Saturday, 17 November 2007

The New Challenge of Atheism

Originally published 11/17/07, 6:07 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Rabbi Ben Hecht:
The following link is to post on another blog by a former Orthodox rabbi who has become a secular humanist:
When this link was first forwarded to me, I was actually looking forward to reading it. Atheism is now all over the news. Books are being written declaring that it is new frontier in human understanding. For Torah Jews, it is the new challenge that must be faced and so it is our call to read such presentations as this one. The famous statement from Pirkei Avot, dah mah she'tashiv l'apikoprus, "know what to respond to a heretic, is to me more that a call to know how to defend the faith. In knowing how to respond to the heretic, one actually gains a better understanding of Torah for, in clarifying principles and concepts in order to respond, one gains further knowledge of it.

Unfortunately, I was somewhat disappointed. He really doesn't say anything new. The historical arguments are all old hat. It seems that on both sides of the fence we find arguments that make everything seem so simple when, in reality, it is not so. There is a reason why the Chazon Ish stated there were no real apikorsim today, as without open miracles, we do not have absolute proofs. Even miracles, the Rambam states, are not absolute proofs. And I think that all the secular arguments have their a prioris which are not questioned, as Rabbi Sholom Carmy described, a secular bias.
I thought that in hearing the path taken by this former rabbi, further issues would unfold. We would see some discussion of how we know truth, of how we evaluate the info placed before us. He touches upon this but only minimally. It is that indescribable personal yardstick within us that has to be viewed in all such discussions. He gave us a glimpse of his. Is that enough to open up our search for ours?


Anonymous said...

Just my opinion, but one wonders to what extent Gruber's views are colored by his less-than optimal educational background.

At what age did he cease living in the US as "an Evanston native" only to "grow up in Israel"?

And as wonderful as Shalavim might be, it is hard to imagine that Israeli tichonim and/or yeshivot focus on the "Modern Ortho problem" as much as we do here in the US. If he had raised these doubts earlier, would he have been permitted to enroll there? That may be why Gruber's arguments are 'nothing new' to us, but faith-shaking to him.

Finally, one has to wonder if he is too much the auto-didact? At the very least he appears to lack the cohesive non-Torah education such as he might have received at a Bar Ilan or YU. Both Thomas Edison and Walden Universities offer a 'cover' degree for numerous credits (and life experience) taken elsewhere. That BOTH of his degrees are from such institutions raises an eyebrow or two. Where did he actually attend classes, and by whom was he taught?

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

Anonymous Scores some good points. In my most recent post I note the lack of "quality Cotnrol" when people pontificate. And believe you me, I have been guilty myself! :-) The point is anyone her can have an opinion, but it does not vouch for the quality of that opinion!


Anonymous said...

To be fair to the former Rav, what does his education have anything to do with his arguments? Deal with teh arguments, not the person making them! It reminds me of the gut reaction of most Yeshivish people I have encountered whenever I would raise an argument by pointing out a certain author or authors. Their first reaction was, "but does the book have a Haskamah"? We all know what Haskamahs are worth these days, but why, in any event, not deal with the arguments themselves!? To not do so is simply a cop out.

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe said...

My comment on the original Blog:

Judaism isn't only about its Legends, Beliefs, Myths, etc. It's also about a community. When a Jew is killed as a Jew, every Jew mourns. Most Ortho Jews mounred even the most assimilated victims of ht holocaust. [yes, there are exceptions but] Most Jews are committed to a peoplehood.

Religious Jews, both Ortho and Non-Ortho see the Jewish people as messengers of a an idealistic lifestyle. For Orthodox, that means BOTH Holiness and Ethics. For non-Ortho'sit is MORE about Ethics and Holiness seems to me to take a back seat.

The specific details of the factual bases of Judaism and Torah are not o paramount importance. What IS important is how Judaism molds the individual and the society at large. The fact that it does not always do a good job lies more in the realm of human frailty rather than with the shortcomings of the faith itself.

How many secular humanists care about the fate of other secular humanists? For that matter, where were they during events such as the Holocaust? Were they outspoken opponents of oppression?

If David Gruber feels no need for a community or society, then indeed I would understand how Judaism does not work for him.

As far as PROVING God's existnece it is a ridiculous proposal. Try explaining intense LOVE/ATTRACTION/SEX to a prepubescent child! Without having certain experiences and/or hormones there is no way to fathom this! Nevertheless, intense religious/spiritual peak-experiences have been shared by many, Jews and non-Jews.

Prophets did not try to PROVE God. They merely shared their understanding of God's message to the World. With All Due respect to Secular Humanists, I will Take Isaiah's exhortation to justice as more moving and compelling than the cold, detached, "arguments" or a secular humanist any day.

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

I also wonder about the educational system, not just in terms of this rabbi but in general. So often we discuss matters without recognizing that the issue is not the one that is actually before us but rather the a prioris that we rely upon. That is why I was disappointed in this former rabbi's post. I have heard these arguments before. Ther real issue is the a prioris and the frame of reference that we adopt in viewing all this information.

For example, according the Torah thought a major distinction in human life occurred at the end of the Babylonian exile. Prophecy ended. The drive for idolatry was extinguished . There were no more open miracles, at least as they were before. All this informs me that something in life changed. Do I know what that was? As I really don't know what prophecy is or what it is like to live in a world with open miracles, I really can't say. But this does tell me that there was a distinction in life between the period before the exile and the period afterwards. That leaves me confused about all the events that happened before the exile as I don't know how to exactly describe matters given my present frame of reference. That is how I approach ancient history given my a prioris. The secular historian obviously does not approach it in the same way. To him/her there was not this change in reality that I described. The a prioris are different. Now there is the question of how we establish our a prioris; are they just intuitive and thus not able to be debated. Ultimately, any discussion regarding the historical past of the Jewish people, whether we accept the Torah perspective or the secular perspective, will depend upon these a prioris. In fact, I believe that one who tries to argue for the truth of Sinai given the secular a prioris is doomed not only to failure but to foolishness. If the experts in the field who apply these a prioris come to a different conclusion than Torah, it is best to recognize that the conclusion of Torah is really a result of a different frame of reference and different a prioris. Therein lies the essence of the disagreement. We, though, do not enter this arena. We avoid it and thus the real debate is lost. It bothered me in the case of this former rav as his switch did not identify the switch in a prioris which is the essence of ths switch. I did not need to hear his secular arguments. I do not accept these secular arguments because of a different frame of reference. I wished he would have dealt with what made him change his frame of reference. Most likely, it was because he did not recognize his a prioris and frame of reference in the first place. That is an essential weakness of our educational systems, both secular and yeshiva. We do not understand the disagreements can often be based upon underlying assumptions.

Thie is, in fact, in my opinion why the Torah world is moving away from confronting machloket. Often a machloket is based upon a different assumption. We have problems relating to these differing assumptions. It is almost like the fundamentalist Christian who believes that all those who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell. Why? Becuae they really do believe but are rejecting him. But I tell them that I really do not believe; they respond that I am just rejecting it. Because without the a priori that everyone really believes you can't justify sending the one who states that he does not believe to hell. Ofent we can't deal with this difference between ourselves at this level because it totally throws off our understanding of life. Yet we are all built on assumptions and we don't know it or them.

This is true also in the case of morality. Before we can deal with changes in morality such as our attitude to slavery, we first have to define morality. If we describe changes in Torah, we are left with an issue of defining what we mean by the eternal nature of Torah. Its all dependent on describing our a prioris. That is why, before I speak to a Christian group, I will always describe my understanding the Revelation consisted of more that the written Bible and really this oral part of Revelation is actually more dominant and has priority. As such if I see a difference between the Biblical text and what the rabbis said, my question is not how the rabbis ever derived such an idea from the text. My questionis why did God write the text in such an unclear manner that the message of the Oral Law was not also clear in the text. (For something interesting on that see the Hakdama to Iggrot Moshe.) Thst is a totally different question. By describingmy a priori I avoid a debate on the the text using the a priori of the Christian. I am not interested in arguing that matter. It may be that the simplest reading of the text without Torah She'b'al actually reads as such -- but so what? My frame of reference is different. And the argument between myself and the Christian is not an argument in the text but on the issue of the a priori -- which is a very different argument. I once applied this in an argument with a person who was becoming a Jew for Jesus. It ended the argument right at the start. When then asked why I accepted this a priori I simply stated thatit was the a priori of the rabbis and I accept there presentation of the subject as they were the keepers of the Torah. That basically ended the discussion.

We shy away from looking at our a prioris. In the battle for truth, how do we decide on a matter? Is there an existential framework for truth aside from the rational framework. Rabbi wolpoe seems to indicate that there is. This is what also needs to be articulated in the subject matters brought up by this former rabbi. We use terms so easily without defining them. This is what needs to be done so we know what we truly believe.

The fact thought is that we really do shy away from such articulation for it really does challenge us to truly recognize what we believe, what the other believes and the exact point of disagreement. It is such clarity that makes us shy away from truly confronting disagreements and the differing ideas and possibilties. It is so much easier to connect the dots, think that we also adopt same secular frame of reference as secular ancient near east historians but are just right. It is harder to recognize the true nature of the disagreement. Similarly it is easier to assume that the entire world shares the same underlying view of what is morality and that those who disagreem with us really know that they are just giving in to their desires. To confront the call to define what we mean by morality, by movement in morality -- especially given an eternal Torah standard -- even what ismeant by this term "eternal standard" is much more difficul.

So it was the same old stuff by this former rabbbi. I wanted to know how he though when he was frum and what changed when he left the fold. Or was he simply telling us that he really alwasy thought like a secularist but finally recognized it and the necessary repercussion of that frame of reference, i.e. not being Orthodox? But what does that mean anyways.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Anonymous said...

Dear Rabbi,

I think what your response above, respectfully speaking, is begging the question. Why accept your a prioris? On what rational basis are they correct? Perhaps our "a prioris" are wrong, completely off base? Perhaps the Christian a prioris are correct for example? How do you respond to the Christian challenge, for example, by simply stating that their a prioris are wrong? You may avoid a debate, but you are not dealing with the issues.

In particular, how do you respond to the widely accepted Documentary Hypothesis? By stating that their a prioris are not shared by you?

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

Those, in fact, are precisely the questions that indeed need to be asked. My objective is not to avoid the necessary debate and discussion but to cause it to focus on precisely what the issue truly is -- and that is usually the underlying a prioris and assumptions.

For example, in the debate over evolution, one of arguments against the conclusion of evolution is that God changed the rules of science. One can only apply the theories of scientific dating if the rules of science never changed over the time period under investigation If, however, God change the rules, such as after the Flood, we cannot use our present scientific knowledge to make any assertions prior to the Flood. The debate concerning evolution now changes to a debate over whether God changed the rules or not -- which really can't be proven one way or the other. That, though, is not the end. If one cannot prove an assertion one way or the other, what is one to do? How does one take a side? What does it mean to take a side? If God is All-Powerful and thus a Random Factor that can always change the rules, what is the potential effect on thought which demands some level of consistencty in order to derive ideas from other facts (l'haveen daver m'toch daver)? Doesn't God want us to think? Maybe not?

What I really look for is consistency. In dealing with assumptions and a prioris, I may not be able to prove one way or the other, but I can investigate consistency and, in fact, demand consistency. If one accepts certain assumptions of faith than I can challenge that person to accept that another, choosing other assumptions based on faith, is to be equally accepted. Furthermore, when demanding consistency, one can also show the person his/her own inconsistencies (which they still can choose to deal with or not deal with). I remember once when challenged by a Christion regarding a certain verse in Nach, I did not get into classic Torah responses to the question but simply asked the Christian how he explained the verse. When he did so, I then asked him how his explanation connected with the literal reading of the verse -- to which he gave a solution. He felt very satisfied. All I then did was give the Torah understanding of the verse and when he presented the expected challenge that this explanation did not connect with the literal reading of the verse, all I then said was the we both had already accepted that the verse is not to be read literally. He got it and then ended his attempt to prove Christianity from the verse. I did not challenge him directly. All I showed was the need to be consistent and once he recognized that, he understood that while he may continue to believe as he does, his a priori or assumption did not make it possible to argue his view with someone with a different a priori. True, if I wanted to continued the debate, I would have to move to a different plane -- but that was not my attempt. I simply wanted to show the true nature of the argument and the limitation in his analysis as it applied to the other. That emerged from bringing the debate to the real issue, the underlying assumptions and a prioris.

Rabbi Ben Hecht