October 23, 2005

The Sanctification of Tradition

A while ago, Kantor left this comment:

When Christians say that Jesus was the son of a virgin, or Jews hold that God opened the Red Sea for Moses, they are making factual statemets.

I would be very interested in understanding why Jews belive in The Red Sea miracle, but they don´t belive in Maria´s virginitiy, or Mohammed´s trip to the Moon. These things are a matter of fact, so a field for logic and reason.

Now, in a footnote to a very long and worthwhile post, Razib says:

Christian believers were surveyed as to their axioms. They were then given some forged documents from the "Dead Sea Scrolls" whose veracity the researchers vouched for. The documents contain evidence that the core truth claims of these Christians were highly unlikely, and almost certainly distortions of the "truth." After this the respondents were asked if they believed in the veracity and accuracy of the documents, and many responded yes. But, these same individuals insisted that their axioms still held, and, averred that their faith was stronger. The key point is that the contradictions were naked before them, but they refused to acknowledge it. The implication is that religious propositions are cognitively insulated from standard means of disconfirmation. One could posit that the results were in part due to the inability to reason logically because of low intelligence, but if this is modal in the population, same difference.

So, here's a thought experiment. (Though Kantor is not American, I hope that he will understand the reverence with which Americans hold their constitution.) What if we were to discover that the Constitution that was signed and ratified by the 13 original United States of America had been stolen by an evil genius and replaced by one quite different - and that is the one which has come down to us today? Would you say that Americans were legally bound to that other Constitution, and that they should revert to it? Probably you would say that the one in use now has been in force for over 200 years, has been amended from time to time to reflect the will of the people, and that that process gives it legitimacy to continue in force. In other words, a 200+ year tradition has sanctified the US Constitution. That is exactly the view that Judaism takes toward halakha.

Now, halakha doesn't concern itself with the parting of the Red Sea, and if you look at the Rabbinic tradition you will find all kinds of bizzare and conflicting ways of understanding the factual assertions of the Bible. As Razib says about science, it's not about loyalty to a specific set of facts, but to a process, and to a social system.

Other thoughts on this matter: here, here, here.

Also see here. There's a lot more to the Talmud than halakha, but only halakha is legally binding. The rest embroiders the rich tapestry of Judaism as a social phenomenon.

רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן חִסְמָא אוֹמֵר
קִנִּין וּפִתְחֵי נִדָּה הֵן גּוּפֵי הֲלָכוֹת
תְּקוּפוֹת וְגִמַּטְרְיָאוֹת פַּרְפְּרָאוֹת לַחָכְמָה

Rabi eli`ezer ben hisma omer
Qinin upithey nida hen gufey halakhot
T'qufot v'gimatra'ot parpra'ot l'hokhma

Rabbi Eliezer son of Hisma says
The laws of bird offerings and menstruation are essentials of halakha
Astronomy and numerology are condiments to wisdom

Pirqey Avot 3:18

In other words, a lot of boring little things are essential parts of halakha, while a lot of big exciting things are not. This is one of the recurring objections to Judaism: that concerns itself with all sorts of little details while leaving the big questions unanswered. I think that it's one of Judaism's strengths.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at October 23, 2005 01:12 AM | TrackBacks
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my experience with observing believing christians engage believing jews in regards to the details of what jews believe is that the christians do not understand the rather less important role that belief in a specific set of axiomatic propositions play in the jewish "religion." i put religion in quotes because the term is a catchall which tends to elide over the distinction between those systems which are skewed toward orthodoxy and those which are skewed toward orthopraxy. ironically, though the discourse in the west tends to take orthodoxy as the default norm, and seems to imply that orthopraxy is a peculiar deviation from that norm, most of the world's traditions tend to lean toward orthopraxy. islam does in many ways lean toward praxy, that is, shariah (i.e., it certainly has strong central propositions, but they are rather spare and the creedal theology is poorly developed in comparison to christianity). hinduism is certainly focused on social experience and lived forms and rites, rather than personal affirmations of creeds. confucianism, shintoism, go down the list. i think in some ways elite buddhism resembles christianity is its philosophizing veneer, but in practice both 'folk buddhists' and 'secular buddhists' (i.e., western converts to zen) fixate on practice. even within christianity it is american protestantism which tends to fixate on creedal affirmations the most, roman catholics certainly have a catechism, but the liturgy is the heart of the religion to a far greater extent than reflection and affirmation of doctrinal truths through intellectual engagement with the scripture.

now, on a second point, looking at kantor's original comment i think he overrates how deeply the revealed religious traditions are rooted in the cognitive substrate of most believers. another study indicates that believers can't really extrapolate from a core set of axioms, like the 10 commandments, toward a common set of inferences. that is, the axioms of the religion are not really amenable to reproducible logic. there is perhaps a reason that roman catholicism has christianized a pagan philosophical system (aristotleianism) to generate neo-thomism. for a small minority of believers, and most unbelievers, religious propositions are open to reason and factual verification. these are the types who engage the apologetic literature. but for the vast majority this is irrelevant, the existence of supernatural agents doesn't need to be examined in close detail, it is "naturally" self-evidently a "reasonable" inference from the world around us.

Posted by: razib at October 23, 2005 01:33 AM Permalink

My experience with Americans in general (not just Christians) agrees with yours - the assumption that religion is necessarily faith-based is hard to get past. It's one of the ways in which people simply can't believe that other cultures really exist, and other people think differently. In my opinion, every religion has its own definition of what religion is.

However, I think that even in religions for which dogma is more central than it is in Judaism, the average person justifies their beliefs by how they impact their day-to-day life. When faced with apparent contradictions, they are likely to think to themselves, "there must be an explanation for this, but I don't know it". I don't think that's a bad response, those who do think themselves capable of resolving contradictions usually have too high an opinion of themselves.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at October 23, 2005 04:43 PM Permalink

"This is one of the recurring objections to Judaism: that concerns itself with all sorts of little details while leaving the big questions unanswered. I think that it's one of Judaism's strengths."

I think the same. But the problem of revelation is still a problem. Judaism is also a religion, unlike you consider it a nationality. And there is an original revelation. Maimonides when speaking about revelation looks very uncomfortable: the rest of his theological building is strong, but revelation, specially Mosaic revelation is both essential and irreductibly non-rational.

Anyway, when you see the Mosaic revelation and then you compare it with the rabinic filtering, I agree in the fact that the rabbinic process looks the most supernatural part.

Posted by: Kantor at October 23, 2005 10:42 PM Permalink

"This is one of the recurring objections to Judaism: that concerns itself with all sorts of little details while leaving the big questions unanswered. I think that it's one of Judaism's strengths."

I forgot to say why I find so good the fact that judaism leaves the big questions un-answered: the believer can look for those answers by herself.

Cristians have one very well developed theology, Jews have a lot of half developed ones. It is far more sincere. And that is what I find so attractive in Judaism. The human need for irrationality is fulfiled with small rites instead of with big dogmas.

Posted by: Kantor at October 23, 2005 10:51 PM Permalink

I like yer style.

You're first paragraph is brilliant and spot on, imo.
You're second, I think, is too harsh on ord'nary folk.

In my experience I've think I find that those who accept teachings as they're presented to them -- and explore the truth with a seemingly less than vigorous soul-searching -- do so not because they are less curious, but because they are busy.

If we were all students then where are the teachers? I mean, there are some among us who just don't have the time or inclination to decifer all of the wonderous evidence that's presented. Some are content to leave that job to others and to accept their hopefully wise counsel.

I'm not gonna study the ins and outs of combustion engine design when I can just pay my mechanic 20 bucks to change my spark plugs. Let his knuckles take the beating.

If we were all expected to be students equally then the rabbis would never bother to write anything down.

They have faith in the teachings of learned others. That's not a bad thing, per se. It's just a thing that's true.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at October 27, 2005 03:49 AM Permalink

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