I Don’t Know
National Review’s Jonah Goldberg is no advocate for giving in to gay demands for greater legal protection of their life style. He recently assessed the future of a proposed state constitution amendment in Virginia that would explicitly disallow offering gays the advantages of marriage through arrangements by a different name, like civil unions. “It’s very difficult to make the lynchpin of your opposition to gay marriage ‘the children’ when gays have been allowed to either adopt, have, or otherwise maintain custody of children for a long time now. We are currently in a weird situation in that gay couples get kids all the time without the benefit of being ‘married’ while gay marriage opponents claim that gay couples shouldn’t get married because it would be bad for kids. That horse left the barn.”
Among other things, this points out the prescience of my good friend (and fellow Cross-Currents contributor) Rabbi Avi Shafran. A number of years ago, I did a short CBS News interview on those who opposed recognition of gay marriage. Anticipating some of the questions, I bounced some of my intended answers off Rabbi Shafran. He threw in some ideas I had not thought of, and strongly cautioned against using the boilerplate argument that everyone else was using: the danger to the American family. He considered it an unlikely argument to prevail (which on the evening news is more important than whether it is objectively true or not) for the very reason that Goldberg points to. Surely having two loving adoptive parents – albeit of the same gender – is better than having none at all! I used a different angle, and never regretted it.
What’s the alternative to providing half-baked solutions when you are on the spot and simply don’t have anything more to provide? I have found one that I use often. It is easy to remember, consisting of only three words: “I don’t know.”
I use them often. I have never found their use to get in the way of forceful advocacy for a Torah life-style, neither in the classroom with teens, or working with bright adults. To the contrary, I have gotten much positive feedback from people who are suspicious of simplistic solutions to complex issues, and are relieved to hear that seasoned veterans also don’t claim to have all the answers. They appreciate companionship in their intuition that there are complexities in life that are not well addressed by platitudes.
In several places, Rashi writes (the first is Bereshis 28:5) “I do not know what this teaches.” If Rashi couldn’t solve the problem, why not refrain from comment altogether. At first glance, we do not know what Rashi is teaching us by his confession! Some have explained several enigmatic passages in Rashi along similar lines: Rashi wishes to teach us that part of the process of learning is to be able to admit that one does not have an answer.
In my experience, it is in kiruv (outreach) that the issue really comes to a head. There are kiruv personnel who preach that all important principles of Judaism are self-evident. Not only can all questions be answered with complete satisfaction, but all the important ideas in the life of a Jew can be demonstrated to be true beyond any shadow of a doubt.
It is not clear to me whether people who take this position really believe it, or use the line to bait people, counting on the probability that the neophyte will be sufficiently attracted by what he/she sees to want to stick around.
If they believe it, they must have access to arguments that have evaded me. I cannot even imagine HKBH reducing emunah (belief) to a tautology, embraced by anyone who can think properly, and rejected only by those whose self-need gets in the way. I believe that HKBH in every generation leaves room for people to reject – even for intelligent people to reject – and for all of us to have to struggle and exercise our core will to choose His word. At times of great manifestation of the Divine in our past, HKBH insured that the attractiveness of avodah zarah (idolatry) would be immense. When He lessened its hold upon us, He replaced it with alternative ways to reject. The struggle remained in every generation.
If these kiruv workers do not believe what they say, they are setting up their students for great failure, when those students wake up with gnawing questions and incomplete answers that no longer work for them. These students then feel a mixture of betrayal and despair. I’ve seen it too often.
Is it really OK for a Torah teacher or spokesperson to admit to continuously grappling with issues, to not having all the answers to his/her own satisfaction? Shouldn’t the Torah representative speak with such force that all who listen simply melt in his presence?
Personally, I don’t think so.
But then again, I really don’t know.
Excellent article and an excellent point. That much I _do_ know 🙂
I have also seen the negative results of “all-knowing” answers. It hurts!
I whole-heartedly agree. When I was a young, idealistic NCSYer, I think my friends actually came to me with questions because they knew that I wouldn’t hesitate to tell them the truth if I knew it, or “I don’t know” if I didn’t. There’s no shame in not knowing everything, and you do people a real dis-service by lying about or evading important issues.
Jonah Goldberg’s point cited above was more about persuasion than about truth. Objectively, living in a home founded on gross immorality/toevah is bad for kids and totally unacceptable, no matter what laws out there promote this and who supports these laws and for what reasons. However, most Americans today are conditioned not to understand the basic problem. While that may make this truthful argument hard or impossible to sell, and other truthful arguments preferable to use, that does not make it any less true. The idea that an immoral home environment for kids is better than nothing sounds like yesterday’s argument for Conservative and Reform Judaism and is just as specious. The alternative for the affected kids is nothing only if society drops the ball and does not do the positive things that are really within its power to do.
Rabbi Adlerstein’s point that kiruv personnel ought to know their limitations and speak accordingly is sound. If any of these workers are being sent out into the field with too little preparation, armed with misleading or overly simplistic panacea-ideas, the organizations involved are to blame. Such organizations need to re-evaluate their ideas, methods, and operations using measuring sticks other than short-term “productivity”. Yes, their people are spread thin and are fighting an uphill battle, but this does not excuse shallow quick-fix methods that will come back to bite them.
Many intelligent, secularly-oriented Jews are ripe for personal change because they have become skeptical and even cynical of the broader society’s direction. The last thing we want to do now is to give them good reasons to be skeptical of us.
I’m still in suspense from the first half – What about the TV interview? How was the question phrased, that the answer “I don’t know” was satisfying – or was there a different answer?
Why is everyone so hung-up on labels.
What difference does it make if we call these degenerate immoral relationships “gay marriage” or “civil unions?”–It’s all the same thing. It means that we officially recognize these relationships as legitimate and equal to real marriage and family.
The destructive effect that this recognition has on society goes way beyond problems with children. Grownup relationships are ruined too.
And–as Ehrliche Yidden–we should know that HaShem is against it, since he called it an “abomination” in His Torah.
If the Master of the Universe is against it, you may be certain that there will be dire consequences of all sort.
I believe kiruv should be based on intellectual honesty. Like marriage, a person must build a life based on truth. The same applies to educating FFB children, as well as to writing gedolim biographies(certainly when the issue involves hashkafa and not lashon hara; Rav Shimon Schwab’s Zt’l essay may have only be referring to lashon hara).
The following quote, is relevant to this topic, and is from a critique of “Off the Derech” published in the Jewish Observer, after an initial, overall, positive review(this topic was not mentioned in the intial review).
“One of the causes of kids going off the derech, according to Margolese, is when teachers claim to be able to transmit foundations of belief with certainty. Since we cannot be certain that G-d exists, she asserts, it is wrong to “trick” children into thinking so:
“There is always an element of doubt when it comes to our life beliefs, but we pick a side anyway – we take a leap.” (page 179)
By asserting that to believe in G-d’s existence one must take a “leap of faith,” the author makes a terrible error. There are, in fact, countless authoritative sources stating that we are indeed commanded to KNOW that there is a G-d (see, for example, Rambam, Hil. Yesodei Hatorah 1,1), and this is how it has been for millennia. In her flawed understanding, Margolese misrepresents a basic foundation of Yiddishkeit. “
I would just mention that the same Rambam also believed in intellectual inquiry for those who needed it(as distinct from the Rambam in the 2nd perek of Hilchos Avodah Zarah regarding exposing oneself to heresy) , and in “rigorous intellectual” kiruv. But our generation’s challenges are different than those of the Rambam, and an updated Moreh Nevuchim has not been written. There is also the issue of what is the collective Mesorah regarding the definition of emunah, and what works for the majority of people. The author does discuss the emunah al pi chakirah issue in a previous section of the Jewish Observer critique.
While believing in full intellectual honesty, in the spirit of this post, I admit that I do not know exactly how to balance the experiential and intellectual aspects of Yiddishkeit in education and kiruv.
Another reference is Rabbi Shafran’s article discussing the theme of Rashi mentioned in this post, and may be found here(the link is not discussing the identical topic as the quote and critique of “Off the Derech”) :
Fantastic piece! R E Buchwald has long felt that a Shabbos meal with a family is the time honored best way of showing someone many of the important fundamentals of Shabbos without getting on a bandstand and proclaiming them. IMO, one of the keys is recognizing that for some BTs, all they need is an answer and that for others, there are approaches that help in formulating an answer, as oppposed to an answer that solves all problems for all times. For some, all that is needed is that first Shabbos. For others, it takes a long time for who has an initially positive response to even the best Shabbos host and hostess to reach a hashkafic comfort level that works for them.
I strongly agree about “I don’t know”. Over 35 years ago when I was just getting into Torah from an academic background, there were all kinds of people telling me all kinds of things about what was or was not in various books I had read and they hadn’t. There were also all sorts of people telling me about the differece between Torah and “non-Jewish” religion. These were people who knew some half-baked, second or third-hand ideas about Christianity and probably nothing about other major world religions. I didn’t expect them to be experts on comparative relgion. At that time I was very annoyed to the detriment of my Torah development. Had some of these rabbis and teachers said, “We don’t know about other religions and philosophies, but we know that Torah is good and true and this is why …” then I would have accepted that a lot better.
As for the leap of faith, I believe that Margolese misspoke. I read the book and heard her speak at Shappell some months ago. My impression is that what she really meant to say is that in the real world when we are unable to be expert in everything we really ought to know, we often need to take an interim position from instinct in order to live in the meantime. All sorts of people who don’t know everything that the Rambam and others expect us to know are busy raising children, making a living, struggling with basic pshat in the gemara and aren’t there. This is not the ideological position (of Christian origin, but I won’t footnote it here) of the necessity of a leap of faith. Furthermore, the Gra and others stated that the argument of the existence of Hashem from pure logic (such as the Shaar Hayichud of the Hovot Halevavot) is less appropriate for learning emuna today than the argument from experience (such as the Kuzari). This is certainly valid for tactical educational reasons. Whether it is also because the philosophical ground has shifted post-Kant is a question I will duck not out of fear of the Cherem of the Month Club, but … because I don’t know.
“Furthermore, the Gra and others stated that the argument of the existence of Hashem from pure logic (such as the Shaar Hayichud of the Hovot Halevavot) is less appropriate for learning emuna today than the argument from experience (such as the Kuzari). This is certainly valid for tactical educational reasons. Whether it is also because the philosophical ground has shifted post-Kant is a question I will duck not out of fear of the Cherem of the Month Club, but … because I don’t know.”
I indeed think that the experiential aspect needs to be emphasized; perhaps besides learning Avnie Miluim(or Chumush and Ramban in the case of girls)yeshivos should make kumzsitzs and have shalosh seudos in the dark(most people have never experienced the latter).
As far as Shaar Hayichud, it may be dangerous, so to speak, for the multitudes of people. Nevertheless the Chasam Sofer, one of the ideological guides of today’s charedi world, taught it in his shiur.
The individual should be guided in their own path. Someone who can benefit from logic and rationality should be guided in that approach in addition, and not instead of, the experiential aspects of Yiddishkeit.
One of the leaders of Modern Orthodoxy, who originally grew up in the Yeshiva World, describes how sixty years ago he read the Moreh Nevuchim “furtively, afraid that at any moment some adult would walk in, catch me in the act, and publicly reveal my shame.”
True, there are usually more than one reason why a person leaves the Yeshiva World, but a person like the above-author(his description might be dramatized as well), should be guided in an intellectual path within the Yeshivah world, rather than thinking that his inclinations and nature allow him no way to fit into that world.
Three great words. Those words or at least their Hebrew equivalent “aini yodea” once saved the Jews in a town from destruction.
The story goes that a Bishop challenged the Jews to pick someone for a Q and A contest with him. The first one to say “I don’t know” would lose. If the Jew did do the entire Jewish community would be exiled/converted/killed. Take your pick. No one in the Jewish community would take the responsibility on his shoulders. Finally, Chaim Yankel the town fool volunteered. The Bishop was insistent and Chaim Yankel went. The Bishop allowed Chaim Yankel to ask the first question.
Chaim Yankel asked What does Aini Yodea mean?. Without hesitation the Bishop answered ” I don’t know”. The king who was the judge immediately screamed “off with his head”. The Jewish community was astounded by the wisdom of Chaim Yankel. They asked how did he think of the question. His response: If the holy translation of Rashi into Yiddish did not know what Rashi meant by aini yodeah how was the anti-semitic bishop to do so?
“This is not the ideological position (of Christian origin, but I won’t footnote it here) of the necessity of a leap of faith.”
I assume that the “leap of faith”, if any, differs from the leap of faith of other religions. The Beis Halevi writes the following(I don’t have it now, and am quoting from Hirhurim; I also think that the Avi Ezri(R. Shach) in Yesodos Hatorah discusses the Beis Halevi as well, for those who are interested):
“Whatever is clarified to a person through proofs is called knowledge and not belief. We are commanded to believe, but that is on matters that the mind cannot prove. As long as someone only accepts that which he can prove, he has no part of the command to believe.”
The following is a quote from Margolese(pg 179):
“ This does not mean we should shy away from such conversations. Instead, we should acknowledge the difficulties in doing so and move ahead anyway. Educators such as… who present the issue of God’s existence to Baalei Teshuva, can show us how. He does not shy away from discussing the matter simply because he can not prove it. Rather he asserts at the outset that, in it’s pure form, certainty is almost always elusive. We do not generally base our decisions on certainty, but rather on probability. There is always an element of doubt when it comes to our life choices and beliefs, but we pick a side anyway – we take a leap. The question is how big a leap, and whether or not we are willing to take it.
“The intellect will not make the leap for us or make it disappear. It can only lessen the gap, making it easier to leap if we choose to. We must use the intellect to understand the issue, but we cannot expect it to prove God’s existence or choose to believe.”
In clarifying his position as quoted by Margolese above, the above-mentioned educator, a respected thinker, kiruv rebbe and author, writes the following in disagreement with Margolese’s representation of his position(he also refers readers to his own works for further clarification of the issue):
“The last paragraph does not in fact represent my position. There is no leap. We have sufficient evidence to require us to believe that the Torah is true. The only choice we have is to be rational or irrational, and the latter is clearly the wrong choice… ”
This is a basic issue, which in the spirit of this post, I welcome the clarification of others.
I thought the term “leap of faith” was originally coined to explain the dillema of Avrohom in taking Yitzchok the the Akeda (please forgive the Hebrew terms, since this discussion is not contained in Jewish sources)when he could not understand how it could possibly be right to do so. He made it right, as it were. by his choice, which is described as a leap of faith. I am not sure that it is even appropriate to relate the question of belief in the Creator to a “leap of faith”, since many people, although they have no logical proof, find other ways of satisfying themselves of the truth thereof For whatever its worth. Michoel Halberstam
Some things are understood and others are hidden. When we finally understand hidden things because of our Torah study and Tefilla and HaShem’s help, new things pop up on the horizon that we don’t understand. And so on…
In this mode of growth, we extend our knowledge and improve ourselves step by step but can never say our job is completed and we have it all down pat.
During the time that a hidden aspect of Torah has not yet become understood, it’s quite fair to say we approach it through faith.
“I am not sure that it is even appropriate to relate the question of belief in the Creator to a “leap of faith”, since many people, although they have no logical proof, find other ways of satisfying themselves of the truth thereof…’
I have indeed seen a number of sources stating that basic fundamentals of Judaism such as belief in G-d, can be understood in a rational, albeit straightforward and uncomplicated manner, as opposed to “chakirah”. For example, see R Shach in Avi Ezri(Mahadurah Kama, Hilchos Teshuva 5:5) and in Michtavim and Maamarim(Volume 4, pg. 154), Alei Shur(Volume II, Vaadim on Emuna), and Kovetz Mamorim(regarding the connection between the teleological argument and other fundamentals of emunah mentioned by Rav Elchanon, see as well Derech Emuna U’bitachon of Rav C.P. Sheinberg, Parshas B’shalach quoting the Ohr Hachaim of the Chasid Yavetz).
The Beis Halevi(comment #11) might be understood as referring only to metaphysical concepts beyond the grasp of human intelligence, such as the eternity of Hashem. In a conversion with Rav Shach, the Brisker Rav quoted his father, Rav Chaim, that “the obligation to have emunah starts where the human intellect ends”(Avi Ezri, above).
Rav Chaim’s statement is referring to metaphysical concepts relating to Hashem’s essence, rather than to belief on a basic level in G-d, which can be understood in an uncomplicated manner, and doesn’t need complex proofs, on the one hand, or a “leap of faith” on the other (see above sources from R. Shach). One might therefore understand the quote from the Beis Halevi in the same way.
Nevertheless, the Beis Halevi states that “all proofs need Emunah”, and that one can only pray that Hashem grant faith to those who previously had it, rather than attempting to convince them(the Beis Halevi appears to be referring to the Maskilim of his time, as mentioned previously in the essay). If anyone wants to explain the Besi Halevi on a whole, I would appreciate the clarification.
The following quotation from RYBS zt’l emphasizes both rational and supra-rational elements of emunah:
“There are simply no cognitive categories in which the total commitment of the man of faith could be spelled out. This commitment is rooted not in one dimension, such as the rational one, but in the whole personality of the man of faith. The whole of the human being, the rational as well as the non-rational aspects, is committed to God. Hence, the magnitude of the commitment is beyond the comprehension of the logos and the ethos. The act of faith is aboriginal, exploding with elemental force… The intellect does not chart the course of the man of faith; its role is an a posteriori one. It attempts, ex post
facto, to retrace the footsteps of the man of faith, and even in this modest attempt the intellect is not completely successful… The man of faith animated by his great experience is able to reach the point at which not only his logic of the mind but even his logic of the heart … has to give in to an ‘absurd’ commitment. The man of faith is ‘insanely’ committed to and ‘madly’ in love with God.”
As explained by one of Rav Soleveichik’s students:
“When applied to the man of faith’s commitment, the epithets “absurd,” “insane” and “mad” denote merely that it is not based on considerations of cold logic or practical benefit. His commitment is non-rational or meta-rational, but not irrational; in other words, it is unrelated to reason or above reason, but it is not opposed to reason.”
A kiruv worker or a rebbe dealing with FFB teenagers needs to be aware of how to respond to challenges to proofs of Judaism; for example, Rabbi Dovid Gottleib discusses on his website responses to challenges to the Kuzari argument.
While I am in no position to offer opinions on their substance(again, as in the title of this post), there have been counter arguments made regarding various topics, and someone who thinks that these matters are simple might be adversely affected if and when they are exposed to such materials. Exposure may be avoided by the public at large, who would therefore benefit from simplification; however, there are those who appreciate an open, and fully intellectually rigorous approach.
I liked the following formulation, for example, used in developing an approach to understanding the ethics of a certain mitzvah:
“…In general, we give no expression to our inner sense of moral unease. But to ignore a psychological fact, to deny what we are feeling, is unhealthy. It is better to formulate the question directly and to attempt openly and honestly to deal with it. “Then I shall not be ashamed, when I look at all Your commandments.” (Tehillim 119:6)”
Note as well the openness and intellectual honesty of Rav Shimon Schwab, zt’l:
“…but on the other hand I muster the courage to belong to those who rather wish to be honest to themselves than to be “right”. I would rather leave a good question open than risk giving a wrong answer. And I follow the teachings of Rav Shimon (Pesachim 52b)
who said “Just as I was awarded for the research, so shall I be awarded for the retraction”. So I fall back into the ranks of all shlomei emunei Yisroel… And while we may keep on searching for the answers, we pray that Hashem may enlighten our eyes. “
Despite the sources mentioned about understanding fundamentals of Judaism in an uncomplicated manner, I think that one should not oversimplify any topic. First of all, even within the limits of uncomplicated understanding(emunah peshutah) which many people need, Rav Wolbe writes that someone should constantly strive to deepen one’s understanding. If one is presenting an argument for kiruv, when educating teenagers, or to strength the charedi public, the challenge is how to do so without oversimplification. In this matter, one man’s bread is another’s poison, and vice–versa.
Some people need insularity. Although the Eidah HaChareidis, for example, felt that reading Rav Dov Eliach’s “HaGaon” might weaken “faith which the Jewish people have in Hashem and in Gedolim and tzadikim of generations, which is one of the principles and fundamentals of Judaism ”, and criticized it for quoting from “maskilim… who intended to denigrate the Torah world”, many have no qualms about reading a book written by Rabbi Eliach, whose prolific writings are well accepted in the Yeshiva world! Similarly, the original “Making of a Gadol” ban mentioned the concern that yeshiva students, when reading that Gedolim studies secular studies, might be tempted to emulate them in that aspect, in response to parental pressure to attend college. Thus, we see that some need to be protected, at certain stages in their religious development, from knowledge which could harm their faith and confidence in their path in life.
Others, on the other hand, do not benefit from such an approach, and to the contrary, are harmed by it. For example, a supplement to a charedi weekly presented examples where chazal’s scientific statements were in congruence and foreshadowed modern science. While the publication may be a chizuk for many, others will wonder why the prototype of cases of a different nature were not presented, and also why no mention was even made of the views of great Rishonim on this topic, even if they are considered unconventional. The very existence of these Rishonim’s view, by implication, would seem to disallow an oversimplification of the topic(the presentation may also leave some to wonder whether those who follows such Rishonim have any place in the Torah world). Obviously, this issue is different than the one in the previous paragraph(there are also other concerns regarding the two above-mentioned books).
An anonymous Lakewood intellectual was quoted in the media illustrating the complexity involved in the issues of book bans and freedom of press, in general:
“There are many different layers to the Haredi community… Some people are very sophisticated intellectually – for them [an intensely controlled press] won’t work. But other people need the insularity – they couldn’t handle things that might undermine their faith. So how do you balance a sophisticated worldview with the need to keep things under wraps? This balancing act requires a certain amount of control, to protect the general public from harm… So you have an official line, and reality, and they balance each other out.”
In the spirit of the post, the Badatz community, which so to speak, takes insularity to an extreme, may indeed be the “smart ones” in the end. This is similar to the testimony of the Chasid Yavetz regarding the benefits of the uncomplicated faith that enabled some Jews in Spain to withstand tests and to sanctify Hashem’s name. If protecting the public from knowledge will lead to a community which produces multitudes who are Ovdei Hashem, then the Badatz philosophy has merit as maximizing “the greatest good to the greatest number of people”(principle of utility). In addition, the individual benefits as well from the vibrant existence of such a community.
The Breslover literature has many interesting things to say about the deeper meaning and interrelationships of apparent dichotomies like Immanent/Transcendent, Revealed/Hidden, Running/Returning, Emes/Emuna, Written/Oral, and Torah/Tefilla.
The upshot is that, for faith and knowledge, there is a time and place for each, and we progress by going back and forth, as I tried to summarize briefly in my comment above (January 25, 2007 @ 8:06 am).
See, for example:
http://www.aishdas.org/avodah/vol13/v13n101.shtml (The item of interest is the piece by Daniel Eidensohn of Sun, 12 Sep 2004 17:12:05 +0200.
This also brings related ideas from Rav Dessler ZT”L and others.)
Thank’s for Rabbi Eidensohn’s link, which I would like to read more carefully later(I see he mentions the Beis Halevi and Avi Ezri).
I think dichotomy works best for philosophical matters like tzimzum, free-will vs. Divine Knowledge, Free-will vs. psychological determinism, or the speed of time during Maseh Bereshis(R. Schwab) or Hashem creating an old Universe to conceal his role, the entire days of creation being a metaphysical act according to that view. Regarding historical matters, I think it’s a step further if one expresses the concept as one of dichotomy, and I would instead conceptulize it differently.
Note the following quote from Rav Schwab(although he is discussing a particular issue, his statement is a general one):
“ ‘History’ is either true or false. There is no middle ground. The events described in a history book have either happened or they haven’t. The most ingenious theories which may have their place in philosophy or as a working thesis in the exact sciences have no meaning in the pursuit of historical evidence, which is a search for facts and which accepts no conjectures. A chronological time table is the backbone of any book on history which expects to be accepted by intellectually honest students.”
The only solution regarding such matters is to put one’s faith in the superior tradition of Chazal, which one has previously solidified in various ways, and perhaps buttress one’s emunah, in the cases of conflicts, by making use of non-conventional secular accounts. I am not an expert on these matters, but that is how I would describe the concept. If you want to call this a “dichotomy”, it is a step further than the usual dichotomy, because one is dealing with records, although subject to human error and interpretation( I would not say, for example, that Hashem was the one who planted false documents).
This applies to anyone Orthodox, as one Orthodox academic advised students studying certain areas:
“On the other hand, we have axioms more precious to us than those of scholarship….The Orthodox graduate student or young scholar…. must be prepared… to conclude zarikh iyun gadol, or the equivalent and to step back spiritually whole”(he also makes reference to the concept of “fuhn a kasha shtarbt mehn nisht”).
I also think history is either/or.