Friday, June 13, 2008

The Maximum of the Minimum

Judaism focuses both on practice and belief, and the two are related in many interesting ways. One question that is interesting and helpful, if only in a heuristic way, is what Jewish practices ought a Jew to keep if that Jew believes none, or perhaps almost none, of the traditional Jewish beliefs. That is, suppose one does not believe in any sort of God and believes that the Torah was written long after Moses and was not divinely inspired. What sort of Jewish practices should this person keep and why? In other words, what is a plausible maximum set of Jewish practices, given a minimum set of Jewish beliefs?

I contend that the set of Jewish practices this Jewish non-believer should keep is fairly large. It includes obvious ethical rules (don't steal) although probably for different reasons. It also includes let obvious ethical rule and, surprisingly enough, many of the rituals. Explaining why is complicated, but I will ask and try to answer this question in future posts covering particular practices.

This is obviously an important question for people with such beliefs. But it is also an important question, even for the most traditional Jews. This question focuses us on what is important to us in a very this-worldly sense. Traditional Jews might wrap tefillin, for example, because God said to do so. But less traditional Jews might do so because it is meaningful to them. Liberal Jews have a greater need to find such meaning, and more traditional Jews might find some important value and insights into what they have come up with. Or more traditional Jews might benefit from simply asking the question themselves: other than obeying a divine command, what specifically am I getting out of this? Answering that question can only make wrapping tefillin, and doing any other ritual, more important and meaningful.

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