Saturday, August 7, 2010

Obligatory Beliefs

Orthodoxy is replete with discussions of what one may or may not believe. Some people are minimalists (e.g. Marc Shapiro), some are maximalists (e.g., I dunno, pick your anti-Slifkin-ite). But I don't find minimalism here much better: the very notion of a mandated belief seems bizarre and repugnant to me. How can you be obligated or forbidden to believe something? If it seems true, believe it, if not, don't, and if you're not sure, say you're not sure.

Now, one can be obligated by reason, in a manner of speaking. If a teachers shows you a perfectly clear geometric proof, you are forced to accept it, so to speak--it's not a choice. But how can there be an a priori discussion about what you may or may not believe, which forces you to choose beliefs?

It leads to some interesting consequences for the more rationally-inclined believers--the kind of thing XGH used to mock.

A couple months ago, I sat with a number of people, a couple of whom were wholeheartedly relating miracles and magical incidents that supposedly surrounded one of the Gedolei Hador. (Frankly, I found the supposed miracles to be parlor room stuff, but I'll put that aside.) One other person present made all the right skeptical points: was there any independent verification? For those people who claimed they were healed by the rabbis prayers, do we know the total number of people who asked for healing prayers?

But then he stopped and said: "But on the other hand, Judaism has some tenets of our faith that might sound silly to an outsider, but we believe them. Are we supposed to believe these kind of things are possible as well?"

I thought, exactly. Once one has admitted the concept of religiously mandated beliefs to the picture, how can one scoff at crazier beliefs? As far as I can tell, minimizing which beliefs are mandated does not help: once this is an acceptable notion at all, why not take all midrashim literally, or believe modern rabbis have prophetic powers? Etc. The reason, it turns out, is because our hypothetical rationalist doesn't think those beliefs are actually mandated--not because the beliefs are silly.

4 comments:

MKR said...

Some people are minimalists (e.g. Marc Shapiro), some are maximalists (e.g., I dunno, pick your anti-Slifkin-ite). But I don't find minimalism here much better: the very notion of a mandated belief seems bizarre and repugnant to me.

Have you read Menachem Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? His answer to the title question is, essentially, "no." He doesn't deny that there are beliefs on which Jewish practice is founded, but he argues (if I am recollecting the book's contents correctly) that they are not halachic requirements.

Shilton HaSechel said...

I believe 15th century Chasdai Crescas objected to the Rambam's classification of beliefs as "halachot"

JewishGadfly said...

MKR:

I stand corrected as regards the spectrum of stances on the issue. What I wrote applies, then, to those who do believe in obligatory or forbidden beliefs.

Shilton:

Interestingly, the Rambam himself writes elsewhere (in his commentary on Sanhedrin) that there is no such thing as "psak" when it comes to issues of Jewish thought and philosophy. Take that as you will, given that he clearly still believes there is such a thing as beliefs that are outside the pale of orthodoxy and beliefs that are inside.

JewishGadfly said...

Well, "orthodoxy" is imprecise since its a modern term, but you get the idea.