Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Ohr HaChaim: Judaism is pluralistic

I say Judaism is inherently pluralistic, and last week I found a teaching from the Ohr HaChaim (alias R' Chaim Attar) which supports my thinking.

First a quick definition and some background. [Do not skim. The definition and background are essential to understanding my point.]

Pluralism means lots of things to different people, but one basic fact is indisputable: pluralism is not relativism. A relativist says that (just about) anything goes, and believes that most anything and everything is co-legitimate. This is not pluralism.

A pluralist believes that that the universe is made up of competing values that are both legitimate and mutually exclusive, for instance, justice and mercy, while recognizing that some values, e.g., Nazism, are not legitimate. The pluralist also recognizes that some systems, e.g. Judaism, may consider as legitimate fewer values than others systems do.

Finally, the pluralist insists that our subjective human nature means no single approach can perfectly and completely contain the Whole Truth. Every human perception of the Whole Truth occurs from a particular, subjective point of view, and every perception is different. When these perceptions are shared and modified through conversation and debate they are refined, and the result of this refinement is something that is closer to the Whole Truth than one person could reach on his own.

With me so far?

Jewish law provides for a weird loophole when the Sanhedrin meets to consider a case. If all 70 judges vote "Guilty" the accused goes free. There are various explanations for this weirdness, none of which are relevant to this post.

Ok, now for the Ohr HaChayim brilliant teaching:
Suppose you were the senior judge in the Sanhedrin, and you were dead certain that the guy was innocent. The senior judge votes last, so before you vote the rest of the judges are all on the record. Now, suppose all 69 judges vote guilty. If you add your "Innocent" vote to the 69 "Guilty" votes already cast, the guy hangs, but if vote "Guilty" the guy goes free. (See loophole above.)

See what I mean by weird? The loophole means there is a situation when the senior judge can vote against his conscience, but cause a result that he thinks is true.

So what's a smart Jewish judge to do?

If you were dead certain the accused was innocent, and the other 69 who'd already voted all disagreed and had all voted the other way, wouldn't you vote "Guilty", too, thereby producing the result you believed was true? Sure, technically, this would be a lie, but only a white lie right? I mean, if you were totally convinced of the accused's innocence, wouldn't you tell yourself that the ends justify the means, yada yada yada, and argue that because you were so dead certain, the result of your lie wasn't really a lie, but Justice itself?

Probably, you would. But that approach, teaches the Ohr Hachayim, is not just a lie, but a perversion of justice. Why? [Here on is my interpretation] Because you're only one member of the community, and an individual doesn't have the power to decide the fate of the accused. That decision has to be reached by the community. The Whole Truth isn't what some solitary individual thinks, but what the community, as a whole, reaches through proper and honest deliberation. An individual has to argue his corner to the best of his ability - he needs to tell the truth as he sees it in every case - but in the end he has to yield to the collective wisdom of the larger community.

And this, my friends, is the essence of pluralism. (Its also why I don't moderate comments, and invite all types of people to guest post.)

In defense of pluralism
The blessing of Babel
Teaching Menken the meaning of the word
I hear
Judaism opposes absolutes

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