Thursday, July 20, 2006

Reasonable Irrationality

"This is the statute of the Torah" (Bamidbar 19:2). The Torah, according to the Sages, includes both statutes (hukkim) and ordinances (mishpatim). Mishpatim are laws which are understandable according to reason. Hukkim are laws for which the reason is not intuitive. The red heifer (parah adumah) is generally considered the paradigm of a hok. Even King Solomon, the wisest of men, attests, "I said I would be wise, but it is far from me (Kohelet 7:23) According to the gemara Yoma 14a, which we recently learned in the Daf Yomi, this verse was said about the red heifer.
The law of the ashes of the red heifer is considered particularly remote from reason by virtue of its arbitrary character. Its purpose is to purify a person from the highest degree of impurity. Yet the sprinkling of the ashes, even while it purifies the person on whom they are sprinkled, causes the Kohen who does the sprinkling to become defiled with a lesser degree of impurity which seems a superfluous wart on such a procedure. It operates apparently against its main purpose.
Torah learning generally speaking places a great emphasis on reasoned argument and rational understanding. When the general world encounters the power of that reasoning in a context to which it can relate, something good happens. The Torah promises that "it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations" (Devarim 4:6). A recent example is Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Professor Robert J. Aumann for his work in game theory based largely on Talmudic sources and reasoning. Another example is the software industry, which employs thousands of expert graduates of yeshivot who have retrained in the computer field.
Today the authority of human reason is under attack. Some of those attacks claim religious authority; the Torah is in no way a party to this irrationality. But by far the greatest attack on reason today comes not from religion but from the secular world. There are establishments which tell us they know better than we do, such as the academic world which claims for its pronouncements the sacred mantle of science, as well as government and the media. They claim the superiority of what they claim to be human wisdom over religion, which they imply, and not so subtly, to be superstition.
The problem is that that human wisdom is not always so wise. Government wastes our money while lining the pockets of the politicians and their accomplices such as lobbyists and media. Media mesmerizes us, sells us junk food which ruins our health and wastes our money. It keeps us passive, dumbed down and easier for the ruling class to govern us. The academic golden calf claims a monopoly on truth, shouting down all opposing opinions. The progress of science is in danger, as it was in the time of Copernicus and Galileo, because the powers that be will not permit sacred cows to be challenged. But today it is not religion which is responsible for this state of affairs but an even more pernicious secular orthodoxy. Truth will sprout from the earth, as scripture says.But the sprouting of truth requires it first be buried in the ground. That seems to be what is happening. We only hope the germination period is short. But we can water and fertilize that seed.
Today the Torah can be a force against the tyranny of the propagandist of the government, the conventional wisdom of the academics and the commercial hucksterism of the media. The principle of the red heifer can paradoxically lead us back to human reason. The Torah teaches us that we don't know everything but that we must test everything. When we learn Torah, we take nothing for granted. When one of the commentaries quotes a text, we look it up. When a religious authority makes a statement relating to a scientific fact, we have to see if he hasn't made a mistake or perhaps based it on the scientific knowledge of a previous generation which has been superceded. Accepting the authority of a non-rational principle in the Torah gives us back the authority of reason. The authority of the Torah gives us the backbone to question pseudo-rationalist gobbledygook and regain access to the rational truths which were obvious to our forefathers and mothers a century or two ago. Not only will we not lose scientific progress, we will gain by freeing our creative powers from the areas in which we have become stuck. Who knows what will happen if we unleash this power? The conquest of space, alternate energy sources, the return of quality to education and more are all within our power.


Anonymous said...

The Torah teaches us that we don't know everything but that we must test everything...

Compare that to Islam which stifles creativity, and forces the person to submit to the teachings of a madman (ie Mohammed). Don't question Mo! No wonder muslims hate the Jews so much! They might be forced to think for themselves. How would they ever wipe their bum bums without instruction from Mo?

goyisherebbe said...

Check out also and see why the Greeks and Romans had it in for the Jews. There is much I don't agree with there, but Prof. Francisco Gil-White is a very smart fellow and one of the good guys deserving of our support. A post on the subject will follow, IY"H.

Batya said...

Great start.
I can kibud av v'em with the knowledge that the blog's well-cared for.