Objective Muddles and Persuasive Testimony

Western philosophy has seen many movements: Stoicism, Scholasticism, Neo-Kantianism, British idealism. Nowadays, most English-speaking philosophy departments teach analytic philosophy, which isn’t quite like these earlier schools. Perhaps early and mid-20th-century analytic philosophers held certain theses in common about science and language. But now analytic philosophers defend everything and its contrary: consequentialism and virtue ethics and deontology, monism and pluralism and nihilism, rationalism and empiricism and pragmatism, Catholicism and atheism—and Judaism. If analytic philosophy is a school, it is a school without dogma. Arguably, it is just thinking rigorously, generally in plain English, sometimes with the help of formal notation, about the first principles of meaning, being, action, and knowledge.

It may seem as though a religious tradition like Judaism would have no home in a philosophical ecosystem that cultivates nothing but a specific mode of intellectual engagement. Tools without a task sounds sophistic, even skeptical. But it is precisely the lack of a positive dogma that makes analytic philosophy compatible with the basic tenets of Judaism—at least that’s the premise of Jewish Philosophy in an Analytic Age. If some analytic argument, term, or notion helps to elucidate a thought inchoately expressed in a traditional Jewish source, great. If not, skip, and no harm done.

Contrast this with the medieval project of reconciling the Jewish tradition with Aristotelian philosophy. Anyone who’s read The Guide of the Perplexed meets a family of metaphysical and scientific doctrines that are, to say the least, hard to defend or even understand and that have no obvious traditional sourcing. Is identifying the intellect with its objects either independently plausible or properly Jewish? Is matter the cause of all defects in creation? Such difficulties confront anyone interested in figuring out how much Maimonides appropriated (Platonized) Aristotelianism just because it and its close relatives were the quality products on his day’s metaphysical market. But when Judaism encounters analytic philosophy, it has nothing to fear but the substantive questions any worldview always has to answer—is it explanatorily powerful, coherent, overall reasonable to believe?

Samuel Lebens, Dani Rabinowitz, and Aaron Segal, who are cofounders of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism, have produced a busy volume. These essays in Jewish analytic philosophy cover value theory, philosophical positions in the Talmud and Maimonides, and theology generally.

 “Talmudic Destiny,” a standout essay by the Brandeis philosopher Eli Hirsch, examines a dispute concentrated in tractates Gittin and Eruvin that boils down to the question of whether it’s true that some future choice was going to be made before it actually was made. Hirsch is well known for his work on the metaphysics of time and identity and the philosophy of language. Lately, he’s turned to Jewish matters (in 2018, he published a book-length dialogue about skepticism between “three aging philosophy professors who occasionally return to Yeshiva to study Talmud”), and this essay is one of the results.

The School of Athens by Raphael. Painted 1509–1511, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.

Here’s the talmudic case: Reuven is looking to buy a house, and a seller has two at the same price, House A and House B, either of which he’s willing to sell to Reuven. So Reuven decides he’ll pay the seller today (Monday), but he won’t choose between the houses now. Instead, Reuven’s wife, Sally, will choose a house on Thursday when she returns from a business trip. Sally returns and chooses House A. The question is this: Can Reuven be said to have truly purchased House A when he paid on Monday? If he can, then following the classical phrasing, yeish breira (there is retrospective clarification—
i.e., now we know what choice was “destined”). If not, ein breira (there isn’t). The ein breira position has two interpretations: the more popular view of the tosafists and that of their great predecessor, Rashi, which Hirsch calls “extraordinarily
perplexing and tantalizing.”

The tosafists argue that “there are no facts about future contingencies” one way or the other, which makes sense. Consider this: Sally picks House A on Thursday. On Monday, it was certainly possible that things would turn out that way, but she could’ve chosen House B. This coincides with Aristotle’s view of the open future and common sense. After all, if, say, the leaf blower hadn’t been making a racket next door (or whatever), Sally might have picked the other house.

This view has a funky consequence. It involves rejecting what philosophers call the principle of bivalence, which is simple enough—all statements are either true or false. But the tosafists (and Aristotle) propose that statements about future contingencies are neither true nor false. This seems to leave a whole class of meaningful statements stuck between truth and falsehood in some murky district of neitherness.

Rashi’s thought about ein breira requires less Advil. “The critical question, according to Rashi,” Hirsch writes, “is which (if any) house was rauy to be chosen by Reuven’s wife, where to say that something is ‘rauy to happen’ means that it is in some sense destined to happen.”

We know that Reuven intended to purchase the house destined to be chosen by his wife, but we have no way of knowing which house that is. The fact that she chooses a certain house leaves it open that there may have been a “change of destiny” whereby Reuven’s wife chooses a house different from the one she had been destined to choose.

On Hirsch’s reading, Rashi holds that there is simply no definite fact of the matter one way or the other. The vagueness “stems, not from our ignorance, but from a kind of indeterminateness or indefiniteness in the nature of the case.” This is similar, Hirsch writes, to what quantum physicists talk about when they say it’s indefinite whether an electron is “spin-up” or “spin-down.” It’s one or the other; it’s just vague or underdetermined which it is.

According to the tosafists, the statement “Reuven’s wife will choose House A” is definitely neither true nor false. According to Rashi, it’s not definitely true, nor is it definitely false; it’s unsettled. “For Rashi,” Hirsch writes, “metaphysical indefiniteness does not mean the absence of facts; it means that the facts themselves are indefinite.” As he puts it, “There is somehow an objective muddle in the world.” There is much more to say here, but even this much should show that Hirsch has given a philosophically interesting and compelling reading of one of the classic medieval talmudic disputes.

Hirsch’s essay is traditionally sourced—besides Rashi and the tosafists, he cites Ran, Rashba, Ramban, Rabbi Akiva Eger, Rabbi Aharon Kotler, and the Netivot HaMishpat—but his explanation of the dispute between Rashi and the tosafists is, as far as I know, novel. Should yeshivot, which, after all, are where disputes between Rashi and the tosafists are still studied, assign an essay like Hirsch’s? I don’t see why not. To ignore tools that explicate a key text or conceptual problem just because those tools were forged outside the tradition would be to miss an opportunity.

Tyron Goldschmidt, like Hirsch, investigates the argument of a great medieval figure, but his project is bolder. Following a famous line of argument in Rabbi Judah Halevi’s dialogue the Kuzari, Goldschmidt defends the truth of the traditional narrative of the Israelites’ miraculous exodus from Egypt, culminating in revelation at Sinai—on the basis of testimony of Jews living today. With characteristic verve, Goldschmidt writes, “Convincing a philosopher of anything is harder than splitting the sea. Certainly for me. Probably for God too. I should be satisfied if you come away thinking it all not the dumbest thing ever.”

Goldschmidt defends what the Jerusalem rabbi Dovid Gottlieb has called the Kuzari principle: absent evidence to the contrary, a tradition is likely true if it is accepted by a nation, it describes a national experience of a previous generation of that nation, and the national experience would be expected to create a continuous national memory until the tradition was established. Millions of Jews accept the exodus tradition today, and virtually all Jews accepted it until a few hundred years ago. Half a million freed slaves expelled from a miraculously decimated Egypt (through a bifurcated sea) who receive God’s law in a theophany at Sinai—that’s a sequence we’d expect to create a continuous national memory. Is all this really enough to believe that it’s true?

Goldschmidt starts with testimony. Most things we know about the world we know from testimony. I’ve never been to Moscow, but I know and trust people (friends, family, authors of books) who have been to Moscow. I’m so comfortable with Moscow’s existence that I sometimes just flat out assert things about Moscow, and my listeners take me at my word. Goldschmidt proposes that testimony should usually be believed, except in special circumstances—if the testifier couldn’t possibly know what he or she is talking about, say, or is manifestly untrustworthy. Everyone, philosopher or civilian, follows this or a close-enough rule a hundred times a day without a second thought.

National acceptance of great events in the past is also something we rely on frequently, and rightly so. Americans testify that they fought a civil war, but few can verify that the original source of their information is reliable. Nor is anyone in a position to know that there was an unbroken chain of reliable transmission—any chain will be filled with hearsay, rumor, and innuendo, anonymous and untested sources. But Americans accept that the Civil War happened, and that seems good enough. Historians have evidence to back that up—letters, newspaper articles, government documents, family lore. But this is also just testimonyof one or another sort. (Physical things like battlefields seem like more solid evidence, but evidence of what exactly? We interpret a battlefield in light of literary evidence. Otherwise, it’s just bodies and guns.) Documentary testimony can’t be verified except on the basis of . . . other testimony. The exodus tradition is the same in kind and different in degree. We cannot empirically verify a chain of testimony ending in the generation that came out of Egypt. Documentary evidence is way thinner than it is for the Civil War, but that evidence is itself, again, just testimony, to be interpreted on the basis of other testimony. What we have, here as elsewhere, is a case of acceptance. Is such acceptance reasonable?

The Kuzari principle is an “empirical generalization” about certain kinds of national traditions, of which the exodus tradition is an example, being true. The principle, Goldschmidt says, seems “serviceable”:

Substitute into it: Mohammed’s conquests of Arabia, the American Civil War, the Allied victory of World War II. These traditions satisfy the three conditions. And they are likely true.

They are backed up by historical evidence, sure. But again, that’s ultimately just more testimony. Furthermore, the national experience and memory creation preceded the historical research; otherwise, the historians wouldn’t have known where to look. The historians confirmed that these national traditions were themselves correct.

But, I hear you protest, nations make stuff up about themselves all the time. There are undoubtedly fictitious spins on national events: Japanese myths about World War II, Russian myths about Soviet behavior, British myths about imperial benevolence, French myths about the French Revolution, and the list goes on and on. But such national myths neither deny nor invent earthshaking events. They evaluate those happenings chauvinistically by eliding or inventing details the whole nation couldn’t possibly verify—say, about closed-door meetings or isolated skirmishes. Almost no two people on opposite sides of a war will agree about the origins of the war. But origins are quite a subtle matter. All will agree that there was a war. What is the event that the exodus tradition might be close enoughto, such that a nationalist revision hypothesis would be plausible?

Goldschmidt, admittedly, does not do a good job taking us through the scholarship on what and why nations remember. He breezily and perhaps brazenly declares that he awaits “with due trepidation the criticism that I have not understood the complex dynamics of myth-formation or what-not.” Students (to say nothing of producers) of the scholarly literature won’t like his tone, but maybe Goldschmidt has a point. Are there national traditions like the exodus tradition, about events that purportedly
happened to hundreds of thousands of people, that we can independently verify were not just nationalist revisions of true reports but got things radically wrong? There will be disagreements about particular cases, and Goldschmidt should’ve taken us through more of them. It may be in the nature of nations to believe false things about themselves, but are these things of the right scale to cast doubt on the exodus tradition?

 “Here’s some speculative projection onto ancient psychology,” Goldschmidt writes. If someone came around selling stories of miracles and revealed laws, “ancient Israelites would protest . . . ‘wouldn’t we have heard of it?’” The exodus tradition, remember, is not a private founding myth like the Roman story of Romulus and Remus. It says something gigantic happened to an entire nation (Halevi made this point in the Kuzari). Disseminating such a lie would mean overcoming pervasive and well-grounded incredulity. Further, as Goldschmidt notes, the laws of the Torah are very severe, the factual claims are near fantastical, and the tradition is often unkind to the allegedly chosen people. Statements against interest are presumptively reliable in courtrooms, so, Goldschmidt argues, they should be so here as well. On the other hand, Goldschmidt does not delve into all the ways in which a people might have great incentive to fabricate and accept a story like that without good evidence—or, perhaps, hundreds of years later with scraps of evidence and inchoate oral traditions.

Goldschmidt closes by responding to 10 objections; I’ll focus on two. One is the obvious conflict of the exodus tradition with academic biblical criticism and biblical archaeology. Goldschmidt believes that archaeology is in such disarray that there’s no clear objection to the exodus tradition, and he dismisses biblical criticism outright: “The relevant parts of biblical scholarship are often based on the thinnest evidence and are sometimes even pseudo-science.” Historians and skeptical members of the reading public will greet Goldschmidt’s remarks with bemused contempt—if they’re in good moods. This is bad news for Goldschmidt because archaeology and textual analysis are two of theempirical disciplines for independently establishing the exodus tradition. To the extent an Orthodox Jew would greet these fields’ concurrence with relief, intellectual honesty demands a measure of worry at their dissent (for what it is worth, I think the challenge of biblical criticism can be met). The best thing to say for now in Goldschmidt’s defense is that while our physical and documentary evidence from the recent past is very rich (think again of the American Civil War), from the ancient world, it’s remarkably thin, so perhaps a national tradition like the exodus tradition should count for more than most biblical critics are willing to allow.

“The Five Rabbis of Bnei Braq” from the Ashkenazi Haggadah by Joel ben Simeon. (London, British Library, © The British Library Board.)

Another objection Goldschmidt considers is from the philosopher Yehuda Gellman, who points out that in the Lotus Sutra, Buddha performed miracles before millions of witnesses. Does the Lotus Sutra, too, fall under the Kuzari principle? Goldschmidt first suggests that Orthodox Jews needn’t balk at accepting the Lotus Sutra at its word. Still, his principal response is that, unlike the exodus tradition, “the Lotus Sutra tradition wasn’t continuously transmitted or commemorated.” There’s an acknowledged gap of hundreds of years in the Buddhist tradition, and the “gap gives gullibility a foothold.” The Jewish tradition, by contrast, acknowledges no gap.

There are two weaknesses in this response. The first is that the Lotus Sutra isn’t the only possible counterexample. There is Jesus’s alleged feeding of the five thousand in the New Testament, the Mormon theophany, and so on. Other examples could surely be adduced, and Goldschmidt would either have to accept them as true, lower his confidence in the Kuzari principle, or somehow explain (with the Jesus example, it’s pretty easy) how the tradition in question truly testifies to someevent, just not a miraculous one. More seriously, it’s not quite true, as Goldschmidt says, that the Jews acknowledge no gaps. Second Kings 22 seems to report a loss and then rediscovery of the written Torah coinciding with bad public morals. (The scope of the loss isn’t clear from the text.) Goldschmidt speculates that the Israelites had succumbed to a kind of syncretism purged by the rediscovery of the scrolls. Infidelity to a tradition is, it is true, not the same as total ignorance, but, of course, there may also have been unacknowledged gaps. These possibilities aren’t fatal to Goldschmidt’s argument. If the tradition, astounding and demanding as it is, lacked a firm historical basis, it lowers the chances for a successful reintroduction. And a total loss of national memory is far less likely than a merely partial loss.

At the end of the day, how much credence you’re willing to give the exodus tradition and how forgiving you’ll be of acknowledged or unacknowledged gaps in transmission will depend on how likely you think it is that something like the exodus story could possibly be true. Perhaps Goldschmidt handicaps himself by addressing religious skeptics. Consider what happens if you add the premise that ethical monotheism is true to Goldschmidt’s argument. If you are willing to believe that there is a perfectly good, knowing, powerful being who expects human beings to be decent to one another, then you would find it extremely plausible that that being would want to initiate an ongoing relationship with human beings. If ethical monotheism is true, it would seem to make it very likely that something like Judaism is true because it would make it very likely that God had indeed gone about forming that relationship. And there aren’t many good candidates: Judaism, Islam, Christianity—and Judaism came first and has a tradition of mass revelation, points Halevi made himself in the Kuzari.

Whether you love or hate (or are pareve about) Goldschmidt’s argument, consider what it represents—a renaissance of Jewish philosophical theology in an analytic mode. Together with his collaborator Samuel Lebens—who’s penned a brilliant article in this collection about midrashic views about meaning in language—Aaron Segal, and others in and out of this volume, Goldschmidt is doing something that to my knowledge hasn’t been attempted by philosophers in English: defending a key empirical thesis of Judaism. Also, Goldschmidt, along with most of the other contributors to this volume, writes like a regular person rather than a member of a clandestine order.

Rav Joseph Soloveitchik, in the final chapter of his The Halakhic Mind, invites us to imagine philosophies of personal identity, free will, and value built from the halakha’s domestic resources. Next to philosophical proofs of the central tenets of Judaism, perhaps the most ambitious project for Jewish analytic philosophy would be such a philosophy of halakha. But Aaron Segal has a worry: that the view of some talmudic sage on a legal matter that seems “precariously perched on a metaphysical view that may well be false”—as some might argue of Eli Hirsch’s interpretation of Rashi—is not perched there after all. Segal writes that the rabbis weren’t “developing a distinctive metaphysic”:

They were . . . carving reality using concepts that are different from, and quite possibly indefinable in terms of, the ones an ordinary philosopher employs.

The Talmud’s rules for rendering legal decisions—for instance, that we rule in accordance with Beit Hillel—seem neutral with respect to the truth or falsity of Beit Hillel’s metaphysical claims. But at most one metaphysical view is true, and the others are false, and “viability” doesn’t seem to be an option.

Segal suggests that the halakha, like biology or history or physics, carves up nature in ways that are useful to its own purposes. Its notions of, say, causal responsibility will be coarser grained than those of the hard sciences, finer grained than those of history. But even if halakhic rulings don’t turn on metaphysics, particular halakhic theories might still become sharper, or easier to evaluate, when elucidated in a philosophical idiom. Physicists, historians, psychologists, and linguists may not always (or ever) thank philosophers for their interest, but philosophy has a proud record of learning from and spurring advances in other disciplines. I suspect the same will be true for Jewish thought and analytic philosophy.


  1. Phil Cohen

    Just a quick comment to a very dense article. The author uses the term 'ethical monotheism' t describe God as "that there is a perfectly good, knowing, powerful being who expects human beings to be decent to one another..." This boilerplate description of God has little relationship to ethical monotheism, a term coined, I believe, by Hermann Cohen and employed by several generations of mainly Reform rabbis to refer to an abstract, absolutely transcendent notion of God that has little to do with knowledge or power.

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