Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Skeptic's Insecurity

R' Yehuda Halevi in the Kuzari 3:37 writes:

"The sage said: This relates to what I told you about engaging in intellectual speculation and arbitrary judgment. Those who engage in intellectual speculation about worship pertaining to the work of heaven (Jer. 7:18, 44:17) exert themselves [far] more than someone who does the work of YHWH (Jer. 48:10) that he is commanded [to do]. For the latter have found rest in their acceptance of tradition on faith, and their souls are tranquil, like someone who goes about freely within the city, without having to be on the alert for any challenge, while the former are like someone who goes about on foot in the desert, who doesn't know what he will meet up with. Therefore, he is armed, alert for battle, schooled in combat, [and] accustomed to it. So don't be surprised by what you see of their resoluteness, and don't be caught off guard by whatever laxity you see on the part of those subject to tradition, I mean, [of course] the Rabbinites. The former sought out a fortress in which they might be secure, while the latter are asleep lying quietly on their bedding, in an ancient, [well]-fortified city."

The king of the Kuzari is confused about the Karaites' apparent religious fervor and intense devotion which apparently contradicts the rabbi's earlier argument that the rabbinic tradition is indispensable to revelation. In the above way Halevi offers a way to understand the Karaites' zeal in relation to the Rabbinates' complacency. Those who are certain they are correct feel no need to be so defensively religious. Only those who rely on frail human rationalities are victim to uncertainties and doubts which lead them to compensate with excess religious zeal.

Now, there is obvious truth here. Who are more versed in the logic and argumentation and evidence and all that goes with being skeptical of traditional Orthodoxy, the skeptics or the Orthodox laity? The skeptics - duh. Who are more comfortable in their place and who care not to question things? The believers. Being tranquil comes with being of unquestioned faith.

It's a rather interesting kind of argument. Those who are most ignorant and less adept argumentatively are considered by Halevi as evidence to the correctness of their beliefs. Since they feel so secure, they don't need to know all that stuff. Therefore, who's opinions are suspect? Those who feel the need to justify their opinions.

I think the whole thing is bogus, of course, since in our modern scientific world we shouldn't care about people's opinions rather only insofar as they can back up their opinions with facts. Nevertheless, it is still an interesting critique on those who are so ready to get into an argument and prove themselves correct on subjects of faith and truth. How sure are they of themselves, really? All they have is their own rationality and intellectual acuity behind them, while the faithful have thousands of years of tradition and the opinions of hundreds (thousands?) of highly respected and intelligent rabbis.

I suppose that the skeptic would feel more sure of himself each time one of the faithful falls below his mighty, unrelenting rationalism. That the believers have no effective way to deal with the skeptic is additional fuel to the skeptic's assertion that the believers are wrong. So he searches out believers to debate and is always ready for argumentative confrontation. He constantly hones his logical skills and familiarizes himself with the relevant information, always ready to best his opponent in the next match. He is armed, alert for battle, schooled in combat, and accustomed to it.

Is being so argumentative a sign of insecurity? Perhaps so.


Jewish Atheist said...

I agree that there's some truth here, but the skeptic has more than his own skills. He has, for example, the thousands of brilliant scientists who believe in evolution and a billions-year old Earth, the billions of people who don't believe in Judaism, the scholars who came up with the Documentary Hypothesis, the philosophers who came up with the problem of evil, the authors who've written stuff as good or better than the Bible, etc.

dbs said...

Well, I don’t know if ‘insecurity’ is exactly the syndrome, but it is very uncomfortable to dump religion. Exploring the roots of belief, the flaws in organized religion and the underpinnings of morality and purpose (and blogging) are ways to feel more secure in a new path. After a while, most skeptics get far enough along, get off of their soapboxes, and go live their lives.

Like many of Kuzari’s arguments, this reads better than it reasons. If I have perfect faith that the sun is driven across the sky by a chariot of fire, then I have little need to explore astronomical science about it. Those who do not believe as I do, have the burden of explaining this phenomenon through research and scientific understanding. I have, by far, the more ‘secure’ position.

b said...

Maybe it's the one who's breaking from his former ideological beliefs who has the need to step up to the soapbox. Take newly minted Baalei Teshuva for instance, they're just as "forward" as the skeptics.

Baal Habos said...

Comment above, mine.

Orthoprax said...


"I agree that there's some truth here, but the skeptic has more than his own skills."

No, I agree with you that the skeptic is not alone. The difference is, though, that all of those sources come from outside the believers' camp and the skeptic needs to justify using any of them to prove a point. He has to understand them in his own mind and prove their utility.


"Well, I don’t know if ‘insecurity’ is exactly the syndrome, but it is very uncomfortable to dump religion."

I can speak from my own experience. I was very insecure. Who was I to go against everything I was taught? I felt that I needed to find the best arguments to justify my views. It wasn't enough that I was convinced, I had to be able to possibly convince others if the subject was ever broached.

But, then again, isn't a little insecurity in your beliefs a good thing? Making people justify their opinions usually leads to people forming better opinions.


"Maybe it's the one who's breaking from his former ideological beliefs who has the need to step up to the soapbox."

That rings true, I think.

Anonymous said...

I've read a statement similar to this by a rav in a shtetl who had to justify the passive attitude of yiddishkeit towards the universe and philosophy- when their was a great fear of the rapid-spreading haskalah movement.

"these people are restless and know no peace to their lives while they try to find the truth to the universe, while we who don't bother and are passive and naive live peacefully becuse we already know the truth."

Besides the obvious similarity to the christian doctrine of the dark-ages,
I've wondered however: don't the talmudic scholers have their own lack of sleep trying to figure ot paintaking complex issues of halacha? dont they have their own quarrel and insecritis when they want to prove such and such, and next thing you know someone comes and refutes your whole pilpul?

Orthoprax said...


"I've wondered however: don't the talmudic scholers have their own lack of sleep trying to figure ot paintaking complex issues of halacha?"

Maybe, but it would be a different kind of insecurity. For these people that break from tradition, they need to justify their entire way of thinking and acting which others see as offensive to God.

Making a Talmudic argument or a Halachic decision works within the system - and even if you are proven wrong, you have no problem in following the majority. You don't have to be worried on the fundamental level as these freethinkers do.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

The problem with this argument is that there is no comparison with skeptics and Karaites. The Karaites believe even more impossible things than the Rabbanites did, and if they were fervent, just as skeptics are fervent today, so are the UO of today fervent in the same manner as the Karaites of R. Yehuda Ha-levi's day.

Orthoprax said...


The comparison between the two is that they reject the traditional narrative. The Karaites may stop after the oral law, and then they may add on more stuff besides that, but their similarity with the skeptics lies in the rejection.

You also do make a point about observance fervency. There is some correlation to today, but there are obvious exceptions as well.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I got your comparison, but I could turn it around and compare the haredim to Karaites for the same reason. They too effectively ignore a lot of tradition, establish new tradition, and adhere to quite rigid, literalist readings of documents they decide to interpret that way. In fact, Eliezer Berkovitz called them Karaites of the Oral Law.

There really are no clear modern parallels with Karaites, since they were at once rebellious and fanatically pious. The closest historically where the Shia at the time of the schism in Islam, and perhaps, perhaps also nascent Protestantism.