Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Societal Madmen

While reading Veronika Decides To Die, which is a beautiful book by Paulo Coelho about the search for meaning in life, I came across the following excerpt:
    You say they create their own reality,' said Veronika, 'but what is reality?'

    'It's what the majority deems it to be. It's not necessarily the best or the most logical, but it's the one that has become adapted to the desires of society as a whole. You see this thing I've got round my neck?'

    'You mean your tie?'

    'Exactly. Your answer is the logical, coherent answer an absolutely normal person would give: it's a tie! A madman, however, would say that what I have round my neck is a ridiculous, useless bit of coloured cloth tied in a very complicated way, and which makes it harder to get air into your lungs and difficult to turn your neck. I have to be careful when I'm anywhere near a fan, or I could be strangled by this bit of cloth.

    If a mad person were to ask me what this tie is for, I would have to say, absolutely nothing. It's not even purely decorative, since nowadays it's become a symbol of slavery, power, aloofness. The only really useful function a tie serves is the sense of relief when you get home and take it off; you feel as if you've freed yourself from something, though quite what you don't know.

    'But does that sense of relief justify the existence of ties? No. Nevertheless, if I were to ask a madman and a normal person what this is, the sane person would say: a tie. It doesn't matter who's correct, what matters is who's right.'
It occurred to me that those who claim to use logic and reason as the final arbiters in any sort of religious debate, and who happily claim to have been following the dictates of science and reason when denying God or otherwise doing away with religion, nevertheless act inconsistently. Because they have no problem doing absurd things (such as wearing a tie) as long as they are socially absurd, not religiously so.

At that point, one can easily answer that it is different to wear a dangling piece of cloth around one's neck (or high heels, if we are looking for the female equivalent of torture) because socially it is seen as a dignified way to dress, and to believe in a religion which advocates killing Amalekites, for example. And you would be correct, but you would also be admitting your own bias- I use logic and reason for certain things (i.e. the things I don't like and that don't square with my morality) and put them aside for other things (i.e. socially acceptable absurdities.)

However, if you yourself live inconsistently, because you do not use logic as your final arbiter, but selectively apply it where you wish, how can you claim that religious affiliates, whom you might also see as selectively applying logic, are close-minded or otherwise flawed? You yourselves admit that there are places to push away logic for the sake of something greater- and here it's only due to social rules, and the opinion someone might have of you were you to show up without a tie! How much the more so were someone to claim that though it may not logically make sense to them that homosexuals cannot practice the act within Judaism, they will accept a logic above their own.

I am not arguing that illogic immediately means something is true. I am simply pointing out the hypocritical nature of anyone who chooses to claim that religion specifically is at odds with reason, but has no problem with the fact that society is as well.

27 comments:

AK said...

When done properly, reason and religion should never be incompatible - they are instead orthogonal to one another.... So for me, that's the bottom line - religion and reason don't have to be incompatible at all, and I tend to get upset when I see people who appear to be going out of their way to intentionally set them at odds with one another...

Jewish Atheist said...

Chana,

Respectfully, I think it's a terrible analogy. Wearing a tie because people will like you better (socially or professionally) is perfectly logical. For that matter, following Orthodox Judaism so your spouse will like you better is also logical (although not necessarily recommended.)

But Orthodox Judaism makes factual claims that are unsupported at best and more likely just false. If you tried to tell me that it's immoral not to wear a tie, I'd laugh at you. Why then should I believe you when you say it's immoral to have gay sex?

Because I wear a suit and tie to weddings, I can't point out that the idea that Moses wrote the Torah at Sinai completely goes against reason, considering the evidence of its much later authorship/redaction? If you're arguing that it might be reasonable to pretend to be OJ, or to live OJ in practice, fine, I agree. But don't tell me that it's reasonable to believe in OJ. Not after 1800 or so.

Anonymous said...

jewish atheist,it's not a good idea to twist things by tooting your own horn.

Chana said...

JA,

"Because I wear a suit and tie to weddings, I can't point out that the idea that Moses wrote the Torah at Sinai completely goes against reason, considering the evidence of its much later authorship/redaction?"

That's what I said...what gives you (or anyone) the right to decide logic must apply here but not there? It's inconsistent.

That's also an amazingly vague claim- to which authorship/redaction are you referring- if the Documentary Hypothesis, that's a theory, not hard evidence, based on stylistic choice...

Jewish Atheist said...

That's what I said...what gives you (or anyone) the right to decide logic must apply here but not there? It's inconsistent.

Where did I say logic does not apply? Wearing a tie to weddings is not illogical.

That's also an amazingly vague claim- to which authorship/redaction are you referring- if the Documentary Hypothesis, that's a theory, not hard evidence, based on stylistic choice...

I was vague on purpose. No specific hypothesis has been proven, nor probably will. My claim is much smaller than the entire DH: what is pretty clear to any objective observer is that significant portions of the chumash were written long after Moses's day. I don't have to be able to identify which verses were written by J and which by E to know that Moses didn't write (to pick one of many examples) Deuteronomy 34:10:

And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom HaShem knew face to face.

YU student said...

Jewish Atheist,

as far as Deuteronomy 34 is concerned,the Talmud explains this by saying that Moses wrote it in tears in anticipation of his death; another tradition is that Joshua added these words after Moses died (the next book is the Book of Joshua which, according to Jewish tradition, was written by Joshua himself), and that the final verses of the book of Deuteronomy read like an epitaph to Moses.

Izgad said...

Curious Jew
I am a big fan of Paulo Coelho. What other books of his have you read? The Alchemist is my personal favorite though the Witch of Portobello is a close second. The main character of that novel, Athena, is a good stand in for you. She is a deeply religious woman, who starts her own spiritual movement. What is she? Is she a saint, a heretic, a witch or a bit of all three?

As for the tie analogy, I agree with Jewish Atheist that what you said came off badly. What I think you are trying to point out is that, in life, we use different standards of evidence in different situations. To give an example from my corner, history does not operate on scientific standards of evidence. I can offer you no scientific evidence that Napoleon was the emperor of France in the early 19th century. All I have are some documents that say he was. Anyone who doubts that Napoleon was the emperor of France, though, should be given a run way ticket to a padded cell and a lifetime supply of happy pills.

Uri from YU said...

Izgad,
The Curious Jew is both revered and feared by many.
And you,my pal,is one of the many...

ClooJew said...

I have to lulei demistafina agree with Jewish Atheist on this one. It is a terrible analogy, because while wearing a tie may be illogical (and I myself have used the tie as an example of herd mentality), it is completely innocuous (unless of course, as you point out, you happen to be near a fan).

Having said that, I fail to comprehend the rest of JA's comment. You say that "the idea that Moses wrote the Torah at Sinai completely goes against reason". I, among many, many people believe that Moses did indeed write the Torah word for word (but, perhaps, the final eight verses) as dictated to him by God Almighty. Are you arguing that I am unreasonable? Are the many tens of thousands who believe this unreasonable? Was Maimonides unreasonable? What about Rav Soloveitchick?

Anonymous said...

I think CJ's point is, there are poeple who claim to be irresistibly bound by logic, their hands are tied, if logic dictates a religious practice is a mistake. They can't bring themselves to act against logic, logic is the fiber they are made of, and acting against logic is self-destructive. Yet these same people, will do things in a social setting that have no place in reason, simply because that's what their current social setting calls for. The uncontrollable "binding force" of their logic - which at times can hold them prisoner - has a sad double standard, or better yet, they are not bound to reason, but rather to a very twisted imagination.

Tobie said...

It is perfectly possible to wear a tie, in full knowledge that it is a societal symbol with certain non-inherent societal conatations, and to wear it as a result of a logical choice to project and communicate such associations. Nobody- or nobody logical- says that it is absolute truth or a moral statement. I am completely unable to understand what this has to do with Orthodoxy/

Izgad said...

There is a philosophical paradox known as Burdian’s Ass, named after the medieval theologian Jean Buridan. Buridan is a very logical donkey, who always acts according to reason. One day Burdian finds two stacks of hay in front of him that are exactly alike. Burdian tries to come up with a rational reason to choose one pile over the other, but he cannot. So he stands in front of the two piles of hay and starves to death.

Jewish Atheist said...

yu student:

as far as Deuteronomy 34 is concerned,the Talmud explains this by saying that Moses wrote it in tears in anticipation of his death; another tradition is that Joshua added these words after Moses died (the next book is the Book of Joshua which, according to Jewish tradition, was written by Joshua himself), and that the final verses of the book of Deuteronomy read like an epitaph to Moses.

Obviously, the rabbis will have come up with their own "answers" to any evidence that goes against Orthodox Judaism -- sometimes, as in your example, several answers that are mutually exclusive. Just because the offer answers, though, doesn't mean that they are the most reasonable answers out there.

And again, that was just one example. Another is Genesis 14:14, which refers to Dan... which wasn't named Dan until long after Moses's death.


cloojew:

Having said that, I fail to comprehend the rest of JA's comment. You say that "the idea that Moses wrote the Torah at Sinai completely goes against reason". I, among many, many people believe that Moses did indeed write the Torah word for word (but, perhaps, the final eight verses) as dictated to him by God Almighty. Are you arguing that I am unreasonable? Are the many tens of thousands who believe this unreasonable? Was Maimonides unreasonable? What about Rav Soloveitchick?

I think that you are being unreasonable if you are indeed aware of all the evidence that parts of the Torah (and I'm not just talking the last 8 verses here) were written way after Moses's time. As I understand it, most of the people who genuinely consider the evidence of the DH without purposely limiting themselves to certain beliefs will come away convinced not only that Moses didn't write the chumash, but that there probably were multiple human authors living at different times.

I think Maimonides was pretty reasonable, but he did live in a different time - a time before Darwin, before serious Biblical criticism, before modern astronomy, etc. What he would believe if he were living today is something I have often wondered.

Rav Soloveitchick, I believe was relatively reasonable as well, but he was unable or unwilling to question certain fundamental assumptions about the universe, the authorship of the Torah being just one of them.

Chana said...

Izgad,

My favorite is Eleven Minutes, which I find utterly beautiful and true (by which I mean the ideas he advances, that there are people who seek their freedom and their pleasure through succumbing to absolute pain.) After that would probably come The Alchemist. I read The Witch of Portobello and was reminded of myself by Athena, and I find it interesting that you made that connection as well...

anonymous 1:02 AM,
You said it best, and you're right on.

Izgad said...

I have not read Eleven Minutes yet so I will have to add it to my reading list.

"I read The Witch of Portobello and was reminded of myself by Athena, and I find it interesting that you made that connection as well..."

Interesting how? I will take it as an "I am good." :) (I get up from my chair and do a nice frum Jewish boy dance around the room.)

aart hilal said...

Hello!

I'm a big fan of Paulo Coelho! You will love this! He's the first best-selling
author to be distributing for free his works on his blog:
www.paulocoelhoblog.com


Have a nice day!

Aart

anon said...

Izgad and Chana know one another-just an observation.

Miri said...

I think Anonymous 1:02 is right in detailing what Chana meant - and I do think it's an interesting point. Bt I also think Tobie is right. Symbols bear meaning - they communicate something to the outside world. Anyone who wears a tie, for example, is trying to give off a certain impression. It's perfectly logical to wear something which conveys an image that the individual wearing it wishes to convey. Some might even go so far as to call it manipulative....but that of course is a different discussion.

Jewish Atheist said the following:
"Obviously, the rabbis will have come up with their own "answers" to any evidence that goes against Orthodox Judaism -- sometimes, as in your example, several answers that are mutually exclusive. Just because the offer answers, though, doesn't mean that they are the most reasonable answers out there."

My question is, does it say anywhere in the Tanach specifically that G-d gave THE ENTIRE TORAH word for word to Moses on Mt. Sinai? Not just "...as G-d said to Moses on My. Sinai," but "...and G-d gave THE ENTIRE TORAH to Moses on Mt. Sinai." I do not remember such a pasuk, but my memory if quite fallible.

Unless such a passage does in fact exist, it seems to me silly to say that the Rabbis making up the stuff abt Moshe prophesying his own death has any effect whatsoever on the integrity of the text itself. It would cast suspicion on rabbinic tradition, but that's already another story.

Izgad said...

Anon
Yes I have met Chana in person and have had a number of very interesting conversations with her. I am a graduate of Yeshiva University, which she is a part of. Of course, through her blog, many people have come to know her. She is a friend to many. I just happen to be a guy standing in the back of that crowd cheering her on.

yesod shel limud said...

well put thank you i believe people don't tend to see the other side of the coin too well and that's what happens it's a shame thanks the post

Ben Rosenfeld

Moshe Y. Gluck said...

Vary nice :-)

Moshe Y. Gluck said...

I must be really tired - that's the second time I mistyped "very" tonight...

Anonymous said...

Chana, your entire premise is wrong. Following social norms is entirely logical. I think you may confusing illogical and arbitrary.

ClooJew said...

"Rav Soloveitchick, I believe was relatively reasonable as well..." - Jewish Athiest

I believe, lulei demistafina, that the Rav was more than simply "relatively reasonable." I would argue that his powers of reason were far superior to most people of the twentieth century and certainly to yours or mine.

David_on_the_Lake said...

I have an old sefer in my house of parables from Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. And one of the parables has the exact same plot line as The Alchemist.

I don't know if its an example of "Shtei Nevi'im misnabim" (lehavdil), or perhaps this is an older folk tale that they both incorporated.

Izgad said...

David on the Lake

I would not be surprised if there are non Jewish sources for the Alchemist story; a person has a dream that he should go to a certain place and found a treasure and finds out that the treasure was right where he started from. What is so great about the Alchemist is that Coelho turns the story into so much more.
That being said Coelho explicitly uses Jewish material in other books. See for example the Devil and Mrs. Prym.

no one said...

david on the lake.-r nachman said he would sometimes use non jewish stories that had higher significance.