Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Tradeoffs in Judaism Between Truth and Goodness. Or Not.

XGH has another interesting post called Massively Conflicted. His problem, simply put, is he thinks there is a lot of good in Orthodoxy but a lot of stupidity as well. And he keep cycling through different resolutions of this problem, with little success.

I think he is looking at the problem wrong. As XGH frames the issue, there are trade-offs between truth and goodness and XGH simply needs to optimize. But (as we argue in various ways in this blog), once Judaism is understood from a more moderate or liberal perspective, there might not really be any trade-offs and in fact the optimum is a more moderate form of Judaism. Let me analyze the problem first, and then try to argue for a solution.

The Orthodox world has a lot of goodness: solid communities, commitment to good things, meaningfulness, etc. It also has some badness (agunah problem, crazy obsession with trivial things, etc.). And it advocates things that many people like XGH believe are false, like the Mosaic / Divine authorship of the Torah. It tries to be a complete worldview (or a totalizing discourse, as the post-moderns call it).

As one shifts into more moderate or liberal forms of Judaism, the particularly Jewish aspects of goodness are fewer and less pronounced. There are fewer people committed to Jewish practices and community, and there is less learning and knowledge. Judaism is only somewhat important to moderate and liberal Jews, or as Arnold Eisen has argued, the commitment of more liberal Jews to Judaism partial. But with less emphasis on Judaism comes a greater emphasis on secularism, for all its good (science, good secular entertainment, pluralism, democracy) and bad (bad secular entertainment, nihilism). But it is easier to square moderate and liberal forms of Judaism with truth, at least from XGH's perspective: the idea that the Torah is literally from God and written by Moses is rare in moderate and liberal circles. It certainly will not get you kicked out.

As you shift to complete secularism, you find all of the good and bad of secularism and little or no of Judaism's good (real communities) and bad (agunah problems).

That's the problem. For some people, there is a corner solution, as economists put it. Traditional Orthodox Jews think that Orthodoxy is a lot better than other forms of Judaism and secularism and think that God really did give the Torah to Moses. Their choice is easy. Secular Jews think that traditional religious practices are outmoded and silly and God did not give the Torah to Moses. Their choice is easy as well. Moderate to liberal Jews (like me) think that a more moderate form of Judaism encompasses both the best of tradition and modernity, as well as being based on true premises. Our choice is easy too.

But what about someone like XGH, who thinks that traditional practices are mostly good with some bad mixed in, but that Orthodoxy believes false things?

Three options.

First, one can argue that truth always trumps goodness, and move away from Orthodoxy.

Second, one can argue that goodness always trumps truth, and move towards Orthodoxy.

Third, one can conclude that there is some tradeoff between the two and then optimize.

There's really no getting around this tradeoff if one values both truth and goodness. One should simply think about it, make a decision, recognize its imperfections, and live with it. That's life.

But let me go back a minute and argue for my position: this tradeoff might not be a real one.

As I have argued in The Theory of the Other Theory, a moderate or liberal Jew must ask what the biblical interpreters and Talmudic rabbis were actually doing, regardless of what they thought they were doing. I think they were wrestling with the great questions in life and came up with lots of really great ideas. They expressed these ideas through through particularly religious modes, but it is the ideas themselves that are great, not the religious expression. This provided the basis for a cohesive Jewish community that has lasted for 2,000 years. As the ideological heirs to this tradition, we can try to understand it in more current ways. And if one accepts the DH, for example, one can try to understand the divinity of the Torah in a different way than chazal literally did, but still understand it as divine in the broader or structural or functional way that chazal did.

This approach is pretty mainstream in Conservative and Reform Judaism, is the sine qua non of Reconstructionism, but is completely marginalized in Orthodoxy. (Think Louis Jacobs, if not the reaction to James Kugel.)

From an Orthodox perspective, this approach is some sort of half-way measure for people who are just not committed enough to practice "Torah true" Judaism. Although this belief is not universally held, it is frequently held in the Orthodox world, and I view this belief as one of the great failings of Orthodoxy. I see this viewpoint subconsciously expressed in several of the regular commentators here who grew up Orthodox, rejected Orthodoxy, but still equate Orthodoxy with "true" Judaism and thus reject all of Judaism. This belief has energized a huge percentage of Israeli Orthodox Jews, and it has caused most of Israeli Jews to reject most of Judaism completely. It is sad to me that a more moderate approach to Judaism is both ideologically sound and the answer to many problems.

One might object to this argument on the ground that more liberal Judaism does not have "real" communities like Orthodoxy does. That's mostly true. But Orthodox communities are based on a shared set of beliefs and practices, and those practices include things like TMH. Thus, one might be a member of an Orthodox community, but some percentage of that community might believe that dinosaurs did not exist, that evolution did not occur, that the flood is literally true, and that the universe is 6,000 years old. There are downsides to a community based on false or problematic beliefs. But it is certainly true that moderate and liberal Jewish comminities, with fewer common beliefs and practices, are less coherent.

There is no perfect solution. A
s I previously wrote, I agree with XGH's overall strategy for moving Judaism forward. And one thing that XGH (and me, and you) can do is to work to make these places better. The issue is whether one starts in a more moderate or liberal place and tries to make it more serious, scholarly, and communal, or whether one starts in a more Orthodox place and tries to make it more rational and reasonable. There is no easy answer to that question.

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