Monday, June 04, 2007

Canon Camp

My favorite television channel is CSPAN’s Book TV. They recently aired a panel on religion featuring Christopher Hitchens, author of God is NOT Great, and several other authors of religious books. I am a Hitchens fan. He is bright, concise, cutting, and seemingly incapable of seeing any gray in his black and white world of reason versus religion. His fellow panelists were all gray fellows, ignoring the dark side of religion by insisting on a distinction between religion and those who claim to follow it.

For example, Biblical Judaism promotes genocide against the enemies of the ancient Israelites, but the idea and the god who sanctions it horrify most contemporary Jews. The same can be said of animal sacrifice. Despite official prayers to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of Jews would be appalled at the renewal of animal sacrifice and reject both it and the god who requires it.

Before you accuse me of picking on ancient and long dead practices only, take kashrut and Shabbat. Most Jews do not keep kosher nor do they observe the Sabbath, yet these have been the backbone of Judaism for millennia. What is Judaism: what Jews do or what the ancient texts and traditions say Jews should do?

When I teach Judaism at the university I don’t teach what Jews do, I teach what text and tradition say they should do. Otherwise when speaking of Jewish dietary practices I would focus on the Jewish love of Chinese food rather than the avoidance of pork.

The fact that most Jews ignore most of Judaism doesn’t change Judaism; it simply reveals that Judaism is irrelevant to the lives of most Jews. Hitchens, I suspect, would argue that most Jews are irrelevant to history and only those fanatical few who take it literally really matter. His fellow panelists would argue that it is the very irrelevancy of tradition that makes religion a source of hope in the world.

I would like to offer a third option: revolution. I’m tired of honoring an ancient scroll celebrating god-sanctioned genocide, homophobia, and misogyny. I propose the establishment of a Canon Camp where college educated Jews in their twenties learn to critically study the sacred canon of Judaism (biblical, rabbinic, mystical, and liturgical) with the express purpose of producing a revised canon for their generation in line with the best ethical, historical, social, scientific, and spiritual thinking of their time.

I am too old to do this myself. Far from reinventing Judaism, my generation has mostly opted for the time–honored tradition of whining over the demise of Judaism. But I would be honored to consult with any group of serious twenty and thirty-somethings who would dare to take this on.

In the meantime, I’ll just see what’s playing on Book TV.


AaronHerschel said...

I can't agree. Another canonized Judaism could not, by definition, ever be radical enough to be relevent or inclusive enough to be accepted. In fact, I doubt whether the Jewish community is unified enough to support a canon anyway. We are too diffuse for a Jewish council of Nicene--and frankly, I think we should remain so.

The problem with religion is always its attempt to enforce ontological unity. I don't want a concensus religion, since concensus by its very nature is static and tyrannical. I prefer the story about the old temple divided over whether to sit or stand during the Shema. When the argument proved intractable, the Jews took the problem to their most esteemed Rabbi.

"Tell us, Rabbi," said the Standing representative, "should we stand?"

"That is not the tradition," The Rabbi replied.

"Then we should sit!" the Sitting representative exclaimed.

"No, that is not the tradition either," the Rabbi said.

"But Rabbi," both representatives said, "we cannot stop arguing!"

"A-ha! replied the Rabbi, "THAT is the tradition."

Judy said...

I disagree - albeit with respect. The challenge is not to create something new which will soon be old and need to be recreated yet again, but to seek out relevance where possible. Adding new dogma happens all the time - just look at kashrut as the world of science and biology expand - but throwing out the baby with the bath water is not a good idea.