John Stuart Mill On Orthodox Judaism

Most people probably do not consider utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill to be any sort of an authority on Judaism. In fact, I doubt Mill himself would have considered himself to be such an expert. But I did find one passage of his which perfectly captures the state of discourse and debate in Orthodox Judaism.

The following paragraphs are from the beginning of Mill’s The Subjection of Women which I proudly bought for $6 at a Barnes and Noble moving sale. Mill’s basic argument is against the automatic social, economic, and political disadvantages imposed on women from birth. As an introduction to his argument, Mill explains the uphill battle he faces in challenging the widely accepted status quo. While his observations are generic enough to be applicable in many other areas (politics, business, academics etc), I’d like to put this in the context particularly in how Orthodox Jews engage matters of religion be it halakhic or theological, and perhaps recalling my own personal hashkafa series.

Note: Although I tried copying verbatim, I apologize for any spelling and punctuation errors. Because Mill has a tendency for run-on sentences, I bolded one particular segment for particular emphasis so as not to get lost in the paragraph.


The very words necessary to express the task I have undertaken, show how arduous it is. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the difficulty of the case must lie in the insufficiency or obscurity of the grounds of reason on which my conviction rests. The difficulty is that which exists in all cases in which there is a mass of feeling to be contended against. So long as an opinion is strongly rooted in the feelings, it gains rather than loses in stability by having a preponderating weight of evidence against it. For if it were accepted as the result of argument, the refutation of the argument might shake the solidity of the conviction; but when it rests solely on feeling, the worse it fares in argumentative contest, the more persuaded its adherents are that their feeling must have some deeper ground, which the arguments to not reach; and while the feeling remains, it is always throwing up fresh entrenchments of argument to repair any breach made in the old. And there are so many causes tending to make the feelings connected with this subject the most intense and deeply rooted of all those which gather round and protect old institutions and customs, that we need not wonder to find them as yet less undermined and loosened than any of the rest by the progress of the great modern and spiritual and social transition; nor suppose that the barbarisms to which men cling longest must be less barbarism than those which they earlier shake off.

In every respect the burden is hard on those who attack an almost universal opinion. They must be very fortunate, as well as unusually capable, if they obtain a hearing at all. They have more difficulty in obtaining a trail, than any other litigants have in getting a verdict. If they do exhort a hearing, they are subjected to a set of logical requirements totally different from those exacted from other people. In all other cases, the burden of proof is supposed to lie with the affirmative. If a person is charged with murder, it rests with those who accuse him to prove his guilt, not with himself to prove his innocence. If there is a difference of opinion about the reality of any alleged historical event, in which the feelings of men in general are not much interested, as the Siege of Troy for example, those who maintain that the even took place are expected to produce their proofs, before those who take the other side can be required to say anything; and are at no time are these required to do more than show that the evidence produced by others is of no value…

Before I could hope to make any impression, I should be expected not only to answer all that has ever been said by those who take the other side of the question, but to imagine all that could be said by them – to find them in reasons, as well as answer all I find: and besides refuting all arguments for the affirmative, I shall be called upon for invincible positive arguments to prove a negative. And even if I could do all this, and leave the opposite party with a host of unanswered arguments against them, and not a single unrefuted one on their side, I should thought to have done little; for a cause supported by universal usage, and on the other by so great a preponderance of popular sentiment, is supposed to have a presumption in its favor superior to any conviction which an appeal to reason has power to produce in any intellects of a high class.

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