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.


  1. The goal in a relationship is to have a strong relationship; constantly reassessing if this is the right person to be in a relationship with undermines this.

    If religion is about having a relationship with another Being based on how a certain religion perceives that Being, reassign whether the Being even exists will similarly undermine the relationship.

    On the other hand, if truly searching for the truth is the goal, or, to be more specific, to more fully understand the nature of the Being is the goal, so that the relationship is with a real Being, not just a reflection of what we want it to be, one cannot close off legitimate avenues of discovery.

    This is the disconnect with many of our "internal" conversations, with those whose goal is just on the relationship speaking past those who are trying to find the truth (and vice versa).

    1. If some answers are off-limits, is the search worthwhile?

    2. The Rav spoke all the time about "dialectics". In normal English, that often - usually - the dialog along the way is the point of the question, more so than the answer. Otherwise, why theology? Most questions anout G-d have an easy amswer: "We can't know or even in theory understand." But we shouldn't ignore the question; the question itself is the locis of value.

      That said, if some answers are off limits in the mind but mot the heart, such questions cam be dangerous.


    I open: A basic problem when approaching Jewish philosophy is the appropriateness of studying it altogether. As Prof. Sholom Carmy wrote ...