Monday, November 12, 2007

The Two Belief Systems of Modern Orthodox Judaism, or Chizuk for XGH

(This post loosely based on XGH's Looking for Chizuk in all the Wrong Places.)

It seems to me that Modern Orthodoxy contains two separate belief systems: the one you pretend to believe (the Nominal Belief System) and the one you really believe (the Actual Belief Systems.) The NBS is absurd and contrary to all fact, but it has the virtue of connecting Modern Orthodoxy to traditional Orthodoxy. The ABSes do not have to be counterfactual, but supply enough meaning for people to stick around.

I think that a lot of people who have trouble with the NBS are simply uncomfortable with the tension between the NBS and the ABSes. Many, if not most, Modern Orthodox Jews do not actually believe the NBS, but have private ABSes. For whatever reason, this does not bother them. Either they don't really care that much about what's true or they've made a conscious or unconscious decision that it's worth keeping their ABS to themselves in order to remain in the community.

Here's my advice for the frum skeptics who want to remain frum: start to see the NBS as just a ritual that connects to the past, a shared lie the community has agreed to tell itself in order to maintain the lifestyle they call home. You are one of those who sees clearly that the NBS is false, but you have failed to see that many people don't really care if it's true or not; they just care that it lets them live the life they want to live.

Those of us who have realized that the NBS is not true have congratulated ourselves on our clear thinking and lack of bias. Perhaps we should also recognize that we have had an unclear perspective on the purpose of the NBS. For many or most Modern Orthodox people, it does not matter if it's true or not. If you want to leave, leave, but if you want to stay, stop being such a stickler for the truth.

H.L. Mencken wrote, "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." I think you need to expand that to your own religion. Believe it in the sense that you believe your wife is beautiful. You don't need to search for empirical studies demonstrating your wife's beauty, and you don't need to provide a sound philosophical treatise on why it's really inner beauty that matters. Just say that she's beautiful and recognize that she's beautiful to you and quit worrying so much about what's "really" true.


XGH said...

Very good post.

I would just add one thing. I am aiming for more than just Orthopraxy i.e. The beliefs are all nonsense but I like the lifestyle.

What I'm aiming for is actually a theological underpinning for the whole thing, somewhat like Heschel tried to do with his book on TMS. It's tricky because there's a fine line between evolution of traditional beliefs, and hijacking them to mean something entirely different (e.g. re-interpreting God to mean existence). However I am aiming to walk that fine line.

abandoning eden said...

I think my problem with orthodoxy is the hypocrasy present by those who claim that they actually beleive the NBS, when clearly they dont. Growing up I saw my dad violate a whole bunch of stuff in the NBS, but when anyone else (other than immediate family) was around he would make a big show of following the NBS, even though based on his (mostly) private actions, he clearly didn't. For some reason that irritates the crap out of me.

Baal Habos said...

JA, nice. What I don't get is why aren't there literally thousands of people posting on these blogs. It seems like there are just a few handful of people out here.

Phil Sumpter said...

What happens if you stop finding your wife beautiful? Get a divource?

Marriage as covenant implies more than sticking around becuase it feels good. If it stops feeling good, you can't just leave. I wonder if it's the same with religion. Or at least those religions with a covenant in them.

abandoning eden said...

Phil- Actually, if marriage stops feeling good you CAN just leave. No-fault divorce is legal in the US.

If you stop finding your wife beautiful (stop beleiving in judaism) you can either a. keep acting as if she is beautiful and going through the motions of sex, etc. as if she were (orthopraxy), never telling her your true opinion b. start avoiding personal contact (start going off the derech), which will likely eventually lead to c. getting a divorce (leaving judaism) unless you can somehow go to A after B happens

BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

An excellent post with some very good points.

I like the distinctions you have made in belif systems.

The Hedyot said...

Interesting perspective. I really like your p'shat in Mencken.

ari said...

Excellent post JA,
"Here's my advice for the frum skeptics who want to remain frum: start to see the NBS as just a ritual that connects to the past, a shared lie the community has agreed to tell itself in order to maintain the lifestyle they call home."

Any good philosophy must take into account a good psychology. Psychologically if you go through the actions of Actual Belief System you will be inclined to move slowly towards the Nominal Belief System. After some time, you will follow the path of Anthony Flew - weak atheism -> strong deism -> liberal theism.
One's actions and society influence one's beliefs. It is very hard to remain sane while acting insane in an insane society.
Even if you succeed and form some sort of new version of Judaism, like XGH plans to do, there is very little chance of it not becoming dogmatic and authoritarian, because that's the essence of religion.

The masses will always refashion any unfundamentalist idea into something superstitious, complacent, and dogmatic -- similar to what happened with original Buddhism.

So the two problems are: it wont work for you, and it wont work for society in large.

The safest thing, in my opinion, is to restrict religion to pointing in the general direction of striving to be super-human more than human - the state of otherness. And at the same time refraining from making categorical statements. It has to be that anything is fair game for criticism: whether it's tefillin or kashrus. Psychologically it's impossible to retain this frame of mind inside the orthodox community while sticking to halachic observance as dictated by religious authority.

Phil Sumpter said...

Thans Abandoning Eden. I guess it depends on the content of the vow you take at the wedding ceremony.

I'm just trying to understand something of the dynamic of Orthodox Judaism, being a non-Jew. There seems to be a fascinating tension between free-will and the fact that as a Jew you ancestors swore the oath on your behalf. I intend to check out the Hillel website in the side bar at some point.

I'm glad I discovered this blog!

Ben Avuyah said...

JA, I think one can certainly do as you instruct. But it is troubling to note that many phrases and sources within the religion indicate the religion considers itself as a source of truth or a search for truth (chosamo shel torah emes....the seal of the torah is truth).

Thus, there are some speaches and drashos that it would truly be impossible for the enblightened MO to sit through without a cynical smile and a distanced mentality; the hypocrisy of the situation clear: By declaring the torah non truthful but useful to us- we cut it through the very heart- as this is not how it envisions itself.

Indeed, it would be hard to read or even imagine ANY of the fiery commentators that make the religion what it is, as inspired by the idea of: "well this is what I do, it's practical for me, and seems to profer a good lifestyle to it's adherents".


They believed in something, they were courages about these beliefs and invigorated by them. They fought for it, becuase it was true and right and unmistakable to them.

Our suggested ideal of "well it's bull, but at least I don't have to move to a new community" is deep insult to everything they stood for.

It is not the basis for a movement, it is not the call to arms for a new ideology.

It is a retreat. It is shame faced run for cover, that any mephorish that we claim to wish to venerate... would have been abhorred at.

If the "truth" of religion lies in divorcing it from what it says it is..what it beleives itslef to be...then I think we are creating an eventual problem. Sure we will solve our own angst at leaving the religion that told us we are not to leave it, but only by putting another impossible wrinkle in it for the next generation to sweat over, passing the angst down the line so to speak. And passing it down in the least admirable fashion, letting the burdens we chose not to carry, the problems we are equiped to, but would rather not face.... slip to our children.

Although there are certain elements of your approach and XGH's appraoch that I like... I think it is not in line with many central messages of our religion and...Remember this!!! People make end of life decisions based on halachah. They make important marital and comunity decisions that affect peoples lives for better or worse based on what we know see is a rather imperfect human structure that only formed as it did becuase it saw "itself" as divine.

Had halacha known in it's collective mind, that the torah was an imperfect amalgum where every word and letter was -not- meaningful. Would it have made these decisions?

Would it have been as dishonest as we aspire to be?

Or would it have taken a very different path? and if so is our fealty to it in fact a desecration of everything it may have held dear.

In reading the recent exchanges between evanston jew and XGH and others, I let myself wonder what would have happened if such people had prevailed on a martin luther king, or an albert schwietzer. Informing them that the critiques they had of the social or ethical sturctures of the world simply needed to be "massaged" and "re-understood" in a way that would cause them less angst.

Would the world have moved foward as it did???

If you sense false hood and inequity. Is ones first task to relieve themselves of their feelings of responisbility and connection to these problems by assuring themselves that "they" don't really believe in the reasons they occur, and then nodding their head as the rabbi reads out what we "learn" from the parsha??

I don't know...I have not found a good solution yet, but there is something of a decietful nature to all of this that I have not yet really put my finger on.

Jewish Atheist said...

Just to be clear, everybody, I personally don't find this "solution" satisfying and I have left Orthodoxy forever. It's just something I'm throwing out there for those who want to stay.

jewish philosopher said...

I think it's pretty obvious that modern Orthodoxy is full of contradictions because it blends two religions - Reform Judaism ("modern") and Orthodox Judaism ("orthodox").

McGregor said...

Rav Hutner said that MO is like somebody who while buttoning his shirt, buttoned the first button on top to the second hole and just kept buttoning it that way all the way down: he will have the shirt buttoned but the end result will be off and unappealing, and the buttons might start tearing off.

But so what, Hamlet also has contradictions. Nevertheless, it's one of the most beautiful works of literature. Contradictions lend a sound of reality to a narrative. We're all full of contradictions. A fact on which lawyers capitalize quite succefully. Paradox is ingrained in human language. Contradictions in MO make the movement more dynamic with people shifting rapidly between right, left and center, and some of course flying off on a projectile landing on this blog.

Skeptodox said...

I agree completely with your post, but also with XGH. I'm searching for a theological reason for my practice rather than a social reason. That theological reason doesn't necessarily need to be compelling to you, but it should be so for me.

nomo said...

Great post and a good way of looking at MO.

But its a question of personal integrity.

If you have a kippah on your head are you advertising the fact that you believe in TMS and divinity of halachah.
Or maybe in a MO crowd, it might be understood that no one really believes in all this stuff.

Maybe MO's are just shallow and if they were serious would become RW or OTD.

I agree with Ben Avuyah, there is something deceitful going on at XGH. Religon is not just a lifestyle or diet, its not 7 Habits of Effective People. Its life and death. Although I really applaud XGH's efforts to synthesize, but he is overly biased by the fact that he does not want to leave his community or lifestyle at whatever cost. So there is no choice but to improvise and create a new spin on OJ.

yingerman said...

Have none of you ever felt fulfillment in Judaism?

Then I totally understand.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

An excellent post. It has been interesting to watch the evolution in your opinion, JA (although I'm well aware that you're still an atheist).

The remark about integrity resonates with me. I am not able to hide my opinions, even if it offends my fellow believers. (Which is not to go to the opposite extreme, and look for opportunities to offend them!) Nonetheless, my convictions are real and I am strongly committed to them, even if they are less than orthodox.

The fact is, we all live in accordance with a narrative by which we make sense of our world, and find meaning and solace during tough times. There is nothing dishonest about acknowledging (a) that the religious convictions of past centuries is no longer tenable in light of modern knowledge; but (b) that the broad narrative (and its associated practices) continue to be meaningful and fulfilling to you as an individual.

We do not have certainty with respect to life's ultimate questions. They can't be investigated scientifically. There's no shame in acknowledging that your beliefs are subjective, given that everyone is trapped in that same subjectivity.

anonymouth said...

And it's important to act in accordance with the claim of subjectivity, and not just to claim claiming it.