Reason and Judaism

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Reason and Judaism

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Reason and Judaism

The idea of a religion of reason faces two opposite dangers: an irresponsible mysticism and no mysticism at all. The former attaches to every positive religion in which certain irrationalities (e.g. records of miracles) enter the fundamental framework of dogma. We note that none of the miracles recorded in the Old Testament are taken as part of a fundament of dogma in Judaism (though many orthodox Jews behave as if they were). As M.Mendelsohn already pointed out ,’ One will not find in the Old Testament the phrase : thou shalt believe so and so - but one will repeatedly find : thou shalt do so and so’ Thus, the Talmud does not discuss particulars of belief, while it does discuss very minute particulars of action and behaviour. Judaism does not have a history of dogma. Christianity, on the other hand, has several irrationalities in its dogmatic framework. To abstract from these would cancel Christianity altogether.

Judaism has only one mystery: the concept of G-d. Clearly, the mystical character of G-d’s existence is of an entirely different type and on a completely different level from that of miracles or the creation of gnostic occultism (angelology, pleroma etc) found in other religions. We note that the mystery of G-d and the mystery of the relation between the finite -infinite world and the Reality Whole are one and the same mystery.

This mystery attaches to the mystery of Reason itself. Even leaving aside any religious tradition,rational thought, if it is continued consistently beyond a certain limit, will reach into ‘reasonable’ mystical conclusions. The important thing is to differentiate between rational mysticism and irrational mysticism. The former lies in those necessarily indistinct areas in the direct line of the continuation of rational thought; the latter is not found in this line, but consists of just flimsily ( if at all )rationalised fancies. G-d is a rational mystery, the only one in religion. With rational mysticism in mind, it seems possible to arrive at a number of defensible and logically coherent ideas about the nature of G-d and about the relation of G-d to that which exists, in general, and to Man and History in particular.

As distinct from the threat posed by a wild, irrational mysticism( which, by the way, also coincides with idolatry), one finds the mistaken notion that it is possible to avoid a mystical line of thought altogether. This is the cardinal mistake of a 17th and 18th century type of reason: the religion of the Enlightenment. The lack of religious power of this Kantian type of religion led some people to the other end of the pendulum swing and embrace the opposite fallacy in the form of romantic Catholicism. Such people overlooked the fact that a) religion requires people to do something that they might not do anyway (the kind of decent behaviour stipulated for all alike by Judaism and Christianity, religious or not) . b) that these doings, demanded by a full, genuine religion, necessarily imply and rely on a guess - albeit a rational guess. I shall try to explain this presently. We face certain questions of conduct in our lives, moral and other, by relying on conventions and traditions.

These questions often have far wider ramifications for the development of human affairs than current knowledge can teach us. Everyone will, I suppose, admit that there are moral and biological problems in life, which attain such enormous complexity that they are likely to keep science busy for centuries to come. I can imagine one such question being the interrelation of the vast combinatorial variations of the chemical composition of food to higher mental and moral functions, to the characterological make-up of human types, even, though more remote, to a possible alternative direction of human civilisation and history. Or similar questions arising from the conduct in varieties in sex life. Science is concerned with the much cruder effects of food or sex on a more or less grossly defined ‘health condition’; with harm or ‘innocuousness’; with the quickly ascertainable effect of the, not highly complicated, compound of drugs on the more drastic expressions of moral and mental functions. Science, at present, can hardly even formulate those questions in an manageable experiment- based way. On such and similar questions, therefore, a scientific answer was and is unobtainable now and this is likely to remain the situation for quite a long time. Only a decision based on guessing is thus possible.