Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Taking on Obligation Rationally – So Prove It

Like I said I was going to prove a few things to my best-est friend (and myself) this week about being a practicing and rational Jew. After his three weeks at Yeshiva, he had a few pointed questions for me and I didn't feel my answers were complete enough. So I set out to explain myself but it seems that Rabbi Bachman, as always, beat me to the punch.

But I am going further into a more theoretical question of my reasons for sticking to the bread that sticks to my insides for seven days.

Rabbi Richard Levy asks in A Vision of Holiness “Are [Mitzvot] commandments (given from without) or obligations (accepted from within)” (50)? He answers his question by utilizing another omnipotent relationship in his life, his marriage.

His wife told him that the idea of a commandment from God is like saying from one partner to another “This is something very important to me that you do.” He continue by implying that the free will to do otherwise makes the act of doing such a thing proof to the strength of the relationship. So regardless of the desire to do that act, doing so brings joy and pleasure to your partner.

Clearly Rabbi Levy doesn’t equate the relationship between partners to that of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. However this kind of language helps to explain the idea of partnership in creation between God and the Jews. Clearly creation continues as we continue to discover new things in the world, scientifically and otherwise, but we are able to see the benefits of remaining committed to doing something that is very important to someone or something we love and care about; so we do mitzvot – or at least the ones that we can do for that sake.

Reform Judaism, back in the day, called upon Jews to get rid of the mitzvot that were only connected to sacrifice and had nothing to do with the elevation of our spirit. Examples such as mixing fabrics or keeping kosher are often used to make this point. What does not having a cheese burger have to do with the coming of a messianic era? Welcoming the strange appears 36 times in the Torah while nixing two all beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun is in there about twice.

In favor of Moral Obligations, these ritual or ceremonial laws were placed aside in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885. The idea isn’t that Reform Judaism gets rid of obligation or even commandments, but takes an active role in defining said commandments in a modern light.

Many Reform Jews may disagree with me on this point, but keeping kosher to me is simply to slow down and think about the fact that we are lucky/blessed to have something to eat when others do not. Keeping kosher has nothing to do with the idea that particular cuts of an animal are unclean because a biblical character (who may or may not have even existed) busted his hip while wresting an angle in a dreamy slumber.

So why do I keep the Seder? Why do I afflict myself with flat dry nasty excuses for bread? Why do I remember to count the Omer? And why do I continue to try to learn the story of the Orange on the Seder plate? I do this because being pleasing to the idea of my heritage is pleasing to me. It is said that it is pleasing to God. I don’t care nor do I need to know – for fact – that God exists for this to work for me; I think it is more than simple faith.

The ideals and principles of Judaism have been around for a while now and have helped many a person deal with these issues. And modern rational thinking has been around now for a while, also helping people deal with such commitment issues. My God demands certain things from me. If it is not to wear linen with cotton and wool and not to turn on a light on Shabbat, then I am not doing what is pleasing to God, but there are many things that I do that I think God would like very much. So like in any real adult and rational relationship, God and I are working through our differences and meeting on common ground.

That is why I continue to eat Matzah and read the same-old first-half of the Hagadah. There are lessons to be learned in all of this, the rituals and the morals of the stories every day. And that I what I believe and that is what I will teach my children. I will also teach my children they must learn to then make the choice; not simply learn and then accept.


Best-est friend from back home said...

Great points, Mr. Liberal. Very interesting thought process. I have some questions for you though. What exactly is your concept of God? If we accept, as we have in conversations in the past, that God is infinite there seems to be some inconsistencies in your argument. First is the notion of God being happy or proud of you for doing certain things - this is a bit strange. Sure the analogy of God being human is used often in the Torah so that we can understand things in a way that makes sense to us, because we are not infinite and can not relate to that aspect of God. But since God is infinite than he knows the future and in fact has the ability to change it. God can make it impossible for you to eat a cheeseburger by not making them available, or by pushing it out of your hands just before it reaches your mouth. So the idea of God getting upset is a bit silly, especially if he has a way to avoid it. Since we both accept that God is infinite, it goes to make logical sense that God cannot benefit from anything we do or do not do. So what then is the point of the mitzvot? It is for OUR benefit. Going to an even deeper level - God being infinite necessitates that he cannot benefit from any of his own creations. So what then, becomes the purpose of creation? To let the creation benefit from its own existence. It is the only completely selfless act in the known universe and something we cannot fully grasp as humans.

Even the most pure of intentions of someone who wants to be good and sacrifices his or her own comfort for the good of others, often does so in order to feel like "a good person" making this seemingly selfless act, in fact totally selfish...and there's nothing wrong with that. This is in fact a very healthy selfishness.

God doesn't need to feel good. He doesn't need you to acknowledge his existence. He doesn't need anything. He's infinite. So he can't get mad, or angry, or sad, or any emotion at all in fact - because emotions by their very nature are a result of something going against or with your hopes. If God is infinite he wants for nothing so the idea of hope from the way we understand it is obsolute from an infinite being.

Also, the idea that sacrifice having nothing to do with the elevation of our spirit is a misunderstanding of the nature of sacrifice. Take animal sacrifice for example. This is one of the most controversial since we have organizations around like PETA nowadays. Keep in mind that animal sacrifice isn't applicable today without the standing of the Beit Hamigdash (the Jerusalem temple). In fact there are only around 270 of the 613 mitzvot that are actually applicable today so most of the sacrificial ones that you speak of don't even exist in practical terms but let's pretend they do for the sake of argument.

Now God, being infinite, doesn't gain from you sacrificing anything. But in the act of sacrificing an animal the intended pyschological implication is that you are a human and are falable. You've made a mistake, a sin of some sort, and want to repent in hopes of bettering yourself. So in order to repent you ideally would get rid of your physical body which is the cause of all your evil inclinations and deviations from your soul's holy inclination. The problem with sacrificing your own body is that you can obviously only do it once and that wouldn't make for much of a learning process as you would be dead after the sacrifice and unable to improve yourself. So God has instead given you a way to have a similar psychological impact through the sacrifice of an animal. And in doing so you try, as hard as you can, to use the animal to stand in for yourself. Seeing the blood of the animal as YOUR OWN blood. Feeling a true commitment to bettering yourself as a person by seeing the level of commitment on a painfully grotesque level in order to make ourselves aware of how finite the body is and how eternal the soul is. By seeing the animal's blood we're reminded that our bodies are too made of flesh and bone and will eventually turn to dust. And to yield to the body's desire is to yield to a limited pleasure whereas to strive for the soul's pleasure is eternal.

Also, understanding any of the mitzvot fully, according to traditional ideals, is impossible. But we can understand them more and more as time goes on and that's the goal of performing them over and over again - to continually further our understanding.

You mentioned Kashrut. The idea of keeping kosher as a means to be thankful that we have something to eat while others don't is simply not true. The prayers we say before the meal, like the Motzy or any of the other blessings over food, is the way we express thanks for having food. The reason, or one of the reasons rather, for keeping kosher is to further enhance our sensitivity to God's creation - with a specific emphasis on the creation of man.

Everything has some version of a soul. A soul being a certain amount of energy needed for physical matter to exist. Rocks, vegetables, everything has energy. So why the different strict rules for animals? (A human soul is different in that it has the ability to contemplate the infinite - but that idea goes beyond the scope of this post so we'll leave it for another time.)

The reason animals have different kashrut laws than vegetables is because we relate to them in a different way. The personality of a land animal is something we can clearly see and in fact relate to as humans since we identify ourselves as being both bodies and souls. We walk on legs and have eyes and communicate with one another - so do most land animals. There's a relatability there. We associate animals very readily with life. So killing an animal to eat it makes us think of death. And in hopes to keep a certain amount of respect for life we don't mix life and death food, namely milk - which requires the cow to be alive, with meat which requires the slaughtering of an animal. That's why we can't eat chicken with milk. It has nothing to do with boiling a calf in it's mother's milk - although the Torah might mention something like this to make an allegorical point. The idea, or rather one of the ideas, of kashrut is to keep life and death food seperate so that we don't become insensitive to death and end up taking our own lives or each others lives needlessly. Just like back in the Roman empire days when people were thought to not have souls, but rather looked at as a bunch of bodies. In those times watching humans kill one another for sport was a very common means of entertainment that even the emperor took part of. Could you imagine our President sitting today and watching someone being electricuted as a means of entertainment? Complete with surround sound and popcorn? It would be ridiculous - thanks to the Jewish foundation of morality that is the basis for 3/4 of the world's idea of morality when you consider Christianity and Islam having its foundation in Torah.

You might ask, in terms of kashrut then, why are we allowed to eat fish with milk? The answer is quite simple - because we don't relate to fish on the same level that we relate to land animals. We can't pet fish, or communicate with fish the same way we can with a land animal. Kosher fish don't have any signs of legs or even a semblance of personality (not counting the brilliant Pixar film FINDING NEMO). So since we don't associate them as the same level of life as a land animal they don't represent the same kind of death either. They fall somewhere between a vegetable and a land animal in terms of how we view them in relation to ourselves and have rules of preparing them accordingly.

The idea of you and God working through your differences is actually very much in line with Orthodox thinking. Nobody does all the mitzvot. It's very very difficult and even Moshe hit the rock if I remember correctly. The idea though, is to look at God as the ultimate parent. An infinite source that created you and therefore knows better than you. So the fact that you don't follow a mitzvot should have more to do with your level of dedication and/or lazyness rather than believing its significance. So the better way to phrase the working through our differences part of your post, in my opinion, would be "God knows better than I do but I'm not able to see it yet so I'm going to keep doing it my way until it makes sense to me."

Going back to the parent analogy - your parents knew that brushing your teeth meant protecting them for the future. You were too young to get it so they did one of two things - either they a) bribed you in some way or b) punished you if you didn't do it. They punished you not because they wanted to see you suffer but because they knew that you couldn't grasp the logic behind it but you could grasp the logic of avoiding punishment. So they used something that looked cruel to you in order to get you to do the right thing. This is the same thing that God does. When the Torah says that God likes something it's the parents way of bribing you. The ultimate bribe being a place in haolam ha bah - or what is loosely undrestood as heaven. The idea of God punishing you is God getting's just an analogy that he gave us on our level. Something that helps us understand the rules in our own terms.


Liberal Jew said...

I will get back to you...