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.

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