Halakhic Cargo Cult?

Driving into work today, I was listening to yet another podcast episode of classes on the Mishneh Torah, and the class is (or the recordings are) discussing some very early chapters discussing the foundations of halakhic observance–specifically, the commandments that require individuals to love and fear God, and what it means to do so. In explaining what it means to love God, Maimonides sets forth the prevailing view of the composition of the universe in his time, with the earth suspended in the middle of a series of nine concentric spheres, in which are lodged various celestial bodies (i.e., the moon, the sun, planets, constellations, etc.).

The rabbi teaching the class acknowledges that this is really not an accurate view of the universe, but that the view of the universe we have should make us that much more appreciative of God, because look at how complex it is!

I’ll set aside the tangled questions of modern science, intelligent design, and the accuracy of the Bible’s account of history. (The rabbi teaching the class moves seamlessly from talking about the big bang to assuming the biblical flood occurred about 3500 years ago, which is kind of whiplash-y.) Listening to these classes brings to mind a question that also troubled the students in the class: Maimonides was wrong about the science, so was he wrong about other things? The rabbi said, no, the science isn’t there to prove the law, but rather as an illustration; halakhah is one thing, the science another.

On the one hand, this is probably right as far as it goes–but I hesitate to take it too far, because it seems to me important to recognize that in some ways, individual pieces of knowledge in different subject areas are somewhat interdependent. We risk behaving like a cargo cult if we strip from our understanding of one area of knowledge the other areas that underlay the one.

So I think it’s important, as a humanist Jew, to stop and look at the ideas that appear before me and ask: can this make sense without the conceptual basis that underlay and gave rise to the idea? That is, is the idea independently valid apart from its conceptual basis–or will I be like a cargo cultist, turning knobs on a radio and expecting an airplane to land, without knowing how any of it should actually work? And after making that decision, supposing the idea stands on its own, ought I still adhere to it?

It’s a challenging question for a humanist Jew. Because even rejecting revelation as the source for things like kashrut doesn’t necessarily mean we are free to stop recognizing those practices in at least some contexts–because they remain practices that are culturally integral to Jewish identity, if not to the actual practice of most modern Jews.

9 thoughts on “Halakhic Cargo Cult?

  1. Are we then obligated to perform those practices BECAUSE of the cultural identity, or are we free to reject practices that are maybe culturally significant, but have no inherent meaning for us? Why do you do any ritualized behavior? Why does one person always have biscotti with their coffee? Because you always had one when you were a college student and stopped for coffee at a particular bistro and above and beyond the inherent enjoyment of biscotti, it creates a connection to that time? If your family always lit candles on Fridays and it evokes happy memories for you, or if you remember your grandfather always placing a kiss on the mezuzah when walking in or out of a door, and you do it too as homage to your grandfather, but your family never got around to lighting a Havdallah candle on Saturdays so it has no meaning for you, can you drop that practice? If not, then we’re back to the 613, an all or nothing proposition.

  2. Well, that’s why it’s “in some contexts.” So perhaps it means, at public events, providing only kosher food.

    I’m not saying I think it’s all-or-nothing; only that it requires a lot more thought than just going with the flow.

  3. As a geology major and a ba’alat teshuvah, I really have a struggle with big bang vs. Torah. What about Hashem Spoke and Bang! as an option of outlook? http://shalomahavaandtiedye.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/hashem-spoke-and-bang/
    Funny enough, I wrote about it as well.

    Luckily, I don’t have to make my decision today on it, but continuing to learn and meld my scientific view with my now-Torah observant view is a process, and I shouldn’t expect it to be anything less.

  4. Chana, I think where I and other more liberally-minded Jews would have concerns with Hashem-spoke-and-bang (setting aside for the moment the idea of divine speech as anything other than metaphor) is that I think you can’t really be consistent with the text of the Torah. You end up having to play fast-and-loose with things like what a day is in Genesis 1, or the order in which things came into being in Genesis 1 and 2 (which don’t quite match up themselves) with the order in which scientific inquiry tends to show things happening.

    Maimonides could advance his explanation (which is really the standard medieval neo-Aristotelian explanation) for physics because it wasn’t incompatible with the biblical account; moderns have bigger problems. My own conclusions have driven me away from heavily observant forms of Judaism, but each person will reach their own results.

  5. Man, I wish I had seen this comment earlier! I actually have had multiple discussions with FFB’s about the creation of earth and science vs. religion. One factor presides over the rest of the discussion: the Kaballistic belief that the Torah is a code and not a history book.

    You’re exactly right about the contemplation of what is a day. We discussed that, along with the concept of time, and we did it agreeing every step of the way! One woman also spoke about a professor at Stern University who will tell you how Judaism goes along with science and never once does Judaism and science conflict each other.

    I guess it’s just how you look and interpret things, and whether you believe the Torah is true word for word in the literal sense that we read the words today. I like the belief that the Torah is more of a code rather than a history book. I mean yes, events etc. happened, but it’s not meant to be read purely as a history book. Time frames and other references aren’t exact and I believe that to think of time as the same written in the Torah as what we believe time is today is silly. Time is manmade in order to more easily navigate through this world.

    • I think we (in the broadest sense) should be concerned about attempts to tie religion too closely to science. The Stern professor is an example: nothing in Torah contradicts science. Does that mean that Torah naturally predicts the outcome of scientific inquiry? Or does it mean that where science seems to come to a contrary conclusion, we reject the conclusion?

      And if you say, “Torah predicted/expresses X” (where X is the theory of general relativity, or quantum theory, or really any theory), do you risk the legitimacy of revelation when the theories you are pointing to are disproved? (I mean theory in the way science means it, not in the colloquial “here’s a crazy idea” way.) Scientific theories are disproven at times–tying the legitimacy of revelation to things that are ultimately capable of being rejected seems, from the outside, like a bad move.

      I’m not pretending to have answers–each group will come to its own conclusions. My own conclusions are that we can’t say, with a straight face, that Torah Min Hashamayim is true and also accept the results of modern scholarly inquiry–and I’m not willing to “take on faith” one account when I see the reliability of the other. That doesn’t mean that I would write myself out of Judaism, but rather that Judaism needs, in some sense, to yield.

      At some point interpretation of traditional texts into the level of extreme allegory renders the bare text itself almost nonsensical, and I think that makes Judaism the poorer for it.

  6. Additionally, each person represents their beliefs on Judaism. Don’t let one, two, three, etc. people ruin anything for you. The rabbi you describe seems to be one view point, while many other rabbi’s have distinctly different views.

  7. I believe the professor was trying to say, as am I, that science and religion do not have to be exclusive. The Torah is not simply a history book, but additionally a code.

    I don’t know if Judaism “needs, in some sense, to yield,” or that Judaism is “the poorer for it.” Whatever one chooses to follow in their religious practices is between Hashem and them.

    There are different sects of Judaism for a reason. Over time, many groups have come to, and are still coming to, different beliefs and interpretations on the original texts. That’s the beauty of it all is that we aren’t all the same, because then that would be boring, and somewhat, I believe, then go to perfection. This world was made imperfect so that we would want to have a relationship with Hashem, and if we didn’t have imperfections to reach out to Him, what would the point of the world be for him?

    Thank you for thought provoking dialogue.

  8. Ah, so here’s the nub of the problem, and I should have gotten to it more quickly, I think. It’s not clear to me that it’s anything other than caprice for a deity to create, intentionally, an imperfect world in order for imperfect beings to want a relationship purely for the purpose of…what? Creating perfection? Then the deity should simply create perfection, no?

    At bottom, I think where we diverge is that, as a rational matter, the above proposition doesn’t work for me. While I appreciate that it works emotionally/spiritually for some, it doesn’t do so for me; I can’t believe in the relevance of a deity that 1) creates imperfection in order to (in very simple terms) give imperfect things something to do, or 2) creates imperfection because that deity is incapable of creating perfection, because why worship?

    And that’s okay with me. I’m a humanist–I don’t think it should matter how one sees the divine, if one does see the divine as existing or as existing separate from the world as a whole. It’s what we do in this world that matters, and that means recognizing the primacy for “redemptive work” (whether you think it’s redemptive or Redemptive, so to speak) of how we interact with other persons and with nature.

Comments are closed.