Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Possible Kosher "Weak" Pluralism?

I mean 'weak' in the philosophical meaning of proofs and arguments - where "weak" suggests an argument relying strongly on a presupposition shared in a dispute. Shaiya Rothberg on the efforts and trials of individuals according to the Rambam Moreh Nevukhim III:34;

“Among the things that you likewise ought to know is the fact that the Law [that is, the Torah] does not pay attention to the isolated. The Law was not given with a view to things that are rare…it is directed only towards the…majority of cases and pays no attention to…the damage occurring the unique human being because of this…[the nature of the Law’s government is such that] the purpose of the Law is not perfectly achieved in each individual…[and none the less] the Law ought to be absolute and universal…for if it were made to fit [each] individual(s), the whole would be corrupted…[as it is said]: "As for the congregation, there is one Law for you” (Bemidbar, 15:15).

Now this is a pretty harsh formulation of the problem. But it well expresses the fact that the Torah is a collective project. Its not only about the lives of individuals but about the life and redemption of People of Israel.

Torah requires the individual to accept the yoke of working out the binding meaning of the commandments, the halacha, together with other Jews, even when one feels that Truth with a capital T lies somewhere else. And this in turn means that the individual Jew must constantly relate to a common agenda - what the community is doing and what community is thinking about - even if that common agenda isn’t on the mark personally.

In the Shulchan Aruch even ha-ezer siman aleph it states:...Each man must marry a woman in order to be fruitful and multiply. (and this is of course a mitzvah deoraita). Whoever doesn’t do the mitzvah, is like one who spills blood, and decreases the image of God in the world, and causes the Shchinah to depart from Israel.

Now, the idea that not having children is akin both to murder and to decreasing the image of God in the world was suggested by a Tanna named Shimon Ben Azzai. Interesting, Ben Azzai himself had no children and probably was never married. When accused of not practicing what he preached, Ben Azzai responded:

Said to them Ben Azzai: “what can I do? My soul desires Torah, and the world will exist through others [ie the reproduction of others].

I think some important points are to be learned from Ben Azzai. First, Ben Azzai justifies his failure to fulfill a mitsvat aseh deoraita (positive Biblical Commandment) by saying “what can I do?”, that is, he sort of claims that he is anoos or forced not to fulfill the mitzvah. But what is he forced by?...he’s forced by his love of Torah. In other words, Ben Azzai knows that fulfilling this mitzvah would compromise his individual way of dvekut (attachment) to God and Torah [this is not a compromise of observance for sake of "lifestyle"; it is one mitzvah for the sake of all other applicable mitzvot], and since this dvekut is the meaning and purpose of a Jew’s life, he is, as it were, forced not to fulfill it.

However, Ben Azzai not only accepts that this mitzvah exists and binds him, he’s one of the machmerim (strict ones). It is Ben Azzai who suggested that one who does not have children both murders and reduces the image of God in the world.

So how can he both accept the mitzvah {with a hiddur!} and not perform it? Ben Azzai says...that he is part of the people of Israel and...all Jews are responsible one for the other. There may be Jews that cannot fulfill Talmud Torah like Ben Azzai can, but they can fulfill (the commandment of reproduction) while he cannot. Together, with their individual strengths and weaknesses, the People Israel fulfill the whole Torah.

So I conclude that the community does bind and limit the individual as the Rambam made clear, but at the same time the aravut, the joint responsibility of all Israel, also liberates the individual by making room for his or her particular character.

But would this interpretation actually establish space within halacha (not sanction per se), for what appears as overwhelming non-observance on the part of others, in absence of dvekut to HKBH and Torah? Or enough room for the increasingly-willful non-observance and conscious abstention from systematic dvekut through mitzvot on the part of those who leave Torah lifestyles? Ben Azzai's abstention from an observance is 'balanced' by belief that it binds him still, and by the fact that he is 'freed' to focus on adherence to other observances.

Another matter is the different views on whether intent is necessary for a mitvah to 'count'. Rav Soloveitchik does not believe it to be mandatory, for Rambam it's a central and complex factor. The great number of Jews do not consciously keep mitzvot or consciously regard Torah beliefs. Are the few who consciously participate in ritual Mitzvot and ethical obligations (and the even fewer who manage to keep Rambam's shita), capable of being concrete enough to compensate for the great number who are not even aware of actions or beliefs as mitzvot? R. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (my emph);

For Jews to bring their fellowmen back to Judaism there is a need to celebrate the mitzvoth which the secular Jew has been observing all or part of his/her life. Not his failure to observe some others. Only through the notion of sharing in mitzvoth will an authentic way to be found to bring Jews back home.
... There is little doubt that secular Jews, consciously or unconsciously, keep a great amount of commandments. Many of them may not be in the field of rituals, but there is massive evidence that inter-human mitzvoth enjoy a major commitment among secular Jews. Beneath the divisiveness of traditional commitment lie underpinnings of religion such as compassion, humility, awe and even faith. Different are the pledges, but equal are the devotions. It may quite well be that the minds of the religious and not religious Jew do not fully meet, but their spirits touch. Who will deny that secular Jews have no sense of mystery, of forgiveness, beauty and gentleness? How many of them do not have inner faith that God cares or show great contempt for fraud or double standards? Each of them are the deepest of religious values.

This does not only call for a celebration but may well become an inspiration for religious Jews. This is not just done by honoring secular Jews for keeping these mitzvoth but in restoring ourselves in their mitzvoth and good deeds. There is a need to make the so called irreligious Jew aware of the fact that he is much more religious than he may realize. It is the realization that Gods light often shines on his/her face just as much, if not more, than on the face of the religious Jew.

A Jew is a Jew, a mitzvah a mitzvah - and all count to some degree. The more Jews are aware that whatever mitzvot they already do have dimensions and connections beyond imagination, the more integrated their observances will be, and the more room made for accumulating them naturally. Imagine if it were more widely known that eternity itself may be earned through one mitzvah. R. Menachem Gordon on Rambam Perush ha-Mishnah, Makkot 3:17;

...eternity may be earned through the performance of “any single mitzvah” of the taryag executed with perfect motive. Since for Maimonides olam ha-ba is a function of Divine knowledge—metaphysical contemplation of the Divine Unity, etc. (“davar gadol”)—and mitzvot ma’assiyot (“davar katan”) serve to foster precisely that end (Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 4:13), the performance of any one precept promoting philosophic activity could be credited with boosting a man to immortality. The practical mitzvot encourage intellectuality, according to Maimonides, by creating an atmosphere [shared collectively by Jews - though deficient if one "microscopes" down to the individual level] conducive to reflection—namely, by disciplining the emotions and fostering a stable society...

To think how many mitzvot are done! And none are wasted! And how uniquely in Eretz Israel, where the Jewish population are so often "traditional" to one degree or another, are engaged in living in the Land and embrace many mitzvot that consciously identify them with the entirety of the historic Jewish nation and the yearnings of millenia of prayers and dreams;

The 58 agricultural mitzvot hatluyot baAretz, speaking Hebrew, counting the days of the week around Shabbat (yom rishon, yom sheni...) and not by the names of pagan gods, milchemet mitzvah (serving in the Israeli army), not to mention the fact that the many (and fundamentally important) mitzvot bein adam laChaveru (between fellow Jews) can and must be applied to [almost...] each and every person on the street. Even my all-too-high income and sales tax in Israel fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah.

R. Wolpoe on Ben Ish Hai;

...the 248 [R'MaCh] positive commandments may be fulfilled WHEN the individual commits to "ahavah bein yisroel" [Ahavah being the Hebrew cognate of the Aramaic Racheim]. Thus the 248 are fulfilled by each individual by means of their mutual love.

Also R. Gordon here adds to the sources presented that encourage counting the mitzvot and positive, constructive acts of the non-Observant among those of the 'systematically' Observant, over attempting a justified place for pluralism as such, based on Rambam. Mitzvot and ethics can't be denied those who are not consistent in abiding all of them - including the self-identifying Orthodox.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

More With Torah and Biblical Criticism

So River Tam treats Bible/Tanach as an engineer would, and Shepherd Book responds the way a loyal caricature of a religious person would, according to the personality of Joss Whedon; a mixture of unreflective "faith" perspectives as defined by science, instead of definied within a given religious perspective. I respond with Bro. Guy Consolmagno on River Tam-style reductionism (the silliness of her coordinating 'sources' in a translated text, and revising it as if the entirety of the 'sources' are presented in the Bible, her attempting an overarching 'way' the text is to be, is not worth addressing);

"Most of the people [in the sciences] who are creationists tend to be engineers ... I'll tell you a story. A couple of years I was asked to do a bible study group. I'm thinking, Catholics don't do bible studies, you know. To do a bible study group in Houston...Catholics definitely don't do bible studies in Texas. To do a bible study in Houston with a group of astronauts. Astronauts, ooh, I could do that. So I wound up at a dinner with about 12 couples, all of them astronauts and spouses. One of the guys came up to me and said, "You know, I just want to let you know, I believe in the absolute truth that creation was made in six days just as described in the book of Genesis, and that's my religion I just want you to know ahead of time." And I'm thinking, You know, have you ever actually read Genesis? Where it says the world is flat, and it's covered with a dome, and there's water above and below the dome? [And on the science side of what the person would seem to presume] Where does the shuttle go? How come you don't get wet?
But then he told me a little more. He said before he was an astronaut he was a test pilot. With test pilots you don't want to have the habit of creatively interpreting written instructions. And that's true of computer programmers and it's true of engineers in general. These are people whose world depends upon them literally interpreting the material that they've been given [and interpreting what they learn as data, information, etc]. And so, to them, the bible is just another owner's manual...
Because that's the way they view the world. Whereas in the ancient world [when Tanach was Given, the era it was Given over and the people and the "leshon Bnai Adom" it was Given through], what are the oldest books we have? The Illiad, The Odyssey - they're poems. They're books of poetry. And the world was interpreted in terms of metaphor and simile. and of course the crazy thing is, science itself is metaphor and similie. Newton's equation for the fall of a rock due to the laws of gravity is a poem. It says the path of this falling rock is like the solution to this equation; it's not that they're the same thing. You know the sad thing of that statement about evolution being proved, evolution is not going to proved - nothing in science is ever proved; science describes, it doesn't prove [R. Yuter; Halacha prescribes, it does not describe].
I've got two really thick books on my shelf back in of them is the Bible, and the other is a book by Mr's. Thorne and Weaver called Gravitation...about that thick and it's all about Einstein's general law of relativity. The Bible is 3,000 years old. The gravitation book is 25 years old. The gravitation book is out of date. It's obsolete. Science books go obsolete. They're supposed to. You know, a thousand years from now our science, our understanding of evolution, our understanding of the solar system, our understanding of the Big Bang is going to be completely different than what it is now. I hope.

My two shekels of criticism is that the oldest books "we have" is less meaningful than what was written whether it survived or not - how and why it was written. Reading was hardly universal, so the meanings of texts we have from them, as a highly literature culture, is a very different matter. Both the works he cited were oral for a very long time - and even then probably didn't have the dispersal in their cultural settings that the Bible has had it it's settings; we've been obligated since it's composition/codification to read significant portions of it aloud to the masses, who themselves are to study and learn it themselves (Catholic settings is different, but still relevant). This was not the case with much of the surviving material we have.
Illiad and Odyssey are not the only, nor even the most numerous works from the ancient world that we have! they are the most accessible and hense most popular examples of ancient texts - they're neither the most abundant nor necessarily the most noteworthy; transactions, legal documents from kings and such are. Mythic narratives from temple walls (cloistered away and not the stuff of popular literature...), also the paperwork of hegemony, to be seen or recited (let alone readable), only for the Gods and their administrators the priests and rulers and the aristocracy. Not the case with Israel and the Torah. It was made or Given (one way or another), for the masses and speaks of itself just this way! Other ancient works were vastly not, and survived only because they were long buried, or oral works (copied down later), or simply saved and ignored because they spoke to no one. Try and say this about Sifrei Torah copied now for eons, about Nach, Talmud, Mishna, ideally learned by the community since they were established.

Regarding Biblical Criticism, the seeming methodology River Tam revises the Bible in accordance with - I give Dr. Shaiya Rothberg, teacher at the USCJ-affiliated Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem - no newbie to BibCrit, critical scholarship in general or the attempts to account for reverancing the text (my emphasis in capitalization and some boldface), I give it not as a part of the above presentation, just a view of Biblical Criticism and revelation;

Doesn’t Biblical Criticism undermine the idea that the Torah is God’s Word?
The fact that the Bible was most likely written by many people over a number of generations in no way undermines its status as the Word of God to Israel [a minor error of tongue to say "Bible" instead of "Torah"? - I'm not sure, but many people over a number of generations clearly are responsible for the Bible]. Recall for a moment the example of the water bottle given above. When one looks through the water bottle toward God, it makes no difference whether the bottle was made in Taiwan or in the People’s Republic. So too, the claim that Torah is the Word of God has nothing to do with its origin when one looks at it as a thing in the World. Incontrovertible evidence that the Chumash miraculously materialized from thin air in Moshe’s hands would make it a remarkable thing, but not God’s Word, because a remarkable thing is not the meaning and purpose of our lives. The Chumash is the Word of God to Israel when we look through it toward God to reveal that Word so that it functions as the meaning and purpose of our lives.
It’s true that some people who study the Bible critically look at it as a thing ['some" being an interesting bend of phrase, as the more I follow the paths of many of these scholars, many indeed don't find an "excuse" in BibCrit to dispense with belief in Tanach as something to look "through" to God]. And for them the Torah’s divine nature is concealed. But there is no contradiction between studying the Bible critically and recognizing its divine nature. Looking through something toward God means recognizing it as an instance of the All, and thus as fundamentally infinite [twe we cannot do with other religions or their texts, which we must look 'at' more than through; explicated elsewhere in this essay]. In the infinity of meaning of God’s Word there is plenty of room for the significant, meaningful and valuable interpretations of Biblical Criticism, just as there is room for another midrash, the fruit of today’s learning in the beit midrash (study hall).

Is this authentic Jewish thought?
First, the Jewish thought of the past might be considered pretty radical when examined from the viewpoint of, for example, contemporary Orthodoxy. Just open Rambam’s Guide or the Zohar. [by which I think he means "Jewish Thought" in general over time, as is done by Jews, would be considered deviant by both the logics of the Zohar and Moreh Nevuchim - themselves attested to be normative within Judaism, but attest about themselves the status of measuring Judaism from within - despite their clear distinctions between each other, among many other systems of thought? I would also suggest Abraham Heschel's "Heavenly Torah" for giving something of a history of the belief in Torah Min haShomayim]

Second, Jewish thought should not restate the understanding of past generations but rather provide a compelling self-understanding for Torah Jews now [as I've said through my posts, arguments for Judaism, for self-understanding, may obligatory as "know that I am God", in the sense of us being obligated to reformulate them each 'generation', to 'know' for ourselves anew in each era and setting that indicates a cleavage of comprehension from a previous one, requiring reformulation]. It seems to me that in order to provide that self-understanding, a viable theology of Judaism must make compelling sense of the following three foundations of Jewish Tradition [something of a formulation of R. Yosef Albo's "He is, He Gives, we're culpable"]:

One: God is real and the source of ALL meaning [even in some sense, the true esoteric stuff].

Two: The Torah is God’s Word.

Three: The Tradition (Oral Torah) is the medium through which the meaning of God’s
Word is revealed.

If you make sense of and share these assumptions, then the practices and texts of Jewish life speak directly to you about the most important things in your life. The power and beauty of the Jewish way to God are revealed – and you live it, and help define it, as an equal among equals.
Many committed [but not observant] Jews don’t share these assumptions. But in important ways, it seems to me, they engage Torah from the outside: God is “a profound idea”; Torah “contains something divine”; Tradition is “an important part of our identity and past”. [even observant Jews who claim to take these assumptions can also engage Torah from the outside, since Torah is very much what is done - halacha - not what is thought and believed throughly, or what has been thought/believed over time; see fundamentalism below].
Statements like these, I think, divide one from the world of ideas and values that bring Torah alive.

But isn’t somebody who really believes that stuff a fundamentalist?
Fundamentalism should not be confused with taking the fundamental concepts of Torah seriously. Valuing Torah [as one has defined it through a 'Jewishly Jewish' hashkafah] above all else, seeing the world through the categories of God’s Word, and fulfilling mitsvot, are not fundamentalism but simply Torah life.
I understand fundamentalism as a denial of one’s moral responsibility for the content of the Word of God as it is interpreted. The fundamentalist regards criticism such as “that’s not true” or “that’s not good” as outside of Torah and therefore irrelevant. In his or her eyes, the true and the good have no meaning except how [we believe...] previous generations have understood them.
But this is a grave mistake. Torah makes a tremendous demand on its living bearers in each generation. We must not only understand and apply the teachings of the past, we must identify with them. When we say, in learning or in prayer, that Torah is true and good, we must mean it. The literary legacy of Torah demonstrates that different
sages interpreted the tradition in light of their different understandings of what is true and good. This is only to say that these sages fulfilled their obligations as bearers of God’s Word. No healthy soul calls “true” or “good” what in his or her considered judgment is really false or evil. A Torah Jew does not lie when she says “Righteous and
Just is the Lord”. Words like emet (truth) and tov (good) do not rest on the page of the Chumash or Siddur, they rise up through one’s eyes and demand consent from a living human mind. The yoke of heaven involves a hermeneutical project in which our evolving sense of the true and the good reveals new meanings in God’s Word.
Fundamentalists deny independent meaning to the true and good beyond what they imagine they deduce from authoritative text. They deny their da’at, their rational faculties and moral sense. When the words of the Chumash or Siddur evoke the living concepts of truth and goodness, when these terms reach up from the page to engage a
living bearer of tradition, they are met with empty silence. Fundamentalists quote understandings of the true and the good from the past. But they have no means to navigate the myriad and often contradictory ideas and world views recorded in the tradition, for they lack what previous generations cherished: recourse to the rational and moral sense with which God blessed them: “For the Lord gives wisdom, from His mouth judgment (da’at) and understanding” (Prov. 2:6). In this way fundamentalism robs the true and the good of any real meaning, and in a place where these terms are meaningless there can be no Torah. Thus it’s taught in Lev. Rabbah (1 15): “A scholar without independent judgment (da’at) - an impure carcass (nevela) is better than he!”
Reason and moral sense are no less critical to Torah life than knowledge and commitment. The authentic religious response to claims made in the name of truth and goodness against one’s understanding of Torah is honest reflection, Talmud Torah and finally, considered judgment.

The introduction to Jacob Milgrom's Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics has also recently been suggested by Zelig Aster (Orthodox), in this panel discussion for those identifying-Orthodox who find themselves moved to accept Bible Critical thought. As with my usual caveats on BibCrit - those Orthodox who seem to accept it make philosophical accomodations that non-religious Biblical scholars may likely not consider acceptable - and such scholars may indeed claim that one who adopts such Orthodox accomodations is not a 'believer' in fundamental principles of Biblical Criticism! However I doubt that this rejection by academic Bible scholars would then make them kosher in the eyes of most rabbinic authorities.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"...people are defecting from Orthodoxy in droves"

A comment from a congregational rabbi made in a post here. The whole post is worth reading, but this statement really grabbed me, as no one I 'trusted', until this point, had made the claim. I found similar statements made by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, and have even chased down a few demographic studies that could suggest an historical decline in frum population within each generation that could be described as "droves";

"...29% move away from tradition..."

"Of all Jewish adults who were raised Orthodox, fewer than half are now Orthodox. No other Jewish denomination has such a high switching rate."

"...many of us either know personally or have heard the adage that 'every Orthodox family' has had one of their children leave orthodoxy".

"The portion of religious Jews [not even counting Charedim...] reporting a fall in religiosity over the past five years was double that of people of other faiths...[from survey here]

"...Orthodox Judaism in America has had trouble retaining its members. According to demographer Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, it loses more of its members over time than any other Jewish religious movement — understandably so, since it is harder to be Orthodox than to be any other kind of Jew."

But is it really that many? Self-definition is pivotal in such surveys; for some two generations, people self-identified as Orthodox solely on synagogue membership; many were mechalei Shabbat yet spoke of themselves as Orthodox based on liturgical preferences, sporadic traditional observance and belief coupled with shul membership - and the fact they probably wouldn't set foot in some other synagogue (when anyone might notice). Over several decades (the course of the survey), people decreasingly grasped this unspoken "Orthodox by affiliation" and ecclectic observance - they simply went with other denominations. By the time the self-identifiers were replaced with Orthodox BTs, earlier generations had simply stopped identifying as Orthodox. It makes sense that the "decline" reflects more of a dropping of pretension than actual migration. But I do see migration as a factor in accounting for Jewish America -- young Orthodox make the bulk of those who make Aliyah! - they drop out of a survey applicable to American Jewry, not Orthodox Jewry!

And yet, the final statement was from Dr. Jonathan Sarna - an historian who knows full-well how to analyze such demographic surveys, and has done several lengthy and academic accounts of changes in Orthodox Jewry in America, and the implications of changing self-definition. And he is hardly a triumphalist about Orthodoxy's "success"!

But surely the drop in self-identifying Orthodox is balanced out by all those BTs - or even goes up, considering the higher birthrate within BT families? Even with kids off the derech, shouldn't the fact that they have twice as many kids make up for the loss of a few here and there (compared to the majority of non-observant kids becoming unaffiliated)? But that's just the era and demographic that Rabbi Horowitz speaks on;

My friends, I have no other way to say this other than “we are running out of time.” The kids are finding each other via cell phones, chat groups, Facebook and My Space. They are “making their own minyan.” Many minyanim in fact.

But what of the Boomer BTs themselves?...R. Horowitz continues;

This phenomenon is also playing itself out in a similar manner among frum adults. Just look at the response on my website to Rabbi Becher’s excellent column "Adults at Risk".

I utterly disagree with the claims therein made for the curative power of reading Kiruv books; many BTs are already reading this stuff for years now - and there are adults still at risk for the same reasons the kids are; much of the same kiruv material was being critiqued and undermined already in the 1990s - and a whole world of formerly-frum bloggers and websites is out there for Adults at Risk to find - maybe bump into their kids on! I'm not naming sites where you can read such critiques. So many already know of them.

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