Thursday, May 18, 2006

Wrestling With G-d, Hoping For Two Falls Out of Three

A Jew's relation to Judaism can be a lot like a fish to the fisherman. A lot of line can be played out, but there's always the potential that you'll get reeled in. Well, they sunk the hook in me early, and much as I've run away from it from time to time there's always that connection. Lately it's been stronger. I grew up in a very secular household and didn't get much of a Jewish education. The local synagogue wasn't terribly helpful. The backbiting, politicking, and personality conflicts were so strong sometimes that I doubt even G-d could get a word in edgewise. Unorganized reading of Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah in translation helped, but there's just way too much for an outsider to collate. So I'm taking courses from the JLI taught at the local Lubavitcher shul.

The Lubavitch Chassidim are great people. They are very observant but live in the world and, as the Rabbi says, "If it can't be applied to real life throw it out." They were in New Orleans after Katrina even before the Mormons arrived. They help even ignorant secularized Yids like yours truly learn Torah. I just can't say enough good things about them. So it's very painful to have to wrestle with some of what they teach and to say that, when I examine my conscience and do the best I can with my limited faculties I just can't swallow some of what they're teaching.

The current class is "From Sinai to Cyberspace". It's a course in the basics of Jewish thought and how Judaism views and interprets the sacred texts in a changing world. So far most of it is very good. The 13 principles for deriving meaning from the Written and Oral Torah are helpful. The quotes from the Sages are illuminating. The relationship between the Written Law and the adaptive Oral Law is beautiful. But when it comes down to it I am unconvinced by some of their arguments about the fundamental question:

What does G-d really want from us?

Before we go any further I need to make a couple things absolutely clear. This is not an indictment of Judaism as Judaism. The problems I see here are ones that can affect any religion. But since it's Judaism that is raising the questions at the moment it's Judaism that I'm wrestling with.

I'm willing to grant that what is written down in Torah is what is written down there. Torahs all over the world from Ethiopia to China are letter-perfect identical. I'll accept that the direct given-to-us-at-Sinai portions of the Oral Law have been preserved faithfully. It's the other two parts, the stuff derived according the rules of Jewish scholarship and later legislative acts that start activating my bullshit meter. To cut a long story short, what is derived is considered to be Torah as much as, if not more than, what is written. Further, a posek's pronouncements have the force of Torah.

I'm quite ignorant of Torah, can only sound out Hebrew, don't know any Talmud to speak of. But the brain works pretty well. And what does it perceive that troubles me deeply?

The first starts with science. And where is Steven J. Gould(ztl) when we really need him? The attempt to justify science with religion or religion with science does neither any good. No matter what the fundamentalists say - doesn't matter whose fundamentalists - you can't use a revealed religious text as a science book. And no matter what the sociobiologists or reductionists say you can't use science as religious scripture. We know more about the physical world than we did 3000 years ago. The nature of science as a discipline dictates that everything we do is our best effort at the moment. It will be superseded by better understanding and information later, but it's what we have to go on. In every lesson there's a bit or two that is usually labelled "HDTK?" or How Did They Know? A pronouncement about the physical world is made from Talmud, and it is declared that what modern science is just discovering was revealed back in the day. Therefore the religion is true.

The problem is that it often isn't. Tonight's HDTK was from the Talmud, to the effect that pigs are unlike all other animals because their internal organs are like humans'. There are similarities, but the statement just isn't true. Bears are just as close albeit bigger. Monkeys are even more like us. Apes are closer still. But if you try to say that the answer is that science is imperfect. It's a classic ratchet mentality. What supports my beliefs is true. That which contradicts them is your error. Cats don't have poison in their claws. Pi is not equal to three. If the woman orgasms first the child will not necessarily be a boy. Fasting, holy water and sacrifices will not cure leprosy. In a larger sense, if you look for validation of religion in science you'll either have to backfill and wave your hands vigorously when the science changes or accept that your religious tenets will have to evolve with our understanding of the physical universe. If you hold out the imperfection of science as a way of denying new understanding that contradicts religious beliefs about the nature of the physical universe you can not claim the mantle of science to validate your theology. Any other position is self-deception if not actually dishonest.

The second is selective derivation and its sibling, moral abdication. The Torah as written is sketchy and doesn't provide a lot of details. The Oral Torah provides the key. Among the tools for figuring out the meaning and the Almighty's design are thirteen rules of inference. All well and good. Judaism has a tradition of rigorous scholarship and logic. But there are times when it is incredibly selective. In many cases it's a good thing. Part of the Jewish tradition is change so that Jews can live in the world and with the Torah. But dishonesty creeps in again.

Let's take a subject which arouses strong feelings in many of us, rape. The Written Torah is absolutely clear about rape. If the victim is in the city and doesn't cry out for help she dies as a punishment for her immorality. If she was out in the back-beyond or was in the city and cries out she marries the rapist and can never get a divorce. Given the nature of Israel in those days it made a certain sense. Later rabbis have pretty circuitously come to the conclusion that the rapist is required to give up his right to marry the victim and she's entitled to, what is it, nine different compensations for pain and suffering. It's a valiant attempt to get around a huge obstacle in the road of justice. It's still sophistry albeit for the best of motives. I wish to be closer to the Almighty, but this is a point where I have to say "Lord, if that's your rule I just won't follow it. And I'm willing to spend extra time in Gehenna for that disobedience. Rapists belong in prison or floating face-down in a ditch."

Close on the heels of selective derivation is the limited, human nature of the Sages and their normal human blind spots. The ancient and not so ancient rabbis were incredibly knowledgeable and wise men. No doubt about it. They dedicated their lives to Hashem and used every faculty they had to that end. But they were human and suffer from the same frailties that all human beings are heir to - ratchet mentality, groupthink, cultural assumptions and the blindspots that go with them and more. No matter how wise a person is these things happen. The results of these systematic errors must be accounted for when we use their teachings, legislative acts and interpretations of Torah. Unfortunately, that is heresy. The Rambam himself said that questioning those who pass down the Oral Torah is forbidden. Far from being heresy I maintain that it is a serious responsibility. When we stand in front of the Final Judge what should one say?: "Who am I to question that wise man? Take my failings up with him." or "I did the best I could with what I had and disagreed with him when I could not honestly agree."

Just as a trivial example consider sheep. In chumash and the rest everyone has sheep. Avraham had sheep. So did Isaac and Jacob. David was a shepherd. By the time we get to the codification of the Talmud the center of Jewish intellectual life was in Babylon. That part of the world is cow-loving. Where cows are loved, sheep are hated. All of a sudden shepherds are low, venal, crude and worthy of contempt. But "shepherds ben Avraham" are fine. The arguments are unconvincing. I can't honestly accept them when a more parsimonious one works better.

Connected to this is the over-reliance on tradition. Tradition is important. Shared values and customs are the glue that hold a community together especially in times of oppression or diaspora. It's quite another thing to say that because it was done before a tradition is binding in the same way that Divine Law is binding. The comfort of the familiar is seductive. It makes a person feel psychically safe. The danger is that it will become autogenic and that a person will follow it because it is familiar, not necessarily because it reflects G-d's will. When you raise a human tradition to the level of G-d's Law you come dangerously close to deifying your habits. Arguments like "The Sages were closer to Sinai, so whatever they did is more proper" or "We don't want to be like the Gentiles, so any particular thing we used to do to distinguish ourselves is a religious duty" seem intellectually bankrupt and self-serving at my level of understanding.

One of the most egregious examples is the division of Jews into Ashkenazim (North, Central and Eastern European) and Sephardim (everyone else from Italy to Indonesia). Such and such is required for Sephardic Jews but forbidden to Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim may do that. Sephardim should consult their rabbi. There were no Sephardim and Ashkenazim at Sinai or during the time of the Temple. It's a later historical development, and it has permanently divided the single Jewish people into two increasingly divergent tribes. It reaches its nadir in the treatment of the Ethiopian Jews. Bet Yisrael as theycall themselves have been Jews since Biblical times. They have the same Torah as Jews everywhere else. They have somewhat different Oral Traditions, no rabbis and customs that seem strange to outsiders. A reasonable person would say "You have what you have and have done your best to keep G-d's Covenant. We went a different way doing the same thing in a different time and place." Not so. First they were told that they weren't really Jews and would have to convert to be accepted. Then, when the Israeli Rabbinate nearly went into schism it was agreed that they were Jews. But the scholasticists and deifiers of tradition then said "Their religion isn't Judaism because it doesn't have the same history that ours does."

Today we have some better tools. It turns out that almost all Cohanim share a gene on the Y-chromosome. It's not surprising. Priesthood passes through the male line. A "family tradition that we were Cohanim" is good. The ability to check it out genetically may be better. Likewise, family tradition aside, if you're a Cohen or Levite and have the genetic markers to support it shouldn't that be considered? Oral family records are unreliable. At the most basic level a mother is a fact while a father is an opinion.

Next comes what I refer to as the Sheri Tepper syndrome or excessive information hygiene. The rabbis speak of building a fence around the Torah. It can mean many things such as defending the Torah from corruption or making sure that knowledge doesn't get lost. Most often we see it used to justify laws that are stricter, sometimes wildly stricter, than what Hashem dictated in order to avoid error. What seems to be lost is that it is possible to go so far in that direction that you are further from the mark than those who are somewhat lax. Sherri Tepper parodied this logic in one of her last good books, Raising the Stones I believe. A commandment "Don't be sexist pigs" ends up after a few generations as "Don't eat anything with four legs" in a few logical steps.

Where does that leave us? The great Rabbis and Sages had to make the best they could with what they had. They were wise, and their words are a guide for the ages. But they were only human beings trying to make sense of the world. If we are to be honest and show moral courage we can't take the easy way out and say that they've answered it all, and it's heresy to ask inconvenient questions. We have to make the attempt ourselves to make our religion vital and come as close to the truth as we can. The attempt will fail. We are imperfect by design. But the virtue and the reward lie in the attempt.

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