Who Needs Talmud?

Aron: The other day, I wrote an article for Tikkun in which I used (at your suggestion) a Talmudic discussion to argue that American Jewish institutions should condemn Steve Bannon’s appointment. A cousin of mine objected to my use of the Talmud as backup. He wrote:

Why look to the Talmud as opposed to some other ancient text, i.e. the Gospels, Ovid, the Upanishads, etc.?  All offer the same mix of sense and nonsense, so why elevate one over the others? The answer, of course, is that, as a Jew, you clearly feel some special obligation.  But again, why?  As an American, I feel no special obligation to Twain as opposed, say, to Proust or Anatole France.  I see no reason to limit myself, yet you do for some reason.  So wha’s the answer?  What is the nature of your obligation to the Talmudic tradition?  Nationalism?  Belief in Yahweh?

I don’t limit myself to Talmud (far from it), nor do I read it out of a sense of nationalism or ethnicity or because I believe in the God it presents. Still, my cousin brings up questions I’ve often asked myself.

I’d like to get your take. Can we derive moral insight from the Talmud or other Jewish sources, or do we just select the passages from those sources that confirm our modern, liberal views? Is there any reason for us to prefer Jewish sources over similar ones from other traditions?  Do we read them out of a sense of obligation, and is that obligation necessarily bad?

Allen: Thanks to your cousin for raising the question, since it strikes at the heart of the value system we’ve both been arguing for. Why borrow from Jewish tradition as opposed to the Gospels or the Upanishads? (Mark Twain seems an irrelevant example. We’re talking about concrete ways of life grounded in sacred texts, and Tom Sawyer doesn’t fit the bill: there are no practicing Twainists the way there are Jews, Christians or Hindus.)

I submit the following analogy. Fidelity to a tradition is something like fidelity in a romantic relationship. Your cousin might well ask: why do significant others remain exclusive? Why shouldn’t we (the hypothetical “we”) look for additional partners? There are plenty of fish in the sea. All offer the same sense, so why elevate one over all the others? There are a few obvious answers to this line of questioning.

  • What we have works. We gain a sense of companionship and meaning from a long-lasting relationship. Yes, after a long and arduous search, a more perfect match just might turn up; but there’s no need to look for perfection when we have contentment. In other words, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
  • We have a history. Over the course of a relationship, a couple develops a common language, a set of verbal and physical signs to communicate with one another. It hurts to walk away from that, and creating a new language all over again takes work.
  • Polygamy‘s harder than it sounds. Not that I’d know from experience, but juggling multiple partners has to be a challenge. Judging from the Bible (and most rom-coms), we have a hard time devoting equal attention to all sides of a love triangle. Naturally, a favorite emerges, whether it’s Sarah over Hagar or Peeta over Gale.

So there you have it: an argument for textual monogamy. Jewish tradition works– at its best, it speaks our ethical and personal strivings. It has a history– we share a common language with the sources. And religious syncretism’s harder than it sounds– I’m not saying it can’t be done, only that reconciling the Tanakh and the Upanishads would undoubtedly prove exhausting.

I’ll pause here to let you get a word in edgewise.

Aron: What you’re saying resonates with me, but it makes one big assumption: that there’s some value to religious texts. I think one question my cousin is asking is why bother reading any of that stuff – Talmud, Sutras, Hadiths – when you could derive ethical guidance from secular moral philosophy. Sure, there are ethical commands in religious texts but, unlike secular moral philosophy, they’re not solely (or, perhaps, primarily) concerned with ethics. Instead, religious texts balance a mix of interests besides ethics, (questionable) history and theology among them. We can, of course, just pull out the ethical parts, but then why not just stick with purely ethical texts like A Theory of Justice and dispense with religious ones?

I’ve got two thoughts. First, there are times when the ethics presented in religious texts challenge some of our ideas about justice without contradicting them. For instance, Eduyot 7:9 suggests that its better to make a less strict law that will be observed rather than a more strict one that is unlikely to be observed. In this context, religion is valuable when it shares our moral concerns – moral conduct, justice, community – but balances them differently than we might in 21st-century America. This, though, isn’t a sufficient reason, since there are plenty of non-religious ethical texts from different times and places that challenge our present moral outlook.

More importantly, religion often does something that secular philosophy can’t: it entwines our moral obligations with our sense of wonder. Consider Christian philosopher William James, who exhorts us to fight to minimize human suffering. He writes, “[T]o trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real.” Though we can easily see how such an idea might be perverted, at its core is a moral command based on awe: treat the entire world as if it could be made holy. The awe that makes us wonder at the scale of the universe, the intricacy of flowers, and the potentiality of our children can also inspire us to protect the sacred things and people around us. We don’t have to know what holiness and sanctity mean – or even believe in them – to act on them. The Rabbi of Kotsk once told his followers, “God resides wherever man lets Him in.” I don’t know if I believe in God, but I believe in that.

Allen: I’ll defer the unenviable task of defending Jewish texts for another post. For now, you’ve made a few points worth calling attention to.

  • “[Religion] entwines our moral obligations with our sense of wonder.” This isn’t a self-evident claim. I could make an argument that wonder is precisely the wrong attitude to take toward life. We’re a collection of electrochemical reactions in a universe of mostly empty space. What’s so remarkable about that?
  • Even if you explain why we should all feel a sense of “radical amazement”, it’s not clear why that should translate into “moral obligation.” I can admire beautiful sunsets on the beach day after day while closing my ears to the shouts of those drowning in the ocean. Why should awe demand anything of us?
  •  “We don’t have to know what holiness and sanctity mean – or even believe in them – to act on them.” I disagree. A nonexistent object can’t possibly lay claims on me. If I don’t believe in unicorns, I won’t go on a hunt for them. Likewise, if I think that the concept of sanctity is nonsense, then I have no reason to act on it. And what exactly do you mean by “sanctity”, anyway?
  • You quote the Rebbe of Kotsk: “God resides wherever man lets Him in.” Let’s call a spade a spade here. The Kotsker Rebbe was no agnostic. What you’re really doing is hedging your theological bets and twisting a convenient Chasidic maxim to make that move seem more authentic.
  • “I don’t know if I believe in God,” you say. Don’t you know, though? You know you believe in something that’s very different than the Kotsker Rebbe’s God. That’s fine, but you ought to be honest about it.

In short, I’d encourage you to more fully articulate your theology or lack of one, whatever it may be. What do you really mean by the word “God?” What do you actually believe in and why? That’s the kind of conversation that the liberal Jewish world so palpably lacks. Theology in the age of Trump isn’t just an exercise in navel-gazing. At minimum, we religious progressives need a set of foundational beliefs we can recite with a straight face. We have to explain what we stand for and why. Vague aphorisms of “awe” and “sanctity” do not a movement make.


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