Saturday, October 07, 2006

postal scrotum: Jubu redux

Dan writes me an email amusingly titled "in mexico they pronounce it 'hoo-boo'":

Though I do keep a link to your blog and always enjoy visiting it, I have not been able to do so as much lately as I'd like-- but I did just stumble over the discussion of this JuBu phenomenon and thought I'd add two ill-informed and naive cents. After all, that's, like, 20 won, right?

I grew up in an observant Reform Jewish environment, in which the calendar was marked and tracked by the arrival and passage of landmark dates-- sabbaths, holidays, and family events like weddings and deaths. In all such instances, God was dragged into the process of recognition and was profusely thanked and honored.

As my father (a professor of Talmud and rabbi himself) suffered crises of faith, and as I grew more critical in my approach to the biblical explanation of, well, everything, I began to wrestle with what, if anything, God was. Did I really need to pray to the all-powerful being that created the universe? If I was devout and righteous in my heart but never prayed, would that not please God more than mouthing the hebraicisms while my mind wandered to sports and sex? Why did the Bible tell such ridiculous stories, and how was it that such ridiculous stories still had so many lessons to teach and such ethical value? But then, we didn't keep kosher or truly keep the sabbath-- as a "bad Jew," was I an offense to the supernal being, if any such even existed?

It was many years before the Jewish revival movement helped me reconcile some of these conflicting notions. As Spinoza noted, the Bible itself is only to be believed literally by those too simple to grasp more refined philosophical concepts. For such children, it is proper to lay out exciting stories and firm clear rules for living. But for those possessed of critical faculties, the Bible is a starting place, an enormous pregnant analogy.

The essence of this analysis has been described to me by my teachers thus: we need not pray to the hairy thunderer, to some Wilford Brimley on high, for forgiveness and happiness. These are matters that are within our own grasp, as part of the grand cosmic plan-- and the role of God is that of inspiration, not that of role model. God is not some specific entity fiddling with the book of life and setting up trick endings in the reality show that is existence-- God is the order and moral structure of the universe, and by following (or at least respecting) received teachings on how to recognize and honor that order, we can aspire to increase the holiness in the universe and participate in the "process that is God."

It's not theism, or even deism. From this perspective, Judaism is not a liturgy or a specific set of rules for achieving a specific end. Rather, it is a moral philosophy, a moral perspective. It's meant to be flexible, to respond to unanticipated events with a consistent ethical chord. This was what allowed the sages of Yavneh to rebuild the whole religion after the destruction of the Temple, what allowed the Chasids to experience a re-vision of what it meant to be Jewish. It is a path, not a goal-- and in this respect, I think it's got similarities to Buddhism, but also important differences-- because to a Jew, the universe does truly exist and our actions make a difference in it. The goal is to engage and repair the universe, not to retreat from it and minimize its impact on our lives.

This distinction is well-illustrated in a wonderful book called The Jew [in] the Lotus, about a conference called by the Dali Lama for a discussion with Jewish intellectuals and leaders about how to preserve cultural and ideological integrity as an exiled people. It says all this and much more, better than I could.

Anyway, it's an interesting topic, but I'd better get back to work. Hope you're doing well and I will try to keep up with your writing more assiduously.

Oops. I said ass.

Great comment and many thanks. You bring up many interesting points.

My own impression is that Buddhism does not advocate retreat from the world (though it has been accused of such by Christian groups that perceive, rightly or wrongly, a decided lack of the social activism that characterizes the Abrahamic traditions, especially in modern society). I also think that most Buddhists believe the world is real, but that its nature is fundamentally empty. Emptiness isn't the same as illusoriness, and has nothing to do with, say, the Taoist or Qohelethian concept of "vanity" (cf. the famous "all is vanity" found in both the Bible and Taoist scripture). A Buddhist might contend that a person's ignorance will lead them to see the world wrongly: to view as fundamentally "solid" or "rooted" that which is, in reality, in constant process. But this isn't to say that "there's no reality at all" for Buddhists.

I'm going to have to read up on Spinoza. This is the second email to mention him, and I know next to nothing about his thought.

I was fascinated by this line: "From this perspective, Judaism is not a liturgy or a specific set of rules for achieving a specific end. Rather, it is a moral philosophy, a moral perspective." I suspect there are many Jews who agree with this, but many who don't. How do Jews in both camps talk to each other about the relevance of the God of classical theism to the leading of an ethical and fulfilling life?

In Christianity, God-concepts (and the related cosmologies) range all over the place, from the very rarefied and abstract to the wholly concrete. As one of my own profs said, "Diversity goes all the way down"-- in other words, religious diversity exists on the macro level (among religious traditions) and the micro level: within a single congregation, there's no guarantee that two people next to each other in the pew will be harboring the same idea of God. Liturgy provides some semblance of unity-- a unity of externals (singing together, praying together, etc.), if you will. But the inner life? I suspect that every shabbat is a congress of different mental and spiritual universes.

Whether Christians in the pews actually dialogue with each other about their different concepts of God is another matter. I think such dialogues happen in miniature: conflicting or rival concepts are voiced in a Sunday School class or a young adult session; people might talk with each other about God in terms of personal crisis and come to realize that their interlocutor's view of God is markedly different from their own. Unless a more scholarly type brings up the issue of diverse God-concepts during a class (as I used to when teaching Sunday evening classes at my Presbyterian church in northern Virginia), it's unlikely that people of different camps will really, formally, talk with each other. Anyway, that's the Christian situation.

More questions! You wrote, "The goal is to engage and repair the universe, not to retreat from it and minimize its impact on our lives." If a given Jew is not wedded to a classical theistic concept of God, in what sense-- from that Jew's point of view-- does the universe need repairing? Christians have various answers to this question. They often speak in terms of "stewardship" over the environment, but quite a few still cleave to the "fallenness" theme associated with Genesis. Is God's creation right and good (as the first chapter of Genesis implies with the refrain "...and it was good"), or is the entirety of creation marked by an inglorious imperfection that is the result of human sin?

I could go on, but I've got some shopping to do. I had mentioned Kamenetz's book in a recent email to someone else; I agree it's a good read.

Thanks again for writing in.


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