Weekly Letter: The Importance of The Premise

In preparation for Shavuos, the Festival of the Giving of the Torah we share a scholarly letter in which the Rebbe comments on an article that discusses The Philosophy of Judaism.  In the letter the Rebbe emphasizes the importance of first ascertaining the premise upon which a discussion is based, so that the discussion can use the methods applicable to that premise: What is the premise? 1. accept Divine Revelation on Mt. Sinai or 2. not accept Divine Revelation as a fact, thus implying that our religion is based on man’s intelligence. The letter, written originally in English, is from the archives of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary Rabbi Nissan Mindel.

By the Grace of G-d
8th of Tammuz,5712
Brooklyn, N.Y.
Prof._________
Annapolis, Md.

Dear Professor _________
I was pleased to receive your reprinted article, from the quarterly JUDAISM, on Herman Cohen’s philosophy of Judaism. I appreciate your thoughtfulness, which was especially welcome after such a long silence.
Inasmuch as you do not write any personal news, I presume that both you and your wife are well, and that everything is in good order.
With regard to the article, it is generally speaking gratifying to note that in this so-called materialistic America the subject of Judaism is receiving substantial attention. Although not all articles are written in a favorable vein, the very fact is indicative of an interest in the subject, which is a good sign. For unlike conditions in Poland, etc., where heresy was the chief antagonist of religion, here in this country it is rather agnosticism and simple ignorance that we have to contend with. Therefore, something done to arouse interest in our faith is commendable, and there can be no danger of overdoing it.
As for the contents of the article, it is obviously impossible to dwell at length on such a subject in the course of a letter. Hence I can only limit myself to one general observation which is relevant to any discussion on religion, a question which is now also timely in connection with developments in our Holy Land.
The observation I wish to make, though simple enough, is this:
Before embarking on any scientific or philosophical discussion, it is necessary first to ascertain the premise on which the question on is going to be discussed. Having taken a certain premise as the basis of the discussion, one must confine such discussion to the methods applicable to that premise.
Where the choice lies between two premises which are contradictory and mutual1y exclusive, and having chosen one or the other it would obviously be illogical and contradictory, while accepting the one, to use the methods which are appropriate only to the other.
In our case, there are two such alternatives (1) To accept Divine Revelation on Mount Sinai as a fact, which implies that the Torah was given by G-d, (2) That Divine Revelation is not accepted as a fact, implying that our religion is the product of man’s intelligence.
If it is accepted, as we do, that the Torah is G-d-given, revealed at Mount Sinai, then a priori all critique by human intellect and discriminatory analysis by it of the wisdom of the Torah is ruled out, since the Torah represents Infinite Divine Wisdom (which does not rule out a limited measure of understanding, as mentioned below).
In such a case, it would be illogical to say “This part of the Torah I like and accept; that part, however, I do not like and reject; the other is obsolete, suitable only to the time and conditions prevailing during the life of Moses, which I supplant, and the like!” For the very concept of Divine Revelation presupposes something which the extent which is Divinely ordained by the Revelation itself can the human intellect grasp it; and only in such instances where the Torah itself determines conditions of time and place can such conditions be applicable. (This is also the basis for the Rabbinical injunctions being rooted in, and deduced from, and in accord with the principles revealed at Sinai. Thus, religious problems arising in the use of all modern technical devices, such as radio, television, microphone, etc., can be regulated according to the principles and laws found in the Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara.)
On the other hand, if the Torah be regarded merely an a human product, no debate is necessary as to its binding force, for, obviously, the human intellect some 3000 years ago could not be binding today.
In point of fact, nevertheless, we find that religious philosophers in the last centuries made precisely this mistake. While accepting the premise that the Torah is ‘From Heaven’ they have applied methods of thinking and deduction admissible only if the opposite premise were true.
Similar confusion reigns also in regard to the Holy Land, which can serve as a further illustration of the point I make. One often hears it said that Jewish inalienable right to the Land of Israel, despite many centuries of non-possession, stems from the Torah, where it is clearly recorded that G-d ordained it to be Israel’s everlasting inheritance. Yet in the same breath statements are made about instituting there a way of life contrary to the Torah, as though the Holy Land were like any other land conquered and held by force of arms.
So much for my general observation.
I had planned to write you the above in Russian, in keeping with our previous correspondence. However, for the lack of a Russian typewriter, I requested my secretary Dr. Nissan Mindel to put it in English.

With kind regards,
Cordially yours,

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