Sunday, November 1, 2009

What Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav has in common with Screwtape

Religious fundamentalism has a lot more in common with extreme secularism and even atheism than both sides would usually like to admit. They both rely on a radical skepticism to reach their conclusions. A good example of this can be seen in the thought of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810).

For this reason our master [Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav] forbade us to study even the works of acceptable philosophers; they raise difficult and lengthy questions as to the ways of God, but when it comes to answering the questions, their answers are weak and can easily be refuted. Therefore he who looks into them and seeks to answer their questions by means of his intellect can fall into great heresy, when he sees that his answer is nothing and that the question remains. It is thus forbidden to look into (such books) at all, and one must rely on faith alone. (Art Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav pg. 298)

In any other field the acknowledgment that your side cannot successfully answer the questions put forth by the opposition is an acknowledgment of defeat and acceptance of the other side. Ironically enough this position of Rabbi Nahman is almost identical to the one that C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape take in the Screwtape Letters. Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter out in the field, that he should make sure that his patient does not read any works of science even if it on the surface takes an atheist position, because science will put his mind onto questions of whether something is real as opposed to what feels brave and enlightened and may lead him to the "enemy." Considering this, it would seem that the position of Rabbi Nahman, despite its surface orthodoxy, should be seen as just another form of atheism or even Satanism since his assumptions are the same. Therefore any person who advocates such a position, no matter how long their beard is or how black their hat is, should be as welcome in a religious community as an atheist like Richard Dawkins or, dare I say it, an undersecretary of temptation like Screwtape.


The Bray of Fundie said...

you articulated Rav Nachmans position far better than Screwtapes.

For those of us illiterate of CS Lewis, who intend to stay so lest his unanswered questions lead us astray, please try again.

The Bray of Fundie said...

on a radical skepticism

How is the Bratzlaver appeoach "a radical skepticism" sounds more like a willfulll credulity.

The Bray of Fundie said...

In any other field the acknowledgment that your side cannot successfully answer the questions put forth by the opposition is an acknowledgment of defeat and acceptance of the other side.

True as truth. But here's wheer havdala consciousness comes in. Torah, you see, is unlike "any other field ".

Izgad said...

The Screwtape Letters is one of those books that I think everyone should read. It is probably the most readable Mussar sefer ever written. I am sure you are familiar with the genre of the religious dialogue where we follow a conversation between two participants, leading to some edifying conclusion. Yehudah Ha-Levi’s Kuzari is an example of such a dialogue. Rabbi Avigdor Miller also wrote one called Rejoice O Youth. I recommend that people read the first book of the former and ignore the latter book unless they are either looking for laughs or a reason to hate Haredi Judaism. The premise of Screwtape is that you have this senior “Yetzer Hara” giving spiritual advice to a less experienced Yetzer Hara. This is a guide essentially as to how to spiritually destroy people. For more on the topic I suggest you look under the tag for Screwtape. I have talked about this book a few times.

One of the major arguments that I make on a regular basis is that to understand religious fundamentalism you have to look past what may seem as extreme credulity and see the skepticism that fuels it. If I live in a world in which things like science and the historical method do not claim any particular authority than there is little to judge religious claims against. You are left with a sense of “you want to take a leap of faith sure why not.”

One of the ways in which you judge a claim is its ability to defend itself using principles already in regular use. Ockham’s razor, one of the major pillar upon which our very sanity rests, essentially requires us to reject any claim that defends itself by creating a whole new process of thinking that exists solely for that reason. For example, I would never accept a scientific claim that required its own unique brand of physical laws just for it. This is one of the problems with creation science. You wish to bring in this havdalah consciousness in which Torah is its own field to be judged by its own standards. One cannot accept any religious claim that requires one to accept a set of rules that are only to be used to justify this specific religious claim.

Garnel Ironheart said...

The only way to really feel secure in one's position is to be able to successfully defend your opponent while simultaneously not changing your own views.
Rav Sliffkin did this recently by writing a decent piece in which he eloquently justified the opposition to his books.
If one is insecure, or one knows deep down that he does not have the answers to the difficult questions, then he will do everything he can to avoid questions.
So much of some parts of today's Orthodox Judaism is based on unjustifiable chumros and halachic reasoning that is really quite faulty. It only survives because it confronts its opposition with a flaming diaper instead of reasoned dialogue.

The Bray of Fundie said...

Hey BeeZee-

Do you own to the fact that Okchim is at loggerheads with the Rambam...not just with 'Ol Bray?

The Bray of Fundie said...

So by "skepticism" you mean skeptical of History, Philosophy and Science?

I agree. I can't rmrmber which DovBearian post or comment thread I made this argument on but I contended that only somone with a scholastic knowledge of Kharedim lacking any real life interactions would term them naive or credulous.

OTC apart form religious dogma they are among the most skeptical, even cynical , people I know.

The Bray of Fundie said...

I found it.

It was on my own humble red-Tent blog here:

Izgad said...


I fail to see how Maimonides goes against Ockham. It is not a problem to admit that there are a lot of things outside of our knowledge. As human beings we have to do a lot of raising our hands and saying that we do not know.