Tuesday, August 01, 2006

On R. Nachman and Skepticism

Emet/Truth posts a saying of R. Nachman of Breslov. The saying (as quoted) is as follows:

It is written, 'A fool believes all things' (Proverbs 15:15). It is good to be such a fool. If you believe even that which is false and foolish, you will also believe the truth. You are better off than he who is sophisticated and skeptical of everything.

One can begin by ridiculing foolishness and falsehood. Eventually he will ridicule everything and end up denying even the truth. As one of our greatest sages once said, 'It is better that I be called a fool all my life and not be wicked even one moment before God (Eidiyot 5:6).

Sichos HaRan/ Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #103
( http://www.breslov.org/torah/wisdom/100-109.html)

I can hardly believe that this quote is accurate. Did R. Nachman really make such a statement? Should we actually be a fool and believe everything? Of course, such a feat is impossible. There is so much contradictory information out in the world that it is impossible to believe everything.

Even putting such contradictory information aside, I find it hard to believe that followers of R. Nachman would really recommend believing things that are simply hard to believe. Do they really believe that there are alien bodies being kept at Area 51? That the Bermuda Triangle is a place where ships mysteriously disappear? That Elvis is doing three shows a week on Jupiter?

Skepticism, in and of itself, is not a bad thing - and being skeptical of some things will not automatically lead one to ridicule everything. After all, it was skepticism that Jews showed 2000 years ago that caused us to reject the messianic claims of Jesus. Without that skepticism, we'd all be Christians today. It was skepticism of the claims of Mohammed that led the Jews of the Middle East to reject Islam.

Skepticism is the sign of a healthy mind. The ability to critically think through information to sift truth from falsehood (yes, Mis-nagid, I know what you're going to say) is something that has served Jews for ages. To go to a state of simply believing everything is downright dangerous.

Apparently, I'm become a skeptic of R. Nachman...)

The Wolf


Ben Avuyah said...

Perhaps Rev Nachman was honest with himself about the believability of orthodoxies claims and therefore correctly concluded that believing in this meant you had to believe in just about anything (elvis not whithstanding).

Maybe we should be appreciating his wisdom and honesty in setting the sum total of believability for our religion where it should be...low to nil. I don't agree with his conclusion and justification, but at least he intuited that belief in just about anything else, was just as justified; A milestone epiphany few in the orthodox community have yet arrived at.

ymeyz said...

As I think R' Yaakov Shulman writes in his work, "Chambers of the Palace", Rav Nahman's intention in statements like this was to provoke us to see things in a new light. He had no intention of setting forth an eternal, all-encompassing, hashkafah through one short statement. Rav Nahman is warning us here of the tremendous dangers of skepticism. He is saying we should not be so afraid of being a fool (or being thought a fool) that we don't put our belief and trust in anything. Rather, we should believe in things that we feel are worthy of belief even if sometimes we may be mistaken and made to look foolish. Only by taking this chance can we be acquire the beliefs that are necessary to live a meaningful life.

Some Guy said...

R'Nachman is generally considered to be heavily anti-rational, so such a quote does not surprise me much. Here's another Nachman/Nathan quote (from Green's book "Tormented Master"):

For this reason our master forbade us to study even the works of acceptable philosophers: they raise difficult and lengthy questions as to the ways of God, but when it comes to answering the questions, their answers are weak and can easily be refuted. Therefore he who looks into them and seeks to answer their questions by means of his intellect can fall into great heresy, when he sees that his answer is nothing and that the question remains. It is this forbidden to look into [such books] at all, and one must rely on faith alone...

I would say that R'Nachman's approach detailed here has come to characterize Orthodox Judaism in the modern age. "We don't read such books" seems to be the major approach, at least among the RW community.

Breslover said...

Don't be to too fast to jump to wrong conclusions, while you don't understand a drop you are reading about.

> R'Nachman is generally considered
>to be heavily anti-rational

This is a false slander. The Rebe ztz"l wasn't anti rational, but was anti "crooked-rational"! And such view is more than justified. Rational fanatics - the maskilim, dropped Yiddishkayt altogether because of their worship to their intellect as an idol. Their fatal mistake was, that something what they can't prove or understand is false by default, because they considered their intellect as supreme and almighty.

By know means, the Rebbe encourages us to be fools. Quite on the contrary. What the Rebbe means saying that it's better to be a fool, and believe everything, than to be skeptic and not to believe anything can be red quite straightforward and simple. It is really better to be a fool but to believe in truth, than to be a “smart” koyfer and apikoyres and to deny it! And in a deeper sense, the real fool, is the one who doesn’t believe anything! Because his own intellect, which he values so much, leads him to his own downfall.

The Rebbe elaborates on this issue in many places, most notable in Sipurey Maysies (Chochom veTam). Read the whole mayse and understand.

The Rebbe as all chasdic tzadikim was fiery critical about maskilim and their perverted “intellectual perception”. The Rebbe numerous times said – “Zayt on key chochmosys” (Which can sound like Be without “smartnesses”). But it doesn’t mean – be fools!
”Chochmoys” here means crooked mind and perverted intellect. Wisdom an intellect in their proper state lead person towards truth, but when they are perverted and crooked, they lead person very far from it.

Some Guy said...

I don't know what you're going on about, breslover. I said that he is generally considered anti-rational, and I think that is certainly the case. From Greene:

Here Nachman has shown himself to be the most radical and consistent of the latter day Jewish detractors of medieval rationalism. Faith is to exist even in the face of logical absurdity...Reason is the very antithesis of faith and of the revealed truth that is the object of faith...

From R'Nachman:

As long as a person holds on to any bit of his own reason, he is not whole [in his faith], and he cannot be bound to the zaddik. Israel, at the time when the Torah was given, possessed great wisdom, for the idolatry of their day was based upon profound though erring philosophy, as is known. Had they not been able to cast aside all their cleverness, they would not have been able to accept the Torah. [...] Only because Israel, the holy people, saw the truth, and cast aside all their wisdom to believe in God and His servant Moses, were they able to receive the Torah.


One really has to cast aside one's mind, throwing off all cleverness, and serve God in simplicity... You have to set aside all cleverness to serve God simply, not only the foolish 'wisdom' of ordinary people, but even the real wisdom of great minds has to be cast aside for the sake of this simplicity...

Call me crazy, but I think I would have to agree with Greene and everyone else (besides you) that R'Nachman was pretty fiercely anti-rational.

Pesky Settler said...

Perhaps this was a test for his followers... state something so outrageous and see how many people will blindly follow it.

Kind of like the "my chumra can beat up your chumra" attitude.

A Yid said...

To "some guy":
I don't draw my knowledge of Chasidus from crooked sources of maskilim, and prefer it first hand. I said all I wanted.

ilan said...

Chochmos are the the contrary of simplicity. We have to do Avodat H' whothout chomchmos, just whit simplicity.
Don't be fool to fall down in the hands of the Ietzer HaRa, because the people who have no bitul to the Tzadik haEmet, they are the real fools.
Kol tuv & Tzom kal from Argentina. (Yes! there are some hassdim of Breslev in Argentina, B"H)

DYM said...

You aren't meant to take statements like these at face value. They are meant to draw a contrast between two alternatives, and to warn of the dangers of approaching subjects with the presumption that they are not true. This is because it is far easier for us to reject something than to accept it.

Take your Area 51 example. It's very easy to say "Oh it's nonsense, I don't believe in aliens. Such a thing is impossible". This is a natural reaction -- if it doesn't fit in with our picture of the world, it must be impossible.

But our experiences - which shape our intellects - are limited. R'Nachman is warning us against relying on our minds, and in approaching new information with a more open mind.

Think of it as the approach of a brainstorming session, when no suggestion is rejected outright.

Note that he does not say that all ideas are of equal value. He says right in your quote, that there are foolish ideas, and false ideas. How does he know they are false and foolish? Because he takes them in, accepts them, and only then makes a decision about their worth.

Some Guy said...

I think you're being generous.

DYM said...

first of all, what's wrong with being generous?

and in any event, even if we take your explanation, anti-rationalism is very good advice for religious matters even today.

It's all very nice to be following the Rambam in believing that rational investigation can lead to knowledge of God. But that was medieval philosophy, and things have moved on quite a bit since then.

Perhaps R'Nachman is addressing the Aish haTorah Discovery seminars.

DYM said...

There's a good reason, as you say, this approach has won the day. We don't try to prove God rationally anymore (occasional sightings of the Kuzari argument notwithstanding).

And that's not just talking about the charedi way of closing your eyes and ears, and refusing to read secular books.

Even in the intellectual modern orthodox world, I don't think there's anyone who believes that there are proofs of God out there, or that the path to connecting to God is through rational speculation.

I think thining people across the spectrum of Orthodoxy today base their faith on a combination of tradition and their purely subjective spiritual experiences. Which (and I could be wrong, I'm no breslover) is mostly what R'Nachman is advocating.

On a side note, there's also less danger nowadays in learning kefirah and going "off the derech" due to philosophical books. I think pre-XX century rabbis worried a lot about books of philosophy giving people the wrong ideas. But now as I said, we do not base our faith on philosophy, and so philosophical arguments are of little danger.

Rather we base our faith on tradition and spiritual experience -- so it is books on history and biblical criticism that today pose a threat to our faith (as well as maybe psychology books that try to explain away the spiritual activities of the mind).

I apologize for perhaps belaboring my point :)

Some Guy said...

I agree with you completely. Your labors are appreciated.

Mis-nagid said...

"yes, Mis-nagid, I know what you're going to say"

No you don't.

Anonymous said...

A lot of Breslovers believe that the Apollo moon landing was a hoax.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Didn't R' Nahhman say it's forbidden to read the works of the Medieval Jewish Philosophers?

Some Guy said...

See above.