Pluralism: a theory that there are more than one or more than two kinds of ultimate reality
I wonder if Merriam Webster was a nice Jewish girl.
In a post a little while ago, Larry made an insightful comment explaining the difference between inclusivism and pluralism. Inclusivism means I don’t think you’re right, but I will include and value you. Pluralism means you’re right and I’m also right. There are multiple ways to be right.
Now here’s my question. Religious pluralism does not make any mathematical sense to me, because to me, religion is based on facts. Either God did or didn’t write the Torah as we have it today. Either the Torah was or wasn’t given at Sinai. Either Moses did or didn’t perform those miracles. If religion isn’t based on a belief in facts, then what is it based on?
Take other popular debates: vaccines either do or don’t cause autism. Either baby carrots do or don’t have chlorine on them. Drinking coffee either does or doesn’t make your teeth yellow. You wouldn’t hear a pluralist say, “Well, I believe that vaccines cause autism, so that’s true for me, but if you don’t believe that, then it’s not true for you. You’re right, and I’m right.” That’s not a fact-based argument.
If you are an evolved religious debater, you will be thinking at this point, Ruchi. Don’t you know that even within religious thought there is a plethora of ambiguity and pluralism? Take Hillel and Shammai. Weren’t they both right? Aren’t there “shivim panim latorah,” 70 ways to interpret Torah, all of which are correct?
70 but not 71. 13 ways to interpret the Torah: not more. Where Hillel and Shammai debated, each opinion revealed a different facet of the topic at hand, both of which might have been correct, but the halacha was always determined to be either one or the other. Or sometimes one in private, one in public. One in temple times, and one in diaspora. One in ideal circumstances, one to rely upon only under duress.
While I greatly appreciate that a non-Orthodox pluralist thinks that it is correct to drive on Shabbat and also correct not to, honestly it would make more sense to me if she thought I was wrong.
And that is why I’m not a pluralist.
Ruchi: "If religion isn't based on a belief in facts, then what is it based on?"
Pleasure in the practices
Identification with the community
Wanting the structure
Maintaining continuity with upbringing
Comfort in the prayers/rituals
Hoping it's true
Are you speaking for your own experience? Do you consider yourself religious? It seems to me you wouldn't. I think thats cultural identification, which is not the same thing as being religious. Religious observance is based on belief in facts. Ask tesyaa how it feels to be religiously observant when you don't… I think it feels like living a lie.
No, it's not exactly like living a lie. Yes, it's true that people who don't really know me make assumptions based on how I dress, the fact that I'm shomer shabbos, etc. But mostly it's like living a Lifestyle, not a Lie. (This is in keeping with SBW's comment).
Over the years I have met many shomer shabbos people of different stripes, and it doesn't seem like all of them believe in all the Ikarim. And even when I get together with other frum women, who I presume to be believers, no one talks about belief. Yes, sometimes I feel it's awkward, but I don't feel miserably that I'm living a Lie.
I would feel I was living a lie if I had to pretend I opposed things like marriage equality. But I don't pretend.
But how many truly religious people are pluralists? Each religion contradicts the others on some point, so can you really believe in a particular religion and say the others are right, too? Aren't pluralists usually agnostic?
I think Reform and Conservative clergy can be pluralistic while not agnostic.
Tesyaa, would you consider yourself a pluralist?
I agree, a truly religious person can't give credence to another religion. But the fact that others believe just as fervently and sincerely in their religion is a hint that one's own fervent belief might be just as "wrong" as theirs.
Now, we can talk about "proofs" for various religions, so I guess if the "proof" works for you, there are no questions. But really, no religion has "proofs" that stand up to any evidence.
I consider myself tolerant. If you ask me about religion, I don't think any religion is "right". But I respect people's right to hold their beliefs.
Ruchi: "Religious observance is based on belief in facts."
Not necessarily, not at all. There are all those reasons I gave for religious observance that are NOT based on belief in facts and might not even need belief at all.
No, I don't consider myself religious. But the list came up as a way to think about how I or someone might practice religious prayers and rituals without belief.
You are defining religion as belief, and then arguing everything on that basis! But if you don't start with belief, then it doesn't have to come out that way!
So where do you draw the line between culture and religion? Cultures also provide practices, structure, identification with a community, etc. Also, why would prayer give you comfort if you didn't think there was anyone listening to your prayers?
Also, why would prayer give you comfort if you didn't think there was anyone listening to your prayers?
First of all, one can believe in God (and thus pray) without subscribing to any particular religion. Second, some people may enjoy the ritual and rhythm of prayer as a form of meditation and self-serving, even if they are agnostics or atheists. It's unusual, but not unheard of.
Meant to type "self-soothing", not "self-serving".
Hm, difficult topic, and I had to gulp when I read your post, Ruchi.
For me, a belief in a religion is not necessarily based on facts but on the resonance it creates within yourself. What rituals, what mind-set explains and expresses the world and my own relation with the ultimate best? And as people are different, different religions appeal to them, I guess. I grew up a Roman Catholic, but it does resonate mostly on a cultural level at best, whereas I was drawn to Judaism by a strong resonance within me that just rang true, without understanding or even being able to point to what it actually was. It just felt right. However, I still struggle with certain Jewish concepts (just as I struggled with Catholicism, but I guess I am simply a religious sceptic) and cannot say I accept everything Judaism teaches as "true". It is not a brainy truth, it is a gut-feeling truth. And that can be different for all others; as a result I feel that I cannot claim to have found truth absolute and clear for myself. because by doing so, I would devalue all other religions and that is not good, as I am not part of them and abstain from judgment. I have found so much truth in many other religions, but that just adds up to the whole picture – like as if all religions hold caleidoscopic bits of truth within them and as we are limited humans, I believe we will never see the whole picture – or the whole truth. All religious struggling is an approximation in my perspective.
Whether that makes me a pluralist, I don't know, though…
I too have found so much truth in other religions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
For me, it is enough to believe that Judaism is a good path. It is a good way to draw close to G-d and I feel responsible for carrying on our traditions and our culture. A significant part of our culture is its religious practices.
For me, ours is not the only way, but it is our way. We are the only people who can continue Judaism and Jewish culture. If we collectively forget Shabbat, forget Hebrew, forget kashrut, forget our prayers, essentially, if we forget our culture — no one else will remember it for us.
Many liberal Jews are happy to let Orthodox Jews do these things for them. They are ambivalent about our tradition and not willing to do all that work themselves or even the work to figure out what they believe or to carry on the things they want to continue.
Whether or not our traditions come directly from G-d in exactly the way Maimonides said is less important to me. It is not what motivates me personally. I can feel obligated by the force of Jewish history and my love for our culture even if I am not sure of Torah mi'Sinai.
When I was younger, I tried to become ba'alat teshuvah. Ultimately, there were values and practices in traditional Judaism I could not accept. Should I then abandon being Jewish? Not do any mitzvot at all? Refuse to carry on our traditions in those areas I do accept? This made no sense to me. For me, not practicing the things I cannot accept allows me to practice the many things I do accept.
Those who can so easily accept the whole and trust that it is all from G-d have a gift of faith that I lack.
Liberal Jews like myself make personal decisions about what to accept and reject. This works well on an individual level but makes it difficult to have a cohesive community. This is where Orthodoxy shines. By asking everyone to subscribe to the same core set of beliefs and the same core set of practices, Orthodoxy is a strong and self-perpetuating system.
I envy this but if I were personally to become Orthodox, the things I cannot accept would drive me away from G-d. Outside of Orthodoxy, I can serve G-d with joy and the price of a few contradictions is low compared to that reward.
I find this too simplistic. I don't think we understand even a tiny little bit of the larger concepts out there (God, truth, etc). Even your example, coffee does or does not make your teeth yellow, makes this point. It might make some teeth yellow. Some teeth might be immune to it. Some teeth might get yellower than others. It's not "coffee either does or does not make teeth yellow. The end."
In the same way, I think there are many paths to God, if he exists. I could see God creating 7 billion different people and 7 billion unique paths of understanding to reach him. Why not? He's God. 🙂
I don't think your response contradicts my point.
Becca's point (with which I agree) absolutely disagrees with your point, Ruchi. She is saying there could be more than one Truth, more than one Correct Faith. Why should religion be viewed as mathematically consistent? The laws of mathematics apply to apples (1+1=2), but why would one presume they apply to the metaphysical realm of faith and Gd? In fact, Judaism teaches that the Torah and its laws were given only to the Jews. According to our own beliefs, non-Jews are welcome to worship Gd in any non-idolotrous way they wish.
No, shes saying there can be multiple paths to One Truth. I think. And I don't exactly agree with your take on non-Jewish worship. The Torah sets forth 7 rules, within which they may worship Gd any way they wish.
Becca, sure, God could create 7 billion paths to understanding Him. He could (and I believe does, within limits) want one thing from one person and another thing from another. Also, He obviously does treat people differently (as in the coffee example, or people who smoke and either do or don't get lung cancer). Nevertheless, the facts are either true or false: He either created the world or He didn't. He either gave us the Torah or He didn't. He either exists or He doesn't.
Pluralist readers are welcome to correct me here, but I think pluralists believe that no one can know the truth about religion, so you might as well do what works for you. I don't think they think the facts are true for whoever believes them.
I would love to hear from pluralists and understand more.
As I have said at other points on this blog, I *believe* that Gd gave Jews the Torah and told us to live by its laws, but I don't *know* beyond all doubt. My neshamah may have been at Sinai, but my corporeal 43 year old brain was not. So I am going to live how I *think* Gd wants me to, and raise my children to do the same, but I understand that other people think their way is right and my way is wrong. And I don't think that Gd gave me authority over anyone else, so what they believe and how they live is between them and Gd. Does that make me a pluralist?
Nope. It makes you inclusive. And I agree with all you said.
Some pluralists would probably say that they don't believe Torah mi-Sinai is a fact the way Miriam and Ruchi do. Others would say that they don't know what happened and thus they are not willing to do things they definitely disagree with for the sake of something they are unsure about.
I think many pluralists believe that G-d is beyond religion (as I think one other poster stated). G-d is bigger than any particular path to G-d. G-d is beyond our understanding. Religion is our limited human attempt to draw close to and understand G-d.
So in this belief system, G-d is the source of religion but religion — its specific forms, its specific texts, its specific laws — was created by human beings.
Because it was created by humans, we have the "right" to change it. But because we Jews, as a people, have been following one particular path to G-d for a very long time, many of us feel we should not change it lightly. If we take up a totally different path to G-d (such as Buddhism), we would only be substituting one man-made path for another.
Even if other ways of reaching G-d are equally valid, why not continue on a good path? Why not continue the culture that is yours?
Many Orthodox Jewish groups observe specific minhagim not because they are required by Torah, but because they are hiddur — they beautify Torah.
I think pluralists who are religious see religion as hiddur for G-d, who is beyond religion.
It is amazing that G-d is beyond our understanding but, because of this, one needs a path. For Jewish pluralists, Judaism is that path. But because we are not convinced that G-d revealed the exact text of the written and oral law and Sinai and certainly, we don't necessarily feel bound by the cultural norms of the 2nd or the 11th or the 16th century, we are much more willing to accept change.
Ruchi, how does pluralism maybe apply to your relationship to people and practices to the 'right' (?) of you–never sure if that's proper usage. Like Libby not eating meat and thinking women shouldn't drive?
That's a really good question, and it alludes to what SDK said below about to whom to extend pluralism. I see Judaism as there being a "bottom line." To me, that's halacha. Anything that you do above it is extra – a "hiddur" as SDK framed it – a beautification. Take it or leave it. A chassid will concede that women not driving is not halacha. It's an extra stringency for their sect. I say, cool. If it's not hurting anyone, and they find it beautifies their practice, go for it. Some of those practices I too find beautiful. Some I like, but am not willing to do the extra work for. Some, I find really hard to understand, like women shaving their heads. I sort of look at it like a ballerina's feet. They're willing for a part of themselves to be ugly for a greater goal. I'm not, but that's OK.
Thanks for the explanation. Makes sense. But then, they (more stringent) must REALLY believe that they are doing O the right way, or are they inclusivist?. And wouldn't some of them see you as not fulfilling your Jewish duties properly (like even having the blog, or I don't know what else because I don't know what they prohibit)?
So how exactly do you view their (presumed–and different "theys" might exist I guess) view of you as not properly O?
My husband (who in practice is pretty modern Orthodox) certainly believes he's fulfilling halacha properly and doesn't buy the idea that more RW sects would view his actions as problematic. (Watches TV, wears polo shirts, often davens without a minyan, etc. We use our ovens for meat right after dairy as soon as it cools down – the list goes on and on). He really doesn't believe me when I tell him that to a Satmar Chassid, he might as well be a Conservative or Reform Jew.
Well, I guess that's a pretty straightforward way to [not] view someone else's thinking you aren't "O enough" or properly O. I love the sunny denial!
The description, though made me laugh! I guess because I put it all together in my imagination: praying in front of the tv in a polo shirt without a minyan! This vision of mine might be one of those things that is decidedly NOT funny to an O, though.
Well, his beliefs and feelings are as frum as a chassid, I guess, and his practices all fall within the umbrella of halacha as he has learned it, so to him, the differences are just stringencies on the part of the chassidim. (I'm just using a chassid as an example of someone really frum).
What do you mean by facts? Your selection of 'facts' just represent what you believe to be 'facts'. So you are really saying religion is based on 'faith [that the facts are true]' not facts. Other peoples' religion may be based on another set of 'facts' or another understanding of the same 'facts'. Some people looked at the sky every sunny day and said it is a fact that the sun travels in the sky from east to west. It was observable and even that was not a 'fact'. They just couldn't observe that the earth moved. Science itself does not deal with 'facts' but with presumed facts or as they are referred to: 'Theories'. They are based on independent observations but also on the ability of the 'theory' to predict observations that were not included in the basis of the theory. All these theories are deemed to be provisional although the odds behind them greatly differ. That is why science deals with probability and not 'facts' Religion deals with faith.
I think a chassid would consider my life as lacking somewhat (could be spiritually richer) but definitely not halachically deficient.
I want to add that a think there are many benefits to observance even without the belief in the facts. My point is that you can't believe in the facts and also think that disbelief in the facts is a correct expression.
I agree with this statement. But I'd add that since the "facts" are not proven, and even many very religious people admit the facts can't be proven, there's an opening for people to be more accepting of others' beliefs or nonbelief. If one is 99.9% sure that Orthodox Judaism is true, there's still that 0.1%. Not enough to make one doubt one's beliefs, but enough to, let's say, give others the benefit of the doubt.
What exactly do you mean by "accepting" their beliefs?
Accepting that others have different beliefs that they feel just as strongly about. It's arrogant to say "I'm definitely right and you're definitely wrong". It's accepting to say "I'm 99.9% sure my beliefs are right, but since you feel just as strongly, let's not argue". Is that pluralism? If it is, why can't a religious person be pluralistic? Does anyone, even the most observant person, feel 100% sure that Orthodox Judaism is God's honest truth, with absolutely no doubts, not in the dark of night, NEVER? To me, that would be silly, almost childish. It's human to wonder about the unknown, and some things are unknown.
Agree. I'd say anyone who is honest struggles with belief sometimes. But I think youre describing inclusivism, not pluralism.
And I also find it really interesting that while I began this post adressing those who believe in more than one form of ultimate reality, actually it seems more people here struggle with the concept that there is ANY ultimate reality.
In the explanatory novel Conversations with Rabbi Small Rabbi Small makes an analogy that God is like a radio transmitter which sends on a wide range of frequencies. Even the greatest of fallible mortal men can only pick up one frequency. Thus, many religions contain some fraction of the truth, but none contain all of it.
It seems to me that you are implying that if it were conclusively proved that the revelation at Sinai never happened there is no point in being Jewish. Is that also true if there was no flood? How about if the Torah we have today is not letter for letter the same that was given to Moses? If the sun did not stop at Joshua's command?
If the Jewish world was exactly as it is today, if your community was unchanged, if the Mesorah from say, the closing of the Talmud forward was unbroken, would you really go out and eat a cheeseburger just because the revelation at Sinai didn't happen? Would you be content if your son dated a non-Jew? Would you steal if you were sure you wouldn't be caught? Just how much is riding on the (unprovable) answer to that question?
But according to Judaism, the Torah IS that transmission (along with transmissions through the world around us). Granted, we can't understand it fully. But why should a religion made up by a human being for his own purposes (I have some in mind, but I don't want to name them here) be given equal credit?
Personally, if I thought it had been conclusively proven that the revelation at Sinai never happened, I would change some things about my life.
Larry, everything is riding on it. As far as on what specifically, I'd probably say Maimonides' 13 principles of faith. If I found out conclusively (impossible) that one or more of them was untrue, it would absolutely rock my world.
Until reading this blog, I never knew that belief in Sinai was such a big deal. Is "Sinai" a synecdoche (part-represents-whole-thing) for the whole Torah? Or is that particular moment of giving it really a key moment, more than others? Could the Torah be wrong about some little detail, like how many cubits something was or who was related to whom, and it wouldn't be a catastrophe for belief like Sinai would be?
I'm not sure I get it. You don't get born, believe in Sinai, and then start keeping kosher and everything. You grow up in it (for instance) and only later get the belief part. Or as a 5-yr-old "believing in Sinai" happens differently than for the 20-yr-old, I imagine. The belief is embedded in practices and community (as are most beliefs–in Europe most people think you get colds by going outside with wet hair).
So Sinai becomes the cornerstone of it all, but isn't the beginning of belief. I would be curious to hear from some non-O believing Jews about this. How important is Sinai, really? (Meant sincerely, not sarcastically.) What does it mean to be sincerely Jewish and NOT believe in the absolute (not only narrative) truth of Sinai?
"Sinai" represents God giving us the Torah. If He never gave it to us, observance would be a lot less compelling. If God (who is perfect) gave us the Torah, it can't be wrong in any details, although our understanding of it may be wrong (and is necessarily imperfect).
Five-year-olds generally believe what their parents and teachers tell them. They've been hearing about God and the Torah since they were born. Of course, a 5-year-old's beliefs are much more simplistic than an adult's beliefs (I hope), but I think it's safe to say that the average 5-year-old in an Orthodox family is sure that God exists and that He gave us the Torah and wants us to do the mitzvot.
I think "Sinai" is for Judaism what "resurrection" is for Christianity. It is simply the fact that makes you accept the whole package – it is what validates the basis of a religion. So while a five year old might believe in Sinai in a more literal way than a twenty year old, the meaning behind it is still the same.
I think Ruchi and DG are suggesting that their belief in Sinai is entirely literal.
I will probably never reach that point but I admire it. It must be such a rock of stability in your life!
The literal belief in Sinai is actually remarkably exclusionary, in that there's no evidence that the event actually took place (aside from the Torah text). No archeological remains, no piece of pottery from all those people in the midbar 40 years, nothing. Believers aren't bothered, obviously, but many thinking people who are willing to believe in a metaphorical Sinai just can't bring themselves to believe in the literal Sinai.
Ruchi, from a belief standpoint, what's better? Encouraging people to believe in a literal Sinai, even if that makes them put themselves outside the fold, or accepting as fully Orthodox Jews those who only believe in the metaphorical?
I have wondered about self-exclusion questions like this one before on here. Especially because for Ruchi (and Os in general I guess) Orthodox Judaism just means Judaism per se.
If I accepted fully what Ruchi says Judaism is and requires, I would have to distance myself all the more from it, because things like literal belief in Sinai–or even much more, literal resurrection of the dead, which I never knew was a tenet until looking it up while reading all this–just aren't on my register and I don't want some or most of them to be (thinking again of the resurrection, yikes, I don't want to visualize that).
I guess this could be a paradox that might cause Ruchi some discomfort–that the full version of what she sees and loves as Judaism makes me feel all the less inclined to it. But back to her comment about personalities (below?) maybe it's the same appreciation for messy, non-dichotomous approaches that makes the fact of that same paradox sort of intriguing to me. Can I say that I'm attracted to my own rejection of it?
For Orthopraxes or others more conflicted about OJ I can see there might be less attraction, and more just rejection.
What's wrong with resurrection? I think it would be wonderful to have people I miss come back. It's not about zombies.
Katharina, it is. I'm very grateful for the belief that I have. It brings me great joy, serenity and comfort.
SBW, I want to respond to this: "I'm not sure I get it. You don't get born, believe in Sinai, and then start keeping kosher and everything. You grow up in it (for instance) and only later get the belief part. Or as a 5-yr-old "believing in Sinai" happens differently than for the 20-yr-old, I imagine."
Many people do get born and then believe in Sinai and then start practicing. True, that was not my experience but as I stated elsewhere on the blog, I was brought up to believe certain things from the time I was too young to talk, but as I got older I needed to make sense of it all. I didn't have a religious crisis at all, but I did always need to probe and understand and ask tough questions. I've been very satisfied with the answers I've received.
SBW, you are right that the paradox brings me some discomfort, and sometimes I wonder if I'm too transparent on the blog. But I can't help it. I gotta be me. And everyone has to exercise his/her own free will from there. I'm not trying to alienate anyone but neither do I have control over others' reactions. Of course, I try to present Judaism as beautiful, which is exactly as I find it.
DG, I'm assuming resurrection is considered by Os as literally as Sinai. This means seeing decomposed loved ones again. Worse than zombies! And all the bad guys of history get resurrected too?
The bodies get recomposed and put together with the souls. You wouldn't see skeletons walking around. I remember in elementary school imagining all sorts of people who had died, including my grandfather and George Washington, marching into my school lunchroom, fully alive again, with bodies and clothing. (Why George Washington would choose my school to make his appearance in I have no idea.)
It's funny b/c if I learned somehow that the revelation at Sinai never happened, I would absolutely continuing being exactly the kind of Jew I am right now. To me, Judaism is useful and valid and meaningful and beautiful even if it is also flawed or imperfect or even untrue.
There is a reason that religion is called "faith" — it requires you believe in something that you cannot definitively prove.
I believe in G-d even though I cannot definitely prove G-d exists. If I fail to believe in the literal revelation at Sinai, it is because when I asked the kind of hard questions Ruchi describes, the answers I got did not satisfy me.
That was a sad day for me because emotionally, I would have preferred to have access to more of the rock-solid faith that many Orthodox Jews experience. But you can't manufacture that — either the answers satisfy you or they don't.
"I believe in G-d even though I cannot definitely prove G-d exists. If I fail to believe in the literal revelation at Sinai, it is because when I asked the kind of hard questions Ruchi describes, the answers I got did not satisfy me."
I wonder if that's because the two of you got different answers or because the same answers don't satisfy everyone.
Do people get resurrected as the age they were when they died, or could a grandparent e.g. Come back younger and vibrant?
I always wondered about the question SBW asks. Most people would want to be resurrected in the prime of life, when they were healthiest or happiest. It's all speculation anyway, since no one has been there and come back. (And people who do survive near-death experiences and come back with info almost always mention Jesus).
I've also wondered about that. People who survive near-death experiences are the same age as they would have been anyway. That's not the same thing.
DG, in my experience, it is that the same answers don't satisfy everyone.
There are many different ways that Orthodox Judaism can be presented and many areas where some people are more lenient and others more strict. But I think the core beliefs we are talking about in this thread are pretty standard.
I had truly wonderful Orthodox teachers when I was younger and I think they gave me the best answers they could. By that, I mean that their answers were completely honest, completely heartfelt, not at all packaged or trite. They were sensitive, intelligent, and caring people with advanced degrees in the secular world. They had no lack of critical thinking skills.
But still, the answers did not hold together for me. I was frankly surprised that some of their answers held together for them. And while there were many things I could accept on faith, and others that I chose not to worry about, there were also things that I could not accept.
> Now here's my question. Religious pluralism does not make any mathematical sense to me, because to me, religion is based on facts. Either God did or didn't write the Torah as we have it today. Either the Torah was or wasn't given at Sinai. Either Moses did or didn't perform those miracles. If religion isn't based on a belief in facts, then what is it based on?
So if we discovered somehow that the Torah wasn't given at Sinai, you would stop being Jewish?
There is an objective reality, and we can't really agree to disagree about it. You're right about that. Either God wrote the Torah as we have it today or that is not the case — one of those is true and the other false. However, we disagree on which is which. We can't both be right. That's the essence of what you're saying, if I read you correctly.
However, perhaps we're not talking about the same reality. In the Haggadah we say, "In every generation, it is necessary for each person to see himself as if he himself had left Egypt." For that, it is not necessary for the Torah narrative to be true in the objective real world. There is a narrative world that the Torah inhabits, and while we may disagree on whether that narrative world coincides with the real world, the narrative world is still important, because *our religion is based on that narrative world*. That particular narrative world is important to all who cling to Judaism, whether they believe that the narrative world is the real world or not. I do not believe that the Torah was given by God in its present form at Sinai, but it is so in the narrative world; both of us agree that the Torah was given by God in its present form at Sinai in the narrative world. So I believe that I am correct about the real world *and* that you are correct about the narrative world. Pluralism!
Of course, that explains why *I* can be pluralist, not you. If you believe that the narrative world is the real world, there is no room for pluralism. But I *live* in the real world, and I can tell you that *my* religion is partly based on events that I do not consider to be fact, and that's perfectly fine.
I appreciate this explanation of a 'narrative world' that has its own kind of reality. This to me is part of my 'literary' appreciation for Judaism, the amazing narrative it offers. It doesn't have to be metaphysically true to be inspiring and compelling as a narrative.
I'm sorry, but I just didn't understand. What is a narrative world? Could it compel indecisive that is inconvenient, or merely be inspirational? Thanks, Anonymous.
Grr autocorrect. Could it compel observance, is what I meant.
My wife recently read Kurt Vonnegut's Cats Cradle. Let me share a short excerpt:
The first sentence in The Books of Bokonon is this:
"All the true things I am about to tell you are shameless lies."
Anyone who does not understand how a useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.
When I had friends active in the neopagan movement in the 1980s, a frequently shared saying was "It's true, it's true I made it all up and it's true."
In many peoples eyes, there are other kinds of truth than literal.
A scholar speaks about comments on an article he published in an Israeli newspaper where he gave the standard academic consensus on the history of Judaism:
Somewhere close to 90% of these comments excoriate me for ripping down Judaism. Maybe the tone of these comments is best captured in the one liner, “This is absolute heresy. The professor is a bad man.” These comments do not mention that at the end of the article I strongly separate the historical conclusions from issues of applied religion.
Does the bolded caveat make any sense to you at all?
My explanation of what "narrative world" means might not be exactly what "Narrative World Anon" means nor what Larry means. I think I'm closer to "Narrative World Anon", but not sure.
A written story is a sort of truth-bubble of its own, in its own terms. What happens in the story is true within the world of the story (in that world, this person really did say and do x and y). And the story exists, as a story, in our world, so what happens in the story has a kind of second-order truth in our world. It can be true in a way that doesn't have to do with correlating to facts in our world.
Like a novel about two friends might be made up, but the novel is so well written, so insightful, so well put together, that it is TRUE in its own depiction of the friendship. It shows us something about our lives, represents something in a way that is illuminating, without ever having really happened in our world. But the world of the story is so perfectly portrayed that it is 'true' as a story in our world.
Not sure if that makes sense to anyone else.
No, it doesn't, Larry. I think it complicates things unnecessarily. SBW, of course FICTION can hold TRUTHS. This is exactly what the metaphorical midrashim (that DG and MP are discussing below) are. So you are saying that you believe Torah is an allegory (stories that never happened) that teach truthful concepts.
So it's (in your view, which I obviously disagree with) fiction. That's simple enough. Why complicate it with big fancy explanations, though, as Anonymous does above?
I don't accept the strict dichotomy between truth and fiction. I think that is what "Narrative World Anon" is getting at (but maybe not). This does not mean that "anything goes", though. Just that the dichotomy is not strict.
What it means to me is that even true events are told in the form of stories. This is because true events on their own, un-narrated, are just a messy jumble of events, they need to be narrated in some way to make sense as a story, with a beginning/middle/end and some selection of elements and arrangement of those elements.
And it means to me that even fictional events can serve as a foundation, a real one, for our ways of being in the world. So they can be truth-like (and other commenters point out that we humans cannot every really know what is absolute truth, we can only believe it). Being fictional doesn't make them less foundational. Weak example: if you believed you were the biological child of a family, lived your whole life that way, and it turned out you were adopted, you still WERE the child of that family and it was the life you lived. I have a feeling this example is going to fail though.
Perhaps at some point it gets down to your personality. I'm a pretty black-and-white person. If I found out I was adopted it would rock my world too. Maybe people for whom the "jumble" feels fine are happier. I don't know. Not for me.
Most of the very frum, Orthodox believing people I know well also tend to see things in black-and-white, and would admit to that trait. So it's not surprising that people with that makeup gravitate to and find resonance in strict religion.
SBW: I agree that our understanding and relating of events is necessarily incomplete, but does that mean that there is no absolute truth? Sure, fiction can affect us, especially if we think it's true. And definitely, we have to take those fictional narratives that have affected us into account in order to understand ourselves. But wouldn't you still distinguish between what really happened and what you used to think had happened?
I think that calling the stories of the Torah a narrative world view is different than calling it fiction, and to me appropriately so. Whether or not Moshe received the Torah at a mountain in the desert, the tales and lessons of this book have shaped history/thought/religion/the world in countless ways.
Katharina's comment above that Sinai is to Judaism what resurrection is to Christianity seems totally on target to me. Although I don't believe that Jesus was resurrected, I can't dismiss it as "merely" a fictitious story because the fact that other people believe it has shaped human development for 2000 years. It has taken on weight, meaning, and significance far beyond the simple fact of whether or not it happened.
And I guess the reason I think I fall more into the pluralism camp than Ruchi thinks I do is that I am willing to acknowledge that I could be wrong about Jesus. People I know and respect are absolutely convinced that it happened; they find deep spiritual fulfillment from accepting the narrative their religious leaders present. I truly don't know which of us will get the last laugh when we die — the atheist, the Christian, the Jew — or if God will indeed reveal that all of us were both right and wrong along the way.
tesyaa, that's not my experience. I find that many of my friends are NOT like me – don't need to see everything laid out for them in black-and-white in order to believe/continue believing. Some people appreciate the deeply emotional and spiritual aspects.
About the narrative world…. it's even more complex from the Orthodox perspective. We learn that G-d looked inside the Torah to create the world so there is some primordial Torah that is the basis for creation. Then there's our Torah which "speaks in the languages of man". This can be understood as being written in words and using concepts graspable by a human mind (as opposed to the original Torah that preceded the creation that would obviously be completely unfathomable by a finite mind) AND as meaning that the narratives of the Torah themselves illustrate deep concepts and truths about the world. So our history as told in the stories of the Torah is also a narrative to communicate deep ideas and the whole thing is a sort of allegory for understanding the original Torah, the mind of G-d (as it were) but at the same time they are all the "truth" insofar as they really happened because G-d is the author of history. In other words, it IS all a metaphor and an analogy but it ALSO really happened because the whole of the created world is a metaphor for the deeper spiritual worlds.
And now see how this ties into the idea that each of us came out of Egypt: We learn that it's not that we eat matzo and do a seder to commemorate our coming out of Egypt, rather that time the 15th of Nissan has a quality of "coming out ness" that is already there and G-d created the story of the Exodus in order to give us these mitzvos and enable us to tap into the freeing and releasing power of that time period each year (a Jewish year is a cycle of varying spiritual potentialities and each of the holidays and mitzos help us tap into the power of the moment and we are supposed to grow and change each year, hence the world Shanah (year) being related to shinui (change). Hope that makes some kind of sense to somebody! I am a philosopher by training and love any ideas that encourage me to flip my entire world view on its head and see things from a different and refreshing angle.
But then that means that the human Torah is not the 'real' one, not God's Torah that he looked into. Which means ours really is NOT literal even to begin with because it is, as you say, a sort of allegory for God's own Torah. I would find this weirdly easier to believe than the literalism of the Torah. Or rather, I personally could more easily accept that this (mythical-sounding) story MIGHT be true than that our Torah is literally true. Because it makes no outlandish (to me) claims about THIS world but really refers to "God's world", of which our Torah would be only a shadow. Or something.
Another way to say what I just wrote, I realize, is to say that I find it easier to maybe accept a "metaphysics" that is completely otherworldly, NOT poking its way into our human world, than a metaphysics that comes into our world in small ways.
I'm moving this down for organization's sake.
DG: "So where do you draw the line between culture and religion? Cultures also provide practices, structure, identification with a community, etc."
Yes. All true.
I'm not sure that I would draw a dark line between them. A religion that was ONLY belief with no practices, no community, no continuity, no identity, no structure–would that be a religion or just some idiosyncratic personal belief?
A culture that had no shared sensibilities about right/wrong, no identity, no story about its past or identity, no calendar, no rhythms, no structures for adjudicating conflicts–would that be a culture?
SBW… in theory I would want to draw a dark line, between them, but I think it unwise. Because if people are hanging on to our religion for cultural reasons alone, it's still a good thing to be celebrated and I would never want to take that away. I don't think it a very strong connection, but it's valuable nevertheless.
How old was Rivka when she married Yitzchak?
Some meforshim say she was 3. Others say she was 12. Yet others say she was 14.
If there is only one truth, two of these meforshim are 100% wrong.
Are you okay with that Ruchi?
Of course some meforshim are wrong.
I can't speak for Ruchi, but those are midrashim, and I personally don't believe Midrash was intended to be taken as literal history. It's meant to teach us lessons.
many strictly orthodox believe not only in literal midrashim, but that all of them are correct on some level.
Why are you ok with some midrashim being straight out wrong? Isn't it then possible for all of them to be wrong? Doesn't that mean that the gemara could be wrong?
I didn't say they're wrong. I said they were never intended to be taken as literal history. Yes, I know many people believe in them literally.
According to Maimonides, statements by the sages that can't possibly be literally true are not meant to be understood literally and instead have a hidden meaning. The sages "formulate their wisdom in analogies and employ such figures of speech as are easily understood by the masses" (http://www.mhcny.org/qt/1005.pdf). Furthermore, "the sages themselves interpreted Scriptural passages in such a way as to educe their inner meaning from literal sense, correctly considering these passages to be figures of speech, just as we do. Examples are their explanations of the following passages: “he smote the two altar-hearths of Moab; he went down also and slew a lion in the midst of a pit” (II Sam. 23:20); “Oh, that one would give me water to drink of the well of Bethlehem” (ibid. 23:15). The entire narrative of which these passages are a part was interpreted metaphorically. Similarly, the whole Book of Job was considered by many of the sages to be properly understood only in metaphoric terms."
As for the Gemara, it contains lots of debates among the rabbis.
The medrashim are from the gemara.
If they are parables, they are historically wrong because they never happened. Are you okay with saying some sages in the gemara were flat out wrong?
Rabbi Shamshon Refael Hirsch states very clearly that we do not have to assume that the sages in the gemara were accurate in their scientific claims that were prevalent at the time and later discovered to be scientifically incorrect.
How could a parable that is fiction be historically anything?
I'm not referring to mashalim, but medrashim. Like, did God speak to the nations of the world offering them the Torah and they rejected it for selfish reasons? Did the sun and moon argue?
Scientific claims- fine, although that is very much not accepted by people outside the MO world.
But what about straight out machloksim about historical events? Do you accept that if there are four opinions about how old Rivka was, three of them are just 100% wrong? What makes the one correct one true? Maybe they are all wrong?
MP. According to the Rambam that DG linked above, many midrashim ARE meshalim. As far as which is which, a serious study of the Maharal deals with just this. Many times I have wished to undertake the study but have not due to lack of time. Hopefully one day. The English-language book "The Juggler and the King" deals with the issue as well and is based on the approach of the Maharal. Many educators are against the teaching of such Midrashim to little kids as literal fact. For this reason we do not have "The Little Midrash Says" in our homes – the distinction is not made, and it's a really important one.
Sorry, I neglected your last point. Maybe she was "as innocent as a three-year-old" (allegory), 12 when they were betrothed, and 14 when married (I'm making it up; I would have to study it with meforshim – but that could be an example of different answers revealing a different aspect of truth).
MP, I agree with what Ruchi just said. Statements of science may not be accurate. And if they meant something as a parable, not history, then they aren't wrong if it isn't historical.
If statements of science may not be accurate, why is everything else accurate? How did we get permission for some statements to be non-accurate? Even MM was exceptionally brilliant, how does he have the authority to say that statements of science may not be accurate and limited to the times of the sages, but everything else is accurate and should be accepted?
Maimonides is an example of a modern Jew, for his day. He asked hard questions of Judaism especially where it conflicted with the science of his day. Where Judaism conflicted with his knowledge of science, he said Judaism was being allegorical or metaphorical and not literal. And yet, his *practice* of Judaism did not change.
The fact that he believed that some things were allegorical (which was considered heresy by many Jews in his time) did not make him want to throw out all of Judaism. Rather, he still believed in Revelation, but where Revelation as it was understood in his time contradicted science, he felt that we must change our understanding of Revelation rather than reject science.
This approach is the same one used by non-Orthodox Jews today. The difference is that the science of our day has raised more questions and perhaps deeper questions than the science of Maimonides. The Conservative movement, for example, was *so* convinced by historical scholarship on the Bible that it rose to the level of science for them. Because of this, they felt the need to change their understanding of Torah mi-Sinai from a literal belief to a metaphorical one. But this did not change their practice (in the beginning). They continued to observe shabbat, kashrut, etc.
I have heard many Orthodox Jews say that if it were not for Maimonides, they would not be able to remain frum because they are not willing to accept a belief in ghosts nor a literal understanding of some Talmudic stories and stories in Tanach.
What is interesting to me is that they cannot bring themselves to believe in ghosts but they have no problem believing that the souls of non-Jews are inferior to the souls of Jews. They have no problem with the idea that it is okay to lock your wife up at home but you should let her out at least once a month. I have more difficulty with these things than I do with a belief in ghosts.
Whoa…lock your wife up at home?? Um, I'm at the library, right now.
According to Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, a highly respected 20th-century rabbi, the rabbis (I'm not sure if this applies solely to the rabbis of the Talmud or to later authorities as well) only got historical information wrong because God wanted them to. Consequently, any laws derived from the incorrect information are what God wanted them to derive from it and are therefore the correct halachah.
Ok, I'm also curious as is SDK. If you, Ruchi, believe that actual historical assertions, as described in the gemara( not just scientific claims) are wrong, you are one of the very few Orthodox Jews. Most are just not willing to admit the gemara might be wrong.
So if the gemara is wrong about one thing, why can't they be wrong about all the assertions on a certain topic? Maybe Rivkah was 45 when she got married. Maybe there was no Rivkah.
How does your belief square with the obligation to accept Torah She Baal Peh as true.
Sorry, I sort of lost my sense of taking sdk seriously after the locking the wife up comment.
God forbid. Where did I say anything about historical assertions being untrue? I said some midrashim are meshalim and not literal. Theres a mesora for that. It's in the Maharal.
How do you decide which medrashim are figurative? Do you think Avraham smashed his father's idols? Do you think he was thrown into the furnace? Do you think he discovered God when he was three? What if other opinions conflict? Is one of them flat out wrong? Can they all co-exist?
I feel like we're going around in circles. The maharal indicates which is which. I feel like I've answered your other questions.
Sorry, MP. I didn't mean this to come out sounding like a brush-off. What I mean is that I think I've answered your questions in the best way that I know how. If you contact me privately, maybe I can help direct you to someone who knows more than me.
I am not trying to be rude or provocative.
See Mishna Torah Hilchot Ishut 13:11.
"For a woman [at home] is not confined in a jail, from which she cannot come and go. Nevertheless, it is uncouth for a woman always to leave home – this time to go out and another time to go on the street. Indeed, a husband should prevent a wife from doing this and not allow her to go out more than once or twice a month, as is necessary."
In Maimonides time and in Muslim lands, this was normative. Seclusion for a modest woman was the norm. Maimonides ruled leniently in saying that women could leave home at all, to visit relatives.
One can say that this is not halacha but only a custom. But while the custom of strict seclusion came from Islam, the custom of women walking outside whenever they feel like it came from Christian Europe. We don't put aside Maimonides advice very easily in other areas, but here, we completely ignore it.
What you said before was "They [many Orthodox Jews] have no problem with the idea that it is okay to lock your wife up at home but you should let her out at least once a month." But as you yourself say, no one accepts that idea. So to say that Orthodox Jews have no problem with it — well, that's true in the sense that no one has a problem with something that no one pays any attention to. If you look hard enough, you can find support from some halachic source for all sorts of things. But halachic authorities, having studied all the different sources, know what applies and what doesn't. You can't just pick out some quote you object to, unilaterally define it as normative Orthodox Judaism, and then criticize Orthodox Judaism on that basis.
So, your solution to things in halacha that seem unfair is to ignore them as long as no one pays attention to them?
What if people start paying attention to them? Until recently, no one in Israel dared to blot out women's faces on advertisements like they do in Saudi Arabia. Until recently, the idea of separate sidewalks for men and women, separate lines in stores, would seem ridiculous. But not now. Those who rule that these kinds of restrictions are necessary do not consider them chumrot. They consider them halacha. And certainly, Hareidim in Israel cannot be accused of not having studied all the sources.
How would it be if we truly lived halacha in all areas of our lives and not just in synagogue or at home? Normative Orthodox Judaism holds that this is, in fact, the ideal to which we should all aspire. Are you willing to live in a legal system in which Jews and non-Jews have a completely different set of rights and responsibilities and where the rights that women enjoy in the United States could be significantly curtailed?
Maybe it is comfortable to become a lawyer or a judge or to work as a manager in a mixed office of men and women. But under normative halacha, those actions are either forbidden or highly questionable.
When the practice of halacha falls short (religious people who lie, cheat, steal) we are told to look at the theory. And rightly so, since all systems fall short once human beings start practicing them.
But when theory falls short, where should one look?
I do not mean that most Orthodox Jews have no problem with this idea from Maimonides. I'm sure that if it were put into practice, it would trouble many in the modern Orthodox camp and it would certainly make it very difficult to maintain a Chareidi lifestyle of women who work so that their husbands can study.
I only meant that thousands and thousands of pages have been written about the non-scientific aspect of the Talmud and how one can reconcile those things with scientific knowledge. This is despite the fact that from a practical day to day point of view, it makes no difference whether you believe that ghosts or evil spirits exist. The very existence of non-scientific material in Jewish law is enough to bother many people and many people have tried to reconcile this issue with modern science. It is important to people that halacha be true and that it can be reconciled with other sources of truth.
In contrast, this statement in halacha that husbands should limit the daily movements of their wives seems to bother very few people. The idea that at any moment, someone might decide to implement this ruling from the MT does not bother people. Halacha is supposed to be a true system, not a human legal code that can have inconsistency and error and misinterpretation. And certainly, Maimonides was greater than we are, so why would anyone discard his advice?
SDK, I am learning a lot here from what you write, about consistency vs. selective law-following esp. with regard to women. What I don't get is how you are devotedly Jewish then. How do you reconcile 'ignoring' some parts of normative O doctrine with your passionate belief? Do you have a consistent principle for that?
1. "So, your solution to things in halacha that seem unfair is to ignore them as long as no one pays attention to them?"
a. No, but what makes you think this is halacha? As I said before, you can find some source supporting all sorts of things, but that doesn't make them halacha. Parts of the Mishneh Torah are not intended to be halacha (e.g., astronomy). In this particular case, note that the section begins with “In a place where it is customary.” Although the sentences about going out aren’t directly related to that clause, much of this part of the Mishneh Torah is clearly contingent on local custom. Furthermore, he says women shouldn’t go out much because it’s “uncouth” and because it’s most attractive for women to stay home; he doesn’t say it’s forbidden. If it was simply advice meant for people in his society, where it was considered uncouth, Maimonides himself presumably wouldn't have said it applies today. You would have to study Maimonides intensively to know what he meant by his specific wording.
b. Even if he personally meant it as halacha (which I doubt), if others disagreed with him it may never have become THE halacha.
c. Even widely accepted halachic statements are not necessarily applied across the board. Issuing halachic rulings requires taking into account the situation, the culture, and even the specific person involved. The same rabbi might give me and my friend different rulings due to our different personalities and problems.
2. "Those who rule that these kinds of restrictions are necessary do not consider them chumrot. They consider them halacha."
Actually, I don't know if anyone thinks separate sidewalks are halacha. After all, hardly any place has them, even in the most haredi neighborhoods. I'm guessing that even the people in favor of them probably want them as an extra stringency in crowded places where men and women would be jostled against each other. I've never heard of anybody refusing to walk on most sidewalks because people of the opposite sex are there. But even if there are people who consider them halacha, so what? You can find people who think all sorts of incorrect things. What does that prove?
3. "And certainly, Hareidim in Israel cannot be accused of not having studied all the sources."
Which haredim? There are hundreds of thousands of haredim in Israel. Are you suggesting that they're all that knowledgeable? Wow. In fact, the standard yeshiva curriculum does not qualify the average student to issue halachic rulings. It isn't meant to. No, most haredim have NOT studied all the sources. Do you know of any leading haredi rabbis who say these things are basic halacha?
4. "Maybe it is comfortable to become a lawyer or a judge or to work as a manager in a mixed office of men and women. But under normative halacha, those actions are either forbidden or highly questionable."
Do you mean "comfortable" or "uncomfortable"? In any case, comfort is obviously a personal thing. I may be comfortable with something that makes you uncomfortable, and vice-versa. In any case, I'm not sure what the court system has to do with managers in mixed offices. And plenty of haredim work in mixed offices. Sure, many would rather not, and some would even not take a job in a mixed office unless they were desperate. But that doesn't make it "normative halacha."
5. "In contrast, this statement in halacha that husbands should limit the daily movements of their wives seems to bother very few people."
Again, you’re assuming that this is halacha. In fact, people are rarely bothered by opinions that were not accepted as halacha. Why should it bother me that a certain opinion was considered and rejected? You said yourself, "In Maimonides time and in Muslim lands, this was normative. Seclusion for a modest woman was the norm. Maimonides ruled leniently in saying that women could leave home at all, to visit relatives." So if it was lenient then and doesn't apply today, why should it bother me at all?
6. "Halacha is supposed to be a true system, not a human legal code that can have inconsistency and error and misinterpretation."
There are plenty of differences of opinion in halacha. You can't possibly follow all opinions. The Shulhan Aruch usually looks at three major halachic sources (one of whom is Maimonides) and adopts the majority opinion from among the three. In other words, one of these major halachic sources is frequently rejected. So if the Shulhan Aruch could reject Maimonides' opinion in some cases, who are we to say his opinion should always be followed?
7. "And certainly, Maimonides was greater than we are, so why would anyone discard his advice?"
Sometimes because it was rejected by other halachic authorities (who were also more knowledgeable than we are). As for advice, not too many people try to follow his dietary or medical advice, so if the statement you cite was only intended to be advice, why should it be any more binding? Anyway, it would be absolutely impossible to follow all the advice ever given by anyone greater than we are.
DG, you are certainly correct that there are many opinions in halacha and no one can or should try to follow all of them. So why do people get so worked up about, for example, Women of the Wall, who, according to many legitimate opinions, are not violating anything?
tesyaa, a few thoughts about this. Firstly, I think it somewhat of a logistical jump from an obscure halachic opinion (that, for example, I, an halachic Jew, never even heard of) to what is considered local practice in contemporary living. But, OK. Let's just proceed with this as our starting point.
I don't think the opposition to Women of the Wall is halachic in essence. I think it's opposition to what's considered to be disrespect of local custom. That said, my Orthodox friends and I would likely simply ignore women in tefillin at the kotel, much as I ignore any of the hubbub that takes place there while I'm praying.
"What I don't get is how you are devotedly Jewish then. How do you reconcile 'ignoring' some parts of normative O doctrine with your passionate belief? Do you have a consistent principle for that?"
If someone needs consistent principle, Orthodoxy is a good path.
Reform Jews have a consistent principle (they don't follow halacha or consider it binding) and Orthodox Jews have consistent principles (Torah mi'Sinai, certain codes of law or authorities are binding). Those of us who take traditional Judaism seriously and who find it beautiful and meaningful but who are not Orthodox do not enjoy this consistency.
If you are willing to replace the Shulcan Aruch with the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (Conservative movement halachic authority) then you have at least something. I do know actual Conservative Jews (who are not rabbis or cantors) who live this way. They are rare, but they exist. 🙂
I guess I am just overly independent. Since I was unwilling to allow great minds like Maimonides to determine my practice, I have a hard time giving over such decisions to the CJLS. Although I do read their teshuvot with interest.
I do have some personal guidelines. In areas where I do not have a serious moral disagreement with our tradition, I give tradition the upper hand, even if I don't find something personally meaningful or I do find it difficult or inconvenient. Sometimes I am lazy and I do not meet that standard, but I feel badly about it and I try to do better.
In areas where I have serious moral disagreements with our tradition, I allow my liberal upbringing to win out. In these cases, unlike the CJLS, I don't usually look for halachic justification for my position. I think it is better to be honest and say I simply cannot agree with the way this is usually understood / practiced.
This is not a recipe for a movement but it works on an individual level. The difficulty, of course, is that Judaism is a communal religion and you need a community of like minded people to practice it fully.
Although there are very few people who would use my formula, there are actually many people who *behave* this way. Most Mizrachim in Israel, for example, say that they believe in Orthodoxy but do not live fully halachic lives. This was also true of Orthodox American Jews of previous generations.
While these groups do not / did not visibly challenge Orthodoxy, there is clearly some barrier. Maybe the barrier is laziness but I think also they would say that one can be a good Jew without (insert halachic norm they refuse to practice here).
On the other hand, the vast majority of Israelis (and Europeans) feel no need to create their own halacha or synagogues, etc.
From their point of view, it is fine that the standard is Orthodoxy and it is also fine that they have no intention of living that standard in their personal lives.
DG reminded me that seclusion as practiced in Muslim lands is not normative halacha. I thank her (or him) and accept those points. It has been a while since I had to think about the way that Orthodox halacha is applied in practice.
I think the line between minhag and halacha can get very blurred and many things go under the general heading of listening to the great rabbis of the generation and not going against them.
In some of the more closed Chassidic groups, you will be called a goy for reading English books outside of whatever minimal requirements the state imposes. I think to them, this *is* halacha, in the sense that these are rulings from their gedolim (great rabbis).
I first learned about traditional Judaism in a modern Orthodox context. Some women covered their hair, others did not. Some women wore shorts or pants (others did not). When I asked about something like wearing a tallit, I was told that I should first take on the mitzvot I already had, like shabbat. I was not told that it was a terrible question. That all seemed reasonable to me.
I was surprised then when I was later exposed to a more right wing community where I was told that women must wear skirts, that I could not sing zemirot at the table, that "extra" mitzvot were out of the question, and so on.
What I understood then was that any Orthodox man could tell me that I could not sing. Of course, I could choose to join a community in which women sing zemirot but I would always be on slightly shaky ground. A woman can never be a rabbi or a posek so it's not like I could participate in the halachic decision process if I disagreed. Many would not even let me study the texts upon which such decisions are based.
"The glory of the king's daughter is within" is a very ambiguous statement. It can be limited or expanded to cover everything from a society like Saudi Arabia to a society like ours. And women are not the ones who decide to expand or to limit.
Of course, a woman can be a lawyer in America but she cannot be a witness or a dayan in halacha. Living in a secular society, religious restrictions are chosen and voluntary and they are enforced by social pressure alone. But this is hardly the halachic ideal.
If we lived under halacha, really lived under halacha, in the sense that you could be called before a court for your mode of dress or lashed for your failure to obey the rabbis, if we lived in a country where non-Jews would have no legal standing and very few rights, would the system still seem fair and just and holy?
I think for many modern Orthodox Jews, the answer is no. For me, the answer was no. It is fine to talk about whether a woman should wear tefillin and whether one must believe in evil spirits because they are mentioned in the Talmud. To me, there are far more serious issues.
I think that a society living fully under halacha would look much more like Iran or Saudi Arabia than it does like America. Halacha is meant to be a total way of life — a complete legal system — not just a way to manage the internal affairs of a minority community.
Okay. When Moshiach comes, these disputes will be decided and we will see clearly. All will realize what is truly just and truly fair. Until that day, we each must apply ourselves and our small minds to the big questions and come up with what answers we can.
Thanks for these thoughtful and detailed replies. I am still fascinated by your devotion and belief in the coming of the Messiah that is nonetheless combined with your own independence and willingness to make personal judgments. Lots to ponder here for me.
I wonder if you're truly aware of the implications of what you're saying in this blog post. We can only believe. We cannot ever know. The only one who can know with certainty anything that could possibly be called religious "facts" is Hashem. For us to say that we have the same "factual" certainty as individual Jews does two things: it elevates what we consider to be "facts" above Hashem; and it equates our ability to discern those facts with Hashem's ability. And both of things are idolatrous acts. If we claim factual religious certainty, then we have made both those alleged "facts" and ourselves, for being able to discern them, into idols with equal or better knowledge than Hashem. And far from meeting the definition of religious Judaism, that actually meets the definition of heresy.
Yes, how do we know for sure, but in our prayer service (recited by all denominations) we are asked to encourage ourselves in our beliefs and declare their truth.
We are asked to say the Shema which declares G-d's oneness and by extension that there is a single source for everything.
We are asked to affirm certain truths after the Shema:
Truth, that G-d is King. Truth, that His law endures forever. Truth, that He redeemed our forefathers.
Ruchi, in that same Merriam-Webster definition (you used #3), definition #4 is:
a : a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization
b : a concept, doctrine, or policy advocating this state
— plu·ral·ist adjective or noun
— plu·ral·is·tic adjective
— plu·ral·is·ti·cal·ly adverb
So based on #3, I do not consider myself a pluralist, but #4 really resonates with me. Also, in Merriam-Webster's dictionary for non-English speakers learning English, pluralism is defined as:
1 : a situation in which people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., are together in a society but continue to have their different traditions and interests
2 : the belief that people of different social classes, religions, races, etc., should live together in a society
I also think this works for me. We are together in Jewish Civilization, and we continue to have our different traditions and interests – and we can and should live together peacefully. My kashrut is not your kashrut (and your kashrut is not Libby's etc), and while we may not partake of food from each other's homes, we live together peacefully, and I would say happily, in the same Jewish community, sharing a common bond and friendship. If that makes me a pluralist, alrighty then.
The idea of "ultimate reality" is vague to me – I'm not actually sure what that means. Also, if you're defining it as "God did or did not write the Torah as we have it today" than I guess I would say I'm not a pluralist because I don't believe that. And yet . . . I am loath to say "you are wrong." Because you might not be. It's that whole 99% thing. I'm 99% sure I'm right, but there is a 1% chance I'm not. And so you could say I'm "inclusive" of your beliefs and you.
Gee, this is all so much clearer. LOL!
Well, then I'm a pluralist too!
Rebbetzinrocks, can you say more about what it means to be a believing Jew while not believing in the literal truth that God wrote the Torah as we have it today? To me it makes perfect sense, but you can probably really articulate what you "believe in" with Judaism in a way that to me is only something I could (but don't much) feel and wouldn't know how to articulate.
Am I right with the impression that Os have Sinai as this literal bedrock foundation, whereas non-Os have a more diffuse foundation–which is not to say less real, just less one-fact-grounds-everything–where that diffuse foundation is not one fact but a constellation of history/ritual/hope/taking what's good from it?
Question: I think I read that OJ rejects the influence of the Enlightenment and people like Moses Mendelssohn on Judaism because they tried to rationalize Judaism, and OJ tries to stick with ways of believing and practicing that aren't tainted by that kind of modern, scientific thinking.
Yet it seems to me here that the Os are defending a very strict fact-fiction distinction that comes from just that modern scientific spirit; and the non-Os (or whatever we/they are) are more open to a non-literal, non-scientific way of "believing" (which to an O might not look like strong belief, but which is precisely less Enlightenment/science/fact-fiction oriented).
Does this characterization work?
SBW, there is a young Orthodox rabbi (born in England, living in Israel) who embraces a rationalist form of Judaism. Even he says there are limits to rationalism when it comes to religion.
You are correct that many, if not most, Orthodox Jews believe in a strictly literal set of historical beliefs. The prohibition of studying heresy effectively keeps them on the path, and helps them avoid encountering inconvenient scholarship that might dispute their beliefs.
That approach just didn't work for me, because I don't like depriving myself of knowledge. But I guess I had to be ready for it, since I was a mostly believing Orthodox Jew for 25+ years.
Yes, and the irony has struck me in the past.
Wow, so you see it as ironic too. Interesting.
So is this fact-fiction-rational-scientific streak more a thing for "your kind" of OJ? The Lithuanian, more rational (I think you put all these terms together), non-Chassidic types as you once explained? Even though I guess there is that anti-Enlightenment element in the Lithuanian Os.
For Chassidic Jews is the fact-fiction issue less of a theme? I figure Chassidic Jews also *really believe* in Sinai, but would this fact-fiction question just be less of a topic, or would the metaphorical more easily mix with the literal or even dwarf it? Any Chassidic Jews on here to answer that?
It's only kind of ironic because the fact-based approach asks you to believe in miracles. I do think Chassidic Judaism would be more into kabbalistic/metaphorical/miracle worker ideas than the more "rationalist" Lithuanian stream. Maybe. I'm not really qualified to say.
Miracles aside (I believe in miracles happening today – smaller ones, not huge ones) it has occurred to me that it may be a bigger leap of faith to believe that Sinai didn't happen – and that Torah is a composite work of human authors or even divinely inspired – than to believe the Sinai story literally. It just takes so many more explanations and raises so many more questions. I've been accused that "you believers have an answer for everything." So you see what I mean?
It's also simpler to believe that illness is caused by demons than to understand the complexity of germ theory.
It's also simpler to tell the truth than tie yourself up in a web of lies.
Some simple things are smart and some are dumb. Some are true and some are false. It's unwise to follow something ONLY because it's simple, but simplicity is a bonus.
Really? I would have a really hard time believing demons caused it. With microscopes, germs are visible. If everyone who has a particular disease has those germs, and those who don't have the disease don't have the germs (or have a lot fewer), I would say that suggests the possibility of (but doesn't prove) some connection. If getting rid of the germs gets rid of the disease, that's even better evidence. Why is it easier to believe demons do it?
DG, I meant in the ancient world, before microscopes. Now, we know the ancients were mistaken about some things. In the future, our descendents will know WE were mistaken about some things.
When I say our descendents will know we are mistaken, I'm not referring to religion. Germ theory is just an example of something that might have seemed incredibly complex and too hard to believe. I don't want to get hung up on germ theory.
Sure. And if we're still around, we'll be really surprised to find out which things those are.
If the ancients were mistaken about germ theory, is it not possible that they were also mistaken about … gay people?
If gayness were proved to be 100% genetic (this is just for the sake of argument, we have at this time no such proof) would we be able to say that the Sages were mistaken about homosexuality? And perhaps this verse in the Torah has come to teach us something else (for example, that male rape is forbidden or that a specific act is forbidden)?
But it IS a specific act that is forbidden. No one says otherwise.
What difference does it make whether homosexual attractions are genetic or not? The Torah forbids the action, not the attraction.
FWIW, most of the observant gay men that I know avoid the specific act that is forbidden. (Of course, they also do not necessarily discuss these things, it's just that I happen to know a few people well enough to know.)
Most of them also feel that they cannot in good faith marry women. And most of them reject complete celibacy for all the reasons that any Jew would reject complete celibacy — it's not a Jewish life.
The Torah says that the world was created in 6 days and we then discovered that the world is millions of years old, but fortunately we had someone like Maimonides to reconcile this for us.
If we believe in the principle that for every forbidden act, there is a permitted way to achieve the same goal, does it make no difference if the desire is mere promiscuity or something deeper and more fundamental? Something that deserves a way to be purified and channeled, as all sexuality is Judaism?
I am curious to see what will happen on this issue within Orthodoxy b/c in my experience, true gayness for men is completely independent of environment. It happens in the best of families, to the best and most religious people. It is (in my opinion) one of the mysteries of nature.
I am pretty sure that this particular issue will not go away nor become less challenging. But it will take a true gadol on the level of Maimonides to tackle it.
It was only after working closely with an orthodox rabbi for a couple of years that I understood why Orthodox Jews can't be truly pluralistic and other Jews can. It's definitely made me more *tolerant* of the OJ's lack of pluralism. At this point I've accepted that the Orthodox Jews I know will never think that my Judaism is valid or correct, and I've just made my peace with it. The two things – an acceptance that their is one truth AND the idea that many different ways could be true – are just incompatible.
Thank you for articulating that.
SBW that is a really hard question to answer, because so many non-O jews are not educated to understand the full implications of revelation and the experience at Sinai. They are not given enough information to formulate their own opinions and thoughts about these core beliefs and concepts. It is a major failing of the non-O denominations. There are those of us who are working to change that 🙂
My own personal belief is that a seminal experience at Mt. Sinai really did happen, that perhaps archeologists just haven't found "proof" yet. What happened there I cannot say. I do not believe in an anthropomorphic-type God who wrote the Torah as we know it and gave it to Moses. But something huge happened there, at that time, to gel our people, connect them to each other for eternity and create the Jewish people.
I do not believe I was physically there, but perhaps all the Jewish souls were there – whether they all were or not does not change my belief in that defining moment. Metaphorically we were all there 🙂
RR, no one believes we were all physically there – just our souls.
RR what you are saying sounds like Abraham Joshua Heschel – "As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. "
If one believes in miracles, why is it a stretch to say that we were all physically at Sinai? We could have been there physically, and God could have used miracles to delete our memories. I'm not joking. If we could be their incorporeally, we could be there corporeally.
I know there are no sources that say we were all at Sinai corporeally, so I'm not really suggesting it. I'm just saying, it's not any more unlikely than any other big miracle.
Of course God COULD have done that. He can do anything. But we have no reason to think He did. As Ruchi said, believing that the Torah was written by human beings and somehow all the Jews started doing what it said anyway is also a leap of faith. You don't just make up miracle stories and assume they're true without any reason to think it.
RR, I don't believe in an anthropomorphic God either. "The Torah speaks in human language." I don't believe that God's "outstretched arm" is an arm as we know it, for example. I don't understand God and I don't know exactly what the anthropomorphic descriptions in the Torah describe. I believe that God gave us the Torah, but I do wonder about the details.
believing that the Torah was written by human beings and somehow all the Jews started doing what it said anyway is also a leap of faith.
It's less of a leap of faith if you read the evidence (though hardly conclusive) that has been examined by Bible scholars. But since halacha prohibits one from reading heresy (kefira), most Orthodox Jews have not examined the evidence, so yes, they do think of Biblical criticism as a "leap of faith".
Are Os not supposed to read Bible scholarship? I mean from non-O sources?
Should be working–I'm a grad student in Biblical Studies, and there are a number of O biblical scholars. I promise you that they read stuff by non-O scholars, and also non-Jews. Think Marc Tsevi Brettler, for instance. I have also seen O teachers teach gemara to non-Jews in academic contexts (this is assur based on some source in the gemara that I can't remember). There are a lot of O Jews who won't touch this stuff, obviously, but Orthodoxy!=monolith, and there are people who are very happy to engage in modern academic scholarship, including source criticism.
Please say more, Anon Biblical Scholar! What does it mean to be Orthodox AND study views of the Bible that don't take it as the literal work of God from Sinai? Or maybe you yourself aren't O, I'm not sure from the post. How would an O Biblical scholar deal with the 13 articles Ruchi referred to?
I do not believe I was physically there, but perhaps all the Jewish souls were there – whether they all were or not does not change my belief in that defining moment. Metaphorically we were all there 🙂
This is one of the Hasidic takes on conversion that has always resonated with me: the idea that while every Jewish soul, past, present and future was at Sinai, some wound up in non-Jewish bodies along the way, and converts are those souls finding their way back. There are times when that explanation, as ridiculous as it can sometimes sound saying it aloud, is the only one that makes sense to me when I consider my experiences with Judaism.
Also, I took an ancient Jewish history class in college that went into great depth about the documentary hypothesis and other such biblical criticism that some Orthodox folks might find problematic. In that class was an Orthodox guy, Yeshivish by all outward appearances (black, velvet kippah, black pants, white shirt, tzitzis out) and, so far as I could tell, FFB. I spent the whole semester wondering what he made of the material we covered in class, but I never did work up the nerve to ask him. Of course, I also had evangelical Christian friends who were ardent creationists and still managed to take biology classes that taught evolution. You don't have to believe in something to memorize the information for a test, after all.
Should be working–I'm not Orthodox, I'm part of the shomer-but-rabidly-egal crowd (read: I will not daven with a non-egal minyan, I believe firmly that all adult Jews have to lay tefillin and are obligated in time-bound mitzvot, I am enraged by ostensibly egalitarian synagogues which have gender-differentiated rules for kisui rosh/tallit/tefillin for people who come to daven, etc. I suppose I'm not a pluralist. But NB that there are lots of other trad egal types who are more lax than me on the egal side of things). For me personally, I come out of a Conservative background, though I am no longer Conservative. So I took biblical scholarship as a given from the very beginning, though admittedly a watered-down, pointedly pious version for a common audience. I'm a pretty logic-driven person, so I thought this all made tons of sense. It also fit well within the concept of continuing revelation that's popular in the Conservative Movement. I'm not sure I'd still phrase it in those terms, but I do think that the multiplicity of the Torah's meaning can teach us different things at different places/times. By extension, I think it makes sense that we may be able to take a different message from the Torah than was originally seen by Chazal, and we might also derive a slightly different halacha. I don't think this contradicts the trend in some corners of modern scholarship to find the "original" meaning of the biblical text, because most people recognize that there is no such thing, or at the very least it's lost to us, and all we can do is find some probable meanings at various points in time. In other words, the multivalence of the text is sort of accepted in scholarship, and you might even say that the assertion of the authority of the author (read: editor of a given book/source) in some scholarship works quite well in tandem with the idea of God as ultimate author/authority on the Torah's meaning.
The description of Tamar Ross' theology linked to by Larry Lennhoff below pretty accurately describes my own, though I am pretty ardent in believing that Chazal was capable of being wrong and that we need to take this into account. Luckily, I think they're more often wrong while being partially right, so we can still preserve rabbinic tradition by keeping that element of their analysis. Obviously I don't believe in yeridat hadorot per se.
Enough about me, you're not interested in that stuff. My Orthodox teachers/classmates are what you care about. There are a couple of main approaches, I think. The first one is to learn what minimal source criticism is required by the program and then effectively ignore it entirely. I know somebody who did this at a very good program, albeit one that didn't focus on source criticism (some schools are basically source criticism or nothing). He works almost exclusively with biblical intertextuality and he's quite happy. He just doesn't buy the other stuff but he's happy to watch other people play with it. The other version of this is to not do bible and instead focus on later parts of the Jewish textual tradition.
Sorry, too long…
Another option is to see source criticism as a tool for deriving new types of knowledge. You could see different sources as ways of separating threads of thought in the Torah. We've always acknowledged that there are apparent contradictions in the Torah. Why not look at them another way, to see another form of multivalence? This is certainly easier if you think that the Torah is a reflection of divine interaction rather than an exact copy of God's literal words to Moshe. I've never asked anybody if they really believe that, though.
Yet another option is to separate your private life and your job entirely. I don't know how people do this, but I certainly know people who claim to do so.
The final option is to become an atheist. Haha. I do know people who have done this. I suspect they were already headed towards atheism anyway.
I'm not really sure why the Thirteen Principles of Faith are supposedly a problem? It all depends on what you think "divine" means. Can divine mean divinely inspired? Is there room for error/intervention by human hands? Can we misunderstand something? Can Chazal misunderstand something? Etc. I think both I and my classmates of any denomination are the sorts of people who are largely confused by the concept of being so dogmatic rather than pushing and asking questions. The other thing is that the Rambam never really intended for people who were smart to follow his Thirteen Principles. They were meant to be used by people who couldn't understand his philosophical explanations of the Torah. I once heard an amazing rant/lecture by a very frum professor (and Rambam expert cum fanatic) of mine about the damage that has been done to Judaism by people taking the Thirteen Principles of Faith too literally and dogmatically. Frankly, I think he was right. If we can't ask if God isn't perfect, then we've lost something. If we can't ask what it means for the Torah to be divine, then we've lost our ability to push for truth.
I see Judaism as an endless string of questions and study from anywhere that we can find knowledge, and that's something that I find in all my classmates as well. It's a dangerous approach, in some ways, because you're constantly on an intellectual ledge. But I think it's really worth doing it this way, and I think the results are often beautiful. It's hard for some people to get pushed out of a comfort zone, especially if it's for something that's so integral to one's identity. I think in the end that if you don't ask these questions, and if you don't make them ask-able, then you ultimately do more harm than good, because your entire system is open to collapse from one or two disproved facts, because if one thing is wrong, why isn't everything?
That was probably more than you wanted to know. Sorry.
PS: Diplogeek–the idea that converts were at Sinai can be traced to b. Shav. 39a. Definitely not an originally Chasidic thing.
On living an Orthodox life while accepting the truth of biblical criticism see this interview with Professor Tamar Ross. You might also want to read works by Orthodox Biblical scholars such as James Kugel
Professor Ross's approach sounds like an embrace of Orthopraxy (#7). And Professor Kugel's acceptance of Orthodox belief is a very personal approach, that others would have a hard time emulating.
Ross is interesting, but I see why a lot of Os wouldn't find it very compelling. And non-Os too. It seems rather dispassionate. The Kugel link is broken?
Ruchi, I just want to say I am impressed that you posted the last few comments/links. A lot of people in your position wouldn't do so. If I ever accuse you of sugarcoating or censoring, please remind me of this moment!
tesyaa, be it known that I feel quite conflicted about having done so. The way I feel when I encounter Bible criticism is the same way one might feel when reading slander about one's own father. I don't know if it's halachically wrong to read "heresy" or whatever – if you had a source on that I'd be interested in knowing it – but clearly if Judaism mandates and encourages belief all over the place, reading stuff that might dilute that belief wouldn't be considered a good idea.
The way I see it is this. God created a world in which it would be possible not to believe. Believe has to be a choice, otherwise it's meaningless. So there's always going to exist a way of looking at the world without seeing God, so that belief would be a choice for each person.
So actually, this way of looking at the world makes sense to me too. God created a world with lots of evidence against the Torah, and against His own existence. So even though I'm 99.9% certain about my "nonbelief", how do I deal with that 0.1%? By being totally comfortable with the idea that if God created all this anti-religion evidence, there's not going to be any punishment for not being a believer. If there is a God, I'm convinced he'd be totally fair about that.
He judges us all on our own merits. I'm glad I'm not privy to His algorithm. But if a person keeps shabbos/kosher/lashon hara, and doesn't believe, I'm pretty sure he'll get rewarded for all the good deeds he's doing anyway.
Ruchi, what you said about the 'scientific' side of O (facts/fiction strict dichotomy) and how it sharpens the contrast to miracles made me wonder something like Tesyaa asks. Do you believe that God WANTS that contrast to be so sharp so that belief is that much more of a leap? Is the value in the big leap itself? Or not so much really, a small leap would be just as valuable?
I don't know what Ruchi would say about a big leap of faith, but here's a dvar Torah from a friend on the topic: (I just happened to have this in my saved mail).
Parshat Shelach begins with the tragic tale of the twelve spies. As a result of the spies’ negative report about the land of Israel and the people’s reaction to it, G-d decreed that Bnei Yisrael would wander in the desert for forty years rather than entering the promised land immediately. What makes this incident particularly difficult to understand is that the Torah describes the incident very differently in two different places (this parsha and Deut 1:22-46.) In Parshat Shelach, it appears that the mission was initiated by G-d, Who commands Moshe to send men to scout out the land. But in Deuteronomy’s portrayal, the people suggest sending spies and Moshe agrees, without any input from G-d. The commentators reconcile these two descriptions in various ways. R’ Yitzchak Abarbanel mentions several explanations he rejects before laying out his own. His suggestion is fascinating, but a bit involved, and I’d like to focus on one of the approaches he rejects and the vehemence with which he does so. "Some people think, " he begins, that G-d viewed this generation, one that worshipped the Golden Calf only months before, as unworthy of inheriting the land of Israel. Rather than saying so directly, He arranged a test that He knew they would fail. G-d commanded them to send spies, knowing that the incident would justify punishing the generation by keeping them out of the land. Abarbanel says about this: "This opinion is unworthy of being accepted, for the sending of the spies was a grievous sin. G-d forbid [to suggest that] G-d would put a stumbling block in front of the blind" in this fashion. (I also don’t see how this explanation fully reconciles the two versions of the story, but that is not why Abarbanel rejects it.) To Abarbanel, the idea that G-d would trick people into sinning is offensive. One wonders what he would say to the creationist argument (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Omphalos_hypothesis) that G-d created the universe with deceptive evidence of its antiquity. Shabbat Shalom.
The references aren't all clear to me, but the author (the meta-author, there are a bunch of authors in there) is citing someone who says it's wrong to imagine God as 'setting someone up' to sin.
What do Os think about that? What about Job? [With this I know I'm speaking from the far reaches of uneducated ignorance compared to most of the people here.]
I believe that the test of faith is calibrated to each individual. And maybe some are not tested greatly in faith at all. Some are tested in ego, or honesty. But we all have our tests.
I think this is an important distinction and you conveyed it so clearly and directly (kol ha-kavod). I do see religious pluralism as a belief that has come to liberal Judaism from the larger society, although there is some support for it within traditional Jewish sources.
Jews have suffered much, physically and spiritually, by living in societies that were sure that they were Right and we were Wrong. For me, one of the spiritual lessons of Exile is that we should not impose this suffering on others.
I understand that Orthodox Jews take a different spiritual lesson from Exile. But there is a reason that liberal Jews have taken on religious pluralism as a key value. I do not think it has to do with mindlessly following the larger culture. It comes from a careful reflection upon our experience as minorities.
It is also difficult to maintain inclusivism in the absence of pluralism. There are those who would say that Ruchi, because she uses the internet, cannot be a Torah Jew. Her children would not be appropriate for shidduchim nor would they be welcome in many schools. This attitude is a natural extension of inclusivism — certainly, they value her as a Jew, but they are right and she is wrong. The belief that there is only one right way contributes to the lack of unity within the Orthodox world.
I do agree with Ruchi that pluralism and inclusivism are ultimately incompatible. One mistake that liberals make is that they extend pluralism to fundamentalists (I am using this word without judgment to apply to those who believe that they are Right), while only receiving inclusivism in return. This is an unfair exchange.
Those who believe in pluralism should extend it only to others who share that same belief. We should not be so tolerant of others that we extend our tolerance to intolerance. We should offer to Orthodox Jews exactly what they offer us — inclusivism. We must love and value them as Jews and be open to learning from them and even to being challenged by them — but they are not part of our religious community, which is composed of people who believe that there are many (equally valid) truths.
This is really well said. But I do struggle to try to be tolerant of those who are intolerant, and I struggle with the double standard that the fervently religious require from those who are not. I think this is a special challenge for those who want to be truly tolerant. And as for your last sentence, to believe that there are many "truths" most likely requires a flexible definition of the word "truth". I am OK with that flexible definition.
SDK, this really made me think.
1. You could take what you describe as "a natural extension of inclusivism" to such extremes that anyone who disagrees with you on anything is out. Where do you draw the line between inclusivism and out-and-out intolerance?
2. If you only accept in your pluralistic community those who believe there are many equally valid truths, what if they disagree about what those truths are? Is everyone's "truth" equally valid? What about someone who believes something you consider beyond the pale? (For most people, certain things are beyond the pale.) If that person also thinks it's equally valid to disagree with him/her, is that person's "truth" equally valid?
Sorry for the late reply, I was not sure anyone would read my comments.
As for (1) I'm not sure I can answer that because I define myself as a pluralist and not as an inclusivist most of the time.
That said, there are certainly many area where I am not willing to say "your way is just as good as mine". For example, I believe pluralism to be better orientation than inclusivism. 🙂
But just because Ruchi (for example) is not a pluralist, should I be intolerant towards her? Should I malign Orthodox Jews and tell everyone how intolerant they are?
Instead, I say, "This is a wonderful way of life that is deeply meaningful for most of the people who practice it. But yes, it is true that there are some things they cannot really accept. And I feel badly for them, because some of the things they cannot accept cause real pain not just for people outside their community but particularly for people within their community."
(2) In general, pluralists accept varying truths about things that cannot be known. I cannot know whether Yeshu is the Messiah or whether a Hindu myth is true because these things cannot be known. But I can know that murdering widows is wrong. I may accept Hinduism as a valid path to G-d but I do not accept that act as moral.
When I say that I don't accept such people in a pluralist community, I simply mean that I will argue if they present such practices or beliefs.
Most of the time, I am open to others and open to learning from them about what they believe, what they practice. But when someone presents such beliefs, I try to say, as nicely as possible, "How can you do / say / believe that? I do not believe that about G-d."
Everyone who believes in "tolerance" has things they will not tolerate. They would not tolerate lying or theft or murder in the name of religion. So why do they tolerate the belief that everyone in Group A is going to Hell? Or the belief that people from Group B must be stoned?
It can only be, in my opinion, because they do not take religion very seriously. They don't realize, perhaps because they live in America, that believing people should be stoned is actually the first step towards stoning them.
I guess that I don't really understand those who tolerate intolerance. To me, religious pluralism as a system only works if everyone who receives the benefits of pluralism also grants it to others.
believing people should be stoned is actually the first step towards stoning them.
I agree 100%.
Are you saying that if someone believes in capital punishment, even in very limited or extreme cases, it is the first step toward committing murder?
Are you saying that if someone believes in capital punishment, even in very limited or extreme cases, it is the first step toward committing murder?
I think that statement is accurate. It's the first step on a very, very long road, but it's the first step.
One reason why civil capital punishment is not the perfect analogy to religiously motivated capital punishment: If society no longer believes capital punishment is appropriate, the law can be changed. There is no such option with respect to religious law.
But in a sense it has "changed.". There is no Jewish capital punishment today.
How did it get changed?
It was hardly ever enforceable, historically. Only when there was a Sanhedrin (Jewish court) in a centralized community in Israel (maybe only during Temple times?) and the person was warned by two witnesses (who were not related to him or each other) within a small time frame prior to the crime. Then witnesses also had to see the crime committed after the warning. It only applied to premeditated, intentional crimes, and only specific ones.
The saying went that if a court executed someone once every 70 years, it was considered a "bloody court."
It is also said that once in 7 years made for a bloody court.
The Talmud and also much later authorities also talk about courts being given extraordinary powers to convict, flog, and kill people outside of this procedure in times of crisis. In the Talmud see for one example Yevamot 90b:
Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says, “I heard [from my teachers] that a rabbinical court may inflict lashes and [capital] punishment not prescribed by the Torah, not [with the intention to] violate the Torah but to build a fence around it [to protect its laws]. During the period of the Greeks, a person rode a horse on the Sabbath, and they took him to court and stoned him. This was not done because [stoning] was prescribed for it [i.e., for such an offense], but because the times demanded it. There was another case in which a man cohabited with his wife under a fig tree [in a public area]. They took him to court and flogged him, not because [flogging] was the prescribed punishment for it [i.e., for such conduct], but because the times demanded it.
For an example of this from one of the foundations of contemporary Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, see Choshen Mishpat 2:1
Every rabbinical court, even if they are not [Mosaically] ordained and [convening] in the Land of Israel, if they see that the nation unashamedly transgressing the law, and that the times so require, may impose capital punishment, monetary punishment, and all forms of punishment, and even if there is not “complete” evidence.
This is in addition to the parallel system of justice available to a biblical king. Those Religious Zionists who assert that a democratically elected government of the state of Israel has the status of a King have not yet chosen to implement those powers.
Larry, what's your takeaway from all that?
Jewish law is very flexible. There is a realistic possibility of capital punishment being applied in a Jewish society if the society's rulers think it is appropriate. Talking as though the way the death penalty is applied in Tractate Sanhedrin is the only way a Jewish institution may halachically execute someone is false, both as a matter of history and as a matter of halacha. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of discussions I read or have about halachic applications of the death penalty do precisely that.
You write, "There is a realistic possibility of capital punishment being applied in a Jewish society…". Do you think that is true today? Has it ever happened outside of Sanhedrin times?
One more thing. Do you consider the flexibility of Jewish law that you describe a good or bad thing?
The Rosh(1250-1328CE) reports that in Spain the Jewish beit din was granted the power of capital punishment by the rulers, and that this power was used occasionally in preference to having the Jews be executed by a gentile court.
At lunch on Shabbat I discussed the issue with my host. In particular, I talked about executions based on the din (law) of moser (informant.) He said that he didn't think of that as a beit din performing an execution, but rather the beit din gave the man the status of a rodef (one who is pursuing someone in order to kill him) and that allowed anyone in the community to do so. I don't see much difference, and in any event one of my points was that the Jewish community had ways of implementing a capital sentence outside of the methodology described in tractate Sanhedrin.
In general government are not interested in having minorities have the power of life and death over their own, so the chances Jews have had to implement the death penalty have been few.
Do you consider the flexibility of Jewish law that you describe a good or bad thing?
Do you consider the Alps a good thing or a bad thing?
Hmmm … I am not necessarily opposed to capital punishment (Jewish or otherwise), although I agree with the Jewish impulse to limit its application. This is in stark contrast with the state of Texas, for example.
I only meant to say that everyone,from the most open to the most closed, has some lines they will not cross. No one is completely non-judgmental. No one is completely tolerant. The only difference is where we draw the line.
Some people can tolerate more deviation from their personal (or communal) belief or practice. Others can tolerate very little. But even those who tolerate many things have things they will not tolerate. Even the most open-minded person has things they consider harmful, immoral, and wrong.
It is a mistake to judge religious fundamentalists for being "intolerant" because anyone with any kind of value system has things they will not tolerate. You can say that you wish religious fundamentalists would tolerate more things. You can say that you wish they would be less precise about what they will not tolerate. You can say that you yourself prefer to draw different lines. But it is a mistake to label one person as pluralist / tolerant and another as intolerant.
Even those who would embrace the label "pluralist", such as myself, have things we cannot tolerate, things we find too challenging or things we feel the need to place outside our circle of trust. So pluralism is a short-hand for saying that the circle of trust is pretty big and there are many ways of doing things, many ideas, many traditions — different from mine — that I tolerate or even find good. But even the biggest circle of trust or acceptance has an outer limit.
Correct, but that is making a BIG statement. Religious Jews do assume that in the future, there will be a Third Temple, and the laws of the Torah will be carried out in a Jewish theocracy. If you are saying that will not be the case, that is interesting.
(Many religious people would say that in the time of the Third Temple we will understand the law and be able to apply it with crystal clarity. So laws that bother us today will not bother us in the future. That is a convenient way to deal with troublesome laws, and in truth, that approach doesn't bother me, because we all need ways to deal with dissonance in our lives.)
Yes and yes. That is the case.
Rabbi Akiva Tatz makes a startling statement on this topic (referencing another difficult subject, animal sacrifices) in his "Letters to a Buddhist Jew" book on p.191.
"Modern Torah thinkers [I'm curious who] have pointed out that it is not accidental that we who find this area difficult to understand are not asked to fulfill it in practice."
That really resonates with me.
As I implied – I don't object to the pat (easy) answer because it is not disprovable, and it makes it easier for people to deal with things that they personally find objectionable. That is something we all have to do, in so many areas of life, every day.
Are Os really not expected to fulfill the animal sacrifice commandments (whatever they are) in practice?
That feels a wee bit demeaning to me. But I'll deal 🙂
Not meant to be demeaning any more than your suggestion that "if a person keeps shabbos/kosher/lashon hara, and doesn't believe, I'm pretty sure he'll get rewarded for all the good deeds he's doing anyway" was meant to be demeaning. I think we (you and I) are doing a pretty good job of being respectful to each other, despite our different views.
But if I demeaned you, I apologize.
I agree that we are. I know that some things I write here are taken to be demeaning although it's the furthest thing from my intention. And people are usually comfortable letting me know when I do that and while I feel awful, it's good for me to know. So I also want to let others know when that happens. No need to apologize. I'm consistently amazed at your restraint here, considering, as you put it, our different views.
Well, I live in a community where most people believe exactly what you believe, so I often have to exercise restraint even in my own environment. (However, I am definitely less involved with the community socially than I used to be. That is partly due to my change in beliefs, but also due to other factors.)
Your blog attracts a variety of commenters, and I enjoy all the diversity of viewpoints. My own community mostly lacks this kind of diversity.
I'm curious as to your thoughts on the quote from Rabbi Gideon Rothstein:
We can see this in ourselves if we consider how we react to sins for which the Torah prescribes the death penalty or karet, Divinely administered excision. How many Jews today truly believe, deep inside themselves, that if a person violated Shabbat (such as by carrying in a public place or planting some seeds in the ground), or cursed a parent, or committed adultery, with witnesses supplying the proper warning, that that person deserves death?
My question, let me stress, isn’t whether we could or should find a technical way to administer the penalty (or avoid it), my question is—especially when there’s no way we’d administer that punishment– how many of us accept that one such act, done with full intent and awareness, deserves such a penalty?
In my experience, true believers might have a difficult time accepting that a violator incurring the death penalty actually deserves to die — BUT those same true believers view this lack of acceptance as a personal flaw. If they could really internalize the mitzvos of the Torah, they would understand and accept that the act deserves the death penalty. If they were on a high enough level, etc., etc.
I think that's what Rabbi Rothstein – from what I've seen of his writings – is trying to get across, that people are, nebech, not on a high enough level to really feel what the Torah wants them to.
(I realize when I use the phrase "true believers" it might sound condescending, but it isn't meant to. I can't think of another phrase to convey the same meaning. Saying "frum people" and saying "true believers" isn't really the same thing. I preemptively apologize to anyone who might be offended, and if anyone wants to offer a different term, I will use it).
I didn't know Jews were allowed or advised by Torah to ever kill each other, even with witnesses and warnings, et al. What about the supposed metaphysical value of the Jewish soul?
Seriously, SBW, you never heard of stoning? Didn't you ever see "Life of Brian"?
Actually no, I never did see "Life of Brian"! I just never found that Monty Python stuff funny, except the philosophers' football game I've seen on YouTube.
Does anyone get stoned (oops) in the Hebrew Bible? I know Jesus said the thing about casting the first stone, but I didn't know it was a Jewish thing from the Hebrew Bible.
People are stoned in the Torah for blasphemy and for violating the Sabbath, In both those cases the people did not initiate the stoning, rather they imprisoned the criminals and asked Hashem what should be done, and in both cases Hashem ordered that the people stone them.
But there are other modes of inflicting the death penalty besides stoning. We used to sing "skila, sraifa, hereg va'chenek*"
(stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling) to the tune of "gila, rina, ditza va'chedva" (a wedding song)… Catchy.
*stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling
And there's always wikipedia for more info:
My understanding is that karet is death before your allotted time, since karet is usually the punishment for secret sins that cannot be known to others. I see this (sorry, historicism here) as a way to impose moral law without all the difficulty that would come with trying to implement human law in these areas. It is a way to make laws binding even when they cannot be imposed from the outside.
Certainly, though, if G-d forbid a righteous person dies early from illness, I have never heard any religious Jew suggest, even in the most indirect fashion, that this might be a punishment (karet).
When you sin and do things that go against your understanding of what G-d wants or your understanding of correct behavior, I do think that you feel alienated from G-d. To me, this is a concrete feeling that I have certainly experienced. Karet is one way to explain this feeling. But fortunately, even for sins of karet, there is repentance.
I think much of this difficulty comes from the following situation. Ultimately, it is difficult/impossible in the scientific sense to prove that G-d gave the Torah to Moshe at Mount Sinai. To explain in Popperian philosophical terms, Moshe received the Torah at Mount Sinai is a conjecture, now I can either refute or find evidence consistent with that position. My point here is not to find evidence for either side of the debate but to say that at some point one must have Emunah not science or fact backing them up.
In my view this is then why pluralism from a Conservative Judaism perspective works. I cannot prove to an Orthodox Jew that Har Sinai did not happen and and Orthodox Jew cannot prove to someone else that it did. (Again speaking purely rationally and scientifically). Thus, if someone chooses to believe that Har Sinai happened as described by the Torah and Talmud etc and this leads them to follow an Orthodox life Conservative Judaism doesnt dispute you. If on the other hand, someone chooses to believe that Har Sinai did not happen but Moshe spoke some to G-d and we have partial transmission of this document and thus we behave in whatever way based on this we cant dispute this either.
Where it gets tricky is what exactly are the limits of what one must believe is fact before they are out of the pale of course. Marc Shapiro a great scholar of the Rambam has an excellent work on the 13 principles of faith and why although today we behave as if they are absolutes that was not always true.
What you're describing is uncertainty about the truth, not multiple truths. That is totally understandable. Other people here have been saying that multiple contradictory things are all true. That's very different.