Thoughts on Judaism

Thursday, September 08, 2005

100 dollar promise

This piece of hashkafa has perplexed me for the longest time. When we say that something is true, a promise of the Torah, a prophecy, a Chazal, Moshiach, Techiyas Hameisim or anything else. what do we mean by the term "TRUE"? Do we mean that we can rely on it? Or do we mean that it cannot be proven false, but that it will ultimately by reinterpreted or apologized, so we cannot rely on it literally either?

Take science, for instance. There was no problem with the Mishna sages, the Rambam, the Ramban and other greats discussing the scientific concepts that ruled in their day. It was infallibility doctrine that solidified these evolving concepts into a concrete form. Then, along come modern apologists to try and build a link between the “four elements” and atomic theory, or the mythical astronomical galgalim and “String theory”. How did Ptolemy know these amazing scientific facts, you ask? Why he got it from the Jewish sages of the time, of course. And we are forever stuck with trying to reconcile the medieval science with current knowledge, based on better observation.

Of course, many tools are available to save us. Nature changed, don’t you know. The theory of relativity (which the apologist has, no doubt, read through, at least once) corroborates. Science cannot really DISPROVE the relic of infallibility. Since it was stated infallibly, and science cannot DISPROVE it, it remains in its default state of truth. And, when the death blow comes ultimately, it retreats to Rabbi X never really said that.

And the what of the "TRUTH", OY! If we cannot reconcile our view of infallibility with real truth, we can always fall back to spiritual truth (presumably in the face of physical falsity), different levels of truth, or some other excuse why the infallible is false.

And here is the danger. It undermines the nature of truth, such that it is meaningless. A clear example is the $100 promise. A promises B a gift of $100 tomorrow. As the next day finishes, B goes to A to claim the money, and A refuses to taunts of “liar”. A retorts in one of the following ways:

1) By “tomorrow,” I meant some unspecified time in the future.

2) I meant to give you the spiritual equivalent of $100

3) If I was to threaten you with a gun, and I would accept $100 not to kill you, you would certainly give it to me. Since I am not threatening you, consider it as if I have given you $100, since you still have the money that you agree that you would have given away.

4) 4) The promise is beyond our simple, humble understanding. We do not have the ability to judge the truth of the promise, based on our deep inferiority to A.

In any case, A’s promise is tenably TRUE. But the promise is still meaningless. The entire TRUTH is meaningless, because it has been redefined. TRUTH is no longer something to rely on, but something to be molded when it fails to produce. B has a TRUE promise, which controverts the entire value of the promise, reliance on its truth.

If we say that fundamentalism today is defended in this manner, will the Ikarim, prophecy, Moshiach, and Techiyas HaMeisim be defended in this way tomorrow? And if so, why do they hold any meaning?


  • Absolute truth is pretty much beyond our grasp, in Science as well as in Religion. The best we can do is make do with what we have. Currently, its clear that Breishis is not literal. I wouldn't take Moshiach so literally either i.e. I agree with the concept but have my doubts about an actual guy on a white donkey. Same with techiyas hamysim.

    All these concepts are true on some level, but not in the immature medieval forms that the fundamentalists think they are, or that you learned in kindergarten. To the extent that you are able to hold of a more sophisticated understanding of these concepts, you should do so. But there is a limit to our current understanding of all this, same as with Science. Is Relativity 'True'? It works, but it no doubt will be replaced someday with something more refined and accurate. Its the same process with Religion.

    However this is nothing new, the Rambam had pretty much figured all this out 800 years ago.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:55 AM  

  • Sadly, I must agree with GH.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:44 PM  

  • Isn't the point of the prophets making a promise to us that we can rely on it, even to point of mesiras nefesh? You seem to be agreeing with the idea that the truth of the promise is not a reliance that the promise will be fulfilled, but more like the 100 dollar promise of the post. If so, of what value is mesiras nefesh for such promises? Why were Biblical characters punished for not believing in promises if, as we imply, the promise is not reliable? They are wrong for being right?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 3:29 PM  

  • The promises will be fulfiled, just maybe not in the sense you currently think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:54 PM  

  • Let's get specific.

    If G-d says "you will win the war and you will not be killed":

    Do we go to the war knowing that we will not be killed?

    Will others look upon our dead bodies and make some p'shat why it is that we were killed?

    Will they say that we did win and we did survive in some spiritual way?

    If the first is not the answer, the plain meaning of the promise, then of what value is it to me?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:50 PM  

  • Even more concise:
    If someone else were making the promise to me, would I not say that he lied (or at least was wrong)?

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 8:53 PM  

  • Everytime I ask these things, I am told some version of number four, all about how these ideas are beyond my primitive and humble understanding. So I vote for number 4. Primitively and humbly.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:38 AM  

  • Of course, onionsoupmix.

    It is not their inability to explain it, it is your inability to understand. So why bother?

    If you are a woman, it is even harder than that. Rambam MT, Talmud Torah 1:16, last three words.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 1:19 PM  

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