Brian Klug is a Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford and a member of the philosophy faculty at Oxford University. Many years ago he attended Hasmonean and after the Jacobs crisis his family switched congregations from the New West End Synagogue to the New London synagogue to follow Jacobs.
Nevertheless, Klug rejects Jacobs as having his wires crossed for asking what: Do we have Reason to Believe? Reason and belief are two separate categories. Alternately, scientific belief is based on evidence and religious belief is based on the role it has in my life. (This approach of two separate realms used to be fairly common in Orthodox circles, see the followers of Rabbi Isaac Breuer, or more recently Rabbis Sol Roth or Prof Shalom Rosenberg.)
The evidence based fields of science and history have nothing in common with an affirmation of faith. The problem of the fundamentalist is not that he won’t use modern science to understand sacred texts but that they think the texts are scientific and offer scientific truth. In Klug’s approach based on Wittgenstein, religious statements are entirely outside the realm of evidence. (There are grey cases beyond the scope of this paper. Klug’s approach should not be confused with the Wittgenstein Fideism of thinkers such as D. Z. Phillips. For those seeking introductions to the topic see here and here.)
Is Torah from Heaven like crediting God with the naturalistic production of bread in hamotzei or is it like the miraculous manna? Do we focus on the “from” in the phrase and try and figure out a more naturalistic process of the Divine entering the human, or do we focus on “heaven” and ask what Heaven means in our lives?
GRAMMAR FROM HEAVEN: THE LANGUAGE OF REVELATION IN LIGHT OF WITTGENSTEIN (Selected paragraphs from paper)
Brian Klug St Benet’s Hall Oxford
The Section Heading are not in the Original and were added to aid in mobile reading.
Reason and Belief –Empirical questions or grandeur and power
But when [Jacobs] avers that “belief in God is entirely reasonable”, I feel as if wires are being crossed. ‘Reasonable’ and ‘belief in God’ are not, for me, phrases that can be uttered in the same breath. If it were a matter of reasonableness, then belief in God would be hostage to ‘the facts’; for what appears reasonable at one time can seem unreasonable at another in the light of new information. It would be like believing that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. Given our current state of knowledge, rational people disagree about this: some find the idea plausible, some think it is ridiculous and some suspend judgment. If one day a space probe discovered a washing machine on another planet, then the question would have to be revisited. And if belief in God were on the same footing it would, as it were, extinguish the fire of belief. (Instead of fire, belief would be like a pair of scales, for reasonableness is about the balance of probabilities.) By the same token, if belief in revelation – in the doctrine of Torah from heaven – is held to be merely ‘reasonable’, then eo ipso it loses its grandeur and does not retain its ‘ancient vigour and power’.
I am with Jacobs completely when he says boldly: “We refuse to accept that the only choice before us is the stark one of either rejecting all modern knowledge and scholarship or rejecting belief. We believe that we can have both.” But on what terms? What are the terms of this accommodation?
If Torah had this ‘meaning and resonance’ for [Jacobs], it implies that the doctrine retained its grandeur, its ‘ancient vigour and power’, for him too. In which case the question becomes this: Does his own solution to his own conundrum – his reinterpretation of the doctrine – possess these qualities of grandeur, vigour and power? I am not convinced that it can. Not that I speak as a ‘fundamentalist’ – as someone with a ‘pre-scientific attitude’.
Location of the Solution
[Louis] Jacobs’ solution is to reinterpret the preposition: he homes in on the ‘min’ or ‘from’: “In the light of modern knowledge,” he says, “the ‘from’ in the doctrine that the Torah is from Heaven … has to be understood in terms of divine-human co-operation”. Citing the late American Jewish scholar Jakob Petuchowski, he draws a parallel with hamotzi, the blessing over bread: when we say that God ‘brings forth bread from the earth’, we do not mean “that God brings bread ready-made or ready-sliced from the ground, but that He does so through the labours of the farmers, the bakers, and the distributors”. Similarly, to say that Torah is from Heaven is to say that God reveals himself through the labours of the prophets, the rabbis and the Jewish people as a whole. In short: “The Torah is still God-given if the ‘giving’ is seen to take place through the historical experiences of the Jewish people in its long quest for God.”
If [many focus on] on ‘Torah’ and Jacobs on ‘from’, it is ‘heaven’ that catches my ear. What does it mean to attribute a book or text to heaven? What sense does it make? What difference does it make to the status of a piece of writing on earth when we ascribe it to heaven? Of course, to put the question this way is already to have in hand a distinction between heaven and earth. It therefore presupposes another question: How does the word ‘heavenly’ inflect the word ‘earthly’? What does it do to our sense of the mundane when we see the world as sublunary? For suddenly our whole point of view has changed. Wittgenstein touches on this change of point of view when he reflects on the difficulty he has in believing in the resurrection of Christ. “I cannot call him Lord,” he says. Why not? Because, he says, “I do not believe that he will come to judge me; because that says nothing to me”. Then what would it take to enable him to believe in the resurrection? His answer is complex but I shall cut to the quick. “[T]his can only come about,” he says, “if you no longer support yourself on this earth but suspend yourself from heaven. Then everything is changed and it is ‘no wonder’ if you can then do what now you cannot do”.
It might seem paradoxical to refer to the resurrection of Christ at a seminar in Jewish Studies and in the context of a discussion of Torah min HaShamayim. But Wittgenstein’s reflection is as good an entrée as I can think of to the body of my paper. For what I would like to suggest, in a similar vein to Wittgenstein, is this: everything is changed when you see Torah not as the product of earth but of heaven. And this is where or why the analogy with hamotzi breaks down. It is one thing for bread to be brought forth from the earth, another for Torah to be given from heaven. The shift of location changes everything; and this change is as great as the difference between a merely reasonable belief and a belief that possesses the grandeur, the vigour and the power required for ‘a basic article of Jewish faith’.
What is Belief? What is the Difference between Scientific and Religious Belief?
Take the word ‘belief’. Belief in Torah from heaven is a belief. So is belief in the ‘big bang’. But does ‘belief’ operate in the same way in both cases? (Are the language games the same?) “In a religious discourse,” said Wittgenstein in the first of three lectures on religious belief that he gave in 1938, “we use such expressions as: ‘I believe that so and so will happen,’ and use them differently to the way in which we use them in science.” The example he discusses is belief in the Last Judgment:
Suppose, for instance, we knew people who foresaw the future; make forecasts for years and years ahead; and they described some sort of a Judgement Day. Queerly enough, even if there were such a thing, and even if it were more convincing than I have described, belief in this happening wouldn’t be at all a religious belief.
Similarly, suppose Apple invented an electronic device for ‘post-seeing’ the past, giving access to events that took place years and years ago… And suppose someone using this device sets the dial for the 6th of Sivan in the year 2448 from the day of creation (1313 BCE), seven weeks after the Children of Israel left Egypt.
On the monitor of this device, after a degree of crackling that sounds like thunder and looks like lightening, a scene comes into focus of an entire people gathered at the base of a mountain in the wilderness of Sinai. A dark cloud sits on the summit and a booming voice can be heard from on high, enunciating commandments. Strangely enough (Wittgenstein would say), even if there were such a device, and even if the images on the screen were more convincing than I have described, belief in this epiphany – belief that Torah was given from heaven – would not be a religious belief.
Then what makes a belief religious? “It appears to me,” wrote Wittgenstein in 1947, “as though a religious belief could only be something like passionately committing oneself to a system of coordinates. Hence, although it’s belief, it is really a way of living, or a way of judging life.” The point is that this is what the word ‘belief’ does when the context of its use is religious rather than scientific or Wissenschaftlich. It does not indicate a process of weighing evidence and drawing a conclusion. What it indicates is a commitment, a commitment that shows in the life of the believer: in the way they think and in their whole approach to life. So, getting back to the example of the Last Judgment, Wittgenstein imagines someone who has “what you might call an unshakeable belief” and comments: “It will show not by reasoning or by appeal to ordinary grounds for belief, but rather by regulating for all in his life.”
In this sense of ‘belief’, what Wittgenstein says about Christianity applies equally to Judaism: Christianity is not based on a historical truth, but presents us with a (historical) narrative & says: now believe! But not believe this report with the belief that is appropriate to a historical report, – but rather: believe, through thick & thin & you can do this only as the outcome of a life. Here you have a message! – don’t treat it as you would another historical message! Make a quite different place for it in your life. – There is no paradox about that! By the same token, there is nothing paradoxical about disbelieving the historical claim that the Torah was given to Moses from heaven – what would it even mean to believe this? – and believing it as a point of faith. This is a measure of the difference in meaning between ‘believe’ and ‘believe’ – a difference in the work being done – when the same word is used in these two different contexts. In light of Wittgenstein, we can say that the doctrine of Torah from heaven makes the following demand on us: embrace the idea with a passion – ‘believe, through thick & thin’ – or leave it be, but don’t ask for the evidence. It is not a hypothesis or theory.
Louis Jacob’s Mistake as Shatnez
Which brings me back to the question that I posed in the first section of the paper: What are the terms of accommodation between the demands of Wissenschaft and faith? Jacobs rejects the ‘traditional view’ of the doctrine of Torah from heaven on the grounds that it is “contrary to the facts of history”. His new interpretation is intended to allow for the selfsame facts. But, if we approach this in light of the passage I have just quoted from Wittgenstein, we can say that the trouble with the ‘fundamentalist’ view is that it puts the doctrine in the wrong place. It puts it in the same place as a historical claim. Having done this, it then compounds the felony by refusing to let the doctrine be judged by historical criteria.
This is irrational and indefensible: Jacobs is quite right about this. But recall his definition of a fundamentalist in the Jewish context: a “Jew who persists in maintaining a pre-scientific attitude”. This suggests that the fundamental error of the fundamentalist lies in the second false move: rejecting the established criteria for judging claims about history. Whereas, in light of Wittgenstein, we can say that the fundamental error of the fundamentalist lies in the first: putting the doctrine of Torah from heaven into the box called ‘history’. For this is the wrong place for it. The way to correct this error is not to apply historical criteria in reinterpreting the doctrine – Jacobs’ approach – but to make quite a different place for it in the life of the believer. It is tempting (though too glib) to say that the trouble with the ‘traditional view’ is not that it is pre-scientific but that it is not post-scientific. But I did not say that.
“The Torah did not simply drop down from heaven” says Jacobs. He adds: “it has had a history.”What I feel about this statement is that it is a hybrid, a kind of conceptual shatnez (a garment woven from wool and linen (Deut. 22:11)). No doubt, the text of the book or books that we call ‘the Torah’ has been written over time (though the precise story of their writing is a matter of scholarly dispute). But viewed as the word of God, the Torah is eternal and cannot have a history.
How to view the traditional picture of Torah from Heaven
As I mentioned at the beginning of the paper, Jacobs recognises that “the traditional picture”, in which the Torah did, more or less, drop from heaven into Moses’ lap, “has grandeur and power”. But he thinks it has to go. But does it? “What am I believing in when I believe that men have souls?” asks Wittgenstein in the Investigations. There is, he says, “a picture in the foreground, but the sense lies far in the background; that is, the application of the picture is not easy to survey” (par. 422). He does not take issue with the picture per se; the issue he raises is about its sense, its use. As he remarks two paragraphs later: “The picture is there; and I do not dispute its correctness. But what is its application?” (par. 424).
When I read Jacobs, when I consider his trenchant critique of the position that he calls fundamentalist, the position that digs its heels in when confronted with ‘the facts of history’, I find that this is the question that arises for me. Not: Is the picture (the traditional picture of Torah given from on high) correct? But: What is its application? This means: How does it manifest itself in the life of the believer? For it is there, in the fray of life, that it gets its sense. And there might not be any other way of expressing what it expresses.
I shall conclude with a brief remark about the other side of the doctrine of Torah from heaven: Torah to earth; in other words, what it means to receive it from heaven. Earlier, I mentioned that Jacobs draws a parallel with hamotzi, the blessing over bread, which God ‘brings forth from the earth’. But I prefer a parallel with manna, the mysterious substance that sustained the Israelites in their wanderings through the wilderness, the food that fell from the skies. Manna was from heaven but the people had to gather it. The difference being that with the Torah there is no end to gathering its meaning. This, when you stop to think about it, is part of the weight of the doctrine of Torah min HaShamayim. (Words from heaven never settle on the page.) Which is why no thoughtful believer – no one who embraces the ‘traditional picture’ in all its majesty – could possibly be a fundamentalist.