Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Question & Answer With Chabakuk Elisha - Circular Logic

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

When trying to prove the existence of G-d to a skeptic, I am essentially trying to prove the existence of something that is invisible and attributing to it an omniscient quality "How can you be so sure of all of this?" asks the skeptic when I try to offer any proofs.

The skeptic repeatedly claims that my proofs are based on circular logic. I offer up the Kuzari's proof and the skeptic once again states that the claim that there was a revelation at Sinai in front of the entire Jewish people is also based upon the text and thus circular.

I then boil my belief system down to its essence and five simple points.

1) I am not the smartest person in the world.

2) Something deep in my neshoma tells me that there is more to life than restaurants, sports, and movies.

3) Something deep in my neshoma feels a connection to Sudilkov and the seforim and traditions of my ancestors.

4) If these seforim (Chumash, Gemara, Shulchan Aruch, etc.) tell me that a certain path is the right, I trust that it is.

So, what you have here is an irrational or super-rational belief system. If someone were to show a tangible manifestation of 2 or 3, how could I? Pirkei Avos 2:19 instructs me to know how to answer this skeptic. Other than these four points, how could I answer him?

Chabakuk Elisha answers:

The Mitteler Rebbe was once asked how to prove G-d is real to a skeptic.

He answered:

We cannot think of things that don't exist at all - our mind simply has no reference for them. Everything that we can dream up is merely taking things that exist and modifying them - therefore, if we can think of G-d, he must exist. There are no other completely radical and new non-existent entities...

But I'm no philosopher, so I'll try to address your question more directly. One thing we need to do is put everything in context – and we should certainly not ignore the intellect, G-d forbid (we have it for a reason after all). So, while questions will always exist, we can rationally deal with them to a fairly reasonable degree. And while I haven't read it yet, there is a book by a Rabbi Keleman that address just the question that you raise: "Permission to Believe". It has been highly recommended to me on a number of occasions, and is on my list of books to read, but I haven't gotten to it yet. For now I'll just give you my own thinking here:

First of all, we need to deal with these questions. I believe that the skeptic is not 'some other guy,' rather, we are talking about the skeptical part of the psyche that each of us has, and therefore, it is important to always seek to "know what to answer [our] skeptic." To be sure, there are many (perhaps too many to count) issues that arise, that can seem (or be made to seem) to be in conflict with religion and faith – the very traditions and faith for which our ancestors sacrificed their lives for and maintained with great mesirus nefesh. We should always try to resolve these issues, and look for answers; it is our duty to ourselves, our forefathers, and our way of life.

But this question reminds me of Rashi's comments on "kachatzos halayla," where Moshe tells Pharoh that the plague will begin "around midnight" – and IIRC, Rashi says that this was so that the skeptics of the generation shouldn't be able to say that it wasn't exactly at midnight.

I often notice that the skeptic focuses on various details but (purposefully?) ignores the bigger picture – for example, if Moshe said the plague would begin at midnight, they may ignore the fact that the plague took place, and instead, they try to point out that in their opinion Moshe was off by 25 seconds on the timing, and therefore his G-d has been disproven. Is there anything more ridiculous? Yet, if we pay attention, we often do this on various levels in our lives – and the more skeptical we are, the more we do it.

A chossid of the Tzemach Tzeddek once told his Rebbe that he was overwrought by his struggles with faith. The Tzemach Tzeddek responded, "So? What's the big deal?"

The Chossid became animated and exclaimed, 'Rebbe! Sfeikes in Emunah (doubts about faith)! And the Rebbe smiled, saying, "You see? From your animated state you can see that the doubts are not real doubts. That is to say, there are things that we know to be true – we feel it in our bones – and while we can rationally come up with an intellectual obstacle course, deep down I know that G-d exists, just as I know that every book has an author and every sculpture has an artists.

We know that the mind is capable of building any kind of theory we let it, and we know how many theories and philosophies – religious, secular, logical, illogical or partially-logical – exist and have existed. We also know that, intellectually, there are no unimpeachable "self-evident truths" (even if the Declaration of Independence says there are), since we can argue any of those "truths." Yet, there isn't enough time in our lives, nor do we have accesses to all the facts, to compile the information and tools necessary to truly resolve all these issues beyond a shadow of a doubt; and this is by design. G-d always leaves room for the skeptic, or else, what would be the point? But more than that, in fact, everyone lives this way – even the secularist or the skeptic – we all maintain certain beliefs that cannot be truly proven, yet we accept them in order to function in our daily lives, in our society, and in order to have basic "ground rules" to play by. Similarly it is legitimate to do so in matters of faith.

So, yes – it remains possible that the fairly unbroken chain of mesorah is in fact a creation of some guys in bar on the lower east side of Jerusalem a couple thousand years ago, and yes, it is possible that it somehow caught on later and was accepted as true, it remains far, far, more likely that it actually happened. As THE religion that has survived the test of time, and has fathered other pretty old and major religions, how likely is it really that it's all a big fraud? How circular is the logic really?

An anecdote:

As a young man I had a conversation with a Baal Teshuva from the mid-west that had a big impact on me at the time. I asked him why he decided to become frum, and he answered:

I was successful and happy. I was working as a buyer for a large company, and although I had a pretty limited background, I always new I was Jewish – so one day I decided to see what Judaism was really all about, and I went to the local Rabbi to find out more. I spent time attending shul and learning more about Yiddishkeit, and ultimately realized that I had to decide what I wanted to do. So, like all significant decisions I make, I sat down and made out a list of pros and cons:

CONS for accepting Yiddishkeit:

Probable conflict and damage in relationships with friends and family.
Less entertainment outlets
Less freedom to do whatever I like
Less food available
More expensive lifestyle
Missing out on various types of possible enjoyment
How do I really know if any of this is true?

PROS for Yiddishkeit:

Becoming part of a vibrant community of generally like minded folks on a similar path
Stronger connection to my roots and history
More likely to raise moral & ethical children
Additional meaning to my life
A shot at going to Heaven
Cool clothes and customs
What if it IS true?!

So, when I got to that last line there, I scratched them all out and rewrote the list:

Con: What if it's not true.
Pro : What if it is.

Then I looked at the paper and thought about each, and in about 60 seconds I said: "That's it, I'm becoming frum."


At June 27, 2007 at 7:52:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Ploni Almoni said...

CE, isn't the idea you brought from the Mitteler Rebbe similar to what Decarte wrote:

"But if the mere fact that I can produce from my thought the idea of something entails that everything which I clearly and distinctly perceive to belong to that thing really does belong to it, is not this a possible basis for another argument to prove the existence of God? Certainly, the idea of God, or a supremely perfect being, is one that I find within me just as surely as the idea of any shape or number. And my understanding that it belongs to his nature that he always exists is no less clear and distinct than is the case when I prove of any shape or number that some property belongs to its nature "

At June 27, 2007 at 8:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Bob Miller said...

See where the Kedushas Levi analyzes the passage in Pirkei Avos about the Asarah Ma'amaros (Ten Sayings) of creation, in relation to reward and punishment.

At June 27, 2007 at 6:05:00 PM EDT, Anonymous anon1 said...

The story of your BT friend sounds an awful lot like Pascal's wager.'s_Wager

At June 28, 2007 at 10:37:00 AM EDT, Anonymous chabakuk elisha said...

I guess the philosophers have said it all before! (I can just imagine how much time I could have saved, had I studied philosphy ;-)


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