Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Two: ‘What is Judaism’? and Analytical Thought)

[Intro, Part One]

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

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About AIWAC

Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at: opdycke1861NOSPAM@yahoo.com
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12 Responses to Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Two: ‘What is Judaism’? and Analytical Thought)

  1. fred says:

    while i buy the second section the first doesnt make much sense to me. did you think about it critically?

    • AIWAC says:

      Yes, although upon re-reading it, I think I could have worked harder on making it simpler. The second section is essentially a demonstration of the first section in plain English.

      • SE says:

        “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.”

        do you really believe there are no chidushim when something is studied analytically?
        do you really think that critical analysis cannot lead to a reformulation of axioms?

  2. AIWAC says:

    SE,

    “do you really believe there are no chidushim when something is studied analytically?”

    Of course there are chidushim, but they are conceptual chidushim. They help us understand our own terms and intellectual structures better. They do not, however, add to our information about the world (“synthetic knowledge”), at least if they are truly “analytical”. Of course, in the world of limmud, statements tend to be synthetic and analytical, so my statement would not always apply.

    “do you really think that critical analysis cannot lead to a reformulation of axioms?”

    SE, of course it can. However, my point (actually Rav Avraham’s point) is that it can add nothing to our knowledge of the world – it can only develop the internal analytical structure on its own terms. In other words, analytical study can only develop that which was already contained within the analytical framework; it has nothing to say for that which is outside it. It is, to quote Rav Avraham, empty.

    • SE says:

      i am not clear. the theory of relativity adds nothing?
      what is the alternative — natural science?

      • AIWAC says:

        SE,

        The theory of relativity adds to our conceptual powers of understanding. Through that we can better understand how the world works.

        Furthermore, it is not an entirely analytical theory (as opposed to say, mathematics or geometry, which could exist even if there was no world). It combines mathematical logic with observation and experimentation (e.g. the Michaelson-Morly experiments), both of which are “synthetic” methods of gaining knowledge (analysis relies on formal logics and rules).

        Put it this way: analysis could exist even without a physical world; math would be just as internally valid a system even if there was no world to count. Synthesis can not; it is tied to the limitations of both the physical world and our methods of observation. Analysis can certainly sharpen our methods of interpreting the world, but our information about the world is not arrived at analytically.

  3. SE says:

    sounds to me that only things that are purely theoretical can no new info be learned, but in every other area it can.
    1. this is highly simplistic in its dichotomy. theoretical notions come to play all the time in the physical world.
    2. this would have little relevance to torah, since all of it can be used ‘practically.’

    • AIWAC says:

      SE,

      Of course they do, but they are methods of interpreting information gleaned from the world, not of gaining it. It’s kind of like food and a food processor. Of course different types of processing will improve or change the food we have produced. But the processor does not produce food.

      Obviously the dichotomy is simplistic; reality is always more complicated. Discussion of ‘ideal types’, whether of people, ways of thinking &c, is meant to help clarify terms. My main point is that information about the world, as opposed to more advanced understanding of that information, is not gained through analysis but through synthesis. God willing, I will discuss what that means next week.

  4. Pingback: Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Three: Theism and Synthetic Thought) | QED

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