Foundational Question for the Philosophy of Judaism

Since the foundation of this blog, I have slowly come round to the following questions. These questions are not posted here because I have something by way of an answer to them; something that I’d wish to share. I don’t have answers. But the discussions that we’ve had on this blog have led me to think that these questions are foundational for anything like a rigorous investigation into the philosophical commitments of the Jewish faith. I share them because I’d like your help. What should I be reading, in the secular and religious literature, in order better to address these questions? Have they already been answered satisfactorily by anyone?
1. What are the various functions of the narrative sections of the Bible and the Rabbinic Literature? To what extent are they related to the ethical/legal projects of those texts?
2. Can the answer to 1 be substantiated historically? How would the ancient audiences of these texts have received the narrative portions? Would they have taken them all literally, as history, or not? Does it depend on the narrative in question? This historical matter is important if you don’t want your philosophy of Judaism to stand accused of apologetic revisionism.
3. How are the narrative sections supposed to do their job? What are the mechanisms of narrative, and how do they do their specific job better than would other types of language use?
4. Upon what historical claims does the Jewish faith stand or fall? What needs to have happened in the past to make sense of continued Jewish faith, and why does it need to have happened?
5. Is there, or is there not, a fundamental distinction between the way that language is able to describe the world, and the way that language is able, or unable, to describe, refer to, or otherwise talk about God? Is there a philosophy of religious language that exists independently of regular philosophy of language? Is talk about God to be treated in the same way as talk about anything else? If not, why not and how not?
6. Given the answer to 5, and given the sort of attitude that we’re supposed to have towards the narrative sections of the Jewish texts, is religious belief sui generis, or not? Is there an independent science of religious epistemology that exists independently of regular epistemology? Is religious belief to be treated in the same way as regular beliefs? Again: if not, why not and how not?
I can’t really imagine any good Jewish philosophy that doesn’t take all of these questions on before it can get going. And it’s about time that it was done in a modern, rigorous, analytical voice. What thoughts do these questions generate in the readers of this blog? Is there some essential reading for me? Have I missed out some questions that should also be seen as foundational. I take it that all questions about God have to come after, and not before, question 5.
  1. Anonymous

    Sam Lebens said, "I have slowly come round to the following questions."

    The questions (1-5) seem to be getting at several things. Is the Torah linear or nonlinear? The answer is yes. Seriously, we can see that the creation account, for example, is linear by what is recorded to have occurred chronologically–linear. The linear creation is also supported nonlinearly by genealogies recorded later on. Another question is the Torah Lashon HaKodesh? This gets at its immutability etc. If it is not immutable, it is not sufficient for law or Halakhah. How then should philosophy of Judaism proceed? A decision tree would seem necessary. In brief, it could begin with either the Torah is Lashon HaKodesh (true) or not (not true). If it is, then it must en toto be studied linearly and nonlinearly. Some thinkers may use matrix logic, such as Steven Brams, and others, such as Gerald Schroeder with different time/space perceptions, may attempt to explain literal passages with the latest scientific beliefs. Then, the language of the philosophy would be a somewhat mathematical linear decision tree which is explained nonlinearly by essay and either accepted or not. As you observed, discussions thus far seems to have avoided your issues by essay type posts which without getting down to a logic component of "this" or "not this" will continue to be in the end incomplete and therefore ultimately irrelevant. We should look forward to the forthcoming discussion of logic and the Talmud with Curtis Franks.

    Dallas Bell

  2. Dani Rabinowitz

    I wonder if the questions you pose are getting at foundational issues in the philosophy of Judaism or at the foundations of Orthodox Judaism? The distinction can be made vivid by this example. Suppose one defines oneself as an Orthoprax or Reform Jew. As I understand some strains of these labels, the narratives in the Torah, for one, can be entirely fictitious or overwhelmingly inaccurate, yet there will still be a theology to this type/strain/kind of Judaism i.e. there will still be room for a philosophy of Judaism. Does this make any sense?

  3. Gabriel

    Part 1:

    Marc Shapiro write the following in a recent article on 'The Sforim Blog' (this, by the way, is another blog that you should add a link to!). He is writing about the interpretation of R. Eleazar Ashkenazi (the Tzafnat Paneach) of the long lives attrributed by the Torah to the early humans. Both R. Ashkenazi's and Shapiro's points are very relevant to Sam's qu 4.

  4. Gabriel

    Part 2:

    "Although it is true that people understand the lifespans literally, Ashkenazi sees this as a misinterpretation of the Torah. In other words, it is not correct to say that the Torah recorded the exaggerated numbers because that was what the people believed. / … with regard to the others mentioned in the early chapters of Genesis, Ashkenazi speaks of הגוזמות הספוריים הבלתי מדוקדקים , and here it seems that he does advocate the notion that the Torah is including material that was popularly believed, even if not accurate. He also writes about how certain matters in the Torah were recorded בבלבול ובקיצור מופלג ומקומותיהם ומקריהם שלא בדקדוק One such matter is the genealogies, about which he writes: לא היתה הכוונה לדקדק במספר שנות חיי כל איש כי אם על דרך כלל. / Ashkenazi’s viewpoint is interesting because he acknowledges that in certain factual matters the Torah is not exact, and indeed this is not a concern of the Torah. This sounds very similar to how many people explain the first few chapters of Genesis. Yet it is much less common for Orthodox spokesmen to extend this approach to later chapters of the Torah, e.g., to say that say the genealogies recorded are not accurate. But is there a conceptual difference between saying that the Torah is not interested in presenting creation in a historically accurate form, and that is why there is no mention of billons of years or of evolution, and saying that the Torah is not interested in exact genealogies, but simply presents what was commonly thought and this explains the lengthy lifespans? If there is no conceptual difference, where does one draw the line? Surely there are some parts of the Torah in which factual history must be assumed. This is an issue that has not yet been adequately dealt with, and I will soon be publishing a letter by a great Torah scholar which refers to this problem." (

  5. Sam Lebens

    Thanks for the quote Gabriel. Very ineteresting and pertinent.

    Dani: put denominational labels to one side for the moment. I know that in the past I've said that good Talmud scholarship needn't be too bothered about the origional intent of the authors of the various texts. But, despite that, I did mean these particular questions to get at the intent of the authors.

    Irrespective of your denomination, I'm interested to know, what were the authors/editors of the Bible (God, and the prophets, and whoever else it may have been) doing when they included those narrative sections? What were the Rabbis who redacted the Talmud doing when they interwined aggadic and halakhic parts?

    And, in my later questions, I'm intersted to know about the nature of religious language and the nature of religious belief. All of these questions, as I take them, are pre-denominational.

    I don't buy that orthodoxy has to be bound to any one particular set of answers to these questions. I think that's far too simplistic. I don't think that taking the narrative as true and God authored MYTH, for instance, leads one, ipso facto, away from orthodoxy into orthopraxy.

    One of my critiques of Christian philosophy as practiced by the great Christian analytic philosophers of today is that there's a general assumption that the Bibilical narratives are to be taken as histories that are supposed to be accurate, despite the fact that these accurate histories may be peppered with the odd (true) metaphor or two.

    I think that assumption needs a lot of defending. In fact, I'm tempted to think it's false.

    I'm tempted to think that a great many of the narrative sections were not included out of some concern to record history, nor were they received that way by their origional audiences; audiences who were more familiar with notions of myth and legend than they were with the notion of systematic history.

    That's why I'd be interested to see some research about the ways in which the ancient audiences of these texts would have been likely to view them.

    I think that a proper appreciation of the religious significance of many of the narrative portions of the Jewish tradition could help us unlock the answer to the later questions that I ask about the nature of religious language and belief.

    That's why I'd be interested to see good literature about how narrative can play an important role in nation building, and in conveying ethical and theological truths that can't necessarily be conveyed by other sorts of language use.

    I think that this is the sort of research that could really lead to a distinctive philosophy of Judaism (if indeed there is such a thing).

    Reform Judaism claims to be reforming the tradition. I'm interested in uncovering the actual philosophical project of the authors of the major texts.

  6. pc

    Hi Sam,

    Your argument seems to be that there should be one answer or at least a limited number of ideas that respond to your points.

    I do not know if this needs to be so. Our perception of reality is limited and we rely on our sense of coherency to make a pattern out of the myriad facts that we encounter.

    People join the dots in different ways and sometimes upset when they encounter people who have joined the dots in a different way. In other words it is possible to have an entire coherent system which is internally consistemt and which deals in a sensible manner with the entire creation as accessable to its adherents.

    In Torah, we say shivim panim le'torah – all of which are true – so it seems the torah is describing something which we perceive a subset of so that each subset is true.

    pc 🙂

  7. Anonymous

    "In Torah, we say shivim panim le'torah – all of which are true – so it seems the torah is describing something which we perceive a subset of so that each subset is true."

    Exactly. Then to describe a philosophy of this reality (of known subsets) only linearly would be based on incomplete knowledge and experience. This is why both a linear and nonlinear approach could be seen as best. To use the creation example again, the Torah gives a clear account of the days of creation. This can only be "true" or "not true". After interpolation, one of these decision trees arrives at the point of reductio ad absurdum and therefore karet for its adherents. As time passes, the increase of facts allows the advantage of more interpolation of what is true. That epistemology would be the philosophy of Judaism. The philosophy of Judaism which tries to get it all correct without exploring the alternatives and not having a sufficient expandable form for the student requires omniscience and would never be accomplished by finite minds. But if the process is made with logic gates for truth and explores the alternative to the point of untruth, it could survive future knowledge being plugged into the circuit. Take chess programs for example, it took a number of years to plug in possibilities of moves and has reached the point which no person can defeat a good chess program. This is because the process allowed for many minds over time to keep imputing the best knowledge until a positive outcome was reached. The measure of the best philosophy will be how its form allows adaptation of new knowledge. How would the recent academic view be incorporated which says that time stretched from the beginning of creation to Adam's creation and took only six days from the Creator's view yet could be seen from a physicist's view to creation as being in increments of billions of years? That node could be followed to its completion (e.g. did the Creator allow for death before sin and what does that mean, did souls exist prior to that time and what does that mean, etc.). Finally, the process should keep in mind that the Torah has ultimate Divine authority or it does not. If it does not then all that is said and done has only mankind's authority and is relative regarding truth–epistemological nihilism.

    Dallas Bell

  8. Dani Rabinowitz

    Whilst not to detract from the thrust of the main line of argument following from Sam's post, I have never been able to get my head around the claim that there are 70 faces/sides to the Torah. The full quote is from the Midrash Rabbah (Numbers 13: 15)as follows: "There are 70 faces to Torah; turn it over and turn it over for everything is found in it." Now to my ear that statement is FALSE i.e. not everything is found in the Torah (assuming that "there are 70 faces to Torah" entails or means "everything is in the Torah"). For instance,I take it as uncontroversial that the true proposition expressed by "my house is around the block from the store" is not in the Torah. I am therefore inclined to take this rabbinic statement as false and another instance of someone's opinion recorded in the Midrash where that person's opinion is false or, at the very least, not representative of Judaism's standpoint.

  9. Anonymous

    Dani makes an excellent point(s). I agree that the Torah does not contain all knowledge, such as your example of your house location or another example of how much the earth weighs. If the Torah is Divine, as it is, it would be complete for mankind, from the Creator's omniscient view, to accomplish his purpose. Within that context, it could be rationally expected that all that man needs is contained or alluded to therein. This gets at the second fine point you make which is by what authority should rabbinical disputes be settled. If not the Torah then it is finite man and thus inclined to corruption. Then, how is "extra Torah" knowledge to be handled? It would seem that this subset of information is of no direct importance to the totality of Torah knowledge. If the subset of information contains the data that the house of X is around the corner, what effect does that have on Torah data? Nothing, it would seem. What about the data of how much the earth weighs? Again, nothing it would seem. How is this tested? Try attaching those examples as a node to the decision tree provided by the Torah. If there is none, it could be rationally assumed to be outside the philosophy of Judaism, at least for the present time. That proof could be used to explain why Dani is correct to interpret that while all things necessary for our purpose is in the Torah there is knowledge that is not contained in the Torah. A crucial point is that we do not know what that will be a century from now. A good philosophy will allow for that contingency.

    Dallas Bell

  10. Sam Lebens

    The comment about 70 faces and everything being in the Torah shouldn't be thrown out just because it's not true when interpreted literally. To do so would be to beg all sorts of questions about the meaning and function of such aggadic statements.

    It would be a perfect example of where so much analytic philosophy of religion goes wrong. Namely: not sufficiently respecting the actual literary genre that we're dealing with, before taking it literally and reducing it to absurdity, and then going on to defend the absurdity.

    Another point: I think that this talk of logic trees, however interesting, misses the point of my earliest questions.

    Propostional calculus, for instance, deals with relations between propositions. And, predicate calculus still deals with propositions, but with a more finegrained lense.

    But, its not clear to me that NARRATIVE is properly regarded as merely a bunch of propositions to be processed by logic. Because, its not exactly clear to me what narrative is. Propositions are what we express by declarative sentences. When I engage in narrative, I'm not declaring anything.

    In Frege's logical notation, there is an assertion stroke, to show that one is asserting the propositions that we're talking about. Logic is very interested in assertion. Narrative isn't really assertive in the same sense.

    Again, my questions are supposed to be foundational.

    Unless you have a clear grasp as to what the narrative portions of the Torah, for example, are trying to do, you have no hope of knowing how to assimilate them into some logical system, because you won't know how, or whether, you can translate them into sanitised propositions.

    Can anyone help me with THESE questions?

  11. Gabriel

    PART 1:

    This is just a side point, but…

    Dani: do we not need to use at least a minimal principle of charity when reading anyone, including the Rabbis? Do you think that the author of the statement 'turn it over and turn it over for everything is found in it' *really* thought that one could find the addresses and local amenities of all future Jews, hidden in the Torah? Is it a plausible view to attribute to someone? It does not seem to me to be so (at least when taken at a literal level). And if that is not in any way plausibly what the author meant to say, then it gets us nowhere to say that the claim is false when understood in that way (unless it is a rhetorical move of some sort?)

    Now, the principle of charity is not merely a way of being kind to ancient authors, who would otherwise all turn out looking like idiots. Rather, I think, it is actually a principle of rationality for us as readers, listeners, or interpreters. If you do not deploy some kind of principle of charity, your reading suffers from some kind of vice – you will be a bad reader, your reading will be interpretationally flawed. Your readings will be irrational.

    Furthermore, attributing figurative, metaphoric, symbolic, and who-knows-what-else-kind-of language to people, is not some last resort that we retreat to when the good, solid, robust, serious, literal interpretation turns out to be false. Many (most? all?) people actually engage in this kind of language, as a way of expressing truths (and falsehoods) *lechatchilah*, very often indeed! Therefore, our interpretations can also read them us such, without being considered an interpretational last resort (a theory of how we decide when something is metaphoric, say, or when not, would be very interesting – and I wonder if it would use principles other than that of charity?)

  12. Gabriel

    PART 2:

    As it happens, in this case, it seems to me that a fairly simple – and reasonable – understanding of the claim that 'everything is in the Torah' is easily available: the word 'everything' in that context is simply short for 'everything important'. Or, in technical jargon… the word everything carries a tacit restriction of domain to the domain of important things… This is not a 'stretch', it is not 'dachuk' – it is a perfectly ordinary way of speaking and of interpreting what people say… ((Even analytic philosophers agree with me… Timothy Williamson, in his paper 'Everything': " 'I am about to take a flight. Everything is packed into my carry-on baggage'. On reading the last sentence, did you interpret me as saying falsely that everything — everything in the entire universe — was packed into my carry-on baggage? Probably not. In ordinary language, ‘everything’ and other quantifiers (‘something’, ‘nothing’, ‘every dog’, …) often carry a tacit restriction to a domain of contextually relevant objects, such as the things that I need to take with me on my journey.")) – Of course, one might take objection to the claim that ‘everything important is in the Torah’ – but at least we now have an interesting claim, that is not immediately absurd (especially when one considers that ‘Torah’ needn’t mean just the Pentateuch).

    Of course, we could also go down a more mystical route, which sees the Torah as the blueprint of creation, and therefore – in some sense – actually containing everything within it, in potential, or in idea, or something or other. I don’t know – I just wanted to say that my above pshat needn’t be the only route)…

    Anyway – sorry for the digression…

  13. Gabriel

    SAM – can I ask some questions about your (first few) questions? – In fact. they may even be taken to be meta-fundamental questions… Namely:

    To what extent should our interpretation of traditional Jewish texts be limited to understanding them as their authors intended them to be understood? How far can our interpretations of these texts range before they will no longer be considered ‘orthodox’, or even ‘Jewish’?

    These questions seem to me to affect whether your questions 1-4 should actually be considered to be fundamental questions. In taking a question such as ‘How would the ancient audiences of these texts have received the narrative portions?’ to be “foundational for anything like a rigorous investigation into the philosophical commitments of the Jewish faith” you seem to be assuming that ‘the philosophical commitments of the Jewish faith’ stay uniform over time. Or at least that one’s philosophy of the Jewish faith would not be properly so called, if it turned out to understand God, revelation, command, and all manner of other things differently from, say, Isaiah, or Abbayei.

    Couldn’t it be that Judaism – and its philosophy – have a unity over time, rather than necessarily a uniformity. So that what is properly called Judaism today needn’t be identical with what it was two or three thousand years ago, but needs to be appropriately related to it. Much as Wittgenstein talks of the image of the single rope made up of many overlapping threads: no one thread runs through the whole rope, but because they overlap and are related in the right ways, it is nonetheless one rope form beginning to end.

    Perhaps I am distorting the questions in some way, or perhaps, just speaking at cross-purposes with them. But I’d be interested to know your thoughts about why question 2 is actually foundation (you make the beginnings of an answer in the question itself, but…), and whether we need assume that there is only one answer to question 4.

  14. Dani Rabinowitz

    I like what you say. A lot. But I just don't think everything important is in the Torah. I consider the most important equations of theoretical physics to be of utmost importance. But I would seriously doubt anyone would say they are inside the 5 books. So we are now into deciphering the relevant contextual constraints of "everything." This leads us into disputable matters: I say the author/speaker of the Midrash intended x to be important and you say no not-x but y, or x and y. Because we have no reasonable way of adjudicating this dispute, the phrase "everything is in the Torah" comes out as pointless! It is a very bad way of speaking indeed! It is a hopeless way of speaking. Each and every time chazal say something the meaning of which is abundantly and distinctly clear, they have failed in their task of communicating truths to the next generation. Since chazal relish in ambiguous, figurative, and allegorical talk, I am afraid that my anvil comes done on the harsh side of their pedagogic approach.

  15. Dani Rabinowitz

    Here is one quick way in which the narratives structure the nature of Judaism. Supposedly the laws of Shabbas are structured according to 39 groups, the list of which correlate to the 39 different types of work undertaken in the building of the mishkan. Relying the hekesh as a valid (?) form of legal reasoning, I assume it is fair to say that the following counterfactual is true: If there was no mishkan (or the work undertaken thereon was done in 38 ways), then the laws of Shabbas would have been different. So it seems to me that the nature of at least some aspects of Judaism are very much contingent on the narrative. Today, for example, converts are only accepted if they keep the laws of Shabbas (and some others). It's kind of weird to think that a mere historical contingency (the manner in which the tabernacle was built in the desert)shaped the manner in which we consider someone Jewish or not!

  16. Dani Rabinowitz

    Gabriel and Dallas

    Here is another worry about the the proposition expressed by "everything IMPORTANT is in the Torah": I take it that the author of this expression didn't mean EVERYTHING in the Torah is important i.e. I assume that said author would permit there being some unimportant stuff in between the important stuff. A reductio against the opposite view (the view that EVERYTHING is important) goes as follows: it seems obvious to me that the names of some of the places and of people are of no importance e.g. the names of Eisav's progeny. I know that there are people who consider every word in the Torah of the utmost significance and the Gemara about God tying the crowns with respect to Rabbi Akiva champions such a view, but surely this cannot be. If the reductio works, then the Torah isn't any kind of "blueprint." Rather, only some bits are important. But, as I have stated previously, there seems to be no non-arbitrary way of determining which are and which are not important. Hence my despair at the statement "Everything (important) is in the Torah." It engenders a hermeneutical/exegetical disaster.

  17. Gabriel

    PART 1:

    Dani! – I am holding you personally responsible for my failure to finish chapter 3!

    Anyway… You say: “: I say the author/speaker of the Midrash intended x to be important and you say no not-x but y, or x and y… [And] we have no reasonable way of adjudicating this dispute…”. I’m not sure that we have no way of adjudicating the dispute, though. First of all, we could look to see who said it, and look at the other kinds of things that they said, and perhaps get a very good idea (though of course not a perfectly complete one) of the kinds of things that this person considered to be important. If we do not know the name of the author, then we could look into what a Tanna might consider important. These do not seem to me to be lost causes.

    In fact, your very example, would be relevant. It is actually a very interesting question: did Chazal think that scientific study, and truths of science were important? – Well, of course, we are led to the fact that ‘important’ is also a context-sensitive word. Important *for what*? In many contexts we need to be told the context in order to make judgements of importance. But there does also seem to be some kind of ‘ultimate’ use of ‘important’: things that are ‘important in themselves’, or ‘absolutely important’. Anyway, maybe we don’t even need to go there. Perhaps I should have not said, above, that the domain of ‘everything’ was simply ‘important things’, but rather: ‘things important for a good and Godly life’. Now again, here we have an interesting claim: that the Torah (taken, say, in its broad sense, of including more than just the 5 books), contains within it everything important for a good and Godly life. – You may well disagree with this, but it does not seem to me to be a ridiculous claim. (We might need to go into the meaning of ‘contains’ as well – after all, it may contain something in the sense that it can be teased out by very careful analysis – hence the need for wise commentators and readers etc etc…).

  18. Gabriel

    PART 2:

    As to the pedagogy of the author of the comment that ‘everything is in the Torah’. perhaps his very hope was that he would provoke – precisely by the Delphic nature of his aphorism – a discussion about what exactly *is* contained in the Torah. Perhaps he precisely wanted to generate a discussion amongst those who heard his remark, as to what the Torah is and is not about; and about what is and is not important in this world, in this life, and whether *that* is in the Torah…

    Dani, you then go on to say: “Each and every time chazal say something the meaning of which is abundantly and distinctly clear, they have failed in their task of communicating truths to the next generation.” – I’m not sure I quite understand the first sentence – did you mean that when Chazal are clear they have failed in their pedagogical duty, or succeeded? I would assume you would opt for the latter… In any case, I would like to take objection with the last sentence: “Since chazal relish in ambiguous, figurative, and allegorical talk, I am afraid that my anvil comes done on the harsh side of their pedagogic approach.” – Again, it’s a matter of the principle of charity. If Chazal persistently seem to you to take a perverse and unhelpful way of teaching, then perhaps their aims are not what you are assuming them to be. – Now, I’m not denying that there are bad teachers out there. In fact, there are a lot of very bad teachers. – But few bad teachers have been as successful, and as highly-thought-of, by such a number of highly intelligent and wise people, as Chazal. More to the point, if we can find a plausible understanding of what they were trying to do, which does not turn them into awful teachers, then perhaps this is the best way to understand them. Given that, as I said, we should look at Chazal’s method, and judge their aims *from* their method.

    I won’t attempt to do this here – and instead just ask: would you make the same accusation/claim about a difficult poet?

  19. pc

    I think that Chazal are saying that the sum total of human experience is alluded to in the Torah. This is 'important'. Nuclear physics is just information, it is not inner life.

  20. menachem

    In context, the midrash is saying that the Torah does not reflect only a single perspective, but rather all the various sides and angles of those issues addressed by the Torah are reflected (hence the 70 faces). As pc said earlier, the dots are laid out and there isn't an insistence that they be connected only in one way. This is a frequent refrain in Rabbinic writings – "these and those are the words of the living God", "[though] these prohibit and these permit… all were given by a single Shepard", "there are 40 arguments to declare a sheretz as pure", "when God taught the Torah to Moshe he taught him 39 reasons for each side of each issue".

  21. Dani Rabinowitz

    A quote by Nelson Goodman on the concept of "importance"

    "Importance is a highly volatile matter, varying with every shift of context and interest, and quite incapable of supporting the fixed distinctions that philosophers so often seek to rest upon it."

    (Goodman, "Seven Strictures on Similarity")

  22. Sam Lebens

    Gabriel, I'm galvanised by your beautiful defence of Chazal, with which I'm in full agreement.

    How can you criticise them without knowing what their aims were? And, if your interpretation makes them into terrible teachers, then the chances are, you've misinterpreted them, probably by attributing to them aims that were not theirs. I fear that Dani has been guilty of that, in extermis.

    And there's something else that I think Dani gets dead wrong. Sorry Dani 😉

    He says that had the tabernacle needed 38 types of work, then the laws of shabbat would have been very different – such that, given the contemporary norms of conversion, a 'historical contingency' will decide if someone is Jewish or not. Let me try to diagnose the grave mistake.

    Dani rightly points out a relationship between a Biblical narrative and a Jewish law. But he assumes that the narrative is claiming to be history. That assumption is essential to his conclusion that historical contingency is playing some role here.

    But that's to assume an answer already to question 1, an answer that I've already tried to indicate is anachronistic at best, and absurd at worst. The narratives are not, even on the face of it, as it seems to me, at least primarily, about historical fact. They are more akin to myth.

    For that reason, the number 39 plays some sort of symbolic role in the narrative. It doesn't matter how many types of work their actually were.

    I agree that had the narrative been different, and employed different symbols, then the laws would have been different. That's a counterfactual that I can accept. But, I don't accept, at least not without you're answering question 1 systematically, and your substantiating your answer to question 1 in answer to question 2, that this has ANYTHING to do with the historical FACTS of some ancient tent in the desert.

    I'll come round to answering Gabriel's questions to me in the next comment.

  23. Sam Lebens

    Gabriel, I think that Jewish philosophy can evolve exactly as you say it can.

    In your terminology, we're looking for unity rather than uniformity, and Wittgenstein's rope analogy is very useful. I mentioned that I'm happy with the fact that traditional Talmud Scholarship isn't overly concerned with origional intent.

    But, it seems to me that there are certain facts about religion per se. About its epistemology and its language. And, it seems to me that there are facts about the role that narrative and ritual play in the religious life. And, I think that these facts are unchanging.

    People can be mistaken about their own thoughts and their own traditions. This can mean that some people think that their own words were meant literally, for example, when they weren't. They can also be confused about their own aims and goals. I know this from my own bitter and confused experience!

    This background allows me to answer your questions.

    On reflection, I don't think that question 2 is a real foundational question. But, because question 1 relates to unchanging facts about religiosity, question 2 functions as an adequacy constraint upon answers to question 1.

    The confidence with which so many people treat the narratives as literal history would be, to my mind, shaken were it to be shown that the origional audiences of those stories would never have treated them as such.

    Because the desire to treat religious beliefs and narratives so literally, and coarsely, leads to the sorts of attitudes that Dani has been expressing here(again apologies Dani, you know I love you, and fighting with you); attitudes that reduce chazal, for istance, to absurdity, and seem blind to the symbolism of certain aspects of Jewish law, I think it's time we started to look at things like myth and folklore more seriously. What are they? How do they work? What are their aims? What are their functions?

    There's a lot of bad anthropology on these topics. Can someone point me to some good philosophy?!?

  24. Sam Lebens

    About 70 faces to the Torah, and its 'everything' claim. I can think of two plausible and charitable interpretations.

    1. As Gabriel suggests: all that's important for the living of a Godly life is in some sense contained, alluded to, or in some other way falls out of, the continued study of Torah.
    2. The study of Torah, for various reasons, deserves so much careful attention from us that we should treat it AS IF everything we could ever wish to know is hidden somewhere within.

    Both of these interpretations are plausible on a certain understanding of what these sorts of statements are supposed to be doing. And if you think that the rabbi in question is trying to put forward dry and literal information without any poetry, colour, tone, symbolism, metaphor or the like, then yes, it turns out looking pretty stupid.

    On the other hand, on some readings of what the rabbis were doing, it becomes plausible to say that multiple interpretations are true. Maybe the rabbi in question wanted to convey both 1 and 2 above, and therefore framed it in a way, as a poet will often do, that's open to more than one plausible reading.

    Religious philosophers who insist on treating every statement in our tradition as if its written in a logic text book, end up sounding like Spock from startreck (or Data, that android from startreck the next generation – incidentally, I'm really not all that into scifi!) and his comic inability to navigate his way through human culture with its emotions and symbolic landscapes.

    All of this leads me to think that my questions are really quite urgent if we're to escape from Spock-like philosophy of Judaism.

    And, I should just point out, as a post-script, that Gabriel's earlier comments about the Biblical geneoligies, only goes to show that a systematic response to my questions will demand that we recognise that there are many sorts of narrative within our tradition, serving many sorts of purposes – some of which I'm sure, probably a minority though, SHOULD be thought of as, at least akin, to history, but certainly not all of it!

  25. Aaron Segal

    Sam – you seem to be very taken by the idea that much of the narrative in the canonical Jewish texts is MYTH, and even more by the project of figuring out which parts are indeed myth. I'm definitely on board with reading such narratives listening for metaphor, symbolism, etc. and avoiding sounding like Spock (that's always a good idea), but I'm wondering why, by your own lights, it's so important to figure out which parts are myth and which aren't. From what you've said before, the myths are something like stories that we are supposed to make-believe. But what better way to make-believe than to really believe? Why then is it important to get to the kernel that's REALLY true? Is this just to facilitate apologetics in cases where there seems to be a conflict between historical/scientific research and canonical texts, or is there something more you have in mind? And how does your approach differ, if at all, from Schleiermacher and other liberal Protestant theologians? (all right, that was a cheap shot)

  26. Aaron Segal

    Also, are you using 'myth' in such a way that being a myth is incompatible with being history? There is a whole literature out there on the definitive characteristics of myth and its relation to history, but for the sake of this discussion, it would be helpful to know what you mean by it (I know you're looking for a good philosophical theory of myth, so I'm not asking for that – I assume though you have some idea in mind) – for starters, is *being a myth* the property of a story, a text, or an event?

    And just two things to look at:
    1) a recent survey of the literature on religious language:

    2) Evan Fales' recent paper "“Did All That Stuff Happen? Did Any of It? The Question of Myth,” which was given at a recent conference at Notre Dame. I don't know if you can find it online, but I can send it to you if you're interested.

  27. Anonymous

    Sam writes, "…Religious philosophers who insist on treating every statement in our tradition as if its written in a logic text book, end up sounding like Spock…"
    Aaron writes, "…avoiding sounding like Spock."

    It would be very wise to avoid a one-sided emotionless, mechanical philosophical approach unworthy of Judaism. However, it would seem a loss to exclude papers from discourse such as Rabbinic Philosophy of Language by Gabriel Levy because analog and digital types of information carriers are mentioned -or- books such as The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen which discusses how the Talmud and the internet can be seen as a (masechet) tractate endless sea of knowledge (shiv'im panim la'torah). Isn't a balanced approach best?

    Dallas Bell

  28. Sam Lebens

    Thanks for these comments.

    Aaron, first of all, thanks for the reading suggestions. That's what I'm really after, because I don't really know how to read my way into these topics.

    First, I'll respond to your question, Aaron, because I don't want the last word to have it that I'm a liberal protestant theologian. Then, I'll respond to Dallas's plea for openmindedness. And then I'll say a little something more about the 70 faces of the Torah.

    Aaron, I'll respond to your question as if we're having a dialogue. I put your words in quotation marks, and mine outside of them:

    “Sam – you seem to be very taken by the idea that much of the narrative in the canonical Jewish texts is MYTH, and even more by the project of figuring out which parts are indeed myth.”

    Yes. But, let me note at this point that this is not to say that a myth cannot also be historically accurate. And, let me note that there are probably lots of sorts of myth. And the Bible and Talmud probably contain a lot of those different types of myth. And I’d like to disentangle as much of that as possible.

    “I'm definitely on board with reading such narratives listening for metaphor, symbolism, etc. and avoiding sounding like Spock (that's always a good idea), but I'm wondering why, by your own lights, it's so important to figure out which parts are myth and which aren't. From what you've said before, the myths are something like stories that we are supposed to make-believe. But what better way to make-believe than to really believe? Why then is it important to get to the kernel that's REALLY true?”

    Yes, I do think that we’re generally invited to make-believe in the stories, and that this is what God wants from us. And, you’re right that belief certainly facilitates make-believe, but I don’t think that belief in the story is necessary for make-believe, and I happen to think that believing in falsehood is something we should avoid. But I’ll say more about my purposes in a minute.


  29. Sam Lebens

    “Is this just to facilitate apologetics in cases where there seems to be a conflict between historical/scientific research and canonical texts, or is there something more you have in mind? And how does your approach differ, if at all, from Schleiermacher and other liberal Protestant theologians? (all right, that was a cheap shot).”

    No, my project isn’t designed for apologetics. If we want to philosophise about Judaism, we need to stand outside of it, as best we can, and ask, how does it work? So, if lots of the narratives turn out to be myth, and if myth has certain functions, and works in certain ways, and demands certain attitudes, then that’s going to be a big part of our general explanation as to what Judaism is, what it wants, and how it works. It will also feed in to a general theory of the epistemic demands of Judaism. It’s only an added bonus that it will stop us having to get into tedious defences of Judaism against scientists.

    It also seems important to know, hence question 4, what historical claims Judaism actually does stand or fall upon, for that seems to be in line with the project of philosophising about Judaism: reducing it to its most fundamental theses.

    “Also, are you using 'myth' in such a way that being a myth is incompatible with being history? There is a whole literature out there on the definitive characteristics of myth and its relation to history, but for the sake of this discussion, it would be helpful to know what you mean by it (I know you're looking for a good philosophical theory of myth, so I'm not asking for that – I assume though you have some idea in mind) – for starters, is *being a myth* the property of a story, a text, or an event?”

    As I’ve said, I certainly think that a myth can be historically accurate. Given my earlier blogs, I even think that the stories that are true in our tradition demand make-believe as well as belief simpliciter. But regarding your other question: what is being a myth a property of, I’m not certain. I tend to think it’s a property of a story, but that just leads us to ask, what exactly is a story?!!!


  30. Sam Lebens

    Now Dallas, as to your comment. I certainly don't want to be closed minded on those issues. Talmudic logic, for intance, is a topic that facinates me, as a logician and a metaphysician. And Gabriel Levy's and Jonathan Rosen's books sound facinating too. Thanks for bringing them to my attention.

    But, it seems to me, BEFORE we can get into Rabbinic and Biblical logics, we need to distinguish between their different sorts of language use (perhaps Levy does this, I haven't read the book). We need to distinguish non-myth from myth, story from legal treaties. Only then can we make reliable translations from surface language to underlying logic. That's why I suggest my questions are foundational, in the sense that we need to answer them first.

    Finally, regarding 70 faces. I accept that the Rabbis adopted a certain pluralism in the halakhic realm, but this shouldn't lead us to think that there are a multitude of acceptable metaphysics or epistemologies. Pluralsim in the realm of a legal system, however Divine, doesn't entail, without further argument, pluralism in the metaphysical realm, from instance. I tend to agree (partially) with Aaron Segal on this issue, that (at least ultimately) halakha and metaphysics (tend to) come apart.

    So, I don't accept PC's idea that Judaism posits a number of acceptable answers to my foundational questions, as my foundational questions are not halakhic.

    But it did turn into an interesting example of where taking a beautiful Rabbinic aphorism literally turns a religion of subtelty and truth into a religion worthy only of Spock.

    So, has my project convinced anyone? Are these questions, now that question 2 has been relegated to an adequacy constraint upon question 1, fundamental? Do people see why they're important? Do people recognise that a sophisticated philosophy of myth, and of make-believing in myth might be useful for a robust and systematic philosophy of Judaism?

    Do people recognise that before we go about defending our religion as rational, we need to figure out what it is; what claims it makes; whether it operates by normal norms of language or by different norms, and whether it requires a standard epistemology or something different?

  31. Aaron Segal

    Sam – I'm sure I'm missing something, but I still don't understand why it's of fundamental importance to "stand outside of Judaism" in the way you describe. To take the present instance of that larger issue, whatever function a myth has in human culture, it is presumably able to accomplish that function without the audience having some philosophical theory about what myth is and how it functions, or even being aware that they are dealing with a myth, no? Otherwise, it doesn't seem to stand much of a chance of succeeding. So what should stop me from developing a philosophy of Judaism out of the classical texts without first figuring out what myth is and how it functions and figuring out which parts exactly in the texts are myth and which aren't? Why couldn't I just be an ordinary member of the text's audience – albeit one who then philosophizes from the experiences, beliefs, etc. that I have as a result – and whatever part of those texts is myth will work its "magic" on me in the way that myths do? I'm just not seeing the foundational philosophical importance of trying to step OUTSIDE Judaism in the way you suggest.

    Perhaps engaging in the project you suggest will help us determine what has to be true historically in order to Judaism to make any sense (similar to one of the senses of 'principle' in Abarbanel's Rosh Amanah, but it's limited to historical truths), but why is that so important for a philosophy of Judaism? Sorry if I'm making you repeat yourself, but I'm still confused.

  32. Sam Lebens

    I think there is religious merit in doing what you suggest, Aaron: View the world through the prism of Judaism and see where it takes you; I believe that this approach can lead one to ethical refinement, spiritual growth, and eventually, to a profound and tangible relationship with God.

    But a *philosophy* of Judaism is empoverished if it can't explain to you *how* adopting a certain stance can lead to those goals. That job, it seems to me, requires a degree of objectivity; a degree of standing outside.

    One could almost distinguish between a philosophy *in* Judaism (a task that approaches questions of philosophy from within the frameworks of Jewish narratives) from a philosophy *of* Judaism (a task that explains what Jewish narratives are, what their purposes are, and how they do their job).

    Furthermore, a central task of Jewish philosophy, since Saadya Gaon, has been to reconcile truths delivered by pure reason with the truths of revealation. This indicates that, part of the time, the Jew is supposed to stand outside, as it were, of the revealed texts, and philosophise.

    A few further observations:

    Firstly: the philosophy OF Judaism as opposed to philosophy IN Judaism might have a lot to teach us, as philosophers, about the nature of religion per se; a task that lies beyond the remit of philosophy IN Judaism, or so it seems to me.

    Secondly: I can't deny the use that this approach can play in making religion attractive to people who are perturbed by conflicts between religion and science.

    Thirdly: It's difficult to be sensitive to symbolism and metaphor unless you've got a good objective grasp of the literary genre at hand. This requires taking my questions seriously. The insensitivity that we must guard against will transform beautiful midrashic aphorisms, as we've seen, into Spock-like absurdities.

    For all of these reasons, and more, I suggest that my project is worthwhile and that my questions really are foundational (at least for a philosophy OF Judaism).

    Has that helped?

  33. Dani Rabinowitz

    One of the reasons that this site works so well is that it provides precisely these kinds of opportunity for people to engage in "conversations" on key topics. I have been following this thread with much interest as it hits on a topic that has struck a nerve with me–namely, whether or not to believe what biblical criticism has to say about the nature of the Pentateuch. In other words, should I believe the Orthodox (Maimonides-inspired??) doctrine that Moses wrote the Pentateuch upon "hearing" it "mouth to mouth" from God or to believe that the text is in fact made up of separate pieces written by different authors living at different times and redacted by a fifth? I guess this question struck me as so terrifying given certain fundamental assumptions I have about the nature of Judaism and which I can now, thanks to this thread, begin to see as very questionable (or Spock-like). So here is some rough attempt at trying to articulate the principle, call it P, that drives my thinking:

    [P] "One should only commit to a religion X if and only if every proposition in the set of propositions by which X is identified is true."

    In other words, there is no principle or property besides truth that can constitute a religious obligation. Other considerations or properties like utility are great but not binding in the religious sense of binding (this will lead to a different discussion, namely the relationship between religion and morality, which I think we can leave for another time).

    Naturally, a problem arises akin to the problem of the many: which propositions go into the Judaism set? This problem aside, if any claim made by Judaism is false (i.e. if any proposition in the Judaism set is false), then we are faced with three choices:
    i) Judaism is false.
    ii) That proposition must be "amended" so that a true proposition replaces it and achieves the same function as the false proposition.
    iii) The false proposition must be removed from the set and the necessary coherence shift be made between the remaining propositions if such a shift is necessitated.

  34. Dani Rabinowitz

    Hence, I am naturally uneasy about viewing the narrative sections of the Pentateuch as myth, even as a "true myth" (not sure about it, but that term sounds like an oxymoron). I can now see that they can be historically inaccurate or as myths yet express true propositions. But again I am uneasy about this as then it is not clear which propositions are to be expressed by these stories or myths.

    This brings me back to the comments I made earlier in this thread. Any instance in which chazal fail to state something in a clear manner constitutes, in my opinion, a pedagogical failure on their part. Here is a thought experiment that might help see my point. Suppose you are by leaps and bounds the most learned scholar of your age. You know every law and know all the theological principles supporting those laws. You now reach the point in your life when you need to write this information down so that you can pass it on to the next generation and so on into the future i.e. the tradition rests on you. Instead of writing down this material in as clear a language as possible, one that avoids ambiguities and language devices that might lead towards potential misunderstanding, one decides to record at least some of it using aphorisms, analogies, etc. such as "the meaning of life is a fountain," "life is a going down," "love your neighbor as yourself and the rest is commentary, or "everything is in it." Which method strikes one as the appropriate one? And remember, we are not talking about mere trivialities here; we are told that holding or withholding belief in some propositions can result in heaven or hell.

  35. Dani Rabinowitz

    Now to return to a point that brings both posts together: I do not see why one should keep the sabbath according to all the laws if the very basis of those laws is myth and not truth. In other words, suppose there never were 39 different types of work done on the tabernacle. I do not see why those responsible for those laws (if it wasn't God) would have decided that myth constitutes a satisfactory basis for Jewish jurisprudence i.e. would it not be weird to think of a whole legal system as complex and as wide as the Jewish system to be predicated upon a myth or half-myth or just plain old historical inaccuracies? And, utilitarian concerns aside, why put people to death for breaking those laws when there is nothing inherently wrong with breaking them (they are arbitrary bc we made them up)? Why do I get spiritual excision for eating unleavened goods on Passover if the Israelites never left Egypt in haste? All the fretting makes no sense if it is all false, or based on falsehoods, was informed by falsehoods, entails falsehoods, etc.

    Next, I am left wondering whether those who actually made up the content of the narratives in the text, if indeed it was so made up,ever thought that an entire legal system would be built around such a story? If not, then I very uneasy. Then again, I am very much an intentionalist about interpretation.

    Next, if our very theology about God is informed by the narratives, and we have no reason to expect that they express truths (i.e. the very truths they state (figurative language aside)), are we then left undermining our very faith? Perhaps God is not anything like the figure depicted in the sacred texts. What then?

    Lastly, if truth is not the foundation of a religious system, then why commit to one particular religion? Why not commit to the most convenient, popular, or powerful one?

    But as I said above, my starting position is now very much in flux, thanks in good part by the very insightful comments made by all of you. So thank you.

  36. Dani Rabinowitz

    sorry, my formulation of principle P above contained one too many "only's"

    Here it is again:

    [P] "One should commit to a religion X if and only if every proposition in the set of propositions by which X is identified is true."

  37. Dani Rabinowitz

    One could also formulate it as follows:

    [P*] "One should commit to a religion X if and only if every proposition in the set of propositions by which the identity of X is constituted is true."

    (Very rough) Auxiliary principle Q:

    "The identity of an X is constituted by a set of propositions {S} if and only if X is committed to each proposition in {S} being true and there is no other Y such that Y satisfies this correspondence (unless X is identical to Y)."

  38. Aaron Segal

    Sam – that was very helpful. I think your distinction between a philosophy of Judaism and philosophy in Judaism is an important one. I still disagree with the third point though. I agree that to appreciate literary devices in a given text, one has to have a good idea about what genre it belongs to – but (1) I don't think myth is a genre; one can have a mythic poem just as one can have a mythic novel (I recognize the general point is somewhat controversial). I don't think one needs to know whether the Odyssey was intended as a myth or history or both to be able to correctly detect a metaphor in it and avoid Spockiness. And (2) I certainly don't think one needs a full-blown *theory* about what myth *is* and its overall function in order to appreciate the literary devices contained in it.

    But these are minor points compared to the important ones you make about a philosophy of Judaism.

  39. Sam Lebens

    Thanks Aaron, but without meaning to backtrack from my last comment, I would say that even a philosophy of Judaism doesn't have to be comepletely objective; it doesn't have to stand completely outside of the tradition.

    The Biblical critic asks, who wrote this, and when? I think that the philosophy of Judaism that I'm envisaging wouldn't be interested in those questions at all. We're fine to continue to assume that the text, at least the first five books, are God authored, and yet ask, why does God tell us these stories? What are they? What are their purpose? How do they work? To what extent does it matter that they be an accurate history?

    Either way, I'm glad that the distinction I drew was useful to you and that you can see the sense in which my questions are important. I just wish I had really good answers to them, because I think it would unlock a lot of other mysteries in its wake…

    And Dani, as you seem to take on board at times, and then not at other times, I agree that Judaism has to be true. But there are many ways in which to interpret a given sentence. 'He had a heart of stone' is literally false, but metaphorically true, about many people.

    And your pedagogic critique of chazal is still begging far too many questions about what their purposes actually were.

    Finally, there are many areas of law, even secular law, that have to do with symbolism and not mere historical accuracy. Think of the ways in which black rod is supposed to initiate the opening of parliament in Britain. There's a lot more symbolism, albeit related to historical occurances, than there is historical accuracy. And the sabbath itself is called, by the Bible, an 'ot' – a 'sign' between man and God. Signs symbolise. So we have to get to the bottom of the symbolism of the Sabbath and what that symbolism is supposed to convey to man. The tabernacle is also a symbole. As is the number 39. All of this may have also been a history, but that seems to be only of secondary importance.

    And finally finally, Dani, you should see from what I said above to Aaron, this has nothing to do with Biblical criticism. I'm fine thinking that God spoke every word of the Bible to Moses. That's the theory that I'm most comfortable with. Perhaps that's one of the historical facts that Judaism stands or falls upon (perhaps not). But even if we accept the traditional stance (indeed, my stance), that the five books are God authored, it could still be that God gave us narratives of myth and legend because of the truths that they convey better than other sorts of language use.

    Now go back and look at all of the foundational questions I raise, and I think you'll see, that a lot of your discomfort comes from the fact that we just don't have good answers to them yet. But we will…

    And myth really doesn't have to be false, just like make-believe doesn't have to be false. See my earlier blog about religious belief and make-believe.

  40. Dani Rabinowitz


    Just so I am clear of what you are saying, are you in support of the following:

    God did indeed "dictate" the Torah to Moses but the narrative portions thereof may be historically inaccurate since God wished, for whatever reasons, to present us with those narratives?

    God's reasons for presenting us with historically inaccurate narratives, as you seem to indicate, might include, e.g., that the "inaccurate" narratives, or what you call myths, better "express" the truths God wishes for us to understand by those narratives.

    Is this an accurate portrayal of your position?


  41. Sam Lebens

    I accept your paraphrase of some of key ideas here, but I think the wording is deceptive.

    Yes, my view is compatible with God's having dictated every word of the five books to Moses.

    But the word 'inaccurate' only seems appropriate for talk of a historical account. Such an account could be accurate or inaccurate. But, to criticise Romeo and Juliet for not being accurate, would be to mistake the whole enterprise: it wasn't a history; it was a story.

    I think that the ancient audiences of the Bible wouldn't have considered that they were reading a history. They were reading national legend. Indeed, God authored legend. Some of it might be accurate historically, some not. But, even to call it an 'inaccurate' narrative, seems to relate to it as if it's supposed to be a history; which it isn't!

    But I accept that the laws are related to the narratives, in interesting ways, and that God wants us to relate to these narratives in certain ways, even that we should make-believe that they're true (which is what most narratives call on us to do, at least for the duration of the narrative).

    And yes, I think it may be that God chose this literary medium, and to base laws upon this sort of narrative, in order to convey truths that would be otherwise difficult to convey.

    But all of what I'm saying in this comment begs a real and systematic answer to my questions above, this I don't have yet!

    But you do accurately represent my leanings on these issues. It just needs a lot of fleshing out. What exactly are the jobs of the different sorts of narrative? What truths are they trying to convey? What attitudes are we supposed to have towards them? What is the meaning of some of their key words, such as 'God'?

    We have a lot of work to do.

    But we mustn't mistake one literary genre (say history) for another (say poetry) and then critise it for not doing the job that we've mistakenly attributed to it. That's why the first few questions on my list are, to my mind, so important.

  42. Sam Lebens

    I think it was a medieval tendency to relate to the narratives as history, which then makes questions of 'accuracy' so appropriate.

    But I think it was a medieval misunderstanding!

  43. Sam Lebens

    But as long as you recognise why it's inappropriate to use that language, I accept that the narratives are, or at least might be, as you say, often inaccurate.

  44. Dani Rabinowitz

    Perhaps a very short, clear, and precise statement of your position would be helpful.

  45. Sam Lebens

    I don't really have a position. I have some questions, which I've set out above, and I have a conviction: a conviction that to treat all the narratives as attempts at historically accurate history is wrongheaded; and that (orthodox) Judaism can still be true; outright religious pluralism can still be avoided; and a meaningful relationship with Divinity can still be cultivated by a Judaism whose narratives have more in common with myth than with history. But more than that, I cannot say. My questions, I argue, are fundamental to the phiolosophy of Judaism, but they still need answers.

    I also think that the distinction I drew above between philoshophy of Judaism and philosophy in Judaism could be a great deal of use, and that perhaps some of the medeival philosophers were guilty of blurring the boundary between the two. I claim only that my questions, and the prejudices I have against historicism are foundational to the philosophy OF Judaism.

    I'm not sure that that was the sort of very short, clear and precise statement of my position. But I hope my questions are clear. And I hope that my disregard for historicism (by which I mean, the attempt to treat all of the Jewish narratives as if they were history) is clear.

    What I'm looking for is a very short, clear and precise set of answers to my questions.

    What are narratives? What are their functions? How do they work? What is their relationship to the law? What historical occurances DID have to have happened to make Judaism true/right? What is the nature of religious language and of religious belief? And all of this has to be done without falling into Spockism.

  46. Aaron Segal

    Sam – I know the following might represent a role-reversal (between us), but I think we should be open to blurring the line between a philosophy OF Judaism and a philosophy IN Judaism, in the following sense: it might turn out that the function of the narratives and the way they're presented is not solely to convey some important theological/historical/religious truths (as the case may be), which truths are then the "raw materials" for a philosophy IN Judaism, but that the telling, retelling, commemorating, studying, etc. of the narratives (interwoven with the laws) is itself constitutive of the religious life that the Torah aims to make actual. And *that* fact is then extremely important for a proper philosophy IN Judaism (the blurring here is obviously very different than the sort of blurring that you say the medievals engaged in).

    For instance, I've been thinking recently about the role of memory in Tanakh (and Hazal) – collective memory of Bnei Yisrael on the one hand and God's memory on the other hand. It seems to me that much of the Torah can be construed as itself a "reminiscing", or a call to reminisce, about the many occasions on which HKB"H encountered Knesset Yisrael. Such reminiscing is reflective of and conducive to a relationship of mutual love and concern between God and His people. [Hazal of course interpreted Shir Hashirim this way; but it seems to me that the "shira" that is the Torah, a la the Netziv, ought to be understood this way too, at least to some degree.] This raises all sorts of interesting philosophical questions – about collective love, collective memory, their relationship, etc. – and the suggestion is admittedly speculative (I definitely plan on pursuing it to see if it will work out). But if it's right (or even partially right), then part of the answer to one of the central questions in the philosophy OF Judaism (as you've assigned them) is critical as "raw data" for a philosophy IN Judaism.

    What do you think?

  47. Sam Lebens

    I agree with what you say in the first paragraph of your last comment, Aaron, that 'the function of the narratives and the way they're presented is not solely to convey some important theological/historical/religious truths (as the case may be), which truths are then the "raw materials" for a philosophy IN Judaism, but that the telling, retelling, commemorating, studying, etc. of the narratives (interwoven with the laws) is itself constitutive of the religious life that the Torah aims to make actual.' I think these retellings and commemorations are part of the process of making-as-if. It's not enough to hear many of the Biblical stories, and even to believe that they're true; you need to make-as-if it's true; the process of living the narrative, as it were, is supposed to be transformative; and perhaps, sometimes, it plays a role in transforming the content of the narrative itself…

    And, as for the second paragraph of you last comment, which I found facinating, I'm interested to know which of my questions you're refering to when you say, 'But if it's right (or even partially right), then part of the answer to one of the central questions in the philosophy OF Judaism (as you've assigned them) is critical as "raw data" for a philosophy IN Judaism.' Could you clarify which question you're refering to, and how it becomes critical even for a philosophy IN Judaism?

    But I would say, even for myself, that the distinction I drew should probably be blurred in a few instances. Perhaps, there are certain fictions, and rituals, and the like, that, even according to Judaism itself, only work when we actually understand what they are. If that's the case, then the philosophy OF judaism will creep into the philosophy IN judaism. I can't think of any great examples, but there may be some.

    Furthermore, there may be cases in which the task of make-believing in a narrative is made harder by the fact that the stories are, themselves, so inherently unbelievable to the modern ear; though make-believe is still an option, for many the task seems harder. In those cases, the proper functioning of Judaism itself will be rescued by interpretations of the stories that reconciles their narratives with the realm of the possible, as science reveals it to us.

    So, when Saadya Gaon tells us that we sometimes have to reinterpret the verses in the light of empirical evidence (which I don't see to be a major need, given that we may only be called upon by God to make-believe in them), he might not being doing violence to the distinction between philosophy OF judaism and philosophy IN judaism, so much as making slight adjustments to the content of the narratives in order to ensure that they can continue to do their job for the more imaginatively-challenged of the Jewish people.

    (Of course, this isn't what Rav Saadya was consciously *trying* to do, but it may still have been the affect)

  48. Dani Rabinowitz

    I am wondering whether you might have an unlikely ally in Maimonides. As I understand M, prophets prophesize in parables, figurative language, etc. so that the average person can be lead towards useful ideas which are nevertheless false. These prophesies contain (or in my terms "express") truths which the educated minority have to uncover and it is these truths that the parables etc. express. Similarly, might one say that the narratives might lead the masses to false yet useful beliefs and lead the minority to true ones. So the narratives could be "myths" in your sense of "myths." Biblical criticism will then be irrelevant because the Torah (even if authored by God) is not a book of literal truths or history. Rather, it is a book that is useful for establishing a just state or useful for moral behaviour. A good deal of what it contains is literally false, or just false i.e. it may be the case that there did exist a man by the name of Abraham who was married to Sarah and who did x, y, and z.

    Might this be something you are sympathetic to?

  49. Sam Lebens

    Thanks Dani.
    Yes, I do consider that Maimonides is something of an ally.
    I don't like his intellectual elitism, and think that the sort of outlook I'm trying to generate won't inherent that from him.
    Furthermore, I don't think my position has to reduce into a pragmatism about religion, a la William James. I say this because I still think that Judaism was started by an actual revealation, and that its narratives convey all sorts of truths, and that the lifestyle isn't just a 'useful for establishing a just state or useful for moral behaviour'. I also think that the lifestyle can help one come to have a meaningful relationship with God.
    I think that a lot that is true for Maimonides too. So I'm happy for the alliance, although, as I say, some of the details differ. For instance, I think that our answers to questions 3 and 4 would differ, in various ways, which would smuggle in differences to some of the other questions too. But having said that, I still don't actually have any fully fledged answers. Just some questions and some intuitions.

  50. Sam Lebens

    And I feel very stupid comparing my views to those of Maimonides…

Leave a Comment

Talmudic Destiny
January 16, 2024
7:00 pm
The APJ is delighted to announce that our annual group session will be held at the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association on Tuesday evening, January 16, 2024, 7-10 pm at the Sheraton, New York Times Square. This year’s...
October 15, 2023
Rutgers Analytic Theology Seminar – CFP Deadline Oct 15, 2023. The Rutgers Analytic Theology Seminar solicits abstracts for papers in analytic theology, for a conference to be held March 10-12, 2024, at Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus. Papers are welcome...