Sunday, November 27, 2016

Haredi Theology Making Itself Irrelevant: Some Thoughts on Gates of Emunah


As a Maimonidean, I do not just disagree with Haredi theology, I stopped, long ago, taking it seriously. Haredi theology can be divided into two schools; there are those Haredim who are blatantly idolatrous (Chabad) and then there are those, who really do not have any theology at all beyond a vague sense of tribal supremacy. God must exist and gave us the Torah, because if he did not, how can we turn our noses up and talk condescendingly about goyim.

A good example of this is Gates of Emunah - The Principles of Faith, based on the lectures of the late Rabbi Shimshon Dovid Pincus. I was struck by his opening chapter as to the extent that, for a work that is supposedly about theology, how little the writer cares about actually making arguments. For Pincus the arguments for Judaism are so obvious that they do not even need to be stated. Even a child should be able to figure them out. If you disagree with this then it can only be because you are spiritually tainted and maliciously desire to reject God. This leads to a counter-intuitive argument, but one that is distinctively Haredi: "Someone who studies the property laws of maseches Bava Basra is fulfilling the mitzvah of emunah because in this way he draws himself closer to Hashem. He becomes connected to Hashem, so he thereby attains emunah." (pg. 9) For Pincus, faith has nothing to do with abstract arguments or even clearly stating principles to believe in. Study the tort law from the Talmud, something that has nothing to do with God and you will have somehow believed; in what it is not at all clear. Of course, this line of thinking raises an interesting question; why should anyone, after reading this passage, bother to continue reading this book? You should immediately throw away the book as a waste of time and open a gemarah.

To be clear, I do not reject all arguments from subjective experience. I think that there is something to C. S. Lewis style apologetics where we believe in God because our world makes more sense with God in it. It is important to realize, though, that, for Lewis, this argument comes out of a dark and despairing place that recognizes that, at a shear intellectual level, the argument against God is quite powerful. For example, in the novel the Silver Chair, when the Lady of the Green Kirtle tries to seduce the children into believing that there is no world above, no sun and not even an Aslan, Puddlglum counters that it is amazing that they managed to somehow make up a better world to such an extent that he would rather die searching for their "childish fake" world above than continue to live in her "real" one.

Part of the irony here is that Puddlglum's argument gains it strength from the fact that logically the witch is right and that he seriously contemplates what it might mean to live in her Aslan-less world. The utter horror at this prospect suggests the faint possibility that perhaps there is something she has missed. It is important to keep in mind, though, that Puddlglum does not refute the witch. On the contrary, it is acknowledged that she has the better argument and that the evidence lies on her side.
It is sometimes easy to forget because we think of Lewis as a children's writer, how really dark Lewis could get. For Pincus to follow Lewis' path, would be to make his readers uncomfortable with themselves, which is the one thing his theology cannot allow him to do. His book exists not convince his readers about what the right answers might be, but to reassure them that they already have the right answers and need to think no more about them.

While we usually refute arguments through contradictions or reductio ad absurdum, the proper approach here is to note that Pincus' theology makes itself irrelevant. I am reminded of Allan Bloom's argument against cultural relativism in his Closing of the American Mind. Imagine an idealistic college freshman sitting down for his first English class taught by a committed post-modernist relativist. If the teacher is effective at giving over the principles of post-modernism, our student should immediately abandon his English classes, go to business school and never open a book again. I would add that any intellectually honest relativist English teacher should immediately insist that their students go to business school, end the class and resign from their teaching post. At a practical level, one has to ask, why have elite universities been so ineffective at keeping their students out of the business world or keeping their schools from being turned into profit centers with students as mere customers? Perhaps students and administrators are learning the lessons of relativism a little too well and are better post-modernists than the professors running English departments.

If this Emunah book was honest, instead of Pincus' face, the cover should have a sign saying "do not waste your money buying this book or your time reading it." As with secular relativism, the consequences of taking this theology seriously go beyond financial bankruptcy for lecturers and book publishers. At the same time that Pincus claims that we do not need to study theology, he also laments the superficial nature of the observance of many Orthodox Jews. He blames secular influence but would it not make more sense to say that these Orthodox Jews have been influenced by the "theology" of writers like Pincus and reached the proper conclusions? Whether God really exists, there really is no reason to seriously think about it. Much better to study Talmudic business law, become a rich lawyer and a de-facto atheist. You should just practice Judaism because you like the community and being part of the chosen people helps your self-esteem. If you think about it, the commitments of Jewish ritual are not necessarily much greater than the cost most people pay to be part of a specific club. (Think of what students go through to enter fraternities.)

You might think that I am reading too deeply into things and that Pincus cannot really mean what I think he does. Except that, at the end of the first part of the book, Pincus openly comes out and informs us:

         If we were to speak of the ABCs of being a ben Torah, then the 'A' would be to grasp this point            of, "This is my God and I will glorify him." Someone who grasps this point no longer has to                study the Rambam's Moreh Nevuchim or the Sha'ar HaYichud section of Chovos HaLevavos.

Clearly, the only reason to study modern works of Jewish theology would be to understand the classics as the modern works might present material in a more accessible fashion. If there is no reason to read the classics, why should anyone waste their time with modern works like that of Pincus?


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