www.TheLogician.net© Avi Sion All rights reserved

JUDAIC LOGIC

© Avi Sion, 1995, 1997 All rights reserved.

You can BUY online, Amazon.com (in paperback or kindle/.mobi form), at Lulu.com (in hardcover, paperback or e-book / .epub form ), and at many other online stores.

Chapter 14. LOGICAL ASPECTS OF EMUNAH.

Here, in conclusion, we shall examine some of the logical difficulties and paradoxes in the concept of religious faith.

1. On Natural Proofs of Religion.

2. Theodicy and the Believer’s Wager.

3. Faith and Justice.

4. Legislated Belief.

1. On Natural Proofs of Religion.

In discussing the logic in religious documents like the Bible or Talmud, we have had no occasion to consider what philosophers call “proofs of Gd”. The reason is simple: the pursuit of such proofs is not a religious phenomenon, at least not originally, but a concern of secular philosophy (specifically, the branch called theology). The Torah’s proofs of Gd are implied in the epiphanies and acts of Gd that it reports, like His appearance to Moses in the Burning Bush or His division of the Red Sea. When the prophets argue on Gd’s behalf, they do not use abstract philosophy, but refer to Biblical events which are taken for granted. Similarly, the Talmud takes off from the Biblical document without critically questioning its origin or contents. Nevertheless, nowadays theological discussions inevitably linger on natural proofs of religion. The modern mind requires it.

It must be said at the outset that there are no unassailable proofs of Judaism’s beliefs; nor are there disproofs. Every known argument, one way or the other, has a rebuttal. Unless we are each personally and constantly in the Presence of Gd, we are bound to have to rely on faith; and lacking such experience, our reason also cannot with certainty deny its Object. The main characteristics we attribute to Gd in our thinking, our ‘definition’ of him as Existent, Unitary, Unique, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Creator and Master of everything, perfectly just and merciful Judge, providential and gracious, and so forth, are all intellectual and emotional projections (constructions largely based on Torah data, to be sure), which ultimately depend on acts of faith.

These comments apply equally to Christianity, Islam, and other monotheistic religions. As for systems like Hinduism, Taoism or Buddhism, they too contain unprovable and undisprovable beliefs, like the idea of karma or the notion that liberation is possible (by means like meditation or whatever). In every religion, there are certain starting points, which one may choose to accept or refuse; logic becomes used in them only as from those points of departure.

Consider, first, the most natural of arguments in favor of belief in Gd. Looking around one at the world, one is bound to marvel at the miracle of existence, at the fact that anything at all exists, and furthermore at the degree of variety, order and complexity of what exists, not to mention the wonder of our consciousness of all that. This general miracle, which seen daily passes unnoticed, is surely more impressive than any particular miracle, like the Splitting of the Red Sea. Where did all this come from? It could not always have been there! Who made it happen? It is too fancy to have happened “by chance” and “ex nihilo” (even supposing the concepts of chance and nothingness at all meaningful)! Thinking thus, one may easily infer: yes! There must be a Gd, powerful and conscious to a very high degree, who created all this, the miracle of Nature.[1]

However, convincing as this argument may seem[2], it is easily rebutted. For we can similarly argue that if this universe we experience is a marvelous thing, how much more marvelous is an Entity capable of creating it! Our initial argument posited Gd as an explanation of the surprising phenomenon before us; but upon reflection we must admit that we have thereby given ourselves an even more complicated problem to solve[3]. We could therefore argue: if the world requires explanation, how much more so Gd; and if Gd requires no explanation, how much less so the world. In brief, our intervention has only been briefly satisfying; the initial problem remains essentially unsolved; if we achieved anything, it was to complicate matters further.

Thus, whether we refer to the existence as such of the world as a whole (positing a cosmological argument) or to the variety, order and complexity of its parts (a teleological argument), the logical impact of such ontological arguments is identical – nil. We may through such reasoning make the interesting discovery that matter may have been created ex nihilo by a spiritual Being, but that does not provide us with a final explanation of things. The existence and power of the Creator remain a formidable mystery[4]. In any case, note well, such neutralization of the argument does not prove anything against the idea of Gd; it merely signifies that the proposed course of reasoning is not logically conclusive.

An alternative philosophical approach to the issue, is epistemological rather than ontological. We may ask the question: what would in principle constitute definite proof for or against each of the tenets of religion; what would it take to convince us firmly? For instance, with regard to the existence of Gd, one might assume that some manifestation of Divinity, such as a great light or a very unnatural occurrence, would firmly convince any empiricist.

However, it is conceivable that even under such conditions, once the surprise is over and one has had a chance to think again, one may even doubt one’s vision! Normally, we do not doubt any experience unless we have cause to, due to some conflicting experience; however, the intellect is always capable of skepticism and might be able to find some excuse for it even under the conditions stated[5]. We may consider this scenario as acceptable to the Torah, since we know from within it that even after witnessing extraordinary events such as the Exodus from Egypt or the Giving of the Torah at Sinai, there were individuals who evidently, as their deeds demonstrate, had doubts concerning the reality or significance of these events.

With regard to the characteristics of Gd we have mentioned, other than Existence, the following comments may be made. Most of these concepts encapsulate some logical perplexity. How may Gd have many attributes and powers and yet be one? Some, like Maimonides, try to bypass the issue, by saying, His oneness is something different from the unity of any thing in the natural world, it is unique; or, by claiming (contrary to the Torah’s practise) that we can only describe Gd by means of negative propositions, saying what He is not (not plural, not finite, etc.). But these are artifices, which do not really resolve the paradoxes. Gd as both transcendent and immanent, the uncreated creator and unmoved mover of everything, all-knowing with an inner and outer perspective, all-powerful with unsurpassable control of events – all these concepts are extrapolations of natural powers and events to an extreme degree, but we have no experience of them nor capacity for it.

How can a human, not him/her self knowing everything, know that Gd knows everything; how can a human, in whose experience all powers are finite, know of an agent of will capable of doing anything it wants? At best, what is involved is a Walt Disney imagination, without attention to detail. The definitions of such limitless concepts are unavoidably mere juggling of words, they refer to nothing we have real knowledge of. Indeed, the concepts are fraught with logical problems. Can an omniscient being conceivably know that he is omniscient? he can only assume it, for there may well be something beyond his ken he is not aware of[6]. Does omnipotence include the capacity for self-creation ex-nihilo? the idea is unconscionable. How are we to conceive Gd as being everywhere, the being and sustainer of being of all material, mental and spiritual existents, the container of the whole universe, and yet somehow not get into pantheism, as did Spinoza?

And so forth – my purpose is not here to exhaust the issues, or cause loss of faith, but merely to point out that any attempt to rationalize our standard ideas about Gd is a display of naivety. Better to humbly acknowledge the difficulties involved and our reliance on faith.

To conclude this topic, then, we must say that reason can order and make consistent our thoughts concerning Gd and other religious beliefs, but it can never definitely prove them. It is vain to seek actual proof. There is no escape from the necessity of emunah, faith. Faith is essential to freedom of will and moral responsibility: if the moral act is done under the compulsion, as it were, of mere logic, the human being loses his special status as decider. To say this, is not to provide a sort of transcendental proof of religion – but is merely an explanatory perspective, proposed from within religion, after its acceptance. The undecided are not logically compelled by it, but are still free to choose for themselves whether to believe or not to believe.

Furthermore, it must be noted that proof of Gd would in no way entail proof of the rest of religion. Given that Gd exists, there still remains the issue as to which religious document, if any, is to be relied on as Gd’s message to us. Is it to be the Torah, the Gospels, or the Koran, or the Baghavad-Gita, for that matter? An additional act of faith is required here too! Furthermore, granting the choice of the Written Torah as a whole (in our case)[7], a multitude of additional acts of faith are required to believe in the Oral Law (the Talmud and subsequent Rabbinic developments). Every law, attitude and story in the Bible and subsequent religious literature, is a complex of separate beliefs, requiring a new act of faith. Washing the hands in the morning, the nidah going to the mikveh, as much as belief in invisible entities (like angels), acts (like Divine judgement) and domains (like the World-to-come) are bundles of acts of faith.

The demand for proof of Gd becomes, in this perspective, merely the beginning of an infinite process. If we awaited the answers, refusing faith, we would never find the time to enter religion…

See also Addenda 10 and 11.

2. Theodicy and the Believer’s Wager.

In any case, in practise (we must keep insisting on this point), people do not become religious on account of rationalistic arguments, but for more visceral motives. Good philosophy tries to abstain from extreme rationalism, and while it tends to frown on confused anarchism, it is open to considerable speculation and intuition. But religion allows the irrationalism in us, our instinctive deeper yearnings and emotional responses, greater freedom. This is, I think, its human dimension; it makes us more than machines.

To be sure, the extremes of religion, ‘fundamentalism’, or more precisely ‘integrism’[8], are to a large extent products of an excessive rationalism (in a pejorative sense of the term – it is the rationalism of simpletons), which explains the severity they have historically very often implied (their expressions, particularly the violence, are of course irrational).

What makes people religious in practise are banal things like hope for happiness on earth (which is gradually transmuted into hope for life in a thereafter), hope for better human relationships, hope for understanding, love, harmony, a woman or man, children; also, the release from fears, protection from the hardships of life, and of death, release from guilt and from uncertainty, absolution and guidance. (These are very broad brushstrokes, but you know what I mean.) Religion makes promises and threatens, capturing ready victims and then spinning an ever tighter web around them, with expert moves and the help of its victims themselves (these words may sound harsh, disillusioned; but this is a view, which has some truth). Religion has psychology, it knows what moves people.

The human being has his or her own intuition of justice. It is not in all people identical nor of equal intensity, but it is the source of their ability to at all grasp the concept. This personal intuition of justice may be influenced, one way or another, by religious or other doctrines – cultural influences may cause a rationalistic or even forcible reconstruction of the instinct in an individual – but epistemologically it precedes them and antecedes them. The concept of justice, then, is in all individuals the result of a compromise between personal insight and socio-cultural pressures, whose power over the individual depends on the particular combination of desires, fears and guilts which at a given time determine his or her susceptibility.

All this has apparently little to do with Gd, but rather more to do with psychology and sociology! But in truth, since religion takes up so firmly the idea of Gd, we tend to associate the two, and usually think distancing ourselves from the former necessitates distancing ourselves from the latter. Belief in Gd is theologically conceivable without belief in a religion; many people have tried to opt for this middle ground. But in practise the link is rather strong. Resistance to religion arises to the extent that, or as of when, the promises or threats it makes are regarded as empirically untenable.

What is it we expect from Gd when we ask him for justice and mercy? Justice: that we and our loved ones be rewarded for our good deeds and that our enemies be punished for their bad deeds and be deprived of graceful gifts. Mercy: that we and our loved ones be given gifts of grace and be forgiven for our bad deeds. When our hearts feel generous, we understand that Gd may reward good deeds of our enemies and occasionally forgive their bad deeds. All this is a basic instinct of humans. On this basis we may pray for our protection, our sustenance, our happiness, and so forth.

Of course, the concepts involved in such general or specific prayers are complex. There are many aspects, levels and degrees to them.

Good and bad may be spiritual, mental, physical, emotional – or political, social, economic or environmental or even esthetic; and may be so to various degrees, directly or indirectly, and categorically or conditionally. One may cause good or bad to Gd’s designs, or to oneself, to other people (individually, in groups or as a species), or even to animals or vegetation (individually, in groups or as species)[9]. Furthermore, there may be harmonies and conflicts between all these domains – they impinge on each other, naturally and logically, in various ways, and hierarchies must be set up or identified. Additionally, our perceptions come into play: the objective status of a value or disvalue is often moot or irrelevant, and our subjective intuitions of them may have more impact.

Likewise, friends and enemies may be real or imagined. These notions basically refer to the benefit or harm other people cause us (in the various ways just mentioned). But motives and emotions are involved in such evaluations: issues of love, hatred or indifference, sincerity or insincerity, on both sides. There are friends or enemies in fact (by virtue of objective impact) and those of intention (referring to whether they affect us one way or the other deliberately, incidentally or by accident).

We assume and hope Gd, the Judge and Arbitrator, sorts all these factors out, and delivers and enforces a fair decision.

Appeal to Gd presupposes a belief in good and bad. Zen will say that good and bad are linked, and its adepts try to see the world neutrally, without such dualist concept. It is true that the thought of good automatically gives rise to the thought of bad – or at least, absence of good – by way of outline and contrast. Logically, the concepts can be grounded in relation to a standard of value, which merely ‘passes the buck’ to some arbitrary norm, unless universal values can be identified. But actually, within human beings, these concepts, good and bad, are very difficult to pin-point; they are vague, variable, and often inconsistent. It is more in the way of an instinct, or at best an intuition of appearance, that we conceive good or bad to apply to something. This is one of the peaks of our conceptual faculty, this discerning of the unwordable, but no less valuable than sense perception. It is the dignity and decency of humans.

In relation to Gd, what humans seek, and what makes them enter and practise religion, is a set of rules to the game of life, which, if they adhere to them and perform certain things (in the largest sense), it will be well with them as they wish; and if they do not, they may expect negative consequences. It is a deal we want to believe in, and are willing to pay for (whether or not we admit our mercantilism). It is a rationalist demand for a comprehensible world in which good and bad are each put in its place. Religion comes along and promises just that, an orderly causality (this is in the case of theist religions – in the case of religions like Taoism and Buddhism the offer is different, an escape by transcendence from the good-bad dichotomy). One accepts the doctrine hopefully, and tries to perceive the world in the prescribed way so as to obtain solace.

Difficulty may arise after a long apprenticeship, when one finds that the rules we were promised do not hold, and the sequences of good and bad in our lives, whatever they be for each individual, do not necessarily adhere to the promised program[10]. At this point, religion proposes transcendental domains – heaven and hell[11]. A perception of events contrary to the expectations raised by the religion, together with a conviction of having played the game by the rules, may cause a breakdown of faith and the abandonment of religion, or parts thereof. But a vacuum remains, if the world continues to seem irrational – a need for fair-play unfulfilled.

The Believer’s Wager[12] is that Gd exists, and that his or her particular choice of Religion (or even his/her personally designed religion, or variant of an established Religion) is the correct one for himself or herself. It is a wager, because the refusal to make a leap of faith, is itself a leap of faith, into something which must be evaluated too:

· What if my religion is true, and I abstain from following it – will I get hurt and/or will I miss goodies?

· And what if my religion is false, and I do follow it – will I mess up my life and/or will I waste it?

· What of other belief-systems on the market – how do they compare, in terms of credibility and efficacy?

There is a wide-ranging calculus in the decision, which may be referred to as the essence of theodicy, but ultimately some leap of faith remains unavoidable, in whatever direction it be.

See also Addendum 12.

3. Faith and Justice.

There seems to be a logical conflict between the concepts of faith and justice. We have shown earlier, and I think every serious thinker readily admits, Divine law cannot be proven by experience and reason, but rather depends fundamentally and in larger measure on pure faith, i.e. on willed belief. If so, how can such law, which inherently in its claim of origins contains a doubt concerning its own validity, be justly viewed as binding on people who lack faith in it, or even on people who have faith in it, to the extent of making them liable to punishment by human court or by Gd if they do not obey it?

It has only gradually dawned on me that the concept of Divine law arrived at by open philosophical inquiry – that of an ethic based on respect of Torah tradition, mixed with attention to factual experience and use of rational faculties – is very different in character from the concept of mitzvah manifest in the religious population and culture at large. For the hard-core orthodox Jew, the law makes absolute and incontrovertible demands; no understanding or tolerance for those who deviate from it out of doubt is in justice possible, only if at all at best in mercy.

On the one hand: Rabbinic authorities recognize that religious observance strongly depends on faith, as evidenced by constant exhortations to emunah – and faith logically implies doubt; and on the other hand: it is a principle of justice, given to at least some extent within the Talmud itself, that doubt relative to a law exempts one from judgement under that law. Yet the radical tension between these two positions seems to have gone unnoticed.

A similar contradiction can more easily be avoided under a system of “natural” jurisprudence. In the latter case, most of mankind, or (more precisely) most of a particular society or group of people, experiences revulsion or fear in relation to certain behavior patterns, and the wish or need to demand of its members certain other patterns. It therefore imposes its collective will, enacting laws and setting up ways and means for their enforcement. It does so without having to prove its abstract justice – though it may explain itself pragmatically, with reference to the common welfare, in order to approach a consensus and promote voluntary compliance.

Under a system of ‘religious’ jurisprudence, however, the basis of law is, rather, the alleged will of Gd, and a claim to absolute justice would seem necessary. For one would expect, in a rationalistic perspective, that whatever the Creator chooses to regard as just – and give us as His law – must indeed be just; even an abstract concept like justice can logically have no existence or reality not endowed it by the Creator of all things. But, in a more humanistic perspective, justice is whatever human beings in general experience or intuit as just, it being after all they who will be on the receiving end of any blows the law may entail.

In any case, our sense of justice, and the views proposed by the Talmud as of Divine origin, would seem to concur that doubt mitigates law. Various pleas of this kind are possible:

· one can plead innocence and claim a doubt that the accused A in fact broke the law L – or a doubt that the court/judges know or can know that A in fact broke L;

· one can plead ignorance and claim a doubt that the accused A knew that L was law, or that it applied in the situation concerned – or a doubt that the court/judges know or can know that A knew L was law, or was applicable;

· one can plead liberty, and claim a doubt that the law L is a Divine law – or a doubt that the court/judges know or can know that L is law;

With regard to the first category, Jewish law relies on the testimony of reliable witnesses coupled with circumstantial evidence to remove reasonable doubt (though, is there not usually a small drop of doubt left?). With regard to the second category, Jewish law requires the forewarning of the criminal just prior to the crime (though, what if he disbelieved them?). With regard to the third category, the most radical objection, the court can always in practise pursue judgement notwithstanding such doubts, on the basis of natural jurisprudence (that is, social necessity and power). Modern law, in the 20th century Western countries, follows more or less similar lines (very broadly speaking, of course).

If any and every degree of doubt was taken seriously in practise, in the name of an ideal of perfect justice, there would be total anarchy, the antithesis of the rule of law which makes justice possible. Nevertheless, our discussion here is not about realistic wisdom, and what precisely to regard (or not regard) as extenuating circumstances, but perhaps a logical critique of fierce fanatics. There is sufficient cause for doubt, it seems to me, in any ethical/juridical doctrine, to exclude the justification of extremely judgemental attitudes and blind hatred, except of course where obviously heinous crimes have been committed.

Although doubt and justice are somewhat in friction, some uncertainty would seem to be essential to the operation of human freewill, on which the concept of justice depends; and so in some respects justice is fundamentally impossible without the existence of doubt. This paradoxical unity in duality may be illustrated in the following remarks.

If, as some commentators seem to claim, Divine judgement occurs through the operation of an actual Heavenly Court, in the presence of the accused and with a chance for him to defend himself, why do we never remember it? In earthly justice, a prison inmate knows why he is there (ignoring Kafkaesque situations); but, in Divine justice, the sufferings we experience in this world (I do not know what happens in the next) are rarely understood by us, and even if we feel guilty about this or that past deed, and guess that maybe our sufferings relate to such past deeds, we never remember an actual trial up above. Perhaps, simply, the uncertainty is part and parcel of the punishment; we surely do not worry about it when it is good things that are happening to us.

Why is reward/punishment for virtue/vice not immediate? For if every moment is a new creation, as some commentators claim, it would seem that the person concerned is not one and the same individual today (at the time of the deed) and tomorrow (at the time of its retribution), but at every moment a new creature. Indeed, often we sin with selfish and cavalier disregard for future consequences, regarding that future person as another than oneself. But evidently, Judaism does not see this issue as a major problem, and explains the delay granted sinners as Divine mercy designed to give him time to repent. And the delay of reward? perhaps to accumulate credit for bigger and better things!

A thought I had in Tsfat, in the summer of 1991, during a study of Moshe Cordovero’s work, Tamar Devorah. The question I had posed was: if Gd keeps the sinner alive to give him time to repent, yet Gd knows the future and so knows in advance who will repent and who will not, why does He keep the latter alive at all? The answer I had proposed was as follows: if Gd did not keep the impenitent sinners alive, then all those remaining alive could assume themselves to be future penitents, and would be less in a hurry to improve themselves. Similarly, with regard to the doctrine that sinners are rewarded by Gd in this world so that He owes them nothing good in the next, while nice guys and gals are treated harshly in this world, so that Gd can give them only good in the next – if this principle were applied consistently and exclusively, one could draw inferences from people’s happiness or suffering.

In brief, then, Gd has to confuse the issues and cloud things, in order to maintain the doubts and mystery which make freedom of choice possible and willpower necessary.

4. Legislated Belief.

The Judaic concept of legislated belief is hard to understand. I know that similar objections have been put forward by others in relation to laws commanding love (as in “love the Lrd your Gd”); though it is clear enough to me that while one cannot force oneself to love at will, one can perhaps over time by sensitive behavior teach oneself to do so. In contrast, belief is something more fundamental from the epistemological point of view.

Human belief and knowledge naturally arise through the collective impact of perceptual and conceptual appearances. Concrete and abstract phenomena present themselves to our consciousness, and over time we try to sort them out (compare and contrast them) and make sense of them (weed out contradictions, interrelate data, and fill gaps). At any given moment in one’s life, one cannot honestly ab initio characterize any given appearance, viewed in isolation from its contexts, as a ‘reality’ (or truth) or an ‘illusion’ (or falsehood). It is only within the total context of all phenomena one has encountered that one can evaluate any one of these phenomena, and consider it as part of reality or as a distortion thereof, or as still problematic. And of course, since the context is continually changing, these evaluations vary with time and can be reversed.

The naive mind, the person who has not reflected on epistemological issues, just takes the processes involved for granted, and believes whatever he/she happens to believe, moved by the natural impact of impressions, including those determined by emotional forces and those emanating purposely or unintentionally from the surrounding society, or from particular milieux therein, to varying degrees. To such people (and we all to varying extents fall in this class) there is no clear distinction between belief and knowledge. Or, more accurately, for such people, knowledge is more determined by belief, than belief is as it should be by knowledge.

To a philosophically inclined person, knowledge is like a fragile plant, something which changes and grows and must be delicately nurtured and taken care of. There is never any question of anticipating reality, other than gently and tentatively; one may well ask questions, but one listens to the answers, patiently letting reality speak for itself, reveal itself, at its own pace. At no time does one consider the way things present themselves to be final, or try to force such phenomena to remain rigid or to move certain ways rather than others.

But some people, through pain, cowardice or laziness, try to impose on themselves (or on others, by means of political, cultural or religious dictatorships) certain beliefs; and they illegitimately label these “knowledge”, stealing a word which does not apply.

Belief differs from knowledge in that the former is to some extent an attitude, normally determined by the natural force of presentations, but also capable of being ‘taken up’ as an act of will, in which case we call it “faith”. Knowledge, in contrast, is a more normative concept, signifying that the proposed result did not arise through mere natural inertia, and certainly not through forced belief (whether against reason and experience, or in their interstices or beyond their horizons), but was to some extent pondered, developed with reference to logical standards, validated as far as possible in the given context. Thus, belief might be viewed as a more generic concept, which includes everything – faith, emotionally-determined belief, externally-imposed belief, common/naive knowing and scientific knowledge. The latter two differ only in degree of reflection they imply.

In this perspective, direct revelation refers to extraordinary presentations of phenomena by Gd to certain humans; and prophecy is the kind of consciousness associated with such special events, be they verbal or include sounds and images, whether seemingly occurring in the external domain or dream-like. Indirect revelation is the report or hearsay about such phenomena. Whereas direct revelation naturally causes belief, and is in principle a fully legitimate source of knowledge, indirect revelation is more of an issue in these respects, and requires more careful evaluation. Some people believe in indirect revelations easily (particularly coming from certain teachers they trust), while others take convincing and still others are skeptical on principle.

Now, Judaism (and similarly other religions) includes, not only a certain “belief-system”, but a number of commanded beliefs. For instance, Exod. 20:2 ,”I am the Lrd your Gd”, is interpreted by the Rabbis as a Mitzvah to believe (constantly) in the existence and various attributes of Hashem (e.g. sovereignty, mercy, justice), and His various powers and achievements (e.g. creation, providence, liberation from Egypt, gift of Torah). Similarly, the Shema Israel, Deut. 6:4, is a Mitzvah to believe in Hashem’s utter Unity (despite the apparent plurality and variety of His attributes and actions in the world). There are also negative commandments relating to belief – such as Exod. 20:3, the Mitzvah to disbelieve in idols or gods other than Hashem, and Num. 15:39, “and don’t go touring after your heart and after your eyes”, which is interpreted as a Mitzvah to avoid heretical thoughts and immoral fantasies.

This is hard to understand, from a logical point of view. Normally, what one conceives as having-to-be-done is determined by what one wants to achieve (one’s purposes, or more broadly, values) and by the information at hand concerning relevant causal relations (which tells one what means are likely to lead to one’s ends). In the construction of a natural ethic, neutral (or alethic) propositions logically precede all normative propositions; there cannot be normative propositions about factual beliefs, for if a thing is already commonly known as true, an imperative to believe it would be logically redundant (except for a general call to intellectual honesty), and if it is not evidently true, then there is no informational basis for an imperative about it.

Perhaps that is why the Torah simply says “I am the Lrd your Gd” and “the Lrd is One”, in the way of announcing facts rather than in the way of commanding beliefs. As for the above-mentioned command concerning idols, it says literally “you shall not have gods other than Me”; it does not refer explicitly to belief, but seems rather to warn against certain behavior patterns. Lastly, the passage about the ‘heart’ and ‘eyes’ is rather vague, and might well refer to actions following-up on heretical lines of thought or immoral imaginings, rather than primarily to any cognitive processes.

In other words, the view that such Torah statements are commands to believe or disbelieve something is not inevitable, nor really logically tenable. Rather they must be viewed as positive or negative commands for certain courses of action (other than beliefs), which logically follow from having certain beliefs or tolerances. In this way, the mind retains its intellectual freedom, which is the precondition of its honesty and sincerity, and which is a facet of its dignity – and yet the person is in no way freed in action from the ethical obligations and prohibitions the Torah imposes, such submission to Gd being also a facet of human dignity. Liberalism is not necessarily libertinism.

We could conclude here, and say the following. The intent of the codifiers of such laws of belief (such as the Rambam), was clearly to protect weaker minds from the assaults of misleading philosophies and irresistible temptations. Doubt is always a danger, and was to be rejected forcefully, without risking any untoward slippage. But, granting our above arguments, the epistemological and logical background of this sort of codification is incorrect and unstable. Furthermore, incidentally, its psychological effect is not always ideal. Openness is right, and healthy too.

However, upon further reflection, a more even-handed conclusion is possible. Introspection shows that in the course of religious living, there are often moments of doubt, when everything conspires to make us doubt Gd’s existence, or His mercy, or His justice, or whatever. Things may be going so badly, that one wonders whether He is at all interested in helping us or whether He knows how to judge correctly or whether He is at all there to do so; or one may view Him as one’s tormentor and wish one could appeal to Someone else, some higher or more sympathetic power, for help; and so forth. In such circumstances, it is indeed very useful to have a law of belief (in Gd, in Gd’s Oneness, etc.) to hold on to, so that, through fear, even though not at the time through pondered conviction, one keeps to the right path.

One may even tell oneself: no matter how bad things look, I will always trust in my own essential goodness or sanity, or in my wife’s loyalty, or whatever. Such resolutions have pragmatic value and make it possible for us to transcend the vagaries of daily experience. Epistemologically, they rely on the fact that there is a hierarchy of truths; some truths are more certain than others. Thus, for instance, in logic, the laws of identity, of non-contradiction and of the excluded-middle, and certain other principles, are given priority over all others, so that if ever things look bad, it is not these laws which are put in doubt but all other interpretations of the disturbing phenomena at hand.

In this light, an ethical law of belief is quite conceivable, like a protective message from the past to the future. Gd may know that I am about to enter a turbulent experience (and everyone does, sooner or later), and forewarns me: “today, you know that I exist and that I am One, etc. – but tomorrow, you will have the momentary illusion that these truths are unjustified; so, I advise you to hold fast onto them come what may”. Such resolutions are not necessarily contrary to logic, and in no way demean the intelligence of humankind. In this way, mitzvot relating to belief are made reasonable and conceivable; they do not tell us to believe (or not believe) in the way of blind fanaticism, but rather protect our knowledge from unfortunate erosions.

For these reasons, by the way, the Mitzvot relating to belief which we have listed here are regarded as ‘constant’; that is, applicable non-stop. Surely, it is not humanly possible to literally always remember the Sabbath or Amalek’s enmity, or never forget Amalek’s enmity. The human mind can only focus on so much at a time, and must therefore allow some objects of consciousness to at least recede into the background, if not disappear entirely, for awhile every so often; we must also sleep. Therefore, such temporal expressions must refer, strictly-speaking, to an occasional (though as frequent as possible) or conditional (in all the appropriate circumstances) performance.

In the case of our laws of belief, they are comparable to a defensive weapon one carries on one’s person at all times, not knowing when the enemy will strike, ready for all eventualities. The weapon is not constantly in use, but it is invariably ready for action. Of course, our resolve to fall back on these fixed beliefs in times of doubt, colors our whole existence, in the long run determining all our choices; for the belief in Gd and all its implications have undoubtedly broad and deep influences on the human psyche and destiny.

  

[1] This sort of intellectual pursuit of the First Cause, is found in Greek philosophy. One Talmudic version is the story in Midrash Genesis Rabbah (ch. 38), according to which the patriarch Abraham arrived to a knowledge of Gd by reasoning backwards from each thing to its cause. The argument has often, in philosophy, been understood as based on the idea that everything has a cause, therefore so must the universe have one; but such an idea is consistent only if we accept that of infinite series, which is rather difficult to accept, and which in any case if accepted would exclude acceptance of a first cause. The version more commonly found today appeals rather to the need to explain the improbable fact and richness of existence; it refers to complexity as much as to causality.

[2] And I can testify that there have been times in my life when this has been the only convincing argument I had left to offer myself!

[3] As for the belief, found in Hinduism and Christianity, that Gd has appeared in human form (incarnation), it does not merely present a more difficult technical problem; it is rather an unconscionable concept: how can a container contain itself? If at all, such appearance would have to be postulated as a projected illusion, a sort of holograph, at best; it cannot be proposed as a ‘real’ material body like that of human beings.

[4] Note that the argument is often misconstrued as an attempt to explain matter. But it is not so, essentially; for the mind (consisting of the stuff of our inner experiences and the soul we seem to have) is just as fascinating an enigma, if not more so. The problem is more broadly: existence. In this perspective, we may say that Judaism, which conceives of an eternal spiritual Gd, preceding and outlasting all matter, and Aristotle, who conceives of an everlasting universe, including Gd and matter, are basically in agreement with regard to the eternity of existence as such (for the former, with regard to Gd’s existence only; for the latter, more broadly). This is ironic, considering how some commentators present these doctrines as in radical conflict; they are in disagreement, but only in relation to the issue of matter’s longevity. A truly radical counter-thesis is the claim that existence suddenly appeared spontaneously out of non-existence; some people apparently believe that. But the way the latter thesis is ‘imaginable’ should be noted: we visualize the event like a cartoon on TV, the screen is at first empty, then ‘pop!’ a universe appears from nowhere; however, there is a screen to begin with, and there may be invisible events behind the screen.

[5] Hypotheses circulated in recent years to explain the Sinai experience include, for instances, references to psychotropic substances, or technological gadgets, or visiting extraterrestrials.

[6] Of course, by definition (deductively) an in-fact omniscient being knows his omniscience. But the problem is at the inductive level, gradual development. More needs to be said on this and similar issues.

[7] Which is not an easy feat, in view of its lack of system (why would Gd’s historic statement to humanity be so disorderly, so ‘unprepared’?); and the many apparent inaccuracies and inconsistencies in it (those noted by the Rabbis, and those ignored by them); not to mention the disproportionately large place given to apparently minor matters, while major issues are glossed over or totally ignored. But a critique of the Torah is not in order, here: the present work takes it, as much as possible, as the point of departure.

[8] L’integrisme, a French word which seems to be becoming English. It is handy because it describes the total empire religion may have on its adherents, dragging them into ever more demanding commitment. Its connotation is, however, especially political; the terrorist tactics of various Islamic fanatics or absolute theocracy of Iranian ayatollahs (clergy), which we currently witness daily in the news, sadly come to mind. The term is still accurate in this context, suggesting totalitarianism, the desire of some to have everyone else follow their path and to control all aspects of their lives. ‘Fundamentalism’ rather indicates the level of text the adherents refer to for their beliefs; i.e. a certain naive and superficial approach to textual exegesis. Behind the intolerance, which is also to be found to some extent in today’s Jewish world, is the severity towards self seemingly demanded by religion (and other puritanisms): this is what causes us to look at others with hardness.

[9] With regard to the mineral world, the issue is debatable. We ordinarily consider concepts of good or bad as applicable to such objects only in relation to living creatures, or eventually to Gd. One might however say, more absolutely, that the destruction of even a stone, is “bad” for it, or that a gem or a work of art or a technological marvel has an intrinsic “value” as an apogee of the universe. But within such a notion, there would be no degrees or conditions. The good of a thing would be its unchanged existence; bad for it would be any modification in its being, at which point it would be another thing, which in turn would have only either-or value-relations to events. As for Gd, Whom we conceive as indestructible, and even unchanging (although a Free Agent of change), the concepts of good or bad are inapplicable to Him personally; at most we can say that whatever He wills is good, and whatever He wants us (to whom He has allotted some measure of choice) to will – is good, and not-to-will – is bad.

[10] In this context, it is worth quoting George Santayana (d. 1952): “Fanaticism is described as redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim”. It is clear that not everyone reevaluates their ideological loyalties.

[11] Incidentally, the idea of hell is said to have originated in Zoroastrianism, a dualist religion of the 6th cent. BCE which still has adherents. See Roberts, p. 169.

[12] This is called Pascal’s Wager in histories of philosophy; but since I thought of it independently and I am sure others have, and a more descriptive name seemed worthwhile, I have renamed it.

2016-08-21T12:52:29+00:00