Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sapere Aude? Existimare Aude! (Derashah, Rosh HaShanah 5774)

About two weeks ago, I received a long email from a yeshiva-educated man from a Modern Orthodox community. In the last ten years, he wrote, a friend had worked to undermine his belief in Judaism – and had succeeded.

The man described how he had sought answers to his friend's challenges, studying Jewish sources as well as secular science, history and philosophy. He sincerely wished he could believe, find meaning in Judaism, and re-join the world of observance and its lifestyle. His problem, which he eloquently articulated in the most vivid terms, is that he no longer finds Judaism, its claims regarding the authenticity and transmission of Torah, the age of the earth, and so on, intellectually credible. [I would quote his email here rather than rely on this shallow summary, but I would not want to endanger his privacy.]

This young man read a blog post I published a few years ago on the challenges of faith, and it brought him to email me, looking for advice. I won't go into my response here – as I write this derashah, our dialogue is on-going – but I think his situation has a lot to teach us about the purpose of the shofar.

2100 years ago, the Roman poet Horace coined the Latin phrase, sapere aude. It means "Dare to be wise", or "Dare to know". For centuries leading up to his day, there was a movement to know for one's self, to cease trusting received wisdom and instead dare to figure things out.[1] Like Avraham rebelling against the idolatrous received wisdom of his day, להבדיל אלף הבדלות, along came Anaximander, Pythagoras, Socrates, Aristotle, Epicurus, with their own explorations. These were the famous Greek philosophers, and they lived by the belief that the human mind, working hard enough, will be able to solve every mystery and uncover every truth. Don't trust – dare to know.

Fast-forward to 17th, 18th century Europe - skipping important history in the interest of time - and we find the Age of Enlightenment, founded on that same slogan of sapere aude. Spinoza. Voltaire. Kant. These men of letters taught that human beings needed to grow up and stop believing things simply because others had said them. Dare to figure it out for yourself! And they gave us modern science, modern philosophy, modern politics, modern university, the modern mind itself.

Our sages' response to each of these two groups was identical: Stay away from them. By and large, the earlier generation banned the study of Greek philosophy, and the later generation banned attendance at enlightened universities. Not because the Sages ignored the mishnah of דע מה שתשיב, that one must know how to respond to heresy. Not because they could formulate no responses to particular claims made by Greek and Enlightenment philosophers. Rather, it was because they saw a threat in accepting the premise that underlay the concepts those philosophers proposed: The idea that the human mind can fathom everything.

In truth, our sages were not the only ones to reject the Enlightenment-era primacy of the brain; it's not the 18th century anymore, folks. The Enlightenment ended as philosophers came to embrace other isms, and as history proved the bankruptcy of ideologies that emphasize the dominance of the "civilized" mind.

But to return to Judaism, and the reaction of our sages:
Even though Judaism survives on the intellectualism of Torah study,
Even though the Rambam contended that intellectual growth is the true barometer of a Jew's closeness to Gd,
Even though we have the ability and obligation to deduce and comprehend great intellectual truths,
Nonetheless, our sages saw great danger in the confident assertion that we can all "dare to know" everything. [2]

Our sages believed that emphasizing supremacy of the mind would lead to a hegemony of intellectualism, and when intellectualism would come up with ideas that denied religion, Jewish intellectuals would leave Judaism in droves, without cause. Seeing dinosaur fossils and textual anomalies in the Torah does lead to certain conclusions, but those conclusions may not be correct. As anyone who has ever worked with someone smarter than him can attest, our answers, however well-researched and thought-out, are not always right.

The legitimacy of intellectualism is limited by the intellect itself.

What, then, does Judaism propose in place of "dare to know"? Existimare aude, dare to feel. Dare to use your heart – because in moments of great feeling, our more Vulcan side is dampened, and we can hear what our soul is saying. At times of our hearts' sincere emotion and passion, with patient contemplation, as Rav Klonymus Kalman Schapira wrote a century ago in his בני מחשבה טובה,[3] the drumbeat of the dominant intellect is drowned out by the heart, and we are awakened to the messages of our souls.

Our souls declare that we were created by Gd and placed here with a Divine mission. That we are immortal and pure. That the world does not begin and end with that which the intellect can grasp; there is a greater depth and dimension than the mind can fathom.

We can achieve this sensitivity with experiences that inflame the heart with authentic emotion. A waterfall cascading from a mountainside after a long hike. A baby's laugh. A beautiful poem, a concerto, a rock anthem, a subtle painting. An athletic performance. A meaningful book.

So it is that Judaism is structured with an emphasis not only on the intellect, but also, as a complement, on experience.
  • We recite Maggid, but we also lean and drink wine and play-act at the Seder.
  • We read the megillah, but we also have a feast and give out celebratory gifts.
  • We say shemoneh esreih, but we also stand at attention and speak in a whisper.
  • We say על חטא and think of our sins, but we also strike our heart.

These moments of the heart do  not prove anything about Gd or Torah. None of these moments have anything to say, intellectually, at all. But at these times, our radical, splendid faith shines forth. The brain is exposed for the pallid gray calculator it is, while the soul reigns triumphant.

I should be careful to make this clear: We do not seek to flee from the world of the mind, but to balance it; Intellect must work in tandem with Heart.[4] For all of our Jewish emphasis on the intellect and its calculation, our faith is known only in the soul, and comprehending it happens when we arouse the heart.

Which brings me to shofar, because it wasn't until I received this email that I truly understood the role of shofar in our musaf amidah. For decades I have been troubled: Our musaf features a berachah called Malchiyos which talks about the grandeur of Gd and accepts Him as our King. It then features a berachah called Zichronos which talks about Gd remembering our merits in His judgment. Both of those have simple, clear themes. But then we arrive at Shofaros, and that's just a list of disjoint verses about shofar blasts! Where is the message?

Even the machzor itself seems confused – For malchiyos we have two whole introductory paragraphs spelling out the theme of Divine monarchy, for zichronos we have three paragraphs on Divine judgment, and then for shofaros we get just 3.5 sentences saying that there was a shofar at Sinai and people trembled. Doesn't the machzor have a message for shofaros?

The answer, perhaps, is that shofaros offers a different kind of message, which isn't conveyed by verbal exposition. It's not an intellectual message about a relationship with Gd or a day of judgment. Rather, shofaros is an experience. The point of shofaros is that there was a shofar and people trembled. גם כל העולם כלו חל מפניך! The whole world shook! The point of shofar is the moment when we are taken aback by a mighty blast, when our hearts stir even if we know the sound is coming, when our hearts are caught up and we suddenly feel.

Look at the pesukim of shofaros: ויחרד כל העם אשר במחנה, the entire nation in the camp trembled! ויהי קול השופר הולך וחזק מאד, the shofar's voice was very mighty! וירא העם וינעו, the nation saw and shuddered! And it continues with the shofar of song and celebration and redemption and war! The shofar is the answer to my email correspondent, the shofar dares to challenge the modern hegemony of sapere aude with its own cry of existimare aude! Don't devote yourself entirely to intellectual debate and proofs and rebuttals; there is a deeper truth to be found, but you need to awaken yourself to an entirely different type of knowledge.

Intellect is very important for us, as Jews and human beings. We are meant to use our minds, and to explore. Nonetheless, I believe that if the Jewish community is to survive in a world of universities and scientific achievement, a world which declares that all exists in the province of the mind, then the Jewish community must do one of two things: Either it must completely shut out the world of science and philosophy and take its chances on self-sustenance, or it must teach its children to listen to the shofar, to stir their hearts with experiences of passion and beauty, and to listen to their souls in those moments of emotion and hear what they have to say.

We are about to blow the shofar. In a few moments, I will make the announcements that I make every year, about not interrupting with speech because of our halachic obligation to hear the shofar. This year, though, I would like to change that announcement. Don't interrupt – but not only because of the technical issue of hefsek. Rather, don't interrupt because this is a time to listen with our hearts and to dare to be moved.

This is our chance. I pray that my email correspondent is having the same chance today. This is our opportunity to transcend sapere aude, and to choose existimare aude, and so to come to credere aude – to transcend "dare to know", to choose "dare to feel", and so to come to dare to believe.

[1] This isn't necessarily what Horace had in mind with that line, in context, but his words were adopted as a slogan for the Enlightenment movement
[2] Cf. Ben Sira – במופלא ממך אל תדרוש, cited approvingly in the second perek of Chagigah
[3] בני מחשבה טובה, סדר אמצעי ויסוד החברה יא
[4] Cf Wendell Berry, Getting Along with Nature, and the balance of nature and human artifice


  1. A potent and heart-rending composition. May the anonymous emailer find his way to true enlightenment and may those who have not yet mustered up the fortitude to address there challenges find there way back to the source of eternity.

  2. You might find this of interest
    Rabbi Jesse Horn-The Rambam, Reb Chaim, and Pascal: Why People Commit When They Have No Proof

    Joel Rich

  3. Baruch shekivanti, I had similar thoughts myself recently. The balance, intellect with emotion, is important.

    Shana tova!

  4. Anonymous 10:02 AM-
    Thank you. I am reluctant to adopt a term like "true enlightenment" for anything I espouse, but I second the tefillah.

    Joel, Daniel -

  5. I think we have justification for our beliefs, it just happens to be of a different (and as per the Kuzari, superior) alternative to the concept of proof:
    Aspaqlaria: So, Should I Believe?

    Please read what I wrote there rather than reply based on guesses about the ironically misnamed "Kuzari Proof".

  6. R' Micha-
    I wouldn't presume to respond without reading what you wrote!
    In any case: Having read your piece, which I enjoyed, I have one question: What would you say to someone who asserted that he had learned and practiced kahalachah for decades, and had not had the same justifying experience that you describe?

  7. That's the problem with religious experience. Two people who look at the same sunset likely see the same thing. But so much has to be set up identically in order for two people to have the comparable religious experiences...

    It's like the Rambam says on "Ratzah HQBH lezakos es Yisrael -- HQBH wanted to provide merit for Israel, therefore He gave them a lot of mitzvos." We can do mitzvos for years and only get a glimpse of something beyond once or twice -- and that alone is enough to merit the World to Come.

    Of course, that doesn't help the person who grew impatient. Unfortunately, I don't think anything will convince someone who is disenchanted -- proofs also require that their givens are self-evident to the person studying them. However, if the person at least knows to hunt his memory for those few "flashes of lightning" in the past, rather than await a compelling proof, I think they're more likely to find satisfaction.

  8. RMT, it wasn't you I was afraid of presuming my reply.

    And while I'm writing a personal note, all my berakhos for a shanah tovah umsuqah -- a year that not only is enriched with Divine Good, but may that Good be presented in a way you and yours can easily enjoy!

  9. Yasher Koach! As to your main point, that there is a limit to knowledge, and that there is a place for experience in telling us what is true, I could not agree with you more, though I do quibble with some of your conclusions. Judaism also says "dare to know" - or else, as you wrote, Avraham would have never reached the level he did. As an example: see Rambam's response to those who objected to the fact that he did not cite sources in Mishneh Torah, where he says that the reason he does not cite his sources in Mishneh Torah is that citing an authority doesn't prove they're right; the logic of that authority does! And as to your claim that Hazal disallowed Greek philosophy - this is not at all clear: http://seforim.blogspot.com/2011/12/how-much-greek-in-greek-wisdom-on.html.

    Gemar Hatimah Tovah to all!

    1. We certainly both agree that Judaism says "dare to know" - but it also says there will be limits.

      Re: Krakowski - It's an interesting approach, but I don't find it compelling.

    2. Yes, we both agree on the epistemological point that knowledge has limits. I'm not convinced that science remains as extreme as Spinoza was on that point, though. My main issue was with over-reliance on emotion. Just because you feel it doesn't mean it's true. Knowledge gained from feeling has its place but also has limits. If someone has issues with the transmission of the Torah, then those need to be dealt with. Rambam, Rihal, Rasag and R. Yosef Albo did not rely on emotion to calm people's philosophical issues.

    3. Hi Joseph,
      Based on your note, and a Facebook note I read, I think I need to write a follow-up post. I definitely did not mean that feeling something means it's authentic. Rather, I mean that when passions are strong, the intellect is put into the backseat, and one can be more open to what one's soul [not heart] is saying.

      I need a clearer way to express this.

    4. I don't think you meant it quite in that way either, and I actually agree (as I wrote) that certain kinds of emotions point the way to truth, but the way the post was written it seemed that those emotions would be enough to quiet serious intellectual doubts. I understand the distinction between soul and heart, thought in practice that is hard to tell. Partly for that reason, I think the use of the intellect in order to critically analyze a person's own emotions and thoughts on a logical and ethical level is a major part of being able to distinguish raw emotion from what the soul is saying.

  10. You're right about shofros. The Gemara already says "ubame? Bishofros." Shofar blasts were heard at Har Sinai, and also sometimes for coronation of kings.

  11. When I was a boy I went to Reform synagogue. The shofar blower was a professional trumpet player with a massive shofar. He blew it right into the loudspeaker system - the sound was deafening. You could FEEL the blasts shake the room. Now I'm frum, and there's no loudspeaker, no professional horn blower, but I've never forgotten that awesome sound - a sound that could wake the soundest of slumberers.

    Some things can only be experienced. They can't be explained.

  12. One of the most damaging things you can say to an intellectual Jew (I'm one) is "you MUST believe X or you are not a Jew". It's not so. Even withing the Orthodox world, there are always other rabbis with other opinions. You can still be Jewish.

    I have many of the same questions and doubts your friend has, but I have not dropped out. I believe in evolution. I believe the Grand Canyon looks millions of years old because it's millions of years old. I don't really believe the flood occurred, even though it's in the Chumash. I do not believe that the chachamim (or today's Gedolim) are infallible. Nonetheless, I still study my Talmud and I daven with a minyan every day. I'm still shomer mitzvot. I am still a devout Jew.

    Maybe someday I will reconcile my conflicting beliefs, but I doubt it. You have to have humility, to realize that you might never figure it all out. Stay on the derech.

    1. But none of your examples are defining attributes of Orthodoxy. (For that matter, belief in a young earth is not even an "accidental" attribute of Orthodoxy -- many Orthodox primary sources don't teach it.)

      Someone questioning the revelation at Sinai or that the text of the Torah was dictated by G-d, OTOH, is questioning a belief I would consider a defining feature of Orthodoxy. Our halachic process can stand without a belief syste, that says that textual abnormality reflect the Message, not the history of its revelation. Never mind debating the 13 Articles of Faith.

      Nothing you wrote about, not even questioning the flood, shake the justification for keeping mitzvos. Questioning the origin of those mitzvos, though...

      I don't think someone who questions that there is a Creator or the traditional belief about the Torah's origin believes Orthodox Judaism. But that doesn't mean he isn't a Jew (which is how you phrased it) or even that he should be excluded from the Orthodox community.

      About your closing paragraph:
      R' JB Soloveitchik often spoke of dialectics. In common English, what that means is that many questions exist to have two sides that we grapple with, rather than existing to be answered. Real religion is more about giving us a productive set of questions than about giving us quick-and-easy answers. That grapppling, the process of exploration, is what life is for!

    2. I tend to agree, Fenster. So much of life is about humility. [I wish I had more...]

  13. This drasha reminds me of something I believe is quoted in the name of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. The high holidays, including Sukkot, reflect three values:

    Rosh Hashana - intellect (Rosh)
    Yom Kippur - emotion (beating the heart)
    Sukkot - behaviour (sitting in the sukka)

    Behaviour without emotion is mechanical, behaviour without intellect is literally mindless and either intellect or emotion (or both) without action will not last.

  14. Steg (dos iz nit der šteg)October 4, 2013 at 5:48 PM

    I'm really suprised that you would include dinosaurs, age of the universe, etc scientific issues as things that can destroy belief in Judaism. Reading Bereishis exclusively literally is not a Jewish dogma by which faith should survive or fall... it's not a dogma at all.

    1. Steg-
      It was pulled from the original email I received.

    2. Steg,

      While there are certainly Orthodox precedents for reading parts of Bereshit allegorically (I do so myself), in my experience things like the age of the earth, the existence of dinosaurs and so on do indeed lead to doubts among some Modern/Centrist Orthodox people, whether because they lack the knowledge or study skills to look at the texts that support allegorical readings or because they see difficult follow-up questions to allegorical readings e.g. if we can read the flood allegorically, why not read the giving of the Torah allegorically or even the mitzvot themselves?

    3. I think the discussion is distorted. It's not that one can justify believing an old universe within in Jewish Tradition. It's the reverse... find me a rishon who actually asserted a 6,000 yr old one.

      If people who feels threatened by these things, it's the post-reformation distortion of Jewish Tradition that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

  15. Well written.

    I don’t understand however how you can view the Enlightenment as anything but a pure positive. Before the Enlightenment we had pogroms, inquisitions, and crusades. That’s what happens when “feelings” hold sway. A lot of people felt the Jews should convert or die. Those kinds of feelings we can do without.

    Also, the Enlightenment taught us to put aside feelings so that we could develop an appreciation for “self evident” truths. That people had rights. That blacks, Jews, women, the elderly, children, the handicapped, etc. were to be accorded the same dignity and rights and protections as anyone else. It was the Age of Reason and its results have been staggering and positive.

    Thanks to the Enlightenment we developed Natural Rights, the Bill of Rights, human rights, equality under the law.

    I don’t see how you can turn your nose up at all the good the Enlightenment did. We’d probably be dead without it.

    What I do know is that inspiration and indoctrination (the bailiwick of fundamentalist religions) feels great. It’s great to know the truth.

    And I know that education – what you discuss in your piece as a danger the rabbis saw – is often a bummer and a downer. It can’t really hold a candle to being inspired, indoctrinated.

    But we see the problems: The communists in the Soviet Union were indoctrinated and very inspired. They said “communism is obviously superior and the truth, and the West is decadent and classist and materialistic.” Only to keep the feeling going – you could never travel abroad to see for yourself. And you couldn’t evaluate what they said because no outside newspapers, tv, radio or books were allowed. And if you thought differently you could be sent to a forced labor camp for your views.

    You see the problem with the orthodox approach? It can’t tolerate or afford open inquiry. It is the “ultimate truth,” but it can’t afford a sustained, unflinching dialogue with outside voices. It quite literally has to hide from encounters with reason.

    And compare it to the secular world: you can read and learn and argue. You can learn all about communism or go to business school and learn all about capitalism. You can walk in to a bookstore and read anything and everything – and we have an explosion of media that represent all viewpoints.

    Which is more ideal? Which is more self-confident? Imagine if you were a serious communist for a moment – would you feel comfortable in a system like that of the Soviet Union – where people couldn’t be “trusted” to travel abroad and draw their own conclusions?

    The walls around orthodox Judaism are super high. Doesn’t something about that just not sit right with you?


    1. Tuvia-

      Thanks for your thoughtful words.

      I would never deny the good the Enlightenment provided, and continues to provide. From a purely parochial standpoint, the fact that Jews are not in danger of expulsion from the United States for heresy is a direct consequence of the Enlightenment. And from a broader perspective, as I noted in my post, the Enlightenment deserves credit for shaping the institutions of modernity.

      Having said that, I don't believe the question is whether the Enlightenment was/is valuable. Rather, to me, the question is whether it has a downside. And like major advances in general, it does have a pitfall - in this case, an extreme arrogance. That doesn't mean that the alternatives are perfect, but ought we not to point out the flaws in the gem, particularly to the potential consumer?

  16. One more thing:

    I think it is a straw man to say the secular or non-Jewish world thinks it can know everything through reason. There are still eternal questions. And there are certainly still debates and subjects that don’t lend themselves to any final answer. The Enlightenment is more than the hard sciences.

    I think actually this is a strange way to describe the modern world. In fact, it is religion that claims ultimate knowledge and answers.

    Orthodox Judaism is in a sense unreasonable people telling reasonable people that they are wrong.

    And it is this very stance that creates the basis for the relatively unhealthy aspects of communal life of ultra orthodox Judaism. As an example I think of metzitzah bal peh – which is no longer reasonable according to science, but which remains an ultimate value for the ultra orthodox (who are standing proudly on the square marked “unreasonable” on this and other concerns.)

    It is the unreasonable dictating rules to the reasonable that accounts for the intellectual/enlightened/secular Jew’s move away from orthodoxy (and even Judaism.)



    1. Hello Tuvia,

      Again, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      In the case of Judaism, I would tend to disagree with the observation that religion claims "ultimate knowledge and answers," unless one would count "I cannot fathom that" as an ultimate answer. This response has been a central theme in Jewish thought since the days of הראני נא את כבודך and the book of Iyov.

      As far as the secular world thinking it knows all - I don't think that the world of the hard [and soft] sciences claims to know everything, but I do think it claims that everything is knowable, a claim that Judaism does not make.