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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Judaism - Belief in the Jewish Experience - Part II

In a previous post, I showed that the experience of the Kedushat ha'Torah is the perennial experience of the Jewish people. The existential question facing every Jew is: "do I trust that experience and those who have had them?"

For some this will lead to a full acceptance of Torah u'Mitzvot and will give them the strength to keep their faith during difficult times. Ultimately this "prophetic faith" stands above and is rooted deeper than any objection leveled at the Torah. For others it will give reason to have "suspicions" that there really is something to the Torah. Either way, the Torah warrants respect.

There are three reasonable objections that a skeptic could make which takes us into the field of epistemology:

I. Emotion

"How can we base our faith on emotions? Besides the fact that emotions are notorious for fluctuating, different people have contradictory emotions - especially about the holiness of their religion! Furthermore, emotions can be deceptive, as their true origins are mysteriously hidden in one's subconscious. Therefore, the fact that millions of people have felt the spirituality of Torah is not an indication that the Torah indeed has genuine spirituality and certainly not the highest form of spirituality - a revelation of G-d."

The skeptic seeks to undermine the authenticity of emotional experience, thus extricating himself from the conclusion that the Torah should be taken seriously. However, double standards are at work here. First, every person naturally trusts their emotions when they are strong and consistent. Its fluid nature is not much different than that of the intellect (and as we will see may in fact mirror it). Furthermore, the fact that other people do not share this or contradict it is not taken into account. This is the case in politics and ethics, war and love. Relativism (intellectual, political, ethical, or in our case, emotional) tends to be invoked when someone wants to get out of an uncomfortable position.

We are trained to think that the intellect is a surer way to the truth than emotion. R. Shalom Carmy here and Avakesh here have argued that this is a bias left over from the Medieval and Enlightenment times. Emotion is another tool we have in assessing the world, no less than the intellect.

The last objection, though, is the most interesting. Perhaps the tremendous amount of emotion - holiness, depth, joy and life - experienced in the Torah throughout the generations is some kind of placebo. In other words, since they believed in the Torah and its holiness they therefore felt it. This approach would seem to gather support from the Ramchal in Derech Hashem 4:2:2 which states that one who approaches the Torah without the proper mindset and purity will not merit the light therein. Similarly, the Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei ha'Torah 6:8, states that a Torah scroll written by scribe who without believing in the holiness of the names of Hashem has no holiness and must be burnt. In other words, the holiness of Torah has much to do with the consciousness of the one learning or writing the Torah.

This in itself is not surprising. As R. Soloveitchik said: "When you apprehend the Torah as a personality, not just a book, it infiltrates your emotional as well as your intellectual life (On the Love of Torah: Impromtu Remarks at a Siyum)." So if the Torah is like a person then it is not surprising in the least that she treats you as you treat her. As Mishlei 27:19 teaches: "Kamayim ha'Panim la'Panim, Ken Lev Adam la'Adam (As water reflects a face back to a face, so one's heart is reflected back to him by another)."

But the skeptic persists - maybe all of these lofty feelings are just there because you expect them to be there? There are four additional points I would like to make:

a) Not everybody who experiences the kedushat ha'Torah expected it. Whether one is a simple Jew in the suburbs of America or a wandering Israeli in the hills of India, sometimes a soul is inexplicably attracted to Torah.

b) The placebo effect teaches us about the power of the mind. As we will see in later posts, Materialists are uncomfortable with the placebo effect for this very reason. So saying that the Torah is one big placebo effect is in essence saying that the belief in Torah has the potential to bring out the tremendous holiness latent within. This would be a new twist to the ma'amrei Chazal comparing the Torah to a wife. But either way, the Torah works.

c) Some Sages also experienced the spirituality in other wisdoms or traditions. This being the case they could contrast that with the kedushat ha'Torah. And still they proclaimed the Torah as "ikkar" and all other spirituality as "tafel." For example, R. Kook (Orot ha'Torah 6:1; also see 12:6) writes: "That which is learned in holiness...spiritual life spreads through all corners of existence, like blood through the veins to all corners of the body, but all secular learning, from all knowledge [madda] in the world, only enlivens that specific part [of existence] to which it is directed. This is the quantitative difference between the holy and the mundane, besides the infinitely lofty difference qualitatively." Two other modern examples are Shem Tov Geffen and Aryeh Kaplan - two mathematicians who experienced the mystical side to mathematics and were great scholars in Torah.

d) Emotion is not very well understood. A recent book, "The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion" discusses how understanding emotion might be the key to understanding the sixth sense and other paranormal experiences. But for now we can simply say that there are different types of emotion; an inner and an outer heart (see here). Some emotions are so strong and vivid that they become a gateway to Reality. In closing this section, I recount the time I asked one of my teachers this question. He is a man known for his own mystical adventures and academic achievements (a rare combination). He looked me in the eyes and said, "when you experience the depth of holiness in Torah then you can ask those questions."

II. Mystical Experience

The mystic's view of the Torah is often that of light. As Ramchal (Derech Eitz Chayim) insists, the Torah is "ohr mamash," real light. Furthermore, this light is identified with a "higher Torah," or G-d Himself. Another mystical experience might be gaining tremendous insight into the Torah in a supra-intellectual way. Stories of the Vilna Gaon seeing thousands of interpretations for one verse or a Maggid teaching R. Yosef Karo would fall under this category. As Scholem pointed out, the mystics of Judaism are unlike the mystics of any other tradition since much or most of the time they are dealing with mundane legal study and grueling intellectual work. So it is not surprising to find the mystical experiences of our Sages to by different than mainstream mysticism.

Similar to the objections concerning emotion, the skeptic reduces mystical experiences to neurological or psychological explanations. Furthermore, mystical experiences also suffer the same fate of emotions - subjectivity.

Yehuda (Jerome) Gellman has argued that mystical experiences, defined as "an experience in which a person allegedly has a non-sensory perception apparently of a reality (or state of affairs) of a sort that can neither be perceived by sense perception nor known by ordinary introspective self-awareness," should enjoy "initial evidential sufficiency" (assumed to be correct unless proven otherwise). He explores the analogy between a visual perception of a tree and a mystical perception. We will discuss two schools of epitemology. According to one school, Strong Foundationalism, sensory belief is sufficiently justified by the relevant sensory experience. Thus a mystical perception should be no different than viewing a tree.

Weak Foundationalism, however, maintains that sensory belief is justified somewhat by sensory experience but needs the help of a background of perceptions (experiences with trees) to justify the belief. Therefore Gellman argues that in order for mystical experience to maintain initial evidential sufficiency it must provide crosschecks to confirm the perception. He suggests that the quantity of experiences, diversity of population, and sheer vividness may provide enough of a crosscheck. He also considers the effects of these experiences on the person and society. We expect them to be positive, and if they are negative we will likely reject the validity of the experience.

He applies initial evidential sufficiency to the mystical perception of G-d, and I am extending that to the mystical perception of the Torah.

The last objection to the validity of mystical experiences is the offer of alternative explanations. And there are no shortage of them. Most boil down to either an evolutionary or a pathological explanation. In the book The Spiritual Brain many such explanations are discussed and challenged. The main point of the book is that mystical experiences "are neurally instantiated by different brain regions involved in a variety of functions, such as self-consciousness, emotion, body representation, visualk and motor imagery and spiritual perception." In short, the brain acts normally, albeit differently, during mystical experiences. This unique brain activity is, as Gellman points out, expected. As such, mystical experiences should enjoy initial evidential sufficiency just as the perception of a tree.

The last issue we must discuss regarding mystical experiences is their subjectivity. It is known that the mystics of the West generally experience G-d while the mystics of the East have a Pantheistic experience. A Perrenialists would argue that everyone is experiencing the same objective amorphous reality while the differences of interpretation are supplied by conditioning (see the work of John Hick). A Constructivist would argue that each mystic (or school of mysticism) is experiencing a totally different reality constructed by their culture; there is no common substrate. It would seem that Judaism would take a perrenial approach; each person is limited in his perception but they are all getting some part of the puzzle (Eruvin 13b; Maharal, Be'er ha'Golah, pg. 20; Yam Shel Shlomo, Hakdama l'Bava Kamma; Shiure Da'at, Hakdama; also see Ramchal, Derech Hashem 3:4). As R. Kook writes (Pinkas Acharon b'Boisk, #1): "The imagination that perceives Reality in our inner perception is more important to us than the objective truth of it, since we are not able to grasp its objective truth...they are all clothing to Reality..."

Again, even if others have a different mystical experience than our tradition that does not mean we should not trust our own experience, just like if we were looking at a tree and someone said it was an apple. Furthermore, no one, to my knowledge, has every had a mystical experience which revelead to them that the Torah was not the revelation of Hashem!

To be continued...

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