Friday, October 29, 2010

The Joy of Talmudic Minutiae

[Child with Lulav by Isidor Kaufmann]

One of my fellow bloggers wrote an article, in which he comments:

I'm pretty sure I don't have the personality type to find such absurd rules [certain minor Talmudic customs] meaningful even if I did believe in God. ("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.)

What he seems to be saying is that if religious rules are not clearly spiritual, relating to belief for example, then they are absurd. Laws about diet, dress, etc. are unnecessary and even sacrilegious. This attitude is a basic part of modern American Protestantism, and therefore it isn’t surprising that someone raised in American society might feel this way.

One could look at this from a different perspective, however.

First of all, all pre-modern religions tended to be legalistic. Muslims have Sharia. The Catholic Church has Canon Law. The Hindus have a caste system.

Judaism, however, may be the most extremely legalistic. We revel in Talmudic law. The greater an expert a young man was in the fine points of almost totally irrelevant Talmudic laws, the greater a hero he was in the Eastern European shtetl and the more prized he was as a husband. This is still true in many ultra-Orthodox circles. Can one imagine even the most law abiding American citizen fanatically pushing his children to become experts in all of American law, even the most rarely, marginally applicable details? I think it could be correct to call traditional Jews not merely legalistic but hyper-legalistic.

The reasoning seems to be as follows. We see each additional law as being an additional sign of God’s love for us. The Mishnah Tractate Makkos 3:16 states “God wished to increase the Jews’ merits, therefore He increased the number of their commandments.” God in His great love for us wants our entire lives to be dedicated to serving Him and increasing His glory. Therefore He has created the huge body of Torah law to make it possible for us to do just that. In the blessings which we say before the Shema each morning and evening, we ecstatically praise God for the great love He has shown us by choosing us and teaching us His laws. We beg Him to help us understand and observe those laws. We see this as the highest honor; the exact opposite of absurdity.This is a life dedicated to the service of God and therefore eternally, cosmically important.

The absurd life is the life of an atheist, unfortunately. He eats so that has strength to work. He works so that he has food to eat. He continues this cycle until his body no long functions, then his remains may be thrown into a dumpster. A life lived like that is truly illogical and nonsensical. Absurd, in other words.


MC said...

I hear your point. You won't convince most people, however, who find the thought of having every second of the day regulated by halachic minutae unpleasant, of the correctness of your argument. The thought of living such a life is so unpleasant to them that they will denounce such as way of life as false based on such feelings alone.

Naturally, Judaism isn't really the equivalent of putting on a strait jacket. In fact, for many, its the happiest, most fulfilling approach to living. Additionally, various things are not really legislated, but a matter of local custom, or even superstition.

Regarding Torah study: apart from the fact that there are plenty of "spiritual" writings in Judaism, the shakla v'tarya of Talmudic learning, for those privileged with sufficient competence to truly engage in it, offers its own unique pleasures and advantages (not the least of which is the honing of one's intellect), that go beyond the superficial text, and the immediate relevance, to one's personal life, of the topic being discussed. Unfortunately this level of learning is not accessible to all, and for that reason I think it's a mistake for yeshivos to focus exclusively on gemara, as one often either "gets it" and develops a passion for Torah learning, or doesn't, and hates it.

Additionally, many people WOULD find it more satisfying to discuss life's more meaningful questions, rather than always focusing on halachic minutae or lombdus. These feelings should not be suppressed. The gemara, in avodah zara, states that a person should learn those areas of Torah that their heart desires. Truthfully, that's probably good practical advice for learning many secular subjects as well (as long as you're ultimately able to pay the bills).

jewish philosopher said...

The most important question for a Jew is: what exactly does God want me to do, say and think? Once that, the Halacha, is fully understood, one can move on to theology - Kabbalah.

MC said...

"The most important question for a Jew is: what exactly does God want me to do, say and think? Once that, the Halacha, is fully understood, one can move on to theology - Kabbalah."

You're partially correct. All of one's thoughts are not legislated by halachah. There are variant outlooks and hashkafos regarding any number of things that one is hard pressed to apply a psak to.

Theology encompasses more than "kabbalah." The Chovos Halevavos did not write a kabbalah sefer, but strongly advocated incorporating broader theologic thinking into one's learning seder. Many of the standard mussar literature learned in yeshivos cannot properly be called "kabbalah." They serve an essential role in imparting yiras shamayim, however, to many, and therefore have a rightful place alongside halachic seforim.

Anonymous said...

When my children make me a present or a card for my birthday, they make sure to fill it with detail, and to make sure everything is right. Getting every detail just so is doen as a displayof love. When I buy my wife flowers or a present, I take my time to find the perfect bouquet, or piece of jewelry, or just a little tchochek, because that shows love. Same thing with the minutia of halacha.

Anonymous said...

That's a dopey comparison. You're love for your wife may be manifested in what, in your consideration, is detailed perfection. A different person's evaluation might be considered gaudy trinkets.
The talmud's minutiae can be treated with similar evaluations. You call it perfect but I call it baloney. And since you can establish no rational authority to render the talmud as irrefutable, I along with 90% of all Jews dismiss the talmud as no more than historical curiosity. Nice to peruse but hardly an undisputed arbiter of god's dominion.

jewish philosopher said...

"you can establish no rational authority to render the talmud as irrefutable"

Sure I can.

"I along with 90% of all Jews dismiss the talmud"

Logical fallicy.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous at 1:17

Why is it dopey? I show my live for my wife by paying attention to the details. My kids make stuff out of paper that has no intrinsic value, but the effort and intention make it precious to me. The attention they pay to all the details shows their love, and I value it even more.

Anonymous said...

++Sure I can.

Only in your dreams.

++Logical fallicy. ++

Only fallacious if the veracity of the proposition is based solely on an appeal. Here, the proposition that the Talmud is mostly fanatasy appeals to reason, a construct that is alien to to talmudic discourse and charieidim also. That is why 90% of Jews dismiss the talmud as no more than a historical curiosity and certainly never legal doctrine.

jewish philosopher said...

"the proposition that the Talmud is mostly fanatasy appeals to reason"

Reason which in reality is just your wishful thinking, another logical fallicy.

Joseph said...

One way to look at this is that there's increasing evidence that minimal religion doesn't work. It's necessary to either complicate the law or complicate the theology. Judaism has chosen the former and most of Christianity the latter.

NC said...

Its all just anthropomorphism.
Doesn't it make the idea of god look petty when you say that adorning and appeasing god with all kinds of trinkets and details makes him happy? What kind of "love" does god feel when people inspect their lulavs for bent tips?
Its a ridiculous idea.

jewish philosopher said...

God in His great love for us wants our entire lives to be dedicated to serving Him and increasing His glory. Therefore He has created the huge body of Torah law to make it possible for us to do just that.

Anonymous said...


Your righ tnow commiting the logical falisy of arguemnt from incredulity. Even if G-d doesn't need it, it still shows love, so its the right thing to do. I don't need all the paper and glitter stuff my children make. Most if it is really pretty useless. But I love them because it shows love.

NC said...

Argument from incredulity is not the same as simply asserting that something is absurd or illogical. So claiming that a supposedly omniscient, eternal and omnipotent being behaves like and must be treated like a human dictator or king is illogical and unlikely. Furthermore, those claiming that such is the case have the burden of proof.

jewish philosopher said...

"So claiming that a supposedly omniscient, eternal and omnipotent being behaves like and must be treated like a human dictator or king is illogical and unlikely."

How would you know? Like you've met a lot of other Gods and they never did that?

Let's say an incredibly powerful and intelligent alien being made of dark energy were to take over earth tomorrow and he were to go on TV and radio and announce that all people must follow his rules or get zapped by laser beams. And actually his rules seemed to generally make a lot of sense - live an honest, chaste, kind, sober, peaceful life. He might just demand the extermination of a few countries like North Korea or Iran which are just too far gone. Would you just kick back and say "That's really unlikely. It's a hoax of some kind. No space alien superintelligence would do this."

NC said...

1. The claim at the end of your post of the "absurdity" of the atheist life is a much better example of argument from incredulity. Because a lack of diety and divine purpose is depressing to you, it is absurd and illogical and you therefore reject it.

2. In contrast, the idea of the omniscient and good god is self contradictory (because of the inherent evil in the world) and because it is unlikely that such a diety would create everything while paying attention to only 0.2% of the world's population and ignoring everybody else. It is inherently illogical.

jewish philosopher said...

If you click on the link to "absurd", you'll see that in philosophy, "The Absurd" refers to the conflict between the human tendency to seek inherent meaning in life and the human inability to find any. This is the atheist's dillema.

As far as the Jewish concept of God goes, I don't see the problem with it. It sounds as good as any other, certainly better than the atheistic nonsense about a mindless watchmaker.

Anonymous said...


What basis do you have for saying that G-d behaving any way is unlikely and illogical? Just declating it illogical doesn't make it so.

And I keep on saying that whether G-d needs it or not is untimatly irellevant. We do it to show our love.

Anonymous said...

And that is the fundamental problem with Judaism. Jewish "ethics" are not based on ethical principles but strict rules. Moral is whatever your demonic desert deity wants, evil is what goes against the wishes of your demonic desert deity.

Judaism is fundamentally a legalism, where halachic minutiae (your word) trump general principles. This means that following the letter of the law becomes important than following the spirit of the law. It is thus natural for the Jew to look for loopholes. This is probably why Jews have been so amoral historically. For the Jew morality as such is irrelevant.

Speaking of which, seeing as you have no prospects for employment JP, why not take up a traditional occupation of your people such as usury or peddling? I imagine you would be very good at jewing, so anything involving banks or scams that are technically legal would make a great source of income for you and your family!

jewish philosopher said...

Without precise and detailed definitions, laws have no meaning. Ask and lawyer.

Lord of the Shire said...

Ah! True that may be, but you miss the point entirely. The problem is, Judaism is a primitive rule-based religion. It is all a matter of 613 mitzvot (though many if not most are no longer relevant, though plenty of new rules have been invented). It is important that a law is precisely defined and as unambiguous as possible (though there are practical limitations on the possibility of this, hence why there are so many lawyers), but the problem is when you base your "morality" on an arbitrary list of rules. The Abrahamic religions are heavily rule based whereas, the Dharmic religions are principle-based. (Christianity is a lot more principle-based and less rule-based than the others.) The latter religious traditions start with abstract principles such as non-violence and honesty and extract a code of conduct from such values. The Jew, on the other hand, has a law code he must follow, but is left with abstracting vague ethical principles from such rulings, but no actual values as such.

For example, there are commandments against stealing and "bearing false witness against one's neighbor" but no general requirement to be honest. You are thus stuck with a hard-to-follow list of hundreds of rules but with the opportunity to exploit loopholes. Think about it, if the Jews were always such a moral people would they really have been so hated? No!

You have claim that the "amazing honesty" of the Old Testament is evidence for the truth of Judaism, but that could mean that the Jews are honest, or simply morally depraved. You have Jacob the Swindler (after whom you named yourself), Samson the Suicide Bomber (after whom you named your son), and Solomon the Whore-Mongering Rapist (and his hundreds of wives/concubines/sex slaves).

I have a helpful suggestion: continue studying Torah to find loopholes that may allow you to behave unethically in business. Then consider a profitable scam traditional for your people such as a peddler, usurer, or organ trafficker, or else you can make and sell fake diplomas. Make sure to find loopholes in the secular law, or at least ways of evading them consistent with halacha. There appears to be a high demand for both higher education and Goy organs!

If that fails you can continue being a welfare queen leeching off the taxpayers of New York State and the United States, just like your fellow Haredi parasites in Israel.

Anonymous said...

The Torah does say "Love your Neighbor as yourself," "Do not oppress,""Justice, justice you will pursue." This is just off the top of my head. That sounds pretty priniple based to me.