could be like lhvdl like the Catholic church teaches about the conflicting gospels - they're attempts at describing an indescribable series of events - as with certain 'conflicting' accounts of events in Divrei HaYamim and Melachim 1&2 - are a similar attempt at "memory" of facts over a history of facts. One could even claim what is claimed by some Orthodox about the Zohar - that it is oral and written traditions held by a certain school, checked against an oral tradition, and passed down until it was written, however many times.

But - as can be expected by now, the Tradition - or should I say the contemporary Orthodox 'tradition' about the Tradition - cannot account any of this at least not publicly, nor accept views of our text of the Torah/TSBP as "the fruits of the larger Tradition" - even if it were to strengthen belief in the doctrines and practices (however they were passed on). As James Kugel claims as an "Orthodox" Bible Critic...scholarship can only stand apart from 'faith' - scholarship is not to be marshaled in it's defense of regnant Orthodoxy (but not "Torah Judaism", per se) - even in justification of observance and belief.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Rav Amital, Zecher Tzaddik Lvracha

I'm so sad that I am both outside the loop of those who can actually appreciate him and his Torah, alienated from the Talmud Torah that gave him life through such a life.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hiding in Plain Sight and Mind

Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University. Yes, I chose this image because it reminds me of Mordor, and the Eye of Sauron. 'Famously', Frank Lloyd Wright was asked if he lived in New Haven, which architectural structure he would choose to live in. He responded Harkness Tower - so he wouldn't be forced to look at it.

Upon hearing this story, I immediately thought of the Orthoprax adults and the OTD kids who resign to sticking around, perhaps like Wright, living as deeply as possible in a world they don't want to get an "objective" picture of, an escape from being forced to see the forest, the trees, or see the forest because of the trees - a forest that they don't want to see as 'Others' see it - however close or distant to the truth. Maybe with anything approximating an objective view, they risk being disaffected by the actual "Forest" settings of the components they do hold dear - they find worth sticking around for; or risk accepting that those very things are so often universally accessible (there are other forests - and Jews were hardly the first forest, and many are long gone), their own cognition of it being hindered by only knowing thoroughly their experience of their forest as an observant insider.

The flip-side being that, due to the very curiosity, attentiveness and breadth of mind that brought them to doubts about observant Judaism from within - they can still see the rest of the world, from within outward - other ways they could be, visible from between the trunks and limbs, or even once one has climbed to the canopy, as it were (or that there are other worlds and ways). How do people with these degrees of "OTDness" escape knowing that, while it is their forest - it is a forest; and happens to be the very one that they think they "know" more than anything else they believe, in its essence - and in heart, soul and mind - to be systematically untrue.

One can conjecture about the fundamental choices of others, the lifeways of others (which could quite possibly be yours - an intimately-grasped knowledge for a ger or wayout BT who lapses; "possibly be"?...they lived other lives...) - but to "know" this uber-erroneousness - and chose on sentimental grounds (assuming no dependents or economic/social barriers), the very life that I convinced myself is untrue (some by continuing to ask the wrong questions, some by ceasing to ask the right questions), one which itself is so often adamant about the untruthfulness of the world of life choices and lifeways of others?...

No wonder so many atheists of renown were and are Ashkenazi Jewish men.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Pluralism Without Relativism; Judaism

Watch this at

Originally culled from here.

A Google search for "pluralism without relativism" will bring up other fascinating ideas of course, and later I'd like to pick through them. Also relevant is R. Alan Brill's recent Judaism and Other Religions. Him recently on mysticism in the modern era;

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