Thursday, March 19, 2015
The Golden Glow- Does philosophy help our Avodas HaShem?
I can’t deny the irony of what I am about to write. For many years I have been studying Jewish philosophy, and this focus has only increased over the past two years. Piles of philosophy books cover my night table, as I continue to try and make sense of things. Still, I keep on thinking about a chance meeting I had in Tzfat this past summer.
I didn’t know this rabbi well, but when I first met him 17 years earlier, he had a Jewish outlook quite similar to my current approach. He had learned at YU and Gush and was a serious thinker. Somehow, since that time he and his wife had moved to Tzfat and become Breslover chassidim. For many outsiders, Breslov brings to mind dancing Na-Nachs, but this rabbi was anything but that. He wore a long gold bekkishe, and had a streimel on his head, and, at the risk of sounding a bit like I drank the Tzfat kool-aid that Shabbos, he also had a look of contentment on his that one rarely sees. As we talked, I asked about what brought about the change. We also discussed some of my own evolution and questions. He told me how one day, he had taken all of his philosophy books, brought them to a used bookstore in Yerushalayim, and traded them all for one of Rav Nachman’s sefarim. I was fascinated by our discussion, and have thought about it from time to time.
I’ve long wondered about the prohibition that Judaism places on studying texts that challenge Jewish beliefs. I’ve heard people ask why a religion that believes in truth would prohibit one from trying to discover it. Still, having studied Kant, and seen where modern and post-modern philosophy have gone, I wonder how much philosophy is really about trying to discover truth. If anything, the conclusion that has been reached is that we, as humans, can never know if we have found the truth. So now what?
For those of us who, despite all challenges, have decided to live a religious life, we might be wise to study the words found in Avos where we are told to weigh the gain of doing a sin versus the cost. I do not mean to imply that the study of philosophy is (inherently?) sinful. Rather a cheshbon is needed. Just as a person who is married would be wise to strengthen his marriage rather than thinking about the other choices he might have made, as we study philosophy, are we not, on some level doing the same thing? Might we not be weakening our belief system?
It is here that I come back to the irony, because even as I ask these questions, and even as I recognize that I daven best, when I philosophize less, I plan on continuing to work my way through those piles of books. Still, as I do so, I might wonder from time to time whether I am bringing myself closer to or farther from my goal.