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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 6. Judaic illogic

Informal fallacies

Torah and science (Torah umada)

I wrote a book called Judaic Logic over a decade ago. I named it so because Judaism does naturally involve much formally valid logical thought (like the a fortiori argument), and its rabbinical defenders do have a propensity to reason. But I pointed out within that same work that the rabbis also use many forms of argument that are logically invalid, being either non sequiturs or self-contradictory. This was demonstrated formally, i.e. in terms of X’s and Y’s – ways and means whose results are as incontrovertible as mathematical proofs. There is thus a considerable reliance on illogic in Judaism, as well as on logic.

I also showed that rabbinical logic is very often inductive rather than deductive. The rabbis themselves are not aware of that distinction, although they have actually made important contributions to inductive logic – notably with the 13th principle of R. Ishmael. This is one of the principles of harmonization, and there are other valid ones; but there are also some invalid ones. This is significant, because a conclusion may be a non sequitur in deductive logic, and yet be a valid inference in inductive logic. Moreover, a contradiction in deductive discourse might well be resolved through inductive methods. The rabbis, to repeat, did exceptionally well in such more advanced logical techniques, though not sufficiently consciously. As a result, they did not develop a fully consistent and sufficiently exhaustive system of logic.

Despite my making both important contributions and important challenges to Judaic logic, I have since the book’s publication received little echo. Some academics have responded positively, but usually with some evident dread of outright public endorsement. Typically, no rabbi has either thanked me or reproved me, as the case may be. Although I have called on local and international responses in person and by mail, the response from that quarter has been uniformly evasive. Unable to answer questions or objections, they avoid the issues. That is also illogical, of course.

Informal fallacies. Over the years, I have additionally noticed many informal fallacies practiced by the rabbis. The following are some common instances I have noted in writing worth drawing your attention to.

· The rabbis often give (or accept) explanations that are in truth pseudo-explanations. That is, in experience or in reason they do not explain the phenomenon at hand; but the mere fact of proposing them as explanatory discourse gives the false impression that a real explanation has been given. For example, commenting on Lev. 2:13, which states “with all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt”, R. Ibn Ezra suggests that to do otherwise would be “a mark of contempt” (Soncino Chumash, p. 611). We are not here told why salt should have anything to do with contempt; the connection between these two things is just affirmed, as if obvious once made explicit.[1]

A more important example in today’s context is the rabbinical prohibition against women getting called up for Torah reading. Although this is considered by them to be permitted in principle, they forbid it because it is against “the honor of the community” (and not for any reason to do with the dangers of men and women interacting too closely). When asked more specifically in what way that honor might be harmed, i.e. what precise content the word “honor” intends here, they can give no answer. Their argument is thus circular: it is dishonorable just because we say so. The reference to honor is a mere pretext; there is no actual reason.

· Comparable to such fake explanation, with regard to causality in an ontological sense, is the pretended proof of some foregone conclusion by means of putative premises that do not in fact logically imply it. The latter practice, which constitutes pseudo-explanation in an epistemological sense, is also often found in rabbinical discourse. Sometimes, this is due to the rabbis confusing inductive reasoning with deduction. Sometimes, they justify it by means of a known hermeneutic principle, which may be logically valid or not (e.g. gezerah shavah argument, based on verbal analogies in the text). And sometimes they do it with no justification at all, unconsciously or in the way of a discursive sleight of hand.

· Another common fallacy is inconsistent explanation or proof. For example, the rabbis forbid eating and even drinking (with minor exceptions) before the morning prayer, saying it is disrespectful to face God with a full stomach or drunk. They also teach that the evening prayer should be recited before supper. Well and good, the explanation given seems convincing – but if it is true, why apply it only to the morning and evening prayers? Why are the additional prayer on special days and the daily afternoon prayer not so severely restricted? In such cases, the problem is insufficient effort at harmonization.

· Some legal rulings (usually claimed to have been given orally at Sinai) are based on a narrow interpretation of the motives involved in the action concerned. This is fallacious, since it disregards some factual information. For example, they forbid sitting or standing straight, on the assumption that such a posture is a sign of conceit or arrogance. Of course, this is one possible motive for such a posture, but others are also possible. For instance, one may consider (as meditation teaches) that an upright physical posture promotes healthy bodily functioning, expresses and improves mental alertness, and encourages moral strength and discipline. Inversely, a stooped posture does not prove one has conquered pride – it can be faked.[2]

· Rabbinical commentators tend to ignore or to silently bypass questions they cannot answer. They pride themselves on having answers to almost all questions, but that is because they concentrate only on the easy questions. The difficult questions they either do not notice, or pretend not to have heard, or avoid those who ask them. They think or say that “there is surely an answer to every such question, even if I do not know it” – by which they mean an answer necessarily in agreement with their fond beliefs, but of course such a convenient assumption is epistemologically unjustifiable.

Obvious examples of difficult questions are all the disparities known today between, on the one hand science and history, and on the other hand the Biblical text and subsequent commentaries, such as how old the earth is, when the human species arose, and so forth. But there are also embarrassing internal problems, which are not even mentioned, let alone solved[3]. One commentary I read makes this explicit, stating that it is “forbidden” to explicitly acknowledge a textual contradiction for which no resolution is apparent, until if ever a resolution is indeed found for it (the justification given being R. Ishmael’s 13th principle)[4].

· Conversely, rabbinical commentators – in particular those in the Talmud – tend to invent artificial problems. For example, they rule that two priests (kohanim) cannot be called to the Torah reading (aliyah) in first and second place, because people might think the second one was called up after the first one, because the latter was found to have some inadequate credentials. Surely this is a fabricated reason, pilpul in the pejorative sense – for few people would ever have such a thought, and moreover the rabbis could have simply decreed that such an interpretation of the sequence was incorrect. (Note that this example also fits under the category of ‘narrow interpretation’ listed above.)

A major underlying cause of most of the above illogical behaviour is the fact that all rabbinical commentary, interpretation or explanation must remain within certain tacitly well defined parameters. It is forbidden to think ‘outside the box’. Some thoughts are taboo – beyond the traditional bounds of ‘possibility’. It is best not to ask or try to answer certain questions, so as not to risk transgressing those bounds. This is in my view a deficiency of courage, or even faith – for if one has strong confidence and faith, one confronts all challenges unafraid.

It seems to me that our religions, Judaism and all the others, must make the effort to verify and improve their logic. In the old days, most human beings were very gullible – but nowadays many are somewhat less so and this trend may be expected to continue in the future. If religion is to survive, it must adapt to human evolution and become more rigorous logically. Rather than legitimatize and perpetuate foolish notions and habits, it should be an instrument of human development and enlightenment.

I say all this, note well, not out of a desire to devaluate and extinguish religion, but on the contrary our of a desire to help it survive, for I am convinced there is much in it that is good for human beings. Religions are repositories of human spirituality, the highest values of human culture.

Judaism is like a massive engineering project, executed by countless dedicated workers. The resulting structure, let’s face it, looks like a disorderly, rickety construction. Both its narrative and legal aspects have very many internal contradictions and factual inaccuracies, much vagueness, ambiguity and doubtful content, and numerous gaps and loose ends, not to mention innumerable inexplicable additives and artifices.

The whole is held together with what can only be characterized as a ‘band-aid’ sort of logic, manufactured ad hoc over the centuries to keep the wobbly structure from falling apart. Nevertheless, intense spirituality shines out from it, and this is of course the justification of it all.

Torah and science (Torah umada). The defenders of strict orthodoxy are not only guilty of logical faults: they also forsake experience when it suits them. They would no doubt prefer to be in full accord with both logic and experience, and we would equally wish them to be, but they are sometimes forced to abandon one and/or the other, so as to keep their Torah and halakhic assumptions intact.

A good example[5] of this is the issue of “rich matza”, bread traditionally alleged to be unleavened because it is produced with pure fruit juice. According to authorities (namely Tosafot) such bread is unleavened (not hametz) provided no water has been added to it, and can therefore be owned and eaten during Passover. However, modern science informs us that fruit juice is just water mixed with fructose, so that it contains about as much leaven (a tiny fungal microorganism) as pure water. This can be demonstrated by experiment and is not open to doubt.[6]

Thus, scientifically, the exemption from hametz status to rich matza would seem to be based on a factual error – and Jews who own and eat such food during Passover would seem to contravene, with orthodox rabbinical permission, a clear Torah interdiction. However, rather than objectively adapt to evolving empirical knowledge, the halakhah is maintained as is. This is understandable, in that to deny a ruling of the authorities concerned would be put all their many other judgments in doubt.

When I confronted the Chief Rabbi of Geneva, R. Yitzhak Dayan, with this conundrum, he gave me an interesting reply. He said, as I recall, that whatever the halakhah declares kosher or hametz is and was always so. As I understood it, he meant that even if pure fruit juice in fact contains leaven, rich matza remains kosher for Passover – because the original law concerning hametz given in the Torah must have tacitly intended as an exception the leaven found in such rich matza.

In other words, though the original law may seem general on a literal reading, it may be interpreted ex post facto as having been more particular than it seemed. That is to say, when the Torah told us not to have or eat leaven during Passover, it did not regard all the microorganisms we ordinarily call ‘leaven’ found in rich matza as leaven in a legal sense. The term used is the same, but it does not designate exactly the same set of things. For the scientist, all leaven counts as leaven. But for the halakhist, only that which the halakhah has come to designate as leaven is effectively so.

This is prima facie not an unreasonable position – indeed, it is consistent with the blanket authority seemingly given by the Torah to future rabbis (Deut. 17:8-13) and with the general rabbinic principle that whatever the deciders decide is the law, even if they seem to call the left right and the right left (see Rashi to Deut. 17:11). It is also consistent with the traditional claim[7] that the whole Oral Torah was given at Sinai together with the Written Torah.

Still, we may wonder whether the deciders concerned (viz. Tosafot, in this case) would have had the same judgment if they had known then the empirical facts about leaven known today. For it is clear, nonetheless, that in their mind’s eye there was no leaven in fruit juice so long as not a drop of water was added to it.

To those of us attached to rationality and empiricism, the rich matza exception was historically based on inaccurate assumption concerning a purely physical thing or event. But (seemingly to us) the halakhists are quite satisfied with artificial constructs, based on arbitrary definitions that have relatively little relation to Nature as ordinarily understood. What distinguishes the leavening agent found in water from that found in pure fruit juice? Scientifically, nothing at all, they are composed of the same organisms; the only difference between them is the environment they happen to be in. But for Jewish law, that is enough to distinguish them.

It is hard to prove that this was not the original intent of Torah law, if the literal reading is not given unconditional credence. Moreover, note well that in this instance, the literal reading is abandoned without seeming reason – no contradiction with another Torah passage or other technical difficulty is involved, which makes such reinterpretation necessary. There is only a rabbinic statement that suddenly appears in the history of halakha out of the blue, and is thenceforth defended tooth and nail.

As regards the claim that even if the rabbis call left right and right left they must be followed, this might be justified with reference personal opinions, speculations or acts of faith, on the grounds that the subjective judgment of Sages (who are in principle more spiritually pure and less influenced by passions than common men and women) is more reliable. But in the case of publicly demonstrable facts or scientifically induced laws of nature, no such superiority of judgment can reasonably be appealed to by or in the name of any rabbi, however elevated his halakhic authority; it is simply an issue of objective truth.

What is perhaps needed here is an understanding that judging matters of fact or of logic is not ultimately something open to subjective preference; our attitude should be as objective and impartial as possible. We should cultivate the same attitude and sense of responsibility in all issues as we would if we were a judge or member of the jury in a capital case. For ultimately, everything to do with religion, philosophy or science is a matter of life and death.

[1] Note well that I am not advocating contempt, but merely asking why the material called salt should be considered proof of the mental attitude of lack of respect. As far as I can see, there is no evident natural relation between these two things – so the one cannot be regarded as explaining the other.

[2] The rabbinical ideal of (Jewish) man seems to be a bent over, sorry creature – bent over by continuous indoor study of holy books and sorry for all the sins committed. The rabbis apparently resented (felt belittled by?) anyone who held his body straighter than them. Why think that G-d favors an unhealthy physical posture? It would have been enough to insist on mental humility and avoidance of pride when facing Him. The rabbis were factually in error to consider the upright posture as necessarily caused by reprehensible attitudes. They failed to observe that it can have other psychological sources, which are quite legitimate and even religiously desirable. The physical posture is just the surface effect – what matters is the underlying attitude that gives rise to it.

[3] See Appendix 1 for an example of unasked and unanswered questions. In the Book of Numbers, where the Children of Israel are numbered allegedly precisely, all statistics concerning the twelve tribes and the three Levite families end in highly improbable round numbers: usually in hundreds and very rarely in tens. How can this be? Why would Moses approximate numbers, or why would God miraculously favor round numbers?

[4] I found this commentary, attributed to R. Haim Soloveitchik of Brisk, in a book called Talelei Oroth (vol. 1/Bereshith, French ed., p. 184). What is interesting here is that this alleged rule does not in fact correspond to R. Ishmael’s 13th – for in the latter when a contradiction is found, the second proposition is adopted, until a third proposition is discovered that reconciles the first two. We see in the new formulation an explicit acceptance of conscious illogic; denial of something evident is here presented as a virtue, a proof of piety and faith, a source of pride.

[5] Recently gleaned from an interesting article by David Kessler, published in Higayon, vol. 3 (1995) – “Review Essay: Torah and Science by Judah Landa”. He gives other examples, too. For a more complicated example, see Appendix 2 to the present book.

[6] One rabbi suggested to me that even if the quantity of leaven is about the same in pure fruit juice and in water (or likewise, fruit juice mixed with water), perhaps the leaven does not actually raise bread when it is in fruit juice. Well, that is not unthinkable – but it is in any case easy to test experimentally. Prepare two loaves of bread, using equal quantities of flour and the two liquids, and see for yourself whether they rise to the same extent or not.

[7] This claim was developed, if I rightly recall, by Saadia Gaon, to defend the oral law and traditional interpretations of the Torah from Karaite critics. I personally regard it as a myth: as I argue in Judaic Logic it seems historically evident that the tradition has evolved (grown, and to a lesser extent changed somewhat) over the centuries and millennia of Jewish life.

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