Wednesday, February 18, 2009

An Introduction and a Word of Explanation: a Response to Some Comments (Part II)

Part I

The place, I suspect, were I part ways with most of those writing comments is that I am a committed theist, even if it is a very abstract deity, and desire to come to terms with Him. I do not claim to be able to prove that this deity exists in any ultimate sense. I accept his existence as a more reasonable alternative to not having such a being. (I am willing to elaborate on this in future posts, but I expect that many of my readers will just have to agree to disagree with me on this one.)

When talking about secularism it is important to distinguish between several different issues. There are many things that may be labeled as secular that I support. For example I support the secularization of the political sphere. I have no interest to go back to kings presiding over Church councils to decide religious dogma. This view of the political as something divorced from religion owes itself to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas as much as it does to John Locke and John Stuart Mill. I also have no interest in trying to force my own morality on other people. I am a Libertarian and I take an even more extreme stance on this issue than most liberals. I go so far as to support the legalization of prostitution and of all drugs, including hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine. I believe that a person should have the right to control one’s body so not only do I believe in legalized abortion but I also believe that people should be able to sell their kidneys and other bodily organs on the open market. I am even willing to go along with gay marriage. (I also believe that private businesses should have the right to practice discrimination but we can save that for later.) I am perfectly willing to live my own simple puritanical life in a fully hedonistic world. This would again be an example of the Augustinian side to me. I expect the world to be sinful and corrupt so I am going to live my life and not worry too much about everyone else.

This political secularism is very different from social secularism and secular moral values. While there are many social and ethical issues that we agree on and can work together like fighting poverty and racism. That being said, there are ethical differences between me and much of the secular world. For me sexuality is an ethical issue. Sex, in of itself, is ethically problematic since it involves physically taking someone and using their body as a means to your own pleasure. (I hope to further delve into this issue in later posts) I would no more do anything to enable and encourage unmarried teenagers to have sex than I would to help them in acts of racism and intolerance that cause no physical harm to others.

There is a type of secularism that I find attractive and is where I would go if I ever decided to abandon Judaism, theistic ethical humanism. To believe in God as the creator of the laws of nature and the giver of moral law and to attempt to relate to him particularly through living an ethical life that advances the human race. This may be a more accurate description of my theology than Orthodox Judaism. (Why I remain an Orthodox Jew and do not take this option is an issue for a different post.) This brand of secularism would maintain the same moral standards as any formal religion and would still value ritual, whilst doing away with the dogma of religion; it would be a religion of reason.

Be that as it may I choose to operate within the context of Orthodox Judaism and to relate to my theoretical deity through the prism of Orthodox Judaism. More than the Bible, this means the rabbinic tradition. As with most traditions this is not a coherent whole but a stream with many different branches. I try make the decisions as to what I accept not out a sense of what is most convenient for me but with an eye to defending what I see as the best of the tradition. A big part of this is that I submit myself to religious authorities and recognize that the buck stops with them. They may get it right they may get it wrong, but someone has to make a decision.

As long as I remain within Orthodox Judaism I am going to make a serious effort to keep to Jewish practice to the best of my understanding. So for example, even when I am at the HCCO banquet and I see no other Orthodox Jews around, I am not going to sample the salmon or the chocolate chip cookies even though one could make a good case that they are kosher from the perspective of the Bible. For me, kosher is a way that I can relate to God with every bite of food that I eat. I am also a Kantian so I am going to keep those rules of my own making and am not about to cheat on those rules even if it is for a small thing of little consequences. Being consistent and true to one’s own rules is something of supreme value.


Mona Albano said...

Indeed, following your own rules is a way to self-respect. A friend pointed out that Christianity is for saints and Judaism is for people, with much more accommodation to human nature.

Bart said...

I took a day to digest your post. I appreciate your openness and honesty. After thinking on your words, I think I still have the same question.

You said "I submit myself to religious authorities and recognize that the buck stops with them". Obviously your don't submit to all authorities. You, like all other believers, seek out a religious authority that coincides with your own personal views. This still makes you the final decider of how you personally interpret the religious texts that you adhere to.

A good example is your statement "I am even willing to go along with gay marriage" The Torah clearly denounces homosexual behavior. You personally have decided that Gods word, handed down to Moses, needs to be amended to fit modern times. Don't you see this as hubris? How do you accept the minor arbitrary (to me) rules governing food consumption, accept the laws governing your own personal sexuality, then ignore the laws that declare homosexuality unclean and deserving of death?

I have heard others use the 'free will' argument for this rationalization, but it doesn't work. You agree with the law that says you shouldn't steal, and accept the punishment of thiefs. You accept the law against murder, and accept the punishment of murderers. Why shouldn't their be a punishment for homosexuality, or adultry? You said that sex is "physically taking someone and using their body as a means to your own pleasure" So there is a victim, and a victimizer. Buy your definition, it should be a crime to engage in amoral sexual contact.

You mentioned that you don't want to force your morals on others. Are you willing to go the full monty with that statement? Isn't it 'your morals' for people to not steal? If your home gets burglarized, are you going to let them get away with it, or force your own morality on them by calling the police? Morality is a social contract between an individual and the society he lives in.

I think I have shown where my disconnect comes concerning moderate believers. I still don't understand how you can accept the arching premise (The God of the Torah is the real, one true God) and then dismiss the laws that don't agree with your personal morality, or your societies codified morality.

Chris said...


Thanks for these introductory posts. It sounds like your journey has been a very interesting one, and is similar to mine in several respects. I look forward to reading more. Best,