Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Four: ‘The Decline of the Generations’ and the Synthetic-Analytical Divide)

[Intro, Part I, Part II, Part III]

In the previous section, we discussed the importance of synthetic thinking, and how it complements analytical thinking. It is a necessary complement, as without it we would never actually know anything about the world itself. It operates according to a different type of thinking, based on intuition, induction &c, but it is nevertheless no less “rational” than the more “definite” analytical thinking.

OK, but how can you clearly demonstrate this difference?

Rav Dr. Avraham did precisely that by using the Orthodox concept of ‘the decline of the generations’ as a demonstration of the move in Judaism from synthetic thought to analytical thought. I will try and summarize this argument here.

The Decline of the Generations

The concept of the ‘decline of generations’ has been analyzed and dissected by various scholars and authorities. However, I think it best to refer to the general, popular concept:

Each new generation in Orthodox Jewry is inherently inferior in intellect and spirituality to the previous one. This means that we cannot by definition second guess or undermine decisions or statements made by authorities in generations past. This is due both to the weakening of oral traditions (masorot) and the higher spiritual and intellectual level of the previous generations.

This is an argument that simply doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny. While it’s true that many oral masorot have been lost, we have methods of historical reconstruction that can help make up for that loss. In some cases and with some periods, our knowledge even surpasses those of many previous generations in terms of many subjects such as linguistics, realia, historical background &c.

The same goes for sources. Put simply, your average yeshiva student has quick access to many more sources than many local and even national authorities had. The revolution of the Responsa CD and its many siblings means that more Jews have easier access to more sources than ever before.

Nor does the argument of intellectual degradation hold. Indeed, in a day and age when most Orthodox Jewish children receive far more intensive education than ever before, to argue that their forbearers were “smarter” is a hard sell. The same goes for learning methods – was not Brisk, Telz &c considered a step UP (or many steps up) from the pilpulistic traditions of the past? How can this be if we insist that previous generation was inherently smarter than us?

From the Synthetic to the Analytical

Rav Dr. Avraham has a novel interpretation of what ‘The Decline’ actually means. Put simply, we have been moving steadily from a religion with rules based on synthetic thought to one based on analytical thought and formal logic. While the latter is more impressive and ostensibly “airtight”, the former is potentially closer to the truth. To quote how he formulated it in a shiur on the subject – we may be smarter than previous generations, but they are more correct.

A good example of this is Shabbat. Jews kept Shabbat from Sinai to the Second Temple period without being fully aware of the 39 melachot principle. So how did they determine what’s assur and what’s muttar? Simple – they knew it by force of intuition, what the late Prof. Jacob Katz called “the religious instinct”. It was a powerful intuitive sense of what was right and wrong and what entered what definition. These methods might not stand up to analytical scrutiny, but they were nevertheless borne of a deeper, more correct understanding of the Mitzvot[1].

The further we go along the Jewish historical timeline, the more formal and analytical it became. From the development of “midot hadrash” (some of which far exceeded R. Yishmael’s thirteen) to various other principles, intuition and common sense gave way to increasingly formalistic rules to ensure “airtightness”. Indeed, Brisk might be considered the pinnacle of such attempts to completely remove Torah Shebe’al Peh from reality and intuitive thought.

One of Rav Kook’s foremost students, the Rav Hanazir, described the difference between analytical thought and synthetic thought thus: analytical (or Greek) thought is like vision – it is crystal clear, yet superficial. We know exactly what we’re seeing, but we only see the surface. Greek thought also imposes its own concepts on the world הר כגיגית.

Synthetic, or Hebrew thought, is a hearing logic. It is less clear than vision, yet it also allows us to reach beyond the surface, to truly grasp the essence of things. The Torah student who uses solely analytical methods will never get further than the surface, since he or she is uninterested in what it has to say, but rather what we want to get out of it. Only by listening to the Torah on its own terms can we begin to reconnect, regain that intuition that has been lost.

So is it possible to revive synthetic thought in Israel? I don’t know, although Rav Dr. Avraham is certainly trying.

What say you, dear reader?

[1] A good example of this is the issue of פסיק רישא דלא ניחא ליה. According to formal logic, there is no reason why דלא ניחא ליה should not include not wanting to violate Shabbat. Yet intuitively one can understand why such a loophole cannot exist.


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:
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4 Responses to Not A Zero-Sum Game: Rational Thought and Religion According to Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (Part Four: ‘The Decline of the Generations’ and the Synthetic-Analytical Divide)

  1. Shlomo says:

    A comparison of this idea with Moshe Koppel’s “Meta-Halacha” would be interesting.

    • AIWAC says:

      Thanks for the idea. I’ll read it when I get the chance. BTW, Rav Avraham references Koppel’s differentiation between ‘naturally learned language’ (i.e. synthetic) to ‘language learned by rules’ (i.e. analytical) in a number of places.

  2. Pingback: Religious Maturity, Or The Atheist Avrech and You (Part Two) | QED

  3. Pingback: Interesting Book Alert: Rav Dr. Michael Avraham on Religion and Evolution | QED

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