Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Etz HaDaas and Pretty Thoughts

Krum as a bagel
As I noted here, the Rambam's view of the effect of the Etz HaDaas was to substitute man's cognitive ability to discern objective truth with an ability to make judgments regarding what is appealing.

What does the Rambam mean? Some have suggested that the Rambam is taking an approach similar to the Ramban, who understands "tov v'ra" as referring to "ta'ava" or desire. According to this reading, the Etz HaDaas caused man to follow his passions or desires rather than his intellect.

However, I think the Rambam is saying something different. The Rambam's conception is a profound insight into the nature of human psychology. The brain is essentially a pleasure seeking organ. Much research has been conducted about how people enjoy and are persuaded by marketing pitches or political soundbites that are pleasing to them. In a similar vein, I often find myself in a shiur, reading a book, or just thinking about a problem, when suddenly a beautiful idea emerges resolving a seemingly insurmountable problem. The sensation is no different than hearing a pretty melody or watching a good movie. It's the neurological equiavalent of a backrub.

However, just because a thought is pretty doesn't mean it's correct. The best example I can think of is the attitude of the yeshiva world to the academic study of talmud (a ficitonalized treatment of the topic can be found in Chaimn Potok's The Promise). The dominant approach to gemara study in the yeshiva world today is the "Brisker derech," or some variant of it. This approach seeks to resolve contradicitions or explain disputes in a highly conceptual way. A classic "brisker" shiur might set out a number of seemingly irreconcilable, contradictory positions of the Rambam and resolve them elegantly by providing a single conceptual framework that explains why the Rambam ruled one way in one context and a different way in another.

The acedemic approach, on the other hand, seeks to take into account scholarship regarding the genesis and development of the talmudic text, the society in which rabbinic figures lived, ancient lanuages, etc. Thus, a dispute between between the Rambam and the Rosh may be explained by the different manuscripts prevalent in Spain and Germany rather than a conceptual difference in how each understood, say, the nature of kiddushin. Scholars that follow this approach would scoff at the "brisker" derech as pure sophistry.

However, the academic approach has been rejected by the yeshiva world. Why? Many hashkafic arguments have been invoked, but the real reason is simple -- it delivers less pleasure to the brain. It does not involve pretty thoughts. It is tedious and boring. Even if it were deemed perfectly acceptable, it would not catch on. But is it more correct?

At the risk of pushing this idea too far, I think it has broader implications. Take the Chazal v. Science debate. Were Chazal infallible as to matters of science or not? Clearly there is a basis in the mesorah for either position. How does one account for how people come out on either side of the debate? For the pro-Science crowd (like myself) the answer is simple -- we want our religion pretty. It simply inconceivable for me to accept a assertions regarding religion that contravenes what I view as rational. Whether the issue is taking fantastical misrashim literally, segulahs, or the view of Chazal as brilliant scientists, I instinctively reject them. And I understand there are various approaches which are strictly speaking logical that would allow one to uphold the correctness of Chazal without denying modern science -- such as nishtaneh ha'teva ("nature has changed"). However, I recoil from these ideas. My friend LZ made a comment in response to a particularly extreme statement regarding the infallibility of Chazal which typifies this attitude:

If I actually cared about what some anonymous commenter thinks I think I'd be shaken to the core. If RHS or RAL or someone else whose opinion I seriously respect said such comments I'd probably not be able to sleep again tonight.

Indeed, this is precisely one of the criticisms leveled against Slifkin in the initial "kol kore": ein l'shum adam baaulus al ha'emunah l'shnosah k'dei "l'yafusa" leynei mi shehu. No person has rights over our faith to change it in order to make it "look pretty" for the eyes of others.

By the same token, those on the other side of the debate seem to revel in being machnya their daas to the gadlus of chazal. This comes through clearly in the following words of a commenter on an other blog:

And please do not think that a "frum egyptologist" could ever prove anything about the truth of Mabul or Mitzrayim, which are truths regardless of papyri - regardless of video, if you could produce some - it only proves something about you.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes: I accept the mesorah as superior to my own senses and judgments.

There seems to be an almost proud, stridency in the manner in which these ideas are expressed, where science and rationalism is rejected in a heroic act of self-abnegation. Ironically, this sort of approach is reflected eloquently in the writings of the icon of Modern Orthodoxy, RYBS, where he describes the "heroic act" of the newly married groom on his wedding retreating from his bride upon the sight of a drop of blood (more on this in a later post).

Thus, for what ever reason, what is "appealing" to the mind of one person may be revolting to another. In either case, the message is that our minds, as powerful as they may be capable, are ultimately imperfect tools that can fool us. The key is to be counscious of the fact that what may be appealing to us may not necessarily be true.

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