Sunday, July 10, 2011

What Limits of Rationalism?

I'm kind of confused by this post. In discussing the limits of rationalism in Judaism, R' Slifkin writes:
In my view, although some of the Rishonim applied the rationalist approach to Judaism without limitations, we cannot do so. This is for both practical and theoretical reasons.
The practical problem is that
"there is considerable conflict between 21st century academic scholarship and 21st century Orthodox Jewish ideology."
The theoretical problem is that
"I think that there is an irreducible conflict between the very nature of emunah and rationalism."
I agree with both these points, and think they are problems for rationalists who want to believe in Judaism. But R' Slifkin also writes:
I don't see this as reason to entirely discard the rationalist approach. Besides, it's just not possible to do so; you can't make people shut their minds off, and Judaism does not expect people to do so....Nevertheless, I think it should be accepted from the outset that there can be limits to this approach.
This is the part I don't understand. Asking people to accept that there can be limits to where their reason takes them is, indeed, asking people to shut off their minds. I agree that you can't do that. So how does he still wind up with the last sentence of the paragraph, that there still must be limits?

Rationalism and reason don't really have limits; Judaism does. I sympathize with his aim--to keep rationalism and Orthodox Judaism together--but I think he realizes they don't really mesh well, and this piece just comes across as somewhat confused to me. Either you end up "limiting reason"--which he recommends, despite recognizing that this is irrational and likely impossible in the same paragraph--or you end up compromising Jewish belief.

5 comments:

Shilton HaSechel said...

People accept religion for reasons of faith. He is saying that BASING religion on rationalism is a bad move given that it's a losing battle in the 21st century. In short religion CANNOT be based on rationalism.

The question is what to do with this faith based religion once you have it. Should you treat it rationally or not.

I personally disagree with Rabbi Slifkin I think something founded on faith should be allowed to fully express itself in all of its delightful absurdity and one should not feel a need to be "scientific" about it...

JewishGadfly said...

Yes, he wrote something in the comments about sacrificing reason to faith.

I think he's being inconsistent, though, when he writes that you can't make people shut their minds off and Judaism doesn't expect them to. Clearly, he thinks people can and should and that Judaism does expect them to.

I actually appreciate efforts to at least be rational as much of the time as one can muster, but I agree that I don't really see any logical boundary point between one belief being off limits and another being off limits.

MKR said...

One of Immanuel Kant's books bears the title Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason; Rabbi Slifkin seems to be propounding reason within the limits of mere Judaism. He takes a rationalist approach to certain matters, not because he accords intrinsic authority to reason, but because rabbinic tradition, as he understands it, sanctions such an approach. So his "rationalism" is of a peculiarly bounded and instrumental sort: we can follow our reason so long as it does not raise doubts about traditional rabbinic beliefs. When that happens, reason has been applied beyond its proper bounds and must be stopped. This, at least, is how I understand his view. I agree with JG that such a view requires people to "shut their minds off," in direct contradiction to what Slifkin says in his post.

What I don't understand about the post is what the "practical" reasons are supposed to be for why the rationalist approach must be limited. Is he just saying that on some points, halachically observant Jews will not accept the conclusions to which the free exercise of reason leads?

G*3 said...

> What I don't understand about the post is what the "practical" reasons are supposed to be for why the rationalist approach must be limited.

As I read it, he’s saying that if the rational approach was allowed in all areas, large and important parts of Judaism would be called into question. Judaism must be true, therefore in those areas where it would destroy important tenets of faith the rational approach should not be taken. As I commented on his post, this is both an appeal to consequences and a rather silly attempt to pretend that ignoring the problems mean they don’t exist.

JewishGadfly said...

I think he may have meant that the actual practice of science and reason leads to particular conclusions opposed to traditional belief--as opposed to the a priori realization that faith and reason are in conflict, which one can realize even before studying the evidence.