Symposium on Wettstein’s “Doctrine” / “Theological Impressionism”

Theological Impressionism

This symposium centers around questions raised in Howard Wettstein’s paper “Doctrine

For Ari Schick’s opening comments, please click here

For Wettstein’s response, please click here

Please feel free to post a comment on either/both pieces.


Event Details
  1. HWettstein

    Thanks to the organizers for arranging this discussion of my paper. I’m honored, and especially by the fact that it follows a symposium on the paper of my teacher, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, to whom I owe more than I can say. I have already learned from Ari Schick’s opening comment and look forward to more.

    1. Ari Schick

      I just returned from a short trip and hopefully will have something to add later once I get up to speed on the discussion.

    2. Stefan Goltzberg

      Thank you for your paper:
      You oppose imagery and doctrine (or theological doctrine); you then show that Judaism is not doctrinal, not a system of thought. I wonder whether another distinction could not help compare Rabbinic and philosophical texts. I think of a distinction not between imagery but rather between exemplification and denotation (as Nelson Goodman puts it). It seems to me that the image dimension of Talmudic vocabulary is not a cause but a consequence of its exemplification style: categories borrow their names from one of the items that fall under them. For example, keren, shen, regel, each are at the same time items of a general concept (various sorts of damage) and the very name of each category: one way of committing the damage of regel (‘foot’) is with… a foot (!) but not necessarily. On the other hand, medieval philosophy typically avoids this overlapping of category and subcategory. Indeed Aristotle would hardly accept the Talmudic overlapping of categories. It thus seems to be that the opposition between imagery and doctrine (Steinsaltz also thinks image is typical of the Talmudic literature) does not fully capture the difference between the Talmud and medieval philosophy, at least on a comparative law point of view.
      You write: “theological doctrine is not a natural tool for thinking about biblical/rabbinic Judaism.” I fully agree it is not natural. But does its not being natural prevent it from being appropriate?

  2. Aaron Segal

    Thank you to both Howard and Ari for a fascinating symposium! I find myself in broad agreement with many of the sentiments Howard expresses in his article, in particular the feeling that contemporary theorizing about God, pursued with all the rigor and precision of analytic philosophy, doesn’t resonate with the sensibilities of a traditional Jew who has absorbed a Biblical/Midrashic perspective on God. But I’m left, along with Ari, wondering what to do about it and whether such theorizing is avoidable at this point.

    Ari points to the prevalent scientific worldview – or at least scientific methodology – as one way in which the “philosophical impulse” toward system building is part and parcel of our current intellectual milieu. Howard might respond that science is one thing and theology another; and what he says on pp. 15-18 might justify such a distinction here. But I think system building – to some degree – might be unavoidable at this point even in theology. Take the example, which Howard discusses, of the philosophical problem of evil. Howard argues that the problem as we know it doesn’t arise in Tanakh or in Midrashic literature; and he might be right. But *we* have inherited that problem from wherever it came and I don’t see how we can avoid confronting it. (I don’t mean everyone has to deal with the problem. The better portion of traditional Jewry, along with mankind, can probably go through life without giving the philosophical problem of evil much thought. But those who wish to develop a philosophy of Judaism don’t seem to have that privilege.) Even when R. Soloveichik counsels us against trying to solve it, he is still acknowledging it *as a problem*. In so doing, he’s acknowledging the component theological parts, like God’s moral perfection and unfettered power. The option of simply refusing to acknowledge the problem doesn’t seem to be a live one.

    If I understand Howard correctly, he doesn’t in fact advise such “deep quietism,” as we might call it. (On the one hand, this is unsurprising given that it doesn’t seem to be a live option; on the other hand, it’s a bit surprising given the argument of the rest of the article.) Rather, he calls for a reassessment – based on Biblical, Midrashic, and Kabbalistic sources – of some of the theological premises of the problem of evil, like moral perfection or omnipotence. But I don’t see how denying one of those premises (or even advising agnosticism) involves us in any less of a doctrinal thicket, especially if we then go on and try to answer the natural and troubling questions such “limiting views” would provoke, as Howard himself says he will do.

    I am not sure if I have understood Howard correctly; perhaps he really does advise ignoring the (philosophical) problem of evil entirely; as I said though, that doesn’t seem to be a live option anymore. And maybe Howard can treat the philosophical problem of evil as an anomaly – the one case which, to our dismay, demands of us that we engage in philosophical theology. I’m not sure if even that much is right, but even if it is, some sort of doctrine will be called for, at least as it addresses, or just raises, the philosophical problem of evil.

    I have some other questions about Howard’s account of beliefs (or, better, commitments), but I’ll post those later.

  3. HWettstein

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Aaron. I address the problem of evil in two papers, “Against Theodicy,” which is a refection on the Book of Job, and in “God’s Stuggles,” that addresses both Job and the Akedah. Both papers are on my website and will be included in *the Significance of Religious Experience*, forthcoming this summer from Oxford U. Press.

    On the substance of one question that Aaron raises: the problem of evil seems to me pressing even if, as I propose, we don’t think in terms of Perfect Being Theology. Whether God is perfect ethically, He is certainly a fount of goodness and so we will still want to know what’s going on with our world. I address the issue in the papers mentioned.

    Aaron’s comment perhaps suggests that I am an opponent of philosophical theology. Let me distinguish two styles of philosophical theology, the first of which seems inevitable for those of us with the bug for philosophy and is entirely congenial to me, the second being the sort of way characteristic of the medievals (some more, some less).

    My own sense is that I want to stay rooted in the way that Chazal, the Rabbis, thought about, and related to, God. They were unabashedly anthropomorphic in their ways of speaking about God and equally easy with addressing God in terms of a deeply anthropomorphic conception. Such ways of thinking and feeling were internal to their experience of God (as they are, I think, to our experience).

    If one brings philosophical inquisitiveness to the table, one will want to know whether such language is meant in the most straightforward way, attributing emotions and the like, including a kind of incompleteness of soul, to God. Pretty clearly there was a countervailing intuition at work for Chazal, the sense that somehow God could not be limited in these ways. As Max Kadushin writes, it was characteristic of chazal to honor both intuitions.

    That’s a wonderful topic, worth lots of time to think about. My point at the moment is only that if one has gotten this far, it’s extremely natural to ask⎯one can’t help asking⎯how these things, these ways of thinking about God, go together. And thus one is immediately involved in philosophical theology.

    But there is another way, much less inevitable I think, much less rooted in Chazal. One starts with a conception of religion as involving metaphysical doctrine. The project of philosophical theology involves clarification of the metaphysics of God, his properties, his relation to the world, etc. The project also involves the question of the epistemological status of such a metaphysical picture. A less purely philosophical but still important aspect of the project is to square the metaphysics and to some extent the epistemology with what we know of religion on the ground, so to speak, from Chazal in the Midrash/Aggadah, from the Bible, from religious experience, etc.

    For more on this, see my paper, “Against Theology.” (I really meant against a certain kind of theology. I agree with Aaron first that some reflection on God is part and parcel of religious life, and second that the ways of philosophy are by no means incompatible with religion; they are natural to a reflective way of living that life.)

    1. Aaron Segal

      Thanks so much for your reply. I’m still a bit confused. I looked at your article, “Against Theodicy,” and it seems consistent with how I interpreted your approach to evil here. You say there: “My dramatic fantasy (to be continued below) reflects my sense of a substantial conceptual distance between the perfect-being theology that dominates from the time of the medievals and the religious sensibility of the Hebrew Bible and its development in Talmudic thought (first 6 centuries C.E.). This gulf suggests a dissolution of the classical puzzle. Perhaps God simply lacks some or all of the relevant perfections.” This seems to involve a straightforward denial of one of the theological assumptions of the classical philosophical problem of evil (although as you say there and in your reply to my comment, there might be a closely related theoretical problem lurking right behind the classical puzzle, even if the latter is “dissolved”). That denial involves no less of a theological assertion, even if it differs radically in its content from the more “mainstream” view in philosophical theology; and it invites all sorts of philosophical questions and creates theological problems that one could use the tools of philosophy to illuminate.

      And here’s where I get confused: from some of the things you say, including your reply to my comment, it seems like you’re happy to address those questions and problems in a philosophical way, i.e. trying to get clear on exactly what’s being claimed and, more generally, using the ordinary “methods” of philosophy. But (a) this conclusion seems to differ considerably from the thrust of “Doctrine,” which (if I understand it) calls for us to remain at the level of images and metaphors and to learn the practical skill of negotiating between different, and perhaps conflicting, images in our religious lives; the central contention of “Doctrine” (again, if I haven’t misunderstood) involves the recommendation of a certain form of religious life (both cognitive and affective), one that seems inimical to philosophical theology no matter what theological view one is philosophizing about.

      And (b) if we *do* approach those questions/problems in a philosophical way, I don’t see how that would differ from the way philosophical theology is practiced by many these days. I guess I’m having some difficulty understanding the distinction you suggest between the two types of philosophical theology: the kosher type and the non-kosher type. Is it a question of where one’s “data” is culled from? Presumably you’d concede, as do most contemporary practitioners of philosophical theology, that it comes from some mixture of tradition, canonical text, reason, religious experience (construed very broadly), etc. Is it a question of the prioritization of these different sources? Or is it that you think metaphysical and epistemological questions should take a back seat to other (ethical?) questions about God?

      Any help clearing up my confusion would be appreciated. Thanks so much.

      1. HWettstein

        You say,
        … the thrust of “Doctrine,” which (if I understand it) calls for us to remain at the level of images and metaphors and to learn the practical skill of negotiating between different, and perhaps conflicting, images in our religious lives…the central contention of “Doctrine” (again, if I haven’t misunderstood) involves the recommendation of a certain form of religious life (both cognitive and affective), one that seems inimical to philosophical theology no matter what theological view one is philosophizing about.”

        I’ve thought about your question quite a bit, and I’ve re-read my paper. I’m still not sure how to respond. Let me know whether we are making contact. I won’t worry about the details of the paper; but here’s what I’m thinking about the issue.

        A story: I was teaching, my first job, at a tiny school in a tiny town in Minnesota. Nearby was another small town, the local home of the Dutch Reformed community. We invited Al Plantinga to give some talks and we thought it would be great if at his evening, community-oriented, talk, we invited folks from that community. Al was less than pleased, the reason being that he thought philosophy would just confuse them and not be a worthwhile adjunct to their religious lives. I now understand it better than I did then. I don’t for a minute attribute the following to Al, but it’s related.

        I’m thinking of philosophical theology, the kind we are engaged in this symposium and the kind you describe in your question, as a kind of 2nd order business. I think of myself as living the same religious life as my friends in shul, but unlike them I’m interested in exploring the nature of the beast in some detail. This is code for the kinds of questions that we pursue in philosophy. To a large extent, this 2nd order interest doesn’t differentiate us, me and them, in terms of 1st order religious life. This is somewhat reflected in that remark I quoted from the Shulcan about the mystic who wants to be davening like a 12 year old.

        Of course, the separation of levels is not perfect. Sometimes when I daven, my experience is actually enhanced by products of philosophic reflection. Sometimes it works the other way: thoughts get in the way of kavannah (intense focus). Such is life. (When I call the separation imperfect, I don’t mean it’s less than desirable. Just that it’s not a sharp separation.)

        Another occasion of imperfect separation: reflection on passages from the Bible, midrash, etc. I find myself both feeling powerful religious emotions and thoughts, and also reflecting on implications in a way that’s close to or actually is in the domain of philosophical theology. When I just spoke of religious thoughts as distinct from thoughts in the domain of philosophical theology, I meant this: Sometimes one thinks in the imagistic vocabulary of Bible and midrash. But sometimes one finds oneself asking questions about what it comes to, questions that probe beyond the imagery. And the dividing line between these things is very mushy. One is not usually conscious of the distinction and in any case it probably can’t be drawn precisely.

        The thrust of my paper that we are discussing is not to deny any of this. It’s rather to say that in my 2nd order meanderings concerning what I’m up to in my religious feeling, thinking, acting, I tend to see the first order stuff in the imagistic way I was discussing. I don’t mean: it has to be seen that way. I suspect that many of the folks contributing to this symposium don’t see it that way. And many (not all) of our non-philosophical co-religionists don’t ever raise the question in this way. I think perhaps in the paper I sometimes sound as if I think: this is the right way to think about the first order religious remarks. But I want the tent to be large, with canonization for halacha, but not for the philosophic interpretation of what’s going on.

        My main gripe with traditional philosophical theology: The thrust of the Rambam’s way is to make some views in philosophical theology normative, to make a certain 2nd order take on what it all means into a 1st order requirement. This seems related to his thinking that prophets are philosophers and that Abraham was the founder of a “religion,” a position in philosophical theology. Philosophic doctrine becomes crucial to faith.

        Let me leave it at that for the moment. I’m happy to discuss further. I’m running out of steam tonight. I love this extended discussion, although I feel a bit like I’m running a marathon.

        1. Aaron Segal

          1) Thanks so much – that clarification was very helpful (although I may still be misunderstanding you, in which case I apologize!). The idea, I take it, is something like this: there *is* room for higher-order philosophical inquiry when it comes to matters of theology, but that philosophical inquiry ought to always be sensitive to, and in some substantial sense respect, the *ways* one thinks about God in one’s everyday religious life. But I wonder what this sensitivity amounts to and how such a thing would look in practice. (That wasn’t a veiled criticism; I am genuinely interested!)

          I suppose one thing it would consist in is the sort of project you’ve worked on in your book, The Magic Prism – namely, a philosophical investigation of what it *is* to have a belief (broadly construed), or commitment, of the sort that you take our religious commitments to be. That’s certainly a really interesting project, and it seems feasible; and I see how it’s sensitive to there *being* such a mental state (or cognitive life more generally).

          I suppose another thing it would consist in is a philosophical exploration of how the religious/theological imagery, and our “commitment” to those images, fits into one’s broader religious life: what sort of affective attitudes do such commitments encourage? How? Should we cultivate certain commitments because of their affective results? (This is sort of like the ethics of belief discussions, but applied to your distinctive notion of belief – the results might certainly differ.) Again, I think this too is an interesting project, and it seems feasible to me.
          But there’s a third thing it could consist in – suggested by your articles and some comments here (although after looking back at your reply, before posting this comment, I’m not sure you mean this) – which is the project of trying to, in some sense, remain at the level of images, *even as one* addresses philosophically driven questions *about God’s nature* (the traditional domain of philosophical theology); that is, to DO philosophical theology, all the while thinking the way one thinks about God when davening and hearing the shofar, etc., which is to say, somewhat poetically. Here, I understand the *motivations* to do so – one motivation might be the Wittgensteinian one that philosophy should never depart too much from ordinary life, and another might be specific to theology, which is that the only way to think appropriately about God is through such imagery – but I don’t see how it’s *feasible*. As you’ve put it, this “imagery thought” doesn’t have ordinary content (I avoid using “propositional content” because it’s a slippery term, and I’m not sure what it means here); its meaning, to the extent that it has any, is to be found in its resonances, i.e. the other imagery it suggests. But then how are we supposed to do any rigorous philosophy *while* employing this imagery? How are we supposed to figure out the implications of our commitments if they remain at the level of imagery, without any ordinary content? And if we can’t figure out their implications, how can we responsibly engage the philosophical questions we claim to be addressing? Or is the idea that we can flit back and forth between the imagery and the philosophy, and integrate them? But how does that integration go exactly? Sorry to ask so many questions!

          2) Back to the project of what it *is* to have a belief (broadly construed), or commitment, of the sort that you take our religious commitments to be, I am wondering a bit about the following: you say that “signing on” to certain imagery amounts (roughly) to having that imagery play a fundamental role in your life. But I wonder how you distinguish between imagery that (to use traditional terminology) we believe represents the way things *are* and imagery that we *want* to represent the way things are, i.e. that we *desire* to in some sense represent reality. Put simply, I’m wondering how you distinguish between beliefs and desires. It seems like in both cases, imagery can play a fundamental – causal and explanatory – role in one’s life; in one case because you believe it’s in some sense accurate and in the other case because you’d *like* it to be accurate. (But of course, *you* can’t just put it quite that way because it reduces your notion of commitment to the traditional notion of belief.) Other, more traditional accounts of belief, can distinguish between them in terms of accuracy conditions: it makes no sense to say a desire is inaccurate or false because its object of the desire (some state of affairs say) doesn’t obtain (although it could misfire in other ways, or perhaps violate some other norm), but it does make sense to say that about a belief. But on your account of these commitments, does it make sense to say they’re false? How could it if they don’t have any representational properties (or is that further than you want to go)? If you want to just say “Read Magic Prism,” that’s fine, of course!

          3) I like the story from Plantinga; Plantinga once asked a few of us grad students whether we thought we should think philosophically when listening to a sermon or reading a devotional text (I guess the equivalent of a musar sefer); one of my friends said “Of course!” Plantinga was dismayed. Of course he didn’t think we could completely bifurcate our cognitive lives, but the idea was that you have to let those sorts of religious activities go on without constantly subjecting them to philosophical scrutiny. I think that’s right. (Shatz’s wonderful essay, “An Overexamined Life…” comes to mind here too.) As a matter of fact, I think that although philosophy has many wonderful things to offer the religious person (who is philosophically inclined), the primary religious danger in doing philosophy is not the risk of abandoning religion – as many warnings assume – but of losing the ability to pray as a 12 year old.

          1. HWettstein

            Thanks so much, Aaron, for your very thoughtful comments and questions. I have to think about the first two comments. I loved your 3rd comment. Both the point about Plantinga and the last remark, with which I completely agree. I feel that way also about some sorts of historical studies of religion and religious texts. It’s not that I can’t abide the content, but the focus makes yirat shayim farther away. Still, our discussion here has not had that effect on me at all; just the opposite. And I would never tell you to just read The Magic Prism. There is too much to read out there. If you ever do read it, or parts of it, I’d love to talk about it. But there is plenty else to talk about.

            I just looked back at your point 1), really the first part of point 1). I don’t think that’s quite what I had in mind but it’s close. I feel that the primary phenomenon is the religious life. (I understand that such a remark is hardly self-explanatory, but let’s press on.) A philosophically reflective person will ask questions and probe in all sorts of way, and no doubt depending on who one is, habits of thought, philosophical orientation, one may be led to ideas about what’s going on that depart from where one started. (There is a kind of reflective equilibrium here: the life provides the materials for reflection and puts limits on how far the reflection can depart from the life, and reflection can to some extent affect the life.)

            My sense is that this is what the medievals did, and this is what we all do. In my case, my best sense of how to put it all together–in a way that respects chazal but that also is affected by my sense of things–is much closer to taking its cue from chazal (again, no doubt somewhat selectively) than from the medievals. The latter push us to a picture that is religiously less satisfying to me, and metaphysically and epistemologically extravagant, strained, or something like that.

            When I was younger and had all sorts of doubts, though I loved the learning and lots of things about the life, I had much more trouble identifying with, feeling deeply connected to Aggadah. I felt like I wished I could talk with the Rambam. Coming back to these things years later, having finally being able to connect with poetry and the like (I could not when I was younger), as well as some years spent with Wittgenstein’s later texts, the difference in religious sensibility between the thrust of lots of aggadah and the Rambam was very striking and it with chazal that I felt deeply connected.

  4. Dani Rabinowitz

    While I do not wish to distract from the line of thought developed thus far, I do have some concerns in a different direction. To “put my cards on the table,” I am not sympathetic to an anti-doctrinal conception of Judaism. That said, I am wondering about the following points:

    1) Howard, you begin your article by setting up a tension between the style of thought associated with biblical/rabbinic Judaism and that of philosophical theology (the “medievals”). The implication is that we must choose; we cannot have both since these schools are in tension with one another. Instead of investigating the possibility of a synthesis of the two schools, might it not be possible that the latter is an organic outgrowth of the former; that is, the philosophical way of addressing the tradition represents an intellectual advancement over the biblical/rabbinic model, where this advancement took place slowly over hundreds of years as Greek and Arabic philosophy slowly made their way into the rabbinic schools? Perhaps the use of imagery declined given the appeal of a more robust doctrinal approach stocked with new philosophical tools. Problems such as the problem of evil are not, therefore, an undesirable upshot of the philosophical system gone wrong, but more a reflection of deep-seated complexities that lie at the root of our religion.

    2) If we take Maimonides on imagery seriously, an investigation of biblical/rabbinic imagery will lead us back to doctrine since imagery was the preferred means by which to (a) express doctrines to the uneducated masses or (b) conceal secret doctrines inappropriate for the uneducated masses. Additionally, imagery is merely the unwanted byproduct of the role that the imagination played in prophecy. In other words, if we could get around imagery all the better. Images must be tethered and it is a proposition that tethers them.

    3) I am rather uncomfortable by the “bad rap” belief is receiving. Given that knowledge or justified belief must be the norm of assertion and practical reasoning, it seems inconceivable to me that a religion could be complete without the concept of belief being front and center. Our propositional attitudes are crucial to the manner in which we navigate ourselves to our world. (Perhaps the notion of belief is so blindingly obvious that it doesn’t receive mention. Perhaps). The notion of belief is key to the prohibitions of geneivat da’at and lifnei iver, for example. And the request by the Israelites that Moses act as an intermediary lest they die is an expression of the belief that direct exposure to the divine is lethal.

    4) Finally, I am left wondering whether images are dangerous in that they conceal puzzles or falsehoods. Prayer, for example, is a central part of Jewish life. And Wettstein approvingly quotes sources depicting God as praying. Yet the puzzle surrounding the causal efficacy of petitionary prayer throws the notion of some forms of prayer into serious doubt. Images involving prayer “blind” us to these problems. If reason proves petitionary prayer incoherent, then images involving prayer should be jettisoned from the tradition as expressions of false ideas or misguided attempts of capturing a true idea.

    1. Sam Lebens

      Gosh, I have so much to say on this thread and don’t really know where to start.

      Let me start with a question or challenge to Dani that is friendly to Howard’s point of view.

      Dani, you present it as a given that the epistemological orthodoxy of analysing knowledge in terms of truth, justification, and belief, is definitely the way to go. But, surely, one of the lessons that one could derive for all of that Gettier literature is that the whole enterprise of defining knowledge in that way leads us into an endless process of counter-example and re-definition. In fact, could it not be argued that Timothy Williamson’s approach, in which we take knowledge to be a philosophical primitive, and even that belief, truth and justification are to be defined in terms of knowledge rather than the other way round, is the natural conclusion to be drawn from the whole Gettier mess!

      Such an attitude, already makes Howard’s unorthodox account of religious belief more plausible. Once we’re freed from the shackles of classical epistemology new vistas open up before us. There has long been a desire to theorise about non-propositional knowledge, be it via Russell’s knowledge by acquaintance, or via knowledge-how, as opposed to knowledge that. Howard’s position, especially if you buy the idea that some metaphor is simply ineliminable, is that there are epistemic relations, perhaps to objects that defy discursive description, and that these epistemic-relations or states are best described in terms of image-content rather than propositional-content. All of this seems more plausible when you think that knowledge itself is never a relation between a subject and a proposition.

      1. Dani Rabinowitz

        Sam, a few points about Williamson. While it is true that he does draw the conclusion from the post-Gettier ‘mess’ that knowledge cannot be factorized into necessary and jointly sufficient conditions, the rest of his Knowledge and its Limits is an attempt to put knowledge squarely at the center of many debates in epistemology and beyond. Since Williamson thinks knowledge entails belief, and that knowledge is a propositional attitude, belief remains a central concern for Williamson. So I don’t see how a view like Williamson’s makes Wettstein’s view more plausible.

        Secondly, Williamson co-authored a paper with Jason Stanley in which they argued against Ryle’s view that knowledge how is an ability or skill. Instead, they propose that knowledge how is a species of knowledge that. The claim is eventually extended to include know-wh locutions. So I doubt that a non-propositional kind of knowledge will gain much traction.

      2. HWettstein

        Another thought about your phrase, “image content”: On page 7 of the original paper, I make the point that “imagery,” as in poetic imagery does not essentially involve mental imagery. “Imagery” does not refer to a look or a sound, etc. But it’s fascinating, and certainly no throw-away, that we call it “imagery.” See p. 7. The question is what to make of this idea of imagery?

    2. Sam Lebens

      A response to Dani’s point (1):

      Dani raises a point about the evolution of Judaism. Sure there may have been a doctrine-less or impressionistic stage of Jewish theology, but Judaism isn’t static. It evolves over time. Perhaps one might think that this evolution is, in and of itself, some sort of ongoing revelation of the Divine Will. Or, an unpacking of the earlier revelation, in tune with the Rabbinic dictum that every question ever asked in a Torah-Study Hall was part of the revelation at Sinai. But, either way, who’s to say that any ‘temporal-part’ of Judaism, so to speak, is more or less authentic than any other? In fact, don’t we have prima facie reason to think that later developments of Judaism, providing that they respect, perhaps, certain side-constraints, represent Judaism, as a growing organic faith, better than fossilised remnants of past incarnations of Judaism?

      Is it not some sort of religious reform, rather than a return to purity, to seek to undo the Medieval age?

      This, I think lies at the heart, of part of Dani’s critique. And I sympathise. But, perhaps a compromise can be struck between Dani and Howard. I think Howard will find this easier to accept, implicit as it is in what he’s already written, than Dani will.

      Without making the claim that we’re all wisely avoiding, that Judaism can be reduced to conformity of practice without making any claims about theology or belief; we can still admit that where Judaism primarily evolves and comes to conclusions is in the halakhic field. Certain halakhic theses are tested, and some of them are found to fail over time. But there have been no codexes of Jewish belief in the way that there have been about Jewish law. Legal positions have evolved over time. The same can’t be said, at least not to the same extent, about theological positions.

      Thus it seems fair to say that medieval theological positions didn’t come to replace earlier theological positions, as their legal rulings might have done; rather, their theological positions serve as just more options on the table for the Jewish believer.

      Thus, Dani’s concern makes sense if there is one thing called JUDAISM that has evolved over time. If this were the case, Howard’s position would be a reforming position. But, if despite a relatively uniform halakhic evolution over time, there are many JUDAISMS, when thought of as theological world views, then Howard’s desire to move back to the time of the Talmud is a live option even within Orthodoxy.

      Christian, espeically Catholic, philosophy has all of these Orthodox doctrines that they can’t simply deny, and have to take into account. The controversy over open-theism is one that arises from an alleged failure to respect cannonised dogma. We’re not in an analogous situation because we haven’t been cannonising dogma half as much as we’ve been cannonising law. Thus I think Howard is free to impressionistic theology just as Dani is free to his medieval one.

      1. Sam Lebens

        Dani. To clarify. My worry isn’t that Williamson will disagree with you, but that you’re just wrong!! 🙂

        Let me explain.

        What I take from Williamson is merely that the epistemological orthodoxy is in disarray and that the attempt to analyse knowledge in terms of belief, truth and justification was ill-founded. I don’t now have to accept lock stock and barrel everything that Williamson wants to put in its place. I merely have to realise that to be freed from the shackles of your classical epistemology may well open a variety of new vistas.

        Inspired by Williamson, Keith Hossack’s Metaphysics of Knowledge attempts to define belief, truth and indeed justification, in terms of the primitive and binary relation of knowledge that relates minds to facts. Though neither Williamson nor Hossack accept this, such a view opens up the possibility that knowledge isn’t always associated with propositional-content, especially if, for instance, the correct belief report contains ineliminable metaphor. Frege claims to have known that certain entities were incomplete, though he also claimed that the notion of completeness was an ineliminable metaphor.

        Secondly, I agree that know-how wasn’t a great candidate for non-propositional knowledge, but Russell’s notion of acquaintance, despite needing a lot of work to flesh out, can’t be so quickly disregarded. It seems to be a necessary epistemological commitment of anyone committed to theories of direct reference in the philosophy of language. And, in the best work that Russell ever did for epistemology, he argues that knowledge by acquaintance is the necessary pre-requisite for any sort of propositional knowledge. Before you can assert a proposition, you must be acquainted with its constituents.

        The point I’m making is that you seem to be wearing an epistemological straight-jacket!

        If you think that we can be acquainted with facts that can’t be discursively described, and, then you’re going to think that knowledge and belief don’t always have to be propositional. If you think that certain metaphors can never be cashed out, then you’re likely to think the same way: knowledge needn’t be propositional. All in all, Howard says nothing to undermine the notion that Judaism is concerned with belief, but he just has a wider conception of what we might meaningfully think of as belief.

        In previous discussions, I was shot down for arguing that ’emunah’ – faith – is best thought of as fidelity to a certain vision, or way of looking at the world, rather than in terms of a straight forward propositional attitude of assertion. So, though I don’t confidently sign up to all that Howard wrote in this paper and discussion, I find his epistemic broadmindedness refreshing!!

        1. Dani Rabinowitz

          Sam, I think the upshot of Williamson’s arguments is not that there is room for a new epistemology involving some mental states that are not propositional attitudes. Williamson thinks that knowledge is most certainly a propositional mental state but the project of factorizing it into necessary and jointly sufficient non-circular and non-trivial conditions is bound to be unsuccessful. The words in that sentence most relevant to our discussion are “jointly sufficient;” that is, Williamson thinks there are most certainly necessary conditions for knowledge, true belief being one of them.

          Secondly, even if Russell and Wettstein intimate that “knowledge that” can be pursued in a non-propositional manner, intimation is one thing, delivering results is quite another. By this I mean that those who wish to challenge orthodoxy about propositional knowledge need to provide us with some reasons for abandoning the orthodoxy in addition to demonstrating how basic epistemic concepts can be understood in the non-orthodox manner. I, for one, wonder whether the notion of ‘evidence’ can be sensibly divorced from the propositional. As Williamson demonstrates, a phenomenal conception of evidence, for example, leads directly to skepticism and rests on the false claim that we have luminous access to our evidence.

          Finally, I think you would agree with me that the fact that no non-propositional/non-doxastic epistemology has seriously challenged orthodoxy is evidence that such an approach is unlikely to bear fruit. For these and other reasons I remain unmoved by my support for a doctrinal approach to Jewish theology, where such doctrines are expressed by true (or false) propositions.

          1. Sam Lebens

            Again! Don’t quote any Williamson at me! I wish I’d never have mentioned his name.

            My point was merely this.

            We have great reasons for thinking that classical epistemology with its desire to analyse knowledge in terms of truth, belief and justification was wrong. New vistas have opened up.

            The idea that knowledge is a brute relation between minds and facts, unmediated by propositions, is a fascinating suggestion that a number of scholars are working on and shouldn’t be written off too quickly.

            It’s naive to think that there have been no results in Russellian acquaintance theory. Yes there is still work to do, but Gareth Evans developed it as the epistemological basis of his theory of reference, and John Campbell has also put forward work that deserves attention. The basic idea that non-propositional knowledge must serve as the basis for propositional knowledge is pretty basic to any metaphysics that takes propositions seriously and thinks of them as, in some sense or other, composite.

            Again: if knowledge is a relation to facts, and if some facts fail to be discrusively desribed by any proposition, or if some facts can only be described with ineliminable metaphor, and if there is such a thing as non-propositional knowledge along-side propositional knowledge, then the sort of picture that Howard is describing deserves more credit than you’re giving it.

            Yes it still needs work, but only a straight-jacketed epistemologist could fail to see that there is the possibility of a good theory lurking in this territory.

      2. Stefan Goltzberg

        You said:
        “But there have been no codexes of Jewish belief in the way that there have been about Jewish law.”
        But how is this compatible with Maimonides’ 13 principles?
        Some people consider it is a mitsva to believe, some don’t. The Rambam says you should know him, but then again doesn’t it imply a belief?

      3. HWettstein

        Your first comment, in response to Dani, is philosophically substantial and would be great to discuss. Maybe I’ll come back to it. But I wanted to start with your comment on Judaism, in the singular and plural. It is not, in any case, a word I like very much. It’s an “ism” word (like communism, feminism, etc.) and suggests an ideology. It gets going, rather late, as a word that serves to contrast our religious ways with Christianity, Islam, etc. (Same for “yahadut”)
        1. Consider the religious life of, say, the Navajo. How distinct is Navajo religion from Navajo culture? One can try to isolate those aspects that one can bring into correspondence/contrast with the beliefs of Christianity. Similarly for Judaism. There is something a bit artificial here. For sure there is a distinctive way of living that we practice, with ritual elements, prayer, and all the rest with cognitive, affective and behavioral elements organically connected.
        2. Related: there is no talmudic term, certainly no biblical expression, for our religion. Now given the direction that medievals took, it becomes less weird to think of what we are up to as an ism, or as a religion. Menachem Kellner and I did a symposium on the role of belief at Yakar Synogogue in Jerusalem some years back, and I suggested that we call what we do “Cosa Nostra.” (Our Thing). But no one laughed.
        3. None of this is crucial to what you were saying. Instead of Judaisms, I’d prefer to say that while there is a kind of developing canon with respect to halacha, there is no similar canonization with regard to the theoretical understanding of the religious life. The tent is large enough to accommodate the Rambam, Rav Kook, Leibowitz, etc.
        4. About the epistemological straightjacket, let me start with the idea of the propositional content of knowledge and belief. My book, The Magic Prism, is an attempt to develop direct reference, but without the apparatus of propositions(singular, Russelian or otherwise), acquaintance, and the like. I argue that the attitudes should not be thought of as propositional attitudes; the idea of propositional content has no place in my story. So I am coming from a different place here.
        5. My epistemological “broadmindedness” you speak of is not predicated on the idea that there are facts that we know that can’t be discursively described. That a metaphor is irreducible is for me not a function of it’s describing something that can’t be described otherwise, in straight language. It’s rather that we need to think of the significance of metaphorical language in a different way; it’s not straight description of a metaphorical fact⎯as you put it: having the content of an image rather than a proposition. The way metaphors mean is by a kind of suggestion or suggestiveness. They have resonances. Needless to say, this suggestiveness is in part a function of what the words standardly mean.
        6. So I do, as you say, have a wider conception of what we might believe. Imagine one who goes around screaming about some injustice. She can of course be said to believe that the injustice in question is just wrong. It won’t matter that she is a non-cognitivist in ethics. And if a range of poetry characterizes how one sees some aspect of the world, we can use the poetry to characterize his belief. We can say, for example, that he believes that people reflect God’s image.
        7. You say that you were shot down for speaking of emunah as fidelity to a certain vision. I’m sure it’s that. Not just that, since emunah is not going to be definable in some simple way. I’m betting that it’s a family resemblance notion, the sort of thing that James says of “religion,” and Wittgenstein famously says of “game.” I mentioned in one of the earlier posts that Buber says various complicated things about emunah, and what you mention is surely a part of it.

        1. Sam Lebens

          Hey Howard,
          This is fun, if a little hard to hold onto lots of conversations all at once!
          1. I totally accept you point 3 above. The point was sloppy when spoken of in terms of Judaism and Judaisms, I was thinking in terms of the problem of the many, with hundreds of slightly overlapping theologies – or something like that. It’s much better to talk about the distinction between the evolving cannon of halakha and the lack of any such correlate in terms of an evolving cannon of the theoretical underpinnings of religious life.
          2. Regarding the epistemological debate with Dani, with whom I’m close enough friends to talk so bombastically to. My variety of epistemic broadmindedness does shape up almost as you describe it. I’m committed to Keith Hossach’s suggestion that knowledge is a direct relation to facts. He also thinks that facts and propositions share certain structural properties such that any knowledge state will turn out to be propositional – or at least related, in important ways, to a propositional attitude on the part of the subject. This is where I get off the boat. I’m not convinced that we should be so committed to an ontology of facts. Perhaps knowledge is a direct relation to the world, or something like that! Secondly, even if there are facts, I think that there are reasons to believe that there are facts that lie beyond the reach of description by any proposition (reasons similar to the ones developed by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus). But maybe we can still know them! This is especially plausible to me because, my direct reference theory is underwritten by a revised version of Russell’s Multiple Relation theory of Judgement, and its attendant epistemology of acquaintance. Its not that I believe in metaphorical facts, as you understood me. Rather, I believe that metaphors might sometimes play a role in ‘orienting us towards’ facts that transcend the power of literal description – that doesn’t mean that they’ve been described by metaphor.
          3. So, its clear, given your rejection of acquaintance theory and Russellian propositions, that we’re not exactly on the same page at all. But I think that there’s sometimes reason for broadminded people to stand together in questioning the hegemony of an outmoded orthodoxy!
          4. So again, I claim that the failure of TJB (true justified belief) epistemology, and the various grounds that people have given for non-propositional knowledge, whether it’s your know-how or my acquaintance or other contenders, demands that your views be given more consideration than a cursory dismissal based upon the fact that they don’t cohere with the doctrines of classical epistemology. This was merely an invitation for Dani to listen with a more sympathetic ear.
          5. I’m fascinated by what you raise in your point 6. How have moral non-cognitivists generally sought to analyse claims like ‘she believes that murder is wrong’ – is it generally analysed in terms of some sort of non propositional belief state? That seems like a very sensible suggestion for them to follow up. I certainly see how it could make room, given its much broader conception of what a belief state is, for a person using poetry, say, to describe a person’s belief state. Thank you for that.
          6. Finally, I’m happy with ’emunah’ being some sort of family resemblance term. I think very often Biblical narratives invite us to view the world through their prism, so to speak, without necessarily demanding that we ‘believe them to be true’ in the classical sense at all. You might be interested in my somewhat shoddily written blog on the topic: – it makes room for at least one of the disambiguations of ’emunah’ to be fidelity to a narrative in the sense of allowing that narrative to play a certain role in your life.
          7. I for one am much more in favour of doctrine than you are! But, I see the importance of analysing the significance of images and how images bear significance. And I see why this a really relevant project (one of many) for analytic philosophers who are concerned with or interested in Judaism.

          1. HWettstein

            Hi Sam,
            I will think further about your reactions and have a look at your blog. I wanted to say quickly though how much I’m enjoying the interactions in general and your comments specifically. I have spent this week doing little else but thinking about the comments here and trying to respond, and it’s been wonderful. It is, as you say, quite a challenge to keep up with multiple discussions. Like simultaneous chess without (gratefully) the sense of combat.

            About my point 6 and your reaction, I have a couple of chapters about belief and reporting belief in *The Magic Prism*. I’m happy to send them to you and to discuss. If you have time to read the book, it touches on a lot of related things of mutual interest. One of the wonderful things about the discussion we are having is that it underscores the idea that everything in philosophy is related to everything else.

            Here’s something I was just thinking about after reading your interesting comments: the limits of description. Think about our ability (or lack) to describe tastes. It’s not because we are dealing with a domain that is somehow beyond the reach of language. It has more to do with the way our language naturally develops and such things.

            I used to think that thinking was a matter of “having thoughts.” This is related to ideas about propositional content.But under the influence of later Wittgenstein–an obsession for a lot of years now–and my colleague Larry Wright and new work I did last year in reading and teaching (catch this) Merleau-Ponty (who I used to think was beyond the reach of rational thought) I’m wanting to change the topic from thought to something like the following: We move through the world seamlessly, taking in all sorts of stuff, recognizing, not recognizing, doing things along the way, interacting, appreciating, and the rest. Along the way we stop to comment, to others, to ourselves. Thus thoughts emerge. But so much of our cognitive/affective lives are without explicit thought. This is not because there is so much that is beyond language, beyond description. It’s more like there is just too much going on, and other stuff, like the business about describing tastes. And some of what we experience is so subtle that we don’t know how to begin articulating.

            By the way, I taught aesthetics and Merleau-Ponty because I am interested in religious responsiveness, which I see as a kind of natural responsiveness. And I felt that there had to be interesting connections to aesthetic responsiveness. My makor, as it were, was Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” in which someone says of a religious Jew, “You can’t argue with him. His faith is like an ear for music or the talent to draw.” That stuck a chord.

          2. HWettstein

            This is a follow-up to what I just wrote to Sam, listed as at 6:29pm on July 12. (Maybe that’s British time; it’s almost noon in California.)

            So I’m thinking of cognition in terms of moving competently, consciously, with understanding, etc. through the world. “Knowledge” now seems like a kind of abstraction. Perfectly good and useful in ordinary talk, but maybe not the place to focus analysis and the like.

  5. HWettstein

    I’m about to reply to Dani. Let’s see to what extent that addresses your concerns. I have to think about it a bit more. I’ll be back.

  6. HWettstein

    You are hardly distracting us from the central topics. Your concerns seem right on the money. And…we couldn’t be farther apart. I think you put the case for a doctrinal approach quite well. I will try to respond to several of your points but a full discussion would take us many hours, which I welcome at some point in the future.

    Let me start from your last point, which sounds a bit like Maimonides (not a bad precedent) … but in his most dismissive mood. He sounds a bit this way at the end of the Guide, where in one place, contrasting ordinary religious ritual practice with philosophic reflection on divinity, he speaks of the former in terms of “hollow emotions.” You write:

    If reason proves petitionary prayer incoherent, then images involving prayer should be jettisoned from the tradition as expressions of false ideas or misguided attempts of capturing a true idea.

    Dani, you are advocating jettisoning some of the powerful Aggadic imagery on grounds of it “proving incoherent.” Indeed if coherence is the test, arguably lots if not all anthropomorphic imagery will have to go. And it’s hard to see why the excision would be restricted to the imagery. If “reason proves petitionary prayer incoherent,” why not exclude petitionary prayer itself? But now we are speaking of major revisions to traditional practice.
    My own predilection is to begin with traditional practice and see what sense is to be made of it. Not only are some of the images religiously significant⎯crying out to God, and even God’s crying out⎯the practice of petitionary prayer can be spiritually and emotionally powerful, sometimes unburdening, sometimes uplifting, sometimes among the moments of greatest intimacy with God. Think of God’s speech from the Whirlwind and its context that includes Job sitting in great pain on a pile of ashes, at the nadir of his life.

    Such intimacy with God, such religious power, would seem to provide all the justification needed by petitionary prayer. Not all the explanation, though. That is, if one is moved to inquire what this is all about⎯perhaps this is to move into the realm of philosophical theology⎯there is plenty to talk about. To provide one example of how it might go: as I (HW) experience such prayer, it has the power of calling out one’s most pressing heartfelt inner needs to one’s beloved.

    At the beginning of your comments, you suggest that my view is that we must choose between two competing paradigms, the doctrinal approach associated with the medievals and one that derives from Tanach and Chazal that gives pride of place to imagery, metaphor, narrative and the like. Contrary to this suggestion, I think that all sorts of syntheses are possible. But we would need to look at each in detail to see its virtues and vices. One important constraint, often not observed, is that what we would need is, to use a chemical metaphor, a genuine compound and not just a mixture. It is not uncommon in sermons and popular religious thinking, for example, to both give great weight to, say, God’s chesed and then to add that “as we learn from the Rambam, God doesn’t really have such anthropomorphic properties.” I like the idea of giving weight to both, but something needs to be said about how this can be seen to be coherent.

    It is less clear, Dani, that you like the synthesis idea, and I don’t like it much myself; for you immediately proceed to the idea that the imagery is consciously replaced by the medievals in the spirit of intellectual advance. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that that is exactly how the purveyors of doctrine understood their own enterprise. I explore the matter in some detail in my paper, “Against Theology.” My own view of the matter is that contrary to the idea that imagery is being replaced by clear ideas, in fact Israelite religious sensibility is being transformed into a very different religious sensibility, this a product of the fertilization of Israelite religious ways by Greek philosophy. The new paradigm involves substantial religious changes of all sorts, witness the Rambam’s ideas about the highest form of religious worship at the end of the Guide, and his imagery of the castle, according to which Talmidei Chachamim, great scholars of the Talmud, are still wandering around the outskirts of God’s castle, while only the philosophers have a shot at achieving intimacy.

    Many of the issues you legitimately raise call for a lengthy discussion, as with your remark that “justified belief must be the norm of assertion and practical reasoning.” “Must be” seems to me way too strong. I take up the topic of justification in “The Significance of Religious Experience.” I argue that the notion of justification is overrated, both in its epistemological embodiment and in the domain of the ethical. And the very notion of belief as a “propositional attitude” and the related notion of propositional content is one that I criticize in my book, The Magic Prism. Of course, you may and apparently do see these things in quite a different way than I do.
    While my way in philosophical theology is to eschew doctrine, I am all for philosophic reflection on religious life, practice, attitudes, and the rest. My former tennis partner at Notre Dame, Al Plantinga, once quoted Hegel to the effect that philosophy is a matter of thinking about things. We in philosophy have been taught to reflect in a careful way on the ideas that we employ, careful in a way best explained by example, to question deeply and thoroughly, and to explore fundamentals. Philosophical theology is, after all, what we are doing in this symposium.

    I’ll close with a brief remark about the problem of evil. Dani, you write:

    Problems such as the problem of evil are not, therefore, an undesirable upshot of the philosophical system gone wrong, but more a reflection of deep-seated complexities that lie at the root of our religion.

    I couldn’t agree more. Reflection on how a good and loving God (notice the anthropomorphism) is compatible with what we experience in our world seems like an urgent matter for reflection. As I say, I’m no enemy of philosophic reflection on religion.

    1. Stefan Goltzberg

      You write that you wonder how these two parts may — coherently — appear in a same speech:
      1) God’s chesed
      2) and then to add that “as we learn from the Rambam, God doesn’t really have such anthropomorphic properties”.
      Aren’t you — I’m not even sure this is a rhetorical question! — begging the question? I mean how can you be sure that the expression “God’s chesed” is anthropomorphic in nature? Could not this property be different from its human counterpart?

      1. HWettstein

        The language is certainly anthropomorphic. In fact, as the Rambam notes, the only grip we have on such ideas is derivative from human experience. Of course, someone can then propose that in God’s case, these terms mean something else. That’s sort of what the Rambam does in proposing the via negativa.

    2. Dani Rabinowitz


      As far as petitionary prayer goes, if it comes out that on our best metaphysics no sense can be made of such prayer being causally efficacious, then it should be jettisoned from the tradition (unless one thinks it is a positive commandment to request one’s needs from God, in which case it would be a khok). However, one could maintain it if there are utilitarian reasons for doing so e.g. to use a Maimonidean motif, it proves helpful to the uneducated masses. I think Eleonore Stump argues for other kinds of uses for petitionary prayer that make it an important religious experience. Let me be clear, by jettisoning petitionary prayer I do not thereby commit myself to some sort of non-orthodoxy. On the contrary, I think that if petitionary prayer proves causally inefficacious, then it was a mistake to incorporate it into orthodoxy (assuming it wasn’t there from the start). Metaphors and images based on a false idea should be avoided for fear that they will lead people to false belief. In this respect I am flirting with the following line in Maimonides: “For only truth pleases Him, may He be exalted, and only that which is false angers Him” (Guide 11.28.409)

      You then write as follows:

      “My own view of the matter is that contrary to the idea that imagery is being replaced by clear ideas, in fact Israelite religious sensibility is being transformed into a very different religious sensibility, this a product of the fertilization of Israelite religious ways by Greek philosophy.”

      I think that this might just be an empirical question that cannot be decided either way from the armchair. That thought aside, if we do speculate on this ‘transformation’ I think my explanation of that phenomenon is still enticing. I think that the initial phase in which Israelites tried to make sense of their new religion involved imagery because (and this is sheer speculation) that was either a familiar way of approaching the supernatural or they did not possess the sophisticated intellectual tools developed in ancient Greece and thereafter in the philosophical tradition. Incorporation of such tools is, on my picture, a welcomed result since it dispenses with the need for images that lack the ability to convey meaning in a rigorous and ‘bounded’ manner (Wittgenstein’s critique of early modern philosophies of language comes to mind here). If we take a look at the debate on interpretation in philosophical aesthetics, especially in Continental hermeneutics, we see immediately that as far as communication of thought goes, images are notoriously poor vehicles. All this said, I realize that a religion devoid of imagery is bound to be an austere or cold religion. Mental imagery is a fundamental element of human consciousness. But doctrine is an austere matter.

      A final point. I take it that there must be some way to distinguish Judaism from other religions. I assume, further, that one obvious way to do this is by way of doctrine; that is, one assembles the doctrinal sets of each religion and then shows that there is not a one to one correspondence between the sets. Doctrine can do useful work. Imagery doesn’t seem to have the same ability. Additionally, the debate over religious pluralism makes sense if we take religions to be sets of non-overlapping propositions, some of which are true, others of which are false. It would be interesting to see whether an image-driven approach to religion can make sense of this important debate since images are neither true nor false.

  7. Sam Lebens


    I am sympathetic to the view that Biblical imagery is often aimed at pointing us towards the ineffable; in your discussion with Schick, you both talk of imagery that orients us towards a transcendent G-d.

    Interestingly, this is exactly where analytic philosophy might be useful to the Jew – cashing out phrases like ‘orienting us towards’ – what does it mean for an image or a metaphor to orient someone towards something?

    But, as I say, I’m sympathetic. And in fact, I have a suggested research project for Maimonides scholars that would have Maimonides as a somewhat secret sympathiser with your general outlook!

    Maimonides clearly believes that G-d, in some sense or other, defies our linguistic capabilities (I’m being deliberately vague, so as to be neutral over various interpretive possibilities). One of the tools that he offers us, in terms of negative theology, is at best, bizarre. As Gersonides notes, why prefer ‘God is not ignorant’ over ‘God is not wise’? Maimonides does prefer the first to the second. But, by his own lights, both are true, if, by ‘wisdom’, we mean what we generally mean when we attribute wisdom to a human being.

    Gersonides thinks this makes a mockery of Maimonides’ negative theology and that, in fact, human language is not radically equivocal when applied to God, and thus we know that wisdom isn’t properly denied of God, because we do know what wisdom means in this context.

    But, perhaps Maimonides can be defended in the following way. Yes, the two sentences share a truth-value. But one is more useful than the other, because via some sort of path-way of associations, the first sentence helps to orient us towards the transcendent G-d, where the second one doesn’t. The first one is a good image, and the second one is a bad one.

    On this view, Maimonides isn’t really replacing Biblical imagery with Medeival doctrine so much as replacing one set of images, which maybe had lost their cultural sting, and had been mistaken for obviously faulty doctrine, at that time, with another set of images, that may have had more power in his time and place.

    Howard, perhaps your position can be paraphrased as follows: even if Maimonides was right, in his time and place, to replace Biblical imagery, which had lost some of its punch, and had been taken too literally, with the imagery of negations; it is now the case that that Aristotelian imagery has (a) been mistaken for dogma and lead us into various dead-ends, and (b) now lacks a punch even as imagery to contemporary religious sensibilities. It’s time to return to the imagery of the Bible and the Talmud.

    I’m not sure I agree with any of this. But I’m sympathetic.

  8. Tg

    This is a beautiful essay. In my opinion, it’s a little selective and evasive. Though those words sound a little too negative; I liked the essay a lot. I have two points. I wrote these before reading Dani’s comment, and I think they are similar.

    The first is about the idea that doctrine is alien to Judaism. I can’t begin to do justice to the opposite here, but note e.g. “I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt” or “The following have no share in the world to come: He who says there is no allusion in the Torah concerning resurrection”. If such do not count as doctrine, what would?

    The second is about medieval conceptions of God (and there are divergent views about God among medieval Jewish philosophers). They didn’t simply assert e.g. that God is transcendent, they argued for it, philosophically and from religious tradition. Most of Maimonides’ efforts are expended on the latter and in answering just the sort of objections raised here.

    Similarly, and back to the previous point, the medieval Jewish philosophers didn’t simply assert doctrines, they argued for them. I’d only be convinced by a critique engaging with these arguments directly, though I recognize that would be beyond the scope of any essay, and so could hardly be a problem with yours.

    1. HWettstein

      Thanks for the first remark. It is much appreciated.

      About the two examples, or really the first one. (The second, from Perek Chelek, needs a separate discussion. It does sound doctrinal and perhaps exemplifies the movement towards doctrine. It’s still something of an exception if one thinks about the range of talmudic, non-halachic discussion. I once argued a bit with Menachem Kellner about it; if I’m remembering, he saw it as less doctrinal.) The first example: It’s so strange to me that the Rambam takes this as a commandment, indeed a commandment about believing a doctrine. It rather sounds to me like, as it were, a personal introduction to the other dibrot: “This is who I am …..” Imagine, l’havdil, that I introduce myself to students on the first day of class and remind them of our previous relationship. It’s hard to see why Anochi should be assimilated to your second example.

      About your point that Rambam and the others did not simply assert points of doctrine; they argued for them. That’s certainly the case. And I agree that there is no substitute for looking at the details. It’s part of the legacy of analytic philosophy, for better and worse, to focus on the arguments sometimes at the expense of the bigger picture. In the case of medieval philosophy/theology, and specifically the Rambam, the bigger picture is crucial: Aristotle by-way-of-the-neo-platonists. His arguments, sometimes/often? are conducted in terms of this outlook that is, to put it mildly, nowadays hardly mainstream. This is not to say, of course, that there is much in what he does in the Guide that floats free of this outlook. But the overall outlook makes it important to think about the project. (I keep thinking about his view, one that is often repeated as if it were common sense, that God’s unity precludes a multiplicity even of properties. Why is this common sense? What other than neo-Platonic doctrine would incline us to think this?)

      One of the things that is so striking about the Rambam is what I’m calling his religious sensibility. I once sat in on a course on Maimonides that David Hartman gave at UCLA. At one point he was developing the religious way of the Guide and I, recently involved in thinking about midrash, was stunned by the difference in tone and substance between the way of the midrash and that of the Guide. So I asked about how Maimonides thinks about the midrash. I didn’t get an answer, but Hartman looked at me and said, “That’s a different religious sensibility.” I think that’s right and that the notion of religious sensibility is one that will repay attention. People can be praying together, can believe the same things about God, and may occupy quite different religious sensibilities.

      And the sensibility suggested especially by the end of the Guide is very different than the thrust of chazal. It’s not just the peculiarities of neo-Platonic Aristotelianism, already mentioned. It’s all sorts of ways in which belief seizes the day, as if that’s so to speak what God really cares about. Think of his remarks about conversion which emphasize doctrinal commitment, as opposed to the Talmud’s remarks that go in a very different direction. (I will check the references and provide them later.) Think of his doxasticized (new word) treatment of idolatry. (See Halbertal/Margalit’s discussion of idolatry as a sort of thought crime in Idolatry.) Think of his discussion at the end of the Guide of the religious moment, not that of prayer or talmudic learning, but of individual philosophic reflection.

      I was stunned, unexpectedly, by the contrast. And so while I agree that the Guide has much to teach us, it issues from a perspective that seems distinct from much of the religious outlook of chazal.

      If you have time and interest, I explore these questions in more detail in “Against Theology,” although it is certainly not a detailed exploration of the rich Maimonidean text.

  9. Sam Lebens

    Stefan… I don’t think Maimonides’ thirteen doctrines are at all a Codex of Jewish faith in the sense that his Mishna Torah is a Codex of Jewish law. My main reason for saying this is that it’s nowhere near as a comprehensive as, say, the cannonised doctrines of the Catholic church. In fact, it’s no where near as comprehensive as any of our Codexes of Jewish law.
    Even if we accept all 13 of them in their entirety, it leaves a lot of possibilities open for the theologian.

    1. HWettstein

      Speaking of a “wider conception of what we might count as belief” (you said something like this above in connection with my views), I was speaking with Charles Taylor and we got around to belief and the catechism of the Catholic Church. He told me that as an Orthodox Catholic he believed every word of it. Then he added that he is not at all clear what it comes to. I don’t think this was just an evasion. I think there is something deep about belief here. To say what it is, that’s a major project. But it’s worth thinking about.

      Here’s a related idea: Someone is wholeheartedly committed to the idea that people reflect God’s image. She believes this b’emunah she’leimah, so to speak. But this is no matter of assent to a content. What content? The idea is subject to all sorts of interpretations, and no interpretation is necessarily implicit when she states her belief.

      It’s a bit like a truism, e.g all people are created equal. The idea has substantial political and moral implications. But what it comes to is another matter. As I write this, I’m remembering that Buber says that for the biblical person, God’s existence was a truism. That means, I take it, that God was about as controversial as the weather. I have a friend who says that in his family home, God was like a family member, as controversial (he says) as the weather. But, he adds, he didn’t have anything like a clear and distinct idea to what he was committed (perfections, no perfections, creation ex nihilo or not…?). It’s getting late. More tomorrow.

    2. HWettstein

      One last thought: I wrote a little while ago about the belief that people reflect God’s image and I spoke about it being subject to multiple interpretations. That might sound like there are legitimate differences of opinion about what it comes to. I’m sure there are such legitimate differences. But more to the point, it doesn’t mean some one of these as opposed to some other one. It has all sorts of resonances, like expressions in poetry. It suggests many things, and these may change over time and context.And what it suggests is on the verge of being unlimited. Meaning that at no point can we confidently say that we have exhausted the religious resonances.

  10. Ari Schick

    There are many issues on the table, and I just want to throw out one more that Howard might address: Surely many of us experience our religious lives in a manner that is frequently “impressionistic” and attempting to force our experiences to conform to particular concepts may not be desirable if the goal is to foster a certain spiritual vitality. However, there is something inherently unstable about a religion where belief (whatever that consists in) remains inchoate and impressionistic and primarily in the realm of imagery/metaphor. At some point the religion goes through a phase where belief becomes systematized. We are discussing systematization via philosophy where imagery is turned into carefully honed concepts, but the rise of theosophical kabbalah around the same time was no less an attempt to organize that imagery into something coherent by getting the imagery/metaphor to coalesce into a sophisticated theosophical system.

    If that is the case then I wonder if your paper is almost arguing against the tyranny of all such attempts to impose broad coherence on the prophetic/midrashic corpus. If that is the case, then this is perhaps a deeper postmodern move th

    1. Ari Schick

      – than you realize.

      1. HWettstein

        Thanks, Ari.


        I don’t know enough about kabbalah to comment with any confidence. For what it’s worth, I tend to think of it not as an alternative systematization but as a kind of hyper-imagistic enterprise, one that takes midrash to another level.

        More to the point: if we had the grasp of Tanach of the baalei midrash and their religious depth and responsiveness, it would be great to have new midrashim, midrash that derives from our world in a kind of correspondence with the world of chazal. I can see that such a thing might be wonderful. But I don’t at all feel the need for a sharpening up of the imagery and its transformation into or replacement by metaphysical theses. As Wittgenstein thinks about language, its fine as it is, messy as it is. (Only a partial analogy.)

        I’m probably getting carried away, but it’s a little like figuring out what Cezanne was trying to say and replacing his images with theses. Don’t hold me to that one; a mere association.

        About the instability you mention, what could be more so than the wildly different extant theological constructions, from the Maimonidean Aristotlelean-by-way-of-the-NeoPlatonists, to the kabbalists, etc.

        1. Sam Lebens

          Without wanting to descend into ordinary language philosophy, which had many faults, I like the Wittgensteinian line you paraphrase.

          Dani had mentioned to me, in conversation, that metaphor (especially ineliminable metaphor) is some sort of linguistic defect that we shouldn’t pay attention to. Many philosophers would agree with him. But to my mind, if a philosophy of language ends up telling a language (that native speakers find totally unproblematic) what it should and shouldn’t be doing, then something has gone wrong with the philosophy rather than with the language.

      2. Sam Lebens

        I’m not sure whether this has to be seen as a move towards post-modernism.

        Michale Rae recently presented some work in progress of his on the Theory of Atonement in Christian thought. His basic contention, which is obviously liable to change, and hasn’t been published yet, was that there is no Christian theory of Atonement!

        The New Testament contains a variety of metaphors about the significance of Jesus’s life, works, death and ressurection. But any of the systematic accounts available in the Christian tradition seem to cash out certain metaphors at the expense of others. He seemed to be arguing that there was no single theoretical framework through which all of the metaphors could be consistently cashed out. This lead him to opt for the following conclusion. The metaphors are all true, but they are inelliminable and they are the most that can be said about the matter. This isn’t, to my mind, to plunge into the cold waters of post modernism. It’s not to endorse any ‘true paradoxes’ or the like. It merely suggests that certain surface level contradictions are merely different metaphorical devices for expressing the same truth that can’t be expressed without recourse to metaphors.

        This isn’t what Howard is saying about Jewish images, per se, but it does demonstrate how a person can want to to hold onto conflicting images without descending into post modernism … no?

        1. HWettstein

          This is so interesting. About Rae, I used to talk with him a bit about these things. He’s a smart guy and very interesting. I look forward to reading his stuff about this.

          I have had the sense–it always felt sort of inchoate, hardly the last word on the subject, that religion was a domain in which metaphor and the like was the last word. That’s unlike the way we usually think of metaphor, as a way to drawing attention to an analogy, to be spelled out later. So I find what you say about Rae’s view very interesting. I don’t think, though, of the various metaphors as getting at the same truth. That’s too much constrained by the old ideas of content, or something like that. As if there are these unstatable contents and we get at them sort of indirectly by literary tropes. I think of the different metaphors as aiming at different insights. I need to think more about this, but thanks for passing it along.

  11. HWettstein

    At one point in the discussion, Dani mentioned work by Williamson and Stanley to the effect that knowing how can be reduced to knowing that. (I hope I have this right.) And Sam comments that knowing how was never a good candidate for non-propositional knowledge. My instincts are exactly opposite. If I allow myself a little hype, I’d even say that knowing that is a species of knowing how. That’s way too strong. But I’m pushing in the direction of the idea that our competence to make our way through the world is what is primary, and that this includes linguistic goings on. One masters how to operate with words. Anyway, it’s a crucial and deep topic.

    REQUEST: Since I think the reduction to knowing that is seriously implausible, I’m very interested in the Williamson-Stanley line. Can someone formulate their intuitive idea and the key moves? Thanks.

  12. HWettstein

    This may be redundant, but…

    I’ve been trying to write a monograph on this material. The following is the beginning of Chapter 3. It’s a restatement of some of what I have said here in response to questions and comments. Maybe it will be helpful to see another formulation:

    1. The Inchoate Character of Literary Theology

    Biblical and Rabbinic theology is hardly a paradigm of theoretical neatness and consistency. One brought up on a strict diet of analytic, or medieval, philosophy might find such an approach almost chaotic. It may be chaos but in its context this is hardly a liability. For the aim of this literature is not theoretical understanding but rather insight, illumination, edification. And moments of insight, illumination, and edification do not necessarily respect one another: Illuminating one aspect of a phenomenon may occlude others. All the more so for edification. Theoretical understanding, on the other hand, puts a premium on overall consistent vision. Theory seems like a considerably later development than insight in our understanding of a phenomenon.

    It thus seems natural that literary theology came first. The medieval philosopher-theologians can be seen as taking a next step, a theoretical account of the domain. This book is in part a plea for a return to the earlier literary theology. At the same time my project has affinities with that of the medievals. In trying to get perspective on different modes of theology, I am attempting to bring philosophy to bear on the understanding of religious life. In doing so I too work at a more detached level than that of the Midrash; I put a premium on consistency; and so on. Which is to say I’m theorizing, albeit to a different end than the medievals.

    In Chapter 1, I work at articulating my differences with the main trends of medieval philosophical theology. Maimonides, the arch-medieval, seems to me insufficiently taken with the literary character of Biblical and Rabbinic literature. It is not that he sees no virtue to the literary tropes. For the insufficiently intellectually advanced⎯the class is extensive⎯such things are important. But such forms constitute a sop to intellectual weakness, a case of the Torah “speaking the lashon b’nei adam” (speaking the language of people). This is, as noted, the medieval version of Berkeley’s later remark that the philosopher should speak with the vulgar and think with the learned.

    My own disposition is to place considerable weight on the poetic and narrative character of the primary religious literature, and not as a sop to weakness. Why then are these forms so apt, indeed essential to the religious project?

    I’ve already answered this in part. Where the aims are the generation of insight, illumination, and edification, poetry and related forms are just the ticket. But we can go an important step further and deeper. It is not only that these aims are well served by the genre. It is also that the domain, the subject matter⎯religion⎯makes the genre uniquely appropriate.


    1. HWettstein

      Sorry, I should have added that the rest of the chapter is an attempt to explain why I think that the subject matter, religion, makes the genre particularly appropriate.

  13. Sam Lebens

    Howard, I’m not being modest when I say that the blog I referred to above was a bit sloppy! It was written a long time ago; it’s too long, and lot of details were either wrong or could have been left out. So please don’t spend too much time looking at it… but the stuff about make-believe, that it can have what I call ‘corrective effects’ and that Biblical narratives demand our make-believe rather than our belief – that stuff I still hold by. It might interest you. Although, you’ll probably think it too old fashioned!! Surely, at the age of 29, I’m still too young to be considered old fashioned. Oh well!

  14. HWettstein

    My sincere thanks to Dani, Sam, and Aaron for inviting me and facilitating what I found to be a really exhilarating exchange. I look forward to more interaction in the future. This group and the online activity is genuinely positive development, both for philosophy of religion and Jewish thought.
    Howard Wettstein

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