Hirsch on Identity in the Talmud: Post #2

Jewish Identity


There is certainly much of interest in this excellent article both for philosophers and for Talmudists (and even more for those who are both).  I want to focus on just one issue, which is briefly addressed at several points in the article and which I take to be of some importance.  I tried to tackle this issue in a paper that I presented this summer at the Shalem Center’s conference, Philosophical Investigations of the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, and Midrash.  What follows draws heavily on that paper.  [For those who are interested in the full version, please click on the link at the end of the post.]


At various points in the article, Hirsch asserts that the Tana’im and Amora’im were making claims about identity.  For instance, he says, “I think it is clear that R. Yochanan was indeed making a claim about identity and I have formulated his principle accordingly.” (p. 167) And later he writes, “I think it is no distortion to say that the tractate as a whole presents an extended treatment of the identity of a wide range of artifacts.” (p. 175) If this is right, then R. Yochanan and the Tana’im (and Tosafot) are entering into debates with “ordinary” metaphysicians – from the Hellenistic philosophers, who had a keen sense for the interesting philosophical questions about identity, to contemporary philosophers like Peter Geach, Roderick Chisholm, Eli Hirsch, and others.  And presumably, they are also having such debates with each other – two Tana’im who have a machloket about whether a certain kli is still tameh are (in certain circumstances) having a dispute about identity, plain and simple.  [See pp. 7-11 of my paper for a discussion of some examples in which there would appear to be a machloket about identity.]     


In my paper I raise two problems for – or at least costs of – Hirsch’s assumption.  I’ll briefly recapitulate those and then add a third (the third was suggested to me by David Shatz).  (1) Hirsch’s assumption seems to be inconsistent with any robustly pluralistic view on Talmudic-halakhic disputes, by which I mean  any view according to which each position in a Talmudic-halakhic dispute is one that God might very well have willed, or at least endorsed.  After all, at most one view in a philosophical dispute about identity is true, and whichever view is false is necessarily false – so how could God have willed that such a view be true?  (2) Hirsch’s assumption seems to commit him to a certain view on how the Talmudists themselves conceived of psak halakha (i.e., halakhic dispute resolution), one that doesn’t comport particularly well with what many Talmudists said explicitly about psak halakha. [The details here are somewhat complicated, so I refer the interested reader (and I am well aware that the extension of this predicate might be empty) to pp. 17-19 of my paper.] (3) We might wonder whether Hirsch’s assumption compromises, to one degree or other, the religious value of either the original debates/conversations among the Talmudists or our study of them.  If in these instances the Tana’im and Amora’im were making straightforwardly metaphysical claims and having metaphysical disputes, rather than making claims about what God wants from us, then does that not diminish the religious value of studying these disputes?  I am aware of the Gemara in Avoda Zara that even Sihat Hulin (the mundane conversations) of Torah scholars require study, and I don’t mean to question that, but can one compare the religious value of studying Havayot D’abaye V’rava when they are directly grappling with the will and word of God to their discussions of “mundane matters”, even when those mundane matters are as interesting and ripe for philosophizing as identity?  I can only record my own feeling that one cannot.


On the other hand, the most obvious alternative to Hirsch’s assumption (or what struck me as an obvious alternative – this also seems to be the alternative considered by Jed Lewinsohn in his excellent article “Philosophy in Halakha: The Case of Intentional Action” in Torah u-Madda Journal 14, p. 110) also has its own share of problems.  The alternative is to understand all the ostensibly metaphysical claims in the Talmudic halakha as occurring within the scope of a “halakhically speaking” operator – that is, the Tana’im and Amora’im are saying what is to be assumed for the purposes of halakhic reasoning, not what is true, period.  The main problem with this approach is that it doesn’t seem to be able to account for the Talmudists’ use of svara – or rational intuition – in generating the “data” for halakhic theorizing. [See pp. 20-24 of my paper for a fuller development of the suggestion of its problems.]


So I’d like to put forward a second alternative to Hirsch’s assumption.  It builds off, ironically enough, some of Eli Hirsch’s own work in (meta)ontology.  Hirsch (among others) has argued for a considerable plasticity in the meaning/referent of such core metaphysical terms like “exists”, “identical to”, and others.  There is a relatively wide range of candidate referents, and so having people’s utterances comes out true takes top billing in determining the referent of their terms.  This has deflationary consequences for many ontological disputes.  Now, I’m unsure as to where I stand on that view in general, but I think the most promising response to it (coming primarily from Ted Sider) is a generalization of David Lewis’s reference magnetism – the idea here is that there are more and less natural candidate referents for our terms, and the more natural the candidate is, the more eligible it is to be the referent – naturalness of a property/relation (at least on one conception) is a matter of how much the sharing of that property/relation makes for genuine similarity.  Then eligibility has to be weighed against use – say, maximizing the number of true sentences – and that’s what determines reference of all of our terms, including such terms as “exists” and “is identical to”.  Since there is a perfectly natural candidate for each of those core terms, the plasticity (and concomitant deflationism about ontological disputes) doesn’t arise.    


But it seems to me that the question of which candidate is most natural depends on the dimension of comparison – moral, logical, physical, etc. – and so when it comes to determining the most eligible candidate of a (token) term, one has to take into account the subject matter of the surrounding context (i.e., what subject matter does the global assignment assign to the surrounding context).  So Sider’s response might work very well for ordinary philosophical contexts, where there’s a clear “winner” for the most natural candidate, but – and here’s the main thrust of my suggestion – in halakhic contexts, the range of equally natural candidates is vastly expanded since God would be quite willing to carve up the world in any one of the proverbial 49 ways.   Each of those makes for geuine similarity-with-respect-to-God’s-will to the same degree, or at least nearly so. So, eligibility settles very little and use plays the critical role in determining what the Tanaim and Amoraim were saying (and thinking) – whatever referent makes their claims come our true is the referent of their terms.  So for all we know R.  Yochanan is not discussing identity proper, but some other relation of which his claims are true.  And in this way, it’s hard for a Tana or Amora to make a controversial claim about identity or to engage in a dispute with one another about identity.  Instead, their disputes are about how God wants to carve up the world for the purposes of halakha.  This seems to avoid the problems with Hirsch’s assumption – in particular, the religious value of studying Masekhet Keilim lies in the fact that Masekhet Keilim is not a lengthy philosophical disquisition on identity but a sustained attempt to get clear on how God wishes for us to conceive of the world and act upon that conception.  On the other hand, the use of svara is easily accommodated because all this “halakhic realignment” happens automatically. [For a fuller discussion, see my paper pp. 24-31.  I should say that my main hesitation about this approach is a general hesitation about reference magnetism – it seems somewhat mysterious to me.] 


So let me ask series of closely related questions: which approach should we prefer? Does Hirsch’s assumption lead where I claim, and if so, should that bother us?  Are there drawbacks to my approach that I haven’t considered?  And what, if anything, of Hirsch’s analysis of the Mishnayot and Gemara is undermined if we drop the assumption of his I’ve been questioning? 



  1. Sam Lebens

    Aaron, in response to Hirsch's paper, you've given us a great deal to think about. But a few of your comments leave me a little uncomfortable.

    Firstly, even if the rabbis in tractate kelim are not intending to argue about the fundamental nature of identity; even if they're only arguing about how God thinks of identity for the purposes of halakha; it is still likely that on many occasions, they’ll have been influenced by their philosophical intuitions about identity itself.

    If you hold theory x about identity, you’re likely to tend towards a different ruling than the person who holds theory y. I concede that both options might be totally acceptable as legal options – i.e., God is happy to think in terms of either conception, for the purposes of halakha – even though in the metaphysical dispute, there can only be one right answer. I also accept that, when we rule in accordance with the y theorist, we’re not ruling about the metaphysical reality of identity, and therefore, we’re not ruling that the y theory is true. I’m still allowed to say, however, that the various rabbinic positions were likely influenced by the way that they viewed the world beyond the law, even if they were only arguing about the contours of halakhic reality, and not the world beyond.

    Secondly, it’s going to be important for everyone in this field of research to make subtle distinctions between different areas of law. When we’re talking about the legal categories of purity and impurity, perhaps there will be very little concern, on the part of dipsutatnts, for how the world really is beyond God's halakhic carving up of the world. Accordingly, when the Rabbis argue about the application of such concepts, their arguments will be totally disconnected from how the world is beyond the law. There may be other extremes, on the other hand, in which the law is totally beholden to metaphysical reality. Take the current halakhic controversy about the end of life. Does the halakha associate the end of life with the end of brain function, or with the end of respiration? It’s open to us to interpret this controversy purely halakhically. How do the texts define the key terms? How is life defined for the purposes of the law? What constitutes murder, for the purposes of the law?

    But, before a lenient position were taken with my brain dead body, God forbid, I’d want to know that the lenient legal position was right about the substantive metaphysical and ethical issues: do I still have a soul; is my soul still embodied; will my soul want to remain embodied for as long as it can; should it remain embodied for as long as it can?

    We seemingly have two extremes: halakhic arguments that have no concern for the world beyond the halakha; and arguments that seem wholly dependent upon metaphysics. It seems to me that there will likely be a large grey area between these two extremes.


  2. Sam Lebens

    We need to be sensitive to the differences between distinct disputes. Different disputes in different areas of the Talmud will be best suited to different styles of analysis. Some of them will be well served by the sort of rigorous metaphysical analyses that Hirsch puts forward: if not to uncover the underlying argument, which we might sometimes succeed in doing with metaphysical concepts alone, then at least to uncover the underlying metaphysical intuitions that were likely influencing the rabbis to come to their divergent legal rulings.

    One of Hirsch's aim was clearly to shed light on the Talmudic dispute. But his stated aim was to shed light on the concept of identity itself; to provide a background against which the concept takes on a more significant importance. So, even if the Rabbis weren't talking about metaphysical identity, their disputes provide a model for a legal system in which identity does take on a weighty significance. We can imagine a legal system much like the halakha, but one that is, unlike the halakha, concerned to echo actual reality in its carving up of the world. In that legal system, the Rav Yehuda counterpart would really have been talking about identity itself – and in that legal world, indentity really would have a new found significance.

    Thus, even if you've shown that Hirsch fails to uncover the true Talmudic dispute, he has still succeeded, in the other direction of fit, in using Talmudic contexts (or at least contexts modelled on the Talmud) to shed new light upon metaphysical concepts.

    I'm also unconvinved by your third point, Aaron. Perhaps metaphysics is an inherently religious pursuit: you're coming to know God's creation when you do metaphysics; just as the scientist does when he practices science. That really can be religiously significant; as could a tractate dedicated to the nature of identity.

  3. Sam Lebens

    I have one more comment – most of these opinions of mine are already known to Aaron, but it's good to have the debate out in the open (!).

    Though I think Aaron is onto something here, with his Halakhic Realism, I do have something of a theological quibble: his distinction between metaphysical reality and halakhic reality seems to be drawn in terms of how the world is, as opposed to how God carves the world up for halakhic purposes. But conceivably, the way the world is, IS just the way that God carves it up! After all, God is presented by the Bible as legislating the world into existence.

    It seems theologically attractive, at least, to conceive of the platonic forms as ideas in the mind of God. On this view, our metaphysical theories succeed in carving up the beast of reality close to the joints iff our conceptual scheme succeeds in mapping more or less directly, onto the conceptual scheme of the Almighty. Of course, Aaron can maintain a difference between metaphysical reality and halakhic reality in terms of Divine telos. God carves the world up differently for different purposes. But even this requires some work. Why do we tend to think that metaphysical reality is somehow more real, or brute, than halakhic reality? If they’re both just ways in which God carves things up, then our preference seems to be arbitrary. Aaron's answer is that neither reality is more real. That's not an intuition that I share, but it's a shame to leave things at the level of clashing intuitions.

  4. Aaron Segal

    Sam: thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. I'm not sure if this will be to your satisfaction or your chagrin, but there isn't very much in your comments with which I disagree. I agree that it is entirely possible that a Tana or Amora arrived at a certain halakhic view (with respect to identity) because he held a related "philosophical" view about identity (where that's a causal 'because'). For all I know, they were thinking and talking about identity outside the Beit Midrash; but for all I know, they weren't. So I'm not sure why you think "it is still LIKELY that on many occasions, they’ll have been influenced by their philosophical intuitions about identity itself." This seems to be an empirical question, and I strongly suspect that we don't have much data one way or the other. Note: the above claim should not be confused with what you say next: "If you hold theory x about identity, you’re likely to tend towards a different ruling than the person who holds theory y". I am inclined to agree with that, but it doesn't obviously support the likelihood claim you make before that.

    And I also think you're right that there might be some cases which are not amenable to the sort of account I offer, and about which we ought to make a Hirschian assumption. It was in part because of your pressing me on this that I made my claims more modest (in scope) in the post than in the paper. But I still think those cases are the exception rather than the rule.

  5. Aaron Segal

    With respect to whether metaphysics is an intrinsically religious pursuit – I would like to agree with you that it is, because I spend a considerable amount of time studying it. Unfortunately, I have trouble thinking that. The analogy to science breaks down since the scientist studies the deep contingent truths about the world – these are the ones that God made true and makes true. The truths are elegant and the contingent aspects of the world they depict is really mind-boggling, and so the study of those things can intrinsically have religious value. But a metaphysician tries to study the most general features of the world, and because it reaches for that level of abstraction, it often deals in necessary truths – they just had to be that way. So in the same way that it's hard for me to see the study of mathematics as intrinsically having religious value, it's hard for me to see the study of metaphysics as intrinsically having religious value. [All this has to be qualified a good deal in a less pessimistic direction; as I was writing the previous few lines, I was thinking that some of most mysterious and interesting areas in metaphysics, such as (1) the relationship between the mental and the physical and (2) human freedom, are ones with regard to which contingent truths play a prominent role, at least on some views. Also, what I said doesn’t preclude the possibility that the study of metaphysics has instrumental religious value.]

  6. Sam Lebens

    I like agreement, especially with you Aaron, as it makes me feel that I'm on the right track.

    But there's still some points to haggle over.

    You isolate two claims of mine:
    (1) The Rabbis rulings on identity vis-a-vis tuma and tahara were likely to be influenced by their metaphsyical conceptions of identity – even if they accept that halakhic-identity needn't actually be the same thing as metaphysical-identity.
    (2) If you hold theory x about identity, you’re likely to tend towards a different ruling than the person who holds theory y.

    You tend to agree with (2), but not with (1). So let me defend (1) a little bit.

    There are two considerations that lead me to assert (1):

    (a) Metaphysical-identity is a more basic concept that halakhic-identity (if only because it's relevant in a wider range of discourses). Therefore, the Rabbis were likely to have had intuitions about metaphysical-identity before they came round to their halakhic disputes. And, if they already had theories (however sketchy) about metaphysical-identity, you agree, given (2), that those theories will likely influence their halakhic decisions.
    (b) I don't see why God would want to carve up the world all that differently for halakhic purposes than for regular purposes, unless there were certain pragmatic considerations that explain the divergence between the joints of reality and the joints of halakhic reality. This means that we have a default position in which we assume that the halakhic and the metaphysical realms run in harmony; a default position that we happily deveate from when we believe that God would have had good reason to carve up halakhic reality differently from metaphysical reality; and we can happily accept that even if we ruled in accordance with the wrong metaphysical theory, the halakha is still binding; that God's carvings are senstive to the decisions that the halakhic process arrives at.

  7. Sam Lebens

    And, I have two other comments to make based upon your responses:

    (i) You assume that your style of Talmudic analysis will cover the majority of cases and that the Hirsch style will only cover an exceptional minority. I don't have the experience with the Talmud that you do, but I still think we should keep an open mind. Each dispute needs to be taken on its own. Some will be about the joints of halakhic reality; some will be about the joints of metaphysical reality; some, I argue, will be about psychology and sociology (do the psychological and sociological facts require the Rabbis to act in this way, or in that way?). It's an open question which model covers the majority; though I think your halakhic-realism model is an important one.
    (ii) Even before I read your response, I thought you might come back at me with the claim about metaphysics as a religious pursuit. I realised that the sciences study the choices that God made in creating the world, where as a great deal of metapysics (though not all of it) deals with the ways that the world had to be – and therefore doesn't teach us all that much about God. But, I think that the desire for certainty; the desire to be in touch with reality as it is; is an inherently religious drive, much like the drive for dveikut (cleaving) with Divinity. We reach out for certainty and we never quite find what we're looking for, but we keep grasping. This feels a lot like the reaching out that Rav Soloveitchik describes in the Lonely Man of Faith to a God that one constantly senses nearby but who always disappears when we reach out to grasp him.

    This desire for certainty; and for communion with reality as is it is, is too hard for me to distinguish clearly from the desire to be at one with God; the unquenchable desire to know the mind of God is too close to distinguish from the equally unquenchable desire to understand the nature of reality and truth.

  8. Gabriel

    PART 1

    On the topic of whether the study of metaphysics can, in itself, be a religious pursuit… Aaron's comments on the matter seem to imply that the only way that the study of X can be a religious pursuit is by X’s somehow manifesting something of God’s will – i.e. by X’s being something that God chose to create that way, so that when we study it, you might say, we get a glimpse into God’s ‘character’. And indeed, there strikes me as being something very profound about that – in the deepest tradition of natural theology.

    However, even on this reasoning, it seems to me that the study of some of the necessary aspects of existence can be equally revealing of God’s will – for after all, God chose to create. He chose to create a world – and how do we know that he didn’t choose to do so because it would instantiate some of these necessary truths which would otherwise never have been instantiated? Or, perhaps, it might be that He chose to create the world despite knowing that these necessary truths would need to be instantiated. The point is, the necessary truths are relevant to God’s choices – and therefore their study may still reveal to us something of God’s will and nature.

    You may object to my notion of the ‘instantiation’ of necessary truths. If so, I suppose we’d need to get some actual examples of necessary truths on the table, and see whether the concept applies. Perhaps it doesn’t. In any case, necessary truths could come into a study of God’s contingent choices in other ways, even if we scrap the idea of the instantiation of necessary truths. Since you took the necessary truths of metaphysics together with the necessary truths of mathematics for these purposes, I will use an mathematical example to illustrate how such necessary truths could enter into a study of God’s contingent will… Consider what Augustine says, in *The City of God*: “Six is a number perfect in itself, and not because God created all things in six days; rather, the converse is true. God created all things in six days because the number is perfect…” – and God chose 28 as the number of days in the moon’s orbit of the earth, because 28 is next perfect number. This is a rather trivial example of what I’m talking about – but it will do as an illustration…

  9. Gabriel

    PART 2

    In any case, why should we think that knowing the contingent aspects of God’s will, the things He *chose* (when He could have chosen otherwise), are the only things revealing about Him? After all, surely there is something to be said for quite the opposite thought: that knowing the merely contingent aspects of God’s choices tell us only what is superficial about Him, whereas knowing those aspects of His mind which are necessary, will tell us the deepest things about his nature. As Johannes Kepler, apparently, said: “Geometry is one and eternal shining in the mind of God. That share in it accorded to men is one of the reasons that Man is the image of God.” – And presumably this would be true not just of geometry but of all necessary truths – at least of we agree with what we might call Kepler’s ‘Divine Idealism’.
    But we may move even further in this direction, and ask: what of those philosophers and theologians who think that even truths which we call ‘necessary truths’ (and which they do too), are contingent on God’s will? Descartes thought that – I am told (to name a non-Jewish philosopher), and so did Rav Kook (to name a Jewish one). I’m sure that many others have too (embrace the radical freedom and omnipotence of God!). In this case, even according to Aaron’s reasoning, the study of the necessary truths of metaphysics would become just as much an intrinsically religious practice as the study of science.

    But in any case, surely there are many other ways in which the study of metaphysics can be an intrinsically religious practice?

    Consider the following beautiful passage by the wonderful old-world English ‘metaphysician’, FH Bradley (back from the days when the English knew how to produce *real* metaphysicians…): “All of us, I presume, more or less, are led beyond the region of ordinary facts. Some in one way and some in others, we seem to touch and have communion with what is beyond the visible world. In various manners we find something higher, which both supports and humbles, both chastens and transports us. And, with certain persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principle way of thus experiencing the Deity. No one, probably, who has not felt this, however differently he might describe it, has ever cared much for metaphysics. And, whenever it has been felt strongly, it has been its own justification. The man whose nature is such that by one path alone his chief desire will reach consummation, will try to find it on that path, whatever it may be, and whatever the world thinks of it; and, if he does not, he is contemptible.” (FH Bradley, *Appearance and Reality: A Metaphysical Essay*, Introduction, p. 5)
    Here the study of metaphysics is a way of being led beyond oneself – and indeed, beyond the realm of the merely physical. And for Bradley this is to be led if not *to*, then at least *towards* God. For Bradley the study of metaphysics seems to be a religious experience of God, of sorts – and one which doesn’t seem to involve an experience of the contingencies of His will.

  10. Gabriel

    PART 3

    And of course, moving back to Jewish philosophers, we have the Rambam – who is surely the prime exponent of the view of the study of metaphysics as a religious – as a mystical – experience. After all, the study of metaphysics, for the Rambam, is the practice of *unio mystica* – of coming to be one with God. Or, at least, that is the case when it comes to that branch of metaphysics of which has God as its object: “The fourth kind of perfection is the true perfection of man: the possession of the highest, intellectual faculties; the possession of such notions which lead to true metaphysical opinions as regards God. With this perfection man has obtained his final object; it gives him true human perfection; it remains to him alone; it gives him immortality, and on its account he is called man… [396]… The prophets have likewise explained unto us these things, and have expressed the same opinion on them as the philosophers. They say… that the knowledge of God, i.e., true wisdom, is the only perfection which we should seek, and in which we should glorify ourselves. Jeremiah, referring to these four kinds of perfection, says: "Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me" (Jer. ix. 22, 23).” (G:III:54, pp. 395-6, Friedlander); and ““If our state in this bodily world is so, then how much more so, in the spiritual world – namely, the World to Come – where our souls will know of the Creator (yaskilu bah nafshoteinu min haboreh), as the supernal entities do, or even more [than them]… The intention in saying ‘their crown on their heads’ [is] the existence of the soul through the existence of that which it knows, and the two [the knower and the known] one and the same thing, as the knowledgeable philosophers have said… and its saying ‘enjoying the radiance of the Divine Presence’, intends [to say] that that soul will get pleasure from what it cognises of the Creator, just as the Holy Chayyot get pleasure, and the other levels of angels, from what they grasp of His existence. And the final end and [greatest] good is to reach this supernal company, and to grasp this level. And the existence of the soul, as we have explained, [will be] endless, like the existence of the Creator – may His praises be elevated – who is the cause of its existence, for its [the soul’s] grasping of Him, as will be explained in First Philosophy.” (Intro to Perek Chelek, 136 [Shilat]).

  11. Gabriel

    PART 4

    But it seems that the Rambam thinks that even the study of objects other that God can have religious significance – at least, they can grant us immortality – for on his Aristotelian notion of the unity of the knower with the object of knowledge, we obtain immortality by taking any eternal object as the object of our knowledge: “[W]hen the matter – which is composed of the [four] elements – decomposes, and the psyche [neshamah] is annihilated (because it is only found with the body, and needs the body), this form will not be cut off [loh tikart ha’tzurah ha’zot], because it does not need the psyche [neshamah] for its actions. Rather it knows [yoda’at] and grasps the intelligibles which are separate from the material [objects] [ha’de;ot ha’p’rudot min ha’golmim], and it knows the Creator of all, and it endures forever and ever. This is what Solomon said, in his wisdom, ‘And the dust will return to land as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it’ (Ecclesisates).” (Yad, Hilchot Yesodei haTorah, 4:9); and “(3) Whenever ‘soul’ [nefesh] is mentioned regarding this matter, it isn’t the psyche [neshamah] that needs the body, but rather, the form of the soul [tzurat ha’nefesh], which is the knowledge which it has grasped of the Creator [ha’de’ah she’hisiogah min ha’boreh], according to its power, and [which it has] grasped [of the] separate intellects [ha’de’ot ha’nifradot], and the other creatures [she’ar ha’ma’asim]; and this is the form about which we explained in the fourth chapter of ‘The Laws of the Foundations of the Torah’ – which is called ‘soul’ [nefesh] in this regard. This life – because there is no death for it, because death is something that is only an occurrence of bodies, and there is no body there – is called the ‘bond of life’ [tzror ha’chayim]…” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot T’shuvah, Chap. 8, Secs. 2-3).

  12. Gabriel

    PART 5

    Moving back, perhaps closer to Bradley’s sentiment, we have the idea of the objects of metaphysics as objects of aesthetic wonderment. And it seems to me that this sense can often be a religious one – can often be a large part of religious experience… In a wonderful passage which has stuck in my mind ever since I first read it, probably in my first week as a philosophy undergraduate, Bertrand Russell writes: “We shall find it convenient only to speak of things existing when they are in time, that is to say, when we can point to some time at which they exist (not excluding the possibility of their existing at all times). Thus thoughts and feelings, minds and physical objects exist. But universals do not exist in this sense; we shall say that they subsist or have being, where 'being' is opposed to 'existence' as being timeless. The world of universals, therefore, may also be described as the world of being. The world of being is unchangeable, rigid, exact, delightful to the mathematician, the logician, the builder of metaphysical systems, and all who love perfection more than life. The world of existence is fleeting, vague, without sharp boundaries, without any clear plan or arrangement, but it contains all thoughts and feelings, all the data of sense, and all physical objects, everything that can do either good or harm, everything that makes any difference to the value of life and the world. According to our temperaments, we shall prefer the contemplation of the one or of the other. The one we do not prefer will probably seem to us a pale shadow of the one we prefer, and hardly worthy to be regarded as in any sense real. But the truth is that both have the same claim on our impartial attention, both are real, and both are important to the metaphysician. Indeed no sooner have we distinguished the two worlds than it becomes necessary to consider their relations” (Bertrand Russell, *The Problems of Philosophy*, end of Chap IX). It is no coincidence that ‘Divine’ is often used synonymously with ‘perfect’ – and to engage in the study of that which is perfect is, to some extent, to engage in the study of ‘the Divine’. Which may be why such studies inspire what is often most appropriately called *religious* devotion… (An obituary of the mathematician GH Hardy said that he had a: “profound conviction that the truths of mathematics described a bright and clear universe, exquisite and beautiful in its structure, in comparison with which the physical world was turbid and confused. It was this which made his friends… think that in his attitude to mathematics there was something which, being essentially spiritual, was near to religion” [*The Oxford Magazine*, January 22nd 1948; quoted in Paul Hoffman’s *The Man Who Loved Only Numbers*, p. 79]).

  13. Gabriel

    PART 6 (last one!)

    And what about the religious nature of the pursuit of truth, pure and simple? As Edith Stein once wrote: “God is truth. Whoever seeks the truth is seeking God, whether consciously or unconsciously” (in a letter of 23rd March 1938)… I feel as though the list of ways in which the study of metaphysics could be an intrinsically religious pursuit could go on and on and on… (I see that Sam has added one himself, since I went away to write this comment offline). I suppose an important question would be what difference Aaron was thinking of between metaphysics having *intrinsic* religious significance, and being of only merely *instrumental* religious significance. I am doubtful as to whether any clear line could be drawn between the two kinds of significance in this kind of area…

  14. Sam Lebens

    Gabriel. Fantastic fantastic fantastic. I'm also a huge admirer of Bradley. I Don't like you comment about when England knew how to make real metaphysicians, because I obviously think that Russell was a great metaphysicain too!!

    And, Russell had a great respect for Bradley that wasn't shared by Russell's disciples, and by people like AJ Ayer who derided him. Bradley and Wittgenstein (especially the early Wittgenstein) had a keen awareness, like Maimonides, that metapysics sought to bring the thinker in contact with areas of reality that actually lie beyond the reach of discrursive thought; philosophy as an awe-inspiring and unachievable goal that forever calls us on and on.

    Indeed, Russell too seems completely driven by a desire for certainty, and by an awe for the realm of being, as caught by the quote you shared. But, he struggled to make sense of the notion of a realm of reality that lies forever beyond the reach of thought.

    Either way, the list that you compile as to the potential forms of religious significance that metaphysics can have is excellent. Perhaps the embryo of a worthy paper? Aaron, how do you respond?!

  15. Gabriel

    PART 7

    Sorry! – That was a false promise… I feel that I want to just add a couple of comments to my last post. I was thinking a little further about what I claimed might be the breakdown between intrinsic and instrumental religious significances of the study of metaphysics. Perhaps the most obvious religious significance that the study of metaphyics might have is that it might be absolutely essential to one’s search for God, to one’s journey of religious seeking. I may be religiously lost, seeking for God – seeking to understand what people even *mean by the word ;God’. And I may turn to metaphysics to try to find my way. I may turn to the classical attempted proofs of God’s existence. Or I may turn to metaphysics and ontology more generally, trying to develop what seems to be a good picture of the reality at its most basic level – so as to see if anything that could be described as ‘God, or ‘the Divine’ would have a room in such a reality. In any case, the study of metaphysics may be the only road that I know in my search for God. –

    Now, Aaron may well say that this is a prime example of metaphysics being of *instrumental* rather than *intrinsic* religious significance. After all, the metaphysics is being used merely as a means towards a religious end: ‘finding’ God, or coming to believe in God… I don’t know if Aaron really would take this a good example of what he was thinking of as a merely instrumental religious use of metaphysics, but if so, then I would response by saying that the division simply cannot be made. For is not seeking God, with honesty, with humility, with yearning – is that not a deeply religious practice? And perhaps this is one aspect of what Edit stein meant when she said that “Whoever seeks truth is seeking God”.

  16. Gabriel

    PART 8

    The kind of study of metaphysics that is a seeking of God is intrinsically religious in many ways. Perhaps the most simple is that any life which places God at its centre is a religious life. The most obvious way that god can stand at the centre of one’s life is if one believes in Him and serves Him. But God is just as much at the centre of one’s life if one does not believe in Him, if one does not know Him, but if one seeks to come to know Him, come to see Him, draw close to Him, in everything one does. In fact, it seems to me that the desire to draw close to God, by the believer who serves Him, and the non-believer who is seeking Him, is just the sae – and is the only thing that could be meant by ‘a religious life’. The study of metaphysics as search for God, then, is the paradigmatically religious activity…

    And in addition to that it seems to me that the same qualities that make up the religious life, make up the honest search for God – by means of metaphysics, or by any means. Wittgenstein has some remarks on the study of philosophy which seem to describe the qualities of a philosopher in the way that one might describe the qualities of a saint: “philosophy requires a resignation, but one of feeling and not of intellect. Any maybe that is what makes it so difficult for many. It can be difficult not to use an expression, just as it is difficult to hold back tears, or outburst of anger. / Tolstoy: the meaning (importance) of something lies in its being something everyone can understand. That is both true & false. What makes the object hard to understand–if it's significant, important–is not that you have to be instructed in abstruse matters in order to understand it, but the antithesis between understanding the object & what most people want to see” (The Big Typescript, #86); and “Thinking is sometimes easy, often difficult but at the same time thrilling. But when it's most important it's just disagreable, that is when it threatens to robb one of ones pet notions & to leave one all bewildered & with a feeling of worthlessness. In these cases I & others shrink from thinking or can only get ourselves to think after a long sort of struggle. I believe that you too know this situation & I wish you lots of courage! though I haven't got it myself. we are all sick people. / On this cheerful note I shall close my letter. May I see you again before very long!” (letter to Rush Rhees, of 17/10/1944).

    Sam! – I see that you have responded to my previous string. I must rush off now, but I shall read it anon, and no doubt put off thesis work even further by responding…

  17. Sam Lebens

    But, I think you can be a little clearer on one point. Perhaps this will help, perhaps not…

    Some necessities are conditional in the following form: it is necessarily case that if there will be a world then x. Those necessities can be instantiated in the sense that you outline. And God really did chose to create a world that would instantiate those necessities, and those choices reveal things about his character; he could have been so put off by those necessities as not to create anything!

    Unconditional necessities, such as the necessity that 2+2=4, which seem completely immune to God's choice, can still be religiously significant in the other ways that you describe.

    And, of course, if Descartes and Rav Kook are right that God isn't bound by necessity – that he creates necessity, which I don't tend to think myself, then the unconditional necessities take on the same sort of religious significance as the conditional ones.

    Interesting stuff.

  18. Aaron Segal

    Wow – Sam and Gabriel, very interesting stuff. To be honest, I wasn't quite sure what 'intrinsic religious value' amounted to in this context (since intrinsicality is a slippery, and sometimes highly technical notion), so I took my cue from Sam's analogy to the study of science to interpret it narrowly (which is not to blame Sam for the narrow interpretation!) – something like, "has value as the study of God's ways". So some (but by no means all) of the things you guys suggest came to mind – such as the religious value of seeking the truth, the religious value of seeking out ultimate reality, the religious value of developing a comprehensive ontological worldview as a propaedeutic to finding God – but I grouped those under the heading of merely instrumental religius value. But that was an artefact of my narrow interpretation of 'intrinsic religious value' here, and doesn't refelct any deep and important distinction. Those types of religious value may even outsrip the sort that I was concentrating on. But there was another reason why I didn't think some of those sorts of value were relevant in the context of the original post/comment, which is that many of those would be equally well served by studying philosophy straight-up, rather than the mining the Talmudic halakha for its metaphysics! I can't see how the religious value that inheres in the very SEARCH for ultimate reality would be greater if one tries to find the metaphysics of identity in R. Yohanan than in the Stoics. So I didn't think that would restore the SPECIAL religious value that I think the study of Talmud/halakha indeed has. But of course the issue of what religious value the study of metaphysics has is an important topic in its own right, and perhaps deserves a post of its own (Gabriel, any interest?). So I really do want to address all your suggestions in greater detail, but I have to run now. Hopefully, I'll be back soon to get to the heart of your fascinating comments.

  19. Sam Lebens

    Aaron, if tractate Kelim, for example, is merely a treatise on the metaphysics of identity, I think Gabriel has done enough to give the endeavour religious significance.

    But that doesn't seem to be enough for you, because you want the Talmud to have special religious significance.

    I put it to you that perhaps you're asking for too much! It already has great religious significance, as does the work of the Stoics.

    What might be special about the Talmud though, justifying the bracha that we recite before studying the Talmud, is the fact that (1) we trust that the authors of the Talmud were engaged in their research for the sake of heaven (it was embued with the right religious intention), and (2), in some cultural and religious sense, the Talmud belongs to us: we are the heirs of the national-religious project that they were engaged in.

    Does the Talmud need more religious significance than that? Why?

  20. Sam Lebens

    Although, of course, the tractates that deal with how we should behave, and halakhic exergesis of the revealation will take on a quite different religious significance.

    But, just as we should be open-minded about the possibility of different Talmudic disputes needing different sorts of analysis, why can't it be the case that different Talmudic tracts have quite different forms of religious significance? Some more, and some less unique.

  21. Aaron Segal

    Gabriel: There’s a lot to chew over here and some very heartening suggestions. But some of them leave me unconvinced. On the issue of instantiation of necessary truths, I’m not entirely sure what you mean, since I’m not sure what it means (in general) for a truth to be instantiated. Maybe you mean something like this: there are some necessary truths that are universal generalizations. In the absence of instances, they are vacuously true, so uninteresting, but once God instantiates them, the truth takes on an importance it otherwise would not have. Is this what you mean? I suppose this might help with some of the necessary truths (Sam makes a similar point in one of his comments), but even with respect to those, I’m not sure. Even if the generalization is uninstantiated, there is in the vicinity of the “original” truth another one that relates the relevant properties, and which isn’t vacuously true [I realize that this won’t be so on an Aristotelian conception of properties according to which no property exists that is uninstantiated; but I have a really really hard time swallowing the idea that whether the study of metaphysics has religious value depends, even in part, on whether Plato or Aristotle was right about properties!]. But maybe the idea you have in mind is slightly different – it’s not the vacuity/non-vacuity distinction that’s important here, but the abstract/concrete distinction that’s important. The idea is that there are certain necessary truths (some of the generalizations) that didn’t need to have any concrete instances, and God “concretized” them. As Russell pointed out (in that really great quote), the concrete world contains all that makes any difference to the value of life and the world, so maybe these truths become more significant or important or more of a vehicle for God’s creative activity when they are concretely instantiated. Maybe. But there is an irony here – as you (Gabriel) use the Russell point, it’s to emphasize the importance of OTHER side of the divide (the perfect, immutable, abstract, etc.), and I think rightly so. But then that’s in some tension with building off the relative significance of the concrete – I’m not saying there’s a contradiction here or anything, but a tension to keep in mind.
    As you point out, if Descartes (on some interpretations) was right that God could have made even the necessary truths false, then my response to Sam collapses. [I knew Rav Nachman held that, but I was not aware that Rav Kook said the same thing. Thanks.] The question then is whether Descartes was right. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the view – the truth is, I’ve become less and less confident that it’s wrong, but I still have trouble accepting it.

  22. Aaron Segal

    I would say a similar thing about the Rambam, whom you cite as precedent. When it comes to the parts of metaphysics that WE (rather than the Rambam) might call “the divine science”, I can understand what the Rambam says, even if it strikes me as an over-intellectualization of the religious and mystical experience. But when it comes to metaphysics more broadly, doesn’t it seem like the Rambam’s account of the “unio mystica” is tied to an Aristotelian epistemology and metaphysics that is no longer credible, or is at least very dubious (certainly the conjunction of the metaphysical thesis about the nature of persons and the epistemological thesis about knowledge)? If we give a Bradleyian spin on the Rambam (and that is really a beautiful quote – thanks for making me aware of it), or if we just think of Bradley here and leave the Rambam out for a moment, then I think I can understand it better. But there are a few things we might be saying here, and I’d have to give more though to which I find plausible. (More exactly, it’s two different scenarios one might have in mind; I notice that the two scenarios are reflected in the Edith Stein quote.) One scenario is that of a person who studies metaphysics without being consciously aware of its putting her into “contact” with God or even a “super-sensible realm” – and there are certainly metaphysicians, even great ones, who would satisfy that description; David Lewis comes to mind first – but the claim is that the study still has religious value because she happens to be pulled toward that study by God, or the Good, or some subconscious desire to arrive at a super-sensible realm. I think Rav Kook conceived of much of the intellectual activity, even of those of avowed secularists, in this way; I’m attracted to it, but I would think the religious value is attenuated in this case, and I think we have to beware of being patronizing. Another scenario one might have in mind of one who pursues the study of metaphysics with the intention of transcending one’s own limited viewpoint, to see beyond what the metaphysical naturalist says there is, and/or to uncover some truly mysterious aspects of existence (or one is consciously motivated by such desires, even if that’s not her intention), and the suggestion is that this is a religiously valuable activity even if one doesn’t see the study as bringing one into contact with God. I certainly have to give this more thought.
    But I think you go too far when you say: “But God is just as much at the centre of one’s life if one does not believe in Him, if one does not know Him, but if one seeks to come to know Him, come to see Him, draw close to Him, in everything one does. In fact, it seems to me that the desire to draw close to God, by the believer who serves Him, and the non-believer who is seeking Him, is just the same – and is the only thing that could be meant by ‘a religious life’. The study of metaphysics as search for God, then, is the paradigmatically religious activity…” I don’t see how any of these claims could be true, at least given my deeply entrenched Jewish beliefs and lived Jewish experience. God might well be at the center of one’s life if one is a seeker who does not believe, but I don’t see how such a situation could rival one in which one feels he is often standing in God’s presence and constantly hears a Divine call to act in accordance with His commands. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of the “U’vikashtem Misham”, but how could that sort of thing be the ONLY one that could be meant by ‘religious life’?

  23. Aaron Segal

    Sam: going back a ways to some earlier comments – I don’t think most people, even very brilliant people, have intuitions about the persistence conditions of artifacts! It’s just not an issue that usually comes up. I have no doubt that Hazal were thinking of something in that vicinity when they were discussing halacha, but I don’t see any reason to think they had developed opinions about that before they came to the Beit Midrash.
    And I happen to agree with you that I have no idea why God would want us to conceive of things along non-natural lines (that is, what would otherwise be non-natural). But I don’t think it need be only for pragmatic reasons, and I don’t think we can say that we should have a default position of assuming it’s carved up in accordance with the logical or metaphysical joints. What would be the basis for assuming that? I think what we need to do is actually go out and see what Hazal said, try to think of the world in the way that emerges from those discussions, and then we might get a glimpse of some reasons for carving it up in that way. It might turn out that they are usually carved along the natural lines; if so, I’d have to revisit my assumptions.
    And on your most recent comment, maybe I am asking for too much (although to be clear, I wasn’t asking for what justifies our saying a birchat hatorah – what justifies that might be very different from what justifies its having the “special” religious value that I think attaches to studying the grappling of Hazal with God’s will). But why not ask for more if you can get it? If the account I offer instead of Hirsch’s is just as plausible on independent grounds, then I don’t see why the factor of religious value couldn’t tip the scales in favor of my account.

  24. Aaron Segal

    Gabriel: Just to clarify my response to you about the instantiation of a universal generalization – this is probably obvious, but I meant to refer to the universal generalization of a CONDITIONAL open formula, where the antecedent would be unsatisfied if not for God's decision.

  25. Sam Lebens

    That is exactly what I thought Gabriel meant by the instantiation of a necessary truth. Unsurprisingly, you say it much better that I did.

    I take your point: 'most people, even very brilliant people, [don't] have intuitions about the persistence conditions of artifacts! It’s just not an issue that usually comes up.' Agreed. But, as you see, I think that my basic conclusion still stands.

    But, before I defend what I was trying to conclude, let me concede something else to you. You're right: God might have all sorts of reasons for carving up halakhic reality differently to metaphysical/logical reality. Not just pragmatic concerns. And, each time we come accross a different section of the Talmud, we have to be senstive to the fact that, for any number of reasons, logical-metaphysical reality and halakhic reality might have to come apart.

    But, I still think a default position makes sense, even if it's very rarely reverted to. If one can think of absolutely no reason (pragmatic or otherwise) why the Divine will would see it fit to cut the world up differently here for halakhic purposes than for other purposes, and if you still think this after listening to the Talmudic discussion with a sensitive ear, then I think it's natural and reasonable to assume that the two realities, so to speak, agree with one another – on what grounds would you have left to posit a divergence.

    In those circumstances, however rare, halakhic disputes really do collapse into metaphysical ones.

  26. eli hirsch

    Just a very small comment, to start. As Aaron remarks I have argued in my work that ontological disputes in philosophy are (often) merely verbal, each philosopher speaking the truth in her preferred ontological language. It seems that if we apply that view to the Talmudists we get all that is good in Aaron's view without needing any complicated stuff about reference magnetism. The Talmudists may, as Aaron suggests, be arguing in effect about which ontological language provides the aspect under which God wants us to see the world.
    Eli Hirsch

  27. Aaron Segal

    Eli: (1) Indeed, if we accept your view in general, we have a much quicker route to my conclusion about Talmudic claims/disputes. But the advantage of my account is that it's concessive – it grants your opponent's view and defense in the general case, but then argues that in the Talmudic-halakhic context, their maneuver won't work. So EVERYONE should agree that the ostensibly metaphysical debates in the Talmud are merely verbal (they are still having a substantive dispute, on my view, but it's a substantive halakhic dispute).
    (2) That being said, I did assume in my paper (and my post) the falsity of your general view when I was criticizing what I took to be your assumption in the Talmud paper (I make this explicit on p. 12 of the paper). But in part that was because it seemed to me that in your paper on the Talmud, YOU didn’t think that ‘identity’ had a multiplicity of meanings – i.e., there is just one relation, identity, that is picked out by all parties in the Talmud who use such terms as ‘panim chadashot’, and even those who use no such terms. Otherwise, e.g., why would you be bothered by the prospect that there was a widespread rejection of the transitivity of identity (esp. footnote 19)? Why not just say that they had in mind identity*? Did I misunderstand you?

  28. Gabriel


    Dear all! – I have been composing comments intermittently all afternoon and evening, and keep having to leave them unfinished due to other things. Then, when I come back to them I find that further comments have been posted, which affect what I ought to say. So I will try to sew fragments of my various different versions together in a vaguely coherent way…

    First of all, I feel that I owe everyone an apology for somewhat dragging the course of this discussion of its principal topic – namely Eli Hirsch’s fascinating article… Being the somewhat perverse person that I am, when reading a blog I tend to read the comments before the article – and in this case simply saw Aaron’s first comment, and launched into my screed without actually having read anything that came before – and only now do I realise quite how off-topic all this is! Off topic, but nonetheless fascinating. As I said, I’m sorry about that. – Though not quite sorry enough not to trty to reply to some of your comments in turn…

    Next, another apology – this time to Sam: I’m sorry for my (cheap?) swipe at modern analytic metaphysics… As you know, it is a weakness of mine. – And it may make you feel better that when I wrote what I did I actually wasn’t thinking of Russell. (And in fact, it may be a sign of my improvement that when I quoted Russell, I didn’t say anything disparaging about him at all!)

  29. Gabriel


    Now, on the topic of necessary truths and their ‘instantiation’. Yet another apology! – This time for simply not having been clear, and having made you both work to try to understand what I was talking about. I think that Sam’s initial suggestion is precisely what I had in mind. Sam makes a distinction that I was groping for when I was getting worried that perhaps people may not be happy about talking of *all* necessary truths being ‘instantiated’. There are those features of the world that are necessary given the world’s existence; and then there are truths which seem as though they are necessarily true regardless of the world’s existence or non-existence. This way of making the distinction has it between two quite different kinds of thing – namely features of the world, vs truths. This may just be an accident of the way I have expressed it. (Aaron may be solving this peculiarity in the way that he expresses the two kind so truth). Perhaps the distinction is between necessary conditional truths, and necessary non-conditional truths (E.g. the necessary conditional truth that if you create a world, it must be a spatial one [I have just made that up – I have no idea if this really is a necessary conditional!}, vs, the necessary non-conditional truth that 2+2=4…).

    In fact, it now occurs to me that a great part of metaphysics is the enumeration of necessary conditionals – and this is not only when the antecedent of the conditional is ‘if you create a world’. Rather, a great deal of metaphysics is the attempt to analyse the essences of things – of being a cause, of being a person, of being an artefact, of being a law of nature, being a punishment, being a statue, being an animal, etc etc. And (though I am now wading blindly into the enormous literature of essences with which I am entirely unfamiliar!), we might say that a claim about a given essence will often take the form of a necessary conditional: necessarily, if something is to count as a person then it will have properties FGH. Now, these necessary truths seem very relevant indeed to getting to know the will of God through His creation. For God did not just chose to create a world, but to create a world with people, and if you are to create a world with people in it, they will necessary have properties FGH – and these properties either encouraged God to create people, or He chose to create people despite their having to have those properties – and either way, this fact is surely relevant to anyone who wishes to come to know God by studying His will as manifest in creation. So it turns out that a great deal of metaphysics – despite it being a study of necessary truths – will be very fruitful for coming to know God better… This will even be true of the most fundamental necessary conditionals – say those about the nature of any world that could exist – God would have had to have taken those necessities into account when weighing up whether to create or not to create at all…

  30. Gabriel


    I was next going to move onto truths which are necessary non-conditionals. My list, came to things like: 2+2=4, or perhaps that everything is identical to itself, or that things which are qualitatively identical in the richest sense are also numerically identical… But now that I think of it, I’m not sure that any truth is left outside of the realm of ‘being revealing about God’s will as manifest by creation’. After all, once we know that 2+2=4, we know that the fact that God created two things and another two things, means that He didn’t mind creating four things. And the fact that he didn’t mind creating things, means that he didn’t mind creating things that were identical to themselves, etc etc. Perhaps this is just getting silly… (In that this is actually *missing* the religious value of studying these things, rather than uncovering it…)

    I suppose that the only necessary truths for which the above move would not be able to be made would be such truths about things which do not exist. Perhaps mathematical discoveries about multi-dimensional worlds which do not exist, or about Euclidean geometries which do not exist etc etc. Of course – if you think that these ‘structures’ actually have their existence in the mind of God (recall the Kepler quote), then even these truths would be telling us about God – though perhaps not about his will.

    I have a bizarrely surreal feeling about almost everything I have just written. It should all be put under the sign of a big ‘le’ta’amech’ – because I feel as though I’m making moves in a game which is not my own, and which I don’t fully understand… As soon as I say something like “if you think that these ‘structures’ actually have their existence in the mind of God, then even these truths would be telling us about God”, I feel the need to ask: but what on earth do you *mean* by talking about “structures in the mind of God”??! My first stab would be to say that at bottom, making a claim like that about mathematics, is to verbally a certain attitude of seriousness towards mathematics, etc etc (that is obviously a very crude analysis, but…). And if that is denied, and I am told that really it is a theory about mathematical truth and about the mind of God, then I suppose I can play the game, but don’t *really* have much of a grasp of what is being talked about. (I have in mind Wittgenstein’s comment in a meeting of the Moral science Club: “Wittgenstein then said that to call the difference in Metaphysical systems a mere difference in way of talking was quite misleading, – like saying that the difference between two suits was a difference in tailoring. There is also the difference in attitude, in the way we looked at the world and our problems.”).

  31. Gabriel


    Well – I have just been telling myself off – but I may continue in much the same vein, for Sam says that he thinks that 2+2=4 is “immune to God’s choice” – which is, I suppose, simply to claim that Descartes and Rav Kook are wrong in – what we might call – their ‘Divine voluntarism (regarding the necessary)’. And I am grateful to Aaron for reminding me in more than one place in his comments that the all important question is not whether someone has said something that may make something work out, but on whether that thing that has been said is true: “The question then is whether Descartes was right”, and “Rambam’s account of the ‘unio mystica’ is tied to an Aristotelian epistemology and metaphysics that is no longer credible, or is at least very dubious”. This point is very well-taken, and I’m grateful to you for keeping us (me!) focussed in this regard!

    On that note, I’m very intrigued as to what it is that turns both of you (Sam & Aaron) off of the position of Divine voluntarism regarding necessary truths – and even more intrigued as to what has made Aaron less sure about this of late (please do say a little more about that!).

    Keeping in mind that the key here is whether the position is correct, it nonetheless seems that it might be worthwhile to have bring a couple of quotes from the relevant thinkers themselves. With many thanks to the bountiful internet, here are a couple of quotes form Descartes: “To one who pays attention to God’s immensity, it is clear that nothing at all can exist which does not depend on Him. This is true not only of everything that subsists, but of all order, of every law, and of every reason of truth and goodness; for otherwise God… would have not been wholly indifferent to the creation of what He has created” (Rene Descartes, Sixth Replies); and “One must not say, then, that if God did not exist, nevertheless those truths would still be true, for the existence of God is the first and most eternal of all the truths which can be, and the only one from which all the others proceed” (letter to Mersenne, 6th May 1630).

  32. Gabriel


    And one place where Rav Kook discusses this is here (in my very rough translation): “It is one of the foundations of philosophy – especially Aristotelian [philosophy] – that the impossible has a fixed nature which doesn’t need [to be sustained by] the action of an agent. Confusion is generated [in trying] to set the bounds of the impossible, but at least it stands on the foundation of the geometrically impossible – that the length of a square’s diagonal not be equal to [one of its] sides, and the like. [But] according to the supposition of the law of the absolute ability, there is no utter necessity. When we come to cast doubt upon the whole sensible, learnt and logical manifold in themselves, and we recognise them only as a necessary vision according to the character of our mind and senses – then we again say: there is nothing impossible for the supernal might. These things that seem to us [to be] necessarily impossible, derive only from our limited plain of manifestation. It is possible for a broader and brighter light of life to be revealed, where there is not even this contraction, and even the geometrical impossibilities will pass away – ‘and the site of the ark and the cherubs were not part of the measure’ ” (Pinkas Pei Aleph Piskaot (Yaffo), #7). For other relevant Rav Kook remarks see: Kovetz VII: 41 & 53; Kovetz VIII: 155; Kovetz VI: 50, and no doubt many others. Also, in Marc Shapiro’s liberating *The Limits of Orthodox Theology* there is a discussion of some possibly connected stuff in Reb Nachman and R. Moshe Taku, on p. 39 (I’m afraid I don’t have the book with me so I can’t check this up – I’m relying on some old notes…)

    I suppose that what you make of this issue (of the Divine voluntarism of the necessary) will be decided by your conception of God, at a deep level. That is, it seems to me that whether one’s God is one on whom necessary truths are dependent, or of whom they are independent, is not just an extra fact about one’s God that one can clarify at some later date – but will fundamentally determine which of two radically and wholly different conceptions of God one has. My thought is as follows, and is based on the principal that: (onto)logical dependence is a necessarily non-symmetrical relation. Is that a good principle? I am just thinking this out as I go along – I wonder if anyone disagrees with it… Anyway, if this is true, then it seems to me that if we say that the principle that ‘Every object is identical to itself’ depends on God for its truth, then God cannot depend on the truth of the principle. And – this may be a bit of a fuzzy leap, but – therefore, I think, we need to put God beyond the concept of identity, or self-identity, altogether. For to say that God is self-identical – indeed, essentially self-identical – would be to make God’s existence depend, in some sense, on the truth of the principle that everything is identical to itself. Unless this is pure sophistry, it turns out that of we take all necessary truths to be dependent on God, then God must be a being which is utterly beyond anything that we could describe in any concepts known to us (for he will, for example, be beyond the realm of beings which are either self-identical or not-self-identical). In other words, by being the ground of necessary truths, god has been shunted backwards into a great Nothing – blank, about which we can say nothing at all. The negative theologians are entirely familiar with this God (so to speak!) – this is the Ayin of the kabbalah, and the Nothing of many mystics. And this God is clearly very very (very) different from a God who can happily be described with numerous positive predicates.

  33. Gabriel


    (A move that strikes me as very similar to the one I described above, for the banishing of God beyond all possibility of description, is made by those who want to take talk of God as creator radically – He did not just create the world that exists, but He created the very concept of ‘Existence’ itself. And, being the creator of ‘existence’, could not be determined by that concept. Paul Tillich expresses this fairly clearly: “However it is defined, the ‘existence of God’ contradicts the idea of a creative ground of essence and existence. The ground of being cannot be found within the totality of beings, nor can the ground of essence and existence participate in the tensions and disruptions characteristic of the transition from essence to existence… It would be a great victory for Christian apologetics if the words ‘God’ and ‘existence’ were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence, that is, in the Christological paradox. God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” [*Systematic Theology*, vol. I, James Nisbet & Co, 1968, p. 227])

    Because the God of radically negative theology is an utterly different (non-)’being’ to that of the positive theologians, and because (if I am right) the decision that necessary truths depend on God will compel you to a radically negative theology – it turns out that the property of ‘being the ground of necessary truths’ is not just an extra quality which can either be added or not to our conception of God. Rather, it may completely undermine that conception.

    I haven’t yet actually given any *reason* to believe that necessary truths depend on God. I suppose I would bring back the Wittgenstein comment, that a “difference in Metaphysical systems… is also the difference in attitude, in the way we looked at the world and our problems” – and I would identify the difference between the metaphysics which feels compelled to say that necessary truths depend on God, and that which does not feel so compelled, is the difference between a feeling radical contingency and lacking such a feeling. Perhaps I’m selling this all too short… Therefore – so as not to upset am with my Wittgensteinian (or perhaps pseudo-Wittgensteinian!) heresies any more _ I will throw the question back on you two and ask: why do you Sam, not tend to think that necessary truths are dependent on God? And why, Aaron, have you become less confident in the wrongness of the idea of Divine voluntarism about necessary truths (and what is stopping you from being fully converted)?

  34. Gabriel



    Aaron, you say: “I don’t mean to diminish the significance of the “U’vikashtem Misham”, but how could that sort of thing be the ONLY one that could be meant by ‘religious life’?” Now, I never meant to say that the life in which a non-believer attempts to draw close to God by coming to believe in Him, is the *only* kind of religious life – thereby excluding the believer who seeks to draw near to God by serving and emulating Him! Rather, my point was that the core of what it is to be religious is to try to draw near to God – and that the genuinely seeking non-believer, and the genuinely serving believer, are equally trying to draw near to God – and are therefore leading equally ‘religious’ lives.

    You say of the non-believing seeker, “I don’t see how such a situation could rival one in which one feels he is often standing in God’s presence and constantly hears a Divine call to act in accordance with His commands”. I too would not want to speak in terms of one of those people *rivalling* the other – rather, my whole point is that they are not rivals, just two very different kinds of equally religious people. Or, if we do not want to call them equally religious, perhaps they are two people leading different, but equally religious lives: lives of trying to draw near to God. This ‘trying to draw near’ takes two very different forms for them both, but even so…

  35. Gabriel


    I might go even further than I did before – and following the theme of radical negative theology – say that not believing in God is to experience Him in His highest revelation – namely, to experience God in the aspect of Ayin, Nothing – which is a less distorting experience of Him than any more contentful one… Gershom Scholem has a winderfu poem which touches on this, called ‘With a Copy of Kafka’s The Trial ’ (adapted from the first part of Jonathan Chipman’s translation, ‘With a Copy of Kafka’s The Trial – A Poem’, in Gershom Scholem’s On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, pp. 194-5):

    Have we been utterly separated from You
    O God? In the darkness
    shall we no longer be overtaken by any flicker
    of Your tranquillity, of Your message?

    Has Your voice been so extinguished
    in the wastes of Zion? Or maybe
    it didn’t ever penetrate to here, to within
    the kingdom of enchanted illusions?

    The great deception of the world
    has already been completed to the very rafters.
    Grant awakening – my God – to the man
    who has been severed by Your nothingness (aynutchah).

    Only thus is Your face revealed, O God,
    to a generation who has spurned You.
    Your nothingness (aynutchah) is all that is
    given to him to experience of You…

    And this last musing of mine – that the conscious atheist or agnostic are really experiencing God’s deepest Self in their experience of His absence – brings us directly to the final comments of Aaron’s to which I will respond this-evening… Namely his concern that “I think we have to beware of being patronizing”. But I don’t see this kind of thing as being patronising. Rather, I see it as a conscious re-framing – and it certainly needn’t only ever be directed at other people, but can also be self-directed. I’m not sure that patronising is the right word – maybe ‘imperialistic’ is better, in that it seeks to conceptualise other people’s experiences and actions for them, perhaps in contrast to their own conceptions of their experience. But that seems fine to me, I think. (Perhaps its imperialistic of someone to think that he can tell me* how *I* should view his experiences… 😉

    As to the two options regarding the Bradley and Stein, which Aaron sketches – I too will need to give them some further thought, and will perhaps write about my thoughts if the site will even continue to accept my comments!

    (PS – I wonder, blog-masters, if some of these comments can be ciphened off into a seperate blog entry: then it will be easier to follow the discussion of Aaron's original post on Eli Hirsch's article, without this deluge of comments on the religious significance of metaphysics drowing the others out… Once again – apologies if this is what I have done!)

  36. eli hirsch

    Aaron — I guess I tacitly expected that every Talmudist (unlike some philosophers) would adopt an ontological language that one might reasonably intuit to be ordinary language, or at least in that vicinity. I didn't think that identity*, violating transitivity, would satisfy this expectation. Even on your view, I think that ought to be the expectation. Otherwise, what kind of reasonable intuitions about "identity" would the Talmudists be having?

  37. Aaron Segal

    Eli — so I guess I misunderstood you. Sorry about that. I was basing my reading also on the passages I quote from your article – when you say that it is clear that "R. Yohanan was indeed making a claim about identity", I assume that 'identity' as you used it there meant whatever it is that you normally mean by 'identity' (I think that's probably just identity, but I'm playing it safe here), but then why is it obvious that R. Yohanan is talking about whatever you normally mean by 'identity', unless we deny your general thesis about such terms? Admittedly, maybe I was reading too much into things here!

    In terms of the specific issues you raise about transitivity, I would say the following:
    1) I'm not sure it's unreasonable to think that 'identity' as it's used in ordinary language – where I take it that's just the language most of us speak in our daily business? – allows for violations of transitivity. In my brief teaching experience, it takes a while to explain to students why there should be the "problem of transitivity of identity" that you sketch in your paper, and part of it seems to stem from their willingness to use 'identity' in a way that violates transitivity.


  38. Aaron Segal

    2) I don’t know if this is the best venue to explore your general view, but I’ll take advantage of this opportunity to try to get clearer myself; assuming that the issue of whether identity is transitive is a priori necessary, then wouldn’t your general arguments in favor of variance push us to interpret a group of speakers (say, most of the Rishonim, as you had initially worried) as speaking of identity*, where that doesn’t obey transitivity, whether or not it fits ordinary language?
    3) You say that even I should accept that the Talmudists were not working with some relation that doesn’t obey transitivity, because otherwise they couldn’t have reasonable intuitions about it. I’m not entirely sure I understand why they couldn’t have reasonable intuitions about this other relation – to be more concrete, I’d say this: transitivity follows from Leibniz’s Law, so if they’re talking about a relation that doesn’t obey transitivity, then it doesn’t obey Leibniz’s Law. So then how could this be anything like identity? Well, maybe it obeys something very close to Leibniz’s Law, where that means that for some restricted class of properties, one has the property iff the other does. I would venture to say that the restriction is to HALAKHIC STATUS properties (tameh, tahor, asur, mutar, etc.); and then transitivity doesn’t follow from this restricted form of Leibniz’s Law so long as identity* is not itself a halakhic status property (or at least I don’t see how it would).

  39. eli hirsch


    The way I'm picturing it is like this: The Talmudists receive a halakha that says, e.g., "If one thing turns into a second thing such that the second thing is not the original thing, then tumah from the orginal thing is not inherited by the second thing." This halakha seems to be couched in plain English (plain Hebrew). It seems to involve the ordinary expression "this one is not the original one" ("ein zu harishon", as Rashi puts it). So it would be extremely puzzling if the Talmudists or Rishonim decided for some reason (what reason?) to interpret this seemingly ordinary expression to mean identity*. I do agree with you that if we had to believe that the Talmudists and Rishonim were violating transitivity, then it would follow from my general view that we should ("charitably") interpret them as meaning identity*. But this would be a puzzle. Philosophy, as Wittgenstein said, makes language go on holiday, so we find philosophers willy-nilly misusing ordinary language in all sorts of bizarre ways. I would like to believe that Talmud does not cause language to go on holiday. Hence, it would be best if we could find a way to understand the Talmudists and Rishonim as not violating transitivity.

  40. Sam Lebens

    Eli, I totally agree with your last comment, and glad to hear you put the point so clearly.

    Even if one accepts that there is such a thing as halakhic reality (the world carved up by God for halakhic purposes), we should have a default position that halakhic reality and normal reality mirror one another, unless we have some good reason for positing a wedge between the two.

    If you have good reason to think that tuma is a non-natural property, or that certain socio-halakhic concepts need to be defined with pragmatic considerations in mind, then there would be reason to think that the halakhic joints, as Aaron calls them, and the joints of reality, are, sorry for the pun, out of joint. But, our default assumption should be one of harmony.

    Aaron wanted to know what justifies my adopting such a default position. The best I could muster as a response was the following words: "If one can think of absolutely no reason (pragmatic or otherwise) why the Divine will would see it fit to cut the world up differently here for halakhic purposes than for other purposes, and if you still think this after listening to the Talmudic discussion with a sensitive ear, then I think it's natural and reasonable to assume that the two realities, so to speak, agree with one another – on what grounds would you have left to posit a divergence?"

    But you defend the default position, or so it seems to me, with an argument from language.

    The Rabbis are debating a clearly worded principle:
    "If one thing turns into a second thing such that the second thing is not the original thing, then tumah from the orginal thing is not inherited by the second thing." Unless language is taking a holiday here, we've got no reason to think that the identity invoked here is any way different from the notion of identity invoked elsewhere.

    Of course, there will be times where the most charitable reading of a dispute sends language on a little holiday. This point you make yourself: " I do agree with you that if we had to believe that the Talmudists and Rishonim were violating transitivity, then it would follow from my general view that we should ("charitably") interpret them as meaning identity*." But that's a last resort.

    Likewise, it might be that the only charitable understanding of a legal concept places a wedge between the halakhic reality and bog-standard reality.

    But if all of this is right, then some of Aaron's questions come back at us.

    If this dispute is really about identity, and not identity*, then why do we accept a degree of pluralism about halakha but not about the metaphysics of identity? Why do we not think that the halakhic authority of a ruling lies in its metaphysical accuracy.

    I think that, above, in my earliest comments, I did some work to address those concerns, but, somewhat unfortunately, in my response, Talmudic disputes turn out to be importantly related to metaphysical ones though rarely by the relation of identity. Can you do any better in addressing these concerns?

    Also, can I ask (anyone) for some clarification for a dummy like me about the nature and relevance of the theses of reference magnetism and Eli's thesis about ontological disputes?

  41. Aaron Segal

    Eli — Even if it's true that ordinary language doesn't allow for 'identity' to pick out a relation that violates transitivity (and I earlier expressed reservations about this), I don't see what would be so bad about ordinary language "going on holiday" – it seems that in all sorts of disciplines and intellectual pursuits, one finds a somewhat technical vocabulary that the practitioners latch onto in one way or another, and in which words are used in a sense that differs somewhat from the ordinary one. Why must philosophy or halakha be different? Anyway, this is not really the main issue. Because even you (or I should say especially you) grant that within certain boundaries, there are several different candidate meanings for 'identity' in ordinary language, which allows for disputes about the identity of artefacts, for example, to be merely verbal (it's just that a relation that violates transitivity is out of those bounds). So in response to Sam, I don't think your comment presents a challenge to my account – if I understand Sam's point, he takes the upshot of your last comment to be an explanation of why it is that there is a single default candidate interpretation that we need good reason to abandon. But if anything, your basic view (in the meta-ontology literature) provides a shortcut to my conclusion. I have no quibbles with that – I just am not sure where I stand on your general view (I go back and forth), and there are other people who reject it outright, so I think it would be good to present an argument for my conclusion that doesn't stand or fall with your general view (this isn't exactly how my paper unfolds, but I think it's a nice way to look at the argument I offer).

    Sam – for the nature of reference magnetism, David Lewis discusses it in a bunch of places, but I think the best exposition of it is in his "Putnam's Paradox" (reprinted in his Papers in Metaphysics and Epistemology) – it's a really fanstastic paper; for the nature of Eli's thesis, it's probably best to ask the expert on that since we have the privilege of having him read these comments!

  42. Sam Lebens

    I'm all in favour of technical language. Russell rallied against ordinary language philosophy. Every discipline has its technical jargan, he observed, but philosophy has to be bound to the language that's spoken on the street. He rightly saw that as absurd. See the appendices to his My Philosophical Development.

    But, I do think that, in general, we are right to assume that a word is used with its normal meaning until we're explicitly told or froced to take it otherwise. What, in the particular context in hand leads Aaron to think that its identity* that's being discussed rather than identity?

    But, as I said before, our understanding of the nature of halakha does seem to preclude that they're really talking about actual identity. This all leaves me rather stuck.

    I think the best interpretation of the Talmudic dispute is that we're talking about actual identity. But, our understanding of halakha seems to force us to think of it as identity*.

    I think the best compromise is to say that the rabbis, in situations like this, attempt to seal the halakha in accordance with their understanding of the relevant metaphysics (for why should we carve reality differently unless we have to), but that the halakha's eventual authority is independent of the metaphysical facts of the matter.

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