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 7. WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

In this essay, we consider some of the psycho-social factors underlying religious modes of thought.[1]

1. Taking a Dilemma by its Horns.

2. About Revision.

3. Changes in the Law.

1. Taking a Dilemma by its Horns.

As soon as one begins to express opinions on issues related to religion, one is confronted with an exceptional dilemma, not found in other fields. The first horn of this dilemma is a possible antipathy of the religious camp, Rabbinical or lay; while its second horn is a possible discredit in the secular camp, academic or amateur. It is a case of “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”, very likely without a fair hearing either way. The philosopher of religion has to be attentive and find some way to take this dilemma by the horns.

I have chosen, here, to leave a certain ambiguity in the term ‘secular’, letting it range from a neutral position with regard to religion to the more ideological anti-religious position, which is more accurately called ‘secularist’. This is, I think, justified, insofar as individuals themselves are not always clearly positioned, but may start from a purely secular perspective and travel over to more decided opinions, or vice versa. Also, of course, being religious does not normally imply rejection of all secular opinions.

For the religious, the accumulated beliefs of the orthodox Jewish religion are unshakably true; and the (oft inspired) intellectual processes which have brought about this accumulation of beliefs from an initial Divine revelation at Sinai are not open to any doubt, at least no longer so ex post facto, once their result has become established with general approval of close to contemporary rabbinical authorities. The function of scholarship, here, is essentially study: retracing steps previously traced; those before knew it all, those after must try to recapture this knowledge.

For the secular, ideally, any belief must be subjected to independent and fair-minded scrutiny and appraisal, both empirically and rationally; and any belief may be abandoned or be adopted, according to the faults or merits that the investigation may uncover in the light of all available information and insight. This is an ideal image of the secular pursuit of truth, because in practise of course different people (or a person at different times of his/her life) may be more or less capable of developing within themselves and sustaining the right attitudes, more or less aware of available information and logical methods, and more or less gifted with native intelligence.

These two epistemological approaches are significantly different; yet they also have notable common aspects. For the religious, no single factor in the body of received beliefs can be doubted because that would open the whole structure to collapse. For the secular, all reviews and changes in beliefs are in principle acceptable, no matter how radical, provided of course such proposals are convincing. In both cases, there is an implicit threat, a controlling fear, accompanying any pronouncement: in the former, excommunication or untold Divine punishments, in the latter, ridicule and professional exclusion. But the two approaches also make some similar demands on the human intellect: demands of effort, demands of research and understanding; and they also share a great many logical processes.

There doesn’t seem to be a way to really reconcile these approaches. Albeit their common grounds, they are apparently on the whole radically opposed principles: there is a limit and a reticence in the religious, an overriding faith in received tradition, and an ultimate skepticism in the human mind; the secular optimistically believes in the powers of free thinking, and looks with suspicion on any prejudicial attachments to particular data or interpretations.

I would like here to propose certain meditations on Truth, which may help a little to resolve the issues on both sides.

a. For the religious.

Faith is an attitude of the human Will in the face of an uncertainty. It signifies an assumption of truth beyond the recommendations of empirical/rational judgement: where normal cognition leaves blanks faith is free to step in, and frequently faith steps in against the probabilities conceived by such uncommitted judgement. Thus, faith is a measurable concept (roughly, intuitively): it is a will to believe which is inversely proportional to empirical/rational judgement. If the probability that some proposition be true according to experience and reason is say 90%, then the faith that it is not true (which has going for it only a 10% probability) needs to be proportionately strong. It does not, obviously, take much faith to adhere to a belief which reason and experience already overwhelmingly support.

It would seem to me to follow that religious people should welcome the challenges posed to their faith by secular thinking. To maintain one’s faith by staying or being kept in ignorance, is not therefore a sign of piety, but a sign of weakness in one’s faith, if not simply of intellectual laziness or stupidity. Blind fanaticism is not a demonstration of faith, but a use of force; forcing oneself or being forced by others to adhere to some belief has no place in the pursuit of truth. A strong, confident faith is generously open and unafraid of challenge: like true love, it holds firm over the long term, unmoved by the appearances of the moment, always grateful to receive new information and insights, always searching for solutions to problems.

The judgement of any proposition, any item of knowledge presented for consideration and appraisal, is like a court trial (individual and collective), and the person(s) taking up this job is/are judge(s), court officers. It is like the judgement of a person: there is an ethic to it, a morality is necessary. This ethic is well documented in the Torah (see for instances Exod. 23:1-9, Deut. 16:18-20, also even Deut. 25:13-15), and as a consequence in the Talmud, and in Rabbinical writings. Witnesses or judges may have some intuitive opinion of the outcome of the trial, but in their roles within it they have a moral duty to maintain an absolute open-mindedness and will to truth. Truth, we are taught, at all times requires:

· treating litigants equally, without prejudice in the face of their poverty or respectability, their exclusion or inclusion in an in-group, or their virtue or vice beyond the issue treated;

· being uncorrupted by fear of reprisal or promises of reward, and unmoved by peer-group or public opinion and pressures;

· finding honest and fair witnesses, and diligently inquiring into their testimony, as well as giving an equitable hearing to all parties;

· distinguishing between hard and circumstantial evidence, and judging with knowledge of the law and its procedures;

· using the same scales and standards for all (under the law); intent on doing justice, and on neither condemning the innocent nor failing to condemn the guilty.

All this applies as well to the judgement of ideas as to that of men, for is not the judgement of men ultimately determined by the judgement of ideas? But what distinguishes theoretical research from practical jurisprudence is that in the general pursuit of knowledge, the trial never comes to an end, so faith is never really endangered. Even so, one is duty bound to keep track of developments as they occur, and not just shut one’s mind: there are almost always valuable lessons to be learned.

b. For the secular.

The challenges for the secular are different. It is all too easy to be moved by an anti-religious prejudice, which, as much as a pro-religious prejudice, may distort one’s perceptions and conceptions of truth, through the desire to be unbound by the restrictions and duties which religion may eventually impose on one. Often, the secular thinker, much as the religious one, is subject to unadmitted subconscious motivations, and uses the forms of scientific thinking but without its essential spirit, to arrive at preferred results which serve to justify desires. What is needed in such case is introspective lucidity and honesty. For the secular, as for the religious, the basic epistemological requirement is attitudinal.

In certain academic circles, a distinction is made between apologetic works and critical works. An apology for religious beliefs is usually rejected offhand by secular academics, without serious consideration or evaluation, as inherently biased and unscientific, whether traditional (old) or original (new). For their part, religious people usually avoid critical voices and writings, sensing in them provocation and unfair negativity. One could equally well view apologetic works as “critical” of secular trends, and critical works as “apologies” for atheism and immoralities. From the point of view of philosophy, atheism is as problematic as religious belief: given ordinary cognitive means, neither is capable of absolute proof or disproof. Making intimidating accusations, one way or the other, does not serve the cause of knowledge.

The scientific mind, in the broadest and purest sense of the term which refers to any attentive, logical and intelligent pursuit of knowledge, is scrupulously fair. Fairness, or evenhandedness, is considering all theses with equal care, if not enthusiasm. A secular thinker is duty-bound to take into consideration the apologetic explanations of the religious, and a religious thinker likewise for the criticisms and doubts and proposals of the secular. If one is presented with two or more hypotheses, they must all be equally carefully analyzed and tested within the widest possible framework of thought and knowledge-context[2]. One may not just concentrate one’s own pet theories, and ignore or put-down all others offhand. At least, if one is content to pursue one’s own specialized studies, one should not comment negatively on others’ fields; but mutual communication and transparent integration is preferable.

In both cases, the religious and the secular, the basic epistemological error is that of rushing to judgement. The religious, faced with criticism, rush to judgement and condemn the speaker in their fear that their faith will be shaken, if not shattered; it is hard to be religious (or anything which calls for sustained discipline) without firm certainties and deep enthusiasm, one doesn’t get far. The secular, faced with apologetics, yawn with boredom or get cold with hostility; their mind is usually made-up already, final judgement was passed long ago. Of course, each side would claim that its judgement was quick rather than rushed; quick – as when one quickly spots the errors in a stupid or ignorant thesis.

The error of the religious is to forget the infinity of knowledge: new data, new insights, may always eventually reverse previously held secular beliefs. As for the secular, they forget that a proposition which seems far-fetched and unlikely may still in the end turn out to be true; a low probability is still a probability. These are essentially one and the same error, which calls for an effort to keep going however things look to be thus far.

Knowledge, all knowledge, knowledge of truth, requires observational skill, logical powers, and a great deal of imagination; but, most of all it requires the right mental attitudes: intellectual honesty and intellectual courage, i.e. intellectual integrity. Whatever one’s technical abilities or intelligence, it is ultimately one’s will to truth that counts most, and for that openness, patience, and plain hard work are necessary. Knowledge is not the mere manipulation of data, ideas or symbols, but primarily a moral act. If its goal is superiority or privilege, it will soon transmute plausible reasoning into a “whitewash job” or a “hatchet job”. Knowledge as a sword, as source of power and authority, is not true knowledge. True knowledge is free, yet altogether sustained by a moral will; it has no credibility otherwise, descending to the level of ideology and slogan.

Most of all, for any individual, what the pursuit of truth requires is a personal commitment to realism: the conviction that facts are facts, that wishing they were otherwise or turning one’s eyes from them will in no wise change them. If something I believe in, whether of spiritual significance or whatever, is at all false, I want to be the first to know it; ignorance is not bliss, or not a very respectable form of bliss.

Realism demands transparency (“glasnost” in modern parlance); for problems to be solved, they must be brought out into the open and consciously dealt with, rather than waved-off or covered-up. And having come face to face with the difficulties, one should not respond to them with panic, assuming the worst, throwing the baby out with the bath-water; but coolly, considering the pros and cons with a level-head, looking for credible resolutions.

It should be noted that the basic issue is not tradition versus change, but thought versus thoughtlessness. Whereas in the old days, conformism rhymed with immobilism, nowadays, especially in America, it rhymes more with trendism. Before, people would unthinkingly submit to institutional authorities, nowadays they unthinkingly follow, hither and thither, slick, media-generated, flavor-of-the-month panaceas. Today’s population, for all its veneer of freedom from authority, is really little different from yesterday’s.

2. About Revision.

Of course, there is no denying it, the word ‘critical’ need not have a pejorative sense, connoting bias, but may signify a commendable refusal to be fooled or misled. And, indeed, ‘apologetics’ (especially, you’ll concede, those of another religion or sect than your own!) are often, if not in most cases, artificial constructions, whose purpose is very obviously to give a mere illusion of explanation or proof, and bypass problems or sweep them under the carpet.

It must be admitted in this context that a decision-maker in Jewish law (as probably in any other religion’s law), as well as any scholar or student in the field, may allow his judgement to be distorted in various ways. The possibility of such distortions does not imply that they occur in all cases, or ever; but it is well to be aware of these possibilities, anyway, in the name of honesty.

a. The first issue is one’s scale of values. In religion, factual truth, whether in matters of principle or with regard to the historicity of stories, is not necessarily the paramount value. One may well consider that playing some fancy role or making a certain pious statement will advance the cause of the religion, and uphold that pose without having evaluated its factual truth or, worse still, while vaguely and subconsciously aware that it is questionable or even tenuous. The problem here is that the religious frequently confuse “good” with “true”, or more precisely, they believe that what seems to them good has got to be true; and accordingly dismiss as false any idea which seems to them bad.

Such a premise is unfortunately epistemologically unsustainable, for it is impossible to predict at what stage of its development truth intersects with goodness; the event may not occur at a superficial level, but may actualize in a much later stage of the proceedings. Some truths are at first unsavory, but later one realizes the depth and maturity they taught us, and the improvements in one’s character they caused in us, as well as the broader and more accurate world-view they generated in one. Conversely, simple faith or rigid fanaticism may give one an initial aura of moral achievement, but in the long run their only residue may be a stifled mind out of contact with reality, a rigid person, a wasted life.

b. Another pitfall is that of oneupmanship (in French, la surenchère). In order to be accepted, respected or admired by one’s peers, one may rather easily judge issues with a leaning towards severity (or, more rarely, leniency). In Judaism, the more difficult your level of observance, the more virtuous you seem[3]. The ability to judge leniently is a luxury permitted only at the higher levels of the hierarchy, when your severity credentials are well established, and you can now afford the snobbery of emulating Hillel, adding further veneer to your appearance of virtue.

Whereas in the preceding issue (scale of values) the error may stem from excessive idealism, in the case of oneupmanship the motive is essentially more selfish. It is a very human desire to fit in socially and climb the social ladder, under the guise of spiritual responsibility and spiritual pursuit. It is selfish, because, by imposing on other people unrealistic norms of behaviour, it may cause them serious hardships. The problem is inherent to a closed system of knowledge like Judaism (but not only Judaism): the only way to really have an impact within it, is literally to add to it, which means for the most part to make it still more stern, since all relaxation may be viewed as a retreat, and as evidence of personal decadence. The intellectual who wants to flex his mental muscles in public within the system is therefore virtually bound to engage in oneupmanship!

I like to think that all responsible and sincere Jewish decision-makers were and are aware of such pitfalls, and had and have the power of introspection and psychological acuity needed to avoid them. These are probably in the majority, granting that “you can’t fool all the people all of the time”. Still, perhaps some fail to avoid them. But we must also admit that unorthodox Jewish religious thinkers (Conservative, Reform, etc.), and likewise secularist thinkers, are equally subject to similar pitfalls, though in opposite directions, and also need to look into their own souls and consider their own motives and honesty. In all fairness, some of those also perhaps fail to avoid distortions.

The reader should not be one-sided in his scrutiny and evaluation, but see that fallacious and shallow thinking is found in all camps[4].

In any case, I say: truthfulness is a mark of human dignity and decency. There is, in normal circumstances, no beauty, no purity and innocence, no saintliness, no honour, no kindness, in faking truth. There are always people around for whom truth is not an absolute and not an indispensable value. They will twist facts or stretch inferences, invent legends and make myths, coat their lies with sugar, misuse their credit, or passively accept such behaviour from others, for all sorts of motives, positive or negative, noble or depraved, none of them nice.

Vain ego-trips, selfish willingness to sacrifice others for one’s ends, the refusal to acknowledge one’s errors and admit facts or uncertainties, the willingness to draw unwarranted conclusions from doubtful data, wishful thinking, blinding oneself and blinding others, weakness of character, conformism or cowardice, the inability to say ‘no!’ or ‘enough!’ for fear of rejection or ‘yes!’ for fear of the action-obligations implied – these are some of the “human, all too human” possibilities in every camp, the strictly or weakly religious, the Jewish or non-Jewish, the non-religious or anti-religious, the educated or uninformed, wherever.

How do I know these things? Simply because I have often caught myself doing them or tempted to do them. No one has a monopoly on intellectual virtue or vice; we must all always try to be careful.

One can well see why most Rabbis (Maimonides was a notable exception, but his efforts in this respect have not been generally appreciated, to say the least), have such a fierce antipathy to philosophy. Their reaction to it is very similar to their reaction to physical nudity or to immodest sexuality. ‘No holds barred’ rational reflection bares all the faults and weaknesses of dogmas, and tends to shatter faith. In their view, doctrines may be subjected to a certain amount of scrutiny; but there are limits to respect.

For all that has been said so far might well be cheerfully admitted (in principle, though perhaps not always in deed) by wholly-secular thinkers, or by reform-minded religious ones; but frankly it would hardly be accepted with all its implications by the less modern-minded orthodox religious establishment. Because the implications are clearly that some past Rabbinical decisions may have been faulty or weak. This does not tally with the veneration they are all held in, which effectively credits them with a sort of unassailable infallibility.

The explanation put forward to counter such inferences is that the religious leaders of the past were beneficiaries of a privileged level of consciousness, with the capacity for insight into percepts, concepts and logical relationships, inaccessible with ordinary cognitive means. In Biblical days, this was hanevuah, prophecy (at various levels); in Talmudic times, it was ruach haqodesh, translated as the holy spirit (also considered as having various degrees); and thereafter, a more prosaic but still Divinely-favoured intellectual acuity, reserved for the pure and obtained by deep study of the Talmud, call it chokhmah, wisdom.

Thus broadly put, the explanation is effective, because it changes the equation considerably. A new epistemological factor is thereby introduced into the discussion. The criticisms previously considered were applicable under the assumption that normal perceptual, conceptual and logical cognitive equipment are the common lot of all humans, though their database and intelligence may vary; and therefore that all are subject to the same methodological pitfalls, and are to be evaluated in their judgements by uniform standards. If, now, this assumption is open to doubt, anything goes.

Let us both attack and defend this viewpoint. It is not in principle inconceivable (we can refer to variations in levels of consciousness in the animal world); it is just difficult to define, delimit, and demonstrate. Anyone might claim a privileged or supernatural consciousness, and indeed adherents of many religions (not just Judaism) do and have done so: how should an individual without similar claim know whom to believe? There is no conceivable standard, other than strictly checking explicit predictions; this may apply to precise concrete events, but many abstract pronouncements are broad-ranging and unverifiable.

Furthermore, in Judaism (at least) the recipients of such special dispensation (prophets and sages) are all placed far in the past: out of reach of any present verification of their historicity or of the historicity, timeliness and exactitude of their pronouncements, safe from any controlled experiment. It is all too easy to project whatever one wishes into the past, to ex post facto reorder events as one sees fit, to invent legends, to find in subsequent events the concrete realization of vague and ambiguous earlier predictions. How reliable are word-of-mouth or even written traditions, anyway? Witnesses, even assuming they witnessed something, may have been gullible, superstitious, easily fooled, because lacking scientific methods and knowledge.

Let me make this clearer. We have, here, a theory that there are two categories of knower: the Divinely-inspired, like Moshe Rabbenu (to take an extreme case), and the common, uninspired Jew (among others). For a man like Moshe, the epistemological problem of Revelation is simple enough: being a present and direct recipient, he has only to have faith that what he has heard/seen was indeed the word of Gd; and supposedly that attribute of the message is convincingly carried within it, as an inherent and undissociatable component of it. (Of course, we may well say that Moses must have earned this great gift, just as we say that a man born rich must have had good ‘karma’.)

But for the common Jew, who may sincerely try to think things through, the issues are honestly much more complex: his source of knowledge is indirect, just hearsay; he has not himself experienced Gd, nor any phenomena he can identify unequivocally as communications from Gd; living long after the Sinai events, he has no proof other than a document (the written Torah) and a tradition (the oral and written culture surrounding the Torah) that these events ever took place, that Moshe ever existed, and even if so that the subsequent transmission of the data and the interpretations by umpteen generations of teachers was accurate, and neither distorted, nor censored, nor amplified.

Thus radically distancing oneself from the issues, one can well see how difficult is the common lot of human beings in the matter of religious faith. People who in all humility have trouble believing in anything might well be excused, with much understanding and compassion. And even those who need to and are willing to believe, are presented with very difficult choices between competing scenarios and alternative doctrines; it is hard to blame them if they betted on ‘the wrong choice’ of faith, and it is frankly difficult to believe that they could justly be damned for it. And as for those who made ‘the right choice’ of faith, whatever that be, they are surely highly to be praised, for their epistemological task was much more difficult than the task of anyone who has been blessed with inspiration.

Past Rabbinical ‘deciders’ (poskim) are claimed today to be effectively infallible, if not implicitly omniscient, and there are supports for this view in the Talmud itself. But this claim does not seem compatible with the differences of opinion between these deciders recorded throughout the same document, and through later history. A general principle is enunciated, to the effect that these and those are words of the Living Gd (elu vaelu divrei Elokim Hayim); and that the Torah has ‘seventy facets’, all equally true even though seemingly contradictory. But such a statement is more an expression of faith, than a detailed practical solution to the evident problem: some Rabbis won the debate, some lost: that is fact.

How to evaluate the defeats? Was it perhaps a momentary breakdown of privileged consciousness; in which case, how come the Rabbis concerned were not aware of this breakdown, and continued to maintain their erroneous positions? If they could not tell the difference, how could they claim privileged consciousness at all; and if they knew their positions erroneous, what was their game in maintaining them? In truth, the inductive, rather than mystically privileged, nature of their thought and debate is very evident.

But the critique can be pushed further: there are cases where errors surface much later. Consider, for instance, the Midrashic claim that there are ten a-fortiori arguments in the Tanakh; or its claim that the sex of children is unknowable before their birth. For close to two thousand years, such pronouncements were claimed to be infallible. Now we find that there are more than ten a-fortiori arguments in the Tanakh, or that modern medicine can predict gender[5]. Sure, we can always try to water-down the original statements to make them more or less compatible with new findings, one way or another; but the fact remains that for a score of centuries they were taken literally by countless Rabbis! What then happens to their credibility?

However, if now we take the ‘revisionist’[6] position that the issue need not be “all or nothing”, and accept reluctantly that some Talmudic and Rabbinical (and even, more extremely, Biblical) statements may be erroneous: where do we draw the line? If we do not admit everything, must we perforce reject everything? Perhaps it suffices to say (cautiously, generously): admit whatever is received from tradition, until and unless it is proved wrong and must be rejected. We actually find examples of this approach in Rabbinical discussion[7].

This is, after all, the way with empirico-rational research: appearances are accepted as reality, until if ever they are shown to be illusory. We do not reject all knowledge just because some of it has turned out to be wrong after being long believed in. That would be self-contradictory, because it would require rejection of the rejection. Therefore, it is axiomatic that some knowledge is right, though that axiom does not specify just which. However, in the case of specifically religious knowledge, no such clear-cut epistemological axiom can be constructed.

Our only appeal, it seems to me (and many people throughout history and in all cultures have had a similar impression), can be to the insistent intuition that the existence of Existence as such, of a World, of the complexities of Matter, Life and Consciousness, is an utter surprise (sometimes mixed with joy, sometimes with dismay), an ineffable and unfathomable mystery, which can only be somewhat toned-down to our satisfaction by the assumption of Gd, even though such an assumption itself posits even greater mystification.

And once Gd is thus acknowledged, then the attente for a communication of some sort from Him, an explanation and a guidance, if not individually then collectively, by whatever means, would seem necessary and inevitable. To me, at least; that some people lack such expectation would not prove its vanity, for not all people stop and reflect much, and even those who do might well be moved by incidental considerations. This expectation and need in turn opens human beings to religion, all sorts of religions; and here, their ways part to varying degrees, and the epistemological issues multiply. Some thinkers answer them enthusiastically, some skeptically, some carefully.

Even if anyone seemingly settled some of the issues, what would be achieved? No more than one more religion, one more sect. Some people would become more religious or less religious, this way or that way. But certainly (contra Nietzsche) religion will never die; there will always be Jews and others who uphold religious beliefs. And likewise, the spirit of independent thought, which is one of the aspects of human greatness, will surely live on; and people will continue to ask questions and do research.

In any event, no side can or should, cavalier fashion, ignore or dismiss the other(s), or be satisfied with a preconceived and shallow traditionalism or modernism. And it is good that the debate continues, with mutual tolerance and respect, because it is a dialectic of value to all, reflecting the psyche and destiny of humankind.

Knowing all this, and having said all this, I do not think that any final and thorough resolution of the big issues is ever possible, one way or the other. The task is impossible: nothing much can be firmly proved or disproved. Nothing much is ever likely to change at the level of deep theoretical questions. In practise, everyone must still always make a personal choice, and take a gamble on one doctrine or another, be it a belief-system or a pattern of behavior. Yes or no, this or that, day by day or in gradual or sudden ways, choice is inescapable. In any case, ultimately, choices are made more with existential considerations than on theoretical grounds.

So let us remain content, I say, with a simple faith (constant, but devoid of arrogant pretensions), and enjoy the (doubtlessly very limited) illuminations stemming from questions and investigations in pursuit of truth.

3. Changes in the Law.

The Judaic tradition, which includes the Halakhah (strict law, the ‘unvarying’ core of Jewish law), the minhagim (subcultural law, varying from community to community), and the Hagadah (non-legal stories and explanations), tries to make room for and fit in every statement and interpretation made by all the influential Rabbis. If such a Rabbi contradicts himself, or another equally important Rabbi, all the propositions involved are given credit, and viewed as different aspects of the tradition.

It is all claimed to be Torah, leMoshe miSinai,” passed on orally if not in writing. Yet this claim is gently balanced and toned-down by the paradoxical story of Moshe Rabbenu being momentarily transported to the time of R. Akiba, and sitting at the back of one of the latter’s classes, and not recognizing or fully understanding what is being taught, even though it is all being presented as a faithful transmission of Moshe’s teachings.

But the tradition has a history, which can be traced to some extent, and this history displays change – laws added, laws removed, laws changed, new minhagim, extinct minhagim, new texts, new influences, lost texts, extant texts losing their influence, new interpretations, new viewpoints, people no longer convinced by certain claims or explanations, people with new values and emotions unmoved by past arguments or appeals, and so forth.

Can one honestly maintain that this near-infinity of data was already actual, if only orally, at Sinai? It is not inconceivable, since: (a) supernatural means of data acquisition and transmission are not excluded, and (b) a whole people, that is a culture, was involved, and (c) what is possible now was possible then (though today’s collective “memory” is mostly in writing, whereas in those days it was mostly not so). But it does not seem to us very likely, given the historical facts as we know them.

Granting the existence of real change in Jewish law, evidently some of it has been in the direction of leniency (e.g. the prosbol or the interruption of Temple sacrifice), and some in the direction of severity (e.g. the abolition of male polygamy or the increased volume of daily prayers). With regard to changes in the direction of leniency, some religious people might well regret them, and even yearn for more restrictions and duties, regarding them as opportunities for “performing mitzvot”, i.e. for serving Gd. But frankly most people nowadays would rather feel relief at any lightening of the burden, and furthermore look askance on any changes in the direction of severity.

From a philosophical perspective, one might wonder at such change, even in a changing world. Is it a change in the price of heaven? Perhaps some generations are further away and have to pay more to get up there. Is it alternatively a difference in mission? Perhaps some generations are weaker, and therefore can be entrusted only with a relatively low responsibility.

Whatever the reason for it, such change is clearly not inconceivable. There is no logical reason why the law has to be immutable, just as there is no logical reason why all creatures or all peoples or all individuals have to be subject to the same law. The formal logic of ethical propositions allows for all quantities (general, particular, singular) and all modalities (unconditional, conditional; constant/permanent, occasional/temporary). It sets no preconceived standard of universality and invariability.

 


[1] These reflections arose in the following circumstances. Back in late 1991 or early 1992, after a couple of months of writing, I had a first draft of some 60 pages, which I distributed copies of to a few local Jewish academics and Rabbis. Some declined to read it; some found it interesting, and one had a negative reaction. The latter was Prof. Simon Lauer, to whom my typescript had been sent by Dr. Esther Starobinski of the Société suisse d’études juive. I do not know how much of it he actually read, but he (I was told) rejected it as an ‘apologetic’ work. I was at first rather upset that he had not noticed and appreciated the constructive elements in it (in particular, my original theory of a-fortiori argument!), but after a while I had to admit that his criticism was in many respects appropriate. I wrote this essay to clarify the issues in my own mind, and as a result resolved to be more critical. More precisely, I resolved to be as honest as possible, neither pandering to the Jewish religious establishment nor to academia, but admitting difficulties openly wherever I found them and trying to resolve them as fairly as possible, with neither religious prejudice nor secularist bias; I would simply record a sincere search for truth.

[2] To give an example, an archeologist finding mention or pictorial suggestion of the Adam and Eve story or of the Flood story in cultures preceding the Torah would be wrong to infer that the Torah versions of these stories are derived from those other cultures. The Torah nowhere denies that peoples other than the Hebrews may have remembered those events, and it is quite conceivable that the memory was carried by many different families.

[3] I found a good example of this oneupmanship in Bergman (p. 120), who describes R. Eliahu Mizrachi as amazed that Rashi initiates a certain interpretation, with reference to Num. 30:2, and quotes the former as saying: ‘…since only the Sages of the Mishnah, who received these explanations as traditions, are authorized to do so and no one else, not even the early Geonim, and certainly not their successors.’ The way I see it, these men are riding on Rashi’s solid reputation as an orthodox commentator, and establishing their own credentials by criticizing him for insufficient commitment. In the case of R. Mizrachi, the attack is ‘original’; in the case of R. Bergman, it is just an echo: but for both the psychology and social goal is the same.

[4] A book I enjoyed recently and recommend, concerning the specific field of Bible study was Exegetical Fallacies; it is written by a Christian scholar, D. A. Carson, and refers mainly to the Christian Bible, but his remarks are incisive and of general value, showing many of the errors both would-be defenders and would-be critics of Scriptures can commit.

[5] Currently through ‘echography’, if I am not mistaken; but more sophisticated methods are on the way.

[6] It should be clear that I use this word quite innocently, without intending any political connotation (with reference to Zionism, or to Holocaust History).

[7] An example of such inductive change is given by Mendell Lewittes, in Principles and Development of Jewish Law: “after quoting statements of Rashi and Tosafot, he [Moshe Sofer, known as the “Hatam Sofer”, a major Halakhic authority, 1762-1839] writes, ‘all this was said only according to their understanding (of the process of menstruation). However, begging their pardon, they are not correct in what they say, for the truth is… according to the scholars and surgical books… and I have in front of me other books from expert physicians who are not Jewish.'” (italics mine). That ‘begging their pardon’, by the way, is a reflection of the intimidation weighing on him, his fear of rejection for unfettered thought; yet he had the integrity to pursue truth and add ‘but they are not correct, etc.’

2016-08-21T12:38:09+00:00