Friday, November 25, 2005

A Thesis Problem

I am currently taking a class in school where the students are supposed to write an original thesis paper at a scholarly level. It's supposed to be a year-long project. The semester had been going well so far but one day I came across a book that essentially was my paper of what I thought to be "original" work and I was in a bit of a puzzle. It was a rather specific topic, it isn't really important what the topic was, and I couldn't think of a way to take the paper from a different angle in order to make it different from this other work. So after some thought I decided to start over from scratch, choose an entirely new and different topic and go from there.

What I had thought to do was to engage my personal interests with my schoolwork in order to do both at the same time and really enjoy my work. It would be a relatively easy paper to write because I feel engrossed in the subject matter anyway. What I had chosen to investigate was basically a work following the obvious conclusions which came from the book "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" by Marc B. Shapiro. As many people reading this post already know, Shapiro demonstrates with clear argument and overwhelming erudition that many great rabbis and experts on Halachah, both before and after the time of Maimonides, who are today held in great standing by Orthodox groups, did not hold by all the principles of Maimonides and in some cases he shows that even Maimonides himself contradicts a couple of these principles. These individuals cannot be considered heretics, since if they were then the entire foundation of Orthodoxy falls apart. The conclusion from this reasoning is simple: the fundamental principles cannot really be so fundamental at all.

The clear questions which follow then are what is the nature of dogma in Judaism? Is there any? And if there is, what are the true fundamental principles?

I know this could potentially be a gigantic effort to work out, but I figured I could tease out a more narrow subject to write about for my paper while actually doing the work independently on this larger effort. I suspect that one may not be able to speak of the fundamental principles for "Judaism" itself, but perhaps for each movement insofar as they have certain general similarities in themselves which provide structure. The fundamental principles then would be, in theory, what is common to all these groups. I suspect they would be very minimal.

I showed this idea of study to my professor and he was very interested. He said that it was quite appropriate for the time we live in and had deep contemporary relevance. "What do you mean by that?" I asked. He said that it was a good commentary of our age of existential crisis where people all over are trying to grab onto _something_ and identify themselves by it. One could say that it is an unconscious response to nihilism which is found in the modern rising strength of fundamentalist movements.

After that I visited my faculty advisor (every student in the class needs to find a faculty member to work with) and I showed him my work. He also seemed interested but since he's just an English teacher (a goy to beat too) he said that he really had no knowledge of what I was proposing and that I should find a different advisor to work with. He suggested a Jewish professor who had recently gotten a grant for studying textual oddities in the Bible and he thought that guy would be a good person to work with.

Ok fine then, I went off to find the guy and have a conversation. I thought to myself that he doesn't sound like a bad choice. Although he's an Orthodox Jew (ostensibly, at least) as I found through a quick web search, he was studying textual oddities in the Bible in a scholarly way, so how much of a closed mind could he be? Indeed, I was even hoping that he was skeptical in a way a lot like me.

When I gave him a call and we started talking, he was obviously a smart and well read guy. I was telling him about my previous topic and my problems with it and he knew off the bat who I was talking about and the general ideas behind it. I was impressed anyway. But soon I lead to discussing my new topic and he also knew right away what "The Limits of Orthodox Theology" was and the author. But then he said that the book was "devastating." Huh? Devastating? He seemed so excited upon my mentioning of the work, I thought he considered it a good bit of scholarship, but then how is it devastating? It was an odd response and so I asked him about it.

It was obvious then that he stepped out of "professor" mode and stepped into "Orthodox Jew" mode. He said it was devastating because it undermines the Principles in very scholarly and probably irrefutable way. See, it was devastating because it damaged his belief system, the legitimacy of Orthodoxy and the survivability of Judaism, in his mind. He asked me if I believed that the Torah we have today is the same as the one God gave to Moses (principle #8/9). I replied to him in an uncharacteristically open way that I was "highly skeptical" of such a notion. Well then, he said, if we doubt that the Torah we have is not the same as the one from God then we cannot trust it for sacred history or for legitimacy of Halacha. Following Halacha then turns into a lifestyle choice since all divine compulsion is removed and then the religion is gone.

After he started going in that direction I was rather unwilling to start an argument and all I responded was, "Well, yeah, in a sense." And then he seemed to get really upset and he replied, "No, dammit, in every sense!" Ok then...

Following that I was getting eager to get off the phone and I started to speak in very clipped responses. I think he got the message. He said that he was not the guy to be an advisor for me and suggested I hunt down a guy from the Judaic Studies department. I thanked him and hung up.

Yeesh! Although I had considered some controversy in the chosen topic of study I really wasn't prepared for that kind of response from a college professor. I thought professors would stay mostly aloft from personal convictions and just make sure that my work followed certain guidelines and stayed at a scholarly level. They might disagree with my paper or my conclusions, but if I had the sources and made the argument, what is it to them?

I sat down and went deep into thought. I had to write out a whole report and make a presentation on my progress so far on my project in two weeks but if I was going to get that kind of response then I had to reconsider what I was going to do. I could present in class and have the few Jews in the class ask my funny questions and maybe look at me a little differently, but I didn't think that was a big deal. What I was nervous about was that type of thing being spread around and having my public reputation tarnished in a negative way. That kind of negative attention to me was not worth saving myself the little bit of work of writing a paper on a topic of more neutral interest. But on the other hand, I still had my original project and its same problem which prompted me to switch topics in the first place and it was way too late start a new project. What was I to do?

I stayed deep in thought for a couple of hours. I even went to my lab while in this trance-like state, though I'm lucky enough to have the best lab partner who let me work out my little problem while she took care of all the lab work. (You know who you are MP ;-) ) Eventually though, I figured out what the best solution is - postpone the whole issue! I'll tell my professor and my original advisor that I'm going back to my original topic but I'll also present my problem with it. Maybe in my presentation the other students of the class will be able to see things from a slightly different way and they'll have some solutions in how to write a slightly different but original thesis. I'm not very hopeful that they will, but it's enough of a report to finish off this semester and gives me the time to start over with an entirely new project next semester if need be.

Although the solution does solve my problem temporarily, it leaves me a little cold in that it seems that my work was effectively shut down (publically at least) because of the negative reaction of one man. Am I so self-protective that critical reactions can control what I do? Bothersome. I won't stop my investigations privately, but will I one day have the will to produce and publish my work publically? I hope so.


Anonymous said...

By not choosing some context within Judaism and the traditional one is according to Hillel and Shammai and their students the Rabbis, the Jewish Christianity from those days becomes a legitimate expression of Judaism in all contexts.
Yisrael Asper (again)

Orthoprax said...


Yes, this is true. Early Christianity is as just a legitimate form of Judaism as is the Lubavitch Schneersonism of today.

To note, most of the writers of the New Testament were Jews.

alex said...

The Koran, too, I believe.

Anonymous said...

orthoprax- go for the second tpoic, do it for yourself, even if no one else will listen to it. do it because its a topic worth researching. (and I'm sure your too nice to mail it to the closed-minded-professor for his reading pleasure)

Orthoprax said...


The Koran? I don't think so.


Thanks. The thing was that I had already started doing the research because a) I found it interesting and b) I figured they would have no problem with me pursuing it.

But even with "B" out, "A" is still running strong.