When the reader reads about Moshe’s encounters with Pharaoh, through which Moshe will ostensibly prove to Pharaoh through impeccably timed and pre-described miracles that the God of the Israelites is the one true God, the reader knows that it is true, that there actually is a God, that that God is the One True God of All Phenomena Who controls all of nature and reality and loves the Jews and will liberate them, whether Pharaoh plays along or not. But if you were Pharaoh, you would simply think Moshe was bonkers.
After all, everyone at that time knew for a fact that there were many gods, and magic and sorcery were real, and one explanation was just as good as another as to why things were happening. Your resistance to Moshe’s story about what was happening would have been a sound conservative approach, resisting the urge to capitulate to the latest politically-motivated socio-religious agenda.
Ironically, it sounds a lot like the Church’s resistance to Galileo’s claim that the earth was not (or was no longer) the center of cosmos. Galileo published Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, in which he promoted Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Galileo was encouraged by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine not to publish his claims as actual claims, but as theories, seeing as his claims would represent ”a very dangerous thing, likely not only to irritate all scholastic philosophers and theologians, but also to harm the Holy Faith by rendering Holy Scripture as false.”
Here, and elsewhere, one can see that the concern of the Church was to maintain the status of Scripture as the supreme description of reality. Their argument was not directly against his science - in fact, he complained in a letter to Keplar, “What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times?” Rather, their animus was directed at the theological implications of his proposition that the sun is stationary at the center of the universe. Such a claim was "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.” The proposition that the Earth moves and is not at the centre of the universe as “at least erroneous in faith.” (taken from Wikipedia). Their response to Galileo was only very partially to disprove his science; it was primarily to show that his claims contradicted (their reading of) Scripture and was therefore false, since Scripture was the only acceptable descriptor of reality.
Not that Galileo’s claims were intended only and simply as scientific; they intentionally challenged the Church’s worldview, leading them to hear the implication that “the words of Holy Scripture do not mean what they say; that in discussions about natural phenomena the authority of Scripture should rank last” (Letter from Lorini to Cardinal Sfrondato, Inquisitor of Rome, 1615 [grabbed from Wikipedia]).
Galileo, however, persisted in publishing works that promoted and defended heliocentrism. He was found by the Inquisition to be “vehemently suspect of heresy” and was held under house arrest until his death in 1642.
One can certainly understand the reticence of the Church to capitulate to Galileo’s claims, as provable as they may have been. After all, those claims by definition challenged the very cohesion of the worldview presented by the Church. In this sense, their response is similar to Pharaoh’s response to Moshe.
It seems quite natural that people would go to the mat to defend the cohesion of their worldview. After all, a serious challenge to the cohesion of a worldview threatens not only power structures, systems of education, systems of worship and devotion, the basis for morality and a sense of purpose; it challenges the very cohesion of self. People fall apart when this happens. (Consider the Midrash that describes the priests throwing themselves off the roof of the Holy Temple when it was destroyed - they just couldn’t imagine a place for themselves in a world in which the Temple could be destroyed and its service could cease.)
There are ample similarities and differences (and even ironies) to be contemplated from a comparison between Moshe’s confrontation with Pharaoh and Galileo’s confrontation with the Church. What I am particularly concerned with at the moment is whether, through such comparisons, the transposed-to-the-17th-century Moshe would be more like the Church or more like Galileo.
At his time, Moshe played the part of Galileo in that he challenged the old paradigm with something that was demonstrably true but anathema to the accepted beliefs of the time. Unlike Galileo, though, he wasn’t arguing for “science” (though he was arguing for a more scientific “religion” in that the God of the Hebrews ruled over all aspects of nature, like the laws of physics apply in all places). He was presenting Pharaoh with an updated worldview that has something in common with science in the sense that it was more accurate than Pharaoh’s view as a predictor of reality. But it still wasn’t science, like Galileo’s was.
But, transposed 2500 years forward, would Moshe have been more like the Church, or more like Galileo? Is the Church simply Moshe gone bad, calcified into certain beliefs that are no longer descriptive of reality nor very useful, but to be defended just the same because they are believed to be central pillars of the cohesive worldview that they mark?
Or, does Meta-Moshe, in every iteration, continue to argue against whatever the worldview of the day happens to be, if it can be replaced with a more useful worldview, even if the new one seems to have discarded some of the beliefs that appeared to be essential to the faith in the old view? Even if some of those beliefs can be traced back to an earlier iteration of Meta-Moshe?
Said another way, when we tell the story of Galileo and the church, must Galileo always stand in for science-defying-religious-dogma, or can he also symbolize the defiance of outdated religious dogma by any new position that is a more accurate or useful description of reality, regardless of whether the message seems more or less theistic or atheistic in its particular message?
I believe this conundrum is played out in the gambler’s fallacy. From Wikipedia:
The gambler's fallacy can be illustrated by considering the repeated toss of a fair coin. With a fair coin, the outcomes in different tosses are statistically independent and the probability of getting heads on a single toss is exactly 1/2 (one in two). It follows that the probability of getting two heads in two tosses is 1/4 (one in four) and the probability of getting three heads in three tosses is 1/8 (one in eight). Now suppose that we have just tossed four heads in a row, so that if the next coin toss were also to come up heads, it would complete a run of five successive heads. Since the probability of a run of five successive heads is only 1/32 (one in thirty-two), a person subject to the gambler's fallacy might believe that this next flip was less likely to be heads than to be tails. However, this is not correct, and is a manifestation of the gambler's fallacy; the event of 5 heads in a row and the event of "first 4 heads, then a tails" are equally likely, each having probability 1/32.
Pharaoh is the gambler. He believes that particular outcomes - like, the Nile turns to blood; all the sand in Egypt turns to lice; packs of wild animals roam freely in his domain and stop at the invisible border of the Jewish encampment - can be attributed to phenomena that are objectively unrelated - i.e. the work of his sorcerers and necromancers.
Galileo comes and says, “You fool! Those outcomes have nothing at all to do with your sorcerers and necromancers, just like the results of one coin toss have nothing to do with the one before it.”
What is Moshe’s position here? In one sense, Moshe is like Galileo. He, too, says to Pharaoh, “You fool! Those outcomes have nothing at all to do with your sorcerers and necromancers, just like the results of one coin toss have nothing to do with the one before it.”
And, Moshe says to Galileo: “In fact, there is a relationship between one coin toss and another, but we both agree that it has nothing to do with Pharaoh’s sorcerers and necromancers. Rather, it has to do with the hidden, Divine Will that underlies all phenomena. If the God of All Phenomena decides that Pharaoh has found favor in His eyes, or for some other reason to which only the God of All Phenomena is privy, He may provide Pharaoh with, say, fives doubles in a row in backgammon, or twenty coin flips in a row that land on heads. If Pharaoh finds himself in Las Vegas at a poker table, he would be wise to leave his sorcerers and necromancers at home and instead focus on the mathematics and psychology that underly successful poker playing. At the same time, he may beg for favor from the God of All Phenomena, in hopes that the God of All Phenomena will look favorably upon him and hook him up with some good cards. And the God of All Phenomena may choose to do so, and He may choose not to do so. Pharaoh would be wise not to count on any particular results, but the Will of the God of All Phenomena functions independently of Pharaoh’s hopes and expectations, just like the results of one coin toss are independent of the results of another.”
To what extent does organized Judaism of today, particularly in Orthodoxy, act more like Pharaoh than Galileo? What are we holding on to in the face of compelling argument and evidence to the contrary that is preventing thinking people from engaging deeply with Judaism? And, in the inverse, what is genuinely essential within Orthodox Judaism without which it ceases to be Orthodox Judaism? When are we digging our heals in the wrong places, for the wrong causes, and when are we actually defending what must be defended? What is heresy and what is, simply, change?
When a spiritual phenomenon encounters another spiritual phenomenon that negates it, if it swerves from its course to avoid a confrontation, it will necessarily be damaged and weakened, even if it retains its original character and continues to hold its ground. But if it should respond by hewing a new path under the influence of the phenomenon opposing it, and with its aid, then the opposing force will stimulate it to greater strength, so that it will as a result rise to a higher and more enlightened state, emerging with fresh triumph in its basic goal and essence.
If I am interpreting properly, and I believe one can never be sure one is interpreting Rav Kook properly, Rav Kook is saying that, when Galileo, or atheism, or Mordecai Kaplan, or whomever comes, do not swerve! Engage him straight on! Let him help you hew a new, stronger path to a “higher and more enlightened state.” There is nothing to be afraid of.
In his essay “Souls of Chaos,” Rav Kook recognizes those who rebel against “the conventional pattern of living, based on propriety, on the requisites of good character and conformity to law” as “souls that are inspired by the world of chaos” who are “greater than the souls whose affinity is with the established order.” They come to “generate new life,” and “their aspiration is a dimension of holiness, that which, in souls content with measured progress, would yield a vigor of life.” Rav Kook is critical of those who cannot absorb the critique along with its infusion of newness, energy, and holiness, telling us that “only sinners, those weak in spirit and hypocrites, are frightened and seized by terror. True heroic spirits know that this force is one of the phenomena needed for the perfection of the world, for strengthening the power of the nation, of man, and of the world.” He continues:
Initially this force represents the realm of the chaotic, but in the end it will be take form the wicked and turned over to the hands of the righteous who will show the truth about perfection and construction, in a great resoluteness, inspired by clear perception and a steady and undimmed sense of the practical. These storms will bring fructifying rain…
Rav Kook saw atheism as having “a temporary legitimacy, for it is needed to purge away the aberrations that attached themselves to religious faith because of a deficiency in perception.” Its function is to “remove the the particular images from the speculations concerning Him who is the essence of all life and the source of all thought. When this condition persists for a period of several generations, atheism necessarily presents itself as a specific cultural expression, to uproot the remembrance of God and all the institutions of divine service.”
Such critiques are absolutely essential when “our religion does not yield the noble fruit it ought to yield, it does not raise the sounds form the lowly state and the numbers of those who dishonor it and desecrate it increase.” He reassures us, though, that Judaism can take it: “The Jewish religion is rooted in the Infinite, which transcends every particular content of religion.”
Further on this point, from “Concerning the Conflict of Beliefs and Opinions”:
Everything is embraced in [Judaism’s] soul, it includes all spiritual inclinations, the open and the hidden, in a higher encompassing concept just as everything is included in the absolute reality of the Divine. Every such definition in Judaism is heresy and is analogous to establishing an idol or a molten imagine to explain the character of God.
Not that it is simple to receive the critique of atheism with open arms. “On seeing such convulsions people believe that religion is dying, that the world is being overturned. In truth, however, the shadows are stirring, they are in flight, in order to make room for the light.” Despite the challenge, it is necessary to hear the critiques - from science, philosophy, and perhaps most importantly, from practitioners themselves who indicate that some components of practice should be changed, some dropped, others added.
In Rav Kook’s thinking, there are components of accepted (but not compulsory) Jewish theology/cosmology/metaphysics that represented the best thinking of the time, but must be let go of when faced with evidence to the contrary, or even when faced with certain other concerns.
And, obviously, there are elements of Jewish theology/cosmology/metaphysics without which it is no longer Jewish theology/cosmology/metaphysics. But we see that certain assumptions have been carried through many generations of Jewish thinking and then have been let go of - Rambam was open to Aristotle’s thinking about the origins of the world that challenged certain readings of Genesis, when the the time came to face them seriously. Rav Kook himself, particularly in the book L’nevuchei Hador, showed great flexibility and willingness to consider scientific theories that challenged traditional Jewish thinking.
What else is being schlepped along because it is perceived as essential, but actually isn’t? Is it still “real Judaism” without the belief that the Jews are the chosen people? If you accept neurological materialism and not free will? If you accept major components of other religions as valid? If you do not believe in the eternality of the soul? If you think gender assumptions and roles need to be rethought, or tossed out entirely? And, if so, does it make sense to articulate an up-to-date, streamlined version of “the baseline Jewish theology” that modern, thinking Jews will feel more comfortable coming home to?
An inability and/or unwillingness to do so might place the Jewish establishment in the same boat as the Church when it faced Galileo’s challenge.