Thursday, May 29, 2008

Pagan Justice, Christian Love, and Levinasian Judaism

In his justly-famed essay, “Pagan Justice, Christian Love,” philosopher Bernard Williams identifies a certain tension in the developing Greek understanding of the demands of justice towards one’s “enemies” (and secondarily, towards slaves). Put simply, at least one question he engages is whether or to what extent for the ancients, treating one’s enemies badly – deliberately doing things to make them worse off – was either actually positively demanded by justice (as much as is doing well by one’s friends), or rather whether enemies (or more obviously, slaves) fell outside the demands of justice, so that justice in that sense permitted but did not require their bad treatment. Williams identifies Socrates (or Plato) as the source of a more universalizing tendency, together with a historical development away from individualized vengeance (the carrying out of private justice) and toward state-sponsored and state-regulated punishments of wrongdoers.

Still, one is left with a residual puzzle about the appropriate treatment of those who have wronged one (or one’s friends): is it ever morally permissible, we might ask in contemporary terms, to bring it about that a person is worse off in respect of those admittedly finite goods (health, wealth, comfort, etc.) we can affect? Like the secularist that he was, Williams recoils in both mock (literary) and apparently genuine horror at the Christian “solution” – that one may only “harm” someone when in doing so, one does good for him. That is, the requirements of Christian love or agape, that one “love” everyone, are not held to be incompatible with making certain people objectively worse off as part of a system of punishment, but rather undergird the system of punishment itself. Williams amusingly, but pointedly, calls this “a way that achieves, with awesome dialectical horribleness, the worst of two worlds.”

He concludes the essay by remarking, “The conclusion must be neither Socratic nor Christian. The old rule has to be tamed and directed, both politically and psychologically, rather than metaphysically transcended or transmuted into universal agape.”

The conclusion which is “neither Socratic nor Christian” is in fact to be found in the Torah, which antedates them both, and is articulated compellingly by Levinas in the Bible discussion contained in “Towards the Other.” Levinas fashions this subtle theory, which does indeed “tame[] and direct[], both politically and psychologically,” the impulse of the “old rule” (which closely resembles lex talionis), from an otherwise somewhat mystifying Biblical passage about a group who were in some way wronged, and who demanded, and received, justice from Israel.
Precisely what that wrong was is addressed by the rabbis of the Talmud at Yebamot 58b-59a. Although they were given justice in a form that would be entirely recognizable to the Athenian – the Gibeonites were mistreated by Saul, and demanded seven of Saul’s descendants to be handed over and killed. David acceded to this request. (2 Sam. 21.)

Two notable consequences followed. Notwithstanding that Israel had given justice in these terms, Israel continued to suffer punishment for the underlying offense, a somewhat bleak reminder that wrongs can never be made good, that there is a residual offense which can never be recompensed, because one cannot go back in time and undo the act. The incommensurability of wrongs and any subsequent compensation for them is a deep fact of history which Anglo-American law (among other forms of jurisprudence) systematically elides.

But more important for the Biblical narrative, the group that demands and receives justice is, we later learn, a group with whom intermarriage is prohibited. The reason for the prohibition is that they have set themselves apart from Israel, and the interpretive move that Levinas makes is to identify their (rightful) demand for justice as the act by which they set themselves outside of the moral community he identifies as “Israel.” The highest moral moment, for Levinas, comes when, fully understanding that one has a claim as a matter of justice, one refrains from demanding its satisfaction. This is the test the Gibeonites, as it were, failed.

As if often the case with standards of behavior set by Levinas, this goes much further even than the extreme formulation of Socrates that it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. It is the claim that it is better to suffer injustice than to seek justice on one’s own behalf. Note that it is not Levinas’ claim that it is improper to seek justice on behalf of others, and this of course runs into the same paradox Williams identifies in Plato – namely, if the person cannot actually be harmed by the loss of finite goods, why is there such great concern that one not harm others in respect of these finite goods? Levinas not only is vulnerable to this problem, he actually embraces the radical asymmetry between self and Other that this opens up.

In any event, the point being made by Levinas here (in the larger context of the Holocaust, and Germans and Jews after the Holocaust), is to identify as the characteristic (aspirational) Jewish moral stance, that one correctly recognize that one has a claim of justice, and nevertheless elect not to pursue it. The political arrangement that tames the old rule is therefore a civil and criminal justice system with well-defined claims and penalties, and the Torah and its later elaboration in the Talmud certainly provides this, with a detail and subtlety not found in Anglo-American law until centuries later. But the psychological taming and direction consist precisely in a moral education that enables one to discern when one’s legitimate grievances ought nevertheless not to be pursued. Socrates, in all his moral grandeur, asks less of us than the rabbis of the Talmud as read by Levinas.


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Theory of the Other Theory

Part of the problem that liberal Jews face is they accept traditional Judaism as "authentic" Judaism and then reject both, leaving themselves with a self-created self-defined inauthentic form of Judaism. I know I was stuck with this conceptual problem for a long time. But I broke out of this way of thinking, and I think others should do the same. One way of doing this is to understand what I call the theory of the other theory.

Orthodox Judaism has the following (greatly oversimplified) theory of liberal Judaism. God commanded us to keep the mitzvot. But this is difficult, and understanding why is sometimes complicated. Some people are confused, and they create confusing doctrines like liberal Judaism. Others don't like the "yoke of mitzvot", or have a strong yetzer harah, or are lazy, or are just evil, and so they create doctrines like liberal Judaism that let they avoid doing the right thing and keeping the difficult mitzvot and instead allow them to "pick and choose" what they want to do. They might be nice people, but their doctrines are just misguided. If you want "Torah true" Judaism — that is, authentic Judaism — stick with Orthodoxy.

(BTW, why is it always "pick and choose". Wouldn't "picking" by itself be sufficient? Once someone is already "picking" what else does he get by also "choosing"?)

I understand why Orthodox Jews accept this view. It follows from the Orthodox worldview. There is one right way, more or less, of thinking about Judaism, and a partial form of this is only partially good.

But liberal Jews should not accept this theory, and in fact it does not fit in with a liberal Jewish worldview. But many liberal Jews do in fact accept this understanding of their own religious beliefs, and it leads to problems. Perhaps part of the reason for this is that the liberal Jewish worldview is undertheorized, as a philosopher might put it, and this simply leads to a lot of confusion. But liberal Jews need a theory of liberal Judaism, as well as traditional Judaism.

Fortunately, I have one.

The Biblical writers might have had a lot of different reasons for writing the different parts of the Bible. Some were lofty and elevated, and others were the result of politics or self-interest. Some were just story telling. Put all that aside. A more relevant question — as James Kugel has argued here and in his book "How to Read the Bible" — is what were the early religious interpreters (more or less from the 3rd Century BCE to Talmudic times) doing? After all, they were the ones who turned the bible in to The Bible.

They were wrestling with some of the great questions in life. Some were philosophical: what does it all mean? what is the purpose of life? how do we balance between individualism and communitarianism? Some were ethical: how do we treat others? what moral virtues should we have and what moral vices should we avoid? Some were more practical: how do we have a good relationship with our parents, our spouses, our children, our friends, our business associates and customers, and even strangers and enemies? Some were legal: what property do we own? what can we do with it? and what happens if I accidentally harm you or your property? And some were scientific (in a prescientific age): how did the earth and the whole universe come into being? where did language come from?

They came up with a lot of different answers, practices, beliefs, stories, and rituals. Some were great. Some were just OK. And some were terrible. But things were sufficiently fluid and flexible that good ideas grew, bad ideas got weeded out, mediocre ideas improved. Note that some books were canonized; others were rejected. Some practices were adopted; others were rejected. Some movements thrived, others died out. Things were sufficiently flexible that after the destruction of the Second Temple, Yochanan ben Zakkai could reconceptualize the Temple sacrifices as prayer, the priests and prophets as rabbis, and convert sacrifice-based Jerusalem-centric Judaism into a portable religion that people could take not just to to Jamnia or the Galilee, but also to Babylon or Rome and even ultimately to America.

Many of these earlier Jewish answers and practices and beliefs do not work, or at least do not work well, in modern (or post-modern) society. For example, science answers a lot of the scientific questions very differently, and much more persuasively, than the Bible does. Idol-worshiping child-sacrificing Caananites might have made terrible neighbors and we might have wanted nothing to do with them, but 21st Century non-Jewish Americans make pretty swell neighbors overall. But many of the answers to the great issues that Judaism has considered and addressed over the past several thousand years remain valid and meaningful, and often spectacularly so.

A little Burkean conservativism helps a lot here. Judaism has produced some great results. We should change what we need to change, but we should be be very cautious about it.

In short, the liberal Jewish theory would be that many Jewish practices are good simply because they are good, not because a supernatural God said they are good. In fact, they might be divine because they are good, not the other way around. (We'll get to God in a separate post.) And they all hang together in a cohesive and mutually reinforcing way. This is so, regardless of what early interpreters or chazal thought they were actually doing.

This theory is based on the idea that Judaism is an evolving process, not a static set of beliefs and practices. And given this understanding, a liberal Jewish community that makes changes to Jewish beliefs and practices in light of changed circumstances or new and better understandings of things is acting in accord with "Torah true" Judaism. An Orthodox Jew who sticks to outmoded ways of thinking about things is standing still when he should be moving forward.

Of course, on any particular issue, there can be a vigorous debate about whether our current thinking is better than the traditional thinking. But as a general matter, that debate should occur, not be precluded by ideology.

Take a slightly corny analogy. The American founding fathers came up with some great ideas about how to run a democracy. We have modified the original structural rules only a handful of times in the 220 years since the Constitution was adopted. Most of these ideas are good simply because they are good, but some ideas (like slavery) were not. Now suppose that some movement in American thought that God literally appeared to the drafters in Philadelphia and told them what to write. Suppose further that we reject that claim and think that great people, but people nonetheless, wrote the Constitution. We would not view being an American as anything less than great, and we would not view changing the Constitution as bad. It would be a serious undertaking, requiring a lot of thought and consideration, but not something that would be off the table.

An important caveat here: the purpose of my analysis is not to bash the Orthodox. I am a firm believer in Jewish pluralism and diversity, and that includes believing that the Orthodox worldview (that ironically rejects such pluralism and diversity) has an important place is the marketplace of Jewish ideas. My claim is simply that it does not have the only place in this marketplace.

Liberal Jews who adopt this (or some other) affirmative theory of both liberal and Orthodox Judaism will avoid viewing their own Jewish practices and beliefs as incomplete or inauthentic.


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Our Journey "in the Wilderness"

It is entirely coincidental, and at the same time absolutely perfect, that this blog goes online in the week of Parsha B’midbar. Richard Elliot Friedman observes that the book of Numbers is “entirely about movement. The journey as a literary theme has been a recurring component of world literature from . . . Gilgamesh . . . and the Odyssey to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. It reflects real experience, it is a ready metaphor for human lives, and it is a connector between the world of literature and the world of dreams, in which experiences of journeys are common.” And so we begin our journey. And like the children of Israel, we begin “b’midbar” – “in the wilderness.”

Ancient and contemporary traditional commentators have taught that the wilderness in which the Torah is ultimately delivered to the Jewish people is symbolic of the inner state required to receive the wisdom of Torah. Chasidic Rabbi Yossy Goldman puts it this way:

[A] student of Torah need[s] to know that he is but an "empty vessel." Humility is a vital prerequisite if we are to successfully absorb divine wisdom. As long as we are full of ourselves and our preconceived notions, we will not be able to assimilate and integrate Torah into our being. . . .

Then there is the idea that an ownerless wilderness is there for anyone to stake his claim. No person or group of people has a monopoly on Torah. It belongs to each and every single Jew, not just the rabbis or the yeshiva students, or the religiously observant.

Of course, consistent with the Orthodox position, Rabbi Goldman also admonishes that “while Torah may be ‘free for all’ as a desert wilderness, we must surrender ourselves to it, emptying ourselves of our ego and our preconceptions, rather than attempting to adjust it to our own circumstances and lifestyles.”

But the very concept of the wilderness – a natural landscape untouched by human endeavor – is inextricably linked to the contrasting world of human culture and civilization. Similarly, I believe that the wisdom of the Torah is necessarily bound up in our conceptions of self and society. Our journey not only reflects, but is indeed infused, with “real experience” and, yes, with “our own circumstances and lifestyles.”

Thus, Torah study is for me not so much a matter of surrender as one of integration and internalization. Put another way, the most remarkable aspects of the Torah are not its mystery and impenetrability, but rather its uncannily timeless practicality and common sense. Once again quoting Richard Friedman, “[B’midbar] is the story of a people coming to terms with having a constitution of laws, and coming to terms with their relationship of holiness with [God].” This does not mean that the Torah is as malleable as we want it to be; but it does mean that we are far more than empty vessels in receiving and interpreting its wisdom.


Judaism's Intellectual Crisis.

Ever since the Enlightenment, Judaism has been in a state of intellectual confusion and perhaps crisis.

From the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE until the Enlightenment, Rabbinic Judaism or traditional Judaism was the prevailing ideology. Traditional Judaism taught that God entered into an eternal covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai over 3,000 years ago, as set forth in the written Torah. God also gave Moses an oral law to accompany the written law, and that oral Torah was passed down orally until it was written about 200 CE, as the Mishnah, the core of the Talmud. A Jew's goal in life was simply to obey God's commandments.

This viewpoint came under sharp attack during the Enlightenment, and the attack has intensified since then. Bible criticism, archeology, philosophy, history, individualism, feminism, and numerous physical sciences have undercut, and in some cases decimated, many of the premises of traditional Judaism. At the same time, Jews in Europe were able to leave their segregated societies and, to varying degrees, entered broader western society. These new idea and new roles for Jews forced Jews to confront the central question of what Judaism was and how it could be reconciled with Western culture.

Different groups responded to this problem in different ways, but no dominant alternative understanding has taken the place of traditional Judaism. Many good ideas have resulted from this crisis, but many problems have as well, including factionalized Judaism, intellectual confusion, and unfortunately much infighting.

At one extreme, Orthodox Judaism has tried to defend traditional Judaism against these attacks, much of the time with little success. The charedi world has dealt with this problem largely by ignoring it and shutting out Western civilization and much of modernity. But ignoring a problem is not likely to work, at least not in the long run.

The modern Orthodox world, broadly defined, has attempted to reconcile modernity with Judaism, as reflected most clearly in Yeshiva University's existence first of all (a yeshiva and a university?) and its motto "Torah U'madda" (Torah and Science). But while there is some compatibility between traditional Judaism and modernity, these two worldviews are quite difficult to reconcile in their entirety. Orthodox Judaism, confronted with these difficult problems, sometimes has resorted to creative readings of the Torah and farfetched and sometimes disingenuous arguments. These problems have manifested themselves most strongly where Orthodox Jews have attempted to defend the literal truth of the creation and flood stories.

But these problems occur in a much more serious way when Orthodox Jews try to defend the Mosaic / God authorship of the Torah. Modern scholarship has amassed complicated but overwhelming evidence, supported strongly by archeology, linguistics, and history, showing that multiple authors, much later than Moses, wrote the Torah. Although there are significant debates over exactly which sections were written when, no serious Bible scholar has argued that the Torah was written as early as Moses or by a single author. Orthodoxy has either ignored Bible criticism or employed simplistic and unpersuasive counterarguments.

Moreover, some of the beliefs and practices of traditional Judaism are difficult to reconcile with the modern world. Some traditional Jewish ideas about non-Jews, the role of women in society, and (more controversially) the treatment of gays and lesbians are difficult to adopt today, to say the least.

There is much that Orthodoxy has done well, and sometimes phenomenally well. It has fostered deep faith among Orthodox Jews, strong communities, and holiness. But it has not successfully come to grips with much of the modern criticism of the underlying premises of Judaism. And as a result, Orthodoxy has suffered. Many Orthodox Jews love their Judaism, but harbor deep doubts about both the truth and goodness of many aspects of traditional Judaism.

At the other extreme, liberal Judaism (that is, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism) in many ways suffer from the opposite problem. These movements have largely accepted the modern critique of Judaism and have tried to modify traditional Judaism to meet these problems. However, these efforts have not been very persuasive. There is no clear understanding of what Judaism is, or what it should be, if it is not based on the literal truth of the Torah.

The result is that many Jews equate, either implicitly or explicitly, traditional Judaism with authentic Judaism. Since they reject traditional Judaism, they view liberal Judaism as an inauthentic or incomplete form of "real" Judaism. This viewpoint is reflected when, for example, a less observant Jew notes that he does not keep a particular mitzvah or observe a particular holiday, because "I am not Orthodox," as if only the Orthodox could have a higher level of observance. It is also reflected by the humorous Israeli maxim that the synagogue I don't attend is an Orthodox synagogue.

Liberal Judaism, faced with these difficult religious problems and incoherent religious core, has often responded by focusing on important — but religiously more peripheral — issues, like support for Israel, the holocaust, anti-Semitism, and social justice. And this has turned liberal Judaism (in varying proportions, depending on the movement) into universal ethical rules, broader social issues, and ethnic culture. As admirable as these ideas are, they do not add up to much of a religion. One does not need Judaism for universal ethical rules or broader social issues, and ethnic culture is a weak basis for grounding Judaism.

As a consequence, many liberal Jews simply do not see much value in Judaism. It is fine for children: pleasant holidays (at least most of them), arts and crafts projects, and simple Bible stories with ethical teachings. But no serious adult would take such Judaism seriously. And much liberal Judaism in practice has turned into child-centered activities, the lack of serious commitment to Jewish activities and rituals, and the widespread abandonment of serious text-based learning. Children understand their parents' indifference, and grow up with little attachment to Judaism. While some liberal Jews find Judaism compelling and meaningful (including me), many unfortunately do not.

These two extremes present the central Jewish dilemma that I at least find myself in. I cannot accept the Orthodox or traditional viewpoint because — despite its many admirable qualities — I believe its underlying premises are demonstrably false and its results are in many ways bizarre and sometimes unjust. On the other hand, there is much weight to the Orthodox critique of liberal Judaism: a watered-down Judaism that elevates individual autonomy and “picking and choosing” as its highest goal, with little grounding in Jewish tradition. The problem — and my goal in this blog — is to develop an understanding of Judaism that avoids both of these problems.

I have many ideas — some my own, some advocated by great Jewish thinkers — about how to escape this dilemma and create this Jewish understanding. That is, how to understand Judaism so that it is robust, meaningful, and coherent, without being based on falsities or being religiously trivial.

I belong to a Conservative synagogue, and I think the Conservative movement is best situated to respond to these issues. My two blog-mates Steve and Diane have wrestled with these issues, read about them, and thought seriously about these problems as well. And they have taken different paths than I have. Steve belongs to a Reform synagogue, and Diane belongs to an unaffiliated egalitarian shtiebel. We have much in common, and some important differences, and we are looking forward to some great blogging.

While it would be futile to try to define or limit the scope of this blog, I see several general areas that we are likely to discuss.

Our central goal certainly will be to write about why and how Judaism is meaningful and important, while avoiding the problems of the two extremes. There are many great ideas that both Orthodoxy and liberal Judaism have developed or advocated, and we will be drawing on many of these as well some of as our own.

Although we do not base our Judaism on what we reject, it is still important to understand what we reject and why. To this end, we will be discussing and criticizing positions and practices from both the left and the right. We will be thorough and rigorous, but also fair and polite. There is too must nastiness in these types of discussions as it is, and we certainly intend to have no part of that and ask that readers who leave comments do the same. But there is plenty of room between obsequiousness and arrogance for a forceful but respectful debate.

And there are many smaller issues we will likely discuss, including current news items, issues floating around the blogosphere, and pretty much whatever else strikes our fancy.

So welcome to our blog, and we are looking forward to some interesting and engaging discussions.