Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Can We Mandate Belief?

Rabbi Yitzchok Alderstein has a post up today about the Ikkarim and the limits of our belief. As most people who read JBlogs are aware, Marc Shapiro wrote a book a few years ago about the Ikkarim, arguing that there isn't the broad consensus that Orthodox society pretends there to be. Rabbi Zev Leff responded with an unfavorable review in the current issue of Jewish Action.

Regardless of which Ikkarim are binding, we need to ask why how any beliefs can be considered mandatory. Beliefs have truth values: either they are true or they are false. My belief that I am typing a post right now is true. If I believed that the sun didn't rise today, that belief would be false. There isn't any middle ground.

So formalizing beliefs and requiring us to believe them seems to run contrary to the idea that we should search for truth. Mandating that everyone believe something requires an individual to accept a belief even if he feels it is unjustified. If the goal of inquiry is truth, then this system runs contrary to the whole epistemological enterprise.

The standard response to this problem is that Orthodoxy requires certain actions, even if a member of the society feels the action is wrong. If a majority of poskim believes that an action is required or prohibited, we must follow their ruling. If Orthodoxy can require action, why can't it require belief?

Many people reject the comparison between action and belief. Action is elective; we can choose whether to act in a certain way. But belief is involuntary because we cannot make a conscious choice about what to believe. I can't choose to believe that a car is speeding down at me while I stand in the middle of the street. I'll either believe it or I won't. There's no choice involved.

I don't like this response because it gets into difficult philosophical questions about the nature of our beliefs. There is a whole debate in Epistemology about Doxastic Voluntarism, which presumes that we can choose our beliefs. I'd rather not have to settle this debate.

I believe the analogy because action and belief is flawed on a more fundamental level. As I mentioned earlier beliefs are supposed to be the result of an inquiry for truth. When engaging in belief formation, we have as our goal the search for truth.

Halacha, however, is not the search for objective truth. We do not rule like the majority for epistemic reasons, i.e. the majority is more likely to be correct. As the Oven of Akhnai story tells us, we would still hold like the majority even if G-d himself told us the objective truth is the opposite. Determining Halacha is a substantive human practice and not a search for the divine truth.

Now we can see why the analogy doesn't hold. Halacha isn't about searching for truth and is determined by the majority. Once the majority decides a question, the "right answer" is that decision. There is no ontological gap between the decision of the majority and the correct answer. Belief though cannot be determined by majority. Belief is supposed to correlate to one single objective truth. Requiring that people believe something that isn't true goes against the whole point of the search for truth.

Rabbi Slifkin in a comment on that post makes a good point. He distinguishes between beliefs being wrong on a theological level and their acceptance being required for membership in a community. A belief might not be wrong per se, but a community can decide that its members share certain core beliefs. Anyone who holds other beliefs might be correct in the truth sense, but cannot be a part of that society.

Rabbi Slifkin's pragmatic argument resolves some of the problem. When we formalize the Ikkarim we are not saying that people with contrary beliefs are incorrect. We are merely denying that they can be part of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodoxy has drawn its red-lines and for better or worse these are the choices it made.

Note: I am not saying Rabbi Slifkin would agree with anything I said here. So don't brand him a heretic because of me. :=)

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