Knowing What Time It Is


My latest blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

Do you know what time it is?

If I asked you that question, there are two logical answers and many non-logical answers.

If you know what time it is, then the logical answer to my question is “Yes.” If you don’t know, then the logical answer is “No.”

But you’re not likely to say that. You’ll probably say something like, “It’s three o’clock” or “It’s time for dinner.” If you’re a pessimist, you might say “It’s later than you think.”

None of those answers is a logically correct response to my question. I didn’t ask what time it was. I asked if you knew what time it was.1

Why did you give a non-logical answer? It’s simple: Because you knew that the real meaning and purpose of my question did not match the words I used.

And that leads us, first, back to Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786); and then even further back to our encounter at Sinai with The Holy One, Blessed Be He.

The Jewish Socrates of Berlin

Mendelssohn was part of two different intellectual worlds. As part of the German Enlightenment, he was known as “the Socrates of Berlin.” An elegant writer in German, he embraced the secular rationalism, philosophy, and science of his time. But he was also a faithful and observant Jew. In Hebrew, he wrote about Jewish beliefs, philosophy, and history — signing those works as Moses Dessau instead of the name by which he was famous in non-Jewish society.

Sooner or later, those two worlds were bound to collide. When they did, Mendelssohn managed to extricate himself — but at a cost. The 20th-century philosopher Franz Rosenzweig remarked:

“From Mendelssohn on, the Jewishness of every individual has squirmed on the needle point of a ‘Why?’” 2

The worst collision came in 1782.3 In his preface to the German translation of the 1656 book Vindiciae Judaeorum (Vindication of the Jews) by Rabbi Menasseh Ben-Israel, Mendelssohn denied that Jewish religious authorities had a right to excommunicate dissidents from Judaism. He based his conclusion on Enlightenment ideas about freedom of thought. However, that also contradicted traditional Jewish belief.

A German writer named August Cranz believed that Christianity was rational and compatible with religious freedom, but that Judaism was not. In an essay titled “The Search for Light and Right,” he said that Mendelssohn had already rejected one Jewish belief. He challenged him to reject the rest of Judaism and convert to Christianity. To make matters worse, a postscript accused Mendelssohn of being a secret Deist who didn’t believe in revelation at all.4

Mendelssohn was in a terrible predicament. True, he was an Enlightenment rationalist. He was a respected German intellectual. But he was also a faithful Jew, loyal to the Jewish community and concerned about its welfare. He didn’t want to argue with Cranz because it might be taken as an attack on Christianity, which history showed was a dangerous thing to do. But neither would he deny his Jewish faith and harm the Jewish people by doing so. What could he do?

He made a bold and unexpected move. He denied that Judaism had any required beliefs at all, so there were no such beliefs for him to reject:

”Judaism knows of no revealed religion in the sense in which Christians understand this term. The Israelites possess a Divine legislation — laws, commandments … but no doctrinal opinions, no saving truths, no universal propositions of reason. These the Eternal reveals to us and to all other men, at all times, through nature and thing, but never through word and script.”5

A couple of points are obvious. First, Mendelssohn’s reply is artful misdirection. It’s true that Judaism has Divine commandments, but it makes no sense to follow them unless one believes that God issued them. Belief in God is required, as well as belief that the rabbis transcribed and transmitted them correctly over the centuries.

Second, Mendelssohn cleverly blurs the distinction between revealed truths of religion and the demonstrable truths of science and philosophy: only the latter are “revealed to us and all other men, at all times.”

Mendelssohn’s Three Errors

As an 18th-century rationalist, Mendelssohn knew that much of traditional Jewish belief was inconsistent with modern science and philosophy. But he also knew that it served a purpose. It helped preserve the Jewish community, promote moral behavior, and foster social harmony. Earlier, in dodging a previous argument about Christian beliefs, he had written:

”Whoever cares more for the welfare of mankind than for his own renown will keep a rein on his opinions concerning [beliefs that are incorrect but socially beneficial] … he will guard against attacking them forthrightly.”6

Three errors led to Mendelssohn’s denial that Judaism required any beliefs.

First, he thought of beliefs only as mental and as asserting things — not as performing many other, public functions that are sometimes more important than what the beliefs seem to assert.

Second, he assumed that the meaning of beliefs had to match the words used for them: as we saw with our question about time, that is not true.

Third, he assumed there was only one frame of reference for validating beliefs: the frame of secular science and philosophy. That frame of reference applies to beliefs making claims about the world of science and philosophy, but not necessarily to other types of beliefs.

Correcting Errors, Safeguarding Truth

Mendelssohn did not seem to ask: Is “God chose the Jewish people at Sinai” a different kind of belief than “Dogs are mammals” or “Ten divided by five equals two”? Those beliefs are validated and true by reference to biology and arithmetic. They make specific claims about the world. They refer only to things that exist in our ordinary experience.

However, “God chose the Jewish people at Sinai” is a radically different kind of belief. It starts by referring to a Being Who transcends our world, our experience, and our understanding. In terms of our normal world, the belief is not false: it is logically meaningless if one takes it literally and as corresponding to the words used.

The second part (“ … the Jewish people at Sinai”) implies that certain things happened at a certain place and time, but according to secular archaeology, those things probably did not happen.7 The paradox comes when we realize that the statement is both meaningful and true. How is that possible?

It’s possible because meaning is essentially pointing. Beliefs can point to behaviors, situations, and social conventions as well as to other beliefs. They can be validated by reference to sacred writings or tradition as well as by excavation or laboratory experiment. They can receive support from their good results, from scientific evidence, and from other sources. Whether or not they are justified “all things considered” requires considering all the relevant factors, including evidence, moral benefits, and other types of support.

“God chose the Jewish people at Sinai” looks like a historical statement, but it isn’t. Just like “Do you know what time it is?”, its meaning does not match the words it uses.

Instead of making a claim about the distant past, it presents us with a challenge for our present and future: To choose ourselves to bring God’s truth to the world, to exemplify that truth by living morally, and to put that truth into action by working for justice.

God chose you. Now choose yourself. Make your life count.

Works Cited

Gottlieb, M. (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.

Hallo, W. et al, editors (1984), Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, A Source Reader. Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.

Sorkin, D. (2012), Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment. Halban Publishers Ltd, London. Kindle edition.


  1. People under hypnosis give the logically correct answer because they interpret the question literally. 
  2. Sorkin, D. (2012), loc. 113. 
  3. It wasn’t the first such collision. In 1764, Johann Lavater and two friends visited Mendelssohn to discuss philosophy and religion. In response to their entreaties, Mendelssohn with reluctance — and on their promise of confidentiality — expressed admiration for Jesus’ moral character as long as Jesus had not claimed to be Divine. In 1769, Lavater wrote publicly about Mendelssohn’s view and urged him to convert to Christianity. Mendelssohn dodged the argument by pointing out that Lavater had violated his promise of confidentiality, an act sufficiently dishonorable that most people were willing to ignore the incident. See Gottlieb, M. (2011), pp. 3-15. 
  4. Gottlieb, M. (2011), pp. 51-67. 
  5. Ibid, p. 81. 
  6. Ibid, p. 11. 
  7. See, for example, the comparison of the covenant at Sinai with Hittite suzerain treaties in Hallo, W. (1984), pp. 11ff. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Philosophy, The Jerusalem Post and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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