Dissonance and Damage Control in the Search for Meaning

“The individual strives towards [inner] consistency.”[i] This notion forms the basis of Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance. The consistencies in question include both ones between cognitive elements and the relation between beliefs and actions. That is to say that a person tends towards beliefs which do not contradict each other, and also tends to act in a way which is consistent with beliefs he or she holds to be true. When a contradiction, or dissonance, arises between either two beliefs or between a belief and one’s actions,[ii] psychological discomfort follows. This discomfort provides motivation to resolve the dissonance. In Festinger’s own example,[iii] an avid smoker may be informed by a reliable source that smoking is very harmful to one’s health. If the smoker continues to smoke he experiences dissonance, since his actions are now at odds with his beliefs. The resultant discomfort motivates the smoker to resolve the dissonance in one of a number of ways. The smoker might stop smoking, or, if this is too difficult, might find some way of convincing himself that smoking is not so bad after all.[iv]

Festinger defines “the maximum dissonance that can possibly exist between any two elements [as] equal to the total resistance to change of the less resistant element.”[v] One’s beliefs and actions are resistant to change, but, given a great enough amount of psychic stress, one will inevitably change any belief or action. Thus, argues Festinger, the maximum amount of dissonance that can exist between any two cognitive elements is equivalent to the amount of stress required to change the less resistant belief or action. The question is, can there be a dissonance with elements so deeply rooted in man’s experience that it can never be resolved? If such a complete schism exists, it follows from Festinger’s theory that it would cause enormous psychic torment. A potential candidate of such a dissonance is found in the writings of the existential philosophers.

In his classic essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus examines the philosophical mindset of a person who chooses to commit suicide. “Dying voluntarily,” he writes, “implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”[vi] In fewer words, the suicidal impulse can only take hold once a person has concluded that life has no meaning. Camus goes on to describe the genesis of this feeling, which he terms “the absurd”. The first step along the path toward the absurd is the break in one’s day-to-day functionality: “The chain of daily gestures is broken.” And in its stead there appears a void “in which the heart vainly seeks the link that will connect it again.”[vii] People are generally focused on their daily activities. But on occasion one may experience a moment of reprieve and reflection. It is within this moment that the “why” arises. A person strains to understand not only the purpose of his or her particular occupation or position, but the purpose of life itself. In this new light, writes Camus, every action is “tinged with weariness.”[viii] The person feels suddenly estranged from his or her work.  At every turn the “why,” the mystery of meaning, appears to question the veracity of those activities. Life itself feels irrational and irrelevant.

Camus determines that the “absurd” feeling is the result of a contradiction between human nature and experience. On the one hand, man desires to understand the universe he lives in. By “understand” we do not mean detached mathematical constructs or partial theories. Rather, man seeks “in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena eternal relations capable of summing them up and summing themselves up in a single principle.”[ix] In short, the human mind deeply desires to discover the unifying secret of the universe. It seeks to intuitively understand the world in its elegant simplicity and to decode its transcendent meaning.[x]

But as soon as the mind applies itself, and attempts to embrace the whole of reality, “This world cracks and tumbles.”[xi] Instead of finding unity, the mind finds only more discord, which increases with every new morsel of insight.[xii] Even science appears as a patchwork quilt of ever-changing laws and theories. The disturbed mind searching for profundity and singular purpose cannot find comfort there.[xiii] The “confrontation of this irrational [world] and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” is Camus’s definition of the absurd. Camus is careful to note that it is not the world itself that is the absurd but rather the connection that binds man with it. The tension caused by man’s inner belief of universal meaning and his inability to perceive it in the world around him is the absurd.

Thus we find that, in Festinger’s terms, Camus has uncovered a fundamental cognitive dissonance in the human psyche. This dissonance is fundamental because by means of it the mind’s drive for consistency is opposed by the very experience of reality. Every action and moment in life is touched by it. Moreover, we find that this dissonance cannot be easily resolved. If a mind is to stay true to itself, it cannot deny its deep desire to find meaning and its equally strong incapacity to accomplish this. To deny either of these requires a leap of faith.[xiv] Camus concludes that, on these bases, one must learn to embrace the absurd.[xv] From Festinger’s perspective the decision to maintain a dissonance is unnatural if not unhealthy. It means that the mind must fight against powerful natural inclinations.

We now turn to the mesorah. What mention can be found of the absurd in the Judaic library and how is it approached?

According to Midrash Rabbah, our patriarch Avraham seems to have experienced the absurd. In the first passage in parashat Lekh Lekha R. Yitshak outlines the back-story to God’s first contact with Avraham.

[The story of Lekh Lekha is] a parable analogous to one who would travel from place to place. Once he saw a prominent city burning. He asked, “Can this prominent city be without a leader?” The master of the city gazed upon him suddenly and said, “I am the master of the city”. So too because our father Avraham would say, “Could it be that this world has no leader?” The Holy One, Blessed is He, gazed upon him suddenly and said “I am the Master of the world.”[xvi]

In his Yedei Moshe, R. Ya’akov Moshe Ashkenazi explains the passage thus:

[The passage] means to say that just like this [traveler] saw the prominent city alight, that is to say burning, and thought that since no one was putting out the flames it was certain that the city had no leader, and the master of the city gazed upon him and said “I am the master of this city and it is my desire that it should burn,” so, too, when  Avraham our forefather saw that the world was on the path to  destruction in the generations of Enosh and the flood and the separation he said, “Can it be said, Heaven forfend,  that the world has no leader?” The Holy One, Blessed is He, gazed upon him and said “I am the master of the world and it is my desire to destroy the evildoers. And as for you, go for yourself (lekh lekha).”[xvii]

According to the Yedei Moshe, Avraham looked out at a world that stood on the brink of destruction. Mankind had already experienced a devastating flood and mass dispersion. Avraham’s universe appeared bleak and incomprehensible. And yet he sensed that it cannot be that a universe could exist without purpose. As this inner turmoil – the picture of the absurd – came to a head, our forefather cried out to the heavens. “Can it be that this world burns without purpose? Can it be that there is no leader coordinating this existence?[xviii] Impossible! And yet all I see is destruction.” At once, the Almighty, who was waiting, ke-va-yakhol, in the rafters, appears to the embattled Avraham. He does not reveal the meaning of the world that Avraham sees. He merely reassures Avraham that there is, in fact, a meaning – that the events unfolding are His will. He then commands Avraham to leave his homeland.

Perhaps this formula can be used to present a Jewish approach to the cognitive dissonance inherent in the experience of the absurd. God reveals Himself to man as the undeniable master and maintainer of the universe. However, God does not reveal to man the universal meaning he seeks. Rather, God issues a command. What is the relevance of the command in this context? Evidently the human being is incapable of grasping the divine calculus and reason with which the Almighty governs the universe.[xix] At most one may be assured of the existence of such a plan through revelation of the One who governs it. But these experiences are fleeting and one quickly becomes focused on daily activities, each person “turn[ing] to his own course, as the horse which rushes into battle.”[xx] In no time at all, the imprint of revelation is lost and the beginnings of the absurd are again close at hand. Therefore God issues a command together with this revelation which perpetuates the experience of revelation. While a person is actively involved in fulfilling a command, with knowledge of the Commander, the moment of command – the revelation – lives on.[xxi]

The command also has a second function. Although not referenced in the Yedei Moshe, the conclusion to the midrash above provides its own reason for “lekh lekha.” It quotes the verse from Psalms: “The king desire[s] your beauty…”[xxii] God commands man because He desires man’s improvement. Conversely, man understands that as long as he follows these instructions life has definite purpose. A meaningful universe does not guarantee a life which is aligned with that meaning. But within the cocoon of the command from God, before Whom the universal animus is not concealed, a purposeful existence can be sought and found.

Given the above, it is not surprising that we find a similar pattern at the beginnings of Halakhah. Rambam begins his Mishneh Torah with the affirmation, “The foundation of foundations and the pillar of pillars is to know that there exists a first cause.”[xxiii] The basis of any halakhic action is the knowledge[xxiv] of God. What is the point of this belief? Is this purely a philosophical necessity, or is there a specific cognitive element to Halakhah that requires recognition of God’s command as part of the halakhic act? Rambam takes the former route. In Sefer ha-Mitsvot he defines the injunction to “know God” as a requirement for one to have that particular philosophical position.[xxv] The “foundation” that is laid by this knowledge in relation to Halakhah is equally philosophical. Knowledge of God is the first on a list of things that one must know in order to be a Jew.

On the other hand, Rabbeinu Moshe mi-Kotsi in his Sefer Mitsvot Gadol brings knowledge of God closer to halakhic actions. He formulates the commandment as “[believing] that the One who gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai by means of our master Moshe is Hashem our God who took us out of Egypt.”[xxvi] The belief in God, and, specifically, His revelation at Sinai are bound with the commandments in the Torah. R. Avraham Danzig adds an extra element to this halakhah, namely that this mitsvah is one of the six “continuous commandments” which are constantly binding. One can and should fulfill them at any time.[xxvii] Extending[xxviii] R. Danzig’s position, we may conclude that every time a halakhah is observed there is a requirement to recognize not only God’s existence but the direct relationship between that existence and the mitsvah being fulfilled. In this way the revelation at Sinai, where God issued the mitsvot, is preserved by the fulfillment of those mitsvot.[xxix] The Jew reminds his or herself constantly of “God the king of the world, Who sanctified [Israel] with His commandments.”[xxx]  This shields the Jew from the debilitating torment of the absurd.

In light of the above analysis we may reconsider our original questions. In Camus’s definition of the absurd there is indeed found a cognitive dissonance which is intrinsically unresolvable. The human craving to find ultimate meaning in the universe is persistently unfulfilled. Camus argues that one must embrace the absurd. Judaism, while it does not claim to settle this dissonance, aims to mitigate it. The ways of God are inscrutable, and His designs are recognized as beyond human comprehension. However, the revelation of God allows for definite knowledge of a meaning, though not the meaning. The halakhic system strengthens this recognition by drawing the experience of revelation constantly into daily life and creating a framework of meaningful activity in the form of the mitsvot. As the Jew works to attain a constant recognition of God, the reality of the absurd fades from conscious thought.             From Festinger’s perspective these two approaches have different values in terms of mental health. In Camus’s solution to the absurd the dissonance is allowed to fester, causing significant psychological stress. Halakhah’s approach, on the other hand, should significantly reduce this stress Man may strive for inner consistency, but his reach will forever exceed his grasp. Halakhah allows for this reality to be confronted in a healthy way and from within the context of a meaningful life.

[i]    Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1957), 1.

[ii]   In logical terms, two elements x and y are dissonant if x implies the negation of y. Cf. Festinger, 13. Festinger does not differentiate between contradictions of beliefs with other beliefs and beliefs with actions because he holds that actions ultimately map back to certain cognitive belief elements, cf. p. 19.

[iii]  Festinger, 2.

[iv]  Ibid. 6.

[v]   Ibid. 28.

[vi]  Albert Camus, “From the Myth of Sisyphus: An Absurd Reasoning” in Basic Writings of Existentialism, ed. By Gordon Marino (New York: Random House, 2004) 437 – 488, at 443.

[vii]  Ibid. 448.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix]  Ibid. 472.

[x] It is not coincidental that this statement is very similar to Festinger’s claim of the human striving for consistency. Festinger’s position is not a philosophical one. He holds that human beings are hard-wired to seek uniformity. From his perspective the craving for simple meaning that Camus presents would likely be an outgrowth of biological predisposition.

[xi]  Ibid. 453.

[xii]  For more on this, see R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man, 8-10. There he discusses assertion of the neo-Kantian philosophers that while new scientific discoveries increase arithmetically new questions increase geometrically. That is to say that for every step forward in scientific insight we uncover many more new questions which were previously unknown. This phenomenon can be observed on the contemporary scientific research scene which subdivides itself into increasingly small and complex areas as new discoveries and technologies are made available.

[xiii] There is, of course, a deep-seated desire in the scientific pursuit to discover a unified theory which will explain the universe in its totality. However this theory is not known, and subscribing to it is a declaration of faith in scientific progress. While the mind which experiences the absurd may in the end chose to make the leap to faith in science, scientific knowledge cannot serve a priori as a remedy to the absurd. This is also assuming that such a unified theory could adequately explain the meaning of reality in philosophical terms, which is certainly not held universally. Cf. R. Joseph B Soloveitchik Uvikashtem Misham 2:1-2 , where he argues that science is not equipped to answer qualitative questions about the universe. See also R. Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Mind Parts I-III  where he further elaborates on this point and argues that metaphysics can have an approach to comprehending the universe which is separate from and reaches different conclusions than the scientific one.

[xiv] A large section of The Myth of Sisysphus is dedicated to analyzing these approaches. See the section entitled “Philosophical Suicide,” 463 – 476.

[xv] Camus, 477.

[xvi]  Bereshit Rabbah 39:1, translation mine.

[xvii]  Yedei Moshe to Bereishit Rabbah 39:1, s.v. mashal le’ehad.

[xviii]  At this point the argument extends beyond the experience of the absurd toward a formulation of the teleological argument for the existence of God. That topic is beyond the scope of this article. What is clearly implied, however, is that an experience of the absurd prompted this outcry.

[xix] See Rashi to Shemot 33:18 s.v. har’eini na, 33:19 s.v. va-yomer, karati. In Rashi’s development of this narrative, Moshe desires to know what it is about himself that found favor in God’s eyes so that this knowledge can be used to gain forgiveness for kelal Yisrael. According to Rashi God’s response is to teach Moshe the thirteen attributes of mercy which Benei Yisrael can use to petition God for forgiveness in the future. However, when Moshe asks to see a vision of God Himself, presumably in order to clearly understand the nature of these things, he is refused. In the end God reveals only the thirteen attributes, which are a method of accomplishing what Moshe ultimately desired – forgiveness for Benei Yisrael, though not the explanation he was seeking. Cf. Moreh Nevukhim 1:54.

[xx] Yirmiyahu 8:6, cf. R. Moshe Hayyim Luzatto, Messilat Yesharim, chapter 2.

[xxi] This notion has basis in Jewish thought. In the final section of Uvikashtem Misham (Chapter 19) R. Soloveitchik discusses the perpetuation of prophecy as a key element in the activity of dvekut (cleaving/identifying with God). R. Soloveitchik writes that this perpetuation is accomplished through intellectual attachment to the oral Torah which links one back to the original revelation at Sinai. From a slightly different perspective R. Eliezer Berkovits in his Essential Essays (pages 222-232) argues that for historical religion attachment to the moment of revelation is essential to religious life. In Judaism this revelation is the one at Sinai. Berkovits argues that Jews connect themselves with revelation through faith. Thanks go out to my insightful editor Chumie Yagod for this last source.

[xxii]  Psalms 45:12 Koren Translation

[xxiii]  Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 1:1, translation mine.

[xxiv]  “Knowledge” here is not meant in the pure epistemological sense. Rather, it is as opposed to pure belief which is not derived from any personal analysis or proof. Cf. Moreh Nevukhim 1:52.

[xxv]  Sefer ha-Mitsvot, Aseh 1.

[xxvi]   Semag, Aseh 1.

[xxvii]   Hayey Adam 1:5.

[xxviii]  Presumably the hiyyuv to recognize God and the relation between His existence and mitsvot exists even at the time of fulfilling the mitsvah or, at least, the moments beforehand. Actively achieving this recognition was formalized by Hazal as berakhot.

[xxix]  I do not mean to argue that this is the sole purpose of the mitsvot, merely that this is one aspect of their purpose.

[xxx]   Standard berakhah formulation for mitsvot, translation mine.