Thursday, October 07, 2010

Why do we keep the commandments? A dialog

The original plan was to write this up as a post, but I'm short on time. What follows instead is an imaginary conversation created from actual comment thread excerpts. The questions have been taken from points raised by HolyHyrax, AM, and HaMasorti on this post. All have been edited for space or other concerns. Because of the editing, and because I am trying to make my own points, and not (necessarily) the points originally intended by their authors, the writers of each question have not been identified. 

The answers are mine.

The basic question:
Why do we limit ourselves from eating all kinds of foods, wave branches around in late September, spend a week eating matzo, sacrifice animals in the time of the Beis Hamikdash, and do all the other 'weird' things that we do?

The basic answer:
Each individual does these things because s/he finds them significant and/or acquires some payoff (or perceived payoff) from performing them. That's why. Personally,  I don't do most things because I think God expressly told Moshe to do expressly that specific thing. I know too much about how halacha developed and changed over time to say that. [See this post or this one]

The objection:
Without a belief in God, and in His revelation at Sinai, and the rest, these practices just become ridiculous.

My reply:
Incorrect. Without the context those practices become ridiculous. For example, painting your face and paying 10 dollars for hot-dogs seems ridiculous, no? But in the context of being a baseball fan it makes sense. Buying an esrog and waving it around seems ridiculous, except my father and grandfather did it, and doing it makes me happy, and gives me a feeling of community and connection to the past. That is the context that makes it NOT ridiculous to pay $50 for a fruit that you're only going to wave around in shul.

A weak complaint:
That payoff, provided by that context is merely a bi-product. This is not WHY these rituals exist.

Read the rest

My answer:
The why isn't important here - or in any similar situation. Why do we make Indian noises at a Braves game? That's a ritual, with a reason behind it that you can probably figure out, but no Braves fan performs that ritual because of the reason. They perform it b/ of the significance and the payoff. The same is true of EVERY ritual, be they secular or theological.

To translate, the OJ isn't waving his lulav because God told him, but because he finds significance in listening to God in this instance, and/or because he expects a payoff in the form of schar and/or he receives some payoff (A feeling of satisfaction? the admiration of his peers?) from doing "the right thing."

An attempt to change the subject:
But WHY did God tell him to do all this?

That I smack down:
Point of order. We're not discussing God's reasons. We're discussing our reasons.

Another inquiry:
You're a slippery one, DB. I love that about you. Of course you do the mitzvot because they provide significance. But that significance does not come from nothing. What makes it significant? WHY do you get warm and gushy feelings?

A) I'm fulfilling Gd's will.
B) My family and community do it.
C) My ancestors have done it.

There are, as far as I can tell, no other reasons. The warm feeling is the EFFECT, not the CAUSE. Why do you do what you do?

My reply:
The effect is also the cause. We do things for payoffs. If the payoff is a warm fuzzy feeling then its the effect and the cause. This may seem circular, but I am not making a logical argument. Rather, I'm describing a phenomenon. This phenomenon happens to be cycle. A rat rings the bell and gets some cheese. He rings it again because he wants more cheese. Why does he ring the bell? Because he wants cheese. What does he get for ringing the bell? He gets cheese. Same with us.

A third inquiry:
You keep approaching the question of questioning dox from a rabbinical Judaism perspective. You justify the reinterpretation of all of these stories by quoting geonim and rishonim. You are highly invested in the rabbinic tradition here... However, to jump from a strong rabbinically founded argument with regard to stories to a 'personal religious experience' approach with regard to practice is sort of non-sequitur. They are both valid arguments in their own right but are diametrically opposed ideologically.

The explanation for the perceived  disconnect:
In one discussion, I was attempting to give a general explanation for why we do things (ie why we perform rituals, or why we align ourselves with certain systems of thought, etc.). I say we do things only for the payoff.

In the other discussion, I was attempting to explain why a particular thing that I do (ie discarding the old interpretation of Noah) is ok from the perspective of tradition Judaism.

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