My Bard colleague David Nelson serves as the Jewish chaplain and from time to time shares thoughts and reflections with the faculty by email — a kind of in-house blog. With his permission, I’m reposting his latest entry here. It’s useful and interesting for what it says, and as a model of how a solid grounding in a great scholarly tradition can foster insight and understanding in surprising ways.Well worth a few moments of your time — even as markets are crashing around us and the world’s hot spots continue to erupt. Thought is good.
Traditional Jewish life has many rules that govern every aspect of human activity. Dress, eating, business practices, sexual relations, parenting practices, and much more are dealt with by the voluminous legal literature that has grown in the last couple of thousand years. One of the most interesting things about this legal history, though, is how diversity and flexibility have fared in various eras and in various legal works. In the earliest post-biblical phase, there was a tremendous amount of room for diversity and local custom. So, for example, there is an account in the Talmud of several rabbis who were discussing how long each thought it was necessary to wait after eating a meat meal before eating dairy products. The answers vary from “the amount of time that normally elapses between one meal and the next” to “twenty four hours.” But there’s one rabbi in the discussion who is visiting from a distant community. Finally the locals ask him how long they wait in his community, and he says, “Wait? We dn’t wait. We simply cleanse the mouth and inspect the hands (to make sure there are no pieces of meat stuck in the teeth or on the hands).” The remarkable thing about the response is that it is not followed by a shocked outcry of protest and outrage from his colleagues! They accept his answer and move on. Apparently, the notion of widely different practices pertaining in different communities was well accepted. This tolerance for diversity began to erode in the Middle Ages. A major player in that erosion was Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), a great philosopher, rabbi, and legal scholar. He wrote a comprehensive law code and in its Introduction he explained that in “the old days” everyone was able to study the biblical and talmudic sources and work through his own legal decisions. But “in our day,” says Maimonides, between the general deterioration in scholarly ability, the growing Diaspora, and the pressures under which Jews live, no one has the ability any more to make his own decisions. So he, Moses Maimonides, will make The Decisions for everyone. No longer will Jews need to study the Talmud and other sources. All they will need is the Torah and his Law Code. And in fact, Maimonides’ code gives simple instructions, without going into any of the underlying complex principles or earlier sources. Within a few centuries (especially once the printing press was invented) Maimonides’ new approach gained traction throughout the Jewish world, and there was a commensurate decrease in tolerance for local diversity of religious practice. But initially, Maimonides’ work was greeted in the Jewish world with great anger. The point of the law, his opponents argued, is to study the sources, to immerse oneself in text, and to develop a reasonable practice. It is NOT to receive a “Reader’s Digest” version that skips all the intricate nuances and the thinking, and simply tells us what to do.Sadly, the reliance on the pre-digested wisdom of experts is a feature of many cultures, not just of Jewish legal culture. Whether in forming our opinions of politics, art, food, philosophy, or almost anything else, we increasingly turn to an expert to find out what we should do or believe. The effect of the invention of the printing press on Jewish law is paralleled by the invention of Google and Wikipedia on our culture. And though I suspect that these technologies are here to stay, I often think we would be better off if, every once in a while, we would take the time and put in the effort to figure something out, from scratch, on our own.