Monday, March 20, 2017

Toward a Lockean Theory of Halakha


In the previous post, I argued that Haredi Judaism, to the extent that it accepted charismatic authority in the form of Gedolim, must be seen as an anti-Halakhic movement. Charismatic authority is implicitly antinomian in that the only way for someone to demonstrate their absolute loyalty to the charismatic authority figure, as opposed to some textual authority, is to violate the law as interpreted through text. For example, Sabbateans were known to secretly eat a cherry on the fast of Tisha B'Av to demonstrate that they did not really need to fast on account of the coming of Sabbatai Sevi. On the contrary, the way to now truly fulfill the commandment of fasting was to eat. The real purpose of fasting was to signify faith in the coming of Sabbatai, the Messiah. So by showing such faith in Sabbatai, as to do what might look like a sin, you are the one who is really fasting, as opposed to the fasting non-believers, who are really the ones eating. Similarly, if you believe that it is impossible to know the law through one's own intellectual efforts, but require the aid of Gedolim, then the logical way to demonstrate this faith is to commit a sin like taking a bite out of that traif sandwich at the command of the Gadol.

In a post-Enlightenment world, there are good reasons to be tempted by charismatic authority. It very neatly solves the challenge to authority both from potentially heterodox methods of interpreting the world (such as science) and, most importantly, from non-believing clergymen, working to bring down the faith from within. Charismatic authority, if we accept it, clearly trumps science and offers an a priori religious authority that makes liberal clergymen irrelevant. We see this logic at work within American Protestantism as well, where the Evangelical use of charismatic authority has beaten the text-based authority of the mainline denominations.

Let me suggest an approach to religious authority that might redeem text-based authority in the modern world, making use of John Locke style social contract theory in which everyone is free to follow their own understanding of Judaism and free to reject other opinions as demonstrating that the person is not serious about their Judaism, all the while being subject to everyone else having that same power. Here is another thought experiment. As a scholar of Jewish history, I have just made an important discovery in my university library, a set of Gemarah and Shulhan Arukh. Our parents and grandparents were all committed socialists, who raised us on kibbutzim. So despite the fact that we all strongly identify as Jews, none of us know anything about halakha. Even after we started believing in God again, we felt that there was something missing in our relationship to him. Observing the laws in these books look like the perfect solution we have been praying for.

We are going to start a club called the LOJS (Local Orthodox Jewish Synagogue). We will gather together on Saturdays to engage in Jewish worship as set forth in the books I found and listen to lectures on how to observe the many strange laws from the books in our homes. (Can you believe it, but we are going to have to baptize our dishes.) Sessions will be presided over by a Jewish studies professor, whom we will call a rabbi. There is nothing special about him and people should feel free to ignore him. It just makes sense to have someone in charge to be officially not obeyed.

Word of the LOJS club is spreading and soon we will have chapters in many different cities. Now, in trying to recreate some form of traditionally observant Judaism, we will face a number of challenges related to authority. We are trying to create a religion based on what we read in a set of books. These books say a lot of things, much of which is blatantly contradictory (do we listen to Bait Hillel or Beit Shammai) or simply difficult to understand, leaving a lot of room for interpretation and reasonable disagreement. So even if everyone was totally committed, we would have people wanting to practice different versions of Judaism. Since we are all baalai teshuva trying to figure things out, none of us carry any real authority that others should listen. To make matters worse, all sorts of people are applying to join our club with different levels of observance. Most people are more in the market for a few rituals to give some spirituality to their lives, but not to refashion themselves with a complete set of laws that must be accepted in totum. Furthermore, everyone is coming to Judaism with previous social and ideological commitments, which they are not about to give up now that they are joining their LOJS. For example, we have the nice gay couple who want to be married in the club, the feminist studying to be a rabbi, the libertarian-anarchist who has no intention of praying for the restoration of any Davidic monarchy and the Christian who believes that Jesus is his Jewish Lord and Savior. Different LOJS clubs are going to make their own decisions about where to draw the lines and who can be members, but no one is in a position to force their views on anyone else.

The sensible solution to these problems of authority would be for every individual person and LOJS club to proceed with creating their own standards all while showing the spirit of charity for all those other clubs setting their standards. God did not speak to me and I am not the heir of any special tradition. I am just a scholar trying to read and apply a manual like anybody else. Furthermore, we have to accept that everyone is coming to Judaism with some kind of previous ideological baggage, which sets boundaries on how they will interpret laws. For example, classical liberal Jews might refuse to kill homosexuals and Amalekite children. We have to accept this for the simple reason that we have no greater divine authority than they do. Just as we need our opponents to accept us even when they disagree with our interpretations and look askance at our ideological commitments so too must we be consistent and accept them despite our disagreements.

There is one limitation I would place in order to keep everyone honest; we are free to reject anyone, who does not appear to us to be acting in good faith and seems to be using Judaism as cover for some other ideological agenda. A greater level of personal observance should be a cause to give the benefit of the doubt over those who are less observant. That being said, overzealousness in rejecting other LOJS clubs should serve as prima facia evidence of using Judaism as cover for another agenda, much as a lack of ritual observance would. For example, even as I, much like Chabad, welcome people who drive on the Sabbath, are intermarried or even gay, I would reject the membership applications of members of Jews for Jesus and Jewish Voices for Peace, finding that they perform little in the way of Jewish practice and their Judaism consists mostly of using their Judaism to castigate other Jews for failing to believe in Jesus or make suicidal concessions to the Palestinians. Clearly, their agenda is simply to call themselves Jews in order to convert us to their actual religion. Similarly, I might reject applications from Satmar on the grounds that despite their meticulous observance, their eagerness to denounce other Jews and place themselves on some kind of moral platform indicates that they are less interested in Judaism as a way of practice and to relate to God than they are in setting up an anti-modernist cult. In making these decisions, I recognize that I make myself vulnerable. Not only should I not expect any tolerance from those who I have rejected, reasonable people might come to question my motivations in the particular lines I draw and decide that they cannot accept me.

Clearly, there would be nothing to stop a Jews for Pork group beyond our ability to reject their application as a Jewish organization. (I would make a point in distinguishing Jews who incidentally did not practice kosher in their homes and ideological traif eaters.) That being said, we should be able to avoid the problem with antinomianism. There are no hard hierarchies let alone charismatic authorities so there is no reason why there should be any antinomians in our midsts, particularly if we do our job in rooting out those trying to use Judaism as cover for other agendas.

Social contract theory is often criticized for being ahistorical. There was never a moment when non-civilized men came together and agreed on any kind of social contract, whether the Hobbesian, Lockean, or Rousseauean versions. This criticism misses the point, that the social contract was never something that happened in history, but is happening every day. The United States government stands because every day the vast majority of Americans, not me, get up and agree that the government has moral authority over themselves and their neighbors even to the point of killing them. The moment that even a small percentage of the population begins to question this then you get the Bastille and the Berlin Wall.

Similarly, many people might question the applicability of my scenario as it lacks any FFBs (frum from birth). What you have are some Jewish Studies majors deciding that they are really interested in halakha and getting other people to listen to them. (Granted that no one would ever take us seriously.) For me, this is precisely the point. Living post enlightenment and emancipation, there are no people truly born religious. Being observant Jews is something that we decide every day. Furthermore, there is no power of tradition to give anyone any inherent authority over anyone else. My father might be an Orthodox rabbi, but I grew up in Columbus, OH as a product of American culture. Just as a genetic test would demonstrate my utter lack of racial purity, even a casual reading of this blog should be enough to demonstrate that my ideas are hardly pure of gentile influence. I do not claim to be anything more an American with classical liberal values and conservatives politics, who grabbed onto the Judaism he found around him, trying to give himself a community and some meaning to his life. I challenge anyone to demonstrate that their Judaism is any purer.

There are many Jews out there, who lack my Jewish education. I am not smarter or more virtuous than them and claim no intrinsic authority over them. I am sure, if they wish, they could study the same texts that I studied and surpass me. There are certainly many Jews who are more learned than me. I am sure that, if I applied myself, I could remedy that. Such people may be compared to my in-laws, brother-in-law, sister-in-law and younger brother, who all, unlike me, have medical degrees. It may be prudent that I take their medical advice seriously, but none of them can claim any kind of authority over me; I remain free to shop around for medical advice. Most importantly, I deny that any of them are intrinsically smarter or virtuous than me (besides for my mother-in-law). If I wanted to, I could go to medical school and become a doctor as well.

Let us do away with charismatic authority and even the hierarchy of tradition. Let us be the People of the Book.

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