The Nature of Reality

It’s interesting to note that in Jewish terminology, existence is phrased in terms of the thing-as-experienced, not the thing-in-itself, as it would be objectively known if it were possible. For example, the Rambam opens the Yad by telling you that there is a First Matzui, and He is mamtzi everthing that is nimtza. The word “nimtza”, which is used to mean existence, is from the root /m-tz-a/, to find. Experience.

When something is real enough to have impact, we say is has “mamashus”. Or we say that something is mamash exciting, where in English it would be “really and literally exciting”. The word itself, though, literally means “tangibility”.

Perhaps this is because halakhah exists to change the person following it. “The person is made [nif’al] according to his actions [pe’ulaso]”, as the Chinukh often says. Thus, the reality that the halachacist must address isn’t the objective abstract existence, rather, it’s the one experienced and shapes the person.

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  1. Jacob Farkas says:

    Halakha is a directive for human experience when faced with objective existence. The parameters are textual, albeit legal, the experience is physical.

    Perhaps I am overlooking the obvious. But, what is gained by assigning a new realm of reality in which Halakha is to exist?

  2. micha says:

    It has explanatory power. If halakhah applies to reality-as-experienced, then it explains such diverse things as why microscopic bugs are ignorable, or why chazaqah demei’iqara (assuming the situation hasn’t changed since the previous observation) is valid.

    Even some of the more obscure issues of the mechanics of rov (majority). If rov is about objective reality, then it’s a rule about how one assesses probability. If it’s about experience, then it is to be treated less mathemetically, and more in terms of how people react to playing the odds. I would argue, perhaps in a future blog entry, that halakhah conforms to the latter.


  3. Jacob Farkas says:

    Given that Hazal lacked the tools available to us today, experience and its subsequent observation was the scientific method of years past. Rather than redefine the parameters of reality, or Metzius, consider that there was no method of describing, let alone legislating anything that wasn’t tangible to the immediate 5 senses without yet-undiscovered equipment.

    Why the same Halakhah applies nowadays when there is the ability to verify differently from what was previously established is a question of Rabbinic Authority and will (or public need.) Stating that Halakhah has its own reality is thus the practical equivalent of stating that although the Halakhah was based on observations made prior to current scientific discovery, we respect the continuing authority of previous generations to the point that we won’t allow current observations to be used in an effort to reverse the precedent set forth by their legislation.

    The Nafqa Minah between reality of observation vs. strength of precedence would be in the creation of new Takanos and Gezeiros where observation or reality of experience alone may not relay anything of value. Two examples, a)Checking a Sefer Torah via computer b)Would not a future Beis Din rely on photographic or video evidence? Even though in both cases reality of experience is not present, the lack of Halakhic precedent in either scenario allows a current decisor to use all methods available.

  4. micha says:

    I am NOT saying halakhah has “it’s own reality”. Rather, that halakhah applied to experience and reaction, rather than the need to ascertain what’s “really out there”, the “thing in itself”.

    (In Kantian terms, I’m saying halakhah requires the phenomenological universe only.)

    This frees me from the problem of asking why halakhah wouldn’t change when their theories are shown to be objectively false — as long as the theory explains human experience, it’s right.

    I also find that your position would leave me wondering why G-d would have set things up so that the era most critical for setting halachic precedent lacked the tools we have now for determining the science about which it applies. From where I stand, the advance of science is irrelevent.

    Neither your A nor B really shows the distinction between our positions. The seifer Torah checked by computer is still determining what a human being could see, if people had invested the longer time it would take to look. A camera that picked up cracks too small for the eye to make out wouldn’t pasel any additional sifrei Torah.

    In other words, I’m talking about the experiencable, not the experienced. That which could be experienced but wasn’t is still called efshar levareir ([the doubt] could in principle be resolved). If someone was neglectful in birur (doubt resolution), that neglect also factors in.

    You have motivated me to put up something on the laws of birur and how they apply to witnessed realities, unwitnessed but experiencable realities, and my claim things no person could ever experience first-hand simply don’t exist as far as halakhah is concerned.


  5. Jacob Farkas says:

    I agree that when you define the realm of Halakhah to be experienceable rather than observation via experience, that the issue with Computer verification of Sefrei Torah is resolved. Establishing a Hazaqah with an ‘unwitnessed reality’ is a difficult concept for me to accept, but I will await your future post.

    The theory [that Halakhah is limited to experienceable observations, and when challenged with objective existence, Halakhah need not be modified, as its reality lies in human experience] could only be realized in an era when objective existence could be determined with tools that go beyond human experience. In an earlier era this distinction was impossible, as there was no concept of objective existance that defied the experienceable.

    One discussion that comes to mind that deals with the intangible in Halakhah, is the concept of דבר שלא בא לעולם and how it relates to Qinyan. It is a Mahloqes between Tannaim, some were of the opinion that one could sell a דבר שלא בא לעולם . While there are some Aharonim who debate whether this Mahloqes is about the mechanics of Qinyan, that it may/or may not require tangible objects, others say it has to do with the concept of גמירת דעת . For the latter, Halakhah is comfortable with intangibles, the question is are people comfortable with it to the point that Qinyan of such a nature will be in an indicator that the person did indeed resolved to give up ownership.

    I am not aware of other scenraios where Hazal was explicit in stating that they limited their legislation to the experienceable.

    As to why God would allow for Halakhah to be decided in an era when science was less advanced. The short answer was that he didn’t limit Halakhah to any particular era, per se. The Torah gave specific authority for the sages of every generation to decide how best to apply ‘living the way of Torah’ to the reality of their generation. The rules of precedent are not absolute, later generations have the power and authority to override previously established principles. Hazal used their best judgement when they used observational methods and knowledge of their time, they did not err on purpose. Should the facts point out the obvious, as we now know it, current Rabbinic authority has a choice whether they feel it serves the best interests of the public at large to continue with the precedent in light of its error, or to change the precedent.

    In summary, I don’t doubt that Hazal dealt exclusively with the experienceable, but that is not the realm of Halakhah, it may appear so, because it has gone unchallenged because of the respect to precedence.

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