“Yes, but is it True?” On the Nature of Truth in Judaism

“Yes, but is it True?” On the Nature of Truth in Judaism June 12, 2020

Authors Note: I ask anyone who takes umbrage at any portion of this article to read the endnotes before raising their objections.

There is a particular passage in The Handbook of Jewish Thought, Vol. 2 by R. Aryeh Kaplan that I found somewhat troubling.

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan (zl) writes:

Belief in God and our religious fundamentals is our most precious possession and must be guarded accordingly…[o]ne should therefore avoid all thoughts and actions which may undermine his faith…We are commanded to avoid any speculations which might undermine our faith… Included in this is an injunction not to read books which preach atheistic ideas, and which lead people away from God…

One should therefore avoid conversing with atheists, and keep away from them as much as possible…[but] a Jewish atheist or nonbeliever is considered to be completely outside the Jewish fold and is viewed as a non-Jew as far as all rituals are concerned. One is not even required to mourn his death nor love him as a fellow Jew…”1

What is it that is so bothersome about this view? It wasn’t the hostile view towards atheists in general, or the disavowal of Jewish atheists in particular. For me, the unsettling bit was the part about “avoiding all thoughts” that might undermine one’s faith. Leaving aside the question of whether we can control our thoughts, most people get rather uncomfortable when you start telling them to avoid thinking particular thoughts, and justifiably so.

Most objectionable about about the idea(to me at least) is that this attitude seems to be indifferent to the question of truth. The priority seems to be the preservation of Jewish faith, regardless of whether the claims it makes are an accurate reflection of reality. While it’s conceivable that a true idea might be discarded under a critical lens (more on this later), claims that are factually wrong must often be protected from scrutiny if belief in them is to be preserved. I can certainly understand why someone who does not sincerely believe in torah l’moshe m’sinai wouldn’t want Judaism investigated. Yet it wasn’t initially clear to me why someone with faith as strong and sincere as Rabbi Kaplan’s would urge others to steer clear of anything that causes them to question such things.

My goal here isn’t demonstrate that Rabbi Kaplan is wrong, or that anyone who agrees with him is hopelessly misguided, or even that those who have this perspective are unjustified in believing it.It was initially difficult to put into words, but I think I’ve figured out what troubles me so about views like this: people who accept this view and I practice Judaism for different reasons.  My goal here is simply to suggest what I think is a healthier way to deal with doubt.

So how do we treat doubt? Or, as someone once said somewhere, “what is truth?”

Questioning and Doubt

My current rabbi largely agrees with the views presented by Rabbi Kaplan, and the discussion we had on this subject was the original inspiration for this blog post.

He suggested to me that there was a distinction between “questioning” Judaism, and “doubting” Judaism, with the primary distinction between them being the intention of the interlocutor. As he defined it, a “questioner” is someone seeking to more deeply understand his faith, while a “doubter” is someone who is seeking to undermine his faith.  While Judaism welcomes questions, it shuns doubts.

If “doubter” simply means “bad faith interlocutor,” then this point makes a fair amount of sense.  There are some people who are not interested in changing their minds, but are rather adamant that you change yours.

But this somewhat skirts around the point I made.  The answer to a question is not affected by the motives of the person asking it, nor does it make the doubter’s doubts any less sincere.  Many Jews I have met are deeply bothered by questions of faith and are dissatisfied with the answers they receive.  Their goal in doubting foundational assumptions is not to undermine Judaism; they’re just trying to figure out what the truth is without presupposing it.

Our faith presumes that at least a few things must be knowable without divine revelation. For example, the Rambam writes:

“Anyone who accepts upon himself and observes the Sheva Mitzvos [Noahide Laws] is of the righteous nations of the world and has a share in the world to come…this is as long as he accepts them because [he believes] it was HaKadosh Baruch-hu who commanded them in the Torah…but if he observes them because he convinced himself by logic then he is not considered a ger toshav [resident alien] and is not of the righteous nations of the world, but merely one of their wise.”3

Note the discrepancy between accepting the Noahide laws “because it was the Holy One, blessed be he, who commanded them” and accepting them “by logic,”4 implying that one can come to moral conclusions by logical means.

This makes a fair degree of sense; many cultures in the world have never heard of the Torah or Judaism, let alone believe that God passed down various ethical prescriptions for them to follow. Yet even uncontacted tribes will exclude those who murder and steal, as well as various other (correct) moral conclusions, without the assistance of the Torah.

As a result, shouldn’t dismiss doubt or shun those who doubt; we should accept it as a useful tool in discerning those most basic truths about the nature of the world.

Keeping Faith vs Being Faithful

By now, many readers familiar with the Orthodox world should notice the elephant in the room: this disagreement on the nature of doubt is a major point of contention between the Modern Orthodox and Haredi worldviews.

A mentor and former rabbi of mine gave me the following analogy: Suppose you have a diary full of all sorts of wonderful memories. The more you take it out to read, the more the spine will bend, the pages will fade, and it will wear out and become unreadable. On the other hand, you could lock it away in a box in a dark, dry closet somewhere, never to be seen again. That would almost certainly be the best way to preserve the diary, even if it means people don’t often get to read it.

In this analogy, the wear and tear of the diary is analogous to Jews who leave the faith.  Haredi children are more likely to remain religious than their other religious counterparts (see pp. 69-70 of the full report), though I remain skeptical that this will be the case for much longer.  While Modern Orthodoxy may encourage a more robust understanding of the foundations of the faith, it leads to a significantly higher attrition rate.

Some people aren’t interested in examining their faith terribly closely, and it doesn’t make them stupid, immoral, or even uncurious.  It is completely unfair to condemn them as such; most people just aren’t interested in being philosophers or theologians.  It’s entirely possible to drive a car without knowing how it works, and it is entirely possible to practice Judaism without understanding its foundations.

But, at the very least, somebody has to know how the car works.  In fact, it’s typically a good idea to have a number of excellent mechanics around, lest the demand for repairs exceed the available labor of those who can conduct them.  Oh, and ideally they should be alive.  While a dead mechanic can write an instruction manual for non-mechanics to read, no manual can cover every conceivable thing that could possibly go wrong with the car in the future.

So for anybody who is interested in looking under the hood, I have a few probing questions for you.

If your primary concern is how you can pass on your faith to subsequent generations, I want to know: why make the effort?

If you don’t know that what you believe is true, then why bother preserving it? Why keep the commandments given to Moses, if you’re not interested in finding out whether there actually was a Moses or whether there were commandments? If none of this is true, it has no more significance than any other work of fiction, other than purely sentimental value (i.e. “It’s my favorite work of fiction!”) In my view, as paradoxical as it sounds, doubt is a necessary component of any meaningful faith. Judaism is valuable because it is true.

“Avoid all thoughts and actions which may undermine [our] faith” sounds a bit like plugging our eyes and screaming until the bad thoughts go away. I worry that such an approach could lead to the fetishization of willful ignorance, simply on the grounds that having knowledge may cause someone somewhere to doubt the truth of Judaism.

Truth and Error

Statisticians, epistemologists, and other misfits no one listens to distinguish between “Type I” and “Type II” errors. In layman’s terms, a Type I error is a true statement that is taken to be false, and a Type II error is a false statement that is taken to be true; or, even less formally, Type I errors are “false negatives” and Type II errors are “false positives.”5

Assuming you think the truth is important, your goal is to try to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible. But unfortunately, any standard of evidence will make you more prone to either Type I or Type II error. A particularly skeptical person with a high standard of evidence is likely to make more Type I errors than a particularly credulous person, while the latter is likely to make many more Type II errors than the former.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because understanding this is key to constructing a sensible understanding of which claims we accept as true and which we accept as false. What I am describing is not really a halachic point or even a dogmatic one; it’s more fundamental than that.

Any religious framework will be prone to Type II errors, just as any sufficiently skeptical framework will be prone to Type I errors. The key to a sensible religious understanding of the world is to define criteria for accepting a belief so as to limit the number of of Type II errors (‘false positives’) accepted as true. An excessively “loose” religious epistemology will result in contradictory claims having equally sufficient criteria for acceptance, while a “loose” secular epistemology would reject so many true claims as to be completely useless. The important

What is this framework? Many people have suggested their own; Guide for the Perplexed is the most famous, but I also quite like the Ramchal’s Daas Tevunos. I’m not personally a fan of the Kuzari, but there are those who are. I will likely publish my own suggestions at some point, either on this blog, or in a book if I can sucker some poor sap into publishing it. This is not because I think these other works are lacking in some way, but merely because the authors I mentioned were not primarily concerned with the points I’ve raised here.

If you take away anything from this article, I ask that it be this: sincerely doubting one’s faith should not be a scary experience. Doubt is a gift, and it is an indispensable tool in the search for truth. I’ll discuss the limits of doubt (e.g. “Do I even exist?”) in a future post.

Gut Shabbos.

I would appreciate any tips on how to better present my views to a general audience, particularly as it relates to my writing style. I’m not used to writing for a general audience, and would appreciate any constructive criticism. As you may have gathered, I have a tendency to ramble, and would appreciate any feedback on where my thoughts became difficult to follow; while editing this, I had to cut out and save several snippets for future posts.

I am a bit concerned that my tone was too flippant and dismissive at times. My intention was not to mock or deride anyone; it was just how the words came out. Incidentally, I tried rephrasing many sections to sound more respectful, but I only succeeded in making them sound more uninteresting. If you can, please chalk it up to stylistic flair rather than deliberate disrespect.

I made a conscious decision not to bog the reader down with citations for a few reasons:

  • WordPress doesn’t like footnotes.
  •  I am a hashkafic nudnik, and would doubtless have left out something critical.
  • This is meant to be a general overview of arguments rather than an analysis of rabbinic opinion. I am not writing a responsum on a halachic issue, but presenting my own views on the nature of Jewish faith itself. As a result, I have limited the citations to pieces I am either responding to or using to support my argument.

I ask the reader to forgive me if I’ve stated as revelatory something any dimwitted bochur would know. I was not raised with a formal Jewish education, and so often it isn’t clear to me which bits of knowledge are obscure and which are widely known.

Aryeh Kaplan, Handbook of Jewish Thought Volume 2 (New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1992), p 6-8.

I’m some schmuck blogger on the internet disagreeing with one of the most highly-regarded American rabbis of the 20th century; I’d be a fool if I didn’t approach this with a certain degree of humility.

Rambam, Mishneh Torah: Kings and Wars, 8:11.

A friend of mine suggested I read the works Rav. Yehudah Amital, who apparently suggests that there is a “natural morality” discernible through reason, but I have yet to get around to this. I may make a follow-up to this post once I’ve done so.

5 I don’t like this terminology, since I’m talking about Type I and Type II errors in regards to human judgment rather than medicine. In medicine, false positives and false negatives are often not the result of human judgment, but of some defect of a specific test. Nevertheless, I’ve found that this terminology is an intuitive way to get the point across.

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