In my essay this past week entitled True Beliefs vs. Necessary Beliefs II, Zach in his comment raised several issues that merit an essay. The reader will be wise to understand that thee are no quantifiable or empirical answers to these concerns. In issues of faith there can only be speculation in the never ending search for reaching a comfort level, a point where faith and reason intersect.
Judaism doesn’t have an exclusive hold on Divine Revelation and through the ages there were other manifestations of Divine Revelation as evidenced by other faiths. (There may even be instances of Divine Revelation today). With the competing faiths each claiming Divine Revelation there is for the Jewish people, nevertheless, the moral, social and religious imperative of adhering to Torah. Because all faiths claim Divine Revelation each of them carries the universal message of recognition of the One God. This universal message in Judaism as evidence by the Alenu in which we pray that “kol b’nei basar yikreu b’shmecha……yakiru v’yadu kol yoshvei tevel, ki lecha tichra kol berech…then all humanity will call upon your name……All the worlds inhabitants will recognize and know that to you every knee must bend….”is central. The concept is beautiful. The problem I that somewhere the message was side tracked by over obsessing details. And as the aphorism goes the “devil is in the details”. There are times when unfortunately we loose the message for the details.
On the other hand the details are important because without them there would be chaos in society. Man has always been in need of order, otherwise our society would be dysfunctional. Without the design of nations, languages, religion, custom and tradition there would probably be more chaos than what there is currently. Prof. Neil Gillman in his book Sacred Fragments believes that man from earliest times had the constant need to make order from chaos. Religion, its customs and traditions was the earliest attempts at doing so. Humanity on a certain level breaks down into national, religious and social groupings. We are born (sometimes chose) into these various groupings, and in the process of socialization we become intimately comfortable with the messages, mores, taboos and totems of what we were raised into. While we may all be praying to the same God, as Jew we have a certain comfort level in praying in a certain format, style, accompanied buy certain customs and traditions. To pray in any other way would cause us to loose the natural feeling and comfort that we have.
Having been raised in an Orthodox home and learned to daven before I could read English, I found myself in a very foreign and profoundly uncomfortable position the first time I attended a Reform service. This is not to deligitimize their service. I however learned to talk to God and my people through davening, which included less decorum, less formality, swaying to a certain rhythm inculcated and part of my psyche from the time I was in preschool. The reverse I am sure applies as well. Reform Jews probably feel uncomfortable in a shteibel, assuming that they were raised in the language and tradition of Reform Judaism. Their prayer is no less valid that that of an orthodox Jew.
The prayer of Jews is no less valid than that of a Muslim or Christian. The reverse holds true as well. Our methodology in part, of reaching a level of spirituality is through shmirat mitzvoth. Other faiths have their methodology and practice. One isn’t more authentic than the other. It is a question of what is authentic for you. Being a Jew would indicate that authenticity for our tribe is through shmirat mitzvoth. Thus, practicing your method doesn’t deligitimize the methods of other faith communities who have been raised in other religions.
Every faith has a series of totems that without which they can’t survive. We have ours and I believe are based upon a clear moral value system. Without these totems our civilization, the Jewish civilization can’t survive. The three cardinal principals by which we are asked to surrender our lives rather than commit these heinous crimes are what binds us as a people. If we were to compromise with any of them our culture would be seriously threatened. There will always be extenuating circumstances and situations where it isn’t clear cut. There are unfortunately many, too many Teshuvot regarding the issue of Gilui Arayot and Sheficat Damim during the holocaust.
The beauty of Judaism is that our Sages and Rabbis recognized that Torah wasn’t, nor could it ever be treated as a literal document without interpretive guidelines. Torah Shel Baal Peh is ingenious and catapulted our civilization into the renaissance and enlightenment before the rest of the world understood that they were still living in the dark ages. Our Sages and Rabbis understood that the text had relativistic values and thus would need interpretation. An Eye for an Eye, may have been treated literally as part of an emerging culture, but quickly evolved into something else entirely. It was treated as part of a legal system that would take into consideration such things as Tzar, Repui, Boshet and Shevet. This could never have happened had the text not been understood as a document reflecting relativism. How is one to assess Tzar, Ripui, Boshet and Shevet? During the period of the Talmud Boshet was probably very different than our understanding of it today.
Another example would be the injunction against allowing a witch to be live in our communities. What constitutes a witch? Was there ever such thing as a witch, or was that our prejudice speaking against someone a little different than us. How do we respond to this mitzvah today? Relativism is a reality and part of Jewish Theology. The only real issue is how honest are we going to be in admitting this.
Our interpretive guidelines, Torah Shel Baal Peh, are divinely inspired. Being divinely inspired places those interpretations in a very sacred place with in our religious conscience. However that too must be seen as tools by which we can learn from the axioms and apply them to situations arising in our lives. To view them as documents frozen in time does them great injustice. Originally, Torah Shel Baal Peh wasn’t supposed to have been reduced to ink and paper. The sages were afraid that this would bring us into the ice age, the ossification of ideas. Torah Shel Baal Peh was supposed to keep open the channels of religious and intellectual inquiry, keeping us creative, so that Judaism would grow and develop organically. On some level the fear of our Sages was justified.
Our sages recognized and understood relativism. Why do you think that the wisdom book Koheleth was incorporated into the canon? We however, have been educated (especially those of us who learned in Orthodox yeshivot) to believe that there are clear and unequivocal standards and answers, founded in platitudes such as Bitachon and Emunah. I am here to tell you that we don’t have the answers. To believe that there is one answer that fits all is to believe in cookie cutter Judaism.