Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rav Yisroel Salanter: Why doesn't knowledge stop sin?

Prof Mark Stein ( Torah u-Madda Journal 9  (2000) page 46 ) In the talmudic tradition, action takes precedence over theory (at least in theory!), and the idea of disinterested philosophical reflection is discouraged." In the European-Christian tradition, contemplation is encouraged. In fact, among the philosophers, I can think of only one thinker, Benjamin Franklin, who gives serious consideration to the question of inculcating virtue in the individual, as distinct from the question of exploring the essence of virtue.

R. Israel was concerned with bridging the gap between religious ideals and religious practice, which is a question of therapy, not philosophy. But to construct his form of therapy, R. Israel had to analyze the illness: why do people who espouse values act counter to these values in everyday life? Debate over this question is one of the earliest in recorded philosophy, between Socrates and Aristotle. Socrates (in the Protagoras held that virtue is knowledge. Or to put it as a yeshivah student would: hissaron in practice reflects a hissaron in knowledge. Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics VII, 3) rejected this view as simplistic; his own sug­gestion as to how "weakness of the will" (akrasia) is possible-despite knowledge-will not concern us here."

R. Israel's solution is given, if only by implication, in the first words Iggeret ha-Musar. R. Israel suggests not only a solution to the problem of akrasta, but a deeper one than that of either Plato or Aristotle:
The imagination of Man is free; his reason is bound. His imagination leads him astray ... so that he fears not the certain future ... when he will suffer harsh judgments. No one else will be caught in his stead - he alone will bear the fruit of his sin; he is one, the sinner and the punished ....
R. Israel's explanation for the failure of the good man to live up to his beliefs goes far beyond the mere invocation of the "evil inclination." The question is what the evil inclination is, and how it functions. R. Israel's answer is that the believing sinner becomes alienated from his future self, so that he becomes as indifferent to his own future suffering as most of us are to suffering in a faraway land. It is therefore the task of musar to bring the future to the present, so that the sinner feels the pun­ishment already in his imagination. The philosophical analysis suggests a program of therapy, and this therapy R. Israel calls "learning musar"

But the problem is not just the "remoteness" of the future state. R. Israel's disciples, for example R. Isaac Blaser, reported that their teacher explained that the problem is (or is aggravated by) the great difference between our bodily existence and our eternal one, a difference so great that we find it difficult to identify ourselves altogether in the unimagin­able bodiless state. So we cannot act on our belief in divine punishment after death." R. Israel's view, as attributed to him by disciples, bears a striking resemblance to that of the famous atheist, Hume, who expresses mock horror at...
 the universal carelessness and stupidity of men with regard to a future state .... There is not indeed a more ample matter of wonder to the stu­dious, and of regret to the pious man, than to observe the negligence of the bulk of mankind concerning their approaching condition .... A future state is so far removed from our comprehension, and we have so obscure an idea of the manner, in which we shall exist after the dissolution of the body, that we are never able with slow imaginations to surmount the diffi­culty .... And indeed the want of resemblance in this case so entirely destroys belief, that except those few, who upon cool reflection on the importance of the subject, have taken care by repeated meditation to imprint on their minds the arguments for a future state, there scarce are any, who believe the immortality of the soul with a true and established judgment ....
Though the resemblance to R. Israel's analysis is obvious, R. Israel's is still the deeper. Hume presumes that sinners simply do not believe what they profess, on account of the weakness of the idea humans can have of a future state. Thus, in the end, Hume's diagnosis is a variant of Socrates': a defect in action presupposes a defect in belief. But Hume's diagnosis is based on a superficial account of the nature of belief itself, as constituted by a vivid idea-an account refuted by Thomas Reid in Hume's own lifetime, with the simple objection that we can have the most vivid hallucination without believing in its veracity." R. Israel, on the other hand, locates the problem not in believing in a future state, but in locating ourselves in the future state and relating to our future state as ourselves.

1 comment :

  1. Rav Salanter may mean that reason in itself is not complete belief. That is why it doesn't stop man from sinning. Complete belief is when the rational belief penetrates the subconscious where the dimyon resides.
    Hume may mean the same. "We are never able with slow IMAGINATIONS to surmount the difficulty." "By repeated meditation to imprint, etc."


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