Sunday, 25 July 2010

I Like Studying Judaism (as Wissenschaft)

"In an introduction to a lecture Scholem delivered at the seminary, Lieberman said that several years earlier some students asked to have a course here in which they could study kabbalistic texts. He had told them that it was not possible, but if they wished they could have a course on the history of kabbalah. For at the university, Lieberman said, 'It is forbidden to have a course in nonsense. But the history of nonsense that is scholarship.'"

From Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin (p.249)

Gershom Scholem really got me interested in the study of ancient ideas and that quote from Lieberman also inspired me to take that sort of study seriously. Even if nobody, or very few, people believe these things nowadays I still find it fascinating to understand the different ideas that people have come up with, lived by and sworn by through the ages. Though I pretty much reject most of Jewish dogma, I still think the history and evolution of Jewish dogma is not only important to know if we are to understand our history and present, but is also just a very interesting subject.

Now none of this of course happened while I was still mentally trapped in Yeshiva. In Yeshiva I wasn't studying the evolution of ideas I was being taught eternal truths. I wasn't reading the Gemara as an object of history but as infallible dogma. It was only after I escaped that mindset, and finally accepted that Judaism is my history and not my belief that I began to enjoy studying it. (Before I began doubting Judaism I utterly loved learning but for somewhat different reasons)

So I don't know if any of you care but allow me to tell you a bit about my thoughts on the various subjects in Jewish studies.

Medieval Jewish Philosophy - I have a rather strange fascination with Aristotelian Physics and Metaphysics because it's so interesting that for hundreds of years THAT was the science, even though it was complete rubbish. Also the Medieval Jewish Philosophers deal with many of the BASIC themes that religious thinkers still struggle with today (e.g. Reason vs. Revelation)

Modern Jewish Philosophy- Even if you think it's all rubbish and that modern attempts at creating a synthesis of modernity and religion are ultimately futile, the struggle itself is very interesting. Religion is being challenged by modernity at every turn, how has/will it cope and will it survive the intellectual challenges to it's once unquestioned authority.

Kabbalah - Since I never learned it in my Litvish Yeshivas I find it interesting and don't associate it with ignorant Rabbis. (if I'd gone to a Chassidish Yeshiva I would doubtless hate it) It's mind boggling that this religion within a religion popped up out of nowhere in the Middle Ages (well not quite out of nowhere...)proceeded to vanquish rationalism, and remained dominant for almost 500 years. Also you have to admit that sefirot, klipot, gilgulim and merkavot are much more interesting than stolen tallitot and goring oxen.

Talmud - It's very hard for me to enjoy learning Talmud ever since I had it force fed to me for years by a bunch of ignorant dogmatic Rabbis. I basically associate it with everything wrong with Judaism. But sometimes I manage to forget my bad relationship with Gemara and treat it like an interesting, quaint historical artifact. (And also THE most influential book in Jewish history.) When the Gemara stops being YOUR laws and YOUR source of morality , then you can finally detach yourself from it's weirdness and have some sort of appreciation. (But admittedly, its kind of repetitive, it's not particularly well written, and is the last thing I want to study when there are so many other interesting things out there.)

Tanakh - It's history (sorta) but more importantly it's got some rather well written parts. I started appreciating the Prophets when I realized that the prophets weren't just trying to deliver messages but were trying to do so eloquently and poetically. Even if you disagree with their message they sure do a good job at expressing it. Same as Gemara - an integral part of my appreciation of it was when I stopped thinking of it as a moral and spiritual guide but rather a record of my people's history and culture.

I think that's about everything. What Jewish subjects do you like and why?

40 comments:

MKR said...

I would add the history of Judaism in the modern era, i.e., how we ended up with "denominations" of Judaism, what they are, and how they justify their respective claims to authenticity.

E-Man said...

MKR- Do you think this is unique to modern Era Judaism?

Shilton HaSechel said...

@E-man
Well there was definitely a significant stretch of time when there was only ONE Judaism (excluding Karaism, and Sabbateanism) Even though there was no unanimous decision as to what Judaism really meant and as to Jewish theology there was never a separation into different denominations. (For example Kabbalists and Rationalists would in theory daven in the same shuls and both call themselves Jews NOT Rationalist Jews and Kabbalistic Jews)

I think it's safe to say that different Jewish denominations along the lines of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform is a relatively new development.

(Of course in the 2nd Temple Era there was the Sadducee, Pharisee, Essene split but that largely disappeared after the destruction.)

MKR said...

E-Man, my understanding is that there was no such thing as a Jewish denomination until the Reform movement became such, in Germany in the mid-19th century. Are you thinking maybe of Karaites versus Rabbinists in the 9th century? I think those would rather be called "sects."

E-Man said...

Well first off, how do we define denominations vs sects. Second, does how one follow tradition also constitute a different denomination? I could name a bunch of various different ways to follow Judaism that have existed throughout the ages.

Let's go all the way back to the time of the first temple era. The split between the northern tribes and the southern tribes, would this constitute different denominations. They followed Judaism very differently according to the bible. But also in the time of the Judges it seems like many people followed very differently from each other.

Are you saying that the reform split off from orthodox Judaism was unique? How was it different from Samaritans, Kairites, Christians, Essenes, Sabateans, and so on. Also, what about the Misnagdim vs Chassidim which happened in the mid 18th century. Also, ever hear of the Jews in elephantine, they had their own temple where they offered sacrifices.

Shilton HaSechel said...

MKR,

How would you define the distinction between a denomination and a sect?

MKR said...

If you are interested in the application of the term "denomination" to Judaism, there is a discussion in this Wikipedia entry. I don't see that the terminology is very important, as long as certain historical points are not obscured.

The most important of these, as far as I am concerned, is that the division of Judaism—or "Judaisms," as Jacob Neusner puts it—into Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist, each with not only its own interpretation of Jewish tradition but its own synagogue associations and institutions of rabbinical training and ordination, is a purely modern phenomenon. These modern divisions are commonly called "denominations." Nobody calls them "sects," perhaps because that term implies diverging from the main body of the religion, which none of these movements (so far as I know) regards itself as doing. And nobody, so far as I know, would call the Mitnagedim or the Karaites or any of those others mentioned by E-Man "denominations" of Judaism. In fact, the very term "Judaism," with the accompanying idea that what Jews practice is "a religion," is a modern phenomenon dating no further back than the 19th century.

E-Man said...

How is what the Reform movement did different from what the Karaites and so on did?

MKR said...

How is what the Reform movement did different from what the Karaites and so on did?

"What the Reform movement (the Karaites, etc.) did" does not define an object of comparison. Which thing that each did are you talking about? In any case, as far as I understand, Karaitism was a rejection of Rabbinism while the Reform movement was an interpretation of it.

E-Man said...

Karaitism was an interpretation of Judaism and rabbinical Judaism was also an interpretation of Judaism. So really reform is the same type of break off as Karaitism. Reform is an interpretation of Rabbinical Judaism and Orthodoxy is an interpretation of Rabbinical Judaism. It is just one more level removed. Is that what you are saying the difference is?

E-Man said...

Also, how can reform be an interpretation of Rabbinical Judaism if it completely changes what Rabbinical Judaism was for the 1500 years prior to Reform's founding.

MKR said...

Karaitism, as I understand, was the complete rejection of the Oral Torah. Reform Judaism does not deny that the Oral Torah is integral to Jewish tradition, but it does not hold it to be divine legislation.

Anyway, why are you asking me these questions about matters in which you know that I have no expertise? My only claim was that the emergence of Jewish denominations in the modern era is an interesting object of historical study.

Shilton HaSechel said...

E-man likes arguing ;)

E-Man said...

You claimed it was unique. So I am trying to figure out why you make such an assertion.

It seems to me that there is no real difference between Karaitism and Reform Judaism for the following reason: Karaitism rejected the Divine nature of the oral torah and therefore only accepted the written torah as law. Reform basically does the same thing. Only they take it one step further and say you don't need to follow the written torah either even though it is of divine origin. Am I wrong?

no one said...

kabalah is interesting but the gemara is the best of the bunch.

MKR said...

You claimed it was unique. So I am trying to figure out why you make such an assertion.

What I said was that the division of Judaism into denominations, each with not only its own interpretation of Jewish tradition but its own synagogue associations and institutions of rabbinical training and ordination, is a purely modern phenomenon. You have not presented any counterevidence to this claim.

It seems to me that there is no real difference between Karaitism and Reform Judaism for the following reason: Karaitism rejected the Divine nature of the oral torah and therefore only accepted the written torah as law. Reform basically does the same thing. Only they take it one step further and say you don't need to follow the written torah either even though it is of divine origin. Am I wrong?

I think you are. You seem to think that either the rules of the Oral Torah are divine commandments or they are a dead letter. I don't see how else you can equate Reform Judaism, which draws on the Oral Torah but does not regard its rulings as divine commandments, with Karaitism, which, as I understand it, regards the Oral Torah as simply an extraneous imposition. But we have Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism because most rabbis do not accept the dichotomy on which you rely. They hold numerous different views about the status of Talmudic rules in Jewish life, without holding those rules to be either divine commandments (as in Orthodoxy) or extraneous (as in Karaitism).

I don't know whether one can attribute to Reform Judaism the view that the Written Torah is of divine origin, except perhaps on a very attenuated understanding of the phrase "divine origin." But if you are really interested in Reform Judaism, you should take these matters up with someone who knows more about it than I do.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Don't be surprised, Orthodoxy thrives on false dichotomies and presenting everything as black and white.

MKR said...

How funny: before I posted my comment I deleted a sentence in which I said much the same thing!

E-Man said...

I did not make any false dichotomies whatsoever. Karaitism says the Oral Torah is not divine, but they then think it is worthless. Reform Judaism says the oral torah is not divine, but still hold it with some regard. However, Karaitism says the written Torah must be followed as strict law. Reform Judaism says even though the written torah IS divine, as described on their website last time I checked, they still say one need not follow it.

What is the false dichotomy I am bringing up?

E-Man said...

>What I said was that the division of Judaism into denominations, each with not only its own interpretation of Jewish tradition but its own synagogue associations and institutions of rabbinical training and ordination, is a purely modern phenomenon. You have not presented any counterevidence to this claim.

What makes you think this is true? I don;t need to bring evidence to the contrary, you are making the assertion so you must prove it. Isn;t that what you skeptics always say to us about the divine origin of the Torah. we are making the claim that it is divine, so we must prove it. So I am just asking how reform is different than the numerous other break offs.

Karaitism had their own rabbis and synagogues as well. So did all the other sects.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>we are making the claim that it is divine, so we must prove it.

The funny thing is for all of your nitpicking at the details of my skepticism you still have not addressed that rather pressing issue.

E-Man said...

Really, what nitpicking at skepticism?

Shilton HaSechel said...

Lol like "Well do you think TMS is better than DH because at the end of your post you imply the DH is better but I don't think it is and I think it's comparable to ID vs. Darwinism etc. etc. etc." while avoiding even discussing the important point of the post which was - is TMS tenable AT ALL? Sort of nitpicking at the details while missing the bigger picture don't you think?

E-Man said...

Nope, I was curious as to why you think the DH is more tenable than TMS. Why is that nitpicking? When did I say I cared to discuss anything with you about TMS and how I felt about it?

Shilton HaSechel said...

Just wondering...

E-Man said...

SH- If you are looking for a person to bring you a proof that TMS is irrefutable, it does not exist. There will always be questions until G-D speaks to man again. Until that happens there will be no irrefutable proof.

The giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai according to Jewish tradition was a miracle, almost every single thing that occurred in the desert was a miracle. Therefore, there will not be any natural archeological finds left behind. They were traveling in a G-D made bubble, all of their needs were taken care of by G-D. How could anyone expect to find archeological proof for that?

The only thing that would probably convince you is if the Aron with the ten commandments and the original Torah written by Moshe were found. Otherwise, there will probably never be "good enough" proof for you.

Every problem you have with the Torah can be explained away. Whether it is to your liking or not, there are answers.

However, the thing a person needs in order to believe in Judaism is a little bit of belief, not just cold hard facts. That is where preference comes into it. If you believe that there is most likely a higher being then you will believe in G-D. If you think that there is no reason to think there might be a higher being, then you won;t believe in G-D.

E-Man said...

Here is a little something you can read that I wrote to get my view on things if you care: http://markset565.blogspot.com/2009/07/four-views-on-kuzari-principle-of-faith.html

Shilton HaSechel said...

>The only thing that would probably convince you is if the Aron with the ten commandments and the original Torah written by Moshe were found.

Well that wouldn't prove God wrote it would it?

Everything you said is all well and good but why is belief in TMS more legitimate than belief in Hinduism or in wood fairies? Fine you can "answer" the questions but WHY do you believe in TMS in the first place?

As I put it in an earlier post:"The main skeptic argument is not any explicit attack on religion but rather the rather damning lack of evidence in support of religion in general not to mention MY religion. "

Let's look at it like this:

1. Do you agree there is no RATIONAL reason to accept TMS in the first place? (I don't mean because of challenges against it but rather just because of a lack of positive empirical evidence)

2. If you do agree to the above then do you agree you are basing your religion PURELY on BELIEF or EMOTIONS. Which are clearly the result of your upbringing. After all Muslims and Christians have equally strong emotions about their religions. OR do you have a different definition of "BELIEF"?

3. If you agree to the above then we must ask - Leading your life according to irrational (not meant derisively) emotions is sometimes justified (as I often point out) But why would you think that your emotions are justified in telling you ANYTHING about REALITY? In other words how can your EMOTIONS tell you that there is say an afterlife or that the Torah was written by one person when these things are OBVIOUSLY under the "magisterium" of science, history and other empirical fields of inquiry not what under the "magisterium" of what your heart tells you. Something subjective (your personal belief) is not qualified to make statements about something objective (reality)

>If you believe that there is most likely a higher being then you will believe in G-D.

Erm.. what? Lol you're saying : if you believe in God then you will believe in God

E-Man said...

>1. Do you agree there is no RATIONAL reason to accept TMS in the first place? (I don't mean because of challenges against it but rather just because of a lack of positive empirical evidence)

I disagree, I think there are many rational reasons, there is just no empirical proof that TMS happened, because, as I stated above, everything that happened in the desert was miracles.

>Erm.. what? Lol you're saying : if you believe in God then you will believe in God

LOL, you silly billy, no no no. If you think that the world is just too perfect and you see the existence of the universe as too ordered and perfect to be a random act and thereby leading you to think there must be a higher power ordering the universe (Spinoza believed in a higher power, just not the god of the Jews), then you will be a person that will believe in a god.

I already discussed on my website why I think Judaism makes more sense then other monotheistic religions.

Also, any non-monotheistic religion makes very little sense to me. How can there be more than one god with ultimate power? basically, if you read the Rambam's first perek of yisodei hatorah he brings some logical reasons why it would be impossible for there to be more than one god.

So a belief in G-D can be very logical and reasonable, however, it can not solely rely on logic and reason because it also requires a belief in outwardly unnatural miracles. Which obviously have not occurred in the past 2000 years.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>I think there are many rational reasons

Okay now that we've established that I have a few more questions

1. What are some of your rational reasons?
2. Are the rational reasons good enough? themselves or do they require "belief" to bolster them?
3. If the above is true how are the reasons rational if they can't stand on their own without "faith"? How can something be rational but not rational enough without faith?

As to the next thing:

I guess what you mean is if you believe in a higher power then it makes most sense that it's the Jewish God of monotheism.

Okay but
- Assuming a God "designed" the world, what makes you think that s/he is interested in people and needs to give mankind ANY sort of religion? Why not go deist?

>basically, if you read the Rambam's first perek of yisodei hatorah he brings some logical reasons why it would be impossible for there to be more than one god.

Lol well if you read the Moreh Nevuchim it become immediately apparent that it's all based on Aristotlean Physics and Metaphysics. I love the Rambam but his proofs of God, God's unity, and God's lack of positive attributes are for the most part obsolete.

Also today's Eastern religions aren't really the type of polytheism the Rambam describes so I don't know how applicable he is.

MKR said...

I did not make any false dichotomies whatsoever. Karaitism says the Oral Torah is not divine, but they then think it is worthless. Reform Judaism says the oral torah is not divine, but still hold it with some regard. (Etc.)

So now you recognize the differences. Fine. Your claim earlier was that "there is no real difference between Karaitism and Reform Judaism." That was the one that seemed to me to rest on a false dichotomy. I admit that I was attributing the dichotomy to you on the basis of previous discussions.

Karaitism had their own rabbis and synagogues as well. So did all the other sects.

Fine. You know more about it than I do. But to describe Karaitism as a "denomination" seems to me anachronistic to say the least. It is only in a context in which people's religious affiliations are a matter of individual choice and without much political consequence—i.e., in a modern context—that I have ever seen the term "denomination" applied. I suspect that if you were to describe Karaitism as a "denomination" of Judaism, historians of religion would laugh at you.

E-Man said...

This is what I am trying to figure out, why do you think they would laugh at me? What makes Reform Judaism a denomination, but Karaitism not? If you do not know, then why do you think they will laugh at me?

What amkes you think there is actually a difference between the words sect and denomination? It seems like it is solely because people used to talk about sects of Judaism and now they talk about denominations. This is easily reconciled if we look up in the dictionary the meaning of the two words.

Sect:

1 a : a dissenting or schismatic religious body; especially : one regarded as extreme or heretical b : a religious denomination
2 archaic : sex 1
3 a : a group adhering to a distinctive doctrine or to a leader b : party c : faction

Denomination:

1 : an act of denominating
2 : a value or size of a series of values or sizes (as of money)
3 : name, designation; especially : a general name for a category
4 : a religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices

In all honesty, Reform Judaism, according to the webster's online dictionary, would more likely be a sect of Judaism than a denomination. For, I do not think Conservative and Orthodox Judaism are united with Reform in their adherence to beliefs and practices, do you?

For example, Reform Judaism claims there is no hell. That is not a shared belief. Also, conservative and orthodox Judaism adhere to some form of Halacha (at least in their doctrines) whereas the Reform do not.

E-Man said...

In reality, I think that sect and denomination really just mean the same thing.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Forget the semantics

Reform Judaism EMBRACES Rabbinical Jewish history and literature but thinks it's time to move on while Karaism REJECTS Rabbinical Jewish history and literature.

A Karaite won't study the Talmud but a Reform Rabbi will.

Therefore Reform Judaism is more of a CONTINUATION of Rabbinical Judaism while Karaism is a BREAK with Rabbinical Judaism.

Of course Orthodoxy considers them BOTH evil aberrations from the REAL Judaism so from that POV they're the same.

E-Man said...

No! You completely miss the point of the discussion at hand. Is Reform Judaism a unique break.

What is unique, in my eyes, is that Reform doesn;t seem to consider itself the only viable form of Judaism. At least, that is the impression that I get. Whereas, any other breakoff of Judaism has always claimed to be THE only real Judaism. Karaites claim that Rabbinical Judaism is not real Judaism. However, Reform Judaism does not seem to claim Orthodoxy and Conservatism is not real Judaism.

Also, Reform Judaism, as well as Conservative Judaism, never claim that their way is how Judaism has always been, from what I can tell. In these ways they are unique.

Shilton HaSechel said...

>However, Reform Judaism does not seem to claim Orthodoxy and Conservatism is not real Judaism.

Well I guess the Reform look at everything to the right as just outdated but not WRONG. Conservatism basically thinks the same thing about Orthodoxy. All of this is what I meant when I said a CONTINUATION as opposed to a BREAK.

>never claim that their way is how Judaism has always been

That's also exactly what I meant by CONTINUATION

as opposed to Karaism which is a BREAK and rejects Rabbinical history entirely.

E-Man said...

Well Reform break as well. Otherwise, why do they not feel bound by the rabbinic authority?

E-Man said...

Also, Reform Judaism clearly does not believe in the Rabbinic history. They reject the oral Torah as divine. That is the same as the Kairites. However, where they differ is their attitude towards the value of Rabbinic works. They still find value in them even though they believe that there was no Oral Torah from G-D. Again, this is a break from the Judaism that existed for the 1500 years prior to the creation of Reform Judaism.

Puzzled said...

Actually, I'd say it's easier to compare Karitism to orthodoxy than to liberal Judaism. Let's take an illustrative example: an eye for an eye. The Torah was written in a time when this was radically compassionate - people could not have been pushed any further, so the Torah pushed them as far as possible. The Karites, in a time when people could be pushed to be more compassionate, wanted instead to hew to the literal words of the Torah, whereas the rabbis fought for understanding the meaning behind it and applying it in their time. Today, the orthodox try to hew literally to the words of the Talmud.

Shilton HaSechel said...

Puzzled,

The Karaites broke off in the Middle Ages and were (to a certain extent) a revolt against Rabbinical authority. In that respect they were not conservatives.

I assume you're thinking of the Sadducees or whichever conservatives the Pharisees were fighting against.

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