Monday, May 14, 2007

Something Outrageous

A guest post by Ami Isseroff:

In response to Dovbear's invitation to write something outrageous, I wrote, that if Dovbear is showing that Orthodox Jews are not all unethical, superstitious or racist, what is the point of being orthodox? He asked "What is outrageous about that?"

What is "outrageous" is that I was not being facetious. I meant it. I am an old time Socialist Zionist in the sense that I like the religion I do not believe in to be reactionary, dogmatic, stagnant, narrow minded and stifling. Then it is clear where the target is. It was quite satisfactory for me when Zvulun Hammer delivered a speech about evolution that was worthy of the Scopes monkey trial.

There is no use having Catholics who embrace ecumenism and Orthodox Jews who welcome evolution and Muslims who don't hang homosexuals or beat their wives. That confuses all the issues. The Pope after all, still believes that Mary was a virgin and Jesus was God, no matter what else he might say, and he still tells people to have sex without contraceptives or not at all. He still worries about whether or not the Holy Ghost proceeds from the father only or from the father and son, and he still thinks the wine becomes the blood of Christ in the Eucharist -- and he is not getting married any time soon. Mel Gibson is a much more convenient sort of Catholic. You know where you stand with him. And the same is true for all the other religions. Some people do not like Borscht. But if you buy borscht, you expect it to be borscht and not chicken soup, right?

That is one aspect, but there is another one that is much more important for us.

Liberal religion is terribly confusing for everyone else, and it must be confusing for the practitioners. There is no place to draw the line and eventually you get a mess. That is apparently what Kaplan (the Reconstructionist) did not understand. He understood implicitly the framework within which he moved and the context of his ideas and so do you (DovBear). So there was no problem. His followers and your readers do not all understand so well.

Orthodox Judaism has its drawbacks, but when you make too many innovations with best of intentions, any belief system not based on empiricism tends to degenerate. The bad theology drives out the good. So from Kaplan's very good ideas, we got to reconstructionists some of whom may believe in voodoo of all sorts, which they call "mysticism" -- and I saw a charming article by a reconstructionist rabbi. It said that there are two Gods, Adonai and Elohim. It had a picture of Adonai too. A very nice picture. I think we can both understand why there is something very wrong there. Tampering with religion is OK for wise people, but usually it gets into the hands of clever fools and charlatans.

It is not a metaphysical problem for me. I don't care if people believe in 1 god or 3 or 47 as long as it makes them happy and they do the right thing and they don't beat up on anyone because of it. My Judaism doesn't depend on that, and my ethics do not depend on that. I can be a Jew without religion. Others apparently cannot be Jews without religion, especially if they do not live in Israel.

For me, the function of the Jewish religion was to act as the DNA of Jewish culture: a means of preserving and transmitting culture and nationhood. If there is a big change in the sequencing, then you get something entirely different. If you can believe in evolution, then the next "Orthodox" guy can believe in virgin birth and prophets on flying horses, and the reconstructionists can draw pictures of their gods, because in religious doctrine many kinds of "evidence" and "logic" can be given equal weight and legitimacy. That might bother you, but it doesn't in itself bother me, except inasmuch as it moves people away from Jewish culture and the Jewish people, whether it is to Neturei-Kartaism or assimilationism. Once you start eliminating irrational or inexpedient ideas from religion, the entire structure can collapse.

Suppose that the reform Jews, in their original formulation of their ideas, had succeeded? We would have had a Jewish religion without Judaism in it - no Jewish nation, no Hebrew: A sect of Protestantism between Jehovah's witnesses and Seventh day Adventists. Zionism and German anti-Semitism prevented that from happening.

The dogma and conservatism of religion and traditionalist society are perhaps useful to preserve ideas and concepts for which there is no immediate rational basis for the individual, but which are probably highly adaptive for the survival of the group as a group. These ideas may include ethics and national feeling and culture. This necessarily also produces some superstitious baggage.

Once you start tampering with part of the product, how can you show that your idea of the Jewish religion is more legitimate than Jews for Jesus? Read the New Testament. That was the result of the last serious tampering done with orthodox Judaism. It produced the first "Jews for Jesus."

You cannot have your orthodoxy and eat it. If you write "Orthodox" on the label, it has to follow the rules for Orthodox. The nature of religion is such that you cannot pick and choose, nor it is it a matter of degree. You can't be "a little bit heretical." You have to accept the whole thing, as a unity. Otherwise you are just an apikoros like me, dressed in Orthodox clothing.

In closing, if I may, I would like to ask everyone to do a "Mitzva" of the secular kind: please link to this page: Jew, to help counter anti-Semitic Web sites.

Ami Isseroff ZioNation- Progressive Zionism

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