Do you speak my language? No Vegemite sandwich.

And with that flippant little title, to serious business about language games.

I’ve recently begun listening to a podcast on Maimonides’s Mishneh Torah from the rabbi at the Pacific Jewish Center (which bills itself as “The Shul on the Beach”), and finally wandered over to the shul’s website and the rabbi’s blog when I had a little time before a hearing. The rabbi, Eliyahu Fink, seems at least somewhat on the not-so-right-wing-end of traditional Judaism.

(I don’t really like calling it “orthodox Judaism,” let alone “Orthodox” with a big O, as I don’t agree that there is specifically one form of “right belief.” Nor do I think orthopraxic is quite right–because, again, of the normative implications there. Flame away if you like–I’ll just moderate your comments–though to be fair, I don’t have a big audience.)

In any case, the Mishneh Torah podcasts are incredibly interesting, and Rabbi Fink’s blog posts are interesting as well. Reading that led me to Professor Alan Brill’s also-fascinating blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions,” which posted an interview with Tamar Ross, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Bar-Ilan University. Professor Ross is working on a theological approach to allow traditional Jews, who ordinarily accept the idea of Torah mi-Sinai (“Torah from Sinai”) view of revelation of the written and oral Torahs, that will allow some…modification?…of the idea in light of the results of biblical criticism.

Part of Professor Ross’s discussion involves the idea of the language game in Wittgenstein’s work, part of it involves Maimonides’s discussion of religious language and Torah imagery as “necessary truths” to allow people to speak about God and Torah, and part of it involves Rabbi Avraham Kook’s idea of progressive revelation. It’s interesting.

It’s not necessarily convincing to me, however. I don’t agree with Rabbi Fink’s take on it, which is that it’s not particularly useful for many people–I think it fits rather nicely in the more traditional ends of the Conservative Movement, for example, though I do agree that it probably wouldn’t suit those farther down the spectrum.

My objection is that it’s just too mushy. The position Professor Ross takes is, it seems, partially this: we have to respect the results of criticism, but what we’ll say is that scripture is revelation, just not actual speech–since, of course, we know from Maimonides that divine speech per se didn’t happpen–and so our subscription to faith is something of a language game. (This reminds me of MacIntyre’s choice of Thomist Aristotelianism because, eventually, you have to make a choice of some kind.)

But acknowledging that you’re playing the language game brings significant normative implications when you’re talking about a religious system.

Part of what comes with the language game is a claim about reality: the thing in itself has nothing to do, really, with the name we give it. So what does it mean if we say that we can play a language game with religious concepts like revelation? I’m not sure we can in the way Professor Ross wants to. Shifting the “meaning”–that is, the underlying concept to which the word “revelation” points–seems like a clever trick more than a real grapple with the underlying problem of what Torah mi-Sinai really means.

And it’s what Torah mi-Sinai really means that is the problem. Even supposing you shift the referent from literal spoken Torah to something like what Professor Ross is up to, you haven’t really addressed the problems posed by the old or the new referent, namely, that revelation (if it happened) didn’t happen that way.

What’s the normative implication of this? If you ground your notion of obligation to act upon the literal truth of a means of revelation, and that account is capable of being undermined, what portion of the obligations must you now consider optional? To the extent portions of your normative expectations depend upon material later determined to be compromised by scholarship, do those expectations fall away?

The problem, I think, is that you have to pick a version of scholarship to go with, and scholars can be wrong. Responsible scholars would likely acknowledge that nothing is certain–the explanations are simply the best ones they are able to offer.

That is, in the end, I think the problem is not scholarship–it’s revelation. But that’s a different matter altogether.

Ritual is so habitual

For those of us coming to Secular Humanistic Judaism from outside that movement (e.g., my own start in Conservative Judaism), one of the biggest problems that comes in the transition is the change in liturgy, ritual, etc. Moving to humanistic practice and belief means taking a serious look not only at what one does but also what one says. And the personal integrity that moves someone to change their denomination because of their beliefs–rather than convenience or comfort, as is true of many individuals who change congregations (which can work incidental denominational changes)–also requires that the person look at how they practice, not only what they believe.

One area that has caused me special worry is liturgy. Many of the traditional texts used in Conservative and even Orthodox services are still very appealing to me–not the content of the texts themselves, I should say. But the melodies still hold me so that I can sort of sing them and it’s somewhat mantra-like for me; I love some of the traditional melodies for the piyyutim, love the melody for the Shabbat Kiddush, love much of the Birkhat Hamazon.

Then I actually read them–not the weird, sanitized, fuzzified translations, but the actual Hebrew text–and remember what those texts say. And that’s where the trouble starts. Because I can’t honestly say I believe much, if any, of that stuff.

And this is where I worry that Secular Humanistic Judaism may fall down. Looking at the publicly available Secular Humanistic Jewish liturgical texts (e.g., in Rabbi Wine’s “Celebration” or the materials that can be downloaded from various congregational sites), what immediately trips me up is that I can’t fit those words to any melody I know from the traditional liturgical materials. This makes the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles, for example, a somewhat alien experience–I can’t say the traditional blessing with a straight face, but I can’t seem to fit the traditional melody with the new texts that I’ve found.

It seems to me that this is a problem to be worked on. At some point–like, after all my exams are graded and the students’ grades are submitted–I might get around to doing something about the common stuff, if only for my family’s use at home. At the moment, I just haven’t the time.

So, here’s a shout into the ether: anyone got anything?

Jews and Political Philosophy

Having come from Conservative Judaism, I still feel some affinity for its scholars and institutions, including JTS. Happily, JTS provides a fair amount of podcast material through iTunes U, including a series of lectures from their library about books in the library collection. (Been to the library there by the way–it’s awesome!)

One of the lecturers in the library series was Yoram Hazony, author of “The Philosophy of the Hebrew Scriptures.” This morning, I was listening to the first part of Prof. Hazony’s lecture, where he explained why he wrote the book: namely, that political philosophy, and philosophy generally, has taken a turn since sometime in the nineteenth century where the Tanakh is not a subject of discussion where it had once been quite prominent in political thought. Prof. Hazony was troubled by the absence of a Jewish voice in modern religious and philosophical discussions, which in the popular press is dominated by either a very Christian vision (however defined) or a very secular, almost militantly atheist approach.

Why, he asked, were Jews absent from this discussion when they could freely, in this day and age, come forward with what Jewish texts have to say, and likely be welcomed into the discussion? Prof. Hazony notes that many Jews would not know what the texts say, and there’s quite a bit to that. But also difficult is that I think most Jews would not be particularly pleased with what they would have to contribute to the discussion from Jewish texts.

Prof. Hazony points out that the prophets talk of peace and justice, etc., and of the idea that the Torah (in its narrow and broad meanings) would be an example for other nations. This is well and good, and it is also true that much of what would be consensus “social justice” is incorporated into many of the Torah’s provisions: care for the widow and orphan, care for the stranger, leaving fields incompletely harvested so that the poor may gather, forgiveness of debts, etc. But when it comes to political matters, most modern Jews are or would be uncomfortable announcing the Jewish texts’ positions on these matters. Here’s why:

The Torah essentially posits a theocracy. The former prophets (specifically, the books of Samuel) disapprove of the people’s request for a king, but the narrative eventually provides for a king (and war in the wake of the monarchy). Most of the kings prove themselves to be more or less moral and political reprobates, and in the Biblical text Samuel warns the people that this would be the case. When we leave the sweep of Israelite history as the biblical narrative posits it–with Ezra and Nehemiah–we have returned to something of a theocracy-cum-vassal state.

So, if you’re a modern Jew in a modern democracy, you’re probably pretty uncomfortable with where the Tanakh puts political discourse. It’s unclear that modern Jews would be especially comfortable with later Jewish political thought, either–whether that thought comes from rabbinic texts that expect courts to wield significant political authority at least within the Jewish community (that’s a pretty theocratic position), or from the work of Isaac Abravanel, who argued that the Torah precludes the exercise of a right of revolt against an unjust government.

A significant problem, then, is that Judaism in its more traditional modes has a lot of material that would not prove especially palatable for the telling, and much of it comes from a period when we were not “winners” in the grand political scheme. In that light, I think it’s hard to blame Jews for not being particularly forthcoming with what traditional Jewish texts have to say about politics.

A (not-so-brief) reaction to a Skirball podcast with Neil Gillman

On my drive to work one recent morning, I started listening to a series of interviews with Professor Neil Gillman of Jewish Theological Seminary. The Skirball Center in New York had put out these lectures as podcasts around 2008. (I’m behind a bit on podcast consumption.) Part of the discussion centered on Professor Gillman’s reaction to the storm of “New Atheist” books that had appeared on the market in recent years–works by, e.g., Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, etc. Professor Gillman made a statement that struck an odd note for me–that the New Atheist thinkers were making straw-man arguments that were not really reacting to all theists, but primarily to the newer forms of fundamentalist religion. Part of the analysis Professor Gillman offered was that, to his thinking, the New Atheists were actually not all that in-tune with what liberal theology had to say. I suppose we could infer that the New Atheists would have nothing to say to the larger body of liberal believers.

I’m not convinced this is entirely fair to all humanists, thought it is often fair of the positions taken by Hitchens, Dawkins, et al. More troubling, I think, is Professor Gillman’s articulation earlier in that podcast of the “God is when” idea.

The idea is twofold. In modern lives, the divinity is only present when we invite it in, and we most often invite it in at those moments where the usual mental and psychic debris of our lives clears away so that we have something like a pure encounter with whatever it is we are observing/experiencing at the time. So the divinity is brought in when we invite/perceive it to be there–it seems the two would be the same process. Thus, for Gillman, god exists at those times. Or, more properly to his thought, god is present at those moments (Gillman adopts something of the Maimonidean tack that god is so radically other that descriptions of the divinity are somewhat beside the point).

This is an attractive idea for a humanist, as it seems to return to our control the concept of the divine. But Gillman’s approach doesn’t really do this. For as the series of talks goes on, Gillman continues to presume not only the existence of the divine separate and apart from the world, but also that the divinity cares about the world (though he does recognize that this is human language attempting to describe something very not-human). Later, when he discusses revelation, Gillman makes the argument that the Bible’s descriptions of god and the encounter with the divine are necessarily attempts to express that encounter language available to the Israelites at various stages of biblical history.

Gillman takes for granted the existence of a transcendent divine being, one outside of history that cares about what happens to us, and this assumption has normative implications. And that is problematic for a humanist–not necessarily for a naturalist (which is how Gillman describes himself), but certainly for a humanist. For while Gillman’s thought locates some amount of authority in the Jewish people, it stops short of locating all of the authority for Judaism with the Jewish people.

This, I think, is where even a quite liberal theologian like Gillman opens himself up to a humanist critique, for at least two reasons. First, Gillman’s approach is somewhat have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too: there is both divine authority and human authority, and the normative claims ultimately derive from an experience of the divine. Second, as a logical matter, it is difficult to see how Gillman overcomes the no-ought-from-is problem–and this is generally true of all theistic approaches.

To his credit, Gillman recognizes that there is a tremendous shift toward individualism among Jews and others, where individual members of the community take up the obligation of defining their own identities and relationships with Judaism. (A version of this of which I am fond is at, though I don’t quite fit there because I’m just way to square and establishment for that.) His willingness to say, “I need a minyan” is an example of this kind of crafting; but his unwillingness to say that he feels free to redefine very much of Judaism left me feeling that his approach falls just tantalizingly short of something that more secularly-oriented Jews could use as a guide.

Nevertheless, I still find myself looking to Gillman’s work as a valuable resource, if only because it reminds me of where I came from (Conservative Judaism) and where I’m going (someplace where the existence of god is just not that important a question).