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.

blog comments powered by Disqus