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.

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.

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 punktorah.org, 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).