Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Religious Understanding of Judaism - Introduction

Many Jews do not think of themselves as "religious."  They consider a "religious" person to be supernatural, mystical, non-scientific, and perhaps a little nuts.  If religious means that, then I agree with them.  But I don't think it means that.  Instead, a religious understanding of Judaism is one that focuses on the traditional religious elements of Judaism:  God, the Torah, mitzvot, and holiness.  These certainly can be seen in supernatural, mystical, non-scientific, nutty ways, and in fact often are.  But I think they are better thought of in much more pragmatic, serious, rational, and empirically grounded ways.

In this and the next few posts, I would like to offer my own religious understanding of Judaism.  I realize this is somewhat chutzpadik -- I am not a rabbi or academic or religious scholar. But I have been seriously reading and thinking and arguing about this issue for more than 30 years.  I have a religious understanding of Judaism that works for me and I think might work for others.  So for what it's worth, here goes.

As noted above, a religious understanding of Judaism involves four related ideas: God, Torah, mitzvot, and holiness.  Since so many people tune out once these topics come up, I would like to be by exploring why that is.

I think the popular conception of these ideas is that they are just not worthy of serious thought.  Many people don't believe in a supernatural God, don't know much about the Torah apart other than it contains primitive myths (creation, flood) and odd rules (no shrimp?  no bacon?), and think of holiness as some sort of ancient spooky magic spell cast on people or objects.  Not only that, but the people who do call themselves "religious" seem not just mistaken or misguided, but often ignorant, close-minded, and sort of silly. I would like to unpack that in some detail, and see if my religious theory of Judaism can avoid ignorances, closed-mindedness, and silliness.

There seems to be two general sets of problems with religion.

First, many religious theories rest on unknowable or unsupportable or unbelievable factual assertions or normative claims.  If a typical religious Jew (of any denomination) starts explaining his religious understanding, he or she would probably offer a set of unknowable or metaphysical claims and a set of normative goals, and then reason from there:  God is like this, and human nature is like that, and these ancient historical events occurred, and we need to try to have a meaningful life, and therefore we should all do or believe X and Y and Z.

When I hear that sort of argument made as an argument to be more religious, I am slightly amused but mostly annoyed.  The general problem with this type of reasoning is that the fact and metaphysical claims are usually unknown or unknowable (or when they are known, they are false).  The normative claims are often trivially true or very vague.  So these types of theories tend to be persuasive to people who already believe them, and no one else.  A religious understanding should not rest on a complex set of unbelievable or implausible claims; if it does, it seems silly.

There is a second type of silliness:  incoherence.  To be attractive and persuasive, a religious understanding must be coherent.  It must be internally coherent in that the relationship between the four key religious components -- God, Torah, mitzvot, and holiness -- must make sense.  And it must be externally coherent in that the relationship between Judaism and the other knowledge must make sense.

Let me offer two examples of these sorts of problem, one from Orthodoxy and one from liberal Judaism.

Orthodox Judaism is for the most part internally coherent.  Its basic believe is that God (as traditionally understood) literally appeared at Mt. Sinai and gave the Torah and its mitzvot.  We should follow them for that reason.  The main problem seems to be that one has no way of verifying its factual claims, many of its normative claims seem problematic, and it is often externally incoherent with other things we believe to be true.

Liberal Judaism has the opposite problem.  It tries to avoid the external coherence problem, but in doing so often creates internal coherence.  Most liberal understandings of Judaism are unable to connect up the pieces in a persuasive or coherent way.

For example, take the relationship between God, Torah, and mitzvot.  If the Torah is not literally from God, why should we obey its commands?  This is a well-known and well-discussed issue, and I think there are good answers, but many Reform and Conservative theories of Judaism do not offer persuasive explanations.

For example, I once heard Rabbi Eric Yoffie.  In trying to explain Reform practices, he said that he thought sometime happened at Sinai, without explaining what exactly he thought happened.  That seemed like an absurd way to duck the issue.  What was that something?  If it was divine revelation, than Reform Jews should do their best to follow halacha, even a liberal understanding of halacha, to follow this divine will.  Given that premise, one should not, for example, lead a self-defined non-halachic movement of Judaism.  On the other hand, if it was something other than divine revelation -- a national experience, a mythic memory, a volcano, a mass delusion, whatever -- than why privilege any traditional belief or practice?  They may be good reasons for (say) keeping kosher or building a sukkah, but these reasons probably have nothing to do with the unknown "something" that happened at Sinai.  And of course there are plenty of good idea and actions that are not part of Judaism.  Claiming that "something" happened at Mt. Sinai does not create a coherent relationship between God, the Torah, and mitzvot. 

A more recent example of this same well-worn debate comes from a blog exchange.  In a blog post in the Time of Israel called "Why Reform Judaism doesn't work, won't work and how to fix it", the author -- a former Reform Jew who is now Orthodox -- attacked Reform Judaism for not believing in the divinity of the Torah and the obligation to follow Jewish law. "When you take the heart and soul out of Judaism, all that’s left is an empty shell and that’s why Reform Judaism doesn’t work and won’t work. It’s not real and Jews sense it."

Another blogger "Religious and Reform" who posts on the Jewish Journal's blogs, took up the challenge.  She responded with "Why Reform Judaism Does Work" (and a follow-up post).  She believes in God, she explained, but does not think the Torah was literally dictated word-for-word by God.  But where does that leave the Torah in her religious beliefs?  Here's her explanation.  "Personally, I believe the scholars who composed the Torah were trying to record what they understood to be the word of God from Mount Sinai. Unfortunately, these scholars had their own biases and agendas, so it’s possible not everything is written down exactly the way God would have written it, had God been the direct author."  But despite these problems, "the Torah includes timeless wisdom, worthy of study, which is relevant to our modern day lives in countless ways."

I happen to agree with her, sort of.  But her defense of her position fails pretty badly.  If there really was a divine revelation at Mt. Sinai, it is not at all clear that these "scholars" -- the early Torah authors and redactors -- were in fact trying to record their understanding of the word of God from Mount Sinai.  That might have been part of it, but their "biases and agendas" were most likely directed toward trying to understand the calamities that befell the people of Judea just before, during, and after the Babylonian exile, preserving founding myths and other stories, and consolidating political power.  (One could take David Weiss Halivni's approach, decide that we have an imperfect Torah but one that is still pretty good, and then try to diligently follow halacha as traditionally understood.  But that is not where she is going here.)  Alternatively, if there was not really a revelation at Mt. Sinai, it is not clear why the Torah contains such great wisdom.  If it did, it would simply be human wisdom, and it would probably just be one of many sources of such wisdom.  There would be no need to venerate the Torah and its mitzvot the way we do.

I'm not critical of her beliefs or practices, and mine are probably similar to hers.  But her explanation of these beliefs and practices -- her religious theory of Judaism -- does not coherently explain the connection between God, Torah, and mitzvot.  As such, it is unlikely to convince anyone else that this it is a path worth following.  (To be fair, she was not trying to convince anyone, but simply explain to the first blogger why his attack failed, at least in her case.)

So where does this leave most Jews?  Orthodoxy seems odd and based on false empirical premises, and liberal Judaism seems internally incoherent.  So a huge number of American Jews simply don't take Judaism seriously as a religious enterprise.  Instead, they think of Judaism as cultural, a way of celebrating lifecycle events, a way to teach small children basic ethics, but nothing that a self-respecting intelligent adult would take seriously.

The Pew Report demonstrates that the number of Jews who adopt this position is large and growing, and those Jews disproportionately have children or grandchildren who do not identify as Jewish in any sense

I think there is no reason to avoid a religious understanding of Judaism.  God exists, but not necessarily in the way most people think.  In any case the precise details are both unknowable and irrelevant.  The Torah contains divine wisdom, but again, not in the way most people think.  The mitzvot should always be followed, unless they shouldn't.  And we all seek, value, and experience holiness, or kedushah in our everyday lives, just not in the way that most people think.  And these ideas do not clash with our understanding of the physical universe, science, common sense, or history, and they all hang together in a much more coherent way that most people believe.  In the next several posts, I will explain these ideas in greater detail, starting with my religious understanding of God. 

blog comments powered by Disqus