How Do We Make Our Ancient Literature
Concerning Good & Evil
Relevant in Today’s World?
by Dr. Ralph Graff
Current concepts: the Scientific Method.
How do the Philosophers of our day make this literature relevant in today’s world? Not unlike Frankel’s historic comments’, Norbert Samuelson, Prof. of Jewish Studies, Arizona State U. in a 2002 essay entitled The Death and Revival of Jewish Philosophy, states, “a contemporary Jewish Philosophy must be an interface between Biblical Jewish Philosophy and modern Jewish thought that is believable and has moral value. This scholarly activity requires knowledge of relevant historical texts as well as familiarity with contemporary sciences. Rabbi Neal Gillman attributes similar statements to Sabato Marais and Solomon Schechter, the first and second Heads of the Jewish Theological Seminary of New York at the turn of the 20th century. Samuelson notes that philosophic study has moved out of Philosophy Departments into other Departments such as computational science, mathematics, and linguistics”. How have these disciplines altered philosophy? They have added the Scientific Method to axiomatic and philosophic beliefs. What is the process? Knowledge starts with Axiomatic beliefs, beliefs which are regarded as being established, accepted, or self-evidently true. We are taught and axiomatically believe that a Jonathan apple is red. Neither philosophy nor science has caused us to believe otherwise. Judaism and probably all ancient religions started axiomatically. Axiomatic beliefs can be altered by Philosophic beliefs, beliefs based on knowledge. Examples are Hume who philosophized that knowledge came from experience and Kant, who philosophized that knowledge came from rational thought. Prophets can be considered the ultimate philosophers. Prophets can be divided into those who prophesies are correct or incorrect, the latter being called false prophets. Can we augment philosophical beliefs with Beliefs based on the Scientific Method?
What is the scientific method?
A question is asked: The axiomatic belief is that the sun revolves around the earth. Copernicus asks the question, is it possible that the sun does not revolve around the earth?
A hypothesis is created: Copernicus hypothesizes that the earth revolves around the sun.
The hypothesis is tested by accumulating data: Galileo’s observation of four moons orbiting Jupiter proves that not everything in the heavens revolves around the earth, thus supporting Copernicus. Tycho Brahe’s precise observations of planetary motion combined with calculations by Kepler adds convincing support.
Newton’s theories precisely agree with the Tycho/Kepler results, substantiating Copernicus’ hypothesis (source, Martin Israel). A new norm is accepted based on data. That the earth revolves around the sun becomes axiomatic.
Different disciplines require different degrees of accurate data to be acceptable: mathematics>physics>biology>philosophy; the better the evidence, the more believable the conclusion. Just as prophets can draw incorrect conclusions, scientists can misinterpret data and come to incorrect conclusions. Samuelson concludes that, in spite of the difficulty of acquiring data for philosophy, the use of the scientific method has resulted in more confidence in humankind and less in revelation.
Since ancient times, Jewish authorities have been using the scientific method, granted in simplistic forms. In early Temple times, HALACHA might have been ignored or new laws created, but HALACHA was never changed. Ezra describes that he is approached by the officials of the Babylonian emigrants to Jerusalem who are concerned by the marriage of their sons to “the daughters of the people of the land”. They weren’t concerned about the possibility; they were concerned about actual happenings, which constitute data. They suggest “Let us make a covenant with our God to expel all of these women and their children” and Ezra accepts, attributing the decision to the Law”. Sarah Japhet, in her book “From the Rivers of Babylon to the Highlands of Judah states, if a law existed, there would be no need to make a covenant with God. A covenant was necessary because no law actually existed. A law that was perceived to be a “Good law” was created to address a perceived problem that was not covered by existing law.
In the late Temple period during the time of Hillel, HALACHA was actually changed. Deuteronomy (15:1–2) states that “every seven years you shall practice remission of debts. This shall be the nature of the remission: every creditor shall remit the due that he claims from his fellow”; Deuteronomy (15:12–15) states that “If a fellow Hebrew is sold to you, in the seventh year you shall set him free. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt”. These laws were designed to benefit the poor and enslaved. Seeing that people were refusing to loan as the sabbatical year was approaching, Prosbul was established, stating that a money loan should not be eliminated because of the Sabbatical year in order to benefit both the rich and the poor. The rich were thereby protected against loss of property; and the poor could thus obtain a loan whenever they needed it. The reason for this innovation was therefore given as "for the sake of the order of the world." Thus, a Law that was created to do Good, was no longer doing so and it was altered.(Source, Gillman Sacred Fragments).
During the Talmud era, following the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Shaye Cohen describes the Rabbis, seeing flaws in existing law relating to marriage, defined the definition of a “good marriage” in Mishnah Kidushin, initiating the concept of the requirement for matrilineal inheritance for one to be considered Jewish.
The diaspora has made the concept of single Sanhedrin untenable. The responsibility for adjudging the Law has become movement-related. The responsibility in the Conservative Movement is delegated to the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards. This committee has addressed itself to good and bad in today’s world, appreciating the circumstances that existed when a Law was created, current circumstances, and if the law needs to be changed. Rabbi Barmash notes that the Committee had been effective in dealing with Women’s role in Judaism and Gay Rights, although inequities remain.
How does the individual relate to good, bad and free will in today’s world? We must realize that good and bad are moving targets; what is perceived as good today, may be bad tomorrow.
Let me use an example that I have drawn from Kati Marton’s book The Great Escape in which she describes nine Hungarian youths who, recognizing growing anti-Semitism in Europe, emigrate from Europe. The group included Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller and John Von Neuman, members of the outstanding European physics community. Marton relates the exciting story of their role in the creation of the atomic bomb in the United States. In 1939, Szilard became aware that a group of German physicists had split the uranium nucleus. He recognized the possibility that the Nazis might develop an atomic bomb. Because of that fear, with the help of Wigner and Teller, Albert Einstein was contacted and recruited to communicate with President Roosevelt, who, in turn, established funding for the Manhattan Project resulting in the creation of the atomic bomb. All four of the physicists were participants in the Manhattan Project. Of the group, Eugene Wigner subsequently became a Nobel Laureate. Had he not died young, John Von Neumann would certainly have become a Nobel Laureate. Let me focus on the other two, Szilard and Teller. After the bomb had been tested at Alamogordo New Mexico, but before it had been used in Japan, it was obvious to Szilard that neither the Germans nor any others were on the verge of developing an atomic bomb. With that realization he worked tirelessly to prevent its use in Japan. The man whose belief that developing the atomic bomb was good, based on additional information, changed his opinion judging the use of the atomic bomb to be bad. To the contrary, his close friend, Edward Teller, continued to believe that developing the bomb was good to the extent that he played a critical role in developing the Hydrogen Bomb.
I have described Dr. Samuelson’s belief that contemporary science is critical in developing believable and moral Jewish Philosophy. But in the final analysis, each of us must make personal decisions on good and bad. It is accepted that the holocaust and the Nazis were bad. But there were local citizens that made personal decisions, to help the Nazis, to ignore what was happening, or help the Jews? What role did religious belief or science play in the individual’s decisions?
Let me conclude, describing the thoughts of Rabbi Pamela Barmash and Yaakov Kaufman. Rabbi Barmash states. “I think that philosophy is moving into science of mind and psychology, and the underlying question is whether that will be an improvement for philosophy. You describe philosophy as searching to be more scientific, but is that healthy for philosophy? Is that healthy for Jewish philosophy and Jewish thought? Is that even accurate for the way science operates? To my mind, more humility is needed, and Jewish thought needs to be more about experiencing God’s presence and learning how to balance competing ideals.”
Previously, I have defined the traditional subject matter of philosophy as being the nature of what is (ontology) and what ought to be (ethics). An anonomist, (by his request) a linguist, states “I was not surprised that he (Samuelson) says that linguistics are taking over ontology… I would have found it more interesting if he said that linguists are developing ethics, because linguistics is primarily a study of grammar unconcerned with human actions,…
Can the scientific method adapt itself to “ethics” as well as ontology (a discussion for the future)?
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