Postmodern Orthodox: Orthodoxy’s Encounter with Postmodern Thought
Reason is a most useful tool for our survival and material well-being, but on questions of God and the purpose and meaning of life, it runs up against its limits. If reason is the summit of our intelligence and it has gone as far as it can on these issues, then the most logical conclusion is that the questions unanswered are unanswerable, or perhaps meaningless,[i] and ought to be abandoned. Agnosticism acknowledges doubts where doubts necessarily exist, whereas theism and atheism entail postulates that we are, by definition, unsure of.
So goes the line of thinking prevalent for some time now, and which dominates postmodern thought. This logic, in conjunction with the absence of compelling rational arguments for religious doctrine, causes any discerning mind to be dubious of religious belief. The foundations of religion—prophecy, miracles, divine communion, etc.—seem to our present-day sentiments to be notions that were common in earlier times but are flawed and obsolete in our own. The ancients had a very different, if underdeveloped, view of the world relative to our contemporary view.
For those of us raised religious, while the difficulty, and seeming absurdity, of religious life prompts us to question its nature and our devotion to it, the feeling that in abandoning religion we are abandoning a large part of ourselves gives us pause. When outsiders to faith consider various religions, they can examine detachedly, scanning quickly for value, meaning, or truth. But no religion is so manifestly true and good that a cursory perusal will, with any frequency, persuade the examiner of that religion’s truth to the exclusion of all others. One can easily reject these foreign faiths because he or she feels little accountability to them whereas, to those religions we were raised with, the ones we have lived, whose worldview we have adopted, and whose society we have been a part of, we feel a much greater sense of responsibility. Having been raised in religious environments, doctrine is already ingrained in us to varying degrees, but we fear that we may have been misled or, as the allegations against religion go, that we believe simply because we wish it were true. We are left wondering if there is any way for us to be intellectually honest and, at the same time, maintain our religious convictions.
In attempting to answer this question, it would seem apparent that wherever we land in our beliefs, we should take care that none contradict reason, but this need not imply that reason is our only resource in the pursuit of truth. Devotion to reason and devotion to truth are not the same thing. Postmodernism limits itself to the isolated, unbiased lens of reason, through which we view the world as if we were its first inhabitants, disconnected from history and looking out at the world for the first time. While there is much to be gained from viewing the world in this manner, there is also much lost if we limit ourselves to it as we weigh our decision concerning faith.
In weighing our decision, we must consider the content of our religious identity and what we gain by remaining committed to our religious upbringing or what we would lose in rejecting it. The core that anchors the chain of tradition as it passes through time is the Torah, which we believe contains God’s law and word. Reason may not be able to discover objective truth, and humanity may not be able to reach up to God, but our tradition attests that God reached down to humankind and revealed truth to us, showing us what we could have never discovered on our own. In Orthodox Judaism, our religious identity leads us to assume a normative view in that our Jewish identity implies ethical and/or normative obligations based upon prophetic revelations. For many, it is from this element of our identity that religiosity begins and flows. The sense of meaning and purpose as well as the moments of profound religious experience which accompany the practice and study of our religion motivate us to remain committed to our religious lifestyles. While perhaps we should hesitate to trust these experiences wholeheartedly as much of their content can be the product of our own personal projections, we also need not completely rule them out as meaningless. To dismiss experience entirely in favor of reason would be to blind one eye to better serve the other.
Rejection of our religious identity in favor of agnosticism would entail rejecting the possibility of knowing, and, in some instances, the very existence of objective truth. As a result, agnosticism also often involves a further rejection of any belief in intrinsic meaning of the world. If we were confident that this meaninglessness were the true nature of the universe, we would do well to accept that reality and make the most of the lives that we have, either creating meaning for ourselves, as the existentialists posit, or simply accepting meaninglessness and making the most of what is left to us. But when facing the abyss, and our experiences and our traditions offer us the possibility of an alternative, a lifeline still connected to truth, it is not only reasonable, but also noble, for us to explore and hold onto that connection.
We must also consider that, besides for the positive impact Judaism has on our individual lives, we are also each links in a chain that serves a much larger purpose, and we have a responsibility to our national, historical, and religious mission and identity. When each of us says, “I am a Jew,” he or she identifies as a member of the Jewish people, of a communal consciousness, and recognizes that he or she is one among many. When viewing ourselves in this manner, we contextualize our lives within the history of our people, vis-à-vis those who came before us and those who will come after. Our tradition contains the wisdom and values of the Torah, which our ancestors fought to preserve for thousands of years, and so, even when we lack a sense of meaning in our personal observance, or when doctrine does not make perfect sense to us, we should fight to maintain the chain of tradition and pass down our heritage for the sake of past and future generations. Many choose to reject the traditions because they feel they cannot make sense of all of its content, but the Jewish community owes its continuity to those who grappled with these challenges while remaining loyal to the traditions and the God of our forefathers.
For those who decide to remain loyal to their religious identity, by embracing our historical identity, we accept the tradition that is essential to it, and with that acceptance we can proceed to work out the details of individual beliefs and doctrines. In contrast to those who use reason to denounce religion, we strive to connect the forces of faith and reason, reconciling tradition with the scientific and academic world. In so doing we advance our religion and traverse the gap that lies between our inner historical identity and our contemporary realities and circumstances.
Before we rely upon tradition and our religious experiences too heavily, however, while still in the mode of doubt we are uniquely poised to address the question of faith and qualify the terms under which we would be justified in adopting faith. We intuitively sense that any doctrine that promotes hate or actions that conflict with moral sensibility and a basic sense of right and wrong is so far inferior to doubt and agnosticism that it should be rejected and opposed by all. Even if we do not accept postmodernism in its entirety, we can take from it that pure reason does not likely yield any one worldview or religion. Certain ethical conclusions and norms should follow from this recognition, namely, respect for other people and their views and beliefs. If we are to choose to adopt certain beliefs, we must acknowledge that it is indeed a choice, and be sure that making that choice will not violate this most basic and fundamental truth: that everyone is entitled to make his or her own choice as well. This rule, perhaps paradoxically, begets its own exception, that the only intolerable perspective is one of intolerance. That in itself is a very important and valuable recognition, and to move from a position of doubt and respect to one of faith and disrespect or hate is an evil and unjustifiable act. Religious faith, or any faith in absolute truth, can only be morally permissible when that “truth” does not negatively affect or harm others.
Filtering the content of our doctrine through the sifter of reason and moral common sense is what makes faith justifiable and differentiates it from blind faith wherein one accepts what he or she is told without discernment. It is essential that we filter doctrine in this manner, and that we differentiate our mechanism of belief from that of those villains whose blind faith led and leads them to hate and kill in the name of God or an ideology. If we believe blindly, even if the content of our faith is less offensive than that of others, innocence would be merely an accidental characteristic of our faith, subject to change. We must scrutinize our faith in the same manner we would hope members of other faiths, or other sects within our own faith, would scrutinize theirs, doubting inhumanities and absurdities where they occur. In this way, we remain a step removed from our beliefs in that we choose the beliefs and not they us, and they are tentative in that we can adapt or change them if later prompted to do so.
In adopting faith, just as it would be a mistake to rely solely upon reason to the exclusion of experience and tradition, so would it be a mistake to limit ourselves to doctrine while stifling reason. If we are really devoted to truth, we ought to use every resource at our disposal in pursuing it, and reason can be a very powerful asset in that objective. Undoubtedly, we will encounter issues where our reason will fail us, and it is in those areas that we can rely upon our tradition and our faith to fill in the gaps. But while faith can illuminate the shadows left by doubt, it should never overcast those areas already touched by the light of reason. Faith, as an epistemic phenomenon, is both very powerful and very volatile, and should therefore be used carefully, methodically, and only when necessary.[ii]
Reason is also valuable to faith in that we do not necessarily have the ability, nor would we think it desirable, to believe in absurdities, or, rather, to accept assertions which seem to us absurd. Belief is only possible when its content is a plausible theory, or what William James referred to as “live hypotheses”—ones which appeal as real possibilities to him or her to whom they are proposed.[iii] Pruning faith with the razor of reason refines the tradition and keeps it alive and believable.
Depending on the individual concerned, what is absurd and what is reasonable will differ. For the more modern-minded, who prize science and academic research, when matters of religion are mystified, they can often seem outlandish. However, within traditional libraries and batei midrash, there exists a spectrum of opinions concerning miracles, the divine, and related subjects, from which the potential believer can choose what speaks most to him or her and what make most sense. Perhaps more than any other person, Maimonides worked to reconcile, and specialized in uniting, Judaism with reason, promulgating views of many of our doctrines in terms more familiar to our modern-day sensibilities.[iv] When considering the more palatable opinions, even our contemporary minds will no longer be spurned by the absurdity of faith and doctrine can become for us plausible and believable. We, living in a time where more information is available and popular thinking has changed, have gone and can go further than Maimonides and earlier generations did in advancing and refining doctrine, and in maintaining it as a set of “live” hypotheses which we have the ability to believe. When we merge reason with tradition by incorporating our faith with the most up-to-date information, scholarship, and wisdom, we maintain Judaism’s viability.
This ongoing process of adjusting and refining faith can be frustrating, and that frustration deters many from properly dealing with the challenges posed to their faith. We want to be complete. We want to know the nature of the world and how we ought to live so that we can be confident and happy and not have to question ourselves and our actions. But we must never let our desire for meaning exceed our devotion to truth. Doctrinal and theological questions do not lend themselves to easy answers that can be arrived at all at once, and it would be a mistake to expect otherwise.
As we grow in our study and our experience, both as individuals during our lifetimes, and as a people over the course of history, our views progress. But that fluidity need not prevent us from leading religious lives today. What Bertrand Russell, the twentieth century British philosopher and mathematician, said of philosophy is true of theology as well: “To teach how to live with uncertainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy in our age can still do for those who study it.”[v] We do not need to answer every theological question at the outset. Once we have chosen to embrace our tradition, and our religious practice is no longer contingent upon the daily throes of deliberation, we can immediately start living a life devoted to Jewish law, ethics, and serving God. The appearance of our practice and our religion will inevitably change as we modify them to keep them honest and reasonable. But living within Halakhah’s lines, with the knowledge that those lines can alter, will help in fostering and developing our faith, which in turn will bring us closer to the ultimate truth which we believe lies at the heart of our tradition.
Michael Faleck is a YC alum and is currently a student at RIETS and the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
[i] See A.J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (London: V. Gollancz, Ltd., 1936) on the meaninglessness of metaphysical concepts.
[ii] Maimonides in his Treatise on Resurrection writes, “I try to reconcile the Law and reason, and wherever possible consider all things of the natural order. Only when something is explicitly identified as a miracle, and reinterpretation of it cannot be accommodated, only then I feel forced to grant that this is a miracle.” As translated by Abraham Halkin in Crisis and Leadership: Epistles of Maimonides (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1985), 223.
[iii] William James, The Will to Believe (New York: Longmans Green & Co., 1897), 3.
[iv] See, generally Menachem Marc Kellner, Must a Jew Believe Anything? (London: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 1999). Concerning prophecy specifically see Norbert Samuelson, “Comments on Maimonides’ Concept of Prophecy,” CCAR Journal 18.1 (1971): 9-25, and Daniel Breslauer, “The Politics of Prophecy in the View of Moses Maimonides.” The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series 70.3 (1980): 153-71.
[v] Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972), xiv.