Tuesday, May 27, 2008

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.

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