Sunday, May 23, 2004

Authenticity in Judaism

As anyone who's been reading this blog for some time ought to know, I'm not in the least bit religious. I don't believe in heaven and hell, spirits and gods, and all the other sorts of meta-physical phenomena that seem to be taken as givens by most of the other people in this world. Nevertheless, that I am irreligious doesn't mean that I don't take religion seriously - given its tremendous importance to a lot of other people, I feel a duty on my part to understand the various religious systems that are most historically and culturally important, and to obtain a better appreciation of them both as means of social organization and as bodies of philosophical thought that various individuals have tried to fashion into consistent systems, some with greater success than others.

It is with these ideas in mind that I devote so much of my time to studying the various monotheistic religions, though I am not in the least bit religious myself; but if one is intent on understanding Christianity and Islam, one cannot hope to get far without coming to grips with another religious tradition of which both are offshoots (or heresies, as some might prefer), namely Judaism. Though its adherents are few in number in comparison to the other two religions - and largely because of the competitive antagonism of Christianity and Islam - it's influence on the world at large has been far out of proportion to the number of individuals who have subscribed to it, greater even than Christianity and Islam individually, in so far as both would never have come into being without Judaism as their precursor.

Getting to the main point of this post, one thing that I have noticed in the course of my learning about Judaism has been an unthinking and subconscious bias on my part that I think is shared even by most believers in Judaism itself (and certainly by Israel's legal and political system), which is that while Reform and Conservative Jews may be Jews on a purely ethnic level, in a religious sense, they are somehow less "authentically" Jewish than their Orthodox and Hasidic counterparts, who are the true carriers of a Judaism "unsullied" by compromises with the modern world. It is with this bias in mind that I happened to find the article above by Rabbi Simon Maslin so interesting, as for the first time I found in it a thoughtful articulation of a contrasting viewpoint from the one implicit in the commonplace view of Orthodoxy as being somehow more intrinsically "Jewish" than Conservativism or the Reform school.

As the Rabbi points out, modern Orthodox Judaism is itself a direct descendant of a reformist stream of Judaism, the Pharisaic school that reformulated the religion around the study of the Torah and the synagogue, even as Sadduccee and Maccabean traditionalists continued to insist on the primacy of the sacrifical rites centred on the Temple in Jerusalem. Furthermore, some of the very greatest scholars esteemed by the Orthodox themselves were hardly the unworldly figures many of their admirers aspire to be in our day - men like Maimonides and Judah HaLevi were not merely narrow pedagogues of Talmudic learning, but also individuals who were deeply interested in the contemporary world about them, in its peoples, its literature, its history, its arts and its sciences. Even the Hasidic insistence on such supposedly "Jewish" dress as the black caftan and the round fur hat, and on long sideburns and side-curls, are not in the least rooted in ancient Jewish practice, but relatively modern accretions that have since hardened into symbols of "authenticity" and an imagined antiquity of tradition.

With all of this in mind, the Reform and Conservative schools of Judaism, when looked at objectively, are no less deserving of the mantle of "authenticity" than the Orthodox variety - and in fact, even the very label "Orthodox" slants the playing field from the very start, as if something is "orthodox", it is almost by definition the "right" or "proper" way of doing things. Modern day Orthodox Judaism is in many ways no more "orthodox" than the other two main varieties, and all of these offshoots of the Pharisaic tradition could in their turn be viewed with some justification by the Karaites (who acknowledge only the Tanakh, and reject the Mishna and the Talmud) as so much modernist straying from the path of "true" Judaism to which they alone continue to adhere. It should be clear that my point in mentioning the Karaites is not to alight on yet some other group as being the sole, authoritative bearers of the Jewish religious tradition, but simply to illustrate how the pointless game of religious one-upmanship in the name of "authenticity" can be carried on ad infinitum.

Of course, much that I have said here about "authenticity" and traditionalism also applies to the Christian and Islamic religious traditions, when rephrased in slightly different language - for instance, despite the Vatican's insistence on its primacy as a bearer of the Christian religious tradition, the same claim can be made, with an equal weight of antiquity behind it, by the Eastern Orthodox Church as well, while Protestants are substantially correct in condemning icon-worship and the institution of sainthood as wayward developments away from the path established by the early church. All of these branches of Christianity can in turn be condemned as polytheistic heresies by those who continue to reject a divine trinity of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - and on and on it goes ad nauseum.

I suppose if there's anything to be taken from all this, it is always to resist the temptation to believe that some strain of a religious tradition is more "authentic" simply because it has a more ancient look and feel to it, or claims to have a stricter interpretation of what the religion requires of its believers. If one absolutely must decide upon some single branch of a religion as being authoritative, one might as well go with the branch that has the most members, and in the case of American Judaism at least, that would not be the Orthodox variety (nor would it be Southern Fundamentalism in the Christian case).