In the previous section we talked about the drawbacks and limitations of analytical thought, i.e. the attempt to arrive at irrefutably true definitions and statements through formal logic and axioms. The problem is simple: analytical statements cannot by definition add information about the world outside of our own assumptions. They merely tell us what we already know in different words, e.g. circles are round. They cannot ‘prove’ anything beyond what we have already assumed to be true but cannot prove (axioms). This is what Rav Avraham calls ‘the emptiness of analytical thought’.
A perfect example of this is the perennial debate over ‘What is Judaism’. With modernity, the number of different types of Jews and ‘Judaisms’ has multiplied several times over. What was once taken for granted, i.e. people ‘knew’ what a Jew was, has forever been placed in doubt. Back in the day, religious Jews of all kinds and secularists of all kinds debated ‘what Judaism is’ or at least what it should be – whether national, cosmopolitan, cultural, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist &c. Each fervently believed their position was the correct one, an ‘essentialist’ belief contrary to the pluralistic thought of today.
Of course, to the academic scholars and pluralists of today, this debate is utterly pointless. Neither side could hope to decisively ‘prove’ their case to the other since everyone runs on different unprovable axioms, whether regarding the existence of God, the binding or non-binding nature of Jewish law, the Jewish mission in the world &c. No side can possibly decisively ‘prove’ their case analytically in a way that would compel everyone else to follow suit.
Indeed, most observers of Jewry seem to have despaired of the very idea of deciding this issue and have instead adopted a very broad analytical approach, summed up best by the following pithy quote (which appears in certain variations in many places):
‘Judaism is whatever Jews do’
Sometimes ‘separately from others’ is added, but the jist is the same.
Now, regardless of your personal opinion on what Judaism is or should be, surely you can see that the above statement is almost entirely empty of meaning. For one thing, it is so incredibly broad so as to be devoid of any coherence. I mean, is there a Jewish way to eat lunch or drive a car? Is conversion to Christianity or Islam also a ‘Jewish act’? How’s about playing golf or chess? Perhaps you will resolve this by stating that there are parameters to what Judaism is, but then we’re right back to where we started, in the ostensibly pointless debate (at least from an analytical point of view).
By now, you’re probably frustrated at this discussion, since even if you can’t ‘prove’ anything analytically, you still instinctively ‘feel’ or intuit that there are rules and definitions, a right and wrong understanding of the world. This idea that ‘nothing is true’ or ‘everything is true’ may go against everything you believe and learned about the world, even if you could not possibly convince a ‘pure’ analytical thinker or post-modernist.
Take heart. That ‘gut feeling’ of yours is not just an ’emotional response’, so decried by sneering intellectuals. It is what is known as a synthetic way of thinking, a method which is just as necessary as analytical thought and without which we could never achieve, or know, anything. We will discuss this way of thinking in the sections to come.
Coming Up: Theism and Synthetic Thought