Judaism and Philosophical Speculation

Philosophical Speculation
I was recently asked to write an article of philosophical interest for a Jewish publication. The content is aimed at the lay-person, but perhaps people here will find it interesting. I’d be grateful, as ever, for your comments.
As a modernorthodox Jew, I am keenly aware of the value and weight that we place uponsecular studies and rational inquiry. This emphasis is one of the key featuresthat distinguishes our community from other varieties of orthodoxy. For thatreason, we must be certain to pay attention to a certain Mishna, the firstMishna in the second chapter of tractate Haggiga. As we’ll see, it looks like aMishna that’s specifically aimed at forbidding the study of philosophy andlimiting our freedom of thought.

In many senses, Saadya Gaon wasthe first Jewish philosopher. Of course, earlier rabbinic thinkers espousedtheir own, and very profound philosophies. But, in the technical sense in whichthe word is often used today, to be a ‘philosopher’ demands intimate knowledgeof the western intellectual tradition from Parmenides onwards. The rabbis ofthe Talmud may have been profound thinkers; they may even have had someexposure to Greek thought, but they certainly didn’t have the sort of intimateknowledge of the Greek traditions, and training in its methods, to be called‘philosophers’ in this technical sense. Before Saadya Gaon came Philo. Philowas a Jew who was totally at home with the international intellectual trends ofhis time. But he, like later Karaite thinkers, didn’t stand within the rabbinictradition of the Oral Torah. Thus Saadya Gaon was the first: the firstproponent of rabbinic Judaism to couple mastery of Torah with mastery ofsecular studies.
In the introduction to his major philosophicaltreatise, Sefer Emunot Vadeot, SaadyaGaon imagines someone opposed to the whole venture of writing a systematicJewish philosophy utilising secular sciences to demonstrate the truth ofJudaism. He envisages the following words attacking his whole project: ‘How canwe undertake to pursue knowledge by means of speculation and inquiry with theobject of attaining mathematical certainly seeing that our people reject thismanner of speculation as leading to unbelief and the adoption of heretical views?’In short: philosophers always end up becoming heretics; so, it’s better not toengage in inquiry at all. Saadya Gaon’s answer is somewhat surprising in termsof how blunt he’s willing to be. He basically says, in response to thiscriticism: stop being stupid! There are all sorts of stupid beliefs out there.Saadya Gaon goes to the trouble of listing some of them: some of his neighboursin Babylon thought that whoever goes to India becomes rich; some Jews, in hisperiod, thought that lunar eclipses happen when something resembling a whaleswallows the moon; he had heard that some Arabs believed that if a camel wasn’tslaughtered over your grave then you’d have to appear on foot on Judgement Day.The belief that philosophy is inherently bad is just another belief to add tothe list of stupid things that people think. But, what about the Mishna inHaggiga? You can’t say that a Mishna is stupid, God forbid.
The Mishna in question states:‘Whoever speculates on one of four things should better not have been created:what is above; what is below; what is before; and what is after.’ Saadya Gaonrealises that these sound like philosophical questions; he realises that theMishna seems to be forbidding unrestricted philosophical speculation; and, heisn’t about to call the Mishna stupid. Indeed, he takes the challenge of thisMishna very seriously. This is how he responds: he accepts that on the surface,this Mishna seems to be limiting oreven forbidding philosophical speculation; but, he says that we’re licenced toreinterpret their words on the basis that they simply couldn’t have beenbanning, or even limiting, philosophy; to do so would have been to place alimitation on a key Jewish value; it would have run counter to numerousBiblical injunctions; and thus, however much the Mishna seems to be placing limits upon philosophy, this simply cannot bewhat was meant. Despite any appearances to the contrary, this Mishna has to be interpreted so as to allow theJewish philosopher complete freedom to philosophise.
Two questions now emerge: fromwhere does Saadya Gaon derive the Jewish obligation to philosophise; and, howcan he re-read our Mishna to be philosophy-friendly?
Answering our questions in turn,Saadya Gaon first provides us with a list of scriptural sources that issupposed to make it obvious that philosophising is an important religiousvirtue. Indeed, God is quoted, by Isaiah as having said, ‘Know ye not? Hear yenot? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood thefoundations of the earth?’ (Isa. 40:20). It’s as if we’re being blamed for nothaving engaged in precisely the sort of philosophical speculation that theMishna seemingly forbids. Quoting from the book of Job, Saadya Gaon points outhow, in that book, unlimited philosophical speculation seems to be thefavourite past time of its pious characters: Job, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zopher andElihu; saying to each other, ‘Let us choose for us that which is right; let usknow among ourselves what is good’ (Job 34:4). We could add to this list ofsources the fact that Judaism includes a variety of cognitive commandments: wehave to know that God exists (MishneTorah, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 1:1), we have to know that there is none other than him (Deut. 4:39). How can youtransform mere belief into knowledge without subjecting that belief to the sortof scrutiny that comes with philosophising? How can you transform mere beliefinto knowledge without subjecting that belief to the full interrogation ofevery secular science you have to hand? A full Jewish life is impossible,Saadya Gaon would argue, unless you’re willing to embrace rational inquiry andto embrace wisdom from whichever mouth it’s uttered, and from whomever’s penit’s written.
It’s clear: the Mishna simplycouldn’t have sought to place limitations on philosophical speculation. To doso would be to uproot a central Torah value. We simply have to search foranother interpretation of the Mishna. This is what Saadya Gaon suggests:despite appearances to the contrary the Mishna doesn’t have a problem with anyparticular question that might be asked in the process of philosophicalspeculation (we know that that simply can’t be the right reading); the Mishnainstead must only have a problem with these sorts of questions when they’reasked with the wrong attitude.
Why are you engaging inphilosophy? Is it to find out the truth? Well, if that’s the case, then there’ssomething wrong. We already know the truth. It has been faithfully handed downto us from generation to generation; a great chain of trustworthy transmissionstretching back to our ancestors who received this truth at Mount Sinai. Toengage in speculation to find out how we should live, what the meaning of lifeis, how and why the world was created, is, essentially, to reject your faith inthe Torah. We know the answers to these questions already. And, if we don’tknow them, then, at least, we know where to look: the Torah. What the Mishnamust be forbidding is the attempt to build a philosophy from scratch; theattempt to bypass the Torah and find out for yourself, the answer to all ofyour deepest questions.
But sometimes, even if we knowthe truth, we might still want to work out for ourselves what makes it true; how it’s true. Let me modernise anexample brought by Saadya Gaon himself in order to illustrate this point.Imagine you type a long and complicated sum into your calculater; the calculatorinforms you that the sum equals 500. Given that your calculator is remarkablyreliable, and in fact, the answer is correct, your new belief that such-and-such a sum adds up to 500, can safely be calledknowledge. You know that it equals500. Your calculator has told you so. But, if you’re anything like me, youmight still want to work how it istrue. You might still want to run the sum through in your head, for yourself. If you’re engaging in philosophy in order tofind out the truth, as if you didn’t already know it, or at least as if you didn’t know thatit’s already waiting to be found in the Torah, then you’re philosophising withthe wrong attitude. It is you who the Mishna condems. But, if you’re engagingin philosophy, in the full knowledge that the truth has already been revealedto us; if you’re merely trying to figure out what that truth is and how it isthat it’s true, then you’re doing a very commendable thing; you’re living up toa key Torah value, and you’re surely not hampered in any way by the Mishna inquestion. As Saadya Gaon says, ‘In this way we speculate and search in order thatwe may make our own what our Lord has taught us by way of instruction.’
There is another way toread the Mishna in question that saves philosophical speculation and perhapsdoes less violence to the text. The Mishna certainly seems to be condemningcertain questions. Saadya Gaon has to uproot this appearance and suggest thatthe Mishna is only condemning the attitude that often accompanies suchquestions. But, here’s another reading. Contra Saadya Gaon, the Mishna iscondemning certain questions, just as it seems to be doing. But, it isn’tcondemning philosophical speculation. In fact, the questions that the Mishnamentions really don’t have any place in a rigorous philosophical analysis oflife. Let us remind ourselves, what are the four black-listed questions? ‘Whatis above; what is below; what was before; what will be after?’ These questionsmust have been abbreviated, because, as they stand, they don’t make any sense.If you ask me, ‘What is above?’ I might well respond, ‘above what?’ And, if youask me, ‘What was before?’ I might well respond, ‘before what?’ Filling thesequestions in, in order to make them the sort of philosophical questions thatwe’re most probably talking about, we arrive at the following list:
1. Whatwas before time/God?
2. Whatwill be after time/God?
3. Whatis above space?
4. Whatis below space?
These sound likeprofound questions. But let’s investigate further. It turns out that thesequestions don’t really deserve to be called questions at all. They look likequestions: they start with the word ‘What’ and end with a question-mark, andyet, they don’t really make any sense at all. The notion of being abovesomething is a spatial notion. You can only sensibly ask whether x is above yif both x and y are spatially located entities. I can ask whether the book isabove the table because both the book and the table are spatially located. Myquestion merely seeks to clarify what their actual locations are relative toeach other on a vertical axis. But I can’t sensibly ask whether the colourgreen is above the number five. Neither the colour green nor the number fiveare the sort of things that are located in space, so to ask about theirrelative locations is to descend into stupidity. In order to be abovesomething, or, indeed, to be below something, you need to be in space. To ask what is above spaceitself makes no sense because only things that are inside space can be aboveanything. The whole question collapses under its own absurdity.
Similarly, the notionof being before something is a temporal notion. You can only sensibly askwhether event x is before y if both x and y are in time. I can ask whether the Gulf war was before the Second WorldWar because both events took place in time. My question merely seeks to clarifytheir temporal ordering. But, once again, I can’t sensibly ask whether thecolour green is before the number five. Neither the colour green nor the numberfive are the sort of things that occur in time, so to ask about their temporalordering is to descend into stupidity. In order to be before something, or,indeed, to be after something, you need to be in time. To ask what is before time itself makes no sense, becauseonly things that are inside time can be before anything Likewise, to ask whatis before or after God, is to make no sense because God is outside of time.Like the colour green and the number five, He is not the sort of thing thatstands in temporal relations to anything else.
The problem that thisMishna has with its four questions is that the questions are actually absurd.They might look to be profound upon first glance. The naïve child might thinkhe’s stumbled upon a great question when he asks, ‘Who was before God? Whocreated God?’ But God isn’t in time. The question makes no sense. These fourquestions are not real philosophical speculation. In fact, they are adistraction from real philosophical speculation. The questions are absurd. TheMishna says of people who ask such questions that they ‘should betternot have been created.’ The phrase in Hebrew reads: רתוילו כאילו לא בא לעולם. Perhaps we could offer a more literaltranslation: For anyone who asks one or more of these four questions, ‘it wouldbe fitting for them not to come into the world.’ Why? You think that you’reasking questions in order to discover things about the world. You think you’rebeing profound, but your questions really aren’t questions. They look likequestions. They feel like questions. But, they’re absurd. It’s as if you’re notreally in the world at all. Locked up in your ivory tower, you’re spending yourdays thinking about questions that couldn’t possibly have any answers. Theycouldn’t possibly have any answers because the questions don’t actually makesense. Philosophical speculation is well and good. But, the philosopherultimately wants to get to know reality. If you stumble on to one these fourquestions, you’ll never get to know reality because you’ve been deceived intothinking that you’ve got a question when you don’t!
On my reading, the Mishna inHaggiga is warning us against deceptive strings of words; strings of words thatlook like questions but don’t really ask anything at all. This is an importantthing to be warned against. Even when a question isn’t absurd, it might notdeserve an answer. Imagine a child in a physics class pointing to a diagram oftwo atoms. The child asks, ‘why is that electron over there, orbiting the atomon the left when it could have been orbiting the atom on the right?’ How shouldthe teacher respond? Should she respond at all? The only good answer is, ‘Because God willedit that way; now be quiet!’ This appeal to Divinity needn’t be read in a cynicaltone. Ludwig Wittgenstein, in his great early work, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus [6.372], writes: ‘[P]eople todaystop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as Godand Fate were treated in past ages . . . both are right and both wrong: thoughthe view of the ancients is clearer in so far as they have a clear and acknowledgedterminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.’
Wittgenstein’s point is this: thereis something appropriate about appealing to the Divine will, if what you intendto do is to signal a terminus to the possibility of further investigation. Noprocess of explanation can go on for ever. Eventually you’re going to have tostop. Just like you can’t define every word and concept without circularity,because you’ll have to use words and concepts to define each other; so too isit the case that you can’t expect to explain everything. One of the key lessonsthat a philosopher has to learn is when to stop.
Our investigation can finish withthe following observations. Judaism certainly values philosophical speculation.No Mishna can ever undermine that fact. But, we have to be wary. We have tomake sure that we’re philosophising with the right attitude. We have to makesure that our questions really arequestions. And, we have to be humble enough to know that at some point, ourexplanations have to stop. Ultimately, the world is the way that it is becauseGod made it that way.
  1. Anonymous

    thank you..very nice post!

  2. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks for this. As always, thought provoking. I do however wish to raise some questions as I differ as to the appropriate response to some of the key issues at hand.
    1. I am inclined to say the tanna in this case is wrong. Unless you are willing to offer some reason for thinking tannaim infallible, I think a blanket esoteric statement of this nature should be ignored. However, I do appreciate the need to maneuver around the mishnah if one considers a stam mishnah to amount to more than the opinion of an individual.
    2. I just can't see how Saadia thinks "the truth" can be in the Torah when there is so much the Torah does not even address. So a "Torah-guided-philosophy" sounds bizarre e.g. I cannot see an epistemology anywhere in the Torah. The interests of philosophy exceed those of Torah.
    3. I get the feeling that there is an awkward circularity in your reading of the mishnah. I see that your knowledge of philosophy (i.e. issues related to category mistakes and logical reasoning) leads you to think the mishnah is urging us to undertake sensical inquiries. Yet the ability to see what constitutes the sensical and the non-sensical requires or presupposes philosophical training.
    4. A more troubling thought is this: recalling the tension between religion and philosophy that sparks Saadia's response, if speculation/philosophy more often than not leads to heretical belief then we have a serious problem–religious belief is literally unreasonable. What explains this phenomenon i.e. the perception that if we take a step back and try to reason for ourselves we are seen to end up with conclusions that are a-religious, irreligious, or anti-religious? What explains this deeper problem?

  3. drew

    I see Saadia's interpretation of the Mishna as being inherent in your reading of the Mishna. ‘What is above; what is below; what was before; what will be after?
    Saadia too sees these questions as nonsensical without a presupposition – the truth of the torah as an a priori foundation – upon which these questions must be based. Without this foundation it leads to endless questioning which can never truly be answered. One must forever remain agnostic. "what is below" makes no sense without the prior knowledge of "below what" just as philosophical speculation of the world will lead nowhere of importance without a prior knowledge – Torah – upon which it is based. I see your interpretation and Saadia's as very similar. Perhaps I did not flesh out my point enough, but I did not have much time to write, or think it over.

  4. Sam Lebens

    Drew, I think I understand your point, and it's a fascinating one. Thank you. And, indeed, you could be right. My reading of the Mishna demands from us the realisation that any honest philosophical inquiry still requires a priori foundations; axiomatic assumptions from which to get going. Saadya Gaon's response to the Mishna is to say that philosophy is only acceptable when it serves as an outgrowth to the a priori assumption of the Torah. So, yes, in a sense, the two readings collapse into one another. Thanks for pointing this out. Dani I'll get back to your points shortly.

  5. Sam Lebens

    Dani, I respond to your points in turn. Thank you, as ever, for the chance to clarify my words.

    1. Of course, the Mishna only poses a problem if you take its authority seriously. But, since it's a stam Mishna, traditional orthodoxy is committed to taking it seriously. My article was addressed from just that traditional stance. If you're not happy with that, read it as if I had said: if you're committed to awarding this Mishna halakhic authority, then does that mean that philosophy is forbidden?

    2. The phrase 'The truth is in the Torah' is inherently ambiguous. What does that mean? The Whole Truth? What is 'the Whole Truth?' Given this ambiguity, I think Saadya's claim is consistent with saying two things:

    a) The claims of the Torah are never in conflict with true propositions confirmed by sense-experience or other epistemic means.

    b) Certain core and religiously fundamental issues, such as the existence of God, His moral authority, His will for the general structuring of our behaviour, and the like, are all contained in the Torah.

    This allows for the fact that philosophy is wider than the Torah, but still demands that we seek always to reconcile our philosophical findings with the words of the Torah and engage in a reflective equilibrium between those two sides (the text, on the one hand, and the world as we seem to find it, on the other).

    3. I don't accept the circularity charge. You're right that only a philosophical training could lead us to independent knowledge of what constitutes a category mistake. But we don't need to engage in that prior philosophical training, because the Mishna spells it out for us first. I.e., before we start philosophising, the Mishna does us the favour of telling us which 'questions' actually constitute questions!

    (Incidentally, following Ofra Magidor, I happen to think that category mistakes do make sense but that they're necessarily false. For that reason, I tried to talk about absurdity, stupidity, being sensible, rather than 'making sense' – because I think that these questions actually do make sense: the answer to all of them is 'necessarily nothing' just as it is necessarily false that the colour green is above the number five (and necessarily false that the number five is above the colour green for that matter!). But I didn't want to make this article too technical for the lay-person.)

    4. I just don't think that philosophy does lead to heresy at all. Therefore, I reject the assumption of your fourth point. Indeed, Saadya literally says that the claim – the claim that philosophy directly leads to unbelief- is stupid. But he can explain the grounds of this common misconception, especially if you read him as Drew suggests: When people study philosophy with the wrong attitude, hoping to ground all of their beliefs upon speculative explanations, they will end up as heretics mainly because they won't be able to establish anything at all. In fact, they're not really engaging in philosophy at all.
    It is this inherently methodologically wrongheaded quasi-philosophy that leads to directly to heresy.
    Real philosophy demands an acceptance that we have to start from a priori axioms; that we can't explain everything; that explanation has to start somewhere. Once you accept this point, and factor the Torah into your a priori foundations for your future speculations, then you won't become a heretic; and you might actually succeed in becoming a real philosopher.

  6. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks for these helpful replies Sam. I think one source that may be of help re your reading of the mishnah will be Wittgenstein's work on "hinge propositions" in his book On Certainty. By HP Witt. means those propositions we take as underwriting our philosophical endevours, they frame the discussion.

    [Apologies to those who aren't familiar with the jargon "stam mishnah," which here refers to a piece of Oral Torah recorded without attribution i.e. anonymous. The nature of such pieces over those recorded in someone's name is a matter of extensive debate, one ramification of which is the relative authority of the two.]

  7. Aaron Segal

    Thank you Sam for this post. Your reading of the Mishna is quite interesting, but I think when we look at some other sources in Hazal it might not turn out to be tenable: the Talmud Yerushalmi in Hagiga does "fill in the blanks", but not with "time" and "space" – instead with "creation" and "shamayim/aretz". Of course, you might think that "before creation" is just as absurd as "before time", if God is timeless, and "shamayim/aretz" is just another way of saying "space", but I think both of those require argument. And what's more telling, the Yerushalmi seems to say the answers to those questions need to be *hidden*, for God's honor. That doesn't sound like the questions are absurd. This implication is even clearer in the later Shemot Rabba (Parsha 3), where it says that Moshe could have learned the answers to the questions if he hadn't hid his face at the burning bush.

    And in terms of the point that "explanation has to come to an end somewhere", that's right as far as it goes, but there are more and less satisfactory places to stop. Someone who is firmly committed to the so-called Principle of Sufficient Reason might think that we can only stop with necessary truths, and definitely NOT with "because God willed it that way". Indeed, this would probably eliminate any contingency in the world (although that's a disputed point about the PSR), landing you in Spinozism, and that probably isn't an attractive *religious* position, but it's not as though it's obviously absurd from a philosophical standpoint.

  8. Sam Lebens

    Aaron, thanks for your comment. I’ll try to respond to all the points that you made.
    I’m ashamed to say that I wasn’t familiar with the Yerushalmi on this mishna. But I’ll say a few things in defence of my reading:

    1. “before creation” is just the same as “before time”, because time was part of what was created.
    2. I know that some of chazal knew that the world was round, but on a flat-earth hypothesis, to ask what is below the aretz (i.e. the land) is just to ask what is below space, and to ask what is above shamayim (i.e. the heavens) is just to ask what is above space. These questions are the absurd questions that I thought that they were. In short: you pre-empted my reponse; I don’t think that there is a substantive difference between my filling in of the questions and the filling in of the Yerushalmi.
    3. In Maimonides’ commentary of the Mishna, if I remember rightly, because I don't have one to hand, he argues as follows: to *ask* these questions is to deny God’s honour, precisely because they don’t have answers. To be bogged down by these questions is to be unfair to your intellect, because you’ll be forever searching for non-existent answers; and, Maimonides explains, to insult your own intellect is to insult God, because your intellect is what, essentially, is the image of God in you. Thus Maimonides’ reading of the Yerushalmi, if I've remembered it properly, makes it consistent with my reading of the Mishna (even though his reading of the actual Mishna is slightly different to mine).
    4. I don’t necessarily have to take the Midrash literally, it could be communicating some other idea despite the fact that technically, the questions at issue don’t really have any answers. Alternatively, I could say that the Midrash disagrees with the Mishna. So I don't feel threated by the (albeit facinating) source from Shemot Raba.

    Essentially, I agree with your reasons for being suspicious of stopping explanations before you reach something that is necessarily true. But, I refer you to the Tractatus’ discussion of laws of nature and the Divine Will. I think Wittgenstein’s saying something very profound there. After all, the constants of the laws of nature could have been different but we still don’t ask, why is the constant the value that it is? We say, well, that’s just the law of nature. Appeal to the Divine Will is a very similar methodological move. See also my example about the electrons.

    In short: I don’t have a well worked out theory as to where explanation should stop; this blog was more like a philosophical sketch than anything very serious; but, I do think that the topic is more delicate than your depiction suggests. And, I'm happy to keep the discussion rolling in search of a more rigorous position on the issue.

  9. Aaron Segal

    Thank you for making me aware of the passage in Maimonides' commentary – fascinating! Of course, Maimonides was antecedently inclined to read the Mishna in such a way that it could be reconciled with philosophical inquiry (as was Rav Saadiah Gaon, and as are you and I); that's not a reason to dismiss his interpretation, but it is a reason to question whether Hazal really meant that.

    In terms of explanation: I didn't mean to *endorse* the view that all explanation bottoms out with necessary truths – as I said, I think that leads to Spinozism (at least his Necessitarianism – the view that every true proposition is necessarily true, or equivalently, that every possible proposition is true), and I find Necessitarianism troubling religiously/theologically, even if not philosophically. I brought in the PSR only to highlight the following two points: (1) it's not a platitude, of common sense or philosophy, that all explanation bottoms out with brute, contingent, facts. That's not something just everyone rational *has to* agree to. (2) There can be more and less satisfying places to stop explanation – it's often held that a theory, whether scientific or philosophical, is better, all things being equal, to the extent that it reduces the number of fundamental unexplained facts; and one might think a theory is better, all things being equal, to the extent that the facts which are unexplained in the theory are necessary rather than contingent, even without going in for a full-blown PSR (I realize that some might claim that no necessary truth is unexplained, because every necessary truth is explained by the fact that it had to be true. I'm not so sure. What about the claim *that* the necessary truth is necessary? Are we off to an explantory regress?)

    So to take the example of the laws of nature, it just seems wrong to say that "we don't ask why the constants have the value they do". Many people DO ask that question, because they think that the facts about the constants could use a simpler (more unified?) explanation, or perhaps even an explanation that is necessarily true – some think that Theism is a good explanation, others think a Multiverse hypothesis is a good explanation, and I'm sure there are yet other explanations. (I do not mean to suggest that the so called fine-tuning argument OUGHT BEST be construed as an explanatory argument.) And so I'm not sure Wittgenstein is right here, let alone very profound – couldn't there be some reason to prefer laws of nature, or Fate, or God, as the terminus of explanation?

  10. Anonymous

    Sam et al, as usual, very interesting line of thought.

    Would there be an implicit, if not explicit,
    support for the case of an appropriate time for when the subsets of a question (set A and set B in relationship to the answer in set C) in a
    Divine dispensation period (e.g. before the Torah, during the Torah writings, and after the Torah is completed)? In other words, a question today or years from today may be acceptable whereas 4,000 years ago it may not have been.

    Dallas Bell

  11. MJ

    You were asked to write an article for the lay person on why study philosophy and then halfway through, instead of discussing the value of modern philosophy which is rather unlike 9-10th century Kalam, digress into an ahistorical rereading of the mishna?

    How about answering what if any relevance the current preoccupations of analytic philosophy have to Orthodox Judaism when it has scarcely pursued the sophisticated apologetics that some contemporary Catholic and Evangelical philosophers deal in?

  12. Aaron Segal

    MJ – I don't quite understand your criticisms of Sam. You begin by saying that Sam was asked to write an article explaining "why study philosophy". I don't see where Sam says that's what he was asked (and if he was, then a more straightforward criticism would have been that he didn't address that question at all). He was asked to write an article "of philosophical interest," which is, of course, very different.

    You then implicitly suggest that he should have discussed the value of modern philosophy – yet another question he wasn't asked – and that he is to be faulted for citing Rav Saadia Gaon since he was a Kalam philosopher. But what exactly is the matter with finding something of philosophical interest in a Kalam philosopher? Are we supposed to think that any philosophy before Descartes (or Kant or Frege or Wittgenstein or…whoever you think brought us modern philosophy) is to be discarded?

    You then say that Sam's reading of the Mishna is a digression and ahistorical. It's hard to see how it could be a digression, since it's roughly the whole point of the article. And if you think it's ahistorical, then ARGUE for that claim – flatly asserting it is not conducive to a productive discussion.

    You then ask Sam to address what relevance analytic philosophy has for Orthodox Judaism – an interesting question, but yet another one he wasn't asked. Did you expect Sam to address four different and wide-ranging questions in a short article for a layman?

    You then imply that the only conceivable value it could have is for religious apologetics – why? Aren't there plenty of analytic philosophers who talk about "things that matter" even though they are not engaged in religious apologetics? And even if Orthodox Judaism hasn't engaged in apologetics until now, why should that preclude an Orthodox Jewish philosopher from starting ("philosophical apologetics" has a bad name, but I've never really understood why – giving philosophical defenses of what one believes is what philosophers do most of the time)?

    Clarification of your objections would be helpful.

  13. MJ

    I think that you are misunderstanding my critique. Yes, I assumed -perhaps wrongly- that in part the purpose was to explain why one should study philosophy today because the article addresses how one ought not study philosophy, and it seems that one would only answer that question after or in the course of addressing why one ought to.

    I have no problem with Saadya at all. Rather, I think that the reasons why one would engage in philosophical speculation today as an academic in the context of modern analytic philosophy is not self evidently why Rasag or Rambam encourage it. Jumping to Rasag ignores that along with the fact that philosophy no longer encompasses much of what it did then, modernity produced an epistemic rupture that religious people have been dealing with ever since.

    Seemingly, the idea that a frum Jew can only study philosophy if one first accedes that all the answers are out there to be found in the Torah is especially out of place in the context of modern philosophy. (Though l'fi aniyat da'ati, it has little to do with how Rambam approached philosophy either.)

    Why is an extended rereading of the mishna a digression? Because neither Saadya nor Rambam nor the Bavli itself appear to take its warnings (regarding both the four questions and the "Ayn Dorshin") at face value.

    More pressing, I would think, is that history has shown that philosophy after the Enlightenment can be pretty bad for religion. We probably ought to consider that instead of the mishna if we are to seriously ask why we ought or ought not study philosophy.

    Why is the rereading ahistorical? Because if you look at the philosophical inquiry circa roman Palestine those questions were not thought of as non-sense in the Wittgensteinian sense, but as questions that one could ask and answer in various ways.

    Further, it would mean that in considering the possibility of matter preceding creation Rambam was engaging in non-sense. And is there really no charitable reading of those questions which does not render them absurd? What is outside of space or time? Are there things (other than God) that have non-temporal and non-spatial aspects? Kant thought so.

    My final request was for someone given a pulpit in a Jewish publication to take advantage of it and take up questions more central and relevant for your coreligionists.

    Aderaba, I think that philosophy has lots of value outside of religious apologetics, but I recognize that the value I find in it as someone who studies it professionally is often limited and difficult to translate to the layperson. I'm suggesting that the value it should have for the layperson is in producing a sophisticated apologetics but thus far it has not.

    Finally, in a post entitled Judaism and philosophical speculation I have learned the value that Saadya saw in philosophical speculation, but would like to know what the author sees as its value. If it's likewise to turn belief into certain knowledge I'd be fascinated to hear how his own projects are contributing to this, because it would be a radical departure from much of religious philosophy since Kant.

    I'd also like the author to clarify what he thinks the limits of philosophical speculation actually are. If they are truly limited only by his reading of the mishna- well, that's not much of a limit at all. At points he appears to say that the limitation is much broader: one is enjoined from engaging in philosophy as an open ended search for truth. Or, one is enjoined from believing that there are truths not contained in the Torah – a radical stance indeed.

    [Interestingly, this does not appear to be Saadya's view – even on core issues of theology. Saadya, in Kitab al Amanat, famously rejects all accounts of creation save for the idea that the world came into existence all at once. But in the Tafsir on Sefer Yetzira (which he views as a work of philosophy) he appears to allow for an esoteric speculative account in which there is a stepwise formation of matter.]

    1. Sam Lebens

      I know that this is a few years late!!
      But my attention has just been re-directed to this blog, and I wanted to say one thing in response to MJ.
      I don’t feel the need to respond to all of this points, as I think that, not only has the moment past to get into anything long and involved, but also, Aaron said much of what I would have wanted to say.
      I just want to respond to the point about being ahistorical.
      You said, ‘[I]f you look at the philosophical inquiry circa roman Palestine those questions were not thought of as non-sense in the Wittgensteinian sense, but as questions that one could ask and answer in various ways.’
      Well that doesn’t convince me for the following reasons.
      1. Just because philosophical inquiry in Roman Palestine thought these sorts of questions were well posed isn’t proof, in and of itself, that the authors of this Mishna agreed. Indeed, surely it’s targeting people who think that such questions are well posed. So my reading is consistent with the historical data that you point to; data that establishes that this Mishna’s audience were likely to think that the questions it discusses were well posed. This Mishna may well be telling them that they’re wrong.
      2. Though you criticise me for not engaging with a whole plethora of questions that were not my immediate concern in this one short piece, you don’t seem to engage at all with the actual question I was focussing on. Namely, does this mishna pose a halakhic obstacle in the way of speculative philosophy? Even if my reading of the Mishna was ahistorical – a claim you’ve yet to prove to me – that wouldn’t in and of itself entail that my ‘ahistorical’ reading was not a sufficient response to the putative halakhic obstacle. This depends upon the extent to which you think halakhic interpretations of a halakhic text have to be bound by concerns for original intent. I tend to think that the halakhic system itself hands each generation of jurists a considerable degree of interpretative freedom in such situations. Jurists don’t have to be intellectual historians. I do think that this interpretative freedom has to have certain limits, but again, in this short piece, and so long after the discussion died down, I’m not going to get into the contours of that tricky topic right here.

  14. MJ

    In any event, my question or request is for all the contributors to this blog. Tell the world what if anything a contemporary analytic philosopher working in metaphysics, epistemology, phil of language, phil of mind, metaethics, in other words, all the hard core areas, has to say about Orthodox Judaism.

  15. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thank you for your comments. I wonder if you could please clarify the following statements for me before I respond:

    1) You say, "I think that the reasons why one would engage in philosophical speculation today as an academic in the context of modern analytic philosophy is not self evidently why Rasag or Rambam encourage it." Please can you explain why you think this to be the case.

    2) You say, "history has shown that philosophy after the Enlightenment can be pretty bad for religion." In what sense of "bad" and how so?

    3) You say, "I'm suggesting that the value it should have for the layperson is in producing a sophisticated apologetics but thus far it has not." How can a "sophisticated apologetics" have value for the "layperson" when I assume that such a person wouldn't be able to understand it? Or do you mean that it has value for the layperson int he sense of his or her being to point towards it if challenged on the philosophical pedigree of any Jewish theological principle?

    4) In your second post "In any event … Orthodox Judaism" you seem to imply that it is not apparent to you that analytic philosophy (or at least the "hardcore" areas you mention) has anything of value to contribute to Orthodox Judaism. If I may, I would like to put the shoe on the other foot for the time being; in other words, as someone who works in these "hardcore" areas, it seems obvious to me that there is a contribution to be made. But until I hear more about why you seem to be assuming that there isn't such a contribution to be made (that there is some preconceptual barrier between the two disciplines), I don't think my replies to you would satisfy your "challenge."

  16. MJ

    1) On the banal level, as much as one may be a lover of knowledge, today it's ones' primary job and ones' opportunity for advancement drives to an extent one's interests and publications. More to the point, philosophy then was an all-encompassing exploration of the world and therefore more straightforwardly an attempt to reconcile or synthesize Torah with everything else. Philosophy today is what has survived from the splintering of what became empirical disciplines and is a much more limited pursuit. I am inclined to think that someone with roughly the same intellectual profile as Rasag today would become a physicist. Certainly by the numbers the number of Orthodox Jews in the natural sciences far outpaces those who take up philosophy, and often they profess the desire to "understand the world." Further, even those of us most confident in the value of philosophy do not see it as holding out the possibility for achieving certainty of belief in a way that would be analogous to or contributing to the desired certitude ideally held out for religious belief. That project was given up a long time ago. Finally, I challenge anyone to claim in all seriousness that pursuing modern analytic philosophy is the same cognitive process that Rambam saw as bringing one to a state of intellectual perfection and even prophecy. I could go on, but I think that its rather self evident that a millennium of intellectual an social change has removed the possibility of pursuing philosophy in the same way and for the same reasons that our intellectual forbears did. It might be something one naively hopes for when younger, but I would think that the more you learn the less that seems like a real possibility and one needs to re-calibrate ones motivations, consciously or not.

    2)Bad in the sense of producing intellectual movements that opened up the possibility of leaving religion altogether. Maybe that's not bad – I suppose some would see it as the great winnowing before the rapture – or like R. Kook would see it as forcing religion to confront itself and undergoing a process of development, but in the sense that people today see religion as one possibility among others – and many see it as an epistemologically suspect possibility – it is bad.

    3) I think that a sophisticated apologetic needs to be translated into a language that more people can understand and appreciate. If it can't be translated then it probably isn't even addressing the issues that bother most of our coreligionists. I don't think there is much groundbreaking work necessary, it's translational and integrative. Each generation has its own issues and I don't think the have been addressed directly by the current generation of Orthodox philosophers who tend to either stick with Jewish philosophy or technical stuff that steers clear of religion. Nor does it help to devote ones time to taking on intellectual trends that have come and gone like logical positivism.

    4) Not at all. I think it potentially has much to contribute. Thus far it hasn't to my mind. Maybe that's because the hard core of analytic philosophy today has little to say about religion except in the most general terms and there is little reason to mention god in a typical discussion. Theology or apologetics may simply not come naturally to someone working in those areas, even if in their own mind their work is completely in line with their religious convictions.

    Further, I'm not even sure if there is a real sense of what a modern Orthodox apologetic ought to look like today.

  17. Dani Rabinowitz

    Thanks for these replies.
    Just a quick reply on one point. You say, "I challenge anyone to claim in all seriousness that pursuing modern analytic philosophy is the same cognitive process that Rambam saw as bringing one to a state of intellectual perfection and even prophecy." I don't quite see the connection between pursuing philosophy and Rambam's connection between intellectual perfection and prophecy. While besides the point, even scientists don't qualify as prophets because they lack a perfect imagination. That said, I am under the assumption that prophets grasp or acquire "divine science" by way of prophecy and that a good many Maimonides scholars take "divine science" to mean something roughly analogous to what analytic philosophers call metaphysics. So at least there is some overlap between what is required (from an epistemic standpoint) and what analytic philosophers study. Secondly, if thinking is a cognitive process, then both prophets and philosophers do that. If you prefer more fine-grained individuation of methods/processes, then using the laws of logic to make inferences is precisely what a prophet did and what philosophers do.

  18. Dani Rabinowitz

    Another quick thought. In Twersky's book on the Mishne Torah, he has a chapter on how Rambam conceived of philosophy and how he integrated the study of philosophy into the biblical commandment to study Torah. I think if we took a look there we might get an interesting contribution on how the medievals, or at least Rambam, thought of the relation between Judaism and philosophy.

  19. MJ

    I defer to your understanding of Rambam but I understand there to be an intimate connection between philosophy and prophecy for Rambam.

    In any case, I don't think that someone studying metaphysics today could conceive of it as Rambam did – even if you are a committed Aristotelian.

    I'll have a look at Twersky if I have a chance. However, I think Rambam says enough about philosophy explicitly.

  20. Dr. Russell Jay Hendel

    I Just joined this fascinating discussion. I have written some articles and have some insights that may look at this whole issue differently.

    First: The proper way to understand any Mishnaic exhortation is to relate it to fundamental biblical passages. In this case, the Mishnah has already done this by referring to the "Work of Creation" which means Genesis 1 and the "Work of the Chariot" which means Ezekiel 1.

    Now Ezekiel 1 **clearly** is a prophetic encounter. In my article, "Genesis 1 Speaks about the creation of prophecy not the creation of the World" (BOR HATORAH 13E pp 71-87 2002) I give strong arguments that Genesis 1 is not talking about creation of the physical world but rather the simple meaning of the text is that it is speaking about the creation of prophecy. In other words although the physical world is 20 billion years, the solar system about 4 billion and man about 1 million years old, something happened 6000 years ago. The event that happened was that for the first time a human had a prophetic encounter. That human was Adam. What was created 6000 years ago was prophecy. The "6 days of creation" refer to 6 requirements for prophecy. For example day 1 speaks about the creation of light …here we refer to dreams the ability to see at night. This is the first prerequisite for prophecy.

    I can develop this further but let me instead continue. For those who are interested I refer you to my article to appear in CCAR next month in a special volume on Religion and Science. An older paper is the above paper which may be accessed at http://www.Rashiyomi.com/gen-1.htm.

    Let me continue with discussion of philosophy. The Mishnah tells us that Prophecy (work of creation and work of chariot) may not be taught in public. It can however be taught in private if the person is advanced enough.

    Furthermore the Mishnah **never prohibits** the 4 things mentioned. It rather says "Woe to him who asks the following 4 questions." The Talmudic commentary on the Mishnah also relates of 4 individuals who did ask these questions – only one survived. So the mishnah is just saying that these questions are "risky." Offhand I would say that it is risky to try and become a prophet without proper preparation which is the theme of the mishnah.

    Again: The above analysis relates the Mishnah to fundamental biblical passages and is consistent with the Talmudic commentary. Bottom line: The mishnah is prohibiting teaching prophecy publicly and "strongly advises on the risks" of trying to do this on your own. I believe this is the proper approach to studying any Mishnah.

    I have left to deal with Rav Saadiah. First of all it wouldn't bother me if I disagreed with Saadia (It would bother me if I disagreed with the mishnah). But Saadia if I read him correctly is simply advising preceding faith to reason. I don’t know if he would agree with my prophetic interpretation of the mishnah but Saadia also talks about "preparation". So Saadia and I seem to concur on the danger of philosophy without faith. I question whether any one reading this thread would seriously disagree with this!

    In my article in BOR HATORAH I discuss the Rambam. I cite the Lubavitch English translation that Work of Creation is not science but rather spiritual matters (Such as prophecy). Rambam from his discussion in Yesoday Hatorah, last chapters, also seems to be talking about prophecy and therefore I follow the Lubavitch English translation as seeing the science in the first chapters as metaphors describing prophecy.

    Russell Jay Hendel; Ph.D., A.S.A, Dept of Math Towson University; RHendel@Towson.edu

  21. MJ

    I don't even no where to begin with this. First Rambam is clear that he understands Maaseh Bereishit as physics and Maaseh Merkava as metaphysics. Are they related to his idea of prophecy, yes. But not one and the same, nor is the relationship metaphoric (you are imposing modern ideas of what constitutes science).

    Second, your use of the term "prophecy" is out of place for the mishna. The rabbis felt that prophecy had ended in the early part of the 2nd temple period. There was no teaching of prophecy. Whatever these esoteric doctrines were, and whatever the 4 who entered pardes were seeking (it does not say that they asked those 4 questions, nor did only one survive. Only one came out "intact"), it was not prophecy per se.

    I could cite many more views on what the mystical or esoteric doctrines in the mishna refer to, instead I would encourage you to read through the Bavli's's exposition, then look through the heikhalot literature, then read some of the significant recent secondary literature on heikhalot and how to relate them to the Talmudic corpus.

  22. Aaron Segal, Sam Lebens, Dani Rabinowitz

    (Apologies for the digression, but MJ please could you contact us at asdphilosophy@gmail.com as we would like to discuss the topic of a future symposium with you. Thanks)

  23. Aaron Segal, Sam Lebens, Dani Rabinowitz

    And, one more quick note from the management:
    We're very happy for our blog to be the host to vibrant debate.
    Indeed, we encourage readers to subject all the views presented here, from authors and from commentators, to rigorous critical assessment. But, we would ask that people make sure to word their comments in a manner that makes their respect for each contributer manifest.
    If we feel that comments don't abide by this spirit of respectful dialogue, we will not hestitate to delete comments.

  24. MJ

    Will do, and I apologize if my comments appeared disrespectful instead of merely concise (and given my current workload, probably impatient).

  25. Dr. Russell Jay Hendel

    MJ: I assure you I already had read all the sources you cited prior to publishing my first paper. You raise four very important points. Allow me to address each one. Note: I would encourage the continuation of this thread (or making it into a symposium) Here are your 4 points (out of order) and my responses.

    Point #2) Your second point is that >>The rabbis felt that prophecy had ended in the early part of the 2nd temple period. << RESPONSE: What ended was public prophecy. Personal prophecy has never ended (it exists today also (See Rambam Yesoday Hatorah 7:15). So I will now revisit my position by carefully distinguishing between the two. Point #3) You continue Point #2 with the follow >>There was no teaching of prophecy.<< RESPONSE: There was no teaching of public prophecy. There certainly was teaching of personal prophecy . I am *explicitly* suggesting that the so called Pardes and Yesoday Hatorah Chapters 1-4 (as well as Genesis 1) is the teaching of personal prophecy. Point #1) >>First Rambam is clear that he understands Maaseh Bereishit as physics and Maaseh Merkava as metaphysics. Are they related to his idea of prophecy, yes. But not one and the same, nor is the relationship metaphoric (you are imposing modern ideas of what constitutes science).<< RESPONSE: We both agree that Yesoday Hatorah Ch 7-10 speaks about prophecy. We disagree on Yesoday Hatorah Ch 1-4. I claim that it is the same theme as Ch 7-10 but in metaphor. You claim it is a different theme. There is symmetry between us. You are asserting a literal reading is preferable to a metaphoric one. Granted. But can’t I claim that an IN-CONTEXT reading justifies a metaphoric reading. I propose to settle this controversy between us with the literary technique of CONTEXT applied to GENESIS (not to the Rambam). Carefully examine Genesis (Backwards)
    9) PHAROHS DREAM and its effect on Human History
    8) JOESPHS DREAM and its effect on his life as well as his ascendency to power
    7) JACOBS DREAMS (Beth El) and its effect on his meeting with Laban and Esauv
    6) THE STORY OF ISAAC his marriage etc with references to Abraham's dependence on Gods promises
    5) ABRAHAMS numerous prophecies: Akaydah, Ishmael, War with 4/5 Kings, Promise of Israel
    4) NOAHS PROPHECIES and the saving of the world
    3) KAYINS PROPHECIES – his contribution to forgiveness and exile punishment
    2) ADAM/EVES PROPHECIES and their expulsion from EDEN
    1)GENESIS 1 = a) Creation of PHYSICAL world or b) Creation of psycho spiritual world (prophecy)
    The above table crystallizes the driving force of my interpretation. GENESIS 1 as science (creation) would NOT fit in to the CONTEXT of Genesis. Genesis 1 as the CREATION OF PROPHECY and Adam as first prophet (and Gods promise that humans can conquer the world) ***DOES FIT INTO** the Genesis CONTEXT.

    But then, if you grant that Genesis 1 is prophecy, then Chagigah 2:1 is also prophecy and Rambam who was citing Chagigah 2:1 **MUST** be talking about Prophecy even if he superficially is speaking about Science!!!!

    I am suggesting that the point of controversy between us is the understanding of Genesis 1. We must FIRST interpret Genesis 1 and only THEN can we discuss the mishnah. The issue of whether the Rambam is using metaphor FOLLOWS from this fundamental issue – the meaning of Genesis 1.

    POINT #4) You state >>I could cite many more views on what the mystical or esoteric doctrines in the mishnah refer to….look through the heikhalot literature, then read some of the significant recent secondary literature<< RESPONSE: Again: The driving force of my interpretation is based on the meaning of Genesis 1 The very rich literature you cite by and large AVOIDS the context interpretation of Genesis 1 that I have presented above Russell Jay Hendel; PhD ASA
    Dept of Math, Towson Univ

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