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!


Blogger Tzemach Atlas said...

who wrote this? who is the author?

6:12 AM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

It was posted here by a person who goes by the handle רציו

11:16 AM  
Blogger smoo said...

On you can watch faith and reason with bill moyers. He interviews margaret atwood who expresses similar thoughts about why Jesus never wrote his own gospel.
MARGARET ATWOOD: "I think because once you write something down it becomes a permanent fixture and it becomes dogma, which is in fact what has happened with a lot of things that have been written down...
the oral tradition, they have to be transmitted by one person to another person or group of people. So it is the breath, which is the spirit, the spirit moving from one person to another. And as we know in the oral tradition, every time the spirit moves it takes a different shape. Myths for instance in the oral tradition exist in different forms and different places. So possibly He wanted to keep His spirit, the spirit of what He was saying possibly He wanted to keep it fluid rather then causing it to be fixed and permanent and therefore unchanging."
The writing of our oral law has frozen our tradition in time, unfortunately.

6:17 PM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>The writing of our oral law has frozen our tradition in time, unfortunately.

yes and no. It's true, in the ideal state a oral tradition is better because it allows it to be alive and flowing and not stale. But it's also true that had it not been written it would have most likely gone the way of the dodo. How many people remember the traditions of the ancient times which were not written down?

It's also interesting to note that the major source of our tradition, the Talmud, usually records opposing opinions in order to preserve some of the feeling of it being fresh and alive. It gives the whole range of thought which ideally would allow us to change with time

8:58 AM  
Blogger Just me said...

Nice series of posts. You may wanna check out Sherwin Wine's "Judaism Beyond God," which discusses many of the same ideas. The latter part of the book contains suggestions for "where do we go from here."

3:06 PM  
Blogger B. Spinoza said...

>You may wanna check out Sherwin Wine's "Judaism Beyond God"

Thanks, but I'm not sure humanistic religion is what I have in mind. God plays an important role in Judaism and it can't really be removed without major damage. For me it's about understanding ultimate reality (God) on a deeper level than we were taught as children. As we grow more mature, so should our religious beliefs

2:40 PM  

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