Thursday, December 17, 2009
Checklist of the Fundie
I am a big believer in the notion that politics and ideology are not linear, but circular or at least bend in a horseshoe shape. Those on the extremes are not nearly as far apart from each other as they would have us believe. Often they share almost identical foundational assumptions as to the nature of the world. Recently I got into another back and forth with Bray of the Fundie, a usually relatively sane Haredi blogger, over on his blog. Bray had resurrected an old post of his discussing what appears to be his favorite trump card against religious rationalists like me, a quote from Maimonides saying that religious knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge. According to Maimonides:
It behooves a person to contemplate the holy Torah’s laws and, as much as his faculties allow him, to know their ultimate purpose. (Still) a topic/concept for which he can find no reason nor any cause should not become lightly esteemed in his eyes. And he should not ‘violate the boundary’ to ascend to the Divine lest He (i.e. G-d) ‘break through’ to him. (An allusion to Shemos 19:24) and a person’s thoughts / intellectual approach to Torah ought not to be equivalent to his approach to other, mundane, matters.
Bray wishes to use the “patron saint” of rationalist Judaism to argue that Judaism is above reason and that we should follow it (or its accepted representatives) even if it is not in keeping with our reason or even downright contrary to it.
I responded to Bray by drawing a distinction between knowing the rational behind something and believing that there is one even if it eludes you.
I believe in a universe that runs on rational laws. I do not, and neither does modern science, understand all of these laws and there is much that goes on in the universe that we do not understand. That being said, I still believe that those rational laws are out there and am committed to discovering them. I am not going to simply throw up my hands and say mystery/Flying Spaghetti Monster. Similarly with religion, the God I believe in is one that operates according to rational laws. He is neither capricious nor arbitrary. There is much in what he does and commands that I do not understand. That being said I still believe that there is a rational behind everything. When dealing with science and God I am willing to assume rationality to a far greater degree than with human beings. With human beings my starting assumption is that they are behaving rationally and I will try to find a rational behind everything that they do. (This is important to the sort of work I do in history.) That being said, if, at the end of the day, I cannot find a rational to their actions, I will throw up my hands and say they were irrational.
Bray responded, not by defending his position, but by insisting on his interpretation of Maimonides as “delineating a havdala between Qodesh/Torah as a discipline and khol/ all other branches of wisdom?”
I defended Maimonides by appealing once again to the model of science.
It is not a matter of some double standard in favor of Torah that allows you to fix the game in advance to come out in favor of God. What we have is a principled granting of the benefit of the doubt to specific systems which have already given good cause for it. To take a Thomas Kuhn approach, if you are a scientist developing a scientific theory that works in general you are not going to abandon it simply because you run into a small difficulty. If Kuhn was a yeshiva student he might say: “no one ever died from a kasha.”
It is at this point that Bray sprung a peculiar sounding argument coming from someone from the religious fundamentalist side. It was the sort of argument that one would have expected Richard Dawkins to use if he were debating me. Bray started listing elements of Judaism that should offend an ethical rationalist such as me:
Border dwelling pilgrims required to leave their property and families unprotected 3 times a year
Men may practice polygamy while women must be monogamous
Rapists must marry their victims if the victims agrees
Diverse capital punishments for adulterous bas kohens and their paramours
Monetary remuneration if an assailant dismembers his victim but flogging if he merely pinches him (and the aggregate 5 payments are less than a shava pruta)
Flogging for stealing back one's own stolen property
"Blood redeemers" vendetta killings either allowed or considered a mitzvah
Aunt-nephew marriages=incest while Uncle-niece marriages are allowed
Prohibited to remarry my own divorcee if she was lawfully wedded in-between but permitted to do so if she promiscuously slept around
House demolition mandated for certain discolorations in the plaster.
Perjured witnesses are punished in kind, unless of course the victim they framed has already been executed, in which case they walk off Scot free
No Divorce rights for women
A father being able to marry his daughter off to anyone he chooses while she is still a non-consenting minor
Genocide against seven indigenous Canaanite Nations and the Amalekites
Death by stoning for dropping a carrot into a pot of boiling water on Saturday
Incest allowed for brother sister converts (M'D'Oraysa)
Farmers required to leave their fields fallow for two consecutive years (years 49-50 in the Jubilee cycle)
Needless to say I reject Bray’s understanding of these laws. I am sure we could go back and forth about how to understand Jewish law, but I see that as beside the point. How is it that Bray comes to defend Judaism by engaging in the same caricature of Judaism that Dawkins uses to attack it? I have my understanding of Judaism that does not have me violating any of the ethical norms that have been at the foundation of all civilized peoples. My Judaism believes in justice for all and mercy for all the unfortunate. I may be mistaken in my understanding of Judaism. You may look over the sources and conclude that Dawkins and Bray are correct. I would still be a moral, if mistaken, person. Dawkins is certainly a moral person for rejecting Judaism as he understands it. But what can we say about Bray, who embraces what must be viewed, even from his perspective, as an immoral religion? He certainly cannot be viewed as moral; he is a nihilist who does not even believe in the concept of morality.
Bray likes to talk about the importance of separating between believers and unbelievers. I also believe in the importance of putting up some barriers. Every ideological act puts up a wall of separation against those who believe differently. I do hope, though, that every time my hands waves people away it is not so vigorous as to preclude waving them in to come closer. However much I must separate myself from intellectually honest and moral atheists, I will fight against those who blaspheme God by claiming to believe in him; those who hold up an idol and say that God is not all rational and not all moral and these things can be dispensed with.