Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Back to theology. The following was part of an email I sent to to my friend, Jay Michaelson:

> Unsurprisingly, being in Yeshiva, I've been thinking a lot about
> normative Judaism. In your Leibowitz response you asked why we have
> any obligation whatsoever to a transcendent God.
> "Why is there any need to stand before God in worship?" I think it's
> something to do with the assertion of God's immense power on the one
> hand and goodness on the other, infinitely dwarfing us and
> our individual wills on both counts.
> Whether what God requires of us is to obey the system of halacha in
> particular is another question. But don't you agree that that the
> essence of normative Judaism is the individual's obligation to God?
> It bugs me - because I want to think Judaism is about something more
> instinctual, more mystical - but at the moment it seems to me that to
> be authentically Jewish one can't escape the concept of obligation.

He replied with the following:

> You've been sitting in yeshiva too long.
> The "essence of normative Judaism"? What is that?
> Obligation is a highly misnagdic way of looking
> at mitzvot, and mitzvot is only one (albeit central) part of the Jewish
> picture. How about love of God? How about, since you seem very
> Maimonidean this day, the knowledge of God? Which in
> the Guide III-61 (or is it 51) is the same as love anyway -- as
> evidenced by the Hebrew yada.
>
> Obligation is also extremely dualistic. God fills every atom of the
> universe. So who is obligated, and who is he being obligated to?
>
> I do regard halacha as obligation but not in a dualistic sense. In
> fact, obligation might not even be the right word. I regard
> halacha as a set of practices which both inculcate right understanding
> and respond to the reality of God with right action.

Now I've sent him quite a lenghty reply:

> "You've been sitting in yeshiva too long."
>
> You might be right. It's almost a truism when I say I'm sure I'll
> get more perspective on my yeshiva experiences when I remove
> myself from this environment. Dharamshala and India is going to
> be something else entirely. (Well, maybe not entirely - I mean to
> study a little bit of Talmud with the Chabadniks there.)
>
> "The "essence of normative Judaism"? What is that?"
>
> I meant the core of Judaism as seen by Judaism itself.
> I'm aware of the circularity in talking about "Judaism itself" and
> therefore implying a specific centre. It may be a product of being
> in the yeshiva environment, but I find it difficult not to think of certain
> textual forms - Tanach, Mishnah, Gemarah, Tshuvot and Halachah - as
> somehow the most 'essentially Jewish'. Learning Talmud Torah in a
> yeshiva environment is a good example of a 'normative' Jewish ideal.
>
> "Obligation is a highly misnagdic way of looking at mitzvot, and mitzvot
> is only one (albeit central) part of the Jewish picture."
>
> My friend Alex quoted Elliot Dorff on this: "mitzvah means commandment".
> Alex added himself: "That's not to be against other ways of relating to
> mitzvot. But they only make 'empirical sense' if they come from a sense
> of commandedness." I've already mentioned to Alex that making 'empirical
> sense' may not be the ultimate criterion. Nevertheless, most Jewish discussion
> of Mitzvot seems to imply the conventional interpretation. As Leibowitz points
> out, even the original Kabbalists and Chassids saw Mitzvot as binding
> commandments. I know there are other ways of relating to halacha, but
> doesn't obligation come first, in the knowledge that the system is strong and
> intransient enough to take the many interpretations of different ages, groups
> and individuals? It may be that a sense of obligation is the only way a system
> of mitzvot is sustainable in society.
>
> As for mitzvot being just one (central) part of the Jewish picture... Leibowitz
> says it is the only constant throughout Jewish history. He rejects the view
> that Judaism should rather be characterised as the 'community of One
> God' - because a) interpretations of the meaning of monotheism are so
> diverse as to sometimes be contradictory and b) many other communities
> have expressed something similar without any knowledge of or debt to
> the Abrahamic tradition. (I know that b) is quite weak... after all, what is wrong
> with different traditions expressing the same Truths each in their own way?)
> I think Leibowitz has a point when he identifies the 'halachic enterprise' as
> the central linking thread.
>
> "Obligation is also extremely dualistic. God fills every atom of the
> universe. So who is obligated, and who is he being obligated to?"
>
> Granted, the self may be an illusion. And yet more often than not we
> experience life as individuals. It as a self that I observe, think and act as
> an agent in the world. I can directly experience nonduality through meditation,
> prayer and other such practices. And I can keep some of this awareness with
> me as I return to my habitual sense of acting as a distinct self. But surely I
> have no choice but to return. Thus I can be obligated, even to a system
> which ultimately leads me to an awareness that the self who is obligated
> is only an illusion. There is no conflict between the concept of individual
> obligation and your interpretation of halacha as "a set of practices
> which both inculcate right understanding and respond to the reality
> of God with right action".
>
> If we accept that most of the time we inevitably function as selves,
> obligation may play another function:
>
> If I always obey my will as an autonomous individual then I make myself
> my master. In fact, I might say I am both master and slave. If I perceive
> a de facto obligation and assert its divine nature, I acknowledge God as
> my master. (We were just studying a part of Masechet Rosh Hashanah
> which defines the correct kavanah for Kriat Shema as an intention to 'seat
> God on His throne'.) Leibowitz is very wary of any utilitarian interpretation
> of mitzvot - as it makes God the servant of the individual, when really it
> should be the other way round. Personally, I think this makes sense, but
> only as a starting point. It falls short in so far as it fails to acknowledge
> that ultimately there is no distinction between God and everything else,
> including the individual.

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