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Wise Words From A Rabbi

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.

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  • Richard F. Miller

    While I respect (and share) Mr. Nelson’s respect for diversity, that does not give him (or me, for that matter) license to misrepresent a work as subtle, influential and deeply philosophical as Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.

    Properly responding to Mr. Nelson is far beyond the scope any blog post, and probably exceeds my own capabilities, so in that regard, please forgive a bit of argumentum ad verecundiam, and allow me to quote the late Isadore Twersky, who was, with Leo Straus, probably the foremost interpreter Maimonidian of the last century:

    “[The] Mishneh Torah is not a monolithic, cut and dried code in the conventional sense, but is in many respects a commentary cast in codificatory form, abounding in interpretations, bits of exegesis… historical surveys, explanations of trick phrases and subtle concepts…. It is a manual of study as well as a guide to practice.”

    The Mishneh Torah is, like its author, a deeply philosophic work that demands not blind obedience but philosophical understanding and a good amount of human rationalization. As Twersky described the guiding force of MT, “Law must, therefore, be understood and appreciated as well as obeyed and implemented.”

    The notion that this is at odds with diversity is absurd–Jews have been arguing about how that law must be “understood and appreciated” long before the MT showed up and ever since.

    However, it is at odds with a certain kind of diversity–those who wish to insist that certain modern behaviors, particularly related to sexuality, are normative, have sought to undermine Biblically-based Jewish beliefs by somehow casting them as an invention of medieval Jewry.

    Jews are free to do what they wish in any regard–we have no pope. But those who wish to do so should invent their own rationalizations rather than arguing that Maimonides, in rationalizing the Mishna, somehow invented the law.

    As my kids would say, “So not so.”

  • Richard Quigley

    “…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.” That,to me at least, is the core of the post.

    Thanks for this Professor Mead.

  • Jim.

    “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.”

    ***This is where creativity and innovation comes from.***

    Not from a random “breaking the rules” or “change is good” attitude. London rioters broke the rules. Public discord is certainly a change. What did they discover? What did they build?

    No, you immerse yourself in the physical phenomena of this world, you immerse yourself in the commentaries of the past, and then you *figure out what the rules actually are*. If what you figure out differs from what went before, if you realize that something is possible, and it works (without serious unintended consequences), you’ve probably innovated.

    Applying a rule broadly enough in itself changes the rules — sometimes even the underlying logic that spawned the new, innovative “rule”. Some rules can collapse, when relied upon in the wrong way — “safe as houses” comes to mind. Overuse of Keynsianism (public credit) is another. The Blue Social Model itself falls under this caveat, for that matter.

    Other times, situations get better, the more broadly the rules are applied (turning to the other cheek, for example.) While relatively small numbers of shirkers or rebels can ruin the system for everyone, they can still make the everyday world a better place.

    If your study is humanity, and you study with any integrity, you’ll probably agree with a big chunk of past commentaries. Human nature hasn’t changed all that much. We are still male and female, and that’s how the next generation of children is born. We need food and shelter, and without help from outside sources of energy what we can create for ourselves isn’t very much. We still need to be useful. We still need to keep busy. We still get old and die.

    Figure things out. Learn what the rules really are. Understand the assumptions. Understand the limitations of your approach. Approach experts with a degree of skepticism. Don’t get careless with extrapolations or oversimplifications, as policy wanks are so prone to do.

  • elixelx

    Walter, your Rabbi knows, does he not, that Jews read the Torah, with commentary, every Saturday, and then parts again on Mondays and Thursdays.
    To blame the second Moses for the loss of Jewish learning is akin to blaming the first Moses for FORCING the Children of Israel to leave Egypt! The Earth swallows up those who say things like that!
    And then, shamelessly, to compare Mishneh Torah with Readers Digest is something only an ignoramus, or a Reform Rabbi (a Chaplain, indeed!) would do!
    Change your Rabbi, Walter! He is neither Rabbi, nor friend!

  • M.

    The point of this seems to be not just about Judaism or religion, but how we’re collectively distancing ourselves from individual critical thinking in any number of situations.

    Whether one agrees or disagrees with what Nelson specifically wrote about Judaism, think about how many people actually know what the US constitution says. Just because we’re governed by its rules doesn’t mean we know what all of it means. How many people actually know why we have the “winner takes all” electoral college (sp?) system? But we sure as hell know that’s the right answer on our grade school social studies exams. What Nelson describes in general terms happens all around us and – as his example illustrates – throughout history as well.

    We definitely don’t have the luxury of time to think about every little thing we do, but in my interpretation, the takeaway message is that we should keep the part of us that asks why sharp regardless of whether it’s to do with religion, the constitution, or anything, really… If you don’t understand something, take it upon yourself to figure out what it is and why it is done that particular way.

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