Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Problem #6: God Subverts our Morality

Is there any doubt that Biblical morality has on the whole made a positive impact on the moral development of human civilization, and that it contains many teachings still highly relevant to people today? I would say this is unquestionably the case. The question is what to do about the other parts.

"What do you mean, 'other parts'?" says the hypothetical Orthodox believer. "If it's all from God then it's all from God. The Torah is eternally relevant – there are no 'problematic parts'. If there is something we object to, then the problem lies with us. Either we're not understanding it correctly, or we've been infected by outside thinking. Torah is the word of God, and God is perfectly good by definition."

Let me be clear from the outset – the title "God subverts our morality" is this author's shorthand (Mishna-speak, if you will) for saying that "literal belief in the God of the Bible often subverts our morality." How so? Because the mindset of the above hypothetical believer (which I do not think is an unfair depiction, and in fact is fairly standard Orthodox belief) will eventually bring a person to either agree with, or apologize for, things which would otherwise be perceived as "immoral" by the standards of the modern free society in which that Orthodox individual lives.

That is not to say of course that "modern free society" should always be listened to. If we were to throw out all Jewish practices and teachings which at various times in history have been deemed "immoral," we may not exist as a people today. Even more so, sometimes our strength as a people is davka (precisely) that we are willing to stand alone, against prevailing societal beliefs and norms, in order to defend what we believe to be true and right. This goes back to Abraham the "ivri" ("Hebrew"), whose strength was his willingness to cross over and stand "on the other side" of the river, to break away from the idolatry of his homeland, from those beliefs and practices with which he was raised.

To give one current example of a Jewish practice which has been termed "immoral" by some, but which we may not wish to abandon quite yet, there is the issue of shechita (ritual slaughter). Kosher slaughter has been banned in New Zealand and has been under intense scrutiny in European countries, particularly the Netherlands, on the grounds that it is less humane (i.e., induces more pain and suffering) than stunning an animal prior to slaughter. However, given the fact that this claim itself is inconclusive and the subject of much debate, and given the appalling conditions animals are routinely kept in under "normal" commercial agricultural auspices, before being "humanely" stunned, it is perhaps not a stretch to conclude that this issue is a red herring, an excuse to legislate anti-Semitism under the guise of animal rights. Therefore, kosher slaughter, when done properly, conscientiously, should not "necessarily" bother us as Jews (that is, relative to normative practice, but see below), despite the fact that some would label it "immoral."

Of course, it follows from the above that if a new technology for animal slaughter were to be devised which was truly and indisputably painless, and yet we still insisted on the use of shechita, this might be cause to reconsider the matter. And if the wider society were to renounce the practice of animal slaughter altogether, and yet Jews insisted on maintaining it for religious reasons (e.g. to have meat on the Shabbos table), I would consider this to be a potential moral problem. In fact, following a more "Abrahamic" spirit, I would imagine the idealistic founder of Judaism to perhaps be the first to stand on the other side of the river and say "enough" with cruel industrial farming practices, and enough with the shedding of blood for food altogether. But I recognize this supposition would be the subject of hot debate, and I'm afraid we have even hotter territory to cover.

Which brings us to the next point... As an example of a branch of traditional Jewish practice deemed morally problematic, and that without question certainly does contravene the standard practices of free and civil society today, we can look at the unequal treatment of women in Jewish law.

Even from a more "minimalist" Orthodox position (i.e. not including stringencies which have become the norm in many religious communities), women are not counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), do not conduct religious services, may not serve as witnesses in a beit din (religious court) nor as dayanim (judges in religious court), may not obtain a divorce without consent of their husband, and technically/Halachically speaking must be "acquired" by their husband in order to be considered married. To any one of these Halachic facts on the ground, we might say "dayeinu" – it would be "enough for us" to be utterly embarrassed, ashamed, that women in free, secular society (and of course in other Jewish denominations) enjoy every measure of equality under the law, but under standard Orthodox Jewish law they do not. Even without using terms such as "second-class citizen" or assuming any diminution of women in the minds of Orthodox men, even assuming the utmost in respect and admiration for women, and that on the whole Orthodox women themselves enjoy their lifestyle and would defend the tradition (though there are certainly those who do not and find themselves "stuck," with no other choice), the fact that such inequality exists per se, in law and in practice, is enough to call it "immoral." Yes, even a hundred years ago, Judaism’s policy with regard to women could perhaps have been said to fall within the ethical bounds of civil and free society, but that is by no means any longer the case.

This is without even touching on more extremist (a.k.a. standard "Haredi") practices such as the exclusion of women from Orthodox religious or political leadership positions, from the front of "mehadrin" bus lines, from the media, including the removal of women’s images from periodicals or anywhere in the religious public sphere, and the attempt to prevent women from speaking at professional conferences or even at a loved one’s funeral. It does not touch on other Halachic injunctions such as kol isha (the prohibition of hearing women singing), "modest" dress (covering elbows, knees, collar bones, etc.), or covering one’s hair when married, which can constitute an impingement of women’s self-expression. It does not touch on teachings or prayers within the tradition which are potentially demeaning to women, such as the "shelo asani isha" blessing (thanking God for not having been made a woman), or sayings such as "the more wives, the more witchcraft" (Pirkei Avot), or that women are "light of intellect" (T.B. Shabbat 33b). It does not touch on passages from the Torah itself, such as the right of a father to sell his daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7), or the monetary "valuation" of a woman as being less than a man (Leviticus 27), or the humiliation of the "Sota" (a woman suspected of adultery, Numbers 5:11-29), or the length of a woman’s "impurity" following the birth of a girl being twice as long as for the birth of a boy (Leviticus 12), or the superstitious notion that niddah (the menstrual period) is considered a "sickness" requiring her to be segregated (Leviticus 12:2, hence the term "niddah" stemming from "niduy" – being sequestered, separated off). And of course all that is without even touching the very idea that a woman is taken from a man’s rib, responsible for the downfall of man, and fated to be ruled over by her husband as punishment. Any one of these points alone might be difficult to swallow, but when taken all together, it is simply overwhelming, if not downright depressing!

Yes, it is true that there are numerous laws in Torah designed to protect women's interests, and that during many periods in history the Torah's position toward women was probably considered positively "liberal." It is also true that for every derogatory statement about women in the Torah tradition, there are probably a dozen other positive, glowing statements, extolling the praises of women. And indeed even the derogatory statements are interpreted in ways which take the "edge" off, so as to prevent them from being understood to demean women in any way.

But in response to this last point, while I applaud any and all goodwill interpretive efforts, it is crucial that we also seriously address the plain meaning of a statement. Let me attempt to explain why.

Imagine if you will, sitting in an unfamiliar house of worship where people are praying, and your ears perk up upon hearing them recite the words "greedy Jews" in passing. You are taken aback, and when you approach them afterwards about your dismay, they reassure you that despite the way it sounds, they interpret this text to mean "greedy for the well-being of others." Alternatively, they point you to several other quotes that speak about Jews in a positive light. Would you be satisfied with this explanation, or would you leave with some grave misgivings about this religion and its adherents? And what if in addition to there being unflattering statements about Jews, there were laws on the books which limited the participation of Jews within their society – not in any wicked and anti-Semitic "Nuremberg Laws" sense, but simply due to "kavod hatzibur," a question of maintaining "communal honor" (the reason given in Halacha for why a woman is not called up to read from the Torah)?* Would you be perfectly hunky-dory with that, or would you instead want all such legal distinctions undone, and all outwardly offensive statements taken out of the liturgy and completely and unapologetically repudiated?

Point being, the promotion of more "palatable" interpretations, as well-meaning as they are surely intended, is not nearly good enough as a solution for addressing the problem. Why? Because it still leaves the problematic elements/practices themselves intact, and this is something we would in no way possibly tolerate in any other society (as the hypothetical scenario above was intended to illustrate). The way women are addressed in traditional Torah/Orthodox teachings and practice is, many times, simply "immoral." In fact one of the hallmarks of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations is their decision to tackle women’s inequality head-on, by renouncing and eradicating it, since it is seen without question to be a moral failing of traditional observance and belief. Why then does the Orthodox community not see it? Why does it offer mere apologetics as the solution? To be fair, certain Modern Orthodox circles have taken the issue seriously, and have worked to take Halacha to its very limits in order to undo some of the gender inequality. But why stop there?

Enter God.

As stated above, Torah (and by extension Halacha) is seen in Orthodox belief as God-given. Therefore, one cannot be "Orthodox" in any normative sense and say that there is something "immoral" in the Torah. Some Orthodox Jews may be willing to say that a particular area of Halacha, as it is currently practiced, is immoral, and that our duty as God-fearing Torah Jews is to wrestle with and work through the Halacha so that we can bring it more in consonance with God's will, closer to the true moral position – and I do think this is a valid and even noble approach. However, there is only so far one can stretch Halacha, and even the most liberal Orthodox poskim (people who render practical legal decisions in Jewish Law) will never say, "In this case we simply need to bypass Halacha." Again, the reason is that even if Halacha itself is in the hands of the human being to work with, the Halachic process itself is understood to be God-given, and to choose to veer outside of Halacha altogether is to contravene God, to put oneself outside the faith.

It is therefore God that is the factor preventing the Torah world from dismantling and rejecting positions within Jewish tradition which have, over time, become immoral. The problem is "God" insofar as believing in the traditional/Orthodox/literalist conception of the Biblical God, which renders the text (and often the Rabbinic tradition) immutable and unassailable. This reticence to deal unapologetically with immoral beliefs and practices exists even among the most liberal Orthodox communities, and it is all the more pronounced, and disturbingly ideological, in "Ultra-Orthodox" communities. Immoral statements in the Bible are routinely apologized for not only regarding women, but also concerning slavery, calls for genocide, stoning of Sabbath-breakers, speaking of gay relations as an "abomination," lauding Abraham for his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and on, and on. The only reason these are apologized for, and not definitively repudiated, consigned to the annals of ancient history with a sigh of relief and a hearty "good riddance," is that such laws and narratives are seen as the living word and will of God Himself. Belief in God, in the Orthodox sense of the term, thus has the capacity to undermine and subvert our morality, our better judgment, our sense of right and wrong. It gets us to do, believe, support and apologize for things which we would otherwise abhor.

If we would cease believing in God in any sense of authoring, commanding, sanctioning, or perhaps even "inspiring" the Torah and the Halachic process, then we would with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever be able to rid ourselves of positions that we identify to be immoral. If Torah is not eternal and immutable, but rather the product of human beings, then by all means as human beings we can and must make it work for us. Yes, we ought to be cautious not to jettison practices and ideas whenever someone in the world screams the word "immoral." We must be thoughtful and judicious about change. We would also be wise not to overly "judge" the Torah or our forbears for their beliefs and practices. It is possible to vigorously repudiate such beliefs and practices, and yet attempt to judge the texts and scholars of our tradition favorably and compassionately given their historical context. And I would not advocate "erasing" anything from the Jewish historical record. But I would suggest that we make every effort to abolish immoral practices. And I would recommend that whenever we encounter teachings which fly in the face of our ethical sensibilities, that we actively renounce them, speak about them with discomfort and remorse. When the Torah is read in shul, we might read passages such as the "Sota" in a more hushed or less enthusiastic tone, as is currently done when reading the section of the "curses" in Deuteronomy. There are many ways to express protest while at the same time according due dignity to the tradition. And in the final analysis, I would argue that by protesting aspects of the tradition, that itself accords dignity to the tradition.

One may ask, why not simply adopt a non-fundamentalist belief in God, or switch over to a non-Orthodox denomination? To that I would answer: By all means! However, if one wishes to benefit from the richness and depth of a Torah-observant life, if this provides a person with meaning and joy and connectedness to a community, if one considers robust observance and involvement in Torah learning to be key to the survival and success of the Jewish people, but at the same time she/he is embarrassed by the immoral "baggage" – whether practices or dogma – that traditional Orthodoxy "schleps" around with it, and cannot/will not tolerate carrying it, then what this writing is intended to impart is that it is possible to have it both ways. It is possible, if we desire it, to retain the greatness of observant life and simply drop the rest, to just… let it go. And the key I propose, to letting it go, is to shed the myth of God as Commander and Teacher, Author and Authoritarian, Rewarder and Punisher. Remove God as a "justification" for any and all Jewish practice, and we will be well on our way.


*I must admit I was a bit taken aback, when immediately after writing this last statement about "communal honor" as distinct from the Nuremberg Laws, I discovered that the first of the Nuremberg laws is in fact called: "The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour." No, I do not maintain that traditional Torah/Orthodox policies toward women are anything even remotely similar to Nazi policy, God forbid. I see this as merely a disturbing coincidence, but it does underscore the point that we cannot take the language we use for granted!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Problem #5: God Corrupts our Character

Once again, let me begin by arguing the opposite point - that belief in God can help improve a person's character. One who is predisposed to violence, thievery, or other behavior which is destructive to others or themselves, can utilize faith in (and fear of) God as a catalyst for self-correction, teshuvah, for "turning over a new leaf." Of course this also applies to people who are not "criminally" predisposed per se, but are simply susceptible to the many weaknesses which naturally afflict human character, such as the propensity to get angry, speak harshly, act selfishly, become jealous, adopt unhealthy behaviors, get involved in shady dealings in pursuit of honor, glory, money and power, and so forth. The belief that God detests/punishes such traits and loves/rewards higher, more noble traits, is often a motivating factor for people to "work on themselves," whether in a Mussar framework or otherwise.

However, belief in God, and particularly the God of the Torah and Orthodox tradition, comes with a flip side - it has the capacity to bring out darker character traits in people as well. These traits stem in large part from elitism. This is connected to the notion of "chosenness," the belief that God holds the Jewish people in "higher" regard than other nations, due to our accepting/keeping the Torah. It is the belief that learning Torah and doing mitzvot are the only things that truly matter, and that all other people, pursuits, things - and not merely on Earth but in fact all things in the entire universe - are simply "props" on the stage which revolve around Jews keeping and learning God's law. Yes, the Torah teaches that all human beings are created in "God's image" and therefore possess a certain sanctity, but that notion is largely placed on the back burner, and what comes to the fore in the religious mentality too often are attitudes of condescension and pity, apathy, antipathy and disgust, toward non-Jews and commonly toward non-religious Jews as well. It is a belief that religious Jews "know better" and therefore need to "fix" non-religious Jews. It is a feeling that non-Jews are "in the way," busy creating distractions, "stumbling blocks" from which Torah Jews must guard themselves. They are a "tamei" (impure) influence, tainting the holiness of Torah and Torah Jewry, an affront to God's mission, to Creation itself. These are the goyim, the shiktzes and sheigetzes of the world, who one day will find out the "real truth" and beg forgiveness from God and the Jewish people, and will fall over themselves just to be able to serve us... That is sadly the kind of thinking that persists in many religious circles.

One wonders how walking around with a sense of contempt for the non-Orthodox world, looking down one's nose and thinking, We're better than them, can possibly be indicative of a "holy" people. Without a doubt, sensitive and conscientious religious Jews would say that such an attitude comprises quite the opposite - a truly unholy and loathsome brand of character, and a corruption of true Torah. It is that last part with which I disagree. Sensitive religious Jews must come to recognize that such attitudes are unfortunately not a "corruption" of Torah - they can be learned out of the Torah itself, and are aided and abetted by standard Orthodox theology and metaphysics. For instance, if the Jewish people are the only people possessed of God's true teachings, does this not imply that everyone else is "wrong," of second-order status, or at the very least "less connected" to God? If the Jewish people are the only people possessed of neshamot/souls (or at least "higher souls"), does this not imply that everyone else is somehow "lesser," "lower"? This is where Orthodox theology and triumphalism brings us.

It pains me to have to say all this, because there are a great many religious Jews in the world who possess a wonderfully developed sensitivity toward others, highly refined character traits, and would not hurt a fly, let alone disparage or harm another human being in any way. And in fact the same people who hold these objectionable beliefs are often otherwise decent people, even sometimes extraordinary people, individuals involved in chesed (charitable work), people who are kind, gentle and giving. The Orthodox world is an odd phenomenon in this way - it places much emphasis on personal refinement and self-development, discussing certain areas of the human psyche with a great deal of sensitivity and sophistication, and at the same time it also abounds in glaring omissions, where either little or no self-development is taking place, or development of a negative or destructive type is being perpetuated based on traditions handed down.

But the time has come for all of us to own up to the traditions and attitudes in Judaism's own backyard which help to cultivate what has become a superiority complex of the most obnoxious kind, which dehumanize or otherwise breed antagonism for other peoples and cultures, or for Jews who do not "conform to God's will." The time has come to strongly, loudly and unequivocally repudiate these attitudes, expunge them once and for all from our hearts and minds. It is time for Orthodox Judaism to "clean house." And a critical step in doing this is to remove the transcendental/theological justifications which underlie these pernicious attitudes. Once we renounce the belief that we have been chosen by God as the very pinnacle and purpose of His creation, that we are inherently "higher," "better" or "more important" than others, then the sense of arrogance and superiority will dissolve away. If we purge ourselves of metaphysical beliefs, we will recognize what should be patently obvious: A person is only as "good" as their character and their treatment of others, period.

The Orthodox belief in God leads to other "darker" character traits as well. One is selfishness - on the individual level, manifested in the constant pursuit of "my mitzvah" - worrying about me being "yotzei" (satisfying my mitzvah obligation), me davening on time, me hearing every word of the Megillah, removing every crumb of my chametz, picking out my lulav, or protecting/securing "my Olam Habah" (the reward of the "World to Come"), for instance in asking someone for forgiveness not out of genuine regret for having harmed them, but so I myself don't incur the wrath of Heaven... On the communal level, selfishness manifests as apathy about what goes on outside the four cubits of the frum community, an attitude that unless it impacts the religious world, "it's not my problem."

Another negative trait which (counterintuitively, one might say) is propagated by Orthodox theology, is the nearly relentless focus on externals. Is there another community in the Jewish world so obsessed with measuring sleeve length and skirt length, so focused on knees, elbows and collar bones, watching for closed-toed shoes vs. open-toed, sheitels vs. snoods (vs. God forbid no hair covering at all)? Is there another denomination of Judaism which so scrutinizes and prejudges people based on beard length, shirt color, jacket length and hat style, kippah color and material (or again, God forbid no kippah)? The award for religiously-based neurotic attention to externals clearly goes to Orthodoxy. Is there is a role for modesty, or a place for a culture to retain a certain style of dress as a part of self-identification? Of course there is, but again the sense of transcendent/theological importance which is attached to dress, the sense that God is watching and cares (and judges) whether a handsbreadth of a woman's hair is showing, turns it from a potentially benign cultural norm into an obsession on externals - not exactly a noble (or particularly "religious") character trait.

Without question, the non-Orthodox world is rife with its own brand of selfishness, lack of concern for others, and excessive focus on externals. And indeed, within the Torah tradition can be found countless teachings which combat such attitudes and promote higher character traits. As we discussed above, belief in God can be a motivator for people to work through such issues and develop more refined modes of thinking and conduct. The Orthodox world in fact excels in utilizing belief toward these ends. But that same belief in God can also corrupt people's character, causing them to cultivate attitudes which are truly ugly and demeaning of other human beings. The suggested remedy? Emphasize and cull from those teachings in Judaism which bring out the best in our character - but do so completely "lishma" (for its own sake), without attaching to it any metaphysical or theological justifications whatsoever, but simply because that is the kind of people we choose to be, that we seek to become.

The best way to develop a "lev tahor," to be truly pure of heart and mind, is to rid ourselves of belief systems which inevitably sully our character, and to develop and demand of ourselves no less than the best, highest and most noble of human traits. If we do, there is abundant and beautiful material within Torah to glean from and to help inspire us along the way.