Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Is rational belief possible or are they two contradictory terms?

Isaac Franck in A Philosopher’s Harvest, Georgetown University Press, 1988 page 36 discusses how one deals rationally with Mekubalot – Beliefs that we receive through Tradition. He suggests that is what Rambam is saying in MN 1:50 when he says:

For belief is only possible after the apprehension of a thing; it consists in the conviction that the thing apprehended has its existence beyond the mind [in reality] exactly as it is conceived in the mind.”

The way Isaac Franck puts it: He (Rambam) then proceeds to state his view on the relation between Reason and Faith in what, from a philosophico-methodological point of view, I am inclined to consider the most important passage in the Guide:

"If in addition to this we are convinced that the thing cannot be different in any way from what we believe it to be, and that no reasonable argument can be found for the rejection of the belief or for the admission of any deviation from it, then the belief is true."

In other words among the mental activities of human beings is the activity we call Belief. Through this activity we apprehend certain data. We are convinced that corresponding to our belief – state there is a belief- object which has its existence in reality exactly as it is apprehended by us. In addition to this knowledge through Belief there is knowledge through Reason. It is incumbent on us to examine all our Beliefs thoroughly in the light of Reason, and if we find them to be in conflict with reason i.e. to be absurd we must discard them.

Rambam had no patience with those who start with their beliefs and then attempt to justify these beliefs. The task as he saw it was almost the opposite. We must examine our beliefs in the light of Reason, and we must honestly attempt almost to disprove them. In the course of this process of critical examination, we may find that our beliefs are supported by Reason or by Natural Law, as in the case of the existence of God. When such support or verification is found, we of course accept it; but then the emphasis must be on Natural Law and on the scientific validity of the proof and of the ground for our belief. When Reason disproves our beliefs we must discard them as superstition.

If in the course of our thoroughgoing examinations we can find no reasonable argument for rejecting our belief, if we find that science and logic break down and cease to be relevant to the belief under consideration (e.g. Creation ab-nihilo in time), only then may we hold on to our belief with clear conscience even though we cannot supply any logical proof of its truth.

I believe that it is a very important point that needs to be made to all who try to rationally understand Judaism and its beliefs. In matters that are accepted on belief, when religion proposes an ontological explanation for an observation of a phenomenon, one must make sure it is such an explanation and not an empirically provable opinion. If it is not, one must make sure it is not in conflict with reality and only then can it be confidently accepted as true.

When we discuss what is referred to as “metaphysics”, we are talking about things that cannot ever be proven. They are outside the physical realm though they are related to it. For example if we were asked to prove empirically that God created the universe in time from nothingness, we could not do it. That question deals with something that happened at the moment when nothingness turned into something. That moment is at the exact finite instant time itself began. All we can do is see if it is not in conflict with observations that we can ascertain. If it does not conflict, we can then rely on tradition from revelation and accept it as true.
(See MN2:25 for a great read with this point in mind).


  1. Binyamin zeev5/30/2007 9:18 AM

    First of all let me express gratitude for sharing your insights with us, they are mostly a great inspiration and a "kick" for a deeper investigation of our religion.

    Second i want to apologize in advance for my inability to express my thoughts as i would like to due to a fact that i write from Croatia and English is not my first language. Hope this will not come in a way of our future communication.

    Because of my studies of philosophy and comparative religion i think that my contribution to a debate is of value especially so because i graduated on: "Rambams Principles in context of philosophy of religion" topic.

    The theme of this post is one of a things i tried to emphasise in my paper- Judaism does not have a dogma in a christian or a Muslim sens of the word.

    Rambam puts obligation in "believing" but his understanding of this process is not banal acceptance of "truths" but active intellectual inquiry for Truth. The way Rambam wrote Ikarim are the best example of the intellectual cognition as obligation for Jews. He follows Saadya Gaon (Book of Doctrines and Beliefs) in his understanding and this is also proven by Radak`s (David Kimchi) Sepher Shorashim- shoresh a-m-n in which he proves from Tanach that translation of "emunah" is more active practise in accord of apprehend truth then banal acceptance of irrational notions.

    No need to stress Rambam`s conception of true worship as a metaphysical cognition of truths about G-d.

    So Isaac Franck is more then right in this understanding of "belief" in Rambam.

    Kol Tov!
    Hope to read your posts soon.

  2. What about DH? Some would argue that is an empirical question; I tend to disagree, but I'd be interested to know where you place it on the spectrum.

  3. Binyamin Zeev, thank you for your comment. It is comment like yours every so often, that give me the impetus to continue writing posts even when i get lazy. I also will admit that I write partially to force me to think out things that when left unexpressed stay confused. BTW the approach you describe is accepted by most Rishonim and has changed with time to the point that people are proud nowadays with the least they know about religion. It is nice to see that the country where the Beit Yossef did a lot of his writing is coming back to life with Torah.

    RJM, I see DH as a possible solution to difficulties with the text. I am however comfortable that if ever it is proven empirically it will not impact our understanding of Torah min Hashamayim. I stated addressing it in a post but got distracted. I will came back BN

  4. I reject DH for three reasons:

    1 - It cannot be proven empirically; the methodology is not scientific. Therefore, it is not sufficiently powerful to undermine tradition.

    2 - Occham's Razor: Believing in DH requires us to posit the occurrence of innumerable events that have left no trace in our history, in addition to positing rather base, political motives to the Biblical authors that are supposedly "played out" in the texts. This obscures the Tanach's message and I don't think anyone - even an intellectually honest skeptic - can seriously view the Bible as nothing more than a hodgepodge of political propaganda.

    3 - Most importantly for me, literary approaches, such as those employed by R' Elchanan Samet, R' Bin-Nun, R' Leibtag and even secular scholars like Alter and Kass, have shown that many of the problems can be solved more beautifully and harmoniously by simply moving beyond a superficial level of reading the text. The success of their methods in illuminating the text - I especially enjoy the pieces by Samet, he is an absolute must read if you haven't picked up his Iyunim B'parashat Hashavua - suggests that their approach is the correct one.

  5. i heard Liebtag talk the other day and he was very good.

    About 15 - 20 years ago I was captivated by the issue and I thought it would be a make or break thing. I then discovered RDZ Hoffman who blunted the issue for me. I then lost interest. Halivini's Revelation Restored revived it and I found his arguments very compelling. It however is problematic with Rambam's every word is mimoshe. I have some thoughts that I have not completely worked out how to address this.

  6. Did you know recently, I think it was at bar Alon, they put the Torah through a computer, Immanuel Kants works through a computer and both came out as 82% written by one person. For more info on it see the book "The anti-Jewish Phenomenon" written by Rabbi Allswang.