Wednesday, May 30, 2007

What's the Deal with Halakha?

For the purposes of this discussion, halakha is the system of Jewish law followed by Orthodox Jews.

Andrew Sullivan has a provocative quote from a Dutch sociologist:
Are women more attracted to the life of a desperado than men?" asks sociologist Jolande Withuis in her essay "Suffer, fight, become holy" on radical women Muslims. She sees their motivation in the promise of complete devotion. "Faith offers radical women Muslims a 'total' identity that isn't limited to certain occasions and which is considerably more serious than anything else. It demands effort and renunciation, yet offers fulfillment and peace of mind. Boring or tiresome rules, such as covering oneself or not being allowed to eat certain foods, become a source of self-awareness. They are like anorexics, who derive satisfaction in overcoming hunger, even if it is harmful to their health. Correspondingly, these women occupy themselves to the point of absurdity in trying to determine whether things are 'haram' or 'halal' – and this occupies their time and gives them the pleasant feeling of pursuing a meaningful life.

I'm not that interested right now in the question this essay asks, but the part I've bolded jumped out at me. We current and former Orthodox Jews know many who seem obsessed with the following the letter of the law to an absurd degree. And even that's not enough for them -- they accept more and more stringencies upon themselves, going far above and beyond what is required by halakha. Why do they do this? What do they get out of it?

Ask them and they'll tell you that they are merely fulfilling God's commands or, if they are the more spiritual type, that paying close attention to the intricate details of halakha infuses every aspect of their life with meaning. I think that's probably a fair assessment, leaving aside the people with actual OCD.

In discussing why people become or remain religious, meaning generally comes in at the top of the list or in second, after community. I didn't fully realize until I read the above quote that meaning comes in two forms -- one, the overarching sense that the universe makes sense and that we are here for a reason, and two, that the feeling that every action we do can be meaningful.

When I tie my shoes, it has no real meaning, but when an Orthodox Jew of a certain mindset does it, following carefully the halakha which states you must put on the right shoe before the left, then tie the left before the right, it becomes a way to connect to a deeper purpose. Some people apparently find this very satisfying.

Is this a healthy way of living? Who am I to say? I'm pretty sure I don't have the personality type to find such absurd rules meaningful even if I did believe in God. ("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.) The analogy to anorexia made by the author of the above quotes strikes me as unfair in the sense that anorexia is objectively dangerous and unhealthy, while I haven't seen any evidence that adherence to halakha is particularly bad for you. However, the idea that the obsessively halakhic Jew (or strict Muslim, etc.) is deriving psychological satisfaction from his actions and omissions is an interesting one albeit a bit obvious in hindsight.


Rose said...

I think it comes down to loneliness. People can't stand the idea of being alone, so god comforts them. Also, if they are told how to perform every task in one's own life, I suppose that could feel like mock-purpose.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Oh dear we are a little cynical aren't we.

IG, you may have a point.

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beepbeepitsme said...

I think the reference to OCD is pertinent. I thnk we are a ritual and habit seeking species. Consequently I think that people derive pleasure from rituals but perhaps they derive the most pleasure from rituals which they believe to be of a higher significance than just their mundane interpretation.

For example

Tying one's shoes in a specific way could be a pleasurable act if one is satisfied with the result.

Tying one's shoes and believing that one is doing it is a way which satifies the needs and wishes of an allpowerful being, probably makes the shoe -tying even MORE pleasurable.

If we are a pleasure seeking, pattern seeking, ritual seeking species - it stands to reason that we would try to maximize these experiences.

Do we try to maximize these experiences for pleasure even though these rituals have no significance outside of emotional gratification?

__ said...

Who are you to say?? You are a being with a intelligent mind that is able to discern truth from falsehood; And as such, you should condemm these actions because they're needless pains based on falsehoods that are part of a system of very dangerous falsehoods.

jewish philosopher said...

"("Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.)"

Why shouldn't a parent take an interest in his children's behavior? Would you tell your kid to tuck his shirt in for example?God is our Father in heaven.

Unknown said...

I think that part of the point is preciseness and care. By focusing on perfection, we limit mistakes, sloppiness, uncaring, and the like. Anything that we do must be done precisely. What's ironic is that so many who do it end up missing the point, thinking that they need to take it 'further'. By taking it further, it's no longer precise, no longer perfect. It's simply too far gone the other way.

It's similar to the difference between organized, neat people and sloppy, imprecise people. The latter can and often do great things, but they also make big mistakes. The former avoid mistakes and still manage to achieve greatness.

Or look at any sports star for a good example. They'll tell you how much they've worked on the little details, and that that is why they're so much better - whether a bat or golf swing, a way of shooting, or any player on a football field. By focusing on the details they make sure they get it right - every single time.

Anonymous said...

"Does God really care how I tie my shoes?" I asked as a kid when I first learned that rule.

No, I don't believe God "cares"; it's for our benefit not God's. I always understood this as I do many of the seemingly mundane rules of Orthodoxy (including much of hilchot Shabbat): a way by which every action we do can be a means by which we can elevate ourselves rather than going through life largely unconscious.

We normally give precedence to the right over the left. (Notions of how the concepts of dexter and sinister came about are irrelevant.) Putting on the right shoe first is just a simple reminder that chesed should come before din; bringing this to practical application means that whenever possible we should try to judge our fellow favorably. So it's just a reinforcement technique. (There are kabbalistic explanations as well, but I'm not real big on those.)

Anonymous said...

Seems this fastidiousness could easily lead, or perhaps morph into some obsessive-compulsive condition.