A Modest Defense of Judaism: A Personal Account for My Belief

Part 1: Foundationalism and Belief

When I was thirteen, I decided to come closer to Halakhic Judaism. I did not grow up halakhically observant, but at the age of thirteen something dawned on me. In the upcoming pages, I will present my thoughts as a thirteen year old. Some of these thoughts have developed, while others just needed some slight changes or rewording. In writing this, I hope to show that belief in Halakhic Judaism is justified.
The general form of my argument is:
(1)There is a God.
(2)I am Jewish.
(3)God handed a Torah to all Jews for all time.
(4)I must follow the Torah.

Premise (1) shall be defended by Plantinga’s argument for “properly basic belief.”[i] Premise (2) is fairly obvious. Anyone can look up his lineage and see that he is Jewish. The reader might desire the referent ‘Jew’ to be analytically defined.[ii] For the purposes of the argument, ‘Jew’ will simply be one who has a lineage of mothers and grandmothers who are genetically Jewish. With this, I avoid controversy by leaving it simply up to biology to be the decider of ‘Jewishness.’ Furthermore, no one can truly balk at it since for the most part it is a stipulative definition that is perfectly coherent.[iii] Ergo the second premise seems somewhat reasonable.

Now with regard to the argument as seen, there is an obvious, but undisclosed premise that leads to (4):
(5)One must listen to God.

This would seem obvious and would seem to be an intrinsic part of our understanding of God. Would not part of the definition of ‘God’ be omnipotence and omnibenevolence? Would not one follow the command of both an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God? This all might be said to be support for (5) but need not be since a simple survey of the conceptions of deity – both monotheistic and polytheistic – will show that part of the conception of God is the One who must be listened to.[iv]

The reader, though, may ask what evidence I have for believing in God.[v] The philosophers of theology have from time immemorial argued that belief in God is rational by providing demonstrations or proofs of God’s existence. On the other hand, those philosophers that challenge the former philosophers do not give necessary and sufficient conditions for rational belief in God. They simply ask for evidence for the belief in God. Hence they are called evidentialists.

The reason they ask for evidence is because if there is a preponderance of evidence for it, then belief in God is rational. This would mean that there is a set of propositions E such that belief in God is rational if and only if it is evident based on E. This, though, requires that E constitute evidence for belief in God.

But what propositions are to be found in E? How is a proposition to get into E? Under what criteria is a proposition evident such that belief in God is rational? Cannot E contain the proposition that one knows God exists? Does not Rambam in his Mishnah Torah[vi] state that one must know God exists? The evidentialist, however, will not consider knowledge of God to be part of E since he is rooted in classical foundationalism.

Foundationalism is the belief that one’s beliefs may be based upon others. For one to ask for evidence, one must presuppose that there are foundations of knowledge for which all knowledge, belief, faith, and rationality must be based on.  One knows that 72*71=5112 since he bases himself off of several other beliefs: that 1*72=72; 7*2=14; 7*7=49; 49+1=50; and other mathematical truths.

There are, though, other beliefs which one accepts not on the basis of others. These beliefs are basics, or for the foundationalist, they are foundations. One believes 2+1=3 not on the basis of some more readily discernible belief. For the foundationalist, some propositions are properly (or rightly) basic for a person and some are not. Those that are not basic must be given evidence, which ultimately leads back to properly basic beliefs.

Though there is much debate about what kind of propositions can function foundationally, there is one point of agreement: a foundation is self-evident. In supporting this conception of self-evidence, foundationalists state that:
(6)A proposition p is properly basic for a person S if and only if p is either self-evident to S or incorrigible for S.

This begs the question: How does the foundationalist, or for that matter anyone, know that a given proposition is self-evident? It seems plausible that one can make a mistake on what is self-evident. The foundationalist might support his previous claim by bringing:
(7)Whatever is self-evident is very likely true.
(8)Most propositions that seem self-evident are self-evident (and hence true).

But neither of these propositions seems self-evident itself. One can argue that certain propositions are self-evident to all humans since humans are evolutionarily conditioned to believe so. Furthermore, the fact that some of these self-evident beliefs are true might simply be fortuitous, and not be the result of their being self-evident. In fact, it may be that many or most propositions that appear self-evident to us are in fact false. Or, using Descartes’ Meditations,[vii] one might speculate that we have been created by a being that delights in deception and produced in us a powerful tendency to accept certain false propositions, which to us seem self-evident. Hence neither (7) nor (8) have the luster of self-evidence.


Part 2: Foundation of Belief

When we last ended we established that the objections against belief in God are founded in foundationalism. We further established what the beliefs of a foundationalist would be and showed that the foundationalist has no reason for accepting (7) and (8). The foundationalist is not obligated to them since there are alternatives. He simply believes them since he commits himself to the trustworthiness of his mental capacities. He relies on his ration – or more eloquently he relies on his epistemic endowment.

I mention all this not as a criticism. As Jews, we commit ourselves to reason, for if we did not, how could we create the grand edifice of halakha or delve into the crevices of the Talmud? Hence (7) and (8) are agreeable, but there is a more subtle element to the foundationalist – a positive one and a negative one – that can be objectionable:
(9)Self-evident and incorrigible propositions are properly basic for S.
(10)Only propositions of those sorts are properly basic for S.

The latter negative element does not seem self-evident nor follow from other self-evident propositions, though. In fact,the contrary is true. Propositions such as the following are all properly basic:
(11)I see a screen in front of me.
(12)I had breakfast this morning.
(13)That person is angry.

This far from implies that they stand alone. Experience together with other circumstances justifies us in holding propositions like (11)-(13). This is the grounding on which justification for (11)-(13) stand, and, by extension, the ground for the beliefs itself.

Take proposition (13). If I see someone angry, I assume something angered that person. I do not take it as evidence for that belief; I do not infer that belief from, nor on the basis of, others. My perception of the angry behavior plays a special role in the formation and justification of that belief. The abstract formulation of this idea is:
(14)In condition C, S is justified in taking p as basic.

A person is justified in taking a certain belief as basic if he is in a certain condition that makes him belief so, depending on what the situation and belief is. It would be indisputable that if S wore rose-colored glasses then he would not be justified in saying that paper is red. Nor would it be a debate that if one knows his memory is bad, he would not be justified in believing he had breakfast.

Based on this, there can be said to be conditions that arouse belief in God: guilt, gratitude, danger, a sense of God’s presence, and awe when seeing His works. These conditions deserve more detail,[viii] but at the moment suffice it to say that they exist.

Many are inclined to say that this might lead to admittance of any proposition. What stops the belief in voodoo or astrology from being a properly basic belief? The simple answer is that there are things which need not be mentioned how irrational they are. I cannot offer conclusive criteria for what can be properly basic. All I can say is that the only proper way to arrive at any criteria is not by making up rules, like the foundationalist might, but by looking at what is properly basic and inducing from there what such criteria might be.

Hence by way of conclusion, I will state that belief in God is properly basic. R. Soloveitchik put it such: “We do not need these demonstrations as proofs, because the experience of God is the basis of certainty.”[ix] He states that the proofs and demonstrations of the philosophers of theology are not needed because belief in God is properly basic. R. Soloveitchik states in much more exact and philosophical terms: “Just as consciousness of the world in general, and of the self in particular, do not involve logical demonstrations, but constitute the spiritual essence of man, so too with the experience of the Divine…If there is a world, if anything at all is real – and no one who has not been ensnared by vain sophistries has any doubt about this – then there is a God who is the foundation and origin of everything that exists.”[x] Here R. Soloveitchik refers to skeptics who, following Descartes, feel that we do not know anything other than our own existence; our world is simply an illusion. He thus is saying that assuming we place such skeptics aside, and that we believe that the world does exist, then belief in God is equally basic. He continues to explain in detail how man knows God directly from his worldly experiences. Our justification is the multifarious circumstances in which we feel God.


Part 3: Justifiably Exclusivist

After thus showing how belief in God can be used as a premise in (1)-(4) and stating in the opening remarks that (2) is empirically true, the last thing that needs to be defended is (3): God handed a Torah to all Jews for all time.

First, (3)’s terms need to be defined: ‘God’ has an obvious referent; ‘all Jews for all time’ is easily intelligible. But what is ‘handing’ in the context of the Divine? What is ‘Torah’? A stipulative, if not analytic, definition for ‘handing’ in the context of God shall be “a form of transmission given through some Divine means.” This is a fully intelligible definition since God can do all, and to say that he does not have a form of transmission is wrong, or worse, heresy. Torah, though, can only be given a stipulative definition: Torah is the written book that comprises of the 24 canonized books of tanakh and the Oral tradition known as Torah she’ba’al peh, which can loosely be seen as the rabbinic tradition and the axioms of decision-making.[xi]

After defining (3), an immediate motivation of (3) can be made. Just like (1) was motivated by properly basic belief, so can (3) be motivated. Jews are found in situations that incline them to think that the Torah was given by God. Such situations are seeing the infinite wisdom of the Torah, being inspired and amazed by the multifariousness of the Torah, and seeing Divine retribution that is foretold in the Torah. The latter might need further other situations and claims in order to lead one to such conclusion, but it is a feeling many feel. Like before, these are situations that simply exist for a Jew.

This defense, though, is only half the argument. One might be inclined to make this argument about (1), but unwilling to make such argument about (3) since (3) is so specific since it relates only to Jews.

This specificity would lead someone to accuse me of being an exclusivis – of being an egotistical braggart.[xii] What the person probably means when he calls me an exclusivist is that I am in a situation, called it D, where one is fully aware of other religions, knows that there is much that, at least, looks like genuine piety and devoutness in these other religions, and believes that he know of no arguments that would necessarily convince all or most honest intelligent dissenters.

To this accusation, I admit that I am an exclusivist with regards to this matter, but I see no harm in that. The alternatives to (3) are the denial of (3) and withholding from believing (3) by neither believing in it nor its denial.

If we consider the first alternative, which says that (3) or its analog from other faiths is false, there still is an issue of being an exclusivist. Situation D is the situation which both the person who affirms and denies (3) is in. Neither have arguments that would necessarily convince most, if not all, honest intelligent dissenters; both are aware of others and know of their seeming piety. Hence it would appear neither denying nor affirming (3) would fix the problem of exclusivity.

This leaves the third alternative: withholding opinion. Withholding one’s opinion on said issue can be called a different type of disagreement – instead of contradicting the proposition, one is dissenting with the proposition. This has the same issue, though, since now instead of saying that the denial is the superior position, the dissenter is saying being agnostic in one’s position is the superior position. The dissenter has no argument that would convince others of his position; he is fully aware that many either affirm or deny (3), yet he feels his position is right. Hence the dissenter is equally in position C. Thus, all things are equal. One is equally exclusivist whatever he does.[xiii]


Part 4: An Argument From Historical Thinking

After addressing the objection that my argument is exclusivist, it can be safely said that I am equally justified in holding (3) just as one is justified in holding its denial or withholding from the matter as a whole. This all, though, addresses simple justification. There is more that can be said to justify specifically the claim of (3) and not any random religious analog of (3). (3) serves as the best explanation for:
(15)All Jews in all places have the same Torah, such that they most probably do not know each other and have no idea of what the other’s Torah says.[xiv]

Immediate rejoinders come up: (i) (15) is a result of an oral tradition no different than any other oral tradition. (ii) If we say that (15), then what of Christian tradition?

Both rejoinders can be addressed with one response. Judaism’s claim is stronger than Christianity’s or many other oral traditions’. We claim that six million people were at Mount Sinai and heard the transmission of the Torah. The evidentialist may ask me to prove or bring evidence of such event. He may even jeer at my claim that all I have is the word of my parents who depend on their parents who in turn depend on their parents – in essence Mesorah. This reliance on Mesorah can be said to have more merits than, say, the word of one man saying that God revealed something to him. We make such claims in history: if there is an account from one person of some event, which no other person recorded, we believe it less than we would the account of millions of a different event occurring. In fact, the evidentialist contradicts his own beliefs in many ways: he depends on history, which itself is a transmission of word of mouth.

The evidentialist has no proof or evidence that, for example, John Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. He may have the body of Mr. Lincoln and point to the hole in his skull, but what proof does he have that a bullet made that hole or a bullet from the gun of John Booth who was standing right behind Mr. Lincoln at the Ford’s Theatre? The evidentialist will show me letters, writings, many things that would incline one to think Mr. Lincoln was assassinated by Mr. Booth, but he is doing the same thing I am doing – pointing to books, papers, and personal accounts that were passed down from one generation to the next.

The same can be said of believing there existed a Dickens who wrote Great Expectations. What proof does the evidentialist have to it? The fact the cover says the author is Dickens? The fact that there are accounts that state that a man named Charles John Huffam Dickens wrote a book called Great Expectations?

Is this not what I as a Jew do? I point to the book known as the Torah, which states that a being named God wrote it. I use the accounts of generations ago to attest for the Revelation. Hence I am justified in holding (3).

As for the last bit of (3) – “to all Jews for all time” – the Torah itself states this when God gives the Torah to the Jewish people: “And Moses went up unto God, and the Lord called unto him out of the mountain, saying: ‘Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel.”[xv] This verse does not limit which children of Israel, but simply commands Moses to tell the children of Israel. As Jews, we are also the children of Israel. In fact, the whole section that deals with the giving of Torah has no limiters. Why should we place any if there are none? In fact, why would one say that some things in the Torah are eternal, while others are not? This would require one to bring presumptions that are not even hinted at in the Torah. Either God gave it forever or gave it for that particular generation. Nothing in the middle would one would be inclined to say based on anything other than personal inclination, which honestly should not have place when we are dealing with the Divine Word. Hence we are justified in saying that God gave it to all Jews and for all time.

Thus, once the rejoinders are rejected and there is ground for one to be justified in stating (3), the rest of the argument can be justified and allowed. The whole argument has justification and strength, and one should be comfortable in his affirmation of the conclusion since all of the premises are justifiable.

[i] Plantinga, Alvin. Faith and Rationality: reason and belief in God (Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1983), 255-277. Most of the argument for properly basic belief is taken from there, but there are some changes that had to be made to make this a Jewish argument and not a Christian one. To save time, this endnote is here since my argument goes in somewhat order of Plantinga’s argument.
[ii] An analytic definition is a definition that breaks up a concept, proposition, linguistic complex, or fact into its simpler constituents, which will clarify the concept, proposition, linguistic complex, or fact in all contexts and uses.
[iii] A stipulative definition is a definition that is given for which the only constraint incoherence.
[iv] Remarks in the Illiad speak of how Hector is defying Zeus and how they will be punished for the wrong they did (Homer. The Illaid trans. E. V. Reiu (London, England. Penguin Classics 1950), 15.115; 15.128).
[v] For our purposes, the phrase “belief in God” will simply mean the belief in the existence of God and not to “believe in” in the sense of trusting Him, committing one’s life to Him, etc.
[vi] Mishnah Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:1.
[vii] Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy trans. Laurence J. Lafleur (New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. 1960), Meditation One.
[viii] For further analysis of these conditions see Soloveitchik, Joseph B. And From There You Shall Seek.
[ix] Soloveitchik, Joseph B. And From There You Shall Seek (Jersey City, NJ : Ktav Pub. House, 2008), 158 n.3.
[x] Ibid, 17.
[xi] This will be a simple non-controversial definition since going into the details and controversy of defining ‘Torah’ will ultimately take the paper in a different direction.
[xii] The defense of exclusivism is from Plantinga, Alvin. The Analytic Theist: an Alvin Plantinga reader (Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1998), 191-200.
[xiii] This is what is known as a tar baby argument: get close enough to them to use them against someone and one will likely find himself stuck in them too.
[xiv] This argument is an analog of R. Sa’adayah Goan’s argument and refers specifically to the time before the modern time. We had the same Torah, even though we knew nothing of each other. My great-grandfather can cite you p’sukim of Exodus that will be exactly the same as the Polish Jews’ even though he never heard of a place called Poland nor knew that Jews live in Poland. Cf. the introduction to R. Sa’adayah Gaon’s Emunot ve-Deot (Yerushalayim : ha-Universiơah ha-‘Ivrit bi-Yerushalayim, ha-Faḳulṭah le-mada’e ha-ruaḥ– ha-Ḥug le-hisṭoryah shel ‘am Yiśrael, 1970).
[xv] Ex. 19:3 trans. JPS.