To think or not to think

On theologically Jewish issues, especially those that pertain to matters of faith, there are two diametrically opposed positions. At one end, let’s call it the rationalist end, Jews seek to understand the meaning of life and the answers to questions using their intellect and through the study of Seforim that take this approach. The Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim and Rav Yosef Albo’s Sefer HaIkkarim are examples. The approach is known in some circles as חקירה. Others call it an intellectual approach to Judaism. That does not mean other approaches are lacking intelligence. of course.

At the other end is the approach of simple faith, אמונה פשוטה. This approach realises the limitations of man’s intellect and seeks a distance from the pursuit of the purely rational. That’s not to imply that there is no use of intellect, but the intellect is only used to buttress an existing unqualified acceptance of sublime submission through metaphysical or mystical notions.

What path should a student of יהדות choose? Is one preferred over another? Is one guaranteed of a successful outcome in terms of meaningful adherence to Torah and Mitzvos while the other is contraindicated?

Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau, who is considered by some as a religious left winger/moderate and an independent thinker, is reported in the paper as slamming “blind obedience to Rabbis”. Rabbi Lau, a nephew of ex-Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, was speaking at a symposium held at the Sha’arei Mishpat College where he apparently expressed the view that blind obedience to Rabbis—which I see as an extension to אמונה פשוטה—can result in problems because many who need to ask are not able to. In order to ask, they have to leave the fold, because asking—the sense of intellectual or rationalist enquiry—is considered anathema. In that environment, questions connote doubt/ ספקות באמונה and doubt is diametrically opposed to אמונה פשוטה . Without being at Rabbi Benny Lau’s talk, I surmise that he was also referring to the growing tendency to ask one’s Rabbi everything—even things which a mature human being ought to work out for themselves, albeit in a Jewish context.

My own view has always been that prescriptive formulae are problematic. They focus on a נשמה but at the expense of the individuality of the שכל. We are different. We have different intellects, modes of appreciation, and more. Two children from the same parents have potentially differing intellectual outlooks and needs. I’ve always felt that for every person for whom אמונה פשוטה and all that goes with it, there is another for whom עבודת השכל is the hot button.

I do not understand why Rabbi Lau has seemingly advised the national religious movement, as if that is some structured body walking in a single direction with only one mind. I would have thought that movement has matured to include a congruence of different approaches under an amorphous umbrella of trying to support the State of Israel through a meaningful engagement with Torah and Mitzvos.

There are people of high intelligence and great skill who choose to leave many if not most major decisions in their life to a Rabbi/Rebbe/Rav/Manhig. They may also choose not to engage in understanding rationalist explanations on the meaning of conundrums and leave their brains “in park”. Some call this self-effacement ביטול, while others call it a cop-out. Pejoratives are contraindicated. It’s a personal choice, surely. Does the Torah not give us this choice?

Equally there are people of different intelligence who choose to struggle with the questions of life, through the prism of יהדות. Often, the struggle is life-long and may not reap much fruit despite unending effort. Rabbis in such a world are consulted for questions for which a known answer isn’t easily reachable. Herman Cohen or Aristotle don’t scare. They are opportunities to synthesise or be rejected.

My mantra is “each to their own”. If a type A person achieves meaning in life through one approach, then the alternative approach is contraindicated. It is only when we assume that everyone needs to follow one approach, that we are proverbially enchained. Ironically, the approach that Rabbi Lau is suggesting to the national religious group is one approach and yet he seems to be supporting one size fits all. I don’t see his view as more emancipated than the alternative approach which relies on ביטול and a more extreme leaning on Rabbis to make day-to-day life choices.

I’m happy if Rabbi Lau reminds people that there is a valid path where people choose to engage and deal with the secular and that this doesn’t mean a doomsday descent. At the same time, if he is implying that confronting the world through questions and fronting the secular is the only way, then I humbly disagree.

Disclaimer: My blog post is based on a newspaper report. That’s always a tendentious proposition 🙂

Author: pitputim

I've enjoyed being a computer science professor in Melbourne, Australia, as well as band leader/singer for the Schnapps Band. My high schooling was in Chabad and I continued at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel and later in life at Machon L'Hora'ah, Yeshivas Halichos Olam.

4 thoughts on “To think or not to think”

  1. באגרת הקודש (לבעל התניא פכ”ב) כתוב:
    “אהובי, אחי ורעי, מאהבה מסותרת תוכחת מגולה. לכו נא ונוכחה! זכרו ימות עולם, בינו שנות דור ודור – ההיתה כזאת מימות עולם?! ואיה אפוא מצאתם מנהג זה באחד מכל ספרי חכמי ישראל הראשונים והאחרונים, להיות מנהג ותיקון לשאול בעצה בגשמיות, כדת מה לעשות בעניני העולם הגשמי, אף לגדולי חכמי ישראל הראשונים כתנאים ואמוראים, אשר כל רז לא אנס להו, ונהירין להון שבילין דרקיע. כי אם לנביאים ממש, אשר היו לפנים בישראל, כשמואל הרואה, אשר הלך אליו שאול לדרוש ה’ על דבר האתונות שנאבדו לאביו. כי באמת כל עניני אדם, לבד מדבר תורה ויראת שמים, אינם מושגים רק בנבואה ולא לחכמים לחם, כמאחז”ל “הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים”, ושבעה דברים מכוסים”…


    1. That was the Baal HaTanya on Gashmius, but even that changed in Chabad over time. His Yechidesin were apparently restricted. I guess the chassidim’s perceived needs also changed.


  2. The Baal Hatanya is talking about saying opinions about anything not in the realm of Torah and Halacha.

    Those who did asked advice from the Rebbe’s over time, did so willingly accepting that their Rebbe had divine inspiration.

    When Rabbi’s choose to dictate in מילי דעלמה, the Lubavitcher Rebbe pointed out the dangers especially when it went against common sense. The Rebbe always advocated deferring to common sense and expert opinion.

    I am skeptical about Rabbi Benny Lau’s motives, I suspect he would prefer that the עולם גולם should place their blind faith in something else ie. the social democratic dogma he espouses.

    See this wonderful letter by Prof: Moshe Kopel.

    לדעת הרב לאו, מכתב הברכה של הרב טאו לנשיא לשעבר קצב נובע מממלכתיות פסולה הרואה את בית הנשיא כסמל הממלכה ומסתייגת מבית המשפט ומהתקשורת. אלא שהרב לאו לא מצא לנחוץ להתמודד לגופו של עניין עם תהיות רבות העולות מפסק הדין; הספיקה לו העובדה שהרב טאו לא קיבל בהכנעה הראויה את קביעתם של כ”ק שופטי בית המשפט. כנראה, לטעמו של הרב לאו, בית המשפט והתקשורת הם הסמלים האמתיים של הממלכה ואותם אסור לערער מטעמים ממלכתיים. הוא אינו חולק על תורת יסוד כיסא השם בעולם, הוא רק תופס ברגל אחרת של הכיסא, כעיקר

    from here


    1. Look, there was a country mile between the last Rebbe and the first in giving advice on Gashmiyus. But you should note that my article isn’t limited to this domain. Rationalist approaches do not require consultations with clergy on matters outside of Halacha that isn’t already clear.

      I’m not going to enter speculation on what motivated Rabbi Lau but I will note that my views on the issue as I perceived it, transcends him and Chabad.


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