The limits of Rabbi Slifkin’s rationalism

Rabbi Natan Slifkin is far more open-minded and rationalist than your average Orthodox rabbi, and so I am very glad that his books and his Rationalist Judaism blog are out there.  It’s just a shame, though, that due to his strict adherence to traditional Jewish dogma, he has not been able to extend his rationalist inclinations beyond certain red lines.  It’s frustrating for those of us who so enjoy his insights about the Bible and Jewish tradition that it seems, from a spectator’s point of view, that he just can’t break free from the indoctrination of his youth and apply his rationalism to areas that Orthodoxy would consider off-limits – e.g. the existence of a personal God and the divine authorship of the Bible.  But as someone who underwent similar indoctrination, I completely understand how difficult crossing those boundaries is.  Plus, given that Rabbi Slifkin has a family and a large following, opening his mind too far could bring serious personal consequences.

And so while most of his posts exhibit his admirable drive for objective truth, occasionally he lets go of that drive and the intellectual rigor he normally employs when seeking such truth.  A prominent example is when he talks about divine providence – the idea that God watches over us (“us” meaning humans who have a Jewish mother, primarily) and orchestrates events so that things happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen if God weren’t there.  This idea runs totally against everything we know today in science and philosophy, and that’s one reason why, as I cited in my second post, the vast majority of scientists and philosophers today do not believe in a personal god.  Yet that’s exactly what he suggests in his recent post Providence and Lion Attacks.

After fully acknowledging that what he is about to write is completely irrational and that he is “aware of how easy it is for the human mind to see pattern and significance in that which, statistically speaking, contains none,” he goes right ahead anyway and says he can’t help how he “feels.”  What is it that he feels?  Because he was writing an encyclopedia article on lions and when he turned on his computer he found a news article about lion behavior that related directly to what he was writing, therefore he can’t help but “feel” that God – the God who allows millions of children to starve to death and tsunamis and tornadoes to wipe out entire cities – the God who created and manages billions of galaxies – made sure that a zoologist somewhere on planet Earth would write an article about lions and a website would post that article just at the right time for Rabbi Slifkin to write his encyclopedia article.

(I’m not making this up.  Read the blog post yourself.)

When I started this blog, I pledged always to be respectful, and I’m trying now, as well.  But how can someone acknowledge that what he’s about to write is complete B.S. and then go ahead and write it anyway!  Rabbi Slifkin knows full well that what actually happened was a regular old confirmation bias – that he noticed the one time that he found exactly what he needed right when he needed it, but he didn’t notice the hundreds of times he did not find what he needed right when he needed it.  He also knows full well that if we jot down A – every time anyone (or according to the Jewish view of divine providence, every Jew) is trying to find something and also jot down B – every time that person finds exactly what s/he needs when s/he needs it, we would see that B occurs exactly as seldom as we would expect it to occur according to basic probability.  Yet because divine providence is beyond the red lines, or perhaps just because the idea of a father in heaven watching over us makes a person feel warm and fuzzy inside, he completely abandons what he knows is the truth.  If he weren’t otherwise a rational person and if he weren’t aware of basic probability and the confirmation bias, I wouldn’t expect anything different.   That he is aware that what he is writing is verifiably false is what is so frustrating.

Rabbi Slifkin apparently tries to preempt such criticism by saying, “But I can’t help how I feel.  Quite simply, I really strongly feel a tremendous amount of divine providence in my own life.”  We’ve heard this one before: “You can’t argue with my feelings,” or “Religion isn’t just about science; it’s about emotions.”  The problem is Rabbi Slifkin is making a statement about the world – that his seeing that lion article online at just the right time would not have happened if God hadn’t intervened.  He is asserting that if left to their own devices, random chance and coincidence would not have given him his much-needed lion article.  That’s a verifiable claim.  When you make statements about reality, feelings are irrelevant and, most often, detrimental.

We have very reliable tools we can use to determine how probable or improbable his finding that article was, and his feelings are not among them.  Moreover, if you want to know whether any verifiable claim is true – whether that claim is that a certain herbal remedy works, or that I’m likely to win the lottery tomorrow, or that finding a certain article at a certain time is improbable, feelings are Public Enemy #1.  My feeling that the Psalms I recited a month ago contributed to my Aunt Thelma’s cancer going into remission does nothing but make it more difficult for me to accept the truth, which is that some people with cancer go into remission.

If MC Hammer knew that feelings need to be set aside sometimes, why can’t Rabbi Slifkin?

If I were a praying man, I would pray that Rabbi Slifkin someday let go and allow himself to seek truth in every realm.


6 thoughts on “The limits of Rabbi Slifkin’s rationalism

  1. tesyaa

    Once in a while I think there’s a God and he’s messing with me, like when I’m playing “Bernadette” in my car and I walk into the supermarket and their music provider is playing “Bernadette”. It’s almost less work to believe in a God – one that’s messing with me – than to remind myself that number one songs of the past 50 years are basically all that supermarkets play. And I’m a math person.

  2. walterwart

    Almost nobody is consistently rational all the time.
    Few of us are ever rational as opposed to rationalizing.
    So I cut Rabbi Slifkin a lot of slack on this. He says “I’m using logic, reason and evidence up to this point. I realize everything past here isn’t.” It’s honest. It posts the boundaries clearly. And it allows him to live in the Orthodox world he wants to inhabit.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Thanks a lot for reading and commenting, walterwart. I pretty much agree with everything you wrote. I just feel that, since he realizes it’s irrational, he shouldn’t at the same time be presenting it to the world as some sort of legitimate rationale for believing in divine providence. (At least that’s how I perceived what he was doing.) He should just say, “I know what I’m feeling is false and is nonsense, but it makes me feel good.”

  3. tesyaa

    I meant to add that this tendency to see ordinary events as signs of divine provenanceis due to years of being conditioned that “hashgacha pratis” runs our lives, that every leaf that falls is ordained by the deity, etc.

    1. Freethinking Jew Post author

      Hey, thanks for reading and commenting, tesyaa. I think you’re right about this. In Rabbi Slifkin’s case, though, I doubt he believes in the whole “every leaf that falls is ordained by the deity” thing. And so that’s what makes his lion article story even more disappointing, in my mind. I guess if you’re a person of faith, you have to believe in hashgacha pratis to one extent or another.

  4. Pingback: This, I love | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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