Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Truth vs. Consensus, part one

In this short series, I want to explore the question of whether one should righteously suppress one's beliefs because of a consensus the other way. Is one a heretic if one maintains such beliefs? Even if not, is it a good idea?

1 - Can a true belief be kefirah?
I think the answer is both yes and no.

Yes: Every religion has some core set of beliefs to it. You likely cannot be a Christian if you think Jesus was a mamzer. You cannot be a Muslim if you believe that Mohammad was an illiterate delusional alien from the planet Krypton while Jesus is really God. You cannot be an Orthodox Jew if you believe that God does not exist, but that Baal Peor is the true God.

This is simply definitional.

And if Judaism indeed holds belief X to be a required belief, then if one believes NOT X can be considered a kofer, a denier of a fundamental belief.

And if some subgroup within Judaism holds belief Y to be a required belief, then within that subgroup, one who believes NOT Y can be considered a kofer, a denier of a fundamental belief.

And this has nothing to do with the ultimate truth or falsity of the belief.

Of course, if the religion incorporates a false belief as a required belief, then it is a false religion. But by the standards of that religion, of course one can be a kofer, or a heretic.

No: Religion is supposed to be truth. If the truth is not X, then regardless of what present practitioners of the religion maintain, when the person is judged in the world to come, he cannot be held accountable for maintaining a true belief. So stepping out of our present ikkarim, a Jewish person would not maintain that someone is really a heretic for maintaining a true belief.

Yes: Just to argue the opposite position. Perhaps objective reality does not matter. In terms of halacha, it does not always matter. Consider Rabbi Yehoshua who appeared before Rabban Gamliel with his purse and walking staff on the day he held was Yom Kippur. And consider the tannur shel achnai, where objective truth does not matter. And a זקן ממרה is in violation, in terms of halacha, for going against the Sanhedrin, presumably even if he is in fact historically correct. Perhaps our job is to tie ourselves into the Jewish destiny, and one can actually pasken required beliefs, and over the course of history, new beliefs can be added to those required beliefs. Then, perhaps, the objective truth does not matter, but rather fealty to the consensus which has developed is important. And the Beis Din shel maalah will rule in accordance with the Beis Din shel matta, not by changing reality, but by judging that the person has committed a sin of heresy and is deserving of punishment, even though the truth was with him.

Yes: Just to continue arguing the opposite position. Perhaps objective reality is determined by consensus, just like pesak. There is this idea that a Beis Din's establishing of the chodesh can determine physical reality. (Such as the case of the hymen of three year old plus one day; or whether an infant has developed for a sufficient amount of months to live.) We see people say that the Rambam paskened sheidim out of existence. So perhaps the same is true here. Maybe Hashem had a body in accordance with consensus until Rambam decided otherwise, and set a new consensus and standard for heresy. Maybe the rabbonim can pasken history, that Rav Yonasan Eibeshutz was no Sabbatean, and a new universe is created in which this is true, and in which we live. Maybe they pasken that kabbalah is authentic and the Zohar was written by Rashbi, and so he did.

To be clear, I agree with the first Yes and No. I think the last two Yeses are nonsense. Just like the Rambam, I do not think there is such thing as pesak in matters of belief. If it is true, it cannot be heresy. (On the other hand, maybe one can argue that a true belief can be paskened to be an addition to the ikkarei emunah, against the Rambam.) And there are restrictions on just what constitutes זקן ממרה, which does not extend to believing and even limited teaching; and there is in contrast the case of a horaat bet din where a talmid knows that they erred, and a prohibition from relying on what you know is mistaken pesak. And this is in regard to a Sanhedrin, not a consensus of a certain closed-minded segment of frum society. And no, one cannot pasken reality.

With this set up, we can turn to address the next sub-question: Given that true beliefs cannot be kefirah, is it a convincing argument to one who believes NOT X that he must believe X because it is now one of the ikkarei emunah?

19 comments:

Michael said...

How do you define 'true beliefs'?

joshwaxman said...

a belief which is *objectively* true; rather than one which we believe (firmly, 100%) to be true.

now, it may be that our beliefs which we hold firmly are absolutely true, or maybe not. but i'm dealing with the hypothetical of a belief which, after 120 years, we find out, in the Olam HaEmes, that it is Emes.

kt,
josh

michael said...

But there is no way of knowing its emet till you get there. What is the point in discussing something so hypothetical? If you mean by objective, let's say a scientific or historical truth , I can understand.

joshwaxman said...

i'm leading up to it, in the next post. it is in part the question i ended with -- is an argument that X is kefirah likely to convince someone who believes not X to be truth?

there is some cross-over and relationship to scientific or historical beliefs, which i also intend to get up to. on a different blog, i asked whether, if the chareidi rabbinic *consensus* was that gentiles have only 31 teeth, and you as a dentist have seen that both Jews and gentiles have 32, can you believe your own eyes or are you a heretic? if you did not know of this consensus and then were informed of it, would you start believing nonsense and falsehood because you feel an obligation to? the answer i got was:
"Josh, the answer to your hypothetical question is the same as the answer to every situation where evidence contradicts what we know to be true." and that it was similar to the Documentary Hypothesis.

there are those who refuse to believe in the moon landing, because they believe it is against the Torah. (see this thread at ImaMother.) or that Mt. Everest is the highest mountain, since Rashi says that Eretz Yisrael is highest. some take their cues as to what they must believe and then believe it, even in the realm of science and history.

but i am working up to it, with a hypothetical scenario that i hope everyone can agree to. then, on to other things.

kol tuv,
josh

E-Man said...

Well going within the Rambam and Ralbag, they say explicitly that the Torah must always be reinterpreted to coincide with the truth. So if Judaism believed the world was flat for thousands of years, when it is proven that it is round the Torah's position must now be that the wold is round.

Michael said...

OK I understand now.

I'm with you on this.

First No.
I believe this is the Maimonidean position. Reason and Truth (arrived at through rational thought) being above accepted scientific and Torah understanding.

First Yes
Most of the Ikkarim are non-provable. But they define our religion a.k.a. Rambam. So they fit in the first Yes.

Second Yes:
Works only for halakha. Should not be extended to beliefs.

Third Yes:
Interesting but wrong.
Being a Physicist myself, it is proven scientifically possible to effect the past on a micro quantum scale. But that is only if no information is known of the previous state. If we try to Pasken that X was not a sabbatean and information exists that he was, the past is fixed (Sorry for being Science fictional here. Just for fun!.)

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

The overwhelming majority of issues of heresy do not boil down to observable phenomena that can be proven real or unreal by objective standards. So your hypothetical about beliefs that can be proven false by comparing it with "the objective reality" is a non-starter.

joshwaxman said...

"The overwhelming majority of issues of heresy do not boil down to observable phenomena"
so?

that isn't my point. as i said, it is hypothetical. and it is important to first set down this idea that something false cannot be kefirah. wait for the next post.

and surely you saw the earlier argument about looking at gemaras as a historian vs. as a halachist, with the claim that the actual truth does not matter in terms of initial intent of the gemara. when this is paired, by the same proponent i should add, with a claim that one should follow the established (yet comparatively recent) "masorah", or modern consensus on this, and (elsewhere) that one disagreeing with the established consensus is a heretic, then it does become important to establish this axiom, that one cannot be a heretic for maintaining a belief which is true (that which was dismissed elsewhere as "historical").

but i never intended to extrapolate in general to the overwhelming majority of issues, which are arguable. again, wait, and see where i am going with this.

kt,
josh

joshwaxman said...

"not boil down to observable phenomena"
and we are claiming this. rather, the point is the hypothetical. regardless of whether one CAN prove it so or not, if it TURNS OUT that something was objective reality, then it could not have been heretical. it is not heretical when the objective reality was known, and it was not heretical when the objective reality was unknown.

don't read more into the post than is there.

kt,
josh

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>The overwhelming majority of issues of heresy do not boil down to observable phenomena that can be proven real or unreal by objective standards. So your hypothetical about beliefs that can be proven false by comparing it with "the objective reality" is a non-starter.

You said "overwhelming majority," not "none" which seems to recognize that there are issues which boil down to observable phenomena that can be proven real or unreal by objective standards. Or at least one.

So how is it a non-starter?

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

I was covering myself in case Josh managed to find one. I believe it's really zero and that's why I said it's a non-starter. Sorry for my equivocating. :)

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

"then it does become important to establish this axiom, that one cannot be a heretic for maintaining a belief which is true (that which was dismissed elsewhere as "historical")."

My beef is with your equating things that people generally feel confidant about calling "historical" with the "objective reality".

joshwaxman said...

"I believe it's really zero and that's why I said it's a non-starter."
really? we are not talking just about judaism here. if american indians maintain religiously that the earth rests on the back of a giant turtle, can't we prove that it is not by actually going there?

and if as was linked above, certain Jews truly maintain, based on the Satmar Rebbe, that it is heretical to believe that one can land on the moon, because of the Rambam on the substance of the moon, or because kabbalah maintains that space is fire, or because we say in kiddush levana "baAini yachol lingoa bach", then couldn't their charge of heresy be answered by (what you would agree to be) objective reality, and by sending these lunatics to the moon in a space-shuttle?

those same Jews believe it could be heretical to believe that the Mediterannean is not the largest body of water in the world, because the Torah calls it HaYam HaGadol.

"that people generally feel confidant about calling "historical" with the "objective reality""
again, that is not what i am saying. we can be 100% confident about true things, and 100% confident about false things. and the truth or falsity of the statement is withheld from us. but aside from our beliefs, there is this objective reality. and IF that objective reality accords with our beliefs -- even though knowledge of this objective reality may be impossible for human beings -- then it was never heretical in the first place.

the commenter in question was treating history as truth, rather than perception, but went on to say that we don't care about that truth because the halachic process of interpretation superseded it.

and btw, those lunatics we send to the moon could claim that they were drugged as part of a conspiracy by the US govt, such that it was all hallucinations. there is no way to persuade the truly "committed", i think. but even so, whether we know it or not, IF it is the case that the moon is made of rock, then it is so.

(people believing things to be reality is the topic of my next post, when i get to it.)

kt,
josh

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

"and if as was linked above, certain Jews truly maintain, based on the Satmar Rebbe, that it is heretical to believe that one can land on the moon, because of the Rambam on the substance of the moon, or because kabbalah maintains that space is fire, or because we say in kiddush levana "baAini yachol lingoa bach", then couldn't their charge of heresy be answered by (what you would agree to be) objective reality, and by sending these lunatics to the moon in a space-shuttle?"


This is just more evidence of your obsession with fringe beliefs. I don't consider these things to be worthy of attention.

(And personally, I don't think anyone should try to actually touch the moon with one's bare hands. Opening your suit to expose your hand would destabilize the air pressure and make you explode.;))

joshwaxman said...

oy. it is not my "obsession" with fringe beliefs. yes, i know that is your latest tactic of trying to dismiss me. (i had other ways of answering you in that other thread, but was having some fun at your expense.) but this speaks to the point of why such is necessary, at least as a first post on the subject. you are not the only person i am responding to. (yes, i know, everyone to the right of you is an idiot or "fringe" and everyone to the left of you is a kofer. many people across the spectrum think this.)

other jews believe that scientists planted the dinosaur bones, or that Hashem did so to test us, because they feel that evolution is at odds with Torah! (yes, evolution is a deduction, rather than a directly observable fact. but the attitude is the same.)

other jews (apparently as a somewhat mainstream position) maintain that given a rabbinic statement/interpretation that no species can die out, there was never any extinction. (a point against evolution.) and thus, the dodos are hiding out, as are the woolly mammoths, etc.. theoretically, one can determine this by having people explore every inch of the globe.

how about Rav Chaim Kanievsky who says that anyone who agrees with Copernicus is a heretic? one can go into space and watch the earth rotate on its axis, as well as the other planets rotate on their axis, and via the Coreolis effect see that the earth is rotating, and via parallax see what makes the most sense to be revolving around what. yes, I know, a fringe belief from one whom many consider to be the Gadol HaDor. Yes, it is fringe, but it is an important point that one need not be mevatel one's daas to Daas Torah in matters such as this. And I think most, or at least many, Lubavitch would feel *compelled* to give as a teretz the weak geocentricity of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, of relative motion such that heliocentricity and geocentricity are equivalent with no way to distinguish between the two, because they feel obligated to accept the Rebbe's word as gospel.

These are not as stark examples, and do not match the examples of direct observation. but again, the point was the *purely hypothetical*, mainly in preparation for the next post, and point: what effect will there be in telling someone that they must believe X as a matter of halacha, when the target actually believes NOT X to be truth?

and you haven't seen my answer to that yet.

joshwaxman said...

another example: you feel religiously obligated to believe in the nonsense that is palm-reading and face-reading, which have long ago been shown to be pseudo-science. why? because Rav Moshe de Leon's best selling fiction work of the 13th century speaks of them. (yes, you claim that only qualified kabbalistic practitioners are privy to this knowledge, which makes the claim unfalsifiable but that this knowledge and science exists.) if someone else than you held it, it would have been fringe. it is testable -- e.g., show people's palms palm-readers, and see if they can predict the person's lifespan, and see whether you end up with a statistically significant result.)

another example: *many* frum people believe in the autistics. one point in their favor is that early on, though after scientists had already determined it to be a pseudoscience, several Gedolim (some of whom were involved in the banning of Rabbi Slifkin's book) declared facilitated communication to be a real phenomenon. when i pointed out that it was a pseudoscience, and that these people are exploiting the disabled, and giving messages of sinas chinam (and giving messages outside their original mandate, by speaking of end-of-days, giving practical and halachic advice, and insulting talmidei chachamim), the reaction was "how dare you differ from the Gedolim?!" thus, people who feel religiously obligated to believe in nonsense, for something which is readily testable, and where tests have shown this to be nonsense.

do you believe in facilitated communication? would you put up a post on your blog declaring it to be nonsense? would you be willing to do so even if it were not a machlokes of contemporary Gedolim?

i'll end, though, with the note that this is beside the point. this is all a set-up.

kt,
josh

Freelance Kiruv Maniac said...

Your black-and-white approach to this issue shows zero nuance.

The questions are:
what level of verification is required for reasonable belief. It a trustworthy source enough? Or must you see it for yourself?
and
2) when testable labroratory verification is not possible can it be substituted with trust in reliable people who know what they are talking about?

This is not a simple issue.

But now I realize that once you've ruled out the very possibility of a spiritual non-physical source knowledge about the world at the outset because you don't trust anybody's word, and you cannot violate the laws of physical nature, then there is no nuance to discuss with you.

joshwaxman said...

please stop it. you are writing nonsense.

first, despite my writing repeatedly that what i am speaking of here is hypothetical, you challenge and provoke me to provide concrete examples. even though it is entirely beside the point.

you don't like my concrete examples (for what was intended at hypothetical), because you don't maintain them and don't know anyone who maintains them, and so challenge me further to provide examples. even though as i noted repeatedly, the point was the hypothetical.

so i give you examples which are similar though more maintstream, but i note that they are not the same, and that they are nuanced. in fact, i state that it is not the same, when i wrote "yes, evolution is a deduction, rather than a directly observable fact. but the attitude is the same." you think i don't spot the distinction? i do! yet you take these good examples of a similar attitude as evidence that i lack nuance.

yet, i do believe that they are along the same *continuum*, of idiots refusing to accept scientific evidence because they believe that they are forbidden from doing so.

this is not my "black and white approach." nor do you get to frame the questions (while not addressing my points), or truthfully declare what you now "realize" (or rather attribute) about my position.

i'll narrow in on one question for now: do you agree that facilitated communication is a pseudo-science? do you believe that they are communicating from On High? if not, then if it were a consensus rather than dispute among gedolim about the reality of it, would you feel that a Katan, who knows the studies, and knows about the ideomotor effect, and thus knows it is nonsense, is permitted to oppose it as dangerous nonsense? what is your take on those who think it is apikorsus to do so (even given present reality) because the Gedolim have granted their imprimatur? are they idiots?

perhaps this is my fault for not yet posting the second post in the series yet...

kol tuv,
josh

joshwaxman said...

to clarify, in case you missed this point.

*of course* there is a distinction between different levels of this.

Level 1) Absolute truth. This is only hypothetical and was the topic of this post, because the concern was what heresy is, rather than what people should or should or should not believe. Only Hashem knows absolute truth, but since it is His religion, this is good for establishing what (it turns out) is heresy or not heresy.

Level 2) Direct observation. This appears to be close to Level 1, but there is an unbridgeable gap between them, imho. That is why this post was discussing the hypothetical. Perhaps our eyes are lying to us, or we are too dumb to understand the true nature of reality.

Level 3) This is deduction rather than direct observation, and is thus certainly a different level than Level 2. And intelligent people can argue about whether the deductions are accurate or not. I would place into this grouping things I agree with and things I disagree with. For example, that dinosaurs existed but no longer exist, that the universe is billions of years old, that multiple authors wrote the Torah. And here, this feeling that one *may not* believe can intrude and corrupt one's thought process, or make someone set the requirements for reasonable doubt/belief ridiculously high. And there are likely hundreds of gradations within this level 3.

kol tuv,
josh

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