“The world is at a critical juncture; it’s almost like a plague.” This statement was made a little over a year ago (well before the word “plague” gained its current relevance) by Professor Joseph Stiglitz, a 2001 Nobel Laureate and among the most renowned economists of our time. He gave his warning in an interview granted to Globes Magazine in honor of the publication of his latest book.
The book’s fundamental argument revolves around market failures in the modern economy; it has little to do with the issue at hand. Closely relevant, however, is the urgency accompanying Stiglitz’s statement, which is in line with what he considers a broad movement of anti-Enlightenment thinking undermining the foundations of democratic countries worldwide (especially the United States). Stiglitz claims that anti-Enlightenment advocates – a modern version of the Christian anti-Christ – are pushing the world to a critical crossroads, trying to roll the world back 250 years. Stiglitz believes that both sides of this struggle are easily defined: On one side are the men of reason, and on the other fools who deny reason’s superiority and refuse to follow its dictates.
This is a very different picture from the one Rabbi Pfeffer paints in his article. Unlike Stiglitz, he does not divide humanity into smart and stupid people but speaks rather of a clash between different worldviews held by equals – a clash today at its peak. The problem for Rabbi Pfeffer is that we are insufficiently aware of the struggle itself, such that ideas originating from the liberal wings of modern thought are easily embedded in our minds even without our noticing. In this situation, he claims, we cannot develop sufficient identification with the foundations of our own faith and Torah values; our unconsciously formed intellectual worldview alienates us from them.
The assumption underlying Rabbi Pfeffer’s article […] assumes there is no essential difference between the secular world and us when it comes to human reason and that our values can and should be formulated in the language of reason, competing with secular morality on the same playing field. But are we indeed operating on the same plane?
The assumption underlying Rabbi Pfeffer’s article rejects Stiglitz’s dichotomy. It assumes there is no essential difference between the secular world and us when it comes to human reason and that our values can and should be formulated in the language of reason, competing with secular morality on the same playing field. But are we indeed operating on the same plane? Is there no difference between human reason and the logic underlying Torah mitzvos? Does a person who cannot represent his moral world in the language of “secular reason” indeed suffer from a “cognitive dissonance”?
An example of a seemingly different approach can be found in the well-known words of Rabbi Yosef (“Ha-Chasid”) Yaavetz, a prominent Spanish exile of 1492. In his book Or Hachayim, he testifies that only one in a hundred philosophers is preoccupied with Torah and mitzvot, and even those few are ambivalent. In a famous passage, he notes that Jewish philosophers were the first to convert to Christianity, while “women and simple folk” refused to succumb, “sacrificing their lives and their wealth for the sanctity of their Creator.” These statements touch on the role reason plays in establishing identification with the observance of Torah and mitzvos. Ha-Chasid Yaavetz does not advocate for a religious version of the Orwellian “ignorance is strength.” Rather, he points out that Torah morals are not necessarily made of the same material as human reason. Diverting our intellectual resources to defending Torah values through reason might thus not yield the desired results and may even lead to significant disappointment. I will try to expand a little on this point below.
Reason and Faith
A great chasm separates between the intellectual challenges facing the Jews of Andalusia – first under Mulish rule, then under Christian domination – and those we face today. Yet, in terms of the place of reason in Jewish life, it seems there is nothing new under the sun. The era of Enlightenment stressed the superiority of reason, as demonstrated by a seeming inability to respect those who do not heed its directives. The approach is well-expressed in Imannuel Kant’s first introduction to “A Critique of Pure Reason”:
Our age is the age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected. The sacredness of religion, and the authority of legislation, are by many regarded as grounds of exemption from the examination of this tribunal. But, if they on they are exempted, they become the subjects of just suspicion, and cannot lay claim to sincere respect, which reason accords only to that which has stood the test of a free and public examination
The rebellious spirit enveloping Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century primarily assaulted the old institutions of science. The story of Paracelsus, who burned Avicenna’s “The Canon of Medicine” in front of his students, was among the first symbols of the Scientific Revolution. By contrast, the Enlightenment movement began by taking a far more conservative approach towards the scientific values of yesteryear. Although thinkers such Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1543) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1433-1494) toiled to lay the foundations of modern humanism, seeking to establish a value system different from the religious approach prevalent in their time, even they considered human reason as an interpretative tool for holy scripture rather than an independent source of morality. De Vitoria, who laid the foundations for modern international law and conceptions of “natural justice,” believed that questions of values should be delegated to men of religion, not jurists. Yet, as the engine of enlightenment waxed ever greater, the kingdom of reason expanded its powers and slowly severed its union with religion.
[A]s the engine of enlightenment waxed ever greater, the kingdom of reason expanded its powers and slowly severed its union with religion
Fast forward to today, our world is such that human reason of secular Enlightenment has succeeded in entirely supplanting religion, to the degree that “public reason” has outlawed religious thought from public debate. Secular humanism has become altogether dominant in today’s debate over values, and we would be hard-pressed to find a self-respecting public figure who would dare make a religious claim on a matter of public morals – though there are rare exceptions. Even those who defend religion base their arguments on secular reason.
The secularism of our public discourse is not atheism per se, but rather the crowning of earthly reason over religion. A person can continue to believe in the reality of God and the truth of the Torah and still maintain that it is improper to include religious arguments in the public discourse. Secularism is the attribution of independence to the natural world, without the need for a Higher Presence leading it – the detachment of a Divine presence from the world rather than a denial of God’s existence or private rejection to the Torah. Overcoming this fundamental perspective is the great challenge of today, and in doing so we need not surrender to secular dogma and accept the rules of the game it dictates. The very placing of human reason at the center of the debate could itself amount to support for secularism, God forbid.
Rejecting the Kingdom of God
A formulation of the secularism of our time can be found in the words of the Ramchal in his Daas Tevunos. Among the five heretical views he describes, the closest to today’s secularism was the most widespread even in his time. He calls this view: “The view of the masses”:
The third belief is the belief of the masses, who believe that the matters of this world follow rules of nature that were established by the Creator in the lower worlds, and it is their efforts and pressure that helps and their laziness that does harm as in (Devarim 8:17) “My strength and vigor of my hand achieved this success” and they say further, all is dependent on luck, and it is happenstance for everyone equally, and there is nothing other than the natural way, no more, whether for the good or for the bad (Daas Tevunos no. 42).
By contrast with the other views listed by the Ramchal, this opinion does not rely on philosophical argumentation; it is “the popular opinion,” held by the masses rather than by an intellectual elite. The detachment from God that it posits can be expressed in two contrasting ways: For some, it will make them believe in their ability to completely control their fate (“My strength and vigor of my hand achieved this success”), while others will fall into a deterministic passivity (“all is dependent on luck”).
Our basic faith, by contrast, dictates that man’s actions have consequences not only because of their fitness or unfitness to the laws of nature but also through a direct appeal to the Creator, awakening an appropriate response on His part – even one that is not immediately visible
The error of this perspective has multiple ramifications for everyday life. It leads to a disbelief in the connection between moral behavior and value systems and the way in which the world operates, irrespective of halacha observance. Although those espousing the position might believe that proper behavior ultimately pays off in the long term – in a World to Come – this does not apply to the everyday operation of the world. Our basic faith, by contrast, dictates that man’s actions have consequences not only because of their fitness or unfitness to the laws of nature but also through a direct appeal to the Creator, awakening an appropriate response on His part – even one that is not immediately visible. Man does not exist only in lower nature; he is also in a constant relationship with God, who is above nature. The more he improves his actions, the more this relationship will come to be felt in the natural world.
Dwelling in the World Below
This difference is highly significant; it is the difference between Heaven and Earth, and not just as a parable. The aim of the Torah and Mitzvot is not only to make man adapt to nature but to reveal a higher reality that does not belong to our earthly set of concepts.
Human labor thus does not conclude with the creation of a more complete earthly realm, but in connecting it to a higher reality
Human labor thus does not conclude with the creation of a more complete earthly realm, but in connecting it to a higher reality. This may be what the Midrash means when it says that the righteous bring the Divine Presence (the Shechinah) into the world, while the wicked cause it to depart. What distinguishes the wicked from the righteous is not only their moral conduct but the degree to which they make God’s presence felt in the world. The wicked drive the Shechinah away while the righteous bring it back.
The project of drawing the Divine Presence into the world is an essential part of Jewish life until today. Some claim that they have difficulty connecting to certain practical Mitzvos; they feel that their essence and purpose elude them. But this is the very heart of the matter: A core part of the role of Mitzvos role is to connect us to what lies beyond our understanding.
Earthly Deeds – Supreme Actions
This point receives particular emphasis in Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s Nefesh Hachayim, especially in the first Gate, where he expounds on how the actions of each Jew have an effect on “higher worlds.” He considers this understanding to be the basis and foundation for all worship of God:
And this is the law of man—each person in Israel should not say in his heart/mind (heaven forefend): “what am I, what power do I have to affect anything in the world via my lowly actions?” Truthfully, one should understand and know and fix in his heart’s thoughts, that every detail of his actions, speech, and thoughts, in each instant and moment, are not for naught (heaven forefend). And how many are his actions and how great and exalted, that each one rises according to its root, to effect its result at the loftiest heights, in the worlds and most elevated levels of the heavenly lights.
Throughout the book, Rav Chaim continues to develop the relationship between man’s spiritual labors in the world and the effect on “higher worlds,” all the way up the “chain” of spiritual worlds. But precisely because of this structure, he is careful to warn (in the “Perakim,” a kind of appendix to the first three parts of the book) of how our principal labors are here in the world – not in the exalted intentions relating to a higher reality, but in the practical and simple observance of the Mitzvos. The purity of intention is but a bonus.
Since we are dealing with matters beyond our understanding from the outset, let us not allow our labor’s center of gravity be the purity of thought and depth of intention
This is not meant as a reservation towards intention per se, but rather a consequence of the entire concept he lays out: Since we are dealing with matters beyond our understanding from the outset, let us not allow our labor’s center of gravity be the purity of thought and depth of intention. The fact that we cannot fully understand the things we need to do does not harm the authenticity of our observance, but to the contrary – it connects us to the places that we cannot touch in our ordinary, everyday condition.
Torah Above Reason
This might be the most fundamental difference between the goal we strive for and the moral goals of today’s secular society. Even assuming that we are all interested in a more perfected world, and we likewise strive together to live by exalted principles and values, secularism nonetheless bases its values and ambitions solely on the dictates of an earthly realm. It seeks to stand on its own, independent of any spiritual elevation. Our lifelong labors, by contrast, aim to uplift the temporal world by connecting it to a higher source, one lying outside our human understanding. This ambition creates a constant tension between the higher and lower world: On the one hand, we are down here on earth, and we wish the Shechinah return to reside among us once again, here in the lower world; but on the other, our labor touches a sphere far beyond the capacity of human imagination and understanding.
Even assuming that we are all interested in a more perfected world, and we likewise strive together to live by exalted principles and values, secularism nonetheless bases its values and ambitions solely on the dictates of an earthly realm
This is our position in the face of the secular worldview. We are not deaf to the message that secularism broadcasts – a message of worldly contentment and wellbeing. But we are not speaking the same language. The disparity is not the result of hostility to human reason, but because we assign it a much more exalted role than achieving mere earthly bliss. In this role, reason is only a tool – a vital tool for worshipping God, but a tool alone, impacting a center that lies far beyond the boundaries of its reach. This higher reality, entirely transcendent of human reason, cannot be dressed in earthly garb. We wish to refrain from secular discourse not because we reject human reason, but because we recognize its limitations and appreciate the unbridgeable gap between the two worlds.
[R]eason is only a tool – a vital tool for worshipping God, but a tool alone, impacting a center that lies far beyond the boundaries of its reach
Returning to “simple faith,” its virtue is not the bliss of ignorance. The faith of the simple is different from that of the sophisticated; while the latter identify strongly with their own understanding, “simple people” identify with faith as something elevated, beyond their understanding – which is why this faith will stand. Ha-Chasid Yaavetz, whose comment about “simple faith” was noted above, stresses that our labors do not end with the practical observance of Mitzvos; they should rather include additional layers of understanding and identification. But these are built as a “second floor” above the primary layer of simple faith and the concomitant performance of Torah precepts. Even as we deepen our perception, we need to remember that we deal with matters beyond our personal world and grasp. This is the only way to avoid the fate of those who were full of “wisdom and good deeds” but based their identification with the Torah on the foundations of the former.
This way of thinking seems to be on its way out. Our world appears to us more understandable and comprehensible than ever; we can talk about anything, ask anything, put everything on the table, and also expect concrete answers to all our questions. Everything must undergo our review, and woe unto those who seek to escape it. Even our educational approach to preschool children has adopted the tendency to simplify as much as possible, to ensure that all is understood.
Teaching “simple faith” and Mitzvah observance does not degrade man; it allows him to deal with that which is greater than he. Once the foundation is properly laid, tiers of understanding can be added to it, provided these do not negate the foundation
We are so used to living in a rock-solid “real world” that even when we encounter something that might challenge it, we choose to repress it. We ensure that we don’t know that we don’t know. The ability to live with things beyond our understanding is practically inborn, but oftentimes western education strangles it in infancy. We thus raise incredibly sophisticated people lacking any real depth.
Teaching “simple faith” and Mitzvah observance does not degrade man; it allows him to deal with that which is greater than he. Once the foundation is properly laid, tiers of understanding can be added to it, provided these do not negate the foundation: that even matters seeming in reach are ultimately “above.” We cannot know it all; in the Torah sense, this realization is the foundation of all knowledge.