Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Who Decides What is Judaism?

I received an email yesterday that I thought I would share with you. Rather than print the entire letter, I am highlighting the key points accompanied by my response.

1. Judaism should not be influenced by outside values and beliefs, and should stem only from God and Torah. The assumption you are making, namely that Judaism is somehow separate from the values and beliefs of the people who shaped it, is, in my opinion, false. Of course traditional Judaism claims that it comes from a transcendent source outside humanity, but history makes it clear that Judaism has changed over time, and that the changes came as the beliefs and values of Jews changed.

To site just a few examples: The use of capital punishment is rampant in the Hebrew Bible, yet anathema to the rabbis. So they changed Judaism to make the implementation of capital punishment impossible. Kosher is another example. While the Torah does lay the groundwork for a uniquely Jewish diet, the rabbis expanded this far beyond the Torah’s proscriptions. The same can be said for Shabbat and other holy day traditions as well.

Regarding more metaphysical matters, it is well established in academic circles that biblical Jews had no sense of a heaven and hell, and that it this was introduced into Judaism by those Jews who learned of it during their exile in Babylonia. The Pharisees made belief in the world to come central to their teachings, something their priestly opponents rejected as foreign.

Looking at Judaism in our own day, the role of women in Jewish life has greatly expanded not because Torah demanded it, but because the Women’s Movement became part of the mindset of most Jews and they demanded it.

To say that Judaism avoids change is false. To ignore the role the Jewish people play in changing their religion is to ignore how civilizations grow and survive. If priestly Judaism did not evolve into rabbinic Judaism there would be no Judaism at all. The fact that the rabbis insisted that they were simply applying the Oral Torah given to Moses alongside the Written Torah was a slick marketing move, but has no legitimacy outside the rabbis themselves—hence the rejection of the rabbinic innovations by their priestly competitors prior to the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

2. How can we ensure that in a hundred years or more there will still be Judaism or Jews if by that time we allow our morals and beliefs to eradicate all vestiges of what makes Judaism what it truly is and not some cheap, unsatisfying, self-help program?
 Your phrasing begs the question “what Judaism truly is,” but I understand and even share your concern. What will keep Judaism recognizably Jewish? Some would say that the only thing that keeps Judaism Jewish is that a people who call themselves Jews insist that it is. From a sociological viewpoint this may be true. I would like to add another element: Torah.

I think that any Judaism not linked to a creative reading of Torah is doomed. But as our rabbis have shown over the past 2000 years Torah can be read in many different ways to yield many different meanings and insights. Torah is a living document and must be read with deep creativity and imagination to uncover the layers of meaning needed in each generation. So what will make Judaism of the future authentic, the same thing that made the Judaisms of the past authentic: Torah and the Jews.

3. Liberal Judaism is fake Judaism that threatens to destroy authentic Judaism. The real challenge to Orthodoxy and tradition isn’t liberal Judaisms, but the rise of the sovereign self. With the coming of the modern period and now with postmodernism the individual (especially in the United States) is seen as supreme. It is becoming more and more difficult to subsume the individual into the group. We are encouraged to think for ourselves, to make moral and ethical decisions based on our individual consciences, etc. Community is more and more difficult to maintain. Can a Judaism that hopes to reach out to such highly individualized people impose law, or does it have to take another path?

It is too soon to answer this question, but the trend seems to be against halacha/Jewish law among nonOrthodox Jews. Even Conservative Jews pick and choose among the halachot, and often do so based on values that come from the secular world.

While I have no doubt that Orthodoxy will survive, it seems to do so only through greater and greater isolation from modernity. Orthodox Judaism will not (thankfully) go away, but it may (sadly) go the way of the Amish. We may admire their faith, but they are largely irrelevant to the lives of the most people.

This is my fear: that Judaism becomes irrelevant to Jews. Given that most Jews (90% if I am not mistaken) have rejected Orthodoxy, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that Orthodoxy is irrelevant to most Jews. But, if you are correct (and you may be) that the Judaism that is immerging in a weak, self-indulgent, self-help program more geared to Jerry Springer than the Prophets we Jews are in trouble.

4. Liberal rabbis are fake rabbis who bastardize Judaism. I can only assume that “real rabbis” are Orthodox rabbis. Yet there are some Orthodox rabbis that other Orthodox rabbis consider equally fake. So how are we to decide who is the real rabbi?

If I am reading you correctly, the only real rabbi is one who rejects all change. If that is true, there are no real rabbis. Rabbinic Judaism was a radical departure from Priestly Judaism. Hillel and Akiva, to mention just two rabbis, were agents of change. And the Rambam (Moses Maimonides) even more so! The difference between these sages and some of today’s rabbis is that they insisted they were not doing what they were doing: making changes, and, in the case of Maimonides, applying the wisdom of non-Jewish cultures (Aristotelian to be specific) to Judaism. Today’s rabbinic creatives are more honest in their borrowings.

But, I too, have to cop to the notion of “fake rabbis.” There are rabbis, or people who call themselves rabbis, whom I would call “fake.” I make this distinction based on snobbishness: did they attend a yeshiva or seminary? Do they know and use Torah, Talmud, Zohar, Tanya in shaping their teachings? Are they rooted in Jewish history, tradition, and literature? No matter how innovative a rabbi may be, if they are linked strongly to these things I consider them authentic, even if I disagree with them. But if they are not so linked, I, too, fall into the trap of name-calling.

To opt for name calling as a first line of defense, however, suggests a weakness in your own argument. What could have been a fine discussion among thoughtful Jews becomes a silly spat between eight-year-olds. The only way we will know what impact rabbis (fake and otherwise) will have on Judaism is to wait and see. I imagine that if you shift your passion from attacking Jews to enriching Judaism, your Judaism will thrive. At least I hope so. In the end, as it has been throughout Jewish history, it is the Jews who will decide. They will determine what is Jewish, who is Jewish, who is a rabbi, etc.


AaronHerschel said...

I just want to correct a minor point in your post on Postmodernism. Postmodern theorists actually do a lot to deconstruct modernist notions of selfhood, attempting to map the ways in which the self is constructed by, within, and against the matrix of roles and values promulgated by the multiple fields in which any one person acts. Thus postmodern notions of selfhood tend toward the fragmented and the performative. "I" is an action, not a thing. This is the difference between Descrates "I think" which imagines the self as a preexisting agent, and Rimbaud's "I am thought," which posits selfhood as a cognitive process.

While the distinction may sound esoteric, I assure you it is not. Postmodernism recognizes and celebrates identity as an ongoing performance, shaped at the locus of the body, culture, and history. The postmdoern self, therefore, cannot be soveriegn. It cannot even be said to "exist" outside of its moment: because what the self "is" is a specific location in space and time.

For me, there is something intrinsically Jewish about this idea: an echo of Adam's "Hinnenni." To explain:

It's always been interesting to me that when humans in Torah meet God in some form they inevitably ask "Who are you?" This is a very human question, because as creatures with memory we tend to construct identity as the subject of a narrative, imagining a constant self who does things or to whom things happen, and we project this idea of selfhood onto God. But this is a mistake. The narrative is an invention of the moment, and so is the self. Note, for example, when God meets humans, s/he never asks this question. Instead, God asks: "Where are you?"

In Torah, God asks this question not only of Adam, but of Job and Jonah, all three of whom are struggling with the difficulties of identity, the difficulties of being "embodied" in a particular way at a particular place and time. Adam struggles with the knowlede of difference embodied as sex; Jonah struggles with transcience embodied death; and Job struggles with pain embodied as physical and emotional dis-ease.

To escape these difficulties, each tries to deny the body in some way, imagining a transcendent "I" that might exist seperate form the body. Adam first hides his penis, then his body entire. Job and Jonah, meanwhile, each accuse God of acting unjustly, which they can only do by imagining an "I" upon whom death and disease act as outside forces.

When God asks, "where are you," or "where were you when," then, s/he destroys the notion of a self seperate form its embodiment, reminding us that "I" is not a thing, but the coming to consciousness of a particular place at a particular moment. Recognizing this, we embrace the difficulties of being--its transcience, pain, and loneliness--because without them, one cannot "be" at all.

Rabbi Rami said...

Excellent! And even more to the point. You are right, of course, that the sovereign self belongs to modernism. My thinking was sloppy. The idea of the postmodern self being the product of performance is an interesting take on God's self identification tag to Moses as the burning bush: Ehyeh asher Ehyeh, I will be what I will be. There is no self for God, only the performance of becoming.

I also like your understanding of God's query, "Where are you," rather than "Who are you." There is no "you" separate from the where, the happening, the Is'ing of the universe that is God manifesting as That in This Moment.

AaronHerschel said...

Rereading my own post, I realized that I never really made it clear what the practical application of the pomo self might be, especially in a Jewish context.

The main point I want to add is that while the modernist notion of selfhood might push people away from community--in a sort of overzealous application of Emersonian self-reliance--the postmodern notion of selfhood enables community ties. Community is without a doubt one of the facets of identity construction, and negotiating the tensions between individuation and belonging generates precisely the kind of unique performance experienced as selfhood.

This may still be problematic for orthodoxy, since a postmodern perspective on the relationship between self and community would embrace emerging tensions, and not feel compelled to resolve them consistently or "once and for all."

Rabbi Rami said...

This is very interesting and important. The two questions I have are these: what does a postmodern community look like, and how is it created?

Peter Schogol said...

Wow! You got the same email that was posted to Our Jewish Community! That bigot sure gets around!


Immanuel said...

Apologies that I am guilty of posting yet another non-sequitur - I'm a serial non sequitur-nik - mea culpa - but your correspondents ;letter was so boring and unoriginal I don't know where you got the zitsfleish from to respond to it. Here is my response, and a plague on both their houses:

Listening to Achinoam Nini
singing "nanuah"
liquid audible love
tears and smiles
pure ghee rubbed
onto a babies' back
feels just like this, a
1000 years of lonely fear
hiding in the fortress of the heart dissolve
just like that. If we are not
haMakom, haAyn Sof
az maayin noveya nahar
hayofi hazeh


School a week before vacation
staff and students
thoroughly sick of one another
can already smell it in the air
they sniff at it greedily
with engorged nostrils
and continue to pretend
to teach and learn

Once the son
of Schickelgruber
saw a Jew family.

The Jew papa
patted his little boy's head
and a pain shot through the son
of Schickelgruber's chest.
He could not look
that love in the eyes
the sweetness hurt too much

to rid him of it
he ordered the Jews
sons and fathers,
mothers and daughters
clothed in fleas
and dysentery
drowned in misery...

it didn't help
the Jew love lives on


shabat shalom

Jordan said...

Shalom Rav and Aaron Herschel,

Re your comments and not Rabbi Rami's original post: It's time to leave the rarified air of ivory tower academia and actually deal with the folks on the ground who for the most part couldn't care less about the philosophical jargon you've tossed about.

Re Rabbi Rami's questions: "what does a postmodern community look like, and how is it created?"

I'll defer to Seth Godin for an answer which cuts through the the academic obfuscation like a hot knife through butter. In his book, "Tribes" he wrote:

"There's a difference between telling people what to do and inciting a movement. The movement happens when people talk to one another, when ideas spread within the community, and most of all, when peer support leads people to do what they always knew was the right thing.

Great leaders create movements by empowering the tribe to communicate. They establish the foundation for people to make connections, as opposed to commanding people to follow them."
"Tribes," P. 23

Shavu'a Tov to all of us,

AaronHerschel said...

I refuse your distinction between the ivory tower and the people on the ground. My interest in philosophy and my fluency with the language of critical theory does not make me any less of a real person than “Joe Six Pack.” Nor does it disconnect me from everyday life or make me incapable of working within communities that are not academic. I belong to multiple communities and I speak multiple dialects. I find theory and philosophy interesting for their own sake, its true, and not everyone shares that interest. But I don’t imagine for a minute that musing on the nature of the self precludes me from praying, voting, building a house, teaching a class, or protesting a war.

Jordan said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

You wrote: "But I don’t imagine for a minute that musing on the nature of the self precludes me from praying, voting, building a house, teaching a class, or protesting a war."

Of course it doesn't. And in the end (whatever that means), a life is measured by service to others, where, to paraphrase Dr ML King who paraphrased the New Testament, all of us can achieve greatness.

Happy 4rth of July


Jordan said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

Re "musing on the nature of self:"

self is probably an illusion or a meaning making delusion of the human brain's proneness to constructing models of reality. And so what!!?!? To me, it doesn't really matter. I'm here (whatever that means) and thus will use the blessing of the opportunity of every new day to do good and to do better.


AaronHerschel said...


you wrote: "Self is probably an illusion or a meaning making delusion of the human brain's proneness to constructing models of reality. And so what!!?!? To me, it doesn't really matter."

For me, the idea that self is a meaning making delusion is incredibly important. We live in a culture that fetishizes the self: "being yourself," "finding yourself," "expressing yourself," "self-help," "self-realization," self-reliance," etc. Recognizing that the self is delusional, that it is not a thing to be found and defined, measured and named, frees me from taking my 'self' too seriously, or from needing to assert a stable 'self' at all. It frees me to view identity as a space for play and acts as a curative for essentialist notions about, for example, race or gender.

At the same time, recognizing that self is "meaning making" saves me from both nihilism and solipsism. The way identity is defined and deployed has force in the world. Being a self, living in its tensions, contradictions, fantasies, pains, pleasures, impossibilities, makes for poetry and art, dreams, myths, and Gods. It shapes stories and histories, politics and policies. It shapes communities, friendship and love. So the self is a delusion, but the delusion definitely matters.

Jordan said...

Shalom Aaron Herschel,

You wrote:

"For me, the idea that self is a meaning making delusion is incredibly important."

Self as a meaning making delusion may (or may not) be a fact of neuroscience and/or a useful philosophical construct for those relatively few souls who are are interested in the brainsport of such speculation. Self could also be an artifact of some as yet undiscovered homunculus. Either way it really doesn't matter as the fact that "self" and "consciousness" are nearly universally accepted as "real" human experiences; i.e., "givens" makes the reason why all but irrelevant to most of us. Irrelevant, because regardless of the reason, we are left with dealing in the here and now with the experience; with answering the question of what it means to be human. In another blog, Rabbi Rami put it this way:

" The Bible is a mytho-poetic exploration of what it means to be human. I don't ask of any Biblical story, "Is this a fact?" I ask, "What does this story have to say about life and how best to live it?" I don't always agree with the Bible, but I always find wrestling with it a catalyst to deepening my thinking about life and life's meaning." You continued:

"We live in a culture that fetishizes the self: "being yourself," 'finding yourself,' 'expressing yourself,' 'self-help,' 'self-realization,' "self-reliance,' etc.
Recognizing that the self is delusional, that it is not a thing to be found and defined, measured and named, frees me from taking my 'self' too seriously,"

For those of us not interested in neuroscientific or philosophical speculation, there is a more accessible route to a similar decision/recognition. It can be reached by reading the very first sentence of "A Purpose Driven Life," wherein he tells his readers, "It's not about you." "On one foot," the book goes on to say that it is about loving God and loving others. You continued:

"or from needing to assert a stable 'self' at all."

I disagree. It's our human responsibility not only to "assert a stable 'self'" but to act in accordance with that "stable self," as well. You continued:

"It frees me to view identity as a space for play"

As long as it doesn't interfere or prevent the same
for others. You continued:

"and acts as a curative for essentialist notions about, for example, race or gender."

Whatever way one gets to the understanding of the need for ethical behavioral norms, it doesn't matter to me if the source of that understanding is
evolutionary biology or the Bible. You continued:

"At the same time, recognizing that self is 'meaning making' saves me from both nihilism and solipsism."

The obvious contradiction here (whose resolution is irrelevant to me for reasons previously stated) is, if the self is a neurological delusion then "meaning making" is also a delusion.

"The way identity is defined and deployed has force in the world. Being a self, living in its tensions, contradictions, fantasies, pains, pleasures, impossibilities, makes for poetry and art, dreams, myths, and Gods. It shapes stories and histories, politics and policies. It shapes communities, friendship and love."

Agreed. You continued:

"So the self is a delusion,"

Perhaps. You continued:

"but the delusion definitely matters."

Only if "the self is not in fact a delusion!!"
Thanks for the brainsport Aaron.