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Logical and Spiritual REFLECTIONS

Book 5. Zen Judaism

Chapter 5. The rabbinical estate

While the vast majority of rabbis are without doubt, virtuous, lovable, above-average human beings and Jews, as a professional class they can be characterized as bureaucrats of the spirit[1]. Their task is only to apply existing rules and regulations, not to reason why or question dogmas.

The rabbis are functionaries trained to be conventional, to conform to the Torah and past and current interpretations of it generally accepted by the profession. They are taught to function within that basically fixed framework, to rigidly relate everything they come across exclusively to it. They are taught to either uncritically repeat traditional platitudes or formulate new apologetic fabrications.

They are not allowed to doubt any traditional given – or not for longer than it takes to find the answer to their question in the traditional sources, which must be taken on faith even if they seem factually or logically inaccurate or just arbitrary or far-fetched. The rabbis have no authorization to deeply investigate or radically innovate. If they ever venture out of the fold, their peers and leaders quickly call them to order (under the eventual threat of expulsion, presumably)[2].

One result of this pedestrian and soporific education is that the rabbis cannot develop full intellectual courage and honesty. Their cognitive position is inherently flawed. They are unable to make sense of or practically handle new facts and arguments, or new historical situations, for which their closed frame of reference has left them quite unprepared.

In such cases, they respond by ignoring facts and arguments, or by fudging and temporizing. Unable to give reasonable answers, they simply ignore the questions posed, or promise to later answer but do not, or pretend to give answers, or enjoin “faith”. And unable to take corrective actions not foreseen by the law, they pretend the problems non-existent or not as bad as averred.[3]

This is all too evident in many scientific issues, such as modern discoveries concerning the size and age of the universe or the biological theory of evolution[4]. It is also manifest with regard to the consequences of modern technological developments, such as the cruelty to animals inherent in industrial farming and slaughtering or the threat to fish species caused by mechanized fishing, or again in the unchecked increase of homosexuality in society at large in recent years. But it is also true in much more banal issues.

Most rabbis I have met refuse to study modern philosophy, science and history books – not out of laziness, but out of fear of discovering errors in traditional beliefs. (Inversely, for my part, I have come to avoid the Torah study hall, for fear I might become an atheist! When I do attend a study hall, and see how little the people there know of current philosophy, science and history, and how absurd and artificial some of their arguments are, I prefer to remain silent so as not to hurt their feelings, although it saddens me.)

Saying all the above about the rabbinical establishment, I do not mean to express any personal antipathy to any individual or to the profession as a whole. I have no doctrinal ax to grind, either. I actually have much respect for my religion and its institutional guardians; I say this sincerely, without fear or diplomatic motives. I am only trying to be an objective observer and honest critic.[5]

I am here of course referring to rabbis generally recognized as orthodox or traditional, not to so-called[6] rabbis of the conservative, reform or other such dissident movements. While the problem on the orthodox side is perhaps excessive rigidity (usually), the problem on the other side is excessive laxity. The latter so dilute Judaism at their will – adapting the law to fit popular desires of the day – that there is soon almost nothing left of it. Such arbitrary permissiveness is an imposture. A middle way is necessary – a more pondered and courageous way, which takes developments in knowledge and society into consideration without going to the opposite extreme.

When the rabbinical deciders, the poskim, make a decision that seems overly strict – or in some instances, overly lenient – it is clear that they have done their best to conform to the givens of Judaism and to consider the human needs of Jews. I do not doubt that. They are, we might say, victims of the system. They are, understandably, afraid to sin and to cause others to sin. The narrow scope for change is almost inevitable, in view of the historical givens and structure of Judaism.

Judaism claims to have been revealed at Sinai, primarily in the written Torah, and simultaneously in the oral law (which was allegedly also given at Sinai and transmitted intact to the makers of the Talmud). None of these claims can be verified; and even when some of the content is shown to be factually or logically doubtful or absurd we are not allowed to discard it. Even if the main rabbis got together and decided things otherwise, there would always be some holier-than-thou dissenters. It is doubtful that this tragic situation can ever be remedied. Therefore, religious Jews seem condemned to suffer it to the end.[7]

[1] The same pejorative remark can be made regarding the similar functionaries in other religions.

[2] We saw such a case a few years ago in Israel, when no less a figure than Adin Steinsaltz was made to retract certain things he said by certain other important Rabbis.

[3] To me personally, all this has been brought home clearly by observing the absence of responses from Rabbis to my book Judaic Logic.

[4] These, I am sure, are never taught in yeshivot, though they might be momentarily considered and dismissed offhand if questions are asked by a student.

[5] Needless to say, too, the problems and fallacies enumerated here are not reserved to rabbis. They can be found in other groups, whether religious, political or allegedly scientific.

[6] I say so-called, because they have usurped a title that existed long before they arrived on the scene. They should have called themselves something else, if they were honest.

[7] A similar doctrinal imprisonment is apparent in the Moslem religion, for the same reasons. Humans have a history, and it is very difficult for them to shake off the karma of the past.

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