Monday, November 15, 2010

Problems With Orthodox Attitudes Towards Tradition and Authority

Orthodox thinking is often characterized by a strong reliance on the authority of tradition. In contrast, more liberal Jewish thinking is often characterized by undervaluing the importance of tradition. Both can be problematic. But two posts at Cross-Currents on two very different issues show, albeit in an unintentional way, the problem with the Orthodox world view.

In the first post, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein discusses a recent denunciation of Kupat Ha'ir's solicitation methods as theft. I had never heard of Kupat Ha'ir or its solicitation methods, and checking out the links reveals that this organization apparently solicits funds for charitable purposes, but in doing so suggests or claims in some way that giving such tzedakah will help the donor solve various personal problems: obtain a spouse, recover from illness, earn more money, etc. Apparently many devout Orthodox Jews have given money with this expectation and then were bitterly disappointed when the spouse or recovery or financial security never showed up.

My initial reaction was to roll my eyes, and note that this is sad, and somewhat pathetic, on several levels. I realized that this type of problem is simply non-existent among the the Conservative and Reform Jews that I know. (To be fair, it is also apparently non-existent among the Orthodox Jews that I know, but it is a problem in some segments of the Orthodox world.) I wondered why. Reform and Conservative Jews are not smarter or less foolish, on average, than Orthodox Jews. They may have less of an absolute faith that God will solve their problems if they pray or give tzedakah, but why do these beliefs differ.

I think the answer, or at least part of the answer, is that more liberal Jews, embracing modern skepticism, simply tend not to believe such supernatural claims. The reaction of virtually every Jew that I know to such a solicitation would range from amusement to anger, but no one would think that giving such tzedakah would be effective. But apparently there is at least a segment of the Orthodox world where this is not true. Rabbi Adlerstein bluntly notes, "I can think of few regular, familiar features of Orthodox life that bring more disgrace to Torah life than the KH brochures and ads. They proclaim to the public that Torah is the province of worshippers of miracle-rabbis." I think the problem, simply put, is that many Orthodox Jews tend to be less skeptical, and tend not to critically examine claims put forth by established and respected rabbis or institutions.

The same problems revealed itself in a very different way in the second Cross-Currents post entitled I Thought The Greeks Lost by R. Dovid Landesman. The article is about the conflict between Greek (or more generally Western) values and Jewish values, including science. R. Landesman notes that science, although not strictly part of traditional Jewish learning, is built on observation, anyone could do it with enough time and effort, and is not antithetical to Judaism. He explains, "These fields of knowledge do not depend upon Divinely revealed wisdom accessible only through Torah; they are a byproduct of the Divine gifts of intelligence and creativity with which all mankind was imbued and which everyone can develop to the extent that his potential allows." He argues for teaching subjects of general knowledge.

All that is fine as far as it goes. But it reflects a much deeper problem. The scientific approach is emphatically not based on a respect for tradition. To the contrary, it is based on doubting and questioning the received wisdom at every turn. This approach to thinking cannot be easily reconciled with the Orthodox approach.

I am not sure Rabbi Landesman realizes where this path will take him. Students (and adults for that matter) who approach scientific problems using the scientific method will then start to apply it to traditional Jewish teachings. They will not accept on faith that God exists, that the Torah is a divine book, that the oral law did not evolve, or that a rabbi should be listened to and obeyed when he says something doubtful.

There are two approaches the Orthodox community can take here: they can separate themselves from Western ideas or they can try to balance between Western ideas and tradition. The former might work to some degree, but it tends to be repressive, xenophobic, and ultimately separates such communities from the real benefits of things like science, technology, literature, music, and even plain old critical thinking and skepticism itself. The latter approach probably makes more sense, but it runs the risk of undermining traditional Judaism.

To take perhaps the clearest example, when critical principles are used to examine the Torah itself, a remarkable consensus has emerged over the past 150 years or so among scholars of all faiths and of no faith that the Torah is a composite documents written well after Moses's time. There is a huge debate about exactly when and where and how these documents were written, but there is unanimity in the basic rejection of a unified document written by Moses. Nothing that the Orthodox world has come up with the in past 150 years has even dented this consensus, and in fact the paucity and in some cases dishonesty of the Orthodox response to Bible criticism has underscored the real problems with a traditional understanding of the Torah.

My claim is that you cannot teach students to use critical scientific methods to learn about biology and physics and history, noting how powerful such methods are for discovering truth and weeding out falsehood, but tell them not to use them the same methods towards Judaism itself.

Incidentally, the solution to this problem by more liberal forms of Judaism is not without its costs. By embracing science and skepticism, Reform and Conservative Judaism has knocked down some outdated or incorrect or problematic beliefs in Judaism. But it has not been as successful in building Judaism, either in some new form or as a modified form of traditional Judaism. But all that might be part of an on-going evolving process.

In short, the problem is that the Western, skeptical, scientific worldview that doubts tradition and authority and the traditional Jewish worldview that respects religious tradition and authority are fundamentally at odds. This problem can be smoothed over in some areas, but it ultimately cannot be ignored.

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