Sunday, September 15, 2013


[continued from Part 1 above]
God himself loves to be challenged in Jewish tradition. He is not pure and aloof. Abraham asks him to do justice at Sodom and Gomorrah. Rabbi Nachman said that chutzpah (an Aramaic word) towards heaven can get results and Rabbi Shesheth said it makes you like a king (before God), lacking only the crown to complete the picture. Though chutzpah may have meant what it means today (a certain boldness and impudence), I think it may also have meant disrespect. Whether these rabbis were saying boldness or disrespect is sometimes allowable towards God, the point is that God loves a good fight—over principles and justice. God does not want fawning and subservience. If you are subservient to an impure God, then you become even more impure. The only way to beat impurity is to embrace it and constantly challenge it. God, this impure God, raises his children to think for themselves and not to be overly respectful of authority, not even his own. It would be absurd to worship impurity.
Rabbi Yochanan bar Nappacha once criticized another rabbi for constantly agreeing with him and praised his departed friend and colleague Resh Lakish who was always objecting to his points and forcing him to think more clearly. We understand Torah better when there is dispute. It leads to “a fuller comprehension,” Rabbi Yochanan said. Without Resh Lakish to debate him, he added, it was like trying to applaud with one hand. I think he meant that the way we applaud God is to give him vigorous disagreements which he loves listening to. Uniformity of opinion was never the original rabbinic goal, not for the best of them.
So there is God saying, Challenge me, disrespect me, mix it up with me. And there is Torah saying, Don’t parrot me; change me, if you have to, if justice demands it. Don’t put a false, stifling shroud of holiness over me. And I ask myself: Then why would I treat established academic tradition about Darwin or science or anything else any differently? The rabbis refused to make an idol out of Torah or Jewish culture. If you cannot get up the chutzpah to deal with scholars who idolize Darwin and get things wrong, what are you worth? Hillel was blunt about it: In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man. One might rephrase that in any number of ways, such as: In a place where there are no truthtellers, there be a truthteller. Something tells me I’d be failing Hillel and all of Jewish tradition, if I were any less blunt.
“A peculiarly human advantage is that memory sustained over generations allows us to diverge from the past, not only to mimic it … It may include the trying on, trying out, of materials and methods from other current groups not our own.” That is Gillian Beer from Open Fields. Not to mimic, but to allow divergence. The rabbis, so strongly under the influence of Pharisaic culture, accomplished this in a number of ways. One was their insistence that minority opinions be recorded. They give two reasons for this. One is what we might expect. They did not want someone to falsely claim that what was in fact a minority opinion was the majority position. We want to have a clear historical memory of the facts.
The second reason is unexpected. If we keep a clear memory of the judicial history, the minority opinion might turn out to be useful one day. The rabbis realized that the majority in a future generation might disagree with today’s decision. If so, they will need support and this minority opinion might be just what they need to take the community in a new direction. I think there was also a desire for truthfulness. They wanted people to remember that discord and disagreement was a part of Jewish culture. Nothing must be erased. Outside voices must continue to speak. The Pharisees had lived as outsiders to the establishment for so long, it became a part of their spiritual legacy.
Factual accuracy, or at least trying to maintain such truthfulness, can give us diversity and openness to possibilities—just because history does contain a lot more than we realize. It might even help us achieve justice which is probably more imaginary than real. A myth or an ideology aims at the exact opposite. Its purpose is to fix the past into a lie that can never be challenged and never be changed. The creation of myths about Darwin or any historical figure can only happen because the intellectual community has agreed to be dishonest about the facts. And if we believe it is important to expose myths, then we should keep in mind that it becomes easier to deal with other myths when we see one exposed in operation.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer

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