Sunday, July 30, 2006

Judaism, Who Needs It? Part 2

Contined from Part 1:

3. Ancient versus Modern Judaism

To assert, literally taken, that the Ten Commandments theophany occurred at Sinai is possible but conflicts with modern man's outlook. Thus, traditional Judaism's assumption that its laws were supernaturally revealed is for many no longer tenable. However, knowledge of how the ancient mind expresses its profoundest experience, teaches us to penetrate beneath tradition's surface to learn its message and its practical significance. We have to take into consideration the ways of expression of an ancient civilization untutored in philosophic speculation. Suppose it had the irresistible intuition [prophecy] that the ethical values stemmed from an absolute source other than that of individual expediency, how could they put that intuition into words other than those recorded in the Jewish tradition? Interpreted functionally, the message retains its importance in implying that all human laws must be compatible with the ethical ideal. Otherwise, they are only pretentious disguises for selfish exploitation of god's power and its antisocial use.

Furthermore, the conception of the absolute source itself has evolved. The ancients had a conception of god as that of a common deity who holds power and who therefore has to be appealed and cozened in the hope that he grants power to the human wants. The modern recognize the concept of God as a mere personification of the absolute reality of Being [YHWH]. That recognition projects morality as man's adaptation to reality - Being.

Judaism's affirmation of the objective difference between right-good and wrong-evil, does not yet determine the content of the ethical values. Judaism did not yet answer the question whether slavery and polygamy were right or wrong, but it established the certainty that a moral standard be set in all our relations with the rest of existence.

Even if Judaism's laws and customs that originate from Israel's prehistoric days or from other civilizations and that were refined, still fall below the best standards of modern life, it does not affect the essentiality of Judaism's role in the ethical development of mankind. That development was not determined by the particular content of the law but by the spirit that permeated the law.

It matters not that from a scientific viewpoint the Torah narratives are on the whole considered legendary. This may be all the more reason for its ethical significance, since it points to the narrative material as having been shaped or even created by the ethical ideas, rather than by extraterrestrial sounds.

We might not be justified in interpreting religious phenomena as though the ancients were verbally aware of our discoveries. However, by penetrating into the religious consciousness of the ancients we are enabled to recapture their ways of thought and their emotional responses.

We may use the same words as the ancients, but we will seldom speak the same explanatory language. Ancient concepts taken out of their original context are devitalized and must therefore be recaptured through modern formulas. For example, in order to recapture the ethical value and the significance of the conception 'divinely revealed' anchored in the original Torah setting, we have to find its expression in its modern analogy like in the conception 'back to nature' [compatibility].

4. The Need for Reconstruction

In order for Judaism to maintain its unique atmosphere that motivates towards the ethical value, even in the modern world, it must reconstruct from within the ancient teachings' eternal values, the practical applications that are relevant and not damaging to the evolved modern mind.

Indeed, many negative norms like slavery and polygamy have been abolished in Judaism, but with circumstantial pretexts without negating the idea of discrimination. Thus, intolerance of intellectual progress is still very much part of Jewish life. Also, the proportion of energy dedicated to outdated rituals, creates an unbearable burden to those who cannot accept absurd and meaningless customs and prevents from concentrating more on the ethical values, which are the goal of the rituals. Furthermore, in many instances, the rigidity with which such rituals are held onto, harms the ethical ideal by preventing people from leading a positive life [like many Shabbat prohibitions].

At the core of this problem lies the discontinuation of the Torah's Oral Law as a flexible discussion platform. Publication and holyfication of the ancient's opinions and personal sensitivities, as the bible itself, have stopped Judaic evolution. The notion of orthodoxy that any ancient norm is infallible and its continuous enlargement of the Torah's outdated parts constantly dims and damages the Jewish spirit of enhancing the ethical value. On the other hand, the incoherent ideology of the non-orthodox has not presented any valid alternative. Thus, standard Judaism has lost the confidence of the neutral rational mind. However, since orthodoxy has succeeded in maintaining the unique dedication to Torah study, the ideal would therefore be to combine the dedication of the old with the openness of the new in reconstructing the deep, open and flexible Oral Torah.

Practically speaking, the common distorted view of our Torah damages Jewish education across the whole spectrum of Judaism. Many ultra orthodox are frustrated from being led by ideologies and customs that defy their logical recognition of basic truths. As a result, many youngsters develop psychological problems and/or leave their religion altogether, loosing trust in any prescribed moral system. At the other end, the modern -among them many well-educated non-orthodox- fail to discover the richness of their moral heritage. They are not given the proper opportunity to develop a fine tuned sensitivity to the wide range of moral values pertaining to the minutest details of everyday life.

Judaism has a long and documented history of a relentless pursuit of the truth based upon pure logical premises, which are evident in the bible. They were coupled with the intended integrity and dynamism evident in the oral Torah. However, the advocates of mysticism, irrationalities and dogmatism have marred them. This has limited the adult student's logic to very secluded boundaries. Numerous rich aspects of our great tradition turned into a one dimensional, sometimes dogmatic and outdated conceptual system. The oral Torah's becoming a written document, has decreased the dynamism of the Jewish ongoing tradition and has turned it into a quasi-stagnant dogma.

The time has come to re-communicate some of the basic truths of Judaism, gained through the greatest intellectual journey in the history of mankind. It is time to claim back the road to ideal Judaism, and finally bring out that which Judaism has brought to this world: the relentless, uncompromising pursuit of the truth.

Maimonides has already said that there can be no contradiction between logic and a Torah that emanates from the source of truth. It is obvious that a beginning student's first superficial impression of the Torah is that it contains many irrational notions. This comes from judging the Torah by its details that were applicable at the time it was given. But upon advanced study one comes to realize that the Torah's underlying principles are eternally valid. The oral Torah provides us with clear examples as to how those principles are adapted to the evolving human progress, by applying them in ways that totally differ from their original injunctions in the written Torah.

A gradual program based on intellectual teachings, lectures and publications should convey refreshed philosophical and studying methods. Those are to be geared at building back the trust in one's faculty of reason as perfectly matching the moral directives signaled from every corner of the universe and found in the spirit of the Torah, the Scriptures and the whole of our Heritage. Since the educational/psychological effects of the mitzvoth are not the same for everybody, one should differentiate between essential-ethical mitzvoth [like being decent] and supportive-symbolic-disciplinary ones [like the rituals]. One should also distinguish between community and individual mitzvoth.

By noting how the Torah pertains to the ethical value of man's adaptation to reality-Being either intrinsically or indirectly as a disciplinary ritualistic enhancer, we can get at the ethical purpose underlying virtually all the laws in the Torah.

This reconstruction of Judaism in understanding the narratives and in interpreting the law, as it was done in the past Oral Torah, requires Reconstructionist houses of study to be set up. In these the ancient's sub-verbal ideas that serve the ethical value shall be verbally reinterpreted and systematically updated in order to fit the modern mind and the further development of mankind.

Thus, the criteria for Torah Judaism should gradually change to be measured not by the question: ''Who am I imitating?'' but by ''Does it bring me closer or further from becoming a better person?''

The success of such a project means no less than an intellectual and a cultural revolution!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Judaism, Who Needs It? Part 1

I wanted to share an interesting article about Judaism that I found. I think this article is a good place to start for anyone who is interested in developing a rational and modern approach to Judaism. I will post the first part now and later I will post part two. You can find the original at Atzor Kan Choshvim

1. Religion and Particularly Judaism Serving Ethics

The ethical is the primary value that centers on that which is – Being. It is expressed in practicing the truth for its own sake. That value and its expression are the components of moral goodness.

The ethical value pertains to the unity of a cosmic harmony of (1) the self, (2) the social group and (3) the totality of things insofar as human choice is concerned.

Morality is prompted neither by fear, blind obedience and social brainwashing nor by seeking health, prosperity and social approval. A deed is ethical only to the extent that it is motivated by a choice to love truth in itself. In fact, the morality of any act is impugned as soon as it is motivated by the prospect of reward. In religion, the gain of comfort is considered a reward for the moral effort, but should not be its precondition.

The highest principles of ethics are an integrate part of any religion, culture and ethical system. The gods are the ultimate guardians of moral behavior not enforceable by external authorities, since only a god's gaze penetrates the most secret recesses of the mind and heart.

The Torah is the constitutive principle of Jewish peoplehood in contrast to the machinery of state. Therefore its primary authority does not stem from the collective force which the people bear upon the individual, but from the will of god, which the people mediates for the individual. The morally healthy do not view god's will, as one of a mighty potentate who intimidates into obedience, but as one that expresses the principle of righteousness conceived in terms of unity, which ideologically and practically guide human life.

The Torah narrative unfolds the panorama of creation and the spread of mankind and indicates Israel's place in that panorama. Thus besides instructing its laws, The Torah conveys an orientation that ought to motivate man's loyalty to his people and love of his god, which shall arouse his eagerness to perform god's [Being's] universal ethical will as revealed in god's Toraic code.

The Torah law expresses the basic idea of channelling [god-given] power into moral law [god's will] and not into human whims. This is the meaning of a 'holy people'.

Judaism is unique in the high level philosophical basis and in the encompassing scope of its moral code, which create an atmosphere of constant furtherance of the ethical ideal.

To cite a few examples:
- The Jewish god's name is Being –the absolute- not a power within existence.
- The Jewish god's claim to allegiance and obedience is based on his having redeemed his people from bondage to a tyrant.
- Judaism demands of its entire population to set aside one day out of seven in which production is banned and only consumption is allowed, as a testimony to its allegiance to its god.
- Judaism has elevated the value of intensive Torah [its ideology and constitution] study for all age, gender and class groups.
- In Judaism, self-criticism came to be an ethical requirement or expectation.
- Certain civilizations tend to regard the physical hungers as man's chief moral stumbling block. This has been especially true in relation to the entangled blinding sex hunger. Judaism [through its prophets] views the field of human relations as the area most in need of being brought within the dimension of moral law. Only to the extent that human relations are implicated in the physical hungers, do they become subject to moral law.
- Judaism has a better external credibility as it claims that its revelation has been witnessed by a whole nation not merely reported by an individual.

2. Judaism Serving Ethics versus Philosophy

The Jewish people clung desperately to its group life despite the cruelest blows it suffered. It managed to survive by virtue of its confidence in its way of life as the one to bring salvation to mankind. The Jewish people regarded themselves as bound together by a common destiny, despite the fact that they lived in dispersion far beyond the borders of their own land. Noting the inner sense of security that Judaism afforded its adherents, many Gentiles joined the Jewish people. At that stage of human development, philosophic thinking had destroyed the confidence in the human capability to differentiate between right and wrong. Only super-natural revelation could restore it. Judaism's ardent conviction that the only true god had revealed the only true way of life to the Jews restored that confidence. By affirming the oneness of its god and prohibiting the worship of him under any conceivable image, Judaism was able to hold its own against the philosophies of the day. This rendered its teachings acceptable to the sophisticated as well as to the unlettered.

The Greek Stoics enunciated the concept of duty as stemming from the consciousness of 'ought', which reflects the ethical value. The Stoics became, however, private chaplains of the well-to-do, forgetting the underprivileged that constituted the bulk of the population. For the many rootless people, transported and sold into slavery, the intellectualized ethics of the philosophic schools had no message.

Humans normally experience the moral law as being autonomous from gain, as an intuition. In order to withstand the loss of moral intuition to moral nihilism, an extraordinary reassertion of one's will to live rightly is required. Judaism has provided man and especially its adherents with the necessary reassertion to choose moral intuition over moral nihilism [whether the hedonist nihilism which declares pleasure as the only criterion of the good or the more dangerous fascist nihilism which declares power over other's lives as the only criterion of the good]. Thus, the fact that Judaism regarded the moral intuition as divinely revealed, accomplished for the Western civilization what no individual thinker or school of philosophers did.

The brilliance with which the significant points of the Torah narratives are highlighted has probably done more to foster a rationale for ethical attitudes and conduct, than all the systematic thinking of the philosophers.

Also, the Torah laws have provided the actual experiencing of the moral intuition in the give-and-take of human intercourse. It thus motivated the moral intuition and channelled out for it the proper laws, customs and moral standards, more than any intellectual speculation concerning the ethical ideal.