Saturday, November 04, 2006

Avram Ha Ivri: Theological Countermajoritarian

In this past week’s sedrah, Avraham Avinu is referenced by the term Ivri, an in Avram ha Ivri. (Ber. 14:13) There is a famous Chazal that indicates that this connotes Avraham’s ability to hold to a position despite being against that of the entire world -- Avraham be-zad ehad ve-kol ha-olam be-zad aher. (The Seforno on that possuk says it means that he adhered to the beliefs of Ever.) When the almost the entire rest of the world adhrered to paganism, Avraham Avinu adhered to monotheism. That was part of his greatness – tha strength to be Avram ha Ivri.

I note this because lately I have seen a rather disturbing trend in some “Jewish blogs.” In discussing matters of emunah, a great deal of attention is paid to what “most” authorities of one kind or another hold. For example, it is intimated that since “most scientists” believe in evolution, it therefore follows that we are obligated to do so, and those who don’t are benighted ignoramuses. Or, for another example, when one prominent Orthodox writer wrote that atheism as a philosophy has a problem justifying morality and ethics, a prominent “J-Blog” took him to task that in fact many famous philosophers had come up with justifications for morality that did not depend on the existence of God. Variations on this theme repeatedly come up in the J-blogosphere – Dr. So-And-So is only a minority opinion, so therefore his opinion on _____________ (fill-in the blank: evolution, cosmology, age of the universe, morality and atheism, etc.) is trash and not worth even considering.

I am reminded of a famous maaseh of R. Yonasan Eybeschutz. (That’s in whose name I heard it, others have told me the same in the name of others.) A local bishop asked him, “it says in your Torah acharei Rabbim le hatos, go after the majority. Well the Jews are very much in the minority. Most people [at least in that part of Europe] believe in J-----, so shouldn’t you?”

His famous answer: “Our Torah only says to follow Rov where we have a safeik -- a doubt. If we are unsure what the halakhah is on one point, and the qualified authorities get together, we are commanded to follow the majority opinion. But that does not apply when we are sure – and in matters of faith we have a tradition and have no doubts.”

Simply put, the halakha of acharei rabbim le hattos has no application whatsoever to matters of faith. The fact that “most scientists” believe something is very interesting, but does not change our faith one iota any more than the fact that most people believe in J----.

In fact, this is also the case from a philosophical point of view. What difference does it make that “most scientists” or “most philosophers” adhere to one opinion or another? The truth or lack of truth of an opinion is not dependent on how many people hold to that opinion. There have been many occasions in the history of mankind when what the majority – even the majority of experts – believed turned out to be false.

Add to that the fact that in most disciplines, science included, there are a set of working axioms which most people use in analyzing whatever they are working with – evidence, scientific data, philosophical concepts, etc. Most people trained in the discipline accept those axioms unchallenged. Even if there is something wrong with one of those axioms, still “most people” will adhere to the way of thinking in which they have been trained and are comfortable. It is only the rogue thinker, the iconoclast, who will question the underlying assumptions. Maybe eventually the radical concept will be accepted – but in the meantime, the “majority” will be wrong, simply because of intellectual conservatism if nothing else.

So when discussing issues, the “majority” argument is at best a red herring and at worst misleading. In matters of faith, we should emulate Avraham ha Ivri – even if the whole world is on the other side.

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