Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Judaism and the Celebration of Legalism

90,000 Orthodox Jews celebrate Talmud study at MetLife Stadium 8/1/2012
An atheist, formerly orthodox Jewish, blogger 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 any religious rules should be short and general, such as the Golden Rule. Laws about diet, dress, sex, 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.

43 comments:

Anonymous said...

What we have now is good for some, but Judaism suffers by expecting every man to come to terms with a life of legalistic details and study.

Judaism is such a small religion. So many leave, even orthodox people leave.

It sucks to be someone on the inside who can’t stand it. How about a little effort to understand him?

jewish philosopher said...

The only thing I can suggest is that you really, sincerely pray and ask God for help. He will help you.

ksil said...

the worship and OCD in regards to halacah is Avodah Zarah

mamish.

orthodox rabbinic jews do not worship a god, they bow and pray to their holy (LOL) legalism

have fun burning in hell! at least i was never ovdei avodah zarah

ROTFL

Ironmistress said...

Is the law stated for the human being or is the human being stated for the law?

Law is a good tool but a bad foreman. We know what happens when a society embraces a religious law, namely sharia - the whole society ossifies and transforms into a Bronze Age culture.

I have done my fair share of jurisprudence and judicial issues, and the Romano-German jurisprudence is the most familiar for me. Instead of the Anglo-Saxon system where written law and prejudicates do have a binding power, the Romano-German system considers the underlying judicial principles more important than the written law text.

But following a strict codex can do wonders to one's self-discipline. And self-discipline is the basis of all virtue.

jewish philosopher said...

I think that any practical, working legal system has to be very complex because life is very complex. Every society has lawyers who are paid to assist other people to navigate the nation's legal system. In Judaism, every man should ideally be a lawyer.

Dave said...

Halacha is a dead legal system.

This is because it has
(a) no effective enforcement mechanism
(b) no legislative ability. (now or in the forseeable future)

Imagine a civil legal system whereby any law put in place hundreds or thousands of years ago could never be changed, and that the only change that can be made is ADDING new laws or applying old laws to new situations. Then imagine that there is no specified earthly enforcement, either, so the vast majority of people ignore the laws.

Laws would still be on the books that punish people for harboring an escaped slave, or outlawing women from voting or testifying in court. And the laws would be ignored.

[I am aware that some states and cities still have some dumb laws on the books but they are pretty much ignored]

The is why Judaism in a sense is a failed religion. After the Talmud period it lost the ability to legislate. It was supplanted by other religions who stole some of the good ideas and "improved" upon them, making their religions more applicable (and palatable) to more people. So while Jews were a sizable proportion of the Near East population a few thousand years ago, it has dwindled down to a miniscule minority.

I know you think enforcement comes in the afterlife, but clearly this is not an "effective enforcement mechanism", as evidence by the massive lack of compliance.

jewish philosopher said...

Due to our exile and dispersion, the rabbinical courts currently have no law enforcement officers, which proves nothing about whether the Talmud is a good thing or not. Weight Watchers also possesses no law enforcement officers. That doesn't prove that being slim is a bad thing.

Creating new laws often has unintended consequences. Think about Prohibition for example. 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prohibition_in_the_United_States

There are many Americans who believe that the endless creation of new laws is a catastrophe.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Party_(United_States)

Therefore, in their great humility and recognition of their relatively low scholarly level, rabbis have pretty much refrained from legislating since about 500 CE. This is an indication of remarkable, perhaps unique, caution and self restraint.

The orthodox Jewish population has probably been pretty stable from the beginning, as far as anyone knows.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Jewish_population_comparisons

Dave said...

" which proves nothing about whether the Talmud is a good thing or not. "

The question is not whether it is good or not. The question is if it is morally or legally viable, or obligating in any way. Weight watchers make no claim to moral superiority or to be an ethical cause.

A so-called legal system that includes no mechanism of for its own enforcement or for legislative change is doomed to become obsolete and irrelevant. Which is what has happened. It makes no difference WHY it can't enforce itself or allow for legislation. (whether exile, or the silly idea that "the generations are getting weaker" etc.)

"There are many Americans who believe that the endless creation of new laws is a catastrophe."

It is Judaism that continues to create endless new laws, which can never be cancelled! You strengthen my point. In democracies laws can be cancelled or changed. Even in other religions there is a supreme body that allows change. In contrast, in Rabbinic Judaism there are tons of decrees that were issued for various reasons (valid or not) which no longer exist. (like not taking medicines on Shabbat, kitniyot or chalav yisrael). And nobody today can or is willing to cancel them.


jewish philosopher said...

So like for example Weight Watchers, Judaism is a superior way of life and if you choose not to do it you won't go to jail; you will suffer other terrible consequences.

In 30 CE capital punishment was abolished.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_and_capital_punishment#Judaism

In recent centuries polygamy has been abolished in most Jewish communities.

http://www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/04-Observance/section-55.html

However in their great humility and recognition of their relatively lowly scholarly stature, rabbis don't author new laws or cancel old ones on a daily basis. If they did, then I'm sure you would be pointing out how unstable Judaism is and how it is obviously a man-made religion because it adapts to every new fashion. Like Christian denominations who condemned homosexuality for 2,000 years but have now miraculously decided it's permissible coincidentally just when homosexuals became politically influential.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT-affirming_Christian_denominations#Denominations

Dave said...

And just like weight watchers, judaism, is a tool among many others.

jewish philosopher said...

It's the health regime for the Jewish soul.

Ironmistress said...

In the Romano-German jurisprudence the underlying legal principles and the judicial goods are more important than the written text. When interpreting the law, the lawyers asks: What did the lawgiver exactly have on his mind when he codified his thoughts into chapters?

What is the law aimed to maintain?
What is the law aimed to prevent?
Who is the sufferer in the case of transgression?
Which judicial goods are to be guarded?
Which judicial norms are involved?

The same questions which apply on interpreting the secular law also do apply on the divine law. What did God have on his mind when He codified His thoughts into chapters? Which judicial goods are involved and which principles?

We may safely assume that a) God is not arbitrary and b) God is omnibenevolent. Ergo, there is always some underlying reason on each command and a rationale. No chapter is to be taken at face value and if something doesn't make sense, it can be considered a dead chapter and dismissed.

The divine law is to be interpreted this respect.

Let's say Sharia commands to hack off the arm of a thief. That made sense in the Bronze Age, but no more today. Yet there is an underlying judicial principle: punishments are to be aimed to prevent thefts beforehand. In the Bronze Age the method was maiming the thief to be physically unable to steal. In the Modern Age the solution would be something more humane - such as wearing a radio ankle bracelet or imprisonment.

Likewise, the first and foremost question should be: what are the underlying principles and what do those principles mean to modern day reader - that is: how would those principles be applied today; how would the Lawgiver state the law if he lived today.

Mere blind obedience has never made anyone righteous. Nor has the sheer multitude of laws - it only makes life difficult. The Golden Middle between laws and freedoms is again the best.

Ironmistress said...

new laws or cancel old ones on a daily basis. If they did, then I'm sure you would be pointing out how unstable Judaism is and how it is obviously a man-made religion because it adapts to every new fashion.

The opposite of "unstable" is not "stable".

It is "ossified".

A society which refuses to renew laws or their interpretations according to the time and the cultural frame is certain to get ossified.

The big question is: how can we find a balance between being unstable and ossified? So that the denomination can adapt to ever-changing world without neither becoming a wind vane nor a relic of the past.

Like Christian denominations who condemned homosexuality for 2,000 years but have now miraculously decided it's permissible coincidentally just when homosexuals became politically influential.

Promiscuous lifestyle is today just as much a sin as 2000 years ago.

Homosexuality is OK as long as you follow the same requirements as have been stated to heterosexual life partners (= love your SO like yourself, be true to him/her and do not cheat and do not violate against the ten commandments). Monogamous lifestyle is required on both straight and gay couples.

But if you do transgress, it doesn't matter if you are straight or gay - you are sinner anyway. No Christian denomination has ever approved promiscuous lifestyle or adultery - no matter if straight or gay.

It is the underlying judicial principles which matter here more than the written law.

Anonymous said...

Hey JP, did you here about this one?

https://www.facebook.com/events/102259159930822/106431706180234/?notif_t=plan_mall_activity

jewish philosopher said...

"Homosexuality is OK as long as you follow the same requirements as have been stated to heterosexual life partners"

And isn't interesting how no priest or minister ever realized that until homosexuals became politically influential? What a remarkable coincidence.

JRKmommy said...

Iron Mistress:

Interesting about Romano-German law. In some ways, Judaism has more in common with the Anglo common law tradition, where original intent of the lawmaker doesn't really matter, and the words themselves take on a life of their own and assume the meaning given to them by judges.

As for legalism in general, I like to compare it to a blueprint. If you just read the blueprints, and you aren't an architect, your eyes may glaze over and you can't really appreciate the full beauty of the fully-constructed building. OTOH, if you don't pay attention to the details in the blueprints, the building falls down.

Jeff said...

"And isn't interesting how no priest or minister ever realized that until homosexuals became politically influential?"

They became politically influential only because society and political thought changed and allowed them to be so. You are mixing up cause and effect.

The same with women's rights and other types of equality.

Back to the ossified issue. Here is another good example: Niddah. Let's say that the original Torah prohibition paralleled the taboos surrounding menstrual blood present in many cultures. And I'll also concede that there is perhaps some positive health and social benefit in the custom.

However, the original Torah prohibition for Nidda was for 7days only. No requirement for 12 days minimum, including "7 clean days". This longer prohibition was for "zava", non-menstrual blood flow. However, at a later time the rabbis decided that its too difficult to distinguish the two, so they eliminated the Torah distinction by considering everything zava. This basically caused women to be prohibited from their wives for almost half of her monthly cycle.

Today, of course, we know what the source of blood flow is and what is menstrual or non-menstrual. But the rabbis essentially stated that the Torah law is not practiceable and thus coerced a severity in law. This decision to require a minimum of 12 days of abstinence, not only causes unnecessary sexual tension, but results in untold (but silent) suffering for couples where the wife has menstrual irregularities or fertility problems.

http://www.yoatzot.org/article.php?id=77

And no rabbi alive today can change this rabbinic decree.

This is called ossification. And it probably causes many women to reject observance.

jewish philosopher said...

Liberal clergy in western countries jumped on the gay rights bandwagon in order to be politically correct. If orthodox rabbis similarly modify orthodoxy it would be called "reformed" not "orthodox" Judaism.

No one is prevented from having children due to niddah. Medications can easily modify ovulation dates.

Dave said...

"No one is prevented from having children due to niddah. Medications can easily modify ovulation dates."

So a halachic system relies on medications that have been around for just 50 years?

jewish philosopher said...

Maybe some of these problems have been around only the past 50 years. Who knows what all the additives, hormones, chemicals etc in our food are doing.

Ironmistress said...

JRKMommy: There is also a principle in Romano-German jurisprudence which does not exist in the Anglo-Saxon system, and it is prohibition of chicane: a law must not be used to cause harm or damage to anyone. For example erecting a spite fence, while technically legal, is prohibited in the countries of Romano-German jurisprudence because of the prohibition of chicane: while it is legal to erect construction on one's land, the intention to cause harm to the neighbour makes it illegal.

The example of Nidda would be another example of using the law to cause harm, in this time to the woman and her husband. While I can well understand the prohibition of sex while menstruating (it is plain GROSS and unhygienic!) making the law unnecessarily strict is against the prohibition of chicane - the law is used to make life difficult. That is both against to the spirit of the law (to prevent husband abusing her wife while she has periods and to prevent diseases from spreading in the era when hygienic standards were low) and against the intention of the lawgiver (to protect the woman and her intimacy).

But we women do also have sexual drive, and extending the celibate period unnecessarily is effectively causing unnecessary harm and making life difficult. That is against the prohibition of chicane.

The big question is: What would God say to today's person? What would the interpretation be today? Certainly we do not live in the semi-nomadic society as 3000 years ago, but the judicial principles behind the written text - "do not abuse a woman while she has her periods" and "do not spread diseases by practising unhygienic sex" still do apply today.

That is the big question.

Ironmistress said...

Liberal clergy in western countries jumped on the gay rights bandwagon in order to be politically correct. If orthodox rabbis similarly modify orthodoxy it would be called "reformed" not "orthodox" Judaism.a

I beg to disagree. The change on being tolerant towards gays was more to do on development of medicine and psychology rather than political correctness. Homosexualism was understood to be rather an anomaly than a lecherous and destructive lifestyle choice.

If we assume God is Love (and queer people are His children too), and if we assume homosexualism has somatic causes and is not a lifestyle choice, then intolerance on homosexuals, let alone their persecution, is against the principle of tolerance of different people. After all, homosexualism was removed fron secular jurisprudence as it was a victimless crime.

But lechery is still sin. Especially grave sins are rape (forcing anyone to sexual intercourse with violence or threat of it), ritual lechery (idolatry combined with ritual sex), promiscuity (basically extended adultery) and adultery (violation of Ten Commandments). Condoning homosexualism does not mean condoning promiscuous and lecherous lifestyle and especially it does not condone adultery.

Traditionally in Scandinavia homosexualism has been considered a lesser transgression than zoophilia and sex with animals. For apparent reasons.

jewish philosopher said...

Correct if I'm wrong, however I would assume that 200 years ago sodomy was a death penalty in the place where you now live.

Ironmistress said...

If you mean zoophilia by "sodomy", yes, it was.

The rationale was the fear of chimaerae, that the sex with animals would lead into man-beast-mix-ups which would be sheer abominations.

If you imply homosexualism by "sodomy", the case is more complicated. While homosexualism used to be a capital crime as well, in practice only homosexual rape led to execution. Oftentimes homosexual men were considered to be mentally ill and confined to madhouses instead of beheading.

While homosexualism is a victimless crime, zoophilia isn't. It is always a rape and cruelty on an animal.

Interestingly, Islamic jurisprudence condones bestiality but considers homosexuality as a capital crime. The big question is "why?"

Anonymous said...

JP:

OJ will slowly back away from vilifying gays, in the same way young OJers are less likely to harbor strong racial prejudice than older generations.

It’s not the same thing – there is no halachic tolerance for race hatred, and there is a halachic problem with gays – but the final result with gays will be “hate the sin, love the sinner, and you know what? Don’t even ask about the sin.”


Tuvia

Anonymous said...

Ohilosophers such as Epicureus and thinkers/poets such as Lucretius can hardly have their views of life considered "absurd." They lived exemplary lives of learning, moderation, and mindfulness. They feared no afterlife and had no concern for the opinions of gods.

jewish philosopher said...

We originated the prohibition against sodomy. The ancient world had no problem with wealthy powerful men having young male lovers. Greek love didn't seem to influence the rabbis too much then. Of course it may have influenced Hellinizing Jews, but like all traitors they were soon gone.

Dave said...

"We originated the prohibition against sodomy."

How do you know that?

I suspect that like most Torah laws, it was either copied from some other code, or represented a political rejection of the religious practices of native peoples.

"Maybe some of these problems have been around only the past 50 years."

I suppose we can guess anything we want. The theological problem nonetheless remains. Numerous other examples exist, like "metzitza"-- the primative custom whereby the mohel puts his mouth and sucks on an open penile wound. Clearly contrary to basic modern hygiene. Yet know Heredi rabbi can "cancel" this law. (even though some progressives have worked around it)

I don't know if Reform or Conservative have the answers, either. They clearly have their own problems. But at least the Conservatives have a halachic body that can legislate change, when needed.

I know you like to bask in triumphalism regarding the brilliant successes of orthodoxy, but it rings pretty hollow when you realize that after 3500 years of existence of the religion, there are only a few million believing Jews in the world. Most would consider this a failed project, considering human reproductive rates and the successes of other religions.

Not exactly something to brag about.

jewish philosopher said...

People who believe that the Torah is bogus naturally assume it was derived from earlier religions, although there is really no evidence of that.

The number of Americans who lead sober, health conscious lives is probably no more than a few perecent. It looks like health is a failed project; let's all cancel the gym membership and go dig in at McDonald's

Ironmistress said...

We originated the prohibition against sodomy. The ancient world had no problem with wealthy powerful men having young male lovers.

I would personally call "wealthy powerful men having young male lovers" as adultery combined with child abuse.

In this respect it really doesn't matter if those young lovers were boys or girls, but abusing boys makes it even more despicable.

The rationale is that most males are heterosexual and being abused by a man can cause really dire psychological troubles.

jewish philosopher said...

I won't argue with that, however sex with very young boys is definitely a major part of homosexual culture, in both the ancient and modern worlds.

Oscar Wilde is regarded as a pioneer in modern Western homosexuality. 

http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/atlarge/2011/08/08/110808crat_atlarge_ross

Note his experience in Algiers with a 12 year old boy.

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v23/n08/colm-toibin/love-in-a-dark-time

natschuster said...

Dave:

How many religions and cultures have survived at all for 3500 centuries?

Ironmistress said...

I won't argue with that, however sex with very young boys is definitely a major part of homosexual culture, in both the ancient and modern worlds.

And that constitutes still both adultery and abuse. Being homosexual is no "get free out of the jail" card and licence to do whatever you please.

Being tolerant to homosexualism does not mean being tolerant to lecherous, promiscuous and abusive lifestyle. It is like if sexuality was some meat market where only weight, appearance and "best before" date means anything.

I do not advocate shooting gays, but I certainly do not condone any promiscuous lifestyle either.

Ironmistress said...

Umm... Hinduism? (ducking for cover)

Dave said...

Nat:

I assume you meant 35 centuries.

The Chinese. The Indians. Australia's Aborigines. Etc Etc.

Anyway, why do you ask?

The point is this: How do you define successful? Survival? Population? Converts? Money? Nationalistic acheivements (Zionism?)? Military power?

I don't mean to demean the acheivements of the Jewish people. What I refer to is JP's gloating about Orthodoxy.


ksil said...

nat, so becasue uneducated, easily persudable, brainwashed from birth, threatened people believe something all those years, it is true? (people threatened till this day! but education is more available today, so i expect things to change dramatically - baruch hashem)


natschuster said...

I understand that the Chinese culture has evolved over the centuries to the extent that it doesn't resemble ancient Chinese all that much. Same thing with Hinduism. I don't know if it it possible to determine what preliterate cultures believed long ago.

My point is that it seems that it is human nature to for cultures to change over the centuries. The one exception seems to be Judaism. So Judaism seems to be unnatural. Or maybe I should say supernatural. Its just more evidence for the truth of Judaism.

Ksil

I'm nt sure I would consider all the Great Rabbis of the past uneducated. And Jews area stiff necked people. We aren't easily pursuadible. And we aren't all that easy to threaten. Lots of people threatened us with death and other stuff if we didn't convert. Lots of Jews went to their deaths rather than convert.

Dave said...

Nat..

Judaism hasn't changed? Are you out of your mind?

A biblical Hebrew would not recognize modern rabbinic Judaism any more than an ancient Zorastrian. (As evidence for this look at the Ethiopian Jews who arrived in Israel)

No temple, no sacrifices, no priests, the writing is different (unlike Chinese), no prophets, and a Talmud that they would not understand full of laws they have never heard of.

Unchanged????

jewish philosopher said...

Judaism changes, the Torah doesn't.

http://www.torahphilosophy.com/2009/05/eternal-torah.html

Interestingly, however, a rabbinical Jew pulled off the street of Palestine 2,000 years ago could walk into an orthodox synagogue in Brooklyn today and probably participate in the services without much difficulty. Can any other religion make that claim?

Remember your own religion, atheism, was only founded in 1859. Let's see how long it lasts!

natschuster said...

Dave:

The core belief system of Judaism has not changed. The basic practices have not changed. We still believe in the Temple and sacrifices. We don't practice them because we can't. Most of the changes made by the Rabbi's were additions meant to keep the practice of Judaism the same. A Jew in biblical times would recognize Shabbos, Kashrus, Yom Tov, Tzedaka, Chesed, etc. And the characters Hebrew is written in were changes for a specific reason. And it is very likely that it is the Judaism of the Ethiopian Jews that changed. After all, a small isolated community is more likely to change than the mainstream.

natschuster said...

According to Wikipedia, Chinese writing underwent a long period of evolution from the Shang Dynasty to the Han dynasty, so I'm not sure that Chines writing has been around unchanged as long as
Hebrew has.

B.BarNavi said...

A Jewish way of life that is too focused on legalistic games for practical life is scarcely Jewish. Classical Judaism valued having a job over constant study. GB2Lakewood - no, GB2Mea Shearim.

jewish philosopher said...

You can have a job, study the laws and follow the laws. It's not contradiction.