Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My Ironic Jewish Journey

On the Contrary has a post up about "Ironic Orthodoxy," outlining a form of Orthopraxy, which, while skirting the boundaries of traditional belief is deeply committed to Jewish practice and is fairly knowledgeable in terms of Jewish texts.

The Ironic Orthodox generation is the generation that comes after the Great Post-1967 Orthodox Awakening. The Ironic Orthodox are largely day-school and yeshiva educated. With their grandparents they share a certain comfort in their own Orthodox skin; to them, Orthodoxy is familiar, natural, and organizes their lives. With their parents they share a familiarity with the world of Jewish learning and are even able to access that learning to a large degree.

The Ironic Orthodox generation does not buy into the apologetics: not about the status of women, not about the integrity of the transmission of the Oral Law, not about the "timelessness" of obviously time-bound religious laws, customs, and ideas, etc. This generation is hard to inspire; its demeanor is skeptical and ironic, somewhat aloof and dispassionate. Their irony is not a dramatic irony - like Statler and Waldorf observing and criticizing the show yet remaining very much a part of it - but a jocular or sarcastic attitude or perhaps even a post-irony that simultaneously adheres to and mocks traditional religious structures. Yet it's not a bitter or angry mocking. It seems to be more of a taking-for-granted of life's absurdities and of the failure of ideology to explain or animate the full gamut of practice. It does not necessarily advocate or seek change.

The most strident example of this sort of thinking on the Jewish Blogosphere is Modern Orthoprax, who denounces traditional claims of God giving the Torah and the possibility of proving the existence of God yet claims to be traditionally observant.

In my own way, I see myself as falling under this category, if in a more moderate vein than Modern Orthoprax. While Modern Orthoprax comes and flat-out opposes divine claims for the origin of the Torah and proof for the existence of God, I believe that one can make a very plausible case for God's existence and that actively accepting God's existence is less problematic than assuming that he does not exist and I even hold out some hope for their being some historical truth to the Exodus narrative and the revelation at Sinai. That being said, I actively accept the fact that we live in a post-Enlightenment world and am not about to ignore the fact that the Enlightenment happened. To paraphrase Dr. Alan Brill, I am not about to rewrite Saadiah Gaon and the Kuzari in plain high school English as if there never was a Hume or a Kant. This means that all attempts to claim that God exists as an unchallengeable fact are out. For example, in a post-Darwinian world one can no longer simply trot out the argument from design as an end to all argument. Regardless of whether you believe in evolution, Darwinian evolution defeats the argument from design simply by existing as a plausible theory. All the intelligent design arguments in the world are not going to change the fact that there is an alternative to theistic creation. Thus, while our intelligent designer might very well exist, he can no longer be accepted as unchallengeable fact. Similarly with biblical criticism, one might be able to produce an army of Rabbi Joseph Hertzes to answer the arguments of Julius Wellhausen and his intellectual descendants (something that Orthodoxy has not done) but it will not change the fact that there is now an alternative to accepting the Bible as the literal word of God.

In a sense, faith is like innocence, once exposed to an alternative and made open to doubt something has been lost even if outward behavior remains the same. The child given a decent suit of clothes, a wallet full of cash and left to spend the night on the doorstep of a brothel is going to lose his innocence even if he does hold onto his virtue. For this reason, there is a certain logic to the Haredi attempt to hold onto the faith and innocence of their members even if it is futile. 

As I said before, I still see the debate for God as being in favor of God even if by a smaller margin and even if it is more the God of the philosophers and not the God of Abraham. The God of Abraham might exist, but to believe in him requires absolute faith. The very act of doubting him changes the relationship to one with a philosopher God. Similarly, with the Bible, it requires absolute faith. The very act of putting it before the bar of critical analysis changes the relationship and, whether you like it or not, it makes you one of the skeptics.

In the end I like to think of myself as a theistic ethical humanist (I believe that intelligent life, human or otherwise, has value, that one has ethical obligations to humans as part of a universal law placed into our hearts by a universal lawgiver), who has jumped on board the train of Hirschian Judaism and managed to make himself comfortable. I still hold out some hope for the Bible to be the true word of God and for the Exodus to have happened in a direct literal sense but I accept the reality that I cannot take it as a given. The evidence is strong enough against it that it cannot be used as a foundation for living one's life. If I did not strongly believe in God, I probably would abandon Jewish practice. As a believer in God, though, I seek some form of practice to relate to him. Judaism, even as the creation of Jewish philosophers, would still be better than any religion that I might decide to make up for myself; our Jewish philosophers can still offer tradition and community. Even if I were trying to create my own religion, it would probably end up looking a lot like Judaism anyway, just without an elaborate mythology.

As a Muppets fan, I accept for myself the role of being Judaism's Statler and Waldorf as a mark of honor (Unlike most Ironic Jews, I am theatrical and love the dramatic). If I am a heretic, so be it. I still wish to be part of the show.


Anonymous said...

Bentz, do you have any thoughts on David Gelernter's Judaism as a Way of Being? I am about a fourth of the way through it, and find it intriguing. It strikes me less as apologetics than as an attempt to posit a unifying framework in terms of evocative images.
- Uncle Jack

Izgad said...

I have not read it, but will put it down on my list.

Minnesota Mamaleh said...

wow this post really (really) resonates with me. thank you for the thoughtful reflection and the multitude of references. i like how honest and grounded you are about topics such as faith and god; all of which sometimes bring out passion at the sake of clear thinking. much food for thought, for sure. thanks!