You Shall Pursue

May 25, 2012

Morality and the Talmud

I spend a lot of time in the feminist blogosphere, and many mainstream feminist blogs are run by atheists, or at least by people who reject the value of organized religion. This means reading a lot of posts like this one from Pandagon, which are often challenging to read, usually because atheists who reject all religion out of hand get my hackles up. However, I do think that this post raises a valid and interesting point. Namely, what is the relationship between textual interpretation and the moral claims of a broader society?

There is no denying that Judaism has long been in the habit of offering multiple, sometimes contradictory, interpretations of the Law (see: Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai). There is also no denying that our tradition contains many examples of halakhic interpretation and re-interpretation to fit a particular sage’s view of morality (see: Maimonides’ views on abortion or post-Expulsion responsa in North Africa). My question is, how does that fit in with the idea of text as moral authority? How can an ever-changing text be considered a moral authority?

I think the problem is that our society sees immutability and authoritativeness as one and the same. We like to ignore the fact that we interpret and re-interpret all major texts to suit the morals of the day. Look, for example, at the Constitution. It has 27 Amendments. In the first version, most black people were 3/5 of a person and women couldn’t vote, and now neither of those things are true. But there exist in America “strict constructionists” who claim that their interpretation of the Constitution is not only right, it is not an interpretation at all. You see the same thing with Orthodox Judaism, which claims that it is “Torah true” (oh, except the Torah says nothing about patrilineal descent or sheitels. oops!).

On the other hand, I don’t think it necessarily follows that one can say that everything is an interpretation, and therefore there is no authority the text. I think the Torah presents us with the lump sum of human behavior in all its richness, and asks us to pick the way that is life-affirming, or the way that is life-destroying, and the attendant consequences. The interpretation comes in as each generation decides how best to affirm life and relationship with God (for the sake of this argument, I am counting atheism in its current form as a form of engagement with the Divine). Part of that may be adherence to ritual, or a commitment to social justice, or to asceticism, or neo-Platonism, all of which have emerged as part of the Jewish view of “life affirming” at one point or another.

For me, Judaism at its deepest core is that commitment to feeling deeply, living right up at the edge where everything is real, often heartbreaking, and always complicated. It is, I think, why the Jewish culture is so committed both to scholarship and to social justice. Our theology does not rest on the World to Come, so we make our time in the World that Is. Perhaps that is the moral authority, that we are tasked with engaging with the world of the here and now, and within it, staking our claim on morality and goodness.

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