Monday, February 19, 2007

Of Halachah and the Unknowable

Ben Avuyah has just written another very well written post, this time primarily about the unknowability of God or His intentions and therefore the vacuum of knowledge on which Halacha is traditionally founded and the lack of guidance offered to Halachic decision makers.

As he writes, in excerpt:

"The difficulty is that halachah is not a self contained legal system. It is an extension of God’s mind, and in that sense it is an outgrowth of theology itself: A murky tar pit with no bottom or sides upon which we insist we have built or rigorously argued a coherent code of law.

Yet the fact remains that upon such an unsteady foundation the only blueprint for construction is doubt.

I highlight but one example above…the idea that a creator being may deliver a code of law to test if its subject can follow it, to test if and when its subjects righteously rebel against it, or any number of reasons in between. Without knowing motivation or plan, there is not much more to say.

With the axiom in hand, the we are not privy to God’s thoughts, it appears equally likely that he would choose to test our ability to follow what he has clearly spelled out, as he would to test our ability to rebel, and “tell truth to power” when we “feel” our rules are not guided by moral dictates acceptable to our human sensibilities. Indeed, I weigh the second option over the first. What can God know about you character other than a willingness to follow rules, in the first scenario; it is the second case that is necessary to evaluate character."

In response I wrote this:

Very interesting post. The point is, though, something we can come right to at the start. We don't really know anything about God (meaning ultimate truth, existence, what have you) and therefore we have no means of understanding intent - or even if there is 'intent' as we understand the term.

So in what sense is Halacha the will of God? Standard Orthodoxy is simply that Israel made a deal with God. We follow His rulebook and He gives us Eretz Yisrael, the good life and protection from our enemies (and later on eternal life). But that is as simplistic as it is uninspiring for today's age.

I think an important aspect of religion is exactly the kind of internal conflict resolution you wrote about. Like the famous illustration by Kierkegaard, should Abraham follow the command he thinks is from God and slaughter Isaac or should he "tell truth to power," as you said, and refuse? What indeed is the real test here? Obedience or moral rectitude?

As I see it, Abraham had earlier stood up to God on moral grounds when he actually reproached God of the wrongness of killing the good with the bad at the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Yet God there assured Abraham that there really were no righteous men there and therefore the act - and by extension God Himself - was moral.

The assurance then is that God is good and the laws He gives are good laws. Personally, I believe a more correct way of phrasing it is that the laws were made by men with moral intent. They did err in some aspects, but the basic thrust is clear, even if rudimentary.

I do believe you are right on the money where you state that Modern Orthodoxy is backwards in its mechanism of defending Halachic practice through very specific dogmatic theological principles. A better way is to treat Halacha, not as commands by God later on further defined by rabbis, but as a system laid down from antiquity by farsighted men with the intent of promoting, as David opined, an ideal society as understood between men and as the individual while being cognizant of a profound reality.

The intent of Halachic Judaism then is simply to encourage individual progress, societal morality, respect for our heritage and consciousness of the divine. As a human construct, the intent is of human origin and hence comprehensible.

I believe it obvious that we are currently in a transitional age (and have been for some time). What the form Halacha will take in future times is difficult to predict, but I do believe, as David does, that we ought to stick with it through the "tough" times so that our posterity are there for the good times.

15 comments:

Baal Habos said...

>The intent of Halachic Judaism then is simply to encourage individual progress, societal morality, respect for our heritage and consciousness of the divine.

OP, I really don't get all this, "The intent of Halachik Judasim". It's all based on on groundless suppositions. And it does not seem to be heading in the right direction at all. I also think these *are* the good times.

Orthoprax said...

Baal,

"I really don't get all this, "The intent of Halachik Judasim". It's all based on on groundless suppositions."

Do you truly not believe that the Halachic system was originally set down as a means of achieving societal justice and divine involvement? Perhaps 'personal progress' is a push, but I believe much of the individualistic stream in traditional Jewish thought bears it out. And while appreciation of the heritage may not have been the original plan, it is a large aspect of Jewish life today.

"And it does not seem to be heading in the right direction at all."

Well, that's a different issue. And not something I necessarily disagree with you about. Time will tell though when the push to the right will reverse and real progress can be made. These last few decades have been a very recent reactive phenomena and I don't believe it has the internal muscle to carry on in the same way for much longer. People - even Orthodox people - are becoming disillusioned.

"I also think these *are* the good times."

In some ways, sure. But it is a tumultuous time for Halachic Judaism as a way of life.

Baal Habos said...

OP, I think we need some definitions. What time frame are you referring to?

From a non scholarly approach, we have a law code initially borrowed from elsewhere (I.e. Mishpatim) and the Priestly & Levitical rules.

I don't see what's divine about any of it, unless you want to call Hammurabi divine. Are you calling Leviticus, sacrifice & Niddah, divine?

(Yes, it is an attempt to put order in society.)

What arose in the times of the Tannaim? I don't see it as divine either. It is all always a set of rules, usually just, based on the times. What really bugs me, is the fact that always venerates the prior generations. There's nothing wrong with respect, but veneration seems mis-placed. It is always an attempt to determine the ruling based on what they think God wanted, filtered thru the spectrum of yesterday's visionaries. Is that really divine? Or even divinely inspired? Sometimes though, they decide to "pasken" like the rov, i.e. like when Bais Shammai had the majority in session they paskened like them. I don't get that.

You say that orthodox people are getting dis-illusioned. Yes and no. I think it's only those that are in, and on the periphery of, modern society. The sheltered Chareidim think all is good and dandy. And so the Chareidim are trying, succesfully I might say, to shut out the outside world. And it's the Chareidim that count because it is they whot will pass the torch to the next generation. It is they who will define Judasim. People say it's not economically feasible in the long run. Perhaps. But that is the case if they must live on a high standard of living. True Chareidim, given enought Mussar, will be willing to step down a couple of notches on their lifestyle.

Orthoprax said...

BH,

"OP, I think we need some definitions. What time frame are you referring to?"

I'm mean in a couple hundred years.

"What arose in the times of the Tannaim? I don't see it as divine either."

Well, I didn't say it was divine - meaning commanded by God. What I said was that it was made by men with the intent of reaching God's divine and moral will. There was good intention and it generally worked (it still generally works) to make good communities and encourage individual progress and so on.

"The sheltered Chareidim think all is good and dandy. And so the Chareidim are trying, succesfully I might say, to shut out the outside world. And it's the Chareidim that count because it is they whot will pass the torch to the next generation. It is they who will define Judasim."

Maybe, but I do think there will still exist other, more liberal forms of Judaism that will keep the whole system from keeling over into pure psychosis.

And it remains very difficult for me to imagine such a program of official reality denial to reach long term success in the modern world. Though I may simply be fooling myself.

Once in awhile I try talking facts with some indoctrinated young folks on the web and it really seems like I make zero progress. It's almost incredible what kind of memes you can indoctrinate a person with as a child and they'll be yours their entire life. It's very scary.

Miri said...

"The difficulty is that halachah is not a self contained legal system. It is an extension of God’s mind, and in that sense it is an outgrowth of theology itself:"

I think I misunderstood something here. How is halacha any more an extension of G-d's mind than anything else? By which I mean, if all of existence is an extension of G-d, what is it about Halacha being another bit of that G-d extension that's bothering everyone?

"With the axiom in hand, the we are not privy to God’s thoughts"

ah, but if halacha is an extension of G-d's mind, are we not privy to at least some of His thoughts? sorry, I'm picking at details. I'll go read the post, maybe then I'll get it.

Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I think I misunderstood something here. How is halacha any more an extension of G-d's mind than anything else? By which I mean, if all of existence is an extension of G-d, what is it about Halacha being another bit of that G-d extension that's bothering everyone?"

That may be, but existence doesn't need any theological assertions to exist - it can stand on it sown reality. As opposed to this, Halacha, as a system for Orthodoxy, requires assumptions about God's intents.

"ah, but if halacha is an extension of G-d's mind, are we not privy to at least some of His thoughts?"

No, we're not. God may very well just be testing us to see if we'll disobey out of respect for a higher ideal, or whatnot. It could be anything. Do read the post in the original.

alex said...

That was a thought-provoking post, OP.

1. "We follow His rulebook and He gives us Eretz Yisrael, the good life and protection from our enemies (and later on eternal life). But that is as simplistic as it is uninspiring for today's age."

Worded that way, you're right, but add a little poetry (keeping the same gist, and adding a few items), and it's not so simplistic and potentially very inspiring -- and for *any* age.

2. "I believe a more correct way of phrasing it is that the laws were made by men with moral intent. They did err in some aspects..."

Perhaps, "They did err, in my opinion, in some respects..." would be more fair to say.

3. Ben Avuya wrote, "it appears equally likely that he would choose to test our ability to follow what he has clearly spelled out, as he would to test our ability to rebel..."

I think it would've been nice to mention the popular Orthodox understanding of the word that is translated as "test." Y'know, the whole "elevate" idea.

Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"That may be, but existence doesn't need any theological assertions to exist - it can stand on it sown reality. "

well, it stands on our personal interpretation of reality, I suppose. which...ah, well, I don't really do the whole Matrix mind game thing very well. suffice it to say that I find this point debatable, if not neccessarily worth going into here.

"Do read the post in the original."

I did, just after I commented here. I really liked the main idea of his post, although the questions I raised in your comment thread remained unanswered. however, it was a minor side point, so not entirely relevant to the discussion perhaps.

Ben Avuyah said...

Great discussion genrated here !

Just to refine the point I was trying to make.

Althought I don't believe in OJ, in this instance I am attempting to use their system of rules/philosophy/theology and point out some aspects that don't fit.

To me, even within the rules of orthodoxy, theological certainty regarding halachah is difficult to attain for the pondering theologian.

Just last Shabbos I heard my Rabbi complaining about the difficulty about paskening some minutia in the details of treatment of an HIV pateint.

Let us not forget some people *do* make end of life decisions based on this legal system. It's not just weather or not the tea bag goes in before the water or not.

Critical decisions in the hands of mature sensitive individuals mandate a degree of soul searching, "am I doing the right thing, am I making the right decision?"

I think this is completely absent in MO despite it's familiarity with modernity. MO functions by averting it's gaze from problems with believability and theology within it's legal structure, and blunders on, focusing only on the well adhered and apperently logicaly coherent "upper crust" of halachah.


To me there is something deeply devious and dishonest, or at least lacking in this process.

I am trying to call attention to it.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"Worded that way, you're right, but add a little poetry (keeping the same gist, and adding a few items), and it's not so simplistic and potentially very inspiring -- and for *any* age."

You think so? Making a business deal with a deity is inspiring? It seems philosophically shallow to me.

"Perhaps, "They did err, in my opinion, in some respects..." would be more fair to say."

Ok, I don't really want to get into this, but you don't think commanding genocide and permitting slavery were errors in moral judgement?

"I think it would've been nice to mention the popular Orthodox understanding of the word that is translated as "test." Y'know, the whole "elevate" idea."

I'm afraid I don't see how that's relevant.


Miri,

"well, it stands on our personal interpretation of reality, I suppose. which...ah, well, I don't really do the whole Matrix mind game thing very well. suffice it to say that I find this point debatable, if not neccessarily worth going into here."

Of course, reality may not, in fact, be real. But bringing God into the problem doesn't help either way. And as far as I am personally concerned I take reality at face value as being real.

alex said...

I'll drop points 2 and 3. But I can pursue #1 a bit.

"You think so? Making a business deal with a deity is inspiring? It seems philosophically shallow to me."

Worded that way, you're right, but ... (Aw heck, I'm just repeating what I wrote above.) One way you can make it sound more inspiring is to substitute 'covenant' for 'business deal'.

Miri said...

OP-
"Of course, reality may not, in fact, be real. But bringing God into the problem doesn't help either way."

Yeah, I think my point with that was, all things being equal, which is to say equally unknwable and therefore unreliable, the whole G-d thing is at least as moot as anything and everything else. I mean, you know, maybe reality's real, and maybe it's not; maybe there's a G-d, maybe there isn't; maybe He wanted us to follow the Torah, maybe not exactly...it's all equally arguable and therefore not really worth arguing. I don't think I'm being quite clear, so I apologize, but I'm in a rush...

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

"One way you can make it sound more inspiring is to substitute 'covenant' for 'business deal'."

Ok.. A rose by any other name...


Miri,

"I mean, you know, maybe reality's real, and maybe it's not; maybe there's a G-d, maybe there isn't; maybe He wanted us to follow the Torah, maybe not exactly...it's all equally arguable and therefore not really worth arguing."

Ok, but if you act as if reality isn't real there will be immediate consequences. Even if you believe there is no road and so you don't look when you cross the street - it'll still hurt when you get hit by a car.

As far as Halacha goes, there doesn't seem to be any real consequences to following one ruling as compared to another - except insofar as sociological influences may go. God certainly isn't giving any clues.

alex said...

"A rose by any other name"

Sorry, but I don't buy this. In your list of items of this "business deal," you included promises of eternal life. Covenants might include eternal life and a good life, but business deals don't.

Now, you were right to say in your original post about the "standard Orthodoxy's" viewpoint of halacha, "that (it) is simplistic" but that was more a reflection on how you worded it than on "standard Orthodoxy." However, to say that this viewpoint (worded correctly, of course) is uninspiring is simply your opinion.

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