Sunday, February 05, 2006

My Fundamental Controversy (or one of many anyway)

I have a deep internal controversy in my mind. On the one hand I do not think that traditional Jewish theology and related mythology are anywhere close to being truly representative of the way the universe actually operates. On the other hand I have this unquenchable desire to see the Jewish people soldier on and for my own children to be proud Jews and for their children, and so on.

That may seem to some like an irreconcilable contradiction, but fortunately the Jewish people are not defined by religion alone. They generally conceive of themselves and are conceived by the nations of the world as being a people too. Judaism may be the religion of the Jewish people but it is not a required system of belief to be a Jew. Good? Good.

So the next reasonable step a person might consider is to vaunt the peoplehood side of the Jews and let the religious aspect wither. That might sound good in theory, but the fact of the matter is that secular Jews, as they are called, have numbered days especially in the Diaspora. Pride in being a member of a people is not enough to prevent intermarriage or otherwise general assimilation into the popular culture. The Italians in America, for example, had at one time a strong ethnic conception of themselves opposite the general American, but today that distinction is disappearing and the Italians as a discernable group is rapidly evaporating. The same can be said about the secular Jew. Even those who continue to see themselves as Jewish, they don't see it in any meaningful way. It is a fact of birth, nothing more.

The only place I can see where the secular Jew would have a regular life span would be in Israel itself. There a person need not hold any special consideration of themselves as Jewish because Jewishness is everywhere they look. They are immersed in it. They cannot assimilate into a foreign popular culture because the popular culture is still a Jewish culture. But even here there is some threat of the secular Jew losing all meaningful conception of what it means to be a Jew. What does it mean to be a Jew? I'm not even sure I can answer that fully, but I think it means more than the superficial nature of contemporary Israeli popular culture.

So what then is the next step? I can tell from personal experience as well as demographic statistical analyses that Jews will most likely retain their Jewish identities if they come from more observant households. This is certainly true in America where assimilation and intermarriage is rampant among Jews and is worse depending on how liberal the Jewish denomination is. Among the three largest movements, Reform, Conservative and Orthodox, the rates of intermarriage decrease as one goes towards the more conservative side.

Generally, I think, the more one's life is invested in doing Jewish things, and I mean really Jewish not being involved in nebulous tikkun olam or philanthropic causes which may also be virtuous in their own sense but not necessarily Jewish, the stronger one's Jewish identity becomes. So the step which must be taken to counter the threats of assimilation and intermarriage is to include Jewish activities within daily life and to pass those deeds onto our children.

Fortunately (though that's questionable), there is a group of people who already do all of this successfully and they have the statistics to prove it. These are the Orthodox Jews. They are the best retainer of Jewish people in the world today and are even exponentially increasing in number. Perhaps this is an irregular occurrence and the bubble will soon pop, but this does not seem to be in the cards for the near future.

So the internal controversy that I mentioned at the beginning of this article is whether I should actively undermine the Orthodox ideology and widely present the truth as I see it or let Orthodoxy do its thing and create a great number of well-invested Jews who will strengthen the Jewish people as a whole? Which matters more? The kinds of Jews that exist or the strength that the Jews will hold regardless of ideology? Should I combat Orthodoxy on ideological levels or should I aid Orthodoxy on its existential mission? Should I be true to myself and publically leave Orthodoxy or true to myself and stay within the only large movement which shows promise for future generations? That is certainly a pickle, isn't it?

I think to solve the problem the trick is to either stay within Orthopraxy but form a more skeptical movement which will moderate the extremes of the fundamentalists or perhaps to somehow reconstruct Jewish life, in an admittedly Kaplan-esque sort of way, with all the sociological strengths of Orthodoxy but none of its ideological weaknesses. Now that would be a real challenge.

What would really be optimal would be to form a reconstruction of Jewish life, but to do so in a way so closely met with tradition that it could be seen as an outgrowth of Orthodoxy and could even be considered a legitimate form of Orthodoxy itself. That would produce a more united Jewish community as each side could still consider each other of the same stuff and would work together respectfully rather than antagonistically. It is a terrible precedent when, for example, there are some Jewish movements who accept people into the Jewish sphere which other movements do not. When Orthodoxy doesn't recognize Reform conversions and marriages then over time Orthodoxy may not even see Reform Jews as Jewish themselves. Their very claims to Judaism become suspect. This can only lead to a worse separation among Jews than there is already.

In many ways I fear to act but there are even more ways in which I fear if I do not act.

29 comments:

Jewish Atheist said...

Interesting post.

Can you elaborate on your "unquenchable desire to see the Jewish people soldier on and for my own children to be proud Jews and for their children, and so on?" If you don't believe that the Jewish religion is true, then why do you want to preserve it? If you don't want to preserve the religion, but only the Jewish people, where does that desire come from? How is it different from racism? Why not work to create a larger society which contains those elements that you appreciate within Judaism?

B. Spinoza said...

Ortho,

you have to keep in mind that your individual efforts will probably have little effect on the over all trend. It a rare thing when one individual can reverse a major trend by himself. Maybe if your name was moses it would be different. That said, I think you should follow the path that you think would bring the most satisfaction to your self

B. Spinoza said...

JA,

>How is it different from racism?

how is it similar? Racism is when a person believes that one race is superior to another and therefore one race can take advantage of the other. I don't believe Orthoprax holds that view. He just values his race/nation and wants it to prosper

Jewish Atheist said...

Spinoza:

You're right. Racism connotes a belief in the superiority or inferiority of (at least) one race. Simply wanting a race to stick around isn't racism. But I'm not sure it makes more sense than wanting those traits that you like about that race to stick around or spread to the general population.

B. Spinoza said...

JA,

that's like asking a fan of a football team why he isn't happy when the teams best players leave to another team. I mean they are just spreading their talent to another team. The reason is obviously because he associates with his team and he wants it to prosper not some other team. It may not be completely rational, but it is very human.

Jewish Atheist said...

Human, maybe. But most people wouldn't practice an orthodox religion they don't believe in just to support their football team.

B. Spinoza said...

with all these crazy fans (fanatics) out there, you never know. I just saw this steeler's fan full of football tattoos. Seriously, you'd be surprised at how many people don't actually care if their religion is true or not, it's more of an identity thing to them.

B. Spinoza said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Jewish Freak said...

Good points, good questions, no easy answers.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"If you don't believe that the Jewish religion is true, then why do you want to preserve it? If you don't want to preserve the religion, but only the Jewish people, where does that desire come from?"

The fundamental worth of the Jewish people is somehow tied to something in Judaism. I'm not sure what that item or items may be, specifically, but a Jewish people existing devoid of knowledge of what Judaism is or the heritage of thoughts and philosophies which comes with it is only a shadow of what the Jewish people ought to be in some sense. Judaism may not be literally true, but there is truth in it as a way of life and as an honest effort for further truth and ethical excellence.

"How is it different from racism?"

I don't think it's like racism at all as I don't see Jews in racial terms but in nearly familial terms. We are brothers and as brothers we hold a sort of responsibilty for one another.

"Why not work to create a larger society which contains those elements that you appreciate within Judaism?"

Although that idea does have its appealing content, I also value the Jews existing as an independent and recognizable body. Somehow it seems like such a waste to deem so many great works which the Jews have produced into the neverneverland of "fascinating but obsolete artifacts" which are only studied by a few specialty scholars. Consider the Talmud becoming a document relevant to no one. I shudder at the thought.

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"you have to keep in mind that your individual efforts will probably have little effect on the over all trend. It a rare thing when one individual can reverse a major trend by himself."

That may be true, but I think that we ought to live our lives with the consideration that anything we do can have a large or lasting impact on the state of the world. Even small actions, like a butterfly's flapping wings, can create huge effects, like a hurricane in distant lands. Certainly, we must treat our own actions as if much is depending on them to ensure that we really give full due consideration to what we do.

When you are deciding who to vote for, do you suppose that since you are only one vote among millions that your decision is unimportant? Or do you truly try to work out the relevant issues and find the candidate that you think best fits your views?

"That said, I think you should follow the path that you think would bring the most satisfaction to your self"

That's fine, but I cannot be satisfied if I am acting only for my own desires.

B. Spinoza said...

>Consider the Talmud becoming a document relevant to no one. I shudder at the thought.

How is the Talmud relevant in today's age? I really don't see it being relevant.

B. Spinoza said...

>When you are deciding who to vote for, do you suppose that since you are only one vote among millions that your decision is unimportant? Or do you truly try to work out the relevant issues and find the candidate that you think best fits your views?

I don't vote too often. Not only because my vote is not important, but also because I hardly agree with the major candidates and I don't see the point in voting for the libertarian candidate

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"How is the Talmud relevant in today's age? I really don't see it being relevant."

It isn't directly. But it's relevant to the Jewish being and is foundational to much of what Judaism is today. People are curious to see what's in it because it is so foundational. People are discussing and debating things in it to this day. Would you care if it became is meaningful as the Book of the Dead?

"I don't vote too often. Not only because my vote is not important, but also because I hardly agree with the major candidates and I don't see the point in voting for the libertarian candidate"

There's always the lesser of two evils, isn't there? That's almost always the choice I have to make.

B. Spinoza said...

>It isn't directly. But it's relevant to the Jewish being and is foundational to much of what Judaism is today.

if the talmud, as you admit, has no relevance yet it is so important, as you claim, to Judaism, doesn't that imply that Judaism is not relevant?

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"if the talmud, as you admit, has no relevance yet it is so important, as you claim, to Judaism, doesn't that imply that Judaism is not relevant?"

The Talmud is relevant through Judaism. Since it is so foundational to Judaism it is relevant to any way of life or way of thought that may go by that name.

B. Spinoza said...

ok, fine. But tell me how is Judaism relevant?

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

You don't think Judaism is relevant to the Jews? That's all we talk about.

B. Spinoza said...

I find religious/philosophical discussions interesting and I think I can learn something from it.

I don't think religion is irrelevent to my life, because if I did I probably wouldn't be here discussing it. I think religion does have something to offer me. Mainly I think it is the way to improve my mind and emotions. But I don't find Halacha/Talmud particular useful in that regard so I don't do/study them.

If I only thought that religion was useful because it propagates the Jewish people I probably wouldn't think about it much either. I just have no interest in sacrificing my life for the sake of the Jewish people. I guess I just don't feel as strongly as you about identifying with the Jewish people. Not that I don't identify at all with the Jewish people, just not as strongly as you do.

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"But I don't find Halacha/Talmud particular useful in that regard so I don't do/study them."

I'll pick up a book of Halacha once in awhile just to review to ensure that in some social situations that I'm doing something in the "right" way. Or maybe to brush up on life events that I don't encounter in day to day life. But generally my interest is limited for simple Halacha because even if the Halacha does rule one way or the other, I don't necessarily feel bound to it and I'll generally follow the way I've been doing it for as long as I can remember. It's usually on the mark.

But the Talmud is more than simple Halacha. It is a sight into the mental processes of rabbinic scholars from long ago. It's filled with not just legalistic rulings but stories and philosophies and personalities. Even many of the arguments themselves are fascinating from a logical point of view. Some of the text can be entirely dry and boring, but others can be very interesting and eye-opening.

"If I only thought that religion was useful because it propagates the Jewish people I probably wouldn't think about it much either."

Hey, I never said that. I think that religion has other uses too. But as a root for discussion, not as dogma. My concern in this post though was about the future of the Jewish people.

"I just have no interest in sacrificing my life for the sake of the Jewish people."

I don't really see it as a sacrifice. It's still my own and I honestly enjoy much of traditional lifestyle, but it can also be seen as the vehicle for Jewish survival.

B. Spinoza said...

>I don't necessarily feel bound to it and I'll generally follow the way I've been doing it for as long as I can remember. It's usually on the mark.

I'm glad that you have a reasonable outlook about halacha. I think it can be very harmful when it is done in an extreme manner

>Even many of the arguments themselves are fascinating from a logical point of view. Some of the text can be entirely dry and boring, but others can be very interesting and eye-opening.

I studied talmud for much of my life, including 5 years of exclusive intense study. i owe a lot to it because it has allowed me to think of things in multiple ways. But I also learned from it to look for truth very seriously and carefully. My search has lead me to believe that Judaism doesn't have a lot to offer me at my current stage in life

>Hey, I never said that. I think that religion has other uses too. But as a root for discussion, not as dogma.

what do you mean by dogma? Do you think it contains real truth? I don't like dogma either, but you can claim to know truth without it being dogma. I think this is where a lot of people are confused in modern times.

>I don't really see it as a sacrifice. It's still my own and I honestly enjoy much of traditional lifestyle

I know you don't see it as a sacrifice, but to be honest most people do and would not live that life style just for Jewish survival.

Kyaroko said...

Ortho,
You describe intermarriage as a "threat". This strikes me as a pretty bluntly racist remark. Care to elaborate?

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

"My search has lead me to believe that Judaism doesn't have a lot to offer me at my current stage in life."

I won't pretend like I have any great answers here to make you feel that Judaism has worth specifically to you as an individual, but I think you'd agree that there are many aspects within Judaism that you can find valuable even if not from a personal perspective. That alone in terms of a good system for living life could be enough to convince people to stay and rough it out.

"what do you mean by dogma? Do you think it contains real truth? I don't like dogma either, but you can claim to know truth without it being dogma."

Dogma's claim to truth is mostly irrelevant to it being true or not. My dislike of dogma stems from what it is, namely a systemic established truth claim which people are not seriously allowed to question. Even if dogmatic claims are true, they should still be open to questions and criticisms.

"I know you don't see it as a sacrifice, but to be honest most people do and would not live that life style just for Jewish survival."

Indeed, which is a significant part of my conflicted stance as explained in the original post. We need to reconstruct Jewish life in such a way that it is again attractive.

Kyaroko,

"You describe intermarriage as a "threat". This strikes me as a pretty bluntly racist remark. Care to elaborate?"

If you value a heritage and that heritage requires significant knowledge and commitment to be passed on then intermarrying with an individual who will not have that knowledge or interest in that commitment puts that heritage in danger of not being passed on.

It's not about race at all. It's not even about superiority or inferiority. It's just about keeping a unique way of life from being destroyed.

War and persecution are no longer the worst threats to the future of Jewish life. Nowadays it is intermarriage and assimilation.

Ben Avuyah said...

Orthoprax,

The context and subject matter of this post is something I wonder about very often. I have come to a conclusion some time ago that the dogma I was raised with is very unlikely to represent any form of objective truth.

but I can't just give it up, it is to powerfuly ingrained in me, and I wan't my children to have pride in their jewish Identity, but avoid the indoctrination and "brain washing" that is the religious right of passage.

I wish there was a more philisophical and less dogmatic version of orthodoxy, but I think you are correct in suggesting that such a breed would not last long amongst the forces of the world.

This is a true dilemma and I have no solution to offer, but thank you for bringing it up for discussion.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I married a gentile. I have no kids. As a non-believer, the biggest benefit I can see by marrying a Jew would be raising children. I'm certain it is difficult to expose children to various beliefs.
A Jew is a Jew by birth and/or relgion. We are survivors, I am proud of how we got here. However, due to the fact every new scientific discovery made fits the non-believers view of the universe and goes against the literal bible, I have to think that in the future, agnostics and atheists will eventually become the majority. If we make it that far that is.
Fact is that we are all men trace back to a dude in Africa around 60,000 years ago, and all females trace back to a female 150,000 years in Africa makes me wonder why we need any label we don't really embrace.
Jew haters actually unite Jews like myself with Orthodox Jews more than the story of the Exodus these days.

Alex said...

"However, due to the fact every new scientific discovery made fits the non-believers view of the universe and goes against the literal bible,"

B.E.A.J. -- Nu? Who says you gotta read it so literally?

Orthoprax said...

BEAJ,

"...makes me wonder why we need any label we don't really embrace."

The fact of the matter is that you are a Jew and you do embrace that title even if you disagree with much of how others understand it. You apparrently feel pride in your Jewish identity and I suspect you'd like to see the Jewish legacy carry on even if you think it will fail in the face of continued factual research.

The question I pose to you, though, is why should you let it? The Jewish future is in your hands and my hands and every living Jew's hands. It is up to you to make a place for yourself within the Jewish people and, ideally, carry that place over for your children to live in.

Orthoprax said...

Ben,

"This is a true dilemma and I have no solution to offer, but thank you for bringing it up for discussion."

It certainly needs to be discussed if we ever going to come to a solution. (Though, in a way, it seems almost like by having this disussion we are producing the solution.)

When I think about things, I'm no longer just considering my own beliefs and fate, but I take the entire Jewish future into account. It's a difficult project.

Sarah said...

aaahhhh ... sometimes I think my thoughts are coming out of your mouth (albeit in a much more eloquent and intellectual form than I would have said it in)

:)