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Possible Answers to Rav Soloveitchik’s 1936 Final Exam in Jewish Philosophy by Alex Sztuden

January 24, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy

Below are responses to Rav Soloveitchik’s Jewish Philosophy exam that R. Helfgot posted on Text and Texture. I have tried to tie in the responses with the Rav’s own works, supporting R. Helfgot’s contention that the exam offers us a window into the mind of the Rav and the problems he was grappling with in the 1930′s, which would later make their way into his texts. These responses also highlight one other important aspect of the Rav’s writings: Halakhic Mind, Halakhic Man, his lectures on Teshuva and U’Bikashtem Misham in many ways all exhibit a remarkable unity of intellectual origins. For instance, many of the same problems, such as that of freedom and dependence, would resurface in a variety of texts, albeit in different forms.

- Alex Sztuden

I.    a. What is the basic idea of the “Intellectualist Theory” of the religious act?

In Halakhic Mind (41-43), the Rav distinguishes between 3 different views of emotional states (and by implication, of religious states):

1.       Emotions are non-cognitive. They do not express any facts or statements about the world. In a footnote, the Rav cites Hume as a typical example of this view: “Hume denied the intentional character of our emotional experiences: ‘A passion is an original existence…and contains not any representative quality which renders it a copy of any other existence or modification. When I am angry, I am actually possessed with the passion, and in that emotion have no more a reference to any other object, than when I am thirsty, or sick or five feet tall…’” (116, footnote 49).

2.       Emotions have a cognitive component. In fact, “every intentional act is implicitly a cognitive one…by way of simple illustration, the statement ‘I love my country’ may be broken down into three components: I. There exists a country – predication; II. This object is worthy of my love – valuation; [and] III. I love my country – consummation of the act.” (43). According to the Rav, I. (“There exists a country”) is a statement of fact that is in effect contained by and in the emotion. Emotions are not irrational outpourings of the heart. They make claims about the world.

3.       Emotions are cognitive, but they are confused ideas. This is the Intellectualist Theory of Emotions (and religious states). “Of course, the intellectualistic school, regarding the emotional and volitional activities as modi cogitandi, had to admit some relationship between them and the objective sphere. Owing, however to the contempt that philosophers and psychologists had for the emotional act which they considered an idea confusa…”

             b. What are the conclusions? Criticism.

The intellectualist theory correctly perceived that emotions were cognitive, but incorrectly assumed that they were inferior forms of cognition, confused ideas. For the Rav, all psychic states are intentional, and religious acts therefore contain a cognitive component, subject to elaboration, refinement and critique on its own terms.

 II         a. What is the Jewish attitude on the problem of the normative, affective, and cognitive approach to the religious act?

The religious act contains: a cognitive component, that is, it assumes or makes a claim about the nature of (phenomenal) reality; it is always directed towards action, towards the implementation of a norm (normative); and it involves the emotions and the will (affective). Unlike various other religions, where some approaches are emphasized to the detriment of the others, Halakha emphasizes all three approaches.

Halakhic Mind is an extended essay on the cognitive approach to the religious act. In Halakhic Man, the Rav identifies two central motifs of the Halakhic personality, study for its own sake and the implementation of the normative Halakhah. Halakhic Man both cognizes and acts. The Rav partially unifies the normative and cognitive elements by asserting that the cognition of Halakhic Man is always only of the norm, of the normative rule of Halakha, that is what Halakhic Man cognizes: “The maxim of the sages: “Great is study, for study leads to action”, has a twofold meaning: 1) action may mean determining the…ideal norm; 2) action may refer to implementing the ideal norm in the real world. Halakhic Man stresses action in its first meaning” (64)

In U’Bikashtem Misham, the Rav explicitly asserts the unity of knowledge, will and action. All aspects of the personality are utilized to serve God. (In a footnote in U’Bikashtem Misham, the Rav asserts the identity of cognition and love, a primary affective state: “On the other hand, cognition too is elevated through its melding with emotionality. The unity of the knower and the known…occurs only in a cognition imbued with love and desire…Maimonides set forth love as the goal of divine worship. There is an identity of love and cognition [emphasis added]…” (156)

    b. What is the approach to God through the reality (being)? Contrast this with the approach to reality through the recognition of God.

In U’Bikashtem Misham, the Rav distinguishes between natural and revelational consciousness (see IIIa).  (OR within natural consciousness, he further distinguishes between rational and experiential approaches?)

c. How does the consciousness of the ego-reality change according to the method of approaching God?

When we approach God through reality, we start with the certainty of our own ego and the world first. In such an approach, the ego is free and expansive. By contrast, if God is the first reality through which we approach the world, our ego (and the world) is dependant on God. 

III    a.  How can we explain the two contradictory phenomena in our religious consciousness – dependence and freedom?

1.   In U’Bikashtem MiSham, the Rav distinguishes between natural and revelational consciousness. Natural consciousness, manifested in the human being’s upward striving for God through science, culture, aesthetics and religious experiences, is identified with absolute freedom, while the revelational consciousness, at least in its initial stages, is identified with submission and subordination (which are closely related to dependence). “What is a religious experience? On the one hand, it is an experience which includes the development of the individual’s spirit. It a cognitive, moral as well as an aesthetic experience…From this standpoint, religious consciousness is manifested as the consciousness of absolute freedom. Man seeks God out of a thirst for a freedom of life, a desire to deepen and expand the universe.” (41). This experience is contrasted with the revelational consciousness, where God imposes his will and demands complete surrender: “In the field of revelational experience, man accepts the yoke of the commandments against his will and subordinates his pride and self-love to God.” (43). The Rav then outlines how Imitatio Dei can integrate freedom into the heart of the subjugated servant of God. By identifying one’s will with God’s will and making it one’s own, the commandments become an expression of one’s will and are no longer experienced as external commands, but as the internal promptings and deepest desires of the man of God.

2.  Lonely Man of Faith provides a full discussion of Adam I and Adam II, the first being born of majesty and a free, creative spirit, while the second is lonely, full of existential angst, and surrenders to God.

3.  In Halakhic Man, the Rav describes the antinomy which is an integral part of man’s consciousness: “From a religious perspective, man, in his relationship to the world, oscillates between the two poles of self-negation [related to dependence] and absolute pride [freedom and expansiveness], between the consciousness of his nothingness and the consciousness of the infinity deep within him.” (68). The Rav further elaborates on how the Halakha harmonizes this contradiction of the religious consciousness. [As a side note, a prominent amateurish argument amongst the New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, runs something like this: Science has shown that we are but a tiny speck in a tiny corner of the universe, so we cannot be the center or purpose of the universe. From the perspective of the Rav (and the Psalmist whom he cites), this insight is no doubt correct: “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him…” (68). This feeling that we are nothing is not only felt by atheists, but is rooted in man’s religious consciousness. But the atheistic “insight” forgets the second part of the verse: “Yet Thou hast made him but a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honor…”]

      b. What is the rational and what is the irrational element in Tshuva? Explain the phenomenon.

1. In On Repentance, the Rav distinguishes between repentance that allows for continuity with the past and repentance which demands a complete annihilation of the sins of the past from man’s consciousness and personality. The former is the rational element in Teshuva, while the latter is the irrational element: “The question of whether repentance implies continuity or severance, whether it sustains the past or utterly nullifies it, depends upon the nature of the repentance.” (252). The Rav then cites the opinions of philosophers who believe that the complete uprooting of sin from man’s consciousness and personality is illogical: “Logic, too, is outraged at the possibility of uprooting part of man’s consciousness, excising part of man’s memory. Both Nietzsche and Kant claimed that this was impossible, but Judaism says: Yes, it can de done.” (253)

2. In Halakhic Man, the Rav provides a different account of what is “irrational” in Teshuva: “It is impossible to regret a past that is already dead, lost in oblivion. Similarly, one cannot make a decision concerning a future that is as yet unborn. Therefore, Spinoza…and Nietzsche…- from this perspective- did well to deride the idea of repentance.” (114). If the past is dead, there is no point in regretting what cannot be brought back to life. But for the Rav, Teshuva somehow miraculously allows for the past to come alive and be transformed (sins are blotted out, even transformed into merits). For the Rav, repentance allows the present to be injected into the future and transform the past.

3. In On Repentance, the Rav distinguishes between two different kinds of repentance: repentance which comes from a rational recognition of the wrongness of the act, and repentance which is an emotional reaction, an instinctive reaction of disgust to the sin. The Rav cites Amnon’s reaction to Tamar after his rape as an example of the latter. While the Rav praises both types of repentance, he points out that emotional repentance lacks free will, is coerced and responsive only to passion, not reason. (192-201)

IV    a. The Problem of  “Taame Hamitzvoth”. Explain in connection with the subjectivity and objectivity in the religious consciousness.

In Halakhic Mind, the Rav criticizes the Rambam’s attempt to provide reasons for the Mitzvot. According to the Rav, Maimonides erred because “instead of describing, he explained. Instead of reconstructing, he constructed.” (92). The Rav continues: “The distinction between them is the same as that between objectification and reconstruction. By establishing a cause, one objectifies the datum and subordinates it to a superior order. However, by exploring the norm retrospectively through vectorial hints which point toward subjectivity, the religious act with its unique structure retains its full autonomy.” (95)

When we provide a reason for a Mitzva, that Mitzvah no longer retains its integrity, the reason is now what matters, and the Mitzvah is now merely the means of the realization of the goal, which is more fundamental. If the reason for the Sabbath is to allow man to rest, then rest is what matters and the Sabbath in its unique splendor is lost. There are many ways to instantiate or exemplify rest, the Sabbath laws are but one of many ways to concretize the purpose, which is rest. The “superior order” is the reason, and the law becomes subordinate to the reason.

By contrast, if we do not explain, but merely describe, if we only allude to meanings, point to hints, explore symbolic layers, we are simply reconstructing the profound layers of religious subjectivity which homo religiosus experiences in his performance of the Mitzva. We are not attempting to subordinate the religious act under a law, we are merely describing the way the religious act is experienced (the Sabbath as resplendent with creation-consciousness, the shofar blast as a call to repentence). Creation-consciousness is not the reason for the Sabbath; creation consciousness is simply part of the meaning of the Sabbath for the religious man. The Sabbath is not subsumed under a law. The method of reconstruction preserves the integrity and autonomy of the religious act.

       b. Explain Maimonides’ theory of the negative attributes. Does the negative theology conform with the Halakhic standpoint?

Maimonides had argued that we cannot know anything positive about how God is in his essence, we can only know Him negatively, that is, by denying any finite attributes. God is not finite (infinite), not limited in knowledge (omniscient), etc. What about God’s traits such as mercy? Those traits, for the Rambam, are attributes of action. They only apply to God insofar as we are able to apprehend his relationship to us. They are not essential attributes of the Godhead.

In Halakhic Mind, the Rav writes that: “The nonsensical undertaking of applying concepts derived from temporality to eternity was clearly recognized by negative theology [emphasis added] which forbade man to reconnoiter in the realm of the essential attributes and limited him to the one of the actional…The actional attributes…do not lead him directly to cognition of God, but to cognition of His world.” (45-46)

For the Rav, negative theology teaches us that we cannot know God’s essence, we can only know His world. This exactly parallels the Halakha’s indifference to speculative, metaphysical matters, which cannot be known, and its intensive focus on cognition of this world and our actions in it.

V   a. What does the autonomy of the religious act mean?

In Halakhic Mind, the Rav provides an extended discussion of “epistemological pluralism” (28), the view that there are many different ways of knowing. Philosophy and science had tried to monopolize and exert absolute dominion over what can be known, but developments in those fields in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries exposed the illusion that knowledge must take only one form. Epistemological pluralists assert the plurality of ways of knowing, science yields partial knowledge, religion also yields knowledge in its own way. Moreover, the distinctness of the various enterprises (science, philosophy, religion, etc.) means that each form of knowing is incommensurable, that is, it cannot be judged by reference to the evaluative terms of any other field. There is no common or neutral ground amongst the various fields that can be relied upon to play the final arbiter in settling claims of knowledge. Religion, in this sense, is autonomous, in that it answers only to its own internal demands, not to the demands of science or philosophy.

There is a further sense in which the religious act is autonomous. “However, by exploring the norm retrospectively through vectorial hints which point toward subjectivity, the religious act with its unique structure retains its full autonomy.” (Halakhic Mind, 95) Here, the Rav dramatically asserts that religious norms are not reducible to ethics or history. They are autonomous, in the sense that no causal explanation can fully capture the uniqueness of the Mitzvah. The Mitzvah is its own thing, not another thing, not ethics, or history, or philosophy, or hygiene. The religious act is autonomous.

     b. Describe the main characteristics of the religious world-interpretation.

     c. How is religious recognition of the being possible?

d. The practical religious norms and philosophy of religion.

The Rav ends Halakhic Mind with his famous challenge: “Out of the sources of Halakha, a new world view awaits formulation.” (102). The latter part of Halakhic Mind is an extended critique of certain ways of doing philosophy of religion, most notably, the attempt at a rational explanation of religious laws and rituals on which medieval Jewish philosophers spent much of their efforts. By contrast, the Rav believes that an authentic Jewish philosophy must start with the objective data of Judaism, namely, the Halakha, the practical religious norms. The goal for the philosopher would then be to explore the Halakhic facts in detail, not to provide them with a reason, but with a view to reconstructing the layers of subjectivity that the religious actor experiences when he performs a religious act. A genuine philosophy of Judaism does not seek ethical or historical explanations for the Mitzvot. Rather, it examines the religious norms in detail and attempts to uncover the passions and surgings of the religious personality being concretized and captured in the objective norms. The philosopher should seek to find the “inner correlative” of the objective norms. To reveal our subjective spirit through the objective norm, such is the goal of the new philosophy of religion.

e.         The problem of specific categories of the religious consciousness.

In Halakhic Mind, the Rav argues that the religious act is cognitive, that is, it makes or assumes claims about the nature of reality. But the religious way of knowing the world is not the same as the scientific approach to reality. It has its own unique sets of categories that may be analogous to categories in other fields such as philosophy or science, but is independent of them. In pages 46-49 of Halakhic Mind, the Rav provides an example of how the category of time would undergo a serious re-examination when looked at through religious eyes. Time can be marked holy or profane, it is not simply unidirectional, the possibility of repentance must mean that in some way the past can somehow be changed, etc. The Rav continues: “In a similar manner, all basic concepts of reality should be subjected to a re-examination. Causality, space, quality, quantity, etc. will then assume new meaning.” (50)

[Further, the Rav writes that the cult and ritual (69-70 HMind) are that which are most unique to religion. It is possible that the Rav is here alluding to categories which are not basic, like time or causality, but specific to cult and ritual?]

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