Sunday, 18 August 2013

Reattaching Reason To Ritual

Over the last while we've seen repeated posts at Morethodoxy and Cross-Currents dealing with both the recent Rabbi Farber essay on the Documentary Hypothesis (DH) and the ongoing struggle in Israel between the Chareidi community and the government issue over the impending draft and implementation of a real curriculum in Chareidi schools.  While the two subjects don't seem very connected it seems to me that there is something deep that unites them and explains what is so wrong with Orthodoxy today.
Let's look at Rabbi Farber first.  Ever since he published a piece at along with an unrepentant follow up piece in which he embraced the DH over Torah MiSinai (TMS) as his preferred explanation for the origin of our holiest book Morethodoxy has been posting essays which debate the issue back and forth.  Is the DH legitimate?  Is TMS a viable opinion?
There are two problems with this whole discussion.  First of all, in a real debate both opponents enter with the goal of convincing the other side or at least a substantial part of the audience that their position is correct.  If both sides prefaced the debate with the statement "And we don't care what you say, we're not changing your mind" it would not be a genuine debate, just an exchange of opinions.  This is what happens when people debate the DH vs TMS.  The bottom line is that Sinai-deniers will not accept any of the multitude of arguments put forth by Chazal, the later commentators and some modern academics that confirm the truth of the unity and antiquity of the text.  On the other side Torah-observant Jews stop listening once someone gets to the second syllable of the word "Documentary".  We know the Torah is true, we are only interested in those legitimate Torah sources that discuss the issue and therefore outside academics and their opinions are of no interest to us.  That's why these discussions go nowhere.
The real discussion therefore, and one which Morethodoxy is eager to avoid, is: can one hold that the DH is true and still call oneself Orthodox?  Rabbi Farber and probably most of the YCT crowd, even those who publicly state otherwise, would say that it is possible.  For those of us on the other side we wonder how this could be.  How can one be Orthodox while denying the authenticity of Judaism's founding event, Matan Torah?
Now let's look at the other side.  Rav Natan Slifkin recent posted a critique of an article by Eytan Kobre on his blog.  Kobre, a PR guy for the Chareidi side in the ongoing army draft controversy brings a number of sources to show that learning full-time is an accepted, traditional and preferred method of life for the observant Jew.  Rav Slifkin, on the other hand, looks at the sources in a more complete fashion and points out at pretty much none of Kobre's sources actually support his position.  Rav Slifkin wonders where Kobre draws his conclusions from.  My belief is that Kobre knows quite well that his footnotes are not relevant to the argument but he's hoping that a selective quoting, a smattering of dropped names and enough references will convince the reader who doesn't have the time or interest in double-checking things that his position is the correct "Torah true" one.   Anyone familiar with the genuine halachic method would have to be greatly disturbed by this unOrthodox distortion of our mesorah.  
In other words, Eytan Kobre has reached a conclusion and handpicked the sources he needs to support his predetermined conclusion.  If this sounds familiar then go back to the first part of this post.  Rabbi Farber and his supporters, in their quest to turn the Torah into a human document, are also able to quote from a smattering of Rishonim and statements in the Gemara which they turn into a proposal to suggest that the DH is accepted by authentic Jewish authorities.  They too will handpick sources to fit their predetermined conclusion.  Two radically different groups in the Orthodox world using the exact same methodology.
How do both these groups justify their belief that their positions represents genuine Orthodoxy despite the obvious problems with them?
The answer might be that they have detached the two principle elements of Orthodox practice, reason and ritual, from one another.  Contrary to the assertions of scoffers we are a religion of reason.  We do not draw laws and rituals from thin air.  We practice on the foundation of thousands of years of legal discussion and philosophical reason.  This intelligence must ever inform our approach to ritual.  Ritual without the thinking behind it becomes a mindless routine, as decried by Yishiyahu HaNavi and Yirmiyahu HaNavi. 
Recall Yirmiyahu's cries of anguish in the final days of the First Temple.  He well noted that the general population believed that the Har HaBayit was a place inviolable, that God would never allow His holy habitation to be destroyed.  Here were people who would routinely sin and then routinely bring sin offerings as a payment, not as a penitence.  No matter what the Navi told them they could not change this outlook.  For them Judaism was about the ritual and as long as the ritual was performed properly the reasons behind it mattered not a whit.
This is the position that Orthodoxy finds itself in today.  Is it any wonder we are a community divided by the type of hat or kippah a person wears?  Is it any wonder we base a shidduch on the type of sheitl a person wears or whether or not they allow their children to wear a certain colour of socks?  Where are questions about the person's innate honest and decency?  Where are questions about the depth of their beliefs or the understanding of the nature of the godhead?  We worry about when the last time they went to the shaatnez checker but not the last time they put on their tefillin and stood for a moment to appreciate their enhanced connection to the Ribono shel Olam.
We are now deep into Elul.  We are approaching a series of holidays rich in ritual but also in reason.  We are faced with a challenge.  We can worry if the shofar is appropriate and fulfills all the strictest halachic requirements, if the etrog and lulav pass our inspection with a jewel cutter's glass or we can apply that same rigorous approach to ourselves.  Do our souls survive the same scrutiny we give our external ritual behaviours?  Do we spend more time worrying about the status of the tzitzis on our Yamim Noraim tallis or about whether our connection with the Divine is frayed?  Do we take the time when the shofar is blowing not just to make sure the tokea is stretching out each note precisely or to make sure we pour out our whole hearts during that sacred moment and beg our Father in Heaven to accept our words?  Are we there just because that's what one does or because we desire an audience before Him?
In short, is it just about ritual for us or does the reason also play a role?
Both Morethodoxy and UltraOrthodoxy seem to have detached the reason from the ritual.  The YCT crowd proposes one can be Orthodox entirely through behaviour without regards to one's underlying thoughts and beliefs.  The UltraOrthodox crowd puts an emphasis on ritual that relegates reason to a limited supporting role, only relevant when supporting that ritual.
We must reject this approach and remind ourselves that God wants from us an intelligent practice, one where the reason and ritual intermix and influence one another in perfect synergy.  This is the challenge of real "Torah-true" Judaism that makes it such a challenge to do properly.  May we merit that all of us consider this in the coming weeks so that our High Holydays are celebrated properly for our benefit?


SJ said...

ya try reattaching reason to orthodox wearing heavy clothing in the summer.

don't gimme dat it's the uniform bs.

Anonymous said...

This is kind of an interesting essay. I think it would be interesting to have guest posts or continue in this vein on this issue of rationality versus ritual.

Baal teshuvas are generally the most insistent that Judaism has a rational basis for belief. Of course, if you want to get into the question of whether Torah is likely a supernatural document or not – well, that is pretty much off limits.

The friction in Judaism comes I think from two sources at least: first, Judaism has the highest bar of all religions. We have a full historical story that needs validating: the exodus, the mizrayim time, the conquest of the land.

Second, we have a Torah that needs to be specifically and completely G-d given. Otherwise halacha derived from specific verses gets wobbly. Therefore people get nervous around whether Genesis is true, or the mabul happened, or this word or that sentence was inserted or G-d given. And whether we have the exact same Torah as was given to Moses. Bottom line: a document used for inspiration is not enough for halachic Judaism.

Finally we have the DH, which so fundamentally undercuts the traditional basis for Judaism as to be a true threat to emunah. The problems here are two as well. First, the document does appear to come from multiple sources and multiple time periods. The Torah also follows our discovery of other documents from that time which share this attribute. Finally, today there are more mutually reinforcing lines of evidence that support this conclusion. It would take months or years to lay out the case from all angles.

Second, while people are happy to bury Rav Farber in scorn, there is STILL no appetite for looking at the evidence that led him to his conclusions. Like you said: once they hear it is the DH, the Torah true Jew turns off. No evidence, thank you very much. Another helping of Talmud please.

You are “guilty” of this too I think, based on your reflexive sneering at examining or laying out the evidence.

So – with all the rationality – there are obviously real limits.

The Open Orthodoxy movement can yell all day about various approaches and what is permissible (obviously you are correct that they are crazy to think they can shoehorn the DH into normative orthodoxy) but you have to explain: why are orthodox Jews kept from evaluating the evidence for DH?

I think it is because their rational faculty would be awakened, and their emunah threatened for all time. You seem to suggest that rationality has a friend in Judaism. I think the truth is the cloistered intellectual life of the haredi is the only way to keep full on orthodox Judaism alive. Evaluating the claims is truly a non starter. I don’t see how any truly orthodox person can pretend that a Jew’s emunah would survive a rational look at the evidence. If this were the case, the walls of orthodox Judaism could come down, and haredi Jews could live, work, and relate to the larger world in a whole new way.


SJ said...

>> Finally we have the DH, which so fundamentally undercuts the traditional basis for Judaism as to be a true threat to emunah

A History of God by Karen Armstrong explains how the JEDP narratives were psychologically helpful to the Israelites at each of their eras assuming you believe in DH.

Anonymous said...


I very much agree with you.

SJ said...