Sago Boulevard

Thursday, July 07, 2005

"Meta-Questions"

Jewish Atheist's rant against Orthodox Judaism is a familiar one:
But where are the meta-questions? Why don't yeshiva students study the arguments for and against God's existence? Why don't they study textual criticism? Why don't they study the great non-Jewish theologians? Why don't they read philosophy?

As an Orthodox Jew who prides himself on studying philosophy, I have to respond to this. Yeshivah students don't (usually) study what he call "meta-questions" because we don't believe them to be nearly as important. The arguments for and against God's existence almost always fail to be compelling. These arguments, in their traditional form, often fail to consider the dynamic nature of the Jewish God and the halakhic system. "The trouble will all rational demonstrations of the existence of God," argues R. Soloveitchik, "consists in their being exactly what they were meant to be by those who formulated them: abstrast logical demonstrations divorced from the living primal experiences in which these demonstrations are rooted." Soloveitchik, a card carrying member of the yeshivah world, certainly knew these arguments well. His wide-ranging references to the entire spectrum of western philosphy (and his Ph.D. in the field) certainly attests to his concern with so-called "meta-questions". But his focus was understanding the halakhic system and its implications.

Soloveitchik is not alone. Rabbis Abaraham Isaac Kook, Marvin Fox, A.J. Heschel, Walter Wurzburger, Aharon Lichtenstein, Shubert Spero, and Yeshiah Leibowitz (these are just a few off the top of my head) all summon the best of western philosophy into the world of traditional-halakhic Judaism.

It may be easy to make a case against Orthodoxy by tapping into the stereotype of the yeshivah bocher hunched over a gemara who is concerned only with minutiae of the laws of kashrut. But maybe there's an even deeper issue. The yeshivah bocher believes that the questions he's concerned with are the fundamental questions. The back-and-forth of halakhic discourse is Jewish way of delving into God's world. I obviously have more to say about this but I'll stop here for now.