Some things I am on the fence about. Some things I am off the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence and then get off. Sometimes I get off and then get back on. Sometimes I am off the fence, but then have a chnage of heart and jump over to the other side of the fence. Sometimes I am on the fence, and fall off unintentionally. Sometimes I am on the fence but think I'm off it, but really I'm on it. Sometimes I think I'm on the fence, but really I'm off it.
This reminded me of a famous statement in the second chapter of Maimonides' Laws of Idolatry:
We are commanded not to consider any thought that might lead us to uproot one of the fundamental principles of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to it, reflect and be drawn after the imaginings of our hearts. Because a person's mind is limited, and not all minds are capable of grasping the truth accurately. And if just any individual were to be drawn after the musings of his heart, he would end up destroying the world on account of his limited intellect.
How so? Sometimes he will occupy himself with idolatry, and other times he will reflect upon the oneness of the Creator - maybe it is true, or maybe not; [or he will muse about] what is above, below, before or after the Universe. Sometimes he will consider prophecy - maybe it is authentic, maybe not. Sometimes he will think about the Torah - maybe it is divine, maybe not. Yet he does not know the principles by which to judge these matters such that he should grasp the truth properly, thus he eventually becomes a heretic.
About this, the Torah states, "do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes." That is to say, everyone should not follow the inclinations of his limited intellect and imagine that his thinking process has led him to the truth.
Certainly the Rambam does not intend to discourage thinking. What he is emphasizing is that an individual who wishes to investigate the most basic questions of religious meaning must be a person of profound humility who possesses the requisite background knowledge and the necessary training to succeed in his quest. Even someone with all of these qualities will fail unless he exercises extreme caution throughout the process, and carefully distinguishes between issues he is prepared to tackle and those for which he is not yet ready.
One who doesn't have the prerequisite qualifications for this course of study is bound to fail. He will move back and forth between different ideas based on their intuitive appeal - "maybe it is true, maybe not" - and will be unable to arrive at secure conclusions. As Maimonides explains in several places in the Guide for the Perplexed, the reason for this flip-flopping is a reliance - conscious or unconcious - on untrained intuition.
A person with an extensive background of study in a field of knowledge will develop an intuition grounded in reality. His gut feeling about an idea will carry weight because it is rooted in authentic intellectual cognition. This is why great physicists, mathematicians and Talmudists often legitimately and successfully employ their intellectual intuition in the course of theorizing about problems in their respective subject areas.
In one famous incident, Rabbi Soloveitchik z"l, known as the Rav, was asked for evidence to support a legal ruling he had offered. He responded that his conclusion was intuitive; nonetheless, he observed, "my intuition is halacha." Having been immersed for countless years in the wisdom and methodology of the Talmud and Codes, the Rav harbored no doubt that, when a specific formulation of a Torah concept appealled to him, this appeal had a rational basis and was not merely subjective.
A novice, on the other hand, has only his imagination and his emotions from which to draw intuitive guidance. Naturally, these agencies are among the most fickle and unreliable in the human psyche. They can provide the appearance of certainty one moment, only to replace it with doubt and skepticism in the next. Unfortunately, our innate desire to arrive at the truth and to investigate the mysteries of existence often causes us to overestimate our competence and delve into subjects that are beyond our ken. With nothing but shaky intuition leading us, we have a very slim chance of success.
This is where the benefit of mesorah, authentic intellectual tradition, comes in. All human civilizations transmit a cultural mesora of some sort to their citizens. This tradition shapes the values, practices and beliefs of the members of that civilization from earliest youth. Similarly, the mesorah of Judaism provides us with a system of metaphysical principles and mitsvot that serve as a basic framework for a lifetime of intellectual and spiritual growth. In its absence, the vast majority of people would either spend their lifetimes in philosophical perplexity, or be overwhelmed by the pressures of instinct and devote themselves to hedonism or materialism.
Of course, skeptics will question the tradition and wonder why they should accept it to begin with. I have already discussed this point on Vesom Sechel in the past, and hope to revisit it again soon.
Here it is in a nutshell: Judaism offers a systematic, rational approach to meaningful living. Its principles and structure are unique, profound and coherent. And the authenticity of its mesorah is rooted in the historical experience of an entire nation rather than resting upon personal testimonials alone. I think this makes it by far the most reasonable choice available to a thinking individual who is interested in conducting his or her life prudently, consistently and reflectively.