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The Pathologies of Faith and Reason by Dr. Sanford Drob
The Pathologies of Faith and Reason by Dr. Sanford Drob

Volume 2 , Issue 5

How often have we heard it said that a certain individual ?went crazy? and decided to become an Orthodox Jew, or (from the other camp) that an individual came under the wrong influence or himself went mad and decided to forsake Torah and Mitzvot. It is certainly a common-place that decisions of others with which we are comfortable we tend to attribute to an individual's capacity for reason or (if we value such things) to his capacity for faith. Decisions of others with which we are uncomfortable we often attribute to social, psychological, or, most often, psychopathological causes. Thus, new baalei teshuvah (?returnees? to Orthodox Judaism) can be heard to congratulate one another for the reasonableness and profundity of their ?discovery? while bemoaning the fact that their non-religious relatives have been continuously ?seduced? by secular values or are the victims of a psychological resistance to the Jewish soul within them. At the same time, non-religious individuals will frequently attribute their relative's new-found Orthodoxy to a psychological insecurity or personal flaw, while congratulating themselves for their even-tempered approach to religion and their sense of proportion in life in general.

Even within religious circles we hear charges that one individual has gone wild or crazy with ?chassidus? or that another is too emotionally inhibited to experience the true joys of Yiddishkeit. Again, those with whom one agrees are thought to be reasonable or faithful, and those with whom one differs are regarded as emotionally insecure, unstable, defensive, under a bad influence, etc.

While it is certainly not the rule, it is clearly sometimes true that individuals with serious psychological problems project their personal conflicts onto spiritual and religious issues, and it is not uncommon for individuals to adopt (or reject) a religious lifestyle as a result of essentially psychopathological needs.

Psychological Factors Dominant?

How does one determine, in the individual instance, whether one's religiosity or lack thereof is the result of ?healthy? as opposed to ?pathological? processes? There, are, of course, many dangers in attempting to make such a determination. It is, as we have seen, far too tempting to label the beliefs of those with whom one disagrees as irrational and ?sick.? Hence, one should always err on the side of ?health? and be ever so reluctant to attribute another's spirituality or religious convictions to psychological causes. In all likelihood, in a majority of cases, rational, spiritual and psychological factors combine to create an individual's religious convictions, and the so-called ?healthy? religionist or skeptic is so in part because his rational convictions coincide with his psychological needs in a manner which sublimates or camouflages the latter.

Still, we can begin to describe certain signs and indicators which suggest that psychological factors play a dominant role in one's religiosity or lack thereof. We can do so through an examination of two major factors which together determine an individual's religious behavior and frame of mind. These two factors are the dimensions of reason and faith. We shall see that while reason and faith can be the finest and most sublime expressions of the human soul, they each have their ?pathologies,? pathologies which can lead an individual into forms of psychological disorder disguised as spirituality and commitment to religion. Through an understanding of the pathologies of reason and faith we may gain some needed perspective on the health of our own spiritual condition.

Reason, or intellect, in its purest, most elevated form is, according to the Rambam, the faculty which enables an individual to attain knowledge of both the world and God. It is the supreme value, for intellectual knowledge of God is man's greatest good and the source of his eternal happiness. Religious teachings, according to the medieval Jewish philosophers, are ultimately rational teachings, and for both the Rambam and Saadiah Gaon, reason is, to a great extent, the arbiter of faith.

On an individual level, the person of reason is knowledgeable, logical, broadminded and even-tempered. He or she is able to see and understand both sides of an argument and decide or mediate between them. The rationalist is intellectual as opposed to emotional, and his emotions and impulses are clearly under his control.

Faith: Belief and Commitment

In contrast to reason, faith involves the belief in, and, more importantly. the commitment to, specific ideas and values which guide one's life, regardless of their foundation in logic or reason. Indeed, the Biblical term for belief, enzunah, (as in ?belief in God?) connotes ?confidence,? ?trust,? and ?faithfulness,? an emotional as opposed to a purely cognitive conviction. Rambam and Saadiah Gaon notwithstanding, Jewish tradition provides that its adherents be committed to the realization of the values embodied in Torah, whether or not these values can be derived through rational reflection. One need only recall the Jewish people's response at Sinai, Naaseh, V'nishma, ?we shall do and (then) we shall hear (understand)? to realize the preeminence of faith and commitment over intellect and reason in the original Jewish covenant. Judaism is a religion of commitment and action founded as much upon faith as it is upon reason.

On the individual level, the person of faith is emotionally committed, action oriented and passionate in his commitment to the values which guide and lend meaning to his life. While not opposed to exercising his intellect, the person of faith refuses to be limited by it and is willing to act in the service of values or commands which he or she does not (yet) fully understand.

Ideally, reason and faith are blended together in harmony: faith providing the commitment to beliefs and values, and reason guiding that commitment in accord with the dictates of reality; faith providing the trust both in oneself, in others and in God,and reason assuring that such trust is neither foolish nor blind. The integration of reason and faith, or intellect and emotion, is a cardinal principle of both Jewish philosophy and mysticism. It is to be found in the doctrines of the rabbis (particularly in Pirke Avot), in the Rambam's view that emotions must be moderated by reason, and, somewhat surprisingly, in the Kabbalah. According to the Kabbalist, R. Isaac Luria, the ?breaking of the vessels,? the great world catastrophe, damage from which the Jewish people must strive to repair, was a result of a failure of integration between the rational and emotional midot (traits) of God and man.

The pathologies of faith and reason arise when either of these necessary and sublime faculties are permitted to reign on their own without the guiding influence of the other.

The pathology of faith occurs in an individual who arrives at his commitments via a narrowing of the scope of his intellect. Alternative possibilities, objections to his positions and points of view of others are blocked out rather than considered. In psychological terms there is a massive use of repression and denial to avoid inner conflict and doubt. Individuals suffering from this pathology are frequently highly impressionable and suggestible. They are frequently out of touch with the reality of those around them, while at the same time they have a need to convince (or a great intolerance for) those who do not share their point of view. The ?faith? of such individuals is frequently impractical or even ?blind,? and they often act in ways which are self-defeating. Rather than take concrete action to resolve a problem in conjunction with prayer, they will often rely on prayer alone, or seeming irrelevancies (such as ?singing z'mirot?) to resolve issues that call out for immediate, practical action.

Pathological Faith Rarely Deep

Pathological faith is frequently emotional, passionate and, at times, even hysterical, but it rarely runs very deep. Often an individual with this type of faith will lose faith after some seemingly trivial disappointment or will move from rebbe to rebbe (or guru to guru) as each fails to live up to the expectations of the devotee.

While a passionate and emotional faith can provide the lifeblood of a true religious experience, individuals with pathological faith are frequently led into what others regard as heresy. This is because their faith, tempered neither by reason, nor the demands of intersubjective reality, tends to degenerate into narcissism and ultimately into a cult of the self, centered either around the adherent himself or a ?spiritual master? with whom the adherent has identified.

As might well be expected, the pathologies of reason tend to be the opposite of the pathologies of faith. Pathological reason arises in an individual who has overworked his intellect at the expense of his spirituality and emotions. Alternative possibilities, objections to one's position, and others' points of view are given so much consideration that the individual is paralyzed into indecision. Skepticism, extreme relativism, indecisiveness and ambivalence are the hallmarks of pathological reason. In psychological terms, there is an over use of obsessive and intellectualizing defenses in an effort to avoid both personal commitment and emotional expression. Individuals who suffer from such pathology are frequently plagued by self-doubt, and as a result of their failure to commit themselves to overarching goals and values, their lives are often empty and devoid of meaning. Lack of depth and commitment in relationships to others is common, and as a result of skepticism, ambivalence and self-doubt, the individual may be plagued by a chronic, though unrecognized, depression.

It is important to realize that the pathologies of faith and reason are each to be found both amongst religious and non-religious individuals, and in particular, amongst observant and non-observant Jews. Pathological faith can certainly attach itself to any of a number of non-religious or even anti-religious institutions and causes, and pathological reason is sometimes found in individuals who utilize the minutiae of religious law, for example, to buttress rigid intellectualizing defenses and, in effect, disguise the spiritual and emotional emptiness of their lives.

The problem of Jewish philosophy has always been the reconciliation, on the abstract level, of faith and reason. On a more concrete level, it is the integration of faith and reason which is the task of every committed Jew. It is a formidable task, yet we should not allow its formidability to provide us with the excuse to sacrifice one at the altar of the other, and to slip off into a way of life and worship which is at worst pathological and at best incomplete.

Sanford Drob holds doctorates in philosophy and clinical psychology.



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