Friday, June 09, 2006

Defending My Theory on Judaism

This was a response to another member on TSFG who had been critiquing my new idea of Judaism.


Ok, so as I see it, your basic issues with my proposed theory on Judaism are these: 1) What is the point of doing it? What benefit is there to those who contemplate higher reality? And in what sense can it be called progressive understanding if the object remains ultimately incomprehensible? Secondly, 2) In what way does performing traditional Jewish practices help one in this goal of further comprehension? And in what way can they be considered traditional if we are changing their focus and/or meaning?

To respond to the first slew of problems, I can first point to the arguments offered by Aristotle that using our active intelligence is the highest good for man, what he calls eudaimonia. Our rational mind is what distinguishes us from animals and using it is what excels us to our most perfect way of being. This is contemplation. And the best form of contemplation is when the subject of contemplation is the highest truths that exist - that would be God. Hence to be in a most perfect state would be during the act of contemplation of God.

Doing this contemplation is not subject to further utilitarian critiques. It is the highest good and the highest perfection. It is an end in itself. It is what transcends human life and human experience from the baser concerns to the infinite, to the divine. Scoff at that, if you wish, but I direct you to the Nicomachean Ethics.

That the full understanding of the Ultimate may be infinitely distant from us should not dissuade us from starting the journey. There are always going to be interesting points to ponder that one can only access on that road. Understanding more and more aspects of reality that we can comprehend takes us further towards higher and fuller comprehension of all. Contemplation though, we must remember, is the goal. It is the act of striving to understand, not necessarily the understanding itself.

Now, how does Jewish practice follow from all of this? The answer is that it doesn't! At least not directly. There is no way that Jewish tradition is somehow logically independent so that it makes sense to do it for the above goals without previous familiarization. But we don't need it to be either.

The point is that we are Jews and are already familiar with Jewish tradition. Historically it was considered that Halacha was commanded by God and divinely adjudicated by the Rabbis and so it is already invested with divine meaning. All I am doing is turning it from commanded from God to inspired by the idea of God but sanctified by our history. Would you deny that the laws were composed with God in mind? For those who are inclined to think of it, doing the mitzvot puts one into the mindset of God. That’s what often happens to me when I do certain acts. Investing everyday acts with sanctity raises the mind towards higher thoughts.

Finally, it is the acts themselves that are important, less so for the specific traditional reasons given for them. In the whole history of Rabbinic Judaism it has been adherence to Halacha which has defined normative Judaism and what has stood outside of normative Judaism. This goes beyond any of the different interpretations of the Law, be they mystical or rational or kabbalistic. That Lubavitch theology is often seen as heretical in other Orthodox circles doesn’t matter inasmuch as they still follow Halacha. The reasons behind the Laws have changed many times in history and the reasons have piled up on each other, sometimes even being contradictory, but the point is adherence. If we want this movement to be considered a valid form of Judaism, which I do at least, then it must adhere to the given rules. Judaism without the mitzvot is an impoverished Judaism. In fact, I would offer that it is the meanings we give to the traditional practices which most enrich it.

10 comments:

Ayman said...

word up homie!

Rabbi Seinfeld said...

If I'm understanding you, you are saying that it's enough to be "orthoprax" without being "orthodox", because the goal is communion with God, which is achieved by the praxis not the doxis (don't know if the latter is a valid word).

It seems to me this approach may work for one who is already steeped in Judaism, but not for a Jew who really knows and does nothing. For him or her, Islam, Buddhsim or other practices may be equally attractive, in this day and age.

That's why I decided to devote the first 3 chapters of my book (which is mostly praxis) to philosophy - to establish the Why of Jewish practice first.

Just me said...

Ortho: Nice post. Of course, by now you're probably aware of our differing points of view vis-a-vis TBG (The Big Guy), but just for the record...

With all due respect to Aristotle, it is debatable whether contemplation is the highest form of good; and moreover, lacking any solid evidence for his existence, even harder to believe that contemplation of God the highest form of contemplation.

Secondly, just because halacha was thought to be "commanded by God and divinely adjudicated by the Rabbis, it does not necessarily follow that it is "invested with divine meaning;" only that some people thought it so.

Furthermore, even supposing that these laws were "composed with God in mind," does not: a) make them true; or b) make them ethical. For instance, many OJs love to point out those commandments they find particularly ethical. But, what about those that suggest otherwise--e.g., stoning-to-death the Sabbath breaker? Or the laughable "chukim" (e.g., shaatnez).

Then there are all the rabbinic statutes of a questionable ethical nature (too many to list), piled on top of the existing commands.

In all honesty, one must be prepared to confront the fact that many of the commands contained in both the Bible and rabbinic literature seen from today's perspective--are horrifying from an ethical perspective.

Therefore, an honest person is faced with either picking-and-choosing amongst them and/or attempting to reinterpret the offending commands in a more humanstic fashion, which can be a daunting task!

Orthoprax said...

Rabbi Seinfeld,

"If I'm understanding you, you are saying that it's enough to be "orthoprax" without being "orthodox", because the goal is communion with God, which is achieved by the praxis not the doxis"

Well, really, I wouldn't use the word "communion," but the basic idea is that through our acts we affect and hopefully progress our manner of thinking. Dogmatism retards thinking and ultimately is the enemy of discovery.

"It seems to me this approach may work for one who is already steeped in Judaism, but not for a Jew who really knows and does nothing."

What do you mean by a Jew "who really knows"? Knows what?

"For him or her, Islam, Buddhsim or other practices may be equally attractive, in this day and age."

Quite right. That is why Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people since it feeds directly from our collective history and heritage. The acts are meaningful to us, as Jews, because they are Jewish acts with Jewish symbols and Jewish understanding.

We must foster Jewish identity in the uninitiated before any individual dogmatism is supposedly presented.



ROJ,

"With all due respect to Aristotle, it is debatable whether contemplation is the highest form of good;"

True, it is debatable, but I think it is a good standing still.

"and moreover, lacking any solid evidence for his existence, even harder to believe that contemplation of God the highest form of contemplation."

I think that my understanding of God is virtually undeniable if one is concerned enough to form solid opinions on the matter. There is a fundamental level of reality. That level is God. I went into more detail in my last post.

Then, since everything stems from this fundamental level then to fully understand anything at all we must understand this level. How can the highest and purest truth the exists not be the root of the highest form of contemplation?

"Secondly, just because halacha was thought to be "commanded by God and divinely adjudicated by the Rabbis, it does not necessarily follow that it is "invested with divine meaning;" only that some people thought it so."

That's saying exactly the same thing. That people thought it holy is how they invested it with divine meaning.

"Furthermore, even supposing that these laws were "composed with God in mind," does not: a) make them true; or b) make them ethical."

How can a law not be true? It is not making a claim of truth. But, yes, as far as ethics go you have a point. Generally, Halacha does contain superior ethical sentiment, but there are instances where it lags far behind. These do require reform.

"But, what about those that suggest otherwise--e.g., stoning-to-death the Sabbath breaker? Or the laughable "chukim" (e.g., shaatnez)."

For the most part, the harshest laws are not longer in practical effect. Their interest to us lies only in academic concern.

Chukim, which I agree often do seem silly out of context, can be particularly meaningful in the context of the wider Jewish life experience. I refer you to my post on Leibowitz, Kaplan, God and Halacha, from a couple of months ago where I address this issue.

Reasonably Nuts Frummy said...

Orthoprax, Arba nichnisu lepardes...
We know what happened to them...

Orthoprax said...

RNF,

You make a good point. Sometimes in my speculations, I lose a taste for the secular world. Nothing seems very important.

But then when I stop, and all my concerns come rushing back at me, I get depressed because I haven't progressed on any of them.

Perhaps moderation is key.

dbs said...

Orthoprax,

I’ll focus on ‘purpose’ though it is not my only problem with your thesis:

Once we have recognized that God does exist, the next step in our philosophy is to recognize that the ultimate purpose in human life is to try and apprehend what God is, what reality is, and how it relates to us as human beings. Anything else we do in life is either superficial or tangential to this primary objective. To ignore this goal is to devolve into simple hedonism or other short-sighted ambitions. Power, wealth, pleasure - all are insignificant in light of the search for understanding of ourselves, our world, and of how and why we are here today. If there is anything of human civilization that is truly of value, it is the pursuit of knowledge and its passing to us.

Our purpose in life – that which we should elevate about all else – is in the divination of the nature of an unproven deity? To guess what God wants from us? To ignore the world which we are in and look endlessly into the unknowable beyond?

And in the end, what will you find? I system of moral priorities which mimics your (and many people’s) personal altruistic and humanistic ideas. Great. Congratulations. It’s like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, you’ve been looking all over what you never lost in the first place. Those ideas are within you. That is why you are struggling to fit them into your theological notions.

Okay, fine, there are tons of reasons for you to continue practicing orthodoxy. You don’t have to convince me about the consequences of changing, I know them all too well. So make the best of it, but don’t elevate it into a moral ideal which it simply is not.

Judaism and mitzvote are not a path to perfection. They are a minefield to maneuver through on the way there. Most people get blown up along the way, ending up with bigoted ideas and warped priorities. Some, through the power of their own personality, make it through in better shape. But it is in spite of, not due to jewish practice.

I am not saying that jewish thought is devoid of spirituality or humanity, absolutely not. However, it is a system of though which is steeped in ancient superstition and fallacies. Sure, in the year 2,000 BC, it was a great breakthrough in humanistic progress. But you are glorifying it beyond its’ current moral value.

And if we don’t search for God? We are going to “devolve into simple hedonism or other short-sighted ambitions?”

Is that what you really think happens to non-theists? Look around you. Who is marching for Darfur? Who is advocating rights for gays and minorities? Who is working to save the planet? Who is struggling for world peace?

It is simply not true that atheists are hedonistic jerks. The actual truth is that there are people on earth who are more altruistic and empathic than others. Some of those people are religious (like you, perhaps). They are humanistic IN SPITE OF their religious structure. Jerks are jerks. Religion doesn’t prevent them from being jerks, and atheism doesn’t deepen it. And what of the ‘average’ guy? Does religion make him more altruistic? Well, he may send a few more dollars to torah u’mesorah, but he’s far too busy finding the perfect esrog to worry about global causes.

Orthoprax said...

DBS,

Arg, I feel like my budding philosophy is taking serious flak.

What I've been struggling with is a basic reason for why we should do, basically, anything at all. Forget about Judaism for now, why should I even perform ethical duties or be productive in life? Why bother?

Now, don't confuse my statement here with a denial of the many reasons why people may want to do those things or that they feel that they should do things, but of a question of why do them on the larger scheme of things? How do we know that fulfilling our desires is worth doing in the first place? If you now answer me that it doesn’t matter on this larger scale and that our desires are what is paramount then you are not giving me anything but a hedonistic explanation for human activity. Even the desire to be moral can be seen then as mere hedonism.

On the other hand, if you are going to tell me some higher principles that exist above and beyond direct human interest then you are telling me about God.

My philosophy is not about morality. It transcends morality and is at right angles to it. Morality is not an end, it is a means. It is a means for optimizing human existence for all its constituents. That's what making a "better world" is all about. But we need a why for human existence in the first place and a vocation for man once he does exist.

Morality is like the modern secular placeholder for a life purpose. People are advocates for so many worthy causes because they believe that they subserve their purpose in life for the higher purposes of others' lives, whatever that may be. But if everyone's purpose in life was to fight for morality, ie the optimization of the program, then they are missing on the question of what is the point of the program itself in the first place.

Don't you realize what the worst thing that could happen to these people is then? That no evils would exist. That they would actually win the fight. Without immorality, they would have no focus to address their energies. Without immorality they would have no purpose.

People need purpose in their lives. Modern society is full of people who invest all their energies into their jobs or other short-sighted ambitions, but is that all not pointless toil? So many artificial constructs are made in human society to shield people from the truth that they don't know what this, meaning human existence, is all for - if it is, in fact, for anything.

The point of life then is to search for the point of life. That is the search for God. What else can you possibly compare to that imperative?

B. Spinoza said...

>The point of life then is to search for the point of life.

This sounds pretty circular. If the point of life is searching for the point of life then that means that you already have found the point of life, which means that there is no point.

Orthoprax said...

Spinoza,

Bear with me, I'm still exploring. But the point I was making was that we have not yet found our purpose - hence all of our efforts, or our primary goal, should be directed to figuring out what we should be doing.

Or maybe the point here is to say that we should never give up on the belief that there is a purpose - hence the search.