Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Jewish Reformation

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

The excerpt is from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a first rate work of historical fiction. "More" is Sir Thomas More, Lord High Chancellor of England at the time of the English Reformation. He was an enemy of change, including vernacular editions of the bible, and a defender of tradition, the Vatican, and the idea that we (meaning the Church) had gotten it right the first time, in each and every particular. More was what we might call a "fundamentalist" and, having martyred himself as an opponent of the Reformation, is venerated today as a Saint of the Catholic Church.

The fictionalized thoughts in the excerpt belong to Sir Thomas Cromwell, Lord Great Chamberlain in title, but in actuality King Henry VIII's consigliere and chief enforcer (until his own downfall and execution). In the popular retelling, More is the hero, prepared to die for his principles, while Cromwell is the ambitious toady, prepared to cast aside all that is pure and valuable for the sake of personal gain. The reality, like all realities, was somewhat messier. More was principled to be sure, but his principles were obscene - who can admire someone with principles that include burning alive those who seek to read the bible in their own language? And while Cromwell wanted glory and money, and dedicated himself to fulfilling the King's desire to split with Rome in pursuit of both, he also likely believed that the Church had made mistakes and taken Christianity in the wrong direction, something he probably first came to realize from reading English books, including Tynsdale's banned and forbidden translation of the Bible.

Have you grocked the parallels yet?

I count myself, and men like me, with the Cromwells. Where he (in the fictionalized account anyway) asks where the Bible mentions nuns, we point out that our own tradition permits us to acknowledge the universe is billions of years old, and that evolution is real. Where he questions relics, we question the relatively new idea that midrashim are part of the mesorah. He wants to know the source of the Pope's authority, and we want to know who gave the "gdolim" the power to add chumra after chumra until whole communities of Jews are effectively excommunicated, in that other Jews won't daven with them, study with them, or marry them. We want to know why the facts of our own history and tradition are obscured. We want to know why the opinions of our sages and the great men of the tradition are cavalierly dismissed as "non mainstream" or summarily ignored. We want to know why Judaism was replaced with frumkeit.

In short, we want a reformation of our own.

Our opponents, are men like More, ready to die for principles that shouldn't be defended. They include bloggers like [names deleted], who are capable of reading and learning the exact same things I've read and learned without seeing the implications. (and here I don't even discuss the loud mouths who've read nothing, yet remain convinced that what their first grade cheder rebbe told them was correct in each and every particular.)

I read something like Shapiro's Limits of Orthodox Theology and come away with a fuller understanding of the historical forces that produced the ikkarim, and the realization that there were great men who disagreed with some of them, while the Jewish Thomas Mores manage to put such books down with their minds unopened and their perspectives unchanged. I study Rishonim and gain a fuller understanding of how midrashim were viewed and used, or I study the midrashim themselves, in context, and learn how they originated and developed, but they after reading the same material remain convinced that midrashim are immaculate, canonical, and perfectly true. For the sake of their own relatively new interpretations of relatively recent laws, they are ready to throw out of Judaism entire communities like HIR, as More was ready to burn people who read the Bible in English.  Like the fictionalized Cromwell, I look at bloggers like [names deleted] and often find myself asking, "What’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before?"

Search for more information about the changes Judaism needs at 4torah.com.

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