Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5.Zen Judaism

Chapter4.Tradition vs. innovation

I am not here engaged in the fashionable sport of bashing religions, but merely stating what seems evident,in view of the many glaring errors of fact and logicin all such documents and traditions, and in view of surrounding historical considerations. But such insights should not make us abandon our religious traditions altogether. I would opt for a median position, neither fanatically religious nor aggressively secularist.

My attitude to religion, note well, is not that of an opponent out to discredit it and humiliate its proponents. I favor a “Zen attitude” – the outlook of a meditator patiently and confidently watching thoughts flow by. I do not expect immediate and definite answers to all questions. I am not attached to results, pro or con. Rather, I meditate on, and I am duly grateful when new insights happen to come. In this way, my impartiality, objectivity and credibility are always maintained.

None of the criticisms of religion need be taken as excluding the possibility of God from human knowledge. The many imperfections in religion do not even exclude the possibility of (individual or collective) human encounters with God, like those believed to have taken place at Sinai about 3,300 years ago. We can keep an open mind either way. There is no logical justification in refusing all “metaphysical speculation” offhand and forever[1]. Speculation is one of the wondrous powers of the human mind – it is silly to dogmatically block it off. Such a policy can only impoverish human thought and being.

The process of religious development above described must be understood in its essence, as one oftransmission of various crucial values. We should not throw out the baby with the bath water, and reject the tradition wholesale because of its scientific, historical and other flaws. Such indiscriminate rejection can only result in a moral and spiritual impasse such as we see around us today. Nothing is to be gained but the bankruptcy of human values, if past wisdom is totally abandoned.

A comment regarding anti-Semitism is worth making in this context. A major reason why Jews are often hated by non-Jews (especially Christian and Moslem, but the disease seems to be spreading further nowadays), and indeed why religious Jews are often hated by non-religious ones (the so-called self-hating Jews) is that Judaism has brought the burden of God awareness into the world – the “yoke of the kingdom of heaven”.

This is perceived by many as an artificial imposition of undesirable duties and inhibitions, and the people who made this annoyance happen (the Jews) are deeply resented for it. Of course, not everyone has such negative reaction, but some people unfortunately do. In any case, we should keep in mind that many of the criticisms of religion are simply resistance to its ethical impositions. The critic is looking for ways to shake off the burden.

Worse still, those who radically oppose all religion end upperverselyadvocating the very opposite of religious virtues and values. What was virtuous and good becomes vicious and bad, and conversely. This is the spirit of our times, ourZeitgeis. For example, nowadays, Israel is projected by many leftist groups and media (some of which involve Jews) as the aggressor towards the Arabs rather than as their victim. Again, homosexuality has become a fashion instead of being viewed as one of the most abominable practices possible to men and women.

We should rather learn to identify the heart of the matter in each area of concern to the religious tradition, its spiritual source. We should find the precious teaching of wisdom in it, and ignore the historical fabrications and accidental accretions as no longer as important as they once seemed. Mistaken facts and fake reasoning should be recognized and denounced as such, without resort to contorted apologetics and without hostility. We should definitely reject what seems absurd or untenable[2]; but that does not mean reject everything. Separate the silver from the dross. For example, acknowledge the equal dignity of women where it seems to have been traditionally put in doubt.

This is of course no easy task. Should I ignore kosher dietary laws, for instance? If so, on what grounds, besides personal convenience? Perhaps, rather than abandon the laws ofkashrut, we should opt for the more restrictive and more humane vegetarian diet (which is, incidentally, also kosher). How can we be sure that our insights and underlying motives in picking and choosing are purely spiritual? But this is the crux of the challenge for the human faculty of valuation – how to distinguish intelligence and wisdom from stupidity and folly. Purity, sincerity, lucid intuition and honest logic are needed to avoid straying.

I am clearly not here developing a defense of the conservative, reform or other such modern movements stemming from Judaism – not to mention its Christian and Moslem derivatives, nor for that matter the currently prevalent pseudo-scientific atheistic-secular religion. All of these are also deserving of much criticism, each in its own way. I am not arguing in favor of some revised intellectual construct or some new pseudo-spirituality, or increased permissiveness or novel fanaticism. I am rather looking for the intuitively obvious, the plainly true.

The traditions transmitted to us by our spiritual forefathers offerpointers. The image of the finger pointing at the moon comes to mind. Don’t get too fixated on the finger, but rather turn your attention to the moon it is pointing at. Don’t let the tradition enslave you and oppress you, but use it to liberate you and enlighten you. This can be a very difficult task, because everything in Judaism demands utter conformism. It takes great courage to overcome this powerful force, while remaining within its reach. To let it influence you positively, without letting it forcibly rule you.

So what if the Bible (and any other, similar text) turns out to have fictional aspects, finally? A work of fiction can inspire, too. The important thing is the transmission of spiritual truth the work intends and effects. Also, fiction is often based on facts. Indeed, fiction has to be based on some facts; there is no such thing as pure fiction. Often, fiction is the best way to transmit facts, for if they are only presented systematically in the way of dry data their soul may be lost.

If I believe in God and wish to express that belief through worship, I may find I need some sort of religious décor and scenario to do so cogently. I could “invent my own religion”[3]– but why reinvent the wheel, when I have at my disposal the venerable religious practices of my Jewish forebears or other traditions to draw from (maybe cutting and pasting a bit as seems fit in current circumstances)? Some people do make up their own religion; others prefer to just worship in tried ways.

The most important thing, I think, is to realize that spirituality is “good for you”, i.e. to your advantage in a deep and long-term sense of the term. You are the manager of your destiny, and it is silly to mismanage it. Take the responsibility and evolve positively. This is a lesson that Judaism (and similar religions) can learn from Buddhism (or some branches thereof).

Judaism tends to enjoin dutiful compliance with its laws through disapproval and other heavy-handed forms of social and psychological pressure (though not exclusively). It imposes a lifelong treadmill with little room for objection. Buddhism, on the other hand, gives you a choice; it does not disapprove of you for doing the wrong things or not-doing the right things, but gently reminds you that it is foolish to behave thus and advises you to choose wisdom. The latter friendlier method of moving people seems more appropriate in this day and age.

[1]Contrary to what Bertrand Russell and others have insisted.

[2]One rabbinical interpretation I find very difficult to swallow concerns Deut. 22:6-7 (the Biblical injunction to chase away the mother bird before taking eggs from her nest).This law on the surface appears as a lesson in humanity – i.e. not to be cruel to animals, to be mindful of their feelings too. Instead of which, the Talmud turns it into an injunction to go out of one’s way and take eggs from a nest (even if one does not need eggs today!), so as to do the irrational ‘mitzvah’ of chasing the mother away first. They insist that this law should not be read as a requirement of humanity to animals, preferring to admit it as inexplicable.Of course, they have to do so because they defend the carnivorous view that animals may be hurt to some extent (to be sure, as much as necessary, but not more) since they are allowed as food for humans. To a naïve reader like me, the law isconditional: it means “Ifyou seek eggs and find the mother bird sitting on them,thenchase the mother before taking the eggs”.The Rabbis change it into anunconditionallaw: “whenever you are walking in the woods, and you chance to see a mother bird sitting on her eggs,you mustgo out of your way and chase the bird from the nest and take the eggs”. Which reading is more credible, do you think?

[3]Like Timothy Leary recommended. A recent example isThe Urantia Book, written in the early 20thCentury in the U.S. There are countless more. Indeed, are not all religions ultimately inventions of men and women?

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