It was written primarily for those Jews who have lost the ability to discern between the wheat and the chaff, a phenomenon so very common today. But as it relates to some of the things that have been written on this list, I thought I'd post it here too.
What is written here may or may not hold true for the laws and customs of other religions. It is not my place to say. That is for the practitioners of those religions to decide.
The God of Israel as Engineer and Architect of Morality
My studies of Anarchy have recently brought me to consider mechanical and civil engineering and architecture insofar as they impact on societal structure. Those are subjects I never thought I'd really concern myself with (what I won't do for The Cause :0). It transpires that I have learned a very valuable lesson from those forays into formerly wholly foreign territory.
Over the years, an on-line epistolary pal has chided my tendency to see meta-messages everywhere and make the simplest, most straightforward matters into metaphors, moral metaphors at that. "Sometimes a fish is just a fish, Doreen", he has told me any number of times. Well, yeah, but sometimes a fish introduces us to an ocean of understanding.
For many years I have been concerned with how it is that Jews are able to learn very profound and subtle moral messages from commandments and narratives from Torah which, on the surface, are anything but moral or subtle. There is no logical bridge between what is said and what many of us are able to understand from the lessons. Often, they seem diametrically opposed.
Outsiders have an even harder time understanding this phenomenon and assume that we live according to what appears to them to be barbarous rules. We don't. We see something beyond the words, intuit something, something that it not immediately apparent. To be more precise, some of us do. Many, too many, of us never get beyond the surface.
In considering engineering and architecture as social phenomena and shapers of social structures, I saw plans on drawing boards in my mind.
I realized that Jewish Law can be likened to a grand plan on a drawing board. It is the outline. It is NOT the structure itself.
Just as the plans of the engineer or the architect must be made actual, must be fleshed out with actual material and are not fulfilled until they serve human needs, so Halakhah (Jewish Law) must be made actual in the form of livable and humanistic societies, livable dwellings, humanistic workplaces, safe day care centers, methods of supplying food to all, education to all, healthcare to all…justice for all.
Jewish Law is only the plan, it is NOT the actualization. The mere performance of the ceremony is not the fulfillment of the plan.
Those who live according to Halakhah and do not flesh it out with real social structures are people who confuse the plan with the structure. Can we live in the drawing of a building? NO! We must build the building itself.
It was no less a figure than Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (the initiator of the redaction of the Talmud), who said: "It is good [to combine] the study of Torah with an occupation, for the effort required by them both keeps sin out of mind, while all Torah study not combined with work will in the end cease and leads to sin. All who occupy themselves with the affairs of the community shall be engaged with them for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their fathers assists them and their righteousness endures forever. And upon you [says God] I will bestow great reward as though you had accomplished it all by yourselves." (my italics) PIRKEI AVOT (ETHICS OF THE FATHERS), Chapter II, 2.
Those who do not build society based on their Torah learning feel that something is somehow missing. They fill the void they feel inside themselves with excrescent minhagim (assumed customs) and chumrot (assumed stringencies), which, because they serve no purpose and actually impede social change, are nothing but emunot t'faylot (superstitions).
What then is the Halakhah if not the actual behaviors we are intended to perform? Is it mere symbol? NO!
Halakhah is that which arouses, activates, educates and hones the moral sense within us.
Morality is something beyond logic, beyond reason. As David Hume aptly observed, reason cannot tell us why we should prefer the destruction of the entire world to our own finger being scratched. Morality exists on a level that is not rational. That is not to say that it is irrational. It is to say that it is non-rational. It is super-rational. That is the reason that the narratives and mitzvoth are often so very strange to the mind. They are communicating messages to us that go past the level of the conscious mind. They speak another language.
The Torah with its strange-sounding commandments and narratives speaks to us on a level that is beyond reason. It activates the ability to be able to perceive that which is moral, to yearn for that which is moral to recognize that which is moral. It inoculates us against the confusion of moral relativism and prevents us from becoming entangled in that endless morass.
Learning Torah correctly, we become imbued with morality. It becomes an indelible and inherent part of our psyche, our very bodies. We are thoroughly infused with morality until we react to it reflexively. We cannot but react to it. We desire it above all other desire. When we are moved to tears of love and joy at the sight of loving-kindness and moved to tears of outrage and repulsion at the sight of cruelty, when the desire for the Good is above our every other desire, we can be sure that we have been fully inculcated with the Halakhah, and not before that. No matter how "observant" we may be, if we can conscience injustice if we can rest when another suffers, we are not imbued with Torah.
Once we have reached this level we need not be concerned with the minutiae of the religion on an everyday basis. We are living embodiments of Torah. "Those who are busy with a mitzvah (commandment, good deed) need not be disturbed to do a mitzvah."
But neither can we jettison the religion entirely. This is true for two reasons:
1) We do not evolve morally on all of our levels uniformly. Some aspects of our characters are extremely developed, while others lag behind.
2) We must be aware of the Law and not forget it so that we may teach it to the next generation, who will need to learn it before they will be fit to set off on a life devoted to human welfare and justice.
Just as it is true that we cannot live the plan alone, we must flesh it out, make it actual in the form of social systems and structures, so it is true that without the plan we do not know what to build.
If we attempt to build a bridge or a highway without a plan and without knowing the materials we set out to build with, disaster will occur. So it is if we set about attempting to be moral without having our moral sense aroused and developed by Halakhah.
We must learn and do Halakhah for the sake of what is called in German and in Yiddish das Menschenleben, never are we to sacrifice human living, human welfare, justice for actual human beings for the sake of customs, practices or Laws. The latter serve the former, prepare us to undertake the former, bolster our strength and resolve and give us courage to endeavor to better the world. They are means to that purpose, not ends in and of themselves.
Doreen Ellen Bell-Dotan, Tzfat, Israel