Monday, May 21, 2012

Echoes of Catholic catastrophes at the CitiField asifa

I'm alone on this, I'm sure, but when I look at the just-concluded CitiField asifa I hear only echoes of Catholic catastrophes.

The first parallel is with the doctrine of papal infallibility declared as dogma in 1870 at the First Vatican Council in pastor aeternus. This doctrine granted the Pope the sole and exclusive power to determine the Church's formal beliefs and practices and was approved by the Council at the moment when the Pope's power was at its lowest ebb. Once a temporal king, by 1870 the Pope had lost control of the Papal States and was facing renewed challenges from secularists across Europe and on his own doorstep in Rome. Declaring the Pope infallible was a way to grant the Pope spiritual powers to compensate for the influence he'd lost in the real world. Having lost power in this world, the council gave the Pope an invisible one.

The Charedi Sages are in a similar position. Though they never ruled as kings, there exists a nostalgic fantasy that they once possessed similar powers. Also, there once was a time when Rabbis actually did function as leaders of Jewish communities and their guidance actually was sought in most matters. In those pre-modern days Rabbis led entire communities, rather than sects, and because so little was known about the natural world science and religion were not yet seen as non-overlapping magisteria. In such a world, at such a time, it made sense to consult spiritual leaders on matters of politics and medicine. To a large extent the Rabbis were the community's political leaders and religion was still understood as inseparable from science.

Over the last several decades, much has changed. Charedi Sages no longer attempt to lead anyone but Charedim, and the phrase Klal Yisroel has been redefined to reflect this. No one recognizes them as political leaders and our commitment to the idea that science and religion are one has all but disappeared.

In our lifetime, it has become clearer than ever that authority of the Sages is limited to questions of halacha, and only questions of halacha. The emphasis on Daat Torah, which reached its absurd height at last night's asifa, must then be understood as a backlash against all of this. Having suffered dramatic reductions of their power in this world, they are claiming for themselves an invisible one.

Next post: The second parallel

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