Shmuly Yanklowitz

The Limits of Reason and the Ethics of Inclusivity

Throughout Jewish history, new ideas have emerged and been integrated into Jewish thought. Rationalism is one example of this phenomenon, but the countermotion to this mode of thinking is just as well-established in our tradition. For example, while the Rambam was the great Jewish champion for rational thinking, he also knew its limits.

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I say that there is a limit to human reason, and as long as the soul resides within the body, it cannot grasp what is above nature, for nothing that is immersed in nature can see above it… Know that there is a level of knowledge which is higher than all philosophy, namely prophecy. Prophecy is a different source and category of knowledge. Proof and examination are inapplicable to it… Our faith is based on the principle that the words of Moshe are prophecy and, therefore, beyond the domain of speculation, validation, argument or proof. Reason is inherently unable to pass judgment in the area from which prophecy originates. It would be like trying to put all the water in the world into a little cup (Teshuvot HaRambam Veiggerotav, Lichtenberg, Leipzig ed., 1859, Letter to Rabbi Chisdai, 11, pp. 23a-23b).

In the modern world, we have seen spectacular advances thanks to reason, whether in medicine, food production, and transportation. Nevertheless, at times an extreme dependence on what is perceived to be reason has caused great harm. Some (such as the Reverend Thomas Malthus) argued that population would vastly outstrip the ability of people to grow food, which led some to argue that the “surplus population” should be allowed to starve. The economist David Ricardo proposed an “iron law” in which wages should never be raised above the subsistence level, and Utilitarians proposed nightmarish prisons and workhouses, in the mistaken belief that people chose to be poor. Charles Dickens searingly portrayed this inhuman philosophy in many of his novels; no passage is more effective than the opening of Hard Times, in which the wealthy Thomas Gradgrind expounds on his theory of education, which should discourage all imagination, creativity, or spirituality in favor of reason:

NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!

This extreme view of “reason” would later lead to the pseudo-science of eugenics and “scientific” racism, which led to the deaths of millions of people in the last century. Today, we see this stress on reason over spiritualism in the views of some political leaders and business executives, who openly espouse the values of Ayn Rand, embracing unlimited greed for a supposed elite while simultaneously opposing all forms of charity for the poor. Fortunately, this tendency has not completely taken hold, as our society values the balance between reason and spiritualism, and appreciates the virtues that each affords to us. Scientists may learn from theologians, and theologians from scientists, in the arenas of the mind and the spirit.

That we have limitations in our reasoning does not cause us to negate our intellectual commitments in the slightest. Nor does it necessitate that we “choose faith over reason.” Our faith should, as best as possible, be situated within an intellectual foundation.

Proactive doubt can lead to deeper questioning and that questioning can move us toward greater answers. Certainly, we should not shun others who ask big questions and do not come to the same conclusions that we do. Even Rav Avrahom Yeshaya Karelitz (the Chazon Ish), the great 20th century Ultra-Orthodox thinker, argued for inclusivity in this regard (Yoreh Deah, Shechitah z:i6).

[Such laws] only applied at times when the Divine presence was clearly revealed, such as in the days when there were open miracles, and a heavenly voice was heard and when the righteous would operate under direct Divine intervention which could be observed by anybody. Then the heretics were of a special deviousness, bending their evil inclination towards immoral desires and licentiousness. In such days there was [the need] to remove this kind of wickedness from the world, since everybody knew that it would bring Divine retribution onto the world [including] drought, pestilence and famine. But at the time of “Divine hiding,” in which faith has become weak in people, there is no purpose in taking [harsh measurements against heretics and violators]; in fact it has the reverse effect and will only increase their lawlessness and be viewed as the coercion and violence [of religious fanatics]. And therefore we have an obligation to try to bring them back with “cords of love” (Hoshea 11:4).

Going even further, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal), the 16th-century thinker in Prague, argued that we should not reject others with ideas different from our own but rather take the intellectual freedom to truly learn and discuss with them.

It is proper, out of love of reason and knowledge, that you not [sum­marily] reject anything that opposes your own ideas, especially so if [your adversary] does not intend merely to provoke you, but rather to declare his beliefs… When our Rishonim [the earlier Jewish sages] found something written against their faith, they did not reject it [out of hand], for it stands to reason that [such opposition] ought not to be a cause for rejecting it and silencing a man when it comes to religious matters; for religion is given to all. This is especially so with regard to the written word… should there not have been a reaction against the books of the philosophers who, following their own investigations, repudiated [tradi­tional religious teachings] and asserted the eternity of the universe and thus denied the creation altogether? Nevertheless [the Rishonim] read their books and did not dismiss them. For the proper way to attain the truth is to hear [others’] arguments which they sincerely hold, not out of a desire to provoke you. Thus, it is wrong simply to reject an opponent’s ideas; instead, draw him close to you and delve into his words (‘Be’er HaGolah, end of last chapter, translated by Dr. Norman Lamm Torah Ummada, Jason Aronson, pp. 5758).

Jewish ideological camps in the 21st century are becoming narrower and narrower. We must remember that there is an incredibly wide range of possibilities for what is a “Jewish idea.” And even when something seems to be “outside,” it does not mean that the idea should be rejected and certainly not that the person should be alienated. We must continue to have a filter to make very intentional decisions about what we believe. But we must also embrace others lovingly who seem to contradict some of the core ideas and values that we cherish. Of course, there are boundaries and limits, but we must have humility in setting them and always embrace an ethic of sincere inclusivity and deep respect.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”


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About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.