Rational, Irrational, and What’s Between

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16 Responses

  1. Natan Slifkin says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein, you freely interchange the words “rationalist” and “rational.” But on my blog, I am very careful to differentiate between them!

    • micha berger says:

      I agree with RNS’s comment above — it is incorrect to confuse “rationalist” with “rational”. Of course, no Orthodox Jew could be fully rationalist, as there is no evidence other than authority for the events of Yetzi’as Mitzrayim and Matan Torah. Similarly, none of us can be fully mystical even in disagreement with reason, like Tertullian’s credo, which ends “… certum est, quia impossibile” (“it is certain, because it’s impossible”).

      For that matter, there is a disjoin when speaking of rationalism and not speaking of which era’s definition of the term one is using. For example, the Rambam was a rationalist, because in his day rationalism meant Natural Philosophy, and expecting the universe to be reasonable and elegant. Much of what he writes is based on whether Aristotle proves his point philosophically or not. Without any recourse to experiment — for the simple reason that experimentation and scientific method hadn’t been invented yet. By today’s standards of rationalism, the Rambam wouldn’t qualify. Meanwhile, Rabbi Yehudah haLevi, who promoted a variant of Reliabilism rather than Proof from First Principles was not considered a rationalist in his day, but post-Kant his words are well in the rationalist tent. (Far more so than belief in the value of Philosophical Religious Proof. Thinking that people are capable of avoiding personal bias well enough to distinguish valid proofs from flawed ones is a downright mystical idea.)

      Then there are the generalizations we make about what kind of hashkafos a rationalist or a mystic would hold, which really don’t work when looking at actual rabbanim. For example, the Ramchal was a rationlist mequbal, the Maharal was a mystic who didn’t teach anything like Qabbalah, and the Leshem makes a strong case for saying that the Rambam and the Ari give two models that describe same metaphysics!

      Talking about rationalism vs mysticism blurs many topics into one distinction, and equivocates between different definitions of the terms. And since no Jew can be at either end of the axis for which the distinction is being suggested, the whole enterprise of defining “Rationalist Judaism” is about drawing self-contradictory sets of lines in the middle of a big gray area.

  2. lacosta says:

    is not the biggest concern that those who believe in the non-rational approaches have made them a sine qua non
    of ‘Torah Judaism’ , and write out as apikorsim those who say otherwise?

  3. mycroft says:

    The completely different approaches of the rationalists and the non rationalists can be exemplified by two different approaches of middle age Jewish writers who each still have great influence the Rambam the rationalist and Rav Moshe de Leon the mystic

  4. Shades of Gray says:

    “Another fallacy that can result from improperly digesting Rabbi Slifkin’s posts is that Rational Judaism is…rational.”

    R. Slifkin confronts this in  “Drawing the Line: Is Rationalism Futile?”(March, 2009), which is listed in the “Important Posts” section of his website.

    It seems to me that Rabbi Slifkin is trying to bring balance to the Orthodox world as a whole  after the controversy over his books(compare, and also contrast,  with Dr. Steven Bayme’s, “At 18, YCT A Balance To Rightward Orthodoxy”, in other words, every action has a reaction). 

    Also,  in the interest of balance, I think  it would paradoxically  help  the cause of  Rationalist Judaism to continually make use of the advice in the Cross Currents  “Comments and Tips Section”(originally a November, 2007 post by Rabbi Adlerstein) that  “The harshest, most trenchant criticism can still be phrased in a more gentlemanly fashion….Close your eyes and imagine that you are in the Oxford Debating Society of a century ago.”

  5. Shades of Gray says:

    “The rationalist can move away from leaps of faith, but smaller investments of that faith will remain necessary…”

    It may sound like semantics, but Rabbi Simcha Barnett, in a 2016 Project Inspire/Aish Hatorah video, says at the very most its a “skip of faith”, rather than a “leap” (“Online Kiruv Training – Jewish Misconceptions: Judaism is Based Upon Faith’, 1:38 in lecture).

    I’ve also  noticed a similarity in the Hebrew definition of  “emunah” in the writings of both Rabbis Adlerstein and Slifkin.  In  “The Gospel of Judas and Jewish Faith”(April, 2006), R. Adlerstein wrote, “The word emunah loses too much when it is translated as “faith.” More properly, it has strong overtones of faithfulness and loyalty”. Earlier this year,  R. Slifkin  wrote similarly regarding the etymology,   “or, you can opt to teach emunah as it really should be – not Discovery-style “proofs,” but rather loyalty (which is the true etymological meaning of emunah) to our sacred and wonderful mesorah.”(“An Aura of Respectability?”, January, 2018).

  6. Bob Miller says:

    If our human reason is not the Supreme Reason, it should stand to reason (even ours !) that we can’t fully understand all phenomena in our immediate world and all others. There’s some element of “chok” even in what we feel we figured out. That’s not to say that its good to be irrational on purpose.

  7. dr. bill says:

    i believe that reducing what is irrational is a desideratum, at least for some like me. in every case belief will still be required. As prof. Halberthal has outlined in a number of lectures, we must take great care to understand and differentiate between a belief “that” as opposed to a belief “in” as opposed to a belief “as.” Traditional Jews should not fear to admit that we are believers in what cannot be rationally derived or logically proven. How that belief is delineated requires great care.

    We must also be ready to admit that we cannot always articulate our beliefs in complete precision; beliefs are not subject to the same constraints as a mathematical or scientific statement. Attempts to articulate precisely can lead to irrationality.

    • Steve Brizel says:

      Ain Haci Nami. There is much one can learn about Emunah and Bitachon from.our clasdical commentaries on Chumash who were not strictly rational the Baalei Chasidus Machshavah and Musar without intellectually boxing oneself into thinking that you have reached an answer as opposed to an approach.when Rashi and Ramban write more often that tbey dont know you are in very good company.

  8. Raymond says:

    I am not entirely sure I understood the above, and so I am not sure that the comments that I am about to make are a rational response to this discussion about rationality, but I will give it a try.

    Just like was said above, I am no different than most of us in wanting to think of myself to be of rational mind. In fact, to be honest, when people get too caught up in their emotions, or believe in truly absurd things, it really gets on my nerves. And for those of you who once upon a time watched television, I was a huge fan of Mr Spock on the original Star Trek series. Played by a Jewish actor who undoubtedly delved into his religious traditions to come up with many of his ideas, his character on that show was a man of pure logic.

    Maybe I am a little slow, but to be honest, I never understood why Jewish mysticism is considered to be not rational. What is not rational about it? How is it any less rational than any other part of Judaism? From the little that I know about the Kabbalah, I just don’t see what is not rational about it. Am I missing something here? and btw, again I hesitate in what I am about to say, just in case I am interpreting his words wrong, but I spent over a year reading nothing but books by the great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and it is my distinct impression that he puts a very high premium on subjective experience, even considering it more important than the objective, empirical world. Or as my father told me long ago, Einstein may have been a brilliant scientist, but that does not mean that he was an expert in all other areas of life. I think of Stephen Hawking, whose scientific brilliance nobody doubts, that yet what an ungrateful fool he was regarding Israel. Just because somebody knows a lot about the physical world, does not necessarily produce wisdom.

    But to return to the subject at hand, is our subjective experience not only as real, but even more real than our empirical experience? Because again from how I understand Rabbi Sacks, it is in our subjective experiences where G-d can be found. Is this irrational? Well, let’s see. When we define who a person is, do we define them by their physical characteristics, or by who they are inside? The more we know a person, the more we define them by traits that cannot be perceived with our physical senses. And so what does it mean to judge a person by their character, if not to put a premium on our subjective experiences? Or try this. Think about your experiences looking at pictures of people whom you care deeply about. Does this not give a person such tremendous pleasure? and yet even if such pleasure can be defined in terms of the scientific instruments measuring them, is that really what we define as being the most real, or rather is it the inner sense of joy we are experiencing that lies at the heart of it…again, a subjective experience?

    And this reminds me of the various approaches giving evidence for G-d’s Existence. Sure we can point to the amazing physical properties of the universe, and conclude that there must be a Supreme Intelligence behind all of it, but does that truly convince those of us who are of a skeptical nature? Or we can point to the Divine revelation at Sinai experienced by our entire Jewish people, but isn’t the fact that none of us were there, at least in our current incarnations, leave some doubt in one’s mind? But then there is our spiritual yearnings…how can we have such spiritual yearnings, if we have no soul? Why do we feel spiritually uplifted when hearing music by Bach of Mozart? Why was Viktor Frankl so spot on when he pointed out how meaning in life defines us better than any other psychological theory? Again, it points to our true reality ultimately being subjective, beyond empiricism, and yet because it makes perfect sense, sure seems eminently rational to me.

    • Yoss says:


      What an amazing post. I remember reading a line from R Aryeh Kaplan that went something along the lines of “Kabbalah is an intricate field of study that answers some of the great questions that philosophy is unable to.”

      If he says it, I trust him.

  9. Steve Brizel says:

    IMO the biggest and worst misyake that one can make with respect to these ans similar issues like theodicy is thinking that one has all the answers as opposed to an approach.

  10. Gary S Poretsky says:

    I think a better term is “intellectually honest” Judaism. History is revised, and difficult opinions are explained as forgeries. Instead of admitting that there are difficulties, we are given fatuous answers. Rabbi Slifkin’s work on the shafan and arnevet did an excellent job illustrating some if these issues. I can live with not having all the answers, just not with fake ones. We paint ourselves into intellectual corners and undermine the integrity of the mesorah.

  11. mb says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    You know me and know that I don’t have a mystical bone in my body, except for the luz, that is.
    Standing on one foot, that explains rationalism with emunah.

  12. Milton says:

    I’ve asked this question to many so-called “rationalists” and have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. When the Beis Yosef had his sessions with the magid, he was clearly delusional in the eyes of a rationalist. How could one accept the halachic rulings from someone suffering from a clear mental illness? How can one honestly believe in “rationalism” and still believe in our mesorah? Seems rather irrational.

  13. Yoss says:

    There was a conversation that Natan Slifkin had where he was asked what he bases his beliefs on. As a frequent, somewhat critical but often in agreeement at least in principle, I was very interested in his response. I just remember that the response was very personal, not particularly rational as representative of a religious worldview, and disappointing.

    What I’ve taken from his approach is that the questions are better than the answers, and that the answers leave you with an approach that might work for one personally, but is difficult to excite others about.

    The bottom line is that, as dr. bill wrote, where we draw the line is important, but there are so many non-rational things within Judaism. The Exodus, Revelation, Prophecy, the afterlife, the Miracles in the Bais Hamikdosh, countless supernatural stories in the Gemara, and he list goes on.

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