Religious Liberalism
Thursday, September 28, 2006
Here's a religious post. It is related to religious liberalism, but not terribly topical :)

"Joseph's Irregular Vort: It isn't necessarily relevant to the parsha, topical or even learned..."

There is a general prohibition (it isn't a simple prohibition, there are allowances and exceptions) of not anthropomorphizing Hashem. Yehuda Ha-levi (in the Kuzari) has a very interesting take on this prohibition. He doesn't object to giving G-d form in words per-se, he simply says that it is inappropriate. Hashem is pure essence, pure soul. To paraphrase, the Kuzari asks, "Would you describe your own soul with a head or arms or legs?" It clearly doesn't fit. The soul lacks all these things and is not in any way lacking because of it. It is like describing a number and saying it has arms and legs. It is not only incorrect, it is irrelevant.

I thought, at one point, that the above would be the perfect entry point to the real things I want to discuss. The friction, perhaps, between the individual and the community. How it was supposed to be an entry point, I no longer know, so here's another attempt.

Adam Smith describes two kinds of rulers. One is the Man of System and the other is the Wise Ruler. The Man of System is a central planner. He believes so strongly in his system of government that he believes he can move people as easily as chess pieces on a board to make them fit his conception of government. Smith's Wise Ruler, on the other hand, is benevolent and recognizes the self-motivating aspects of humanity and satisfies himself with general regulations and systems that moderate the most destructive of humans and their impulses.

As a Jew, the question I have is, how does Jewish society fit into the picture? How do we relate to G-d? To Rabbis? To our peers?

Now, each approach (particularly the Man of System) carries a great deal of intellectual baggage - baggage that is carried through into Jewish tradition.

The Man of System envisages a government with very detailed top-down control that is organized for the good of society as a whole and that maximizes individual happiness because that is, naturally, what individuals desire. This is like the Tragedy of the Commons – where limited resources risk being overexploited when access to them is not managed collectively – being extended to everything. In a standard example, a fisherman will have an incentive to catch as many fish as he can – as will all of his neighbors. Without collective control and management the result will be overfishing and a tragedy for all of the fishermen.

In more standard Torah models, which are slightly different, a man is better off helping his whole city fortify its walls than just fortifying his own home (which will prove useless in an assault). A community of sailors is better off forcing the individual not to drill a hole in his own bunk (and sinking them all). The believers in the man of system extend this to everything. And because the individual benefits through this sort of external control, the ultimate benefit is derived from total control over everything. The individual may not recognize it, but he or she is better off *and* the community is better off, if their actions are set. This concept is extremely common both in Jewish and non-Jewish thought. Ask anybody what their picture of the time of Moshiach is. They'll describe a world in harmony - a world where, while people keep their free will, it is rendered meaningless because they want to keep G-d's word. Sure, people will have different parts, but they will all sing together for the greater good and for their own. Disagreement, even for the sake of heaven, would be destruction.

The question I have is (and I'm not trying to be heretical here), did the Rabbonim who believed and laid down this approach do it because it was the dominant intellectual tradition for thousands of years (Smith's Wise Man system had not yet been established) or did they do it because were they inspired by Hashem to adhere to Plato's model of society? To what extent (and limited by the extent to which I have understanding of Jewish tradition) is our relationship to Hashem and our Rabbis like our relationship to a Man of System and his enforcers? Or to what extent is Hashem Smith's Wise Ruler, and the Rabbinical system simply his medium and system for moderating and directing our activities?

The Kuzari describes the man who fortifies only his own home. He explains that for the benefit of the community, a man must give to the communal defense - and it will be both cheaper and more effective for him to do so. He then does a very strange thing. He extends the Tragedy of the Commons model and says that we give to our communities and build community strength not only through charity and tithes, but through certain actions (Shabbos, holidays, jubilee etc...), certain words (prayers, blessings and thanksgivings) and through certain midot (character traits like love, fear, joy). I asked some Rabbis at the Kollel about this (and discussed everything with my mom) but it was a challenging question. Interestingly, each Rabbi targeted a different area as somehow problematic. And those areas were the areas I would more closely identify them with. One targeted the midot and wondered how they would be communal and the other targeted the blessings. For the midot the answer was (I believe) a quote: "Because you did not serve the Lord thy God in joy... you shall serve your enemies)." Having joy when serving Hashem has communal impact. It is therefore clear that joy (and also fear and love) should be communal. For the blessings Rabbi, the answer was that when you say a blessing you bring holiness down into the world and this benefits the community - and this would be extended to the other areas. As a side note, prayer would seem to be communal by nature (the bulk of the references are to us, not to me) - but the Rabbis wrote the prayers and so they actually set it up to be so.

I certainly appreciated the analyses, but neither of them really did it for me. Neither was quite an all-encompassing answer to the question which I would phrase as: "How do you apply the Tragedy of the Commons to holidays, blessings and midot?"

The implication of the Kuzari's comparison is that:
1) On the one hand participating in Shabbos, brachot (okay, okay brachos), and love of Hashem requires less effort as a community and delivers more spiritual strength.
2) On the other hand, if one person is not participating in Shabbos, brachot and love of Hashem, the entire endeavor can be sunk. The community bears responsibility for the individual.

A little while later, in the same chapter, the Kuzari talks of the holy individual - the pious one. Of course, he circulates in this community, he works in this world - this is the Jewish model. But then he goes a step further and says (to paraphrase): "Imagine how holy this man would be if he were in the land of Israel in the time of our great man surrounded by and interacting with other holy people." The implication is quite strong that holiness is best established in community and reinforced by it. And by being both holy and by interacting with others you lower your own barriers to encountering Hashem while enhancing your reward. Likewise, a single individual can undermine the whole operation. It is taught that if a man committed manslaughter and had to flee to a City of Refuge, the community Rabbi had to flee as well. The shortcoming in the man that led to the accident was a shortcoming in the community and in the leadership.

So, the Tragedy of the Commons is extended to spiritual matters. It seems like it is extended to all spiritual matters - and certainly to the ones that the Kuzari regards as the source and bases of all mitzvot (Love of G-d, Fear of G-d and Joy in G-d). In a community, the individual benefits most spiritually when contributing to the spiritual strength of the community.

Now, while the Kuzari refers to Plato - he makes one very very substantial deviation from him. He refers not to an enforced obligation to serve the community - but to a duty. He implies a free will to participate or not. This is *not* the Platonic model.

So going back to our original question, is Judaism a religion with a Man of System (G-d) or a religion with a Wise Leader (still G-d).

Before we go on, a standard critique of the Man of System is that he cannot know enough to run society by his system. There isn't enough data, things aren't predictable enough etc... This critique does not apply to Hashem. He does know enough. But he can still choose not to be a Man of System.

The Kuzari's path is clear. Any disagreement, even for the sake of Hashem, is hugely destructive. It says: "heterodoxy, I mean the splitting of opinions, is the beginning of the corruption of a religion."

In my opinion (as limited a weight as it carries), the classic model that Judaism is based on ultimately achieving this Man of System society is flawed. The key item is the Kuzari's Free Will. The Man of System ignores free will. But Hashem has clearly given it to us. In Hashem's model we operate more as independent and competitive agents (like elements in an ecosystem) than as cogs in a machine. Even more mechanistic plant life and geology are better understood as independent and competitive agents – and they totally lack free will. But perhaps Hashem is looking for a combo-deal? Most would argue that Hashem desires that we use our free will (ecosystem model) to move towards a society that actually functions harmoniously with a Platonic perfection (the classic, but flawed model for the operation of the human body as controlled entirely by the brain [see Chana Cox, Until Shiloh Comes])? Perhaps Hashem is seeking the most blessed of combinations: A humanity with free will that forms the perfect G-d worshipping machine?

This is certainly the description that comes from our understanding of Moshiach.

It does seem that this model applies to a part of the community. Kohanim are designated to a machine-like life. They have certain activities pre-determined for them, they dress identically and are to act identically, they are insulated from economics and variability of life through tithes, their lives are basically pre-ordained to a remarkable degree, with the biggest part of variety coming through lots to determine who does what service. Note, THEY do not determine what service they do. The lots do – in other words, Hashem does. For the Kohanim, G-d is to be largely if not entirely a Man of System. But what of the rest of us? Is this our ideal? Are we to melt indistinguishably into the collective?

Rav Kook once said that Halacha is like a house in the field. In the whole picture, the house is important, no doubt, but it only covers a small area. Halacha, likewise, only covers a small area of life and of goodness. Beyond the house (which is small) is a whole field of opportunity for individual expression of the relationship with Hashem. His ideas open up the concept of Hashem (even in the time of Moshiach) being a Wise Ruler and not a Man of System. Under this model, Halacha and Rabbis are general mechanisms for moderating our evil inclinations and steering us in a good direction. But what we do beyond that is still up to us.

Smith's Wise Ruler sets up mechanisms and general rules. Within those, there is competition and feedback. In other words, these are adaptive systems, like ecosystems. They adapt to changes in circumstance, and they adapt to changes in the actions of others.

Perhaps, Hashem is really the Wise Ruler with the capability to be a Man of System. He relates to the angels and to a great extent to the priests as a Man of System. But he respects and establishes our free will, enabling us to relate to him as we would to Smith's Wise Ruler. I like to compare Hashem to an author. There are characters in a book. The good author will recognize those characters have their own motivations and allow them to be true and realistic and act in ways that the author did not foresee. The characters have their own souls and free wills and if you are not true to them, your book won't be very good. I have, many a time, rewritten an entire plot (with the same outcome, generally) because a single character didn't do what I expected them to at a key point. G-d, of course, is a very good author (the perfect one) and knows us perfectly, but he still allows us (with a few exceptions) to make our own path.

Sure, in the time of Moshiach many things will be set and we will follow them, but our free will is not meaningless. We would *STILL* exercise choice, and not just choose the single good path. We may not exercise choice between good and evil, but we can still exercise choice between good and good. Yes, there is only one Hashem, the ultimate good - but there are many expressions of it. We may not be motivated by hatred, resentment, greed and lust - but we can still be motivated by Love, Fear and Joy. The world's feedback mechanisms, the world's concept of balance and competing goods, might very well continue to function. But competition would be between midot, between the mitzvot beyond locked-down halacha, between ideas and approaches to bringing kavod (honor) to our King, holiness to our world and pleasure to our fellow man.


The result would be not a harmony of voices each singing their own part of a choir-like whole. The result would be more like a Beit Midrash; A host of different conversations filling our world with holiness and love.

The Kuzari says that in this world we are like small parcels of land. If we get rain it is because all of the land around us deserves rain as well. If we are dry, it is because those around us do not deserve rain and so we cannot receive it. In the world to come, we merit more individual judgement. But here, community is important.

Communities have a ruach and a spirit. That ruach can be poisoned by an individual, or made great by many individual interactions.

In the coming year, I wish that all of you contribute to your communities - through tzedakah, through prayer and blessing, through Shabbos and through love, fear and joy.

May you choose good and may the spirit and rewards of holiness flow through your lives and your communities.


p.s. Please feel free to disagree :)

Chana Cox, Liberty, G-d’s Gift to Humanity
Chana Cox and Rebecca Becker,
Chana Cox, Until Shiloh Comes
Rabbi Yehuda Ha-levi, The Kuzari
A couple of Rabbis at Kollel Beit HaTalmud, Melbourne
Harav Yehuda Amital, The Ethical Foundations Of Rav Kook's Nationalist Views

A religious liberal is committed both to his or her religion and to the belief that governments are established primarily for the protection of individual liberty and human rights.

Chana is the academic who wrote Liberty, G-d's Gift to Humanity, Joseph relates the ideas to current events and discussions.

July 2006 / August 2006 / September 2006 / October 2006 / November 2006 / December 2006 / March 2007 / July 2007 / November 2007 / October 2009 /

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