Objective encounters of a personal kind

What is the mind-set of absolute religious obligation? What is the mind-set of total tolerance for others? Can they be found in the same person? Not only is my answer to that question yes, but they stem from the same way of thinking.

I just finished reading an article that I’ve wanted to read for a long time – not because I knew of its existence but because I hoped someone would write such an article, and now someone did. I’m referring to Towards a Genuine Jewish Philosophy: Halakhic Mind’s New Philosophy of Religion, by William Kolbrener. See for more of his writing.

Historically the philosophy of religion has looked for causes and rational explanations for religious practices. This was the result of religion having adopted scientific and philosophical paradigms, and since science assumes an objective and quantifiable universe the methodology is to search for causes and rational explanations.

This was not good for religion because giving rational human explanations to divine law meant the standards came from outside the system. Jewish dietary laws were for “hygienic” reasons; Sabbath was for “social justice.” These reasons are simplistic and limiting and they don’t allow religion to operate with its own unique autonomous norms.

The humanists’ model wasn’t any better. While the scientists denied the importance of subjectivity, the humanists denied objectivity. Everything was a matter of subjective experience and intuition, and that means losing sight of the objective reality.

Kolbrener explains that Rav Soloveitchik in Halakhic Mind sought to find a true model for Jewish philosophy that would avoid the trap of each of these positions.

He found his answer in quantum physics. Scientists like Niels Bohr transformed scientific methodology when he demonstrated that the observer was part of the experimental frame. There was no such thing as purely objective data.

Taking from this model, Rav Soloveitchik said that we gain insight into objective norms through subjective meaning. There was a reciprocal relationship between the objective data and the subjective observer. In Jewish law that meant that the objective letter of the law, with subjective insight become an inner word, an insight into the soul.

This is particularly evident in the area of hok. (that area of Jewish law that is beyond our capacity to understand using our rational mind).

Causal relationships set up a necessary relationship. Once you’ve explained this is the reason, that’s it. Our relationship to hok is different. We can’t possibly know the reason. A good example of this is the shofar (ram’s horn blown on the Jewish new year). Is it just because people blow horns on various occasions or is it a “hint” as Maimonides calls it, calling us to repent? The second answer is not giving a necessary reason because there are other ways to repent. But if it’s a “hint” this puts a demand on us to continually search for the meaning.

Paradoxically, while the philosopher feels no obligation to interpret the halakha (Jewish law) the person who is bound to halakha can never free himself of that obligation. There is a constant demand upon the subject – for cognitive engagement and interpretation. The laws must be “interpreted in terms of their subjective meaningfulness to us even if their objective rationale eludes us.” The halakhic mind forgoes the passive rationalization of the traditional philosopher in favor of individual engagement and self-transformation.

In the same way, we can’t answer the why question when it comes to fate. Suffering remains an undeniable fact that we are challenged to engage with. We cannot philosophize it away. Suffering exists for no apparent reason. We cannot turn to scientific objective causal methodology to explain it.

On the other hand, we can ask what. As Kolbrener writes: “Every aspect of reality resounds with a call – a demand.” What Kolbrener does not mention is that this is exactly what Viktor Frankl posited in his existential psychotherapy called logotherapy. Asking why only keeps us passive and helpless in the face of it. Asking what brings us into an encounter with reality and a discernment of what it demands of us.

According to Kolbrener this is not merely a cognitive process but a process that ultimately transforms and elevates the individual from “object to subject.” What does it mean to be a subject? A subject engages with the objective reality in a dynamic, creative way.

The question that marks the search for causes is why. The question that marks personal engagement is what.

I want to add one more topic to the force of religious law and the force of reality that make up objectivity: the force of other people who are different from me.

The search for rational causes creates intolerance. There are two kinds of intolerant people – those who hate you for being different and those who pretend that you’re the same and that’s what allows them to tolerate you. Asking “Why?” makes us critical and judgmental and keeps barriers in place. Why are you doing it this way when that way is better? Why do you feel this way? Asking why erects a barrier between us. – I wouldn’t feel this way.

Tolerance is a movement from why to what. What is it like to be you? How does this situation feel to you? How do you see things? I can only ask what if I have a mind-set of engagement, with which I will say I love you because you are different. I may disagree and even think you’re wrong but I love you anyway. Cognizant of the fact that each individual has his or her place in the mosaic, I celebrate our difference! This transforms me into a subject – free, autonomous, and self-determining, or as Viktor Frankl says “a deciding being.”

Asking what instead of why takes us beyond the rational and takes down the barriers between ourselves and God, between ourselves and others, between ourselves and our “self.” The attitude of engagement that transforms a person committed to the law or the person facing a reality beyond his control or comprehension to a subject is the same attitude of engagement that transforms the person who is tolerant to a subject.

In short, asking why is not helpful and erects barriers. The attitude is: This is objective and therefore has nothing to do with me.

a) Jewish religious law and texts – Simplistic rational explanations, when divine law is beyond rational understanding

b) Realities of life – It leaves the person feeling helpless and hopeless, because now they understand why but they don’t have a clue how to deal with it

c) People with different perspectives – Intolerance

Asking what comes from and leads to engagement. The attitude is: This is a fact that is calling me, demanding that I discover its meaning through my subjectivity.

a) Jewish religious law and texts – A multitude of committed individuals yields creative discussion and a multitude of meaning

b) Realities of life – I hear its demand and my responsibility to do something creative with it

c) Others who have different perspectives – I engage in spite of and even because of the differences so that a creative exchange of ideas, standing up for values and loving appreciation takes place

Asking what bring subjective meaning into objective facts and brings me into fruitful engagement with life.

Batya Yaniger

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2 Responses to Objective encounters of a personal kind

  1. אסתר מלכה says:

    Wow! While I must admit to not having read the book you are discussing here, your equation of the “why?” of intolerance and the “why?” of a chok was eye-opening for me. Having been brought up religiously observant I totally understand the not-needing-a-reason-why about the chukim we are commanded to do, and at the same time have of course learned many and varied reasons as proposed by traditional commentators. Applying this reasoning to my perception of other people and their way of thinking/doing which is diffent then mine, but still requires that I interact or relate to them is an amazing idea.

  2. logogroup says:

    You see, both in chok and in another person there’s a mystery there, a depth I can never possibly get to. Thinking the person is this way for one reason or another is not my job because I can’t really get to the answer and whatever partial answer I can come up with won’t be helpful to our relationship. I can have compassion because of it but I can’t say now I understand everything and the understanding makes what they’re doing all okay. My job is to relate to them in their other-ness, in whatever language they understand and find that place inside myself that connects to them, just as I need to find that place in myself that connects to God’s mysterious laws.

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