Sunday, August 17, 2008

Rabbi Mordechai Becher & Occam's Razor

Rabbi Mordechai Becher in this six minute Aish Hatorah video, proposes five reasons why a Jew should explore Judaism before examining other religions.

Are you going to start alphabetically, he asks? By the time you went from Anabaptist to Buddhism to Christianity (and its 2000 variations) to Judaism, you'd either be in the loony bin, or very confused or dead. Here are his five reasons for why one should start with Judaism:
  1. If you have eliminated polytheism and are a monotheist "because Occam's Razor is the most simple, elegant solution to the conundrum of why there is a world, how it's fine tuned, how it seems to be designed, why there are laws, etc., so I'll say, OK, there seems to be one God, one infinite God, it precludes the possibility of other gods." Once you get to monotheism, it makes sense to start with Judaism which is the oldest, preceding Islam and Christianity by thousands of years. Both of these later religions believe in the Jewish Bible. A Christian will say the Jewish Bible is true, the Koran similarly (although they have "some issues with the precise manuscripts"). In terms of the 2-1/2 billion monotheists of the world, virtually the only thing they do agree on is the Torah.

  2. Judaism is very accessible with thousands of books published in every language, including Klingon, explaining itself. It's not a secret religion and it can explain itself. You don't have to be a priest or an imam.

  3. It doesn't ask anyone to "give up their mind". There are religions that have "holy mysteries", there is the statement "I believe because it is absurd". Judaism doesn't ask for that. It asks for a reasonable faith. It is based on reason and logic. If you are investigating something, there is the assumption that you are relying to a great degree on your own intellect. Universal literacy is one of the goals of Judaism and one of the greatest commandments is to study. We are not about secrets and the limiting of information.

  4. If you are Jewish, Judaism is a great place to start. One may accept that there are sparks of truth in other cultures and religions. But the soul is composed of a spiritual identity that is an accumulation of the history and experiences of the people that came before you and who contributed to your soul. Thus, the religion that is most fine-tuned to your soul is Judaism. You are a product of your ancestors and their history, like it or not.

  5. There are many religions out there that don't even make a claim to truth! Some say we are just a convenient way of getting to nirvana or we are a pleasant life-style. Judaism makes a claim to absolute truth and if you are concerned with truth and not just "this is comfortable, this is nice", then it would be nice to start with Judaism. And, among those religions that make a claim to absolute truth, Judaism is the oldest and the mother of them all.
I really don't take issue with R. Becher's primary point, namely that it makes sense for a Jew interested in adopting a religious lifestyle to investigate Judaism first. (Hopefully he or she will also learn about the difficulties that most Baalei Teshuvah have in integrating into most non-Modern Orthodox communities.) Judaism is indeed very accessible, and there is neither lack of availability of fundamental texts in English (even the most esoteric) nor lack of available learning opportunities with others, at least for most people who live in or near a populous city.

I do, however, take exception to a number of R. Becher's assertions. His six minute compendium of talking points contains numerous falsehoods and examples of sloppy thinking.

Point 3: A typical Aish party line is "you don't have to give up your mind". But ultimately one will encounter major roadblocks to a rational acceptance of certain claims of Judaism (the Mabul as described in the Torah, 600,000 adult males leaving Egypt, etc.) and will be fed either kvetchy answers or told that science is flawed and one has to have emunah in the words of the Torah. And certainly the masses of Orthodox fundamentalists do give up their mind to the "Daas Torah" of their rebbaim.

Point 4: Becher conflates historical/cultural experiences with mystical notions of the soul. How do you know if you weren't a gentile in a previous life?? According to Chaim Vital and others who are fond of weaving - frankly very fascinating - reincarnation connections, the 24,000 Shechemites who were killed by Shimon and Levi became the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva as merit for circumcising themselves! Dina bas Yaakov became Cozbi bas Tzur who became the wife of Turnus Rufus who eventually converted and married Rabbi Akiva! (OK, I'm quibbling on this point but Becher should have simply stated the cultural convenience of adopting Judaism. Besides, I wanted to throw out some interesting esoteric tidbits for you.)

Point 5: Which religion doesn't make a claim to truth? I can't think of a one. Becher shows his ethnocentricity and ignorance by presuming that only the Big 3 western religions make any claim to truth. See, for example, my post here which is basically a quote from the Dalai Lama and his explanation regarding the need for verification of religious doctrine via "reasoned examination and personal experiment."

I saved the best for last. Point 1. Forget the simple fact that Becher creates a classical "false dilemma" (stating that the choice is between monotheism or polytheism, where in fact there are also non-theistic religions, henotheism, etc.), then quickly moves to the only choices being Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (he should read up on Sikhism, Bahai, even Hinduism which some understand as non-polytheistic), and finally to claiming that everyone agrees on the Torah (a glib oversimplification. Besides, even if they "agree" it doesn't mean it's true.) No, it's how he arrives at monotheism by invoking Occam's Razor. This principle states "one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything". Becher is reducing entities from multiple gods to a single God to explain the world. "God did it", is the simplest explanation in his view, while prepping the seeker with some classic Intelligent Design claims ("fine tuned", "it seems to be designed", "why there are laws"). Now it is interesting that Occam's Razor is more often used to as an argument against the existence of God (ironic because Occam was a theist), but I really don't want to get into that debate. (Besides, I do believe in "some sorta God".) No, it is what I presume would be his exclusive use of Occam's Razor in claiming that it argues for monotheism. Would he also claim that "a miracle" is the simplest postulate for the miracles of the 10 plagues? For the splitting of the Reed Sea? Manna for 40 years feeding millions of people? The sun and moon standing still for Joshua? Resurrections performed by Elisha and by Eliahu? The most simple explanations, of course, are that these were not miracles but natural phenomena that were recorded as miracles by pre-scientific minds.

I think that Rabbi Becher is confusing simple with simplistic.

11 comments:

offthederech said...

i agree with most of your points. i think all religion's a bunch of baloney, and the kiruv people try desperately to sell it to naive, unfortunate jews

Frum Heretic said...

Since I feel that religion can serve a multitude of beneficial purposes (sense of community, comfort in times of distress, sense of purpose, etc.), I don't dismiss it as a "bunch of baloney" regardless of it's "ultimate truth" value. My problem with kiruv organizations has to with their use of half-truths and deception (sometimes arising out of ignorance) when they use so-called "proofs" in trying to convince the potential Baal Teshuvah.

Rich Perkins said...

Great post! i remember seeing that video a little while back and thinking that it was complete fluff. I do actually agree with his point that you should at least check out Judaism because that is your heritage. Just like you should help your family first in times of need, i think you should turn to your religious roots when you are searching for spirituality. Of course, if it isn't for you, then I would agree you should look elsewhere.

I also have an issue with "proofs" that they use to convince people of the truth of the Torah. What happens when someone believes that proof and then it is found out to be untrue? Take the Bible Codes, have you read Barry Simon's work on this? He tears it down and even shows some nice codes in War & Peace. So what happens when someone becomes frum because of Aish's presentation on the topic and now reads these criticisms of the issue?

Frum Heretic said...

I am well acquainted with Barry Simon being a one of the many detractors of Bible codes and have to give Jewish Action credit for publishing his essays on it (although they have an unfortunate habit of continuing to give a voice to the proponents.)

I have also known people that completely left frumkeit when they found major flaws in the proofs that first convinced them of Orthodoxy!

Rich Perkins said...

"I have also known people that completely left frumkeit when they found major flaws in the proofs that first convinced them of Orthodoxy!"

That is precisely the reason they should be steering clear of "proofs". There is a big difference between belief in something and knowing something with absolute certainty. You can look at all the facts and come to the belief that there is a God and that He has set the world in motion and gave us a higher calling.

Also, I think there are people who weigh the evidence and decide to hedge their bets. If there is no God, then all they did was deny themselves some of life's pleasures. Yet, if there is a God and he wants us to follow the Torah, they have gained some points with the big man upstairs.

Frum Heretic said...

Also, I think there are people who weigh the evidence and decide to hedge their bets. If there is no God, then all they did was deny themselves some of life's pleasures. Yet, if there is a God and he wants us to follow the Torah, they have gained some points with the big man upstairs.

Yeah, you mean Pascal's Wager. I don't buy it as a justification for religion.

Shouldn't a betting person just go with the highest reward/risk ratio? For this purpose, say risk = restriction. Probably the highest ratio - due to the most minimal restrictions - is Christianity. I.e., all you need to do is to believe in JC and you are promised heaven! That - to me - is an utterly repugnant belief.

Also, if a person truly claims not to believe in God and reward & punishment, they are being intellectually dishonest if they deprive themselves of life's pleasures for an afterlife that they do not believe in!

Finally, the wager seems more like a bribe to me!

Nimrod said...

I also blogged on the aish video a while ago

www.nomodo.blogspot.com

I really had alot of respect for Rabbi Becher many years ago, and it pains me to see this video.

offthederech said...

my favourite point is #3, that there is no secrets, or hiding of information in the frum world. that is so Not true, and it's my #1 beef with kiruv types. they act like torah is all scientific only b/c that's the best way to reel in these naive, rich, educated kids (my dad was a victim). and by the time their trusting charges find some holes in their claims it's too late (married w/ children, emotionally invested), plus they start with the emunah/ daas torah stuff, like you mentioned.
What a cult...

-suitepotato- said...

"Shouldn't a betting person just go with the highest reward/risk ratio? For this purpose, say risk = restriction. Probably the highest ratio - due to the most minimal restrictions - is Christianity. I.e., all you need to do is to believe in JC and you are promised heaven! That - to me - is an utterly repugnant belief."

Not remotely true and beyond a gross oversimplification which is somewhat understandable in non-Christians given the gross oversimplifications used in religious marketing by most notably the BACs.

It's as untrue as earning a place in Olam HaBa simply by obedience to Da'at Torah.

Certain behaviors, more than ritual observance or obedience to old men of alleged authority, are expected. Such as being a good person always in all situations. This is forgotten by all and sundry across every human religion and that is when hypocrisy goes from a truly private affair to a shared everyone knows and does it situation.

Televangelists, the Rubashkin fiasco, pedophile priests, all of it is putting checking off of boxes on a list of things to do or not do to fit in and making up whatever isn't covered. Largely because faith is about choice. When you have faith that there is such as thing as being good and that you must be it, that is your choice.

When that which without you'd have no resistance to doing other is imposed by someone else, it's their choice, not yours, and whenever their never fine grained enough rules sets fail to cover something adequately, you look for a chance to enact your own choice, and humans being the contrarian rebellious individualist sort they are, usually choose the choice opposite the rules imposed.

In other words, when a person is raised all their life by someone else to do and be evil, sooner or later they will seek to do good not for faith that there is good or that they should do good but merely to mess with the powers who've imposed the opposite views and strictures upon them. The same is true of good. Raise people by rules you claim are good, but leave them bereft of an all encompassing faith that fits itself to all situations, they will sooner or later do bad to be at odds with the supposed good put upon them from without.

It's not enough to believe in G-d or Jesus or Buddha. You have to do something with that belief. It has to suffuse your choices ongoing starting from that one central choice. This applies to all religions.

offthederech said...

No pressure, but my blog is now up and running.
Feel free to visit, all.

Frum Heretic said...

Not remotely true and beyond a gross oversimplification which is somewhat understandable in non-Christians given the gross oversimplifications used in religious marketing by most notably the BACs.

I understand that there are differences of opinion, but I think that this is a concept currently being promulgated by Christianity. First, that the Jews who were murdered by Hitler have no place in Heaven because they didn't accept JC. Do you disagree that this (repugnant) belief is ubiquitous? Second, that if Hitler truly repented (read accepted JC) before he died, he would be headed upstairs. There seems to be a little more philosophical wiggle-room for the latter assertion.