Logic gives us good answers, but is there something the answers miss?
At Hebrew College this semester, I’m taking a class whose assignments include Torah readings, Jewish philosophy, and “midrashim” — that is, ancient rabbinic commentaries on various issues. Midrashim range from legal interpretation (midrash halachah) to stories (midrash aggadah) that explain aspects of our history, faith, and sacred texts.
A few weeks ago, our assignment was to analyze midrashim about the creation of the world. My background is in mathematics and philosophy, so I put on my logical hat and went to work. My answer was something like this:
- The midrashim’s goals are to answer questions X, Y, and Z: For example, did God create the world ex nihilo or from pre-existing matter?
- The midrashim make this argument.
- The midrashim make that argument.
- The midrashim make another argument.
- The midrashim sometimes argue by analogy and include fictional scenes. They sometimes contradict each other.
The professor remarked that I had given “a very un-midrashic” analysis. And he was right. I had given a Greek-philosophy answer to a Jewish-faith question.
Logic Has Its Limitations
What’s wrong with philosophy and logic? Not a thing, as long as we remember their purpose and limitations.
The purpose of logic is to give us clear answers as a guide to action. Whether we’re trying to define “justice,” design an airplane, or decide what to believe, logic helps us.
But logic also has its limitations. To give clear answers, it pays attention only to the facts that are relevant to our problem. It “abstracts” from the real situation by ignoring everything else.
Life is messy. It’s inconsistent. It has details that get lost in the process of abstraction.
Consider the story in Genesis 22 of the binding of Isaac:
“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.”1
Abraham does not object. His response is essentially, “Yes, boss,” and then he prepares to kill his son as ordered. Genesis says nothing about his motivation, his thoughts, or why he acts the way he does.
For his part, Isaac seems unaware that anything is amiss. After binding Isaac onto the altar — an act against which the story says nothing of Isaac’s resistance — Abraham raises the knife and is about to kill his son when an angel tells him to stop.
A Logical Analysis
A logical analysis tries to address the story’s problems and answer its questions. Judaism arose in a context where pagan religions believed in gods who needed the food that they got from sacrifices. God does not need food, but early Judaism absorbed the idea of sacrifices from its surroundings. There was no need to sacrifice Isaac or anything else.2
The moral question is hard to answer but fairly clear. Does Abraham have an absolute duty to obey God no matter what He commands? And more poignantly, does Abraham have an absolute duty to obey a voice he hears that might or might not be God speaking? As the philosopher Immanuel Kant observed:
“Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: ‘That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain and cannot become certain … However majestic or supernatural it may appear to be, one must regard it as a deception.'”3
Kant analyzed the story of the binding of Isaac in the same way as I analyzed the midrash about the creation of the world: by focusing on a few points and ignoring the rest. As a result, Kant’s answer is clear and logical, but lacks the nuance and heartbreak of real, lived experience — whether of Abraham’s or of ours.
The Midrashic approach
Contrast that with the midrashic approach. Instead of taking things out of the story, the midrashim put things in.
One midrash explains what Abraham thought. A second midrash echoes the Book of Job: Satan talks God into testing Abraham, then tries to talk both Abraham and Isaac into disobeying God. A third midrash narrates a scene in which Abraham tells Isaac about God’s command:
“So suspecting what was intended, [Isaac] asked ‘Where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham replied, ‘The Holy One has chosen you.’ Isaac said, ‘If He has so chosen, my life is given to Him …'”4
Unlike Kant’s logical analysis, the midrashim engage with real life in all of its ambiguity and uncertainty. Instead of giving us a clear answer, they challenge us to think about Abraham’s predicament for ourselves and to find our own solutions. How would we cope with an intolerable situation that required great personal loss and morally dubious actions?
Logic uses incomplete information to give us results we can use. The midrashim use more complete information to show us a portrait of life we can live. And without that life, the results are meaningless.
Braude, W., translator (1992), The Book of Legends (Sefer Ha-Aggadah). Schocken Books, New York.
Brettler, M. et al, editors (2014), The Jewish Study Bible, second edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Kindle edition.
Frank, D. et al, editors (2000), The Jewish Philosophy Reader. Routledge, London, UK.
Muffs, Y. (2005), The Personhood of God. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont.