Monday, February 27, 2012

On The Wisdom Of Old

A number of years ago, I spent three days in California interviewing with an organization which did religious outreach across various college campuses in Southern California. By the end of the three days my wife and I were offered the opportunity to move to Santa Barbara (which we turned down), then spent a number of months discussing options in Los Angeles before eventually we decided to go our separate ways.

As part of the process, I was asked to talk to various college students of all types and stripes. In particular, I remember a fascinating conversation I had with a religious theology major at UCLA about approaches to life, God, religion, etc. One of the most fascinating parts of the conversation was when I argued that it seems odd to automatically assume that a given approach should be given no credibility no matter how long-standing it is. If anything, the more long-standing a point is, the more thought one should give that approach before moving onto others - yes, it can and should be questioned, but to assume that nobody prior to one's self has asked any of these questions shows a certain sense of ego and complete lack of humility, which would seemingly preclude the ability to make proper judgments down the line. Instead, one should first make sure to fully understand where a line of thought started, how it developed throughout time, and how it reached the point it has before passing any judgment on it. What was most amazing about our conversation was that this approach had never once occurred to nor had it been presented to this obviously intelligent, educated student whom I couldn't have been more than a year or two older than, and he was really taken aback by this. 

This has been coming back to me recently as I watch various debates occur on a variety of topics, from politics to Judaism to life in general. Three good specific examples from the past couple weeks are particularly striking: Deborah Feldman's Unorthodox book; the battle waged over forcing religious institutions to pay for birth control; and a pathetic article written which suggested forgetting the Holocaust.

In the latter, the attention-seeking contrariness-driven Beacon, which was dismissed as a YU paper after its last stunt, somehow was still able to get some attention to itself by penning an absolutely horrible piece whining that Jews still use the Holocaust as a reasoning behind being for or against various policies. When I first saw the piece via email, I questioned if anyone was actually reading such drivel, and didn't think it was worth replying to, not even bothering to read a reply someone sent me later at first. But later that night, I decided to read the reply - and it was absolutely fantastic. In particular, this portion struck me as exactly the point: 
[...] Remembering the Holocaust is not only important for its own sake. It is important because memory is education, education is action, and action is necessary: for any people anywhere. The ultimate goal of Holocaust education, of course, is genocide prevention: a promise encapsulated in the rallying mantra of “Never Again,” that which we have at once chanted and yet betrayed repeatedly.
In a world without memory, we will simply lose our imagination to conceptualize peril. [...]
The same point was struck in the responses to the Obama administration's push regarding birth control without an exemption for religious organizations. Judaism is not against birth control, but the First Amendment is crucial to members of all religions regardless of the specifics of a given law. The Orthodox Union (among others) clearly noted this issue in their condemnation of the move - and yet supporters of the Obama administration on this issue believe this issue is something which should be forced upon religious organizations regardless. The Constitution, where freedom of religion was laid out originally in this country, is viewed as an old document written by people hundreds of years ago who didn't have the same social values as our enlightened, tech-driven generation. It is therefore not surprising that people would believe that it is trumped by certain important social values of today - except that however noble the intention, it ignores that the Constitution is not revered by many nor held as the basis of our laws because of its age. It is held in high esteem because of its wisdom - wisdom in how it approached, and most importantly, approaches, the future of this country. The reason there is a strict line between government and religions is so that there can never be a justification given for intruding on the religious freedoms of the people of this country. Once that line is crossed, there is no longer a concept of a religious freedom; there are only activities which the government accepts, and activities which it does not. Religion matters not at all; freedom matters not at all.

Finally, when reading reviews and descriptions of Deborah Feldman's book, in seems that in every aspect of life in one sect of Chassidim [at least among a large group], the approach to questions was simply "we don't ask". In fact, there was a review which I believe quoted one Chassidish woman as musing after a few such comments that "we don't do well with questions". But if we do not ask, we can never understand - and it is clear that Deborah Feldman did not understand much about how and why Judaism approaches life, a too common failing in the Jewish community. We cannot merely speak to traditions as the wisdom of old being passed down; we need to understand it so we can continue to pass it down as wisdom, and not some random archaic set of rules. 

It is too often forgotten today that older approaches to life, law, and even remembering the Holocaust are not simply lists of rules or mantras to be followed blindly. Instead, they are incredibly structured, developed, thought out concepts which are meant to last for centuries, if not all eternity. Our job is to delve into them in order to understand them, and only then begin to determine the appropriate approaches to the issues of our times, utilizing those concepts and the lessons from our histories.