Friday, June 17, 2005

Too Many Answers

I once heard from someone recently as they were explaining the merits of Orthodoxy in that we have so many mepharshim and they all give so many answers to all sorts of questions. If you have a question, you can look up a dozen famous rabbis and you can learn their opinions. And if you don't like one answer, there's always another for you to consider.

What does a certain line in Devarim mean? Well, Rashi says it's one thing. But the Ramban says it is just the opposite. And the Ran says something totally different. You can accept any of these and be in complete disagreement with another Jew and still be considered fully Orthodox.

Now, that seems like a great merit of Orthodoxy, seriously. How many other religious orthodoxies allow such direct disagreements? Usually there is a standard and any deviation from that standard is just that, a deviation. Different views of the same issues are not considered equally valid.

However, looking at it from the harsh view of science. How in the world can any curious Jew know if their view is the true one if all sorts of different views are equally valid? There ought to be just one correct answer for any one question. Having opposites being equally true makes scholarship a joke.

This is related to one reason why string theory is having such problems. It has wonderful equations that can theoretically give us the answer for fundamentally why the universe is at it is. But the problem is that it has too many solutions! There are a plethora of answers that the equations can solve for but having so many answers makes string theory less potent, not more because then we have no idea which answer is the true one. How can the theory of everything have a multitude of answers?

How can the Truth from God have multiple equally true and contradictory explanations?

7 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In many ways Judaism is an "inexact science" and that is what allows it flexibility. We're not looking to color precisely in the lines all the time.

Shivim panim la-torah (which is really 700 or 10 times 700 or more) and all that jazz.

DarkBlueHat said...

The standard explantion is that we don't really understand any of the answers, and they are all approximations of the truth. R' Aryeh Kaplan gave the example of viewing G-d as a being or as a principle. Neither is stricly accurate, but each metaphor provides insights that the other lacks. He gave an analogy of viewing the world through a blue colored lends on one eye and a red colored lends on the other. They each distort the truth in a different way, even as they provide much more information than you would have if you were blind.

Learning Torah is a process, and even if you have "the one true and only answer", your understanding of it can still grow. Unlike the quest for knowledge in physics, Torah has no conceivable finish line.

I like your question though and may try it out on some friends. There must be seventy answers that question. I'll see how many they can come up with.

:D

Orthoprax said...

Mississippi fred,

"In many ways Judaism is an "inexact science" and that is what allows it flexibility. We're not looking to color precisely in the lines all the time."

Right, which is why looking at Torah or Talmud or Judaism in general for a factual understanding of the world is probably looking at things the wrong way. Judaism is not science and shouldn't be treated as such.

Those who depend on the Torah or Talmud to understand physics or biology are using the Torah and Talmud in the wrong way.

Orthoprax said...

dbh,

"The standard explantion is that we don't really understand any of the answers, and they are all approximations of the truth."

How can opposite answers both be approximately true? Many answers given are mutually exclusive.

Sometimes it seems to me that people learn Torah so that they can understand all the different ways of looking at an issue, but never really sit down and try to figure out which one is the right one. It leaves people with limited critical thinking skills.

Why is it such a crime in Orthodoxy if you say that Rashi is wrong? As a scholar and intellectual, he likely would not be offended by the prospect. A respectable scholar accepts such knew information in stride and will thank you for the new understanding you've provided.

"Unlike the quest for knowledge in physics, Torah has no conceivable finish line."

Maybe that's because unlike physics where there is a limit to the possible physical phenomena, learning Torah is not a factual pursuit. To learn Torah is to understand how to build a better world and that is a neverending task.

Sarah said...

In high school, this was one of the things that bothered me the most. I remember countless classes where a few students would question our Rabbi about this over and over again. I also had the question, but I never vocalized it because I was smart enough to know that I would never get an answer that really answered the question.

He would always draw a big box on the blackboard. Then at different points on the edges of the box, he's draw numerous triangles with the bases resting on the sides of the box. Then on each triangle, he would write "Rashi" or "Ramban" or "Ibn Ezra" or another mephorash commonly used in high school chumash classes.

Then he would proceed to explain that the box was the Torah, and that each mephorash was viewing the Torah through a different lens (ie. the triangle). Each one was viewing the same Torah and so each one was viewing the truth, even though each one was viewing something different.

At the time, this answer really bothered me. How could all of the viewpoints be true if they were saying different things? How could t be that they were looking at a box which is supposed to be containig truth and coming out with completely different views? They may be coming from different perspectives, but if the Torah was truth, all but one of those perspectives must then be wrong.

Clearly a lot has changed since high school, and the answer doesn't bother me anymore, because I've changed the assumptions that the answer is based on. Torah doesn't necessarily contain an objective truth. Nor is it necessarily a history book. In fact, many noted Rabbis don't view it that way at all. R' Liebtag, R' Amital, R' Lichtenstein, and so many more will never try to expain Torah as an objective truth, and will usually even say that trying to explain the Torah as a historical and/or factual document is completely missing the point.

(To me, at least,) Torah is basically just a model on which to base our lives. And depending on one's philosophy, that model will differ. Rashi's interpretation will clearly differ from Ramban's because they lived in different times and places with completely different life experiences. Considering that people are all different, I think this is a wonderful thing. If we had to say that Rashi was correct, I personally would be living a very conflicted, sad life. Perhaps my life experiences are closer to that of Ramban or Ibn Ezra. Whatever the reason, I identify more with their explanations than with those of Rashi (and many contemporary Artscroll-favorites). I also think that this is one of the huge mistakes that people make: assuming that what a mephorash say must be true for every single person at every single time. Who knows what Rashi would say were he living with the Ramban or even with us? Perhaps he would still have had the same philosophy, but perhaps it would have been completely different.

It's because of all this that I've never understood why people have such problems with saying that a mephorash (typically Rashi) is wrong. Ramban did it all the time. Hell, Rashbam did it and he was talking about his own grandfather! I think the key however, is recognizing that there is no "truth", and so no answer can really be "wrong." It may not be your truth, but it is someone's truth ...

(As always, I'm writing on the fly ... sorry if this doesn't make all that much sense because of that)

DarkBlueHat said...

How can opposite answers both be approximately true? Many answers given are mutually exclusive.

"Apparently contradictory" and "Apparently mutually exclusive" are not the same thing as contradictory and mutually exclusive. There are limits of what we can understand of G-d's wisdom.

Sometimes it seems to me that people learn Torah so that they can understand all the different ways of looking at an issue, but never really sit down and try to figure out which one is the right one. It leaves people with limited critical thinking skills.

Why is it such a crime in Orthodoxy if you say that Rashi is wrong? As a scholar and intellectual, he likely would not be offended by the prospect. A respectable scholar accepts such knew information in stride and will thank you for the new understanding you've provided.


I completely agree and that is my approach. I realize how you may have understod my post as disagreeing with that. I don't think it does, but that's a longer conversation than I have time for now.


Maybe that's because unlike physics where there is a limit to the possible physical phenomena, learning Torah is not a factual pursuit. To learn Torah is to understand how to build a better world and that is a neverending task.


According to many Torah must be infinite enough that people could learn it for eternity in the next world without finishing it.

Orthoprax said...

dbh,

""Apparently contradictory" and "Apparently mutually exclusive" are not the same thing as contradictory and mutually exclusive. There are limits of what we can understand of G-d's wisdom."

So places where one commentator says the other one is wrong..that's not contradictory? That defines contradiction.

I'm sorry, but appealing to the "mysterious God" line doesn't cut it. People have to stop vetoing their common sense in order to keep up the image of a perfection that doesn't exist.

No, that's not a crack, we just don't understand how what appears to be a crack adds to perfection.

Please.