Warranted Assertability: Thinking In Jewish IV
Yesterday I was listening to a video made by the Chabad Lubovich dealing with the long-time metaphysical question: Is the existential (material) world real? This question is embedded in the notion that there exists either a material world or a spiritual world, one or the other but not both. The claim being made by Yanki Tauber, the authority on the video, made an argument that was strangely postmodern in its methodology and scope but failed on the evidence relied upon to make the argument in the first place. That he relied on evidence that, at best, could be considered self-serving, helps make his case to those who already believe that the evidence is, at its core, true and must be accepted without question but it fails to convince those of us willing to question the validity of such evidence based on the idea that the assertions made are not warranted.
What do I mean by warranted assertability? The term is a construction first identified by the Pragmatist and philosopher of education, John Dewey. What Dewey argued was, in a nutshell, that many people make all kinds of assertions about what is or is not true. Think of all the assertions made about the recent debacle of the Mayan Apocalypse; so many assertions were made by so many people, all of which proved to be untrue. On the other hand, scientists and astrophysicists, when asked about the possibility of the world ending were in agreement that the Mayan Apocalypse was simply poppycock, that there was not one scintilla of verifiable evidence to support such a claim and were universal in their dismissal of those who made unwarranted assertions. For Dewey, the only valid assertions that are made are those in which verifiable evidence is rigorously examined to ferret out flaws and only when there is a general consensus about the veracity of that evidence; only then can one be said to make a warranted assertion. This not to say that warranted assertions are permanent solutions. New evidence requires new analysis. When it fits the prevailing model, it is included within that model as an extension but when it contradicts the prevailing model, that model must be reexamined in its entirety and a new model emerges from the new data.
Listening to Yanki Tauber, the first place he turned to was the book of Deuteronomy in which Moses, in his final sermon to the Israelites says, not once but twice, “There is nothing other than God.” If this statement is true, then the material world, according to Tauber, is a lie because there can be nothing else in the universe other than God. Yet, here we are. There can be no doubt that we live in a material world. What, then, is the material world? Is it a reflection of the spirituality of God in material form or is the material world here so that human beings may discover spirituality for themselves? A big mystery, yes? Tauber continues by referencing the writings of the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Lubovich in the 18th century, proceeding to closely read several of the Alter Rebbe’s writings that address the problem of the existential world. I don’t want to engage in an analysis of Tauber’s continuing argument, one I found quite interesting; my quibble is with one piece of evidence that Tauber relies on to make his argument which, I believe, is an unwarranted assertion and, therefore, the entire argument fails.
That piece of evidence is contained in his first assertion, that there is nothing other than God. Here is the problem. Tauber, like all other Orthodox Jews, believes that the Torah is the revealed word of God whose authorship cannot be questioned. Using such a source as evidence, however, becomes problematic in the face of scholarship focusing on biblical authorship since the middle of the 18th century, beginning with Spinoza. Such scholarship includes linguistic analysis, literary analysis including the analysis of mythology preceding the collection of stories contained in the Five Books of Moses, analysis of contradictions contained within the text and comparison to recently discovered textual material such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. In addition, biblical text doesn’t necessarily line up with the archeological record of neighbors such as the ancient record of Egypt or Mesopotamia. Taken as a whole, it seems clear that the Torah was composed by men (Bloom suggests that it was composed by a woman in the court of King Solomon and/or King Rehoboam of Judah, his successor, he calls simply ‘J.’ While admitting to the speculative nature of his conclusions, his analysis falls clearly within the bounds of literary scholarship thereby carrying some weight). The Torah and the remainder of the authoritative Jewish Bible which includes the Prophets and other writings, was, on this view, redacted over time from the 10th century BCE to the end of the 4th century BCE. While the Torah remains the most important text for Jews, it is not the revelation that is claimed by the Rabbis of the Mishnah. As an article of faith, Orthodox Jews accept the first Mishnah found in the Pirkei Avot / The Ethics of the Fathers (the only book of Talmud that has no Gemara as commentary) which reads:
Moses received the Torah form God Who revealed Himself at Mount Sinai and conveyed it to Joshua; Joshua conveyed it to the Elders; the Elders conveyed it to the Prophets; and the Prophets conveyed it to the Men of the Great Assembly…
These words were written by one member of the Great Assembly, Judah the Prince, who decided for the sake of continuity that the oral tradition or oral Torah should be written and accessible to all who come to study. What interest me is that the entire thought is self-serving, proclaiming that those in charge are rightfully in charge because of the sequence of conveyance from Sinai to the present day of the Torah, the Prophets, the other writings through and including the Mishnah and the commentary that follows. No, this is not evidence, rather it is self-indulgent language designed to eliminate the competition and is, therefore, unreliable.
All that being said, the mere fact that Tauber relies on a specific idea that there is nothing outside of God, does not reduce the remainder of his argument as he analyzes textual material that comments on the very idea of the existential world and the potential for the underlying reality. Tauber reads this material closely, pointing out both the development of the Alter Rebbe’s argument over time but also responds to the contradictions contained within that argument. This work, while still turning on the original text from Torah, is far more relevant and, in fact, far more postmodern that even Tauber realizes. Close reading and analysis of textual material, whether inside of a context or outside of the generally accepted context is exciting and certainly peaked my interest. In the end, Tauber draws spiritual conclusions (he is after all a rabbi) based on an existential pursuit of an ethical life; an idea that draws us closer to a spiritual life. God himself needs the material world so that his ethical demands be met by otherwise than God.
This analysis is not substantially different that the analysis that Levinas puts forth in Totality and Infinity and other works. Levinas insists that the existential world, the material world, the world in which we share as sentient beings, creates conditions wherein human beings seek an understanding of the Absolute Other, the ineffable infinity that is nothing but a mystery. That the Absolute Other is reflected in face-to-face connections with the uniqueness of the specific other (human being) if, and only if, that connection is mutually made without reservations and without expectation of reciprocation. It is in the embracing of the uniqueness of the other that one sees mirrored the face of the Absolute Other. This is another way of saying that the existential world holds the potential for understanding a simulacrum of the world of the Absolute Other (a spiritual world if you will)
The former is achieved using a methodology mirrored in Jewish Texts while the latter is achieved using the tools of Western philosophy. Since I understand the tools of philosophy I am attempting to explore the very intricate methodology Jewish thought. I believe that knowing both will make me a better thinker if only because I’ll have two distinct approaches to tackle the same problems.