Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Combing Through Medieval Syllogisms To Find Gems That can be Laboriously Related to the Present Human Condition

Jason GL left a really thoughtful comment on the previous post about meaning and counting the omer. It nicely captured the problem that we modern Jews face. It also prompted an extensive conversation with Mrs. Bruce on how Judaism is and is not meaningful. I thought Jason's comment deserved its own post. First his comment, then my response.

Hello! I enjoyed your post. I am a consumer protection lawyer living in San Francisco, and I am a Jew. At various times I have been strongly involved with the Conservative movement, the Renewal movement, and a nondenominational community synagogue. I am currently experiencing what is usually called a "crisis of faith," but I prefer to call it a crisis of doubt, as it's not the faith that's bothering me.

I like your explanation of tradition, and I agree with you that traditions are created by the people who participate in them. No doubt the technique of counting from 1 to 49 was as unneeded to the rabbis of the Roman Empire, with its geometers and its mathematical calendars, as Pirke Avot's injunction to "ration your drinking water" is to people who live on America's eastern seaboard, with its ecologically sustainable, essentially cost-free tap water. The ancient rabbis clearly added new layers to prehistoric Judaism; there is no reason why it would be *wrong* for us to add our own layers to the late-medieval Judaism that we have inherited.

My concern is that such a project might not be worthwhile. You've put the essence of the problem far better than I could: An impoverished religious core is often surrounded by religiously peripheral - albeit important - issues like cultural Judaism, support for Israel, the Holocaust, anti-semitism, and social action.

These religiously peripheral issues, however important, have not in any way forced the Jewish tradition to engage with either the scientific or the social-scientific revolutions. Our tradition is badly, badly out of date. For all that we (or some of us) have learned to welcome people of all genders and sexual orientations into God's sanctuary, I am not aware that we have any modern traditions worth mentioning.

By "modern traditions," I mean traditions that depend on and reflect the state of the world as it has changed during and after the Enlightenment. I studied with a great rebbe who is a living testament to the power of prayer to transform and improve one's psyche. Power, though, is not the same thing as efficiency. Why take twenty years, an unrelentingly intense effort, and hours of daily devotion to do what can be done in a hundred hours of cognitive-behavioral therapy? Why comb through medieval syllogisms in the hopes of finding gems that can be laboriously 'related' to the present human condition when every day a new issue from a journal on neuroeconomics or neuropsychology is published that reveals empirical *evidence* about the human condition?

If, for whatever reason, you see such projects as inherently valuable, I wish you well. It's not my intent to dissuade others from updating old traditions. But (and it breaks my heart to say this) I can't see wanting to teach these traditions to my children in any great depth, or even wanting to renew my efforts to live by them. The traditions have plenty of use -- but what is their advantage? In a world where we all may choose our affiliations and our commitments, why re-commit to Judaism?

Again, this comment really hit the nail on the head. Any modern and thinking Jew must face this "crisis of doubt" head-on. (Non-modern Jews can be oblivious to the modern world, and non-thinking people can avoid facing pretty much any problem, at least until it clobbers them.) I cannot offer a comprehensive response, but I can offer quite a number of things that have worked for me. (In fact, this blog is an elaborate attempt to deal with exactly this problem.)

1. Some preliminary thoughts. I would take science off the table completely. I accept the idea of non-overlapping magisteria, and if one wants answers to empirical questions, turn to science. And do so without even attempting to correlate it with religious thought. I am always amused, for example, by people who attempt to show that the creation stories in Genesis line up somehow with a modern account of cosmology. It was interesting to me when I was 20, but now these attempts are just amusing and perhaps a little sad.

The same goes for history, archeology, and social science, with the caveat that parts of the Bible are historical documents.

2. For me, religious thought is about values. Traditional Jewish law, stories, and rituals are the first word in Judaism, but are certainly not the last word. Instead, they are the beginning of a long "great conversation" that has come down through the ages. Some parts of this conversation are quite deep and meaningful today and are worth studying. I think the traditions involved in counting the omer are a good example of that.

Other parts of this conversation -- and Jason put it well -- require "comb[ing] through medieval syllogisms in the hopes of finding gems that can be laboriously 'related' to the present human condition." Exactly. Cut those combing sessions short.

Others just seem completely irrelevant today. For example, the precise details of the laws of sacrifice just seem tedious, boring, and a little gross. At a higher level, several things are interesting about the sacrifices. There are different sacrifices for different purposes (sin, thanksgiving, etc.). These are communal affairs. (As my rabbi put it, you cannot sacrifice an ox and have 1200 pounds of roast beef that need to be eaten by tomorrow without inviting a few of your friends -- or perhaps the whole town -- over to share.) But some of the details of how to do these sacrifices are quite far from the present human condition.

But as I have previously argued, there is a lot of low-hanging fruit here. If a Jew just did the easy and meaningful stuff (at least easy and meaningful after a little learning), I think he would have a moderately observant lifestyle. Certainly more observant than most contemporary Reform and Conservative Jews, although less observant than most contemporary Orthodox Jews. The existence of the obscure, difficult, and seemingly meaningless -- and I agree there is a lot of that -- is no reason to avoid the rest.

3. Judaism is a communal affair. (Although this is perhaps belied by the fact that I am now writing about Judaism late at night, by myself. Mrs. Bruce and the kids are asleep.) The enterprise Jason described -- reading a text, relating it to the modern condition, reading scientific literature, engaging in therapy -- is a rationalistic, scientific, intellectual, and usually solitary activity. But joining a community is a very different type of thing.

Interestingly, the book of Ecclesiastes is quite cynical about most human activities. But one of the key activities omitted in the book is being part of a community, having friends, and helping others.

4. Judaism is often counter-cultural. For example, American culture highly values freedom of speech. It is a protected constitutional right (and one that I have defended on appeal several times), and "expressing oneself" is widely viewed as a valuable activity. But Judaism disagrees. A Jew is often obligated not to say certain things, and the extreme individualism of expressing oneself is tempered to a large degree by things like modesty, humility, and consideration of others.

I think this clash of ideas and ideals is a good thing. American freedoms force American Jews to examine Jewish ideas from a different perspective, and Jewish values force American Jews to critically examine American freedoms. We gain a deeper understanding of both by critically examining each in light of the other.

5. Judaism is often fun. Best example: sukkot.

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Jason's other point is also a good one. There have been surprising few interesting and valuable post-enlightenment traditions that we have developed. Perhaps the bat-mitzvah is one (and egalitarianism in general). A participatory and engaged seder might be another. I think this is largely due to the inherent conservatism of Judaism as it is currently practiced. This might change as time goes on.

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In short, I cannot point to a single thing that makes Judaism meaningful to me. But I find that there many smaller things collectively that add up to a pretty meaningful Judaism.