Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Jewish Particularity: Can't We Live A Meaningfule Life Without Judaism?

Dan left a good comment to the last post. He agreed with my thoughts on God, but argued that this general idea of God has no relationship to Judaism in particular. In other words, one can simply lead a good life in all respects and blow of Judaism completely. This is a serious and important challenge, but ultimately one that I think comes up short. And Andre Ethier and the Dodger game on Sunday helps illustrate why.

Judaism is a derech or path or way of life. It is a way of experiencing the good things in life. It helps focus us and teach us, and does so as part of a community. Of course, there are many such paths, some better than others. But being on some specific path is necessary. We will lead a less meaningful and fulfilled life if we try to simply have general thoughts, or even general experiences, in the abstract.

For example, I can sometimes get some sense of the Infinite or God or Goodness. (For me, it usually involve both nature and bigness - think Yosemite or the ocean or space). I can act ethically, love and be loved, and experience beauty. But a Jewish path helps me experience these things better. For example, I know that freedom is a good thing, but having a discussion with family and friends about freedom during a seder, and realizing that this experience is being repeated (with lots of variations) all over the world, and has been done throughout Jewish history, and will be done into the future makes it a lot more special. Davening sometimes brings me closer to the things I find important. Hearing a clever d'var Torah sometimes brings an insight that I would not have thought about.

Here's a real example from last night. We counted the omer, and my kids and I (briefly -- school night, ya know) discussed the sefirot. Last night was the malchut (nobility) of hod (humility). In addition to the English rhyme (the Hebrew rhyme came the night before, with the yesod of hod), we talked about how being humble is also part of being noble. And we ended with with a great example.

We had gone to the Dodger game the day before, and I had read the kids the wrap up of the game in the paper. My 6-year-old explained that Andre Ethier (who had hit 2 home runs) mentioned that an important reason they won was the Dodger pitching. (Kuroda pitched 8 innings and gave up only 1 run.) My son noted that Ethier was being humble by talking about the pitching and not his own (amazing) hitting. And that humility made him more noble or admirable.

Now of course there are lots of ways of thinking about such virtues. Classical Christianity lists pride as one of the seven deadly sins and humility as one of the seven virtues. Other religions and philosophies and world views no doubt also discuss such things. But Judaism provides one particular way of doing this. And our tradition is to take seven aspects of God, generate 49 2x2 combinations, and think of them during 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot.

One could throw out Judaism completely and simply acknowledge as an intellectual matter that humility is a virtue. The problem is that there is much more to life than asserting intellectual propositions, and Judaism also offers the rest. It offers particular ways to think about the idea, and particular times to think about it, and particular rituals associated with it, and particular teaching opportunities regarding it, and a community of people also interested in this.

We use this approach with regard to other abstract ideas. As a general matter, it is good that people should have a partner that they love. But I do not simply acknowledge the general idea. I also love my wife in particular. In doing so, I am not making a general claim about my wife (everyone should love my wife) or about me (I should love everyone's wife.) My relationship with my wife is one particular manifestation of the general idea, and another person's relationship with his or her partner is another.

But the bottom line is that Judaism, at least if done well, helps us get the most out of life.


Monday, May 3, 2010

A Relationship With God? Yeah, Right.

XGH asks a good question: how can someone have a non-delusional relationship with God. If God does not exist, no relationship is possible. And if God does exists, how can one have a relationship if God does not directly respond. XGH analogizes this to someone who writes letters to Queen Elizabeth and Britney Spears and claims to have a relationship with them. XGH dismisses the conventional response -- God answers me in cryptic ways -- as delusional and indistinguishable (in theory) from a terrorist's claim that God told him to kill innocent people. In the comment section, Evanston Jew proposes two responses (walking and talking with God, and inwardness), but acknowledges the difficulties. He notes -- correctly and insightfully -- that the problem stems from Maimonidean rationalism.

I want to pick up on EJ's last point and the offer a possible solution to XGH's question. As I have argued before, I do not think the Enlightenment has been kind to traditional Judaism. I am a huge fan of the Enlightenment. Its philosophical progeny -- strong forms of rationalism, empiricism, and skepticism -- have done a tremendous amount to advance science, eliminate false ideas, advance true one, and improve the world. These philosophical ideas are useful in explaining many things, but are not useful as the exclusive approaches for explaining or understanding Judaism.

Traditional Judaism claims that God spoke at Sinai and entered into an eternal covenant with the Jews. A modern approach to Judaism tries to analyze this claim scientifically, looking for evidence of all kinds to support or refute this claim: archaeological, textual, historical, etc. The result seems to be a lot of foolishness on one side and a sad abandonment of Judaism on the other. At one extreme, we have rabbis with no scientific training arguing against biologists and paleontologists about DNA and the fossil record. And at the other extreme, we have ordinary Jews concluding that "Judaism is false" and either leaving it completely or treating it as someone quaint and childish, but nothing that has anything of serious value to a sensible adult.

I think both extremes suffer from trying to fit Judaism into a modern scientific framework. This approach gained traction after Maimonides and continued through the 19th or 20th century. Maimonides helped bring Judaism into the medieval period, but it may be time to move forward.

One better approach to Judaism (as I have argued here, here and here) is to ignore the scientific questions about God and focus instead on our own experiences of God. That is, we don't ask whether God exists or what God's properties are, but instead ask how we experience God (regardless of whether God exists or not). God is simply the name we give to the things we experience as Godly. There's a lot to say about this, as discussed in the posts quoted above.

Under this approach, a relationship with God is then like a relationship with any abstract thing. There are all sorts of things that "exist" but do not have a corresponding physical entity. For example, goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics all exist in the sense that the terms meaningfully describe things, but the things they describe are not actual objects. So we can have a relationship with God the same way we can have a relationship with goodness, the American spirit, and mathematics, but not the same way we have a relationship with Queen Elizabeth and Britny Spears.

We have a relationship with goodness by doing good and thinking about goodness. We have a relationship with the American spirit by feeling proud to be an American, knowing something about America and American history, and observing American holidays and rituals. And we have a relationship with mathematics by knowing, doing, and appreciating mathematics. As we describe these relationships, we necessarily are speaking subjectively. The mathematician would simply be speaking of his own inner feelings towards mathematical, and those feelings are real. It would be absurd to argue that there is no physical entity that corresponds to the work "mathematics" and thus the
mathematician is delusional.

Along the same lines, we have a relationship with God by knowing about God and doing Godly things. There are many ways to do this, including prayer. One could imagine talking to goodness, or America, or mathematics to further or deepen that relationship. We do not typically do this, but that is largely out of custom, and we sometimes do (sort of) speak to these things. People commonly say "My goodness." We pledge allegiance to the flag as a symbol of America. We are not addressing the flag directly (we don't say "I pledge allegiance to you") but we are talking to nobody in particular about pledging allegiance to the flag. So it is neither inconceivable nor delusional to speak directly to the goodness, America, or mathematics without making some strong ontological claim. I do not see prayer as any different.

None of this denies or affirms the traditional understanding of God as a real entity that responds to prayer. This approach simply goes in a different direction.