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Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Some "Meta Questions"

So if one reads the philosophical literature on God's relationship to time (e.g. Leftow, Swinburne, Plantinga, Hasker, Wierenga), one encounters the following phenomenon: those arguing for God's being outside of time will draw on certain biblical verses in support of their position. Similarly, those defending God's being inside time draw on biblical verses in support of their position.
At a recent conference that I attended on Jewish philosophy, I had a similar experience: presenters would draw on different verses or references in Jewish literature (Tanakh, Talmud, Midrash etc.) in support of the position/interpretation they were pushing.
This makes me wonder: Is there a "Jewish philosophy" to be uncovered or discovered in the texts? Or are the very theological/philosophical fundamentals of Judaism "up for grabs"?
I realize that the question could do with more clarity. Here is one way to see what I am getting at: Is there, for example, a Jewish position on God's relationship to time? Or is this question a matter of dispute? Here are two practical differences between the two sides of the coin.

(a)                          If there is indeed a Jewish position on God's relationship to time, then mining the texts and drawing on them in support of God's atemporality, for example, is a legitimate enterprise/exercise to engage in. However, if there is no Jewish position on God and time, then drawing on textual references does not prove or support one's position; such references merely indicate that someone prior expressed God's atemporality in a certain way (in a verse, poem, story etc.) and that that expression was recorded or incorporated in the canon etc.

(b)                         If there is no Jewish position on God’s relationship to time, then I, the contemporary Jew, am in no better or worse theoretical position to any of the voices recorded in the Jewish literature. By this I mean that if I have arguments for thinking so and so was wrong in thinking God atemporal, then I can legitimately engage in a theoretical refutation of so-and-so’s position. And the identity of so-and-so is irrelevant i.e. the contemporary Jew can, with the aid of philosophical tools available to us, enter into dispute with the greats like Moses, the prophets, King David, Rava, Rashi, etc.
Your comments would be of help to me on this point as I wish to gain a deeper understanding of the enterprise of mining the Jewish literature on philosophical points. I was recently made aware of some problems of this "meta" enterprise by an excellent paper written by Aaron Segal in which he threw into dispute the philosophical significance of some aspects of talmudic disputes.


  1. I would suspect that this differs from case to case?

  2. Dani Rabinowitz writes, "So if one reads the philosophical literature on God's relationship to time..."

    Perhaps defining time would be helpful. For example, a physicist may say time is the measurement of the change in the relationship between particles. Since there is a succession of moments, time is said to move forward. Now, is the Creator of the first cause of all effects particle or something else? The Creator must have preexisted the creation and so an assumption can be made this Creator is beyond what we understand as particle. We can see that creation is made of many elements that work together and thus seems to have purpose. Purpose comes from intellect which has attributes, such as justice, love, mercy etc.
    This is a description of a being. Having preexisted particle creation would make this Being beyond time and even eternal since the preexistence is beyond all that has ever existed. This leads to other assumptions (e.g. that Being is eternal and perfect so for a finite man to understand their relationship with this Being that Being must make the revelation(s) in what we could describe as scripture. That Scripture would use the social construct of words and common rules of grammar.)

    Dallas Bell

  3. Before we talk about G-d's relationship with time, we must talk about the nature of G-d. It seems to me that the nature of G-d is multifaceted, and hence the relationship of G-d and time is also multifaceted. Consequently, we may find different verses that can be interpreted in different and sometimes contradictory ways, because they are in fact revering to different levels of Divine manifestation. In addition, time too can mean various things depending on the context, as eluded to in the earlier comment by Dallas Bell.
    Two sources from Chabad literature that spring to mind, regarding the relationship of different aspects of Divinity with different aspects of time:
    1) תניא, שער היחוד והאמונה פ"ז
    Hebrew: http://www.chabad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/369761/jewish/page.htm
    English: http://www.chabad.org/library/tanya/tanya_cdo/aid/1029188/jewish/Chapter-7.htm
    2) ד"ה ויכולו תרס"ו
    Hebrew: http://www.lahak.org/mehurashab/5666-04-06.pdf

  4. Dani, I love the question you're posing.

    It might sound disappointing to accept the point and state that the cannonical sources are semantically indeterminate between a whole, possibliy infinite, range of alternative philosophies. But I think it rather exciting.

    It's not that we can disagree with the prophets, as you consider in point (b), it's that we have a great deal of room to reinterpret them in line with our own philosophical speculation. Disagreeing with non-prophetic scholars on matters of philosophy, on the other hand, seems wholly acceptable.

    Let me set out what I take to be Saadya Gaon's approach to this question, and then outline why it leaves me inspired, rather than downhearted.

    In the introduction to Emunot Vadeyot, SG makes it very clear that when the conclusions of pure reason are found to contradict the meaning of the Torah, once we have subjected our reasoning to great scrutiny, we simply have to reinterpret the meaning of the verses in question.

    That would mean that if the words of a prophet seem to imply a certain view of time that the best metaphysical arguments seem to disprove, we simply have to reinterpret the Torah.

    To be continued...

  5. But this might lead us to be dishearterned. It seems as if the text isn't really giving us any solid guidance. We accept that it's true, but we're allowed to be totally agnostic about its significance, reconcilling our interpretations with whatever reason happens to deliver. What hope does this give us of discovering a truely JEWISH philosophy?

    SG's first response to such a worry is that the Torah tells us how to behave. And, though the general laws of conduct, he believes, could have been arrived at through reason, there are certain details that need to be arbitrarily set down by any legal system. The Torah does this job for us. SG gives the following examples:

    "Reason disapproves of adultery, but gives no defintion of the way in which a woman can be acquired by a man so as to become his legal wife; whether this is effected merely by a form of words, or merely by means of money, or by her and her father's consent, or by witness of two or ten people, or in the presence of the whole population of a town, or by a symbolic act, or by impressing a sign upon her." (Page 104 of the Altman translation.)

    He also gives the exmaple that reason condems theft but lays down no particular rulings as to how and when, exactly, an object x should be considered the property of person y. And, reason dictates that punishment should be proportionate to the crime, but doesn't dellianiate exact measurements. "If we had had to rely on our own judgement about these matters, we should have opposed each other and never agreed on anything' (page 105).

    So, for normative reasons, the revealation is still important, even if a lot of (or all of) the substantive philosophical content could have been arrived at (somewhat slowly) by reason alone.

    To be continued...

  6. But, personally, my main ground for excitement about this way of viewing things runs as follows: We do have to have faith that the Torah is true, and that the autonomous halakhic system that it gave rise to is binding; but, when it comes to substantive issues of metaphysics, there is huge indeterminacy. And thus, we're lead to the observation drawn by Charles Foster in his recent blog (http://philosophyofjudaism.blogspot.com/2011/07/six-pillars-of-jewish-wisdom.html): one major facet of Jewish wisdom is what he calls theological scepticism. I'd rather paint it as theological indeterminsim.

    Our texts don't really tell us anything substantial about metaphysics that isn't open to wide and variant interpretation. And, as Foster puts it 'Jews may be partners with God, but he seems to be very good at delegating. In fact it is safest to assume that he delegates everything. One of the things that he delegates is the task of right thinking, with the end of right living.'

    The indeterminacy of our texts gives us the freedom to be philosophers, unincumbured by a priori dogma. The great criticism of scholastic philosophy was that it was the handmaiden to theology. But it seems that, for the Jew, that simply isn't the case. So, in a sense, there is no such thing as Jewish philosophy. But that sounds right. There's no such thing as Jewish truth either. There's only truth simpliciter; philosophy simpliciter.

    Judaism liberates us to be real philosophers.

    And we can now put forward a somewhat radical conclusion based on these thoughts:

    Other than belief in one God, rather hazily defined, we have absolute freedom to philosophise about metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, to our hearts delight, without feeling bound to the texts.

    But, we do then have a job to do that non-Jewish philosophers may not have, which is to put the pieces back together; the philosophy that we arrive at independently, with the prophetic texts that our tradition has bestowed upon us, in the faith that the pieces can indeed be put back together.

    As an addendum to this: Perhaps the only area of philosophy that the Torah really does binds us in, is in political and ethical philosophy. We are normatively bound by the halakha, which must surely bear some relationship to pure ethics. And, the Hebrew Bible, as Yoram Hazony would argue, makes really quite clear claims about the ideal distribution and seperation of power and wealth accross a society.

  7. Eli and Dallas

    Thank you for your comments. I'm afraid my post was not about God and time; rather it was an attempt to formulate a larger issue. I apologize if it came across in a way that made readers think that I wished to enter into a discussion about time. Whilst God and time is an important issue, my concerns were much wider, as Sam's post indicates.

    Sam, thank you for your comments. I look forward to reading them. Just have deadlines at the moment.

  8. Tyron,
    Might there be a sytematic methodology by which to determine which cases are which? And if not, what does that say about Jewish theology? And if yes, what is it?

  9. Dani writes, "God and time is an important issue, my concerns were much wider, as Sam's post indicates."

    In an effort to be brief, maybe I was not as clear as I could have been. Your philosophical vehicle of "God and time" was to get at either a or b options. I attempted to demonstrate the fundamental decision tree for a rational believer. Without text we can legitimately reason X deductively. The next step is to test X against text. That process can be reversed where text X is juxtaposed with reason. Text scholars, as you know, aid us in proper understanding of text so we do not have to re-invent the wheel, as it were. Samuel astutely pointed to Saadya Gaon's "Emunot Vadeyot" and I quite agree. His "systematic approach" begins with the creation of the world and ends with moral conduct. It is what belief a person chooses with the beginning creation concept, when given the rational options, which epistemologically determines the belief of moral conduct. If the Creator is perfect and eternal then the communication to us would be equally as perfect and eternal. If not, the communication is not immutable and always up for interpretation. If the prior belief is chosen then Divine text is the final authority on all matters. Of course, commonly accepted rules of grammar would not be suspended to accommodate rigidity, such as saying 9,995 soldiers were involved in a battle and another person says 10,000 soldiers were in that battle. It is not a mistake or deception to round up. Finally, it would seem that it comes down to a finite person's epistemological (belief) choice as to whether a or b is chosen. Phillip Johnson (Berkeley law) told me years ago, and has been my experience, that debate generally does not change a person's epistemological belief. Belief is based on faith in the unknown. That anchor determines the approach. This is why there will be opposing scholarly a and b views. It is as simple and also as complex as that.

    I wish you the best on your exciting research.

    Dallas Bell

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  11. "I'm afraid my post was not about God and time; rather it was an attempt to formulate a larger issue."

    Whether we are talking about G-d and time specifically, or a broader question of how to arrive at a "Jewish" perspective of any philosophical issue based on traditional texts. I think the point remains the same: 1) It is impossible to draw conclusions based on individual statements and verses here or there without viewing them in the broader context. 2) Usually such issues are extremely complex, incorporating layers of different nuances (that may sometimes seem contradictory) being articulated in different places.

  12. Let me clear about where I do think it makes sense to talk about Jewish philosophy:

    1) In the sense that there is English philosophy, and there is Greek philosophy, there is Jewish philosophy. English philosophy was born of a certain culture and language, as was Greek philosophy and Jewish philosophy. I am convinced that a great many contemporary philosophical conundrums would be better addressed if people were more familiar with the giants of Jewish philosophy (Saadya Gaon, Maimonides, Gersonides, Crescas, for instance).

    2) There are particular philosophical questions to be asked about Judaism. What is the nature of halakha? What is the nature of prophecy? What is the nature of revealation? How do we claim to have knowledge, or rational belief, in the key theological and historical claims of Judaism?

    3) I disagree with Aaron, in part, about the Talmud. I think that in some contexts, the rabbis really are arguing about metaphysics and the like. And, in other contexts, where they're arguments aren't ABOUT metaphysics, they might still be informed, or somehow inspired, by their metaphysical theses. For this reason, metaphysics will help us adjudicate halakhic questions in the (admitedly few) instances where the halakha seems bothered about getting the facts about reality straight, and in the other cases, a knowledge of metaphysics might still help us to unearth the motivating factors that might have informed the intuitions of the various rabbis in their purely halakhic disptues. Under this heading, I would argue that halakhic contexts often provide the contemporary philosopher with practical ramifications for their metaphysical theses (if not within halakha itself, then in other legal/ethical systems).

    So, I do think that the phrase, philosophy of Judaism (because of point (2)), or, at least, Jewish philosophy, has its place. I just don't think that the scriptures bind us very much at all as philosophers (outside, perhaps, of ethics, political philosophy, and some surprisingly minimal theology).

    In response to Eli Leib Rubin: It seems that in your opinion the texts do contain a fully-fledged philosophy; that it contains answers about, for instance, the nature of time and God's relationship to it. For you, it seems, if you just learn to uncode the textual subtelties, such as the different names of God, and the different guises in which the sfeirot appear in the texts, we'll be able to capture a glimple of some systematic philosophy hiding beneath the surface.

    I think that assumption has lead to some fantastically creative philosophy, such as the Tanya. I just don't think that the assumption itself is true - even if the philosophy that the ba'al hatanya arrived at is true!

    Saadya Gaon's basic point, it seems to me, is that the text is inherently compatible with a number of philosophical outlooks. The job we have to do is engage in pure philosophical speculation, unencumbered by too much deference to the texts, in the faith that we will be able to reconcile the truth uncovered by careful speculation and the truth contained in the text, because there is only one truth, and the Torah, we know, on the basis of reliable tradition, and authentic relgious experience, is true.

  13. I think you are reading a little to much into what I was trying to say. I do not think we should look to the texts alone for our answers, I agree with you fully that we must "engage in pure philosophical speculation". At the same time, however, I think that the attempt "to reconcile the truth uncovered by careful speculation and the truth contained in the text" is an extremely important one. The texts must remain ever as our guide, as they are the only source of objective "revealed" truth. Indeed much of the Jewish Philosophical endeavour, is to bridge the gap between the texts and the results of logical inquiry. Whenever there is an apparent contradiction between the two, we must rethink our arguments and reinterpret the texts, and the later endeavour must be attempted with the same rigour and intellectual honesty as the former. Indeed I do believe that there are general rules of textual interpretation just as there are general rules of logic.

    What is it that compels you to disbelieve the assumption that scripture does reflect and concur cohesively with the systematic findings of reason? When you say "that the text is inherently compatible with a number of philosophical outlooks" do you include the possibility of contradictory outlooks? And how do you reconcile these positions with your later statement that "the truth uncovered by careful speculation and the truth contained in the text" must concur "because there is only one truth..."

  14. Hi Eli,

    With regard to your last question: I take it that there are many plausible interpretations of the texts, and despite their plausibility, some of them are just wrong. Some of the plausible interpretations are mutually exclusive.
    But, my belief is that the right interpretation(s) will have to be comaptible with the truth, because, I believe that the Torah is true. Many true sentences will have plausible, though incorrect, interpretaions that make it false. The true Torah likewise has many initially plausible interpretations that will, after good philosophical speculation, turn out to be false.

    And, though the texts are our only source of revealed truth, they are inherently ambiguous on most non-normative philosophical questions. And, thus they are of little help to us in coming to the right conclusions about, for instance, some of the thorny problems of metaphysics and epistemology. So, though I agree that we must reconcile our findings with the texts, and that this task is of great importance (religiously), I don't imagine that the texts themselves will be much help to us, in a great many fields of philosophy.

    In questions of ethics and political philosophy, I think many of the texts tend to be much less ambiguous and are therefore of much more immediate use to the ethicist or the political philosopher.

  15. Let me suggest a possibility. Even when the texts by themselves underdetermine a philosophical position, such as on the relationship between G-d and time, it may still be the case that:
    a. The texts affect the probability of a philosophical position.
    b. The texts plus reason are sufficient to determine a philosophical position, or a range of philosophical positions.
    c. The texts rule out some philosophical positions.

    Let me illustrate the two options with respective examples.

    a. Grant for the sake of the argument that it is possible to read all of the relevant texts about the human person compatibly with materialism. Nonetheless, such a reading is not as probable as a reading that incorporates some degree of dualism. Therefore, the probability of materialism should go down given the texts.

    b. Suppose that reason tells us that (i) no being in time can infallibly know, at least without help from an atemporal being, what undetermined future events will happen (I actually don't think reason tells us this, but I'm just giving an example of something that a number of people think reason tells us). Suppose also that reason tells us that (ii) incompatibilism is the correct view of human freedom and responsibility. Now, the texts tell us, pretty clearly, that (a) G-d infallibly knows our future actions and (b) we are responsible for our future actions. Combining (a), (b), (i) and (ii) (maybe with some other very plausible premises) we conclude that G-d is outside time.

    c. Here I don't need to be hypothetical: I think the texts simply rule out the open theist view that G-d is in time, the future is open, and G-d doesn't know what we will do tomorrow. Of course, open theists have their ways of reinterpreting the texts, but it may very well be clear to one that their ways of reading the texts are incorrect.

  16. I think I was a bit too strident intiatially.

    I take the point that on a whole host of issues, the cannonical texts may well establish a range of acceptable philosophical positions. I appreciate Alexander Pruss' comment.

    But, it's still generally the case that the texts give us a great deal of philosophical freedom within certain goal-posts, and, if something is really philosophically important to you, you're likely to be willing to opt for quite creative re-interpretations of the texts in order to salvage your hard-won philosophical conclusions. There's going to have to be trade offs.

    And though my initial response was too strident, I still stand by my three senses in which there can be Jewish philosophy (see above).

    We might merely want to add a fourth, about how the range of accetpable positions is sometimes limited, for the Jewish philosopher, by the limited possibilities of textual interpretation.

  17. Alex,
    Thanks for those comments, which I found very interesting and helpful. Just a few quick clarificatory questions.Firstly, I don;t quite follow what you mean when you say "Nonetheless, such a reading is not as probable as a reading that incorporates some degree of dualism." Are you assuming some a priori commitment to dualism? Or assuming some high prior probability for dualism over materialism?

    I guess my original question can be better stated as follows: do the relevant sacred texts express a single/unified position on a matter X that can be, for a beter or worse term, be called "the Jewish view on X"? Or do the relevant sacred texts differ with respect to X such that there cannot be said to be a Jewish view on X? If the answer to the first is "yes," then if one thinks the Jewish view on X is Y, then one must be able to make all the textual refernces on topic X cohere such they support Y. If the answer to the second question is "yes" then competing textual references are almost irrelevant.

    Hope this clarifies my point.



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