Thursday, March 30, 2006

12 Tribes, 70 Faces, Pluralism in Judaism

[Note: This post originally appeared on GH's blog as "Great Post by DovBear!!!."]

LAST FRIDAY, I WAS DISMAYED to discover that our friend GH has, on the basis of one post, categorized me as a 'Happy Humanist' and someone who sees 'Judaism as basically a tikkun olam type of thing.'

This statement fundamentally misunderstands my view of Judaism.

I am not one the sectarians who claims legitimacy or authenticity for one style of Judaism above all others. In fact, I hold that the very idea of 'authentic Judaism' is a chimera, because authentically Judaism contains many values, values which do not always align and sometimes conflict, values which, nonetheless, are objective, part of the essence of Judaism, even the essence of humanity, and not arbitrary creations of men's subjective fancies.

A good example of this is the famous Tradition vs. Science arguments so often debated on [GH's] blog. One side is correct when they insist that the mesorah is paramount, but the other side is not wrong when they reply that Jews must use their intellects and are forbidden to ignore the evidence of their senses. Each side is pursuing a legitimate and objective Jewish value, however incompatible these values might be.

[What about truth, you ask? Well, truth is a value, but so are compassion, and beauty, and mercy, and comfort, and peace. At times, truth yields to them. And at times two sides can both be pursuing categorically different kinds of truth. For instance, the traditionalists seek Judaism's truth, while people like GH seek science's truth.]

When someone attempts to explain the Jewish world, by neatly categorizing us into groups and sub-groups -he's modern, you're yeshivish, we're happy humanists- the injustice he commits is no less offensives than the injustice performed by those who seek to explain Judaism in monistic terms. The Jewish world is not monolithic, but neither is it the collection of monolithic and mutually antagonistic camps; rather it is a mixed bag of coherent blocs with interests and values that conflict, but also overlap."

The Sages, I think, demonstrated that they understood this, when they assigned different characteristics to each of the 12 tribes* and when they wrote that the Torah has 70 faces. The latter is a strong statement against those absolutists (and there are absolutists who are atheists, too) who imagine we live in a harmonious universe containing a true answer for every genuine question, and that the true answers, once found, will all fit with one another.

This folly, I believe, is present in the attempt to put Judaism into boxes, boxes such as spiritual or rational, for example.

Suppose we were to construct a “rational Judaism.” In what sense would it still be Judaism if all the irrational and superstitious parts were removed? As disagreeable as I might find the non-rational elements of Judaism, I can't help but concede that Judaism stripped of the all I find distasteful - the magic and the wonder and the mystery - is an impoverished version of Judaism, if it even remains Judaism at all. You may be able to create a Jewish-like system that is completely rational, but it won’t be completely Jewish if all the other values are jettisoned.

The struggle carried out each day on blogs like GH's, in a sense, echos this folly and reflects what could be called the Fallacy of Theological Correctness. Many of the participants here seem to imagine that there exists a version of Judaism which is correct in some original, begining sense, while implying that all changes and tampering are offenses against the proper order of things. They struggle to remove the superstition, or the errors, or the late customs, or the modern innovations, thinking this will return our religion to its authentic and original condition. But this is nonsense. There is no "correct" condition for a religion: there is only the condition that happens to obtain at the moment. Every generation touches and alters Judaism in its own way; 21st century Judaism is not a corrupted version of the truth, nor is it a lie or a mistake, nor is something our ancestors would recognize or likely accept. It is simply –contradictory values and all - the latest variation of Judaism, in a series of variations that go all the way back to the very begining of our recorded history.

* The tribes and their characteristics: Reuben (impulsive), Shimon (aggressive), Levi (dedicated to divine service), Judah (dignified), Issachar (wisdom), Zebulun (business savvy), Dan (warrior), Naphtali (charming), Gad (militant), Asher (satisfied), Joseph (self-discipline) and Benjamin (modest)