Musings on Historical Approaches to Judaism and Problems of Is and Ought

DovBear has a discussion on his blog today about the implications of a “rational and historical” approach to Judaism. He quotes a question posed about the practice of tikkun leyl Shavuot–staying up all night on erev Shavuot to study–and whether, if someone will be exhausted and “lose Torah” as a result, it is better to “quit while you’re ahead” or stay up all night. The response to the question says, essentially, tikkun leyl Shavuot is only about 500 years old and its origin story with Rabbi Joseph Karo (author of the Shuchan Arukh) is sort of dubious, and none of the rishonim or Talmudic-era rabbis did it. So if you’ll “lose Torah” by staying up all night for the tikkun, the quote says, it’s better that you sleep your ordinary schedule than try to stay up.

DovBear doesn’t particularly agree with this (I’m soft-pedaling his response a bit). He insists that the “rational and historical” approach requires acknowledgment of the history of the tikkun, without more. That is, there is an “is” to be recognized, but no “ought” to be derived from it. He poses this question:

Who is the perpetrator? Is it the enemies of the rational approach who are falsely suggesting that rationalists want to drop all meaning from Judaism? Or are there actual (so called) rationalists out there who are foolishly forgetting that personal meaning and personal significance are both things a rationalist approach needs to take into account?

DovBear’s question is problematic for a number of reasons. From the humanistic Jewish perspective, there’s something a bit…off?…by insisting that reality is to be acknowledged without thinking that there will be practical consequences from that. At the same time, it’s inappropriate to reject the meaningfulness to some people of a practice, whatever its historical origins.

Let’s roll up our sleeves and get dirty in all this with a specific Jewish phenomenon. I’ve posted recently about tefillin, so I’ll start there. In that post, I said that in order to kind of re-center myself during and after my son’s illness, I’ve taken to laying tefillin a few days a week and studying texts as a kind of mental “reboot.”

Am I doing this because tefillin have been around in at least some Jewish groups for at least two thousand years? In a sense, yes–during the weekday mornings, this is what traditionally practicing Jews do in synagogues, and it’s a framework of behavior into which I easily and comfortably slip. But I don’t view that practice as normative. There are days when I don’t do it and don’t feel the need–note need, not obligation–to do it. There are days when I wish I could but just don’t have the time, and I don’t go running to take care of it at lunch. (I always try to study some text or another during the day at some point, even if it’s just a few minutes in the evening just to make sure I’ve read some Hebrew that day.)

Do I think someone who says, “look, tefillin are creations of the Jewish people, and we have the freedom to not lay tefillin and still find meaningful ways of being Jewish,” is misusing the rational and historical approach? No. That person has made a conscious choice about their priorities and their values in light of what has historically been deemed of value for Judaism. And I think it’s equally possible to make that “look, tefillin” statement, lay tefillin, and still not have made a normative decision for anyone else.

What does all this mean for DovBear’s discussion? There are individuals for whom a rational and historical approach to understanding Judaism will still yield something that looks a lot like traditional Jewish practice, and that will be so for any number of reasons: personal connection, historical connection and continuity, community membership, recognition of authority, family expectations, a notion of progressive revelation (however improbable one finds it, some find it probable and it infuses their Jewishness with meaning), etc. There are also some who land in very different places, finding Jewish meaning through community, texts, etc., but without finding meaning for themselves in a tradition practice–whether that practice is 500 years old or 50, 2000 years old or 20.

None of that means that rational and historical approaches that don’t recognize the importance of personal meaning and significance in a set of practices. The hypothetical to which DovBear reacts is evidence of that–it’s not “tikkun leyl is only 500 years old and of dubious origin, so don’t do it at all!,” but rather, “tikkun leyl is only 500 years old and of dubious origin; if that practice makes you ‘lose Torah,’ prioritizing meaningful study over rote study is what you should do.”  By posing this example, I think DovBear has set up a false dichotomy: he slips from the assertion that a decision informed by history need not require a deviation to the assertion that deviation from traditional practice cannot properly be a result of a decision informed by history and reason. And that leads to the problem he poses: are those who advance a rational and historical view misguided in disregarding the importance of personal meaning?

What those of us invested in historical and rational critique would differ with is compartmentalizing the critique from our personal choices and approaches to making meaning. That is a different question. The notion that nothing changes in light of historical research and the application of reason is laughable, because failure to change means disregarding what one recognizes to be reality–wishing that what is just weren’t so. But that is different from saying, “I know the history, and I’m doing it this way because I find it personally meaningful to do so–I’m intentionally making meaning.”

The answer to DovBear’s question, then: for most of us invested in a historical and rational approach, no, we don’t disregard personal meaning. But we do miscommunicate when we use insider language in responding to an outsider issue, or when we assert a position of personal meaningfulness as necessarily normative.

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