Monday, August 27, 2012

Against Orthopraxy: The God of Independent Minds

The God of Independent Minds

Is religion the enemy of reason? A look at the questioning, disobedient heroes of the Old Testament

Today's debates over the place of religion in modern life often showcase the claim that belief in God stifles reason and science. As Richard Dawkins writes in his best-seller "The God Delusion," religious belief "discourages questioning by its very nature." In "The End of Faith," his own New Atheist manifesto, Sam Harris writes that religion represents "a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible."
The argument that religion suppresses rational inquiry is often based on the idea that "reason" and "revelation" are opposites. On this view, shared by atheist crusaders and some believers as well, the whole point of the Bible is to provide divine knowledge for guiding our lives, so we don't need questioning and independence of mind.
Musee des Beaux-Arts/Clermont-Ferrand, France/Roger-Viollet, Paris/Bridgeman Art Library
Independent thinker: 'Jacob Wrestling with the Angel,' 1865.
This dichotomy between reason and revelation has a great deal of history behind it, but I have never accepted it. In fact, as an Orthodox Jew, I often find the whole discussion quite frustrating. I will let Christians speak for their own sacred texts, but in the Hebrew Bible (or "Old Testament") and the classical rabbinical sources that are the basis for my religion, one of the abiding themes is precisely the ever-urgent need for human beings, if they are to find what is true and just, to maintain their capacity for independent thought and action.
Almost every major hero and heroine of the Hebrew Bible is depicted as independent-minded, disobedient, even contentious. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Joseph's brothers, Moses and Aaron, Gideon and Samuel, prophets such as Elijah and Elisha, and exilic biblical figures such as Daniel, Mordechai and Esther—all are portrayed as confronting authority and breaking the laws and commands of kings. And for this they are praised.
But aren't these biblical figures just disobeying human institutions in response to commands from on high? Not at all. Very often the disobedience we see in Hebrew Scripture is initiated by human beings with no word from God at all. Thus the midwives Shifra and Pua resist Pharaoh's decree to murder the Israelite children in the Exodus narrative. And Moses' mother and sister hide the infant boy, although it is against the law. And Moses grows up and slays an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew slave.
None of these deeds is initiated or guided by divine command. Like many other stories in the Bible, they tell us about human beings who make their stand entirely on their own authority.
Some will want to object that the biblical heroes exhibit such
Almost every major figure of the Hebrew Bible confronts authority and breaks the law.
independence of mind only with respect to other human beings, and that they become pushovers when God enters the picture. But that isn't right either. Many biblical figures dare to extend their arguments and criticism to God himself. Abraham is famous for challenging God over the fate of Sodom: "Will not the judge of all the earth do justice?" Moses repeatedly argues against God's intention to destroy Israel. David is outraged over what he sees as God's unjust killing of one of his men, and similar arguments with God appear in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Havakuk, Jonah and Job.
Nor do these biblical figures stop at just arguing with God. They also disobey God. Abel disregards God's instructions to go work the soil, while his brother Cain obeys—yet it is Abel whom God loves, not Cain. Moses, too, directly disobeys God's command to lead the people up to Canaan after the sin of the golden calf. Aaron refuses to conduct the sacrificial service as commanded after God kills his two sons. The daughters of Tzelofhad even demand that Moses alter God's law because they deem it unjust. And in all these cases, the biblical narrative endorses such resistance.
The Bible acknowledges this pattern explicitly when God gives the name "Israel" to Jacob and his descendants, saying: "Your name will no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have contended with God and with men and have prevailed."
Reread that last sentence. It says that the God of Israel so cherishes independent-minded men and women that he himself names them Israel, meaning "will contend with God," as a sign of his love and esteem.
The claim that the Hebrew Bible seeks to suppress inquiry and argument can be maintained only by way of colossal ignorance or willful distortion. In fact, no literary tradition of the pre-modern world—including Greek philosophy—was so effortlessly radical in its endorsement of human questioning, seeking and argument. And few have rivaled it in modernity either.
Perhaps it is time for the participants in the great "religion wars" of our day to give the Hebrew Bible another read.
—Dr. Hazony is the author of "The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture," which has just been published by Cambridge University Press.
A version of this article appeared August 25, 2012, on page C2 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The God of Independent Minds.
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  1. Some quotes on intellectual struggle:

    “The quest for authentic spirituality requires confronting the issues that challenge an individual’s belief in themselves, in G-d, and in their capacity to connect the two. Our educational system celebrates questioning and innovation in the realm of textual analysis, but is less tolerant of such critical thinking in the realms of dogmatic philosophy and halachic standards...While, it is not spiritually healthy to encourage the pursuit of every question and doubt to its absolute conclusion, the incongruence between the dogmatic approach to religious ideals and the critical thinking that underscores most academic and professional endeavors risks creating an unintended and often intense crisis of faith. Forums are needed to address these issues, and to validate curiosity as a
    mature and passionate dimension of religious growth. ”

    (R. Yaakov Glasser, Klal Perspectives, Spring 2012)

    "Knowing about Rabbi Weinberg’s struggle regarding the rabbinic attitude to Gentiles is particularly important, I was told, because it enables Jews deeply troubled by these issues to retain their spiritual compass; to recognize that such inner struggle can be legitimate as long as it takes place within the context of an ultimate commitment to the sacrosanct and immutable character of the halakhic tradition...”

    ("Facing the Truths of History", R. JJ Shachter)

    “we are also commanded and given permission to wrestle and engage in combat with their words and to resolve their difficulties and not to show favoritism to any man, rather to just love the truth, but with all this one must be cautious for the sake of one’s soul lest he speak with arrogance and expansiveness because one has found a basis for dispute, and imagine that he is as great as his teacher or as the author of the book which he is challenging, rather he must know in his heart that sometimes he has not fully understood the author’s words and intent. Therefore he should take an attitude of great humility, saying “Although I am not worthy, nonetheless it is Torah etc.”

    (Ruach Chaim, Translation by R. Aryeh Klapper)

  2. Classic straw man. He answers the "claim" that, "the Hebrew Bible seeks to suppress inquiry and argument...". Problem is, that's not the issue. The issue is that Judaism, as currently formulated seeks to suppress inquiry and argument. For that, there is not such a pat answer.

  3. "Judaism as currently formulated..."

    So far as I know, at the very latest the last "fomulators" of Judaism were the Mechaber and the Rema. And they focused on the Halachic aspect of Judaism. Find (or become) a formulator of your own Judaism!