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7.11.2005

orthodox judaism only sustains itself by missing the forest for the trees

Jewish Atheist quotes Noam Chomsky (something which I normally disapprove of) to explain how Orthodox Judaism avoids debate on the finer points of theology:
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum - even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there's free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

--The Common Good, Noam Chomsky.

Read the post, if only because it's something that I have been saying for quite some time. It goes a long way towards explaining how so many people, some of whom I can personally attest are brilliant, free-thinking individuals, to believe in something so nonsensical. It also expresses one of the principle frustrations I had with my traditional Jewish upbringing. I always hated sitting in synagogue and listening to the rabbi go on some long discourse on an esoteric aspect of Jewish law. A typical sermon might pose a question such as "On a fast day, if one has been fasting with the intention of breaking his fast later on during the fast day, is he permitted to recite the blessing on the Torah, as long as he has not yet broken the fast?" Then he goes through the various opinions and legal reasoning for 20 minutes. While this may fascinate the type of guy who enjoys hairsplitting and dead horse-beating for its own sake, it only irritated me. Wouldn't that 20 minutes have been better spent on a stirring oratory about morality or the nature of God? On a better day, the rabbi would try to palliate the more morally inclined types with some cutesy homiletics, none of which ever satsified me.
For many years, it was only an irritation, but once I became an atheist I understood that the only way the rabbinate sustains Orthodox Judaism is by defining the boundaries of inquiry to end at legalistic debates on ritual observance.
Orthodox Judaism has a remarkable level of internal consistency on matters of rituals and Jewish law in general. However, once I began probing on a deeper level, (reading Bible criticism, theology, philosophy etc) revealing the tenuous foundations of it all, the house of cards came tumbling down.

Addendum: This isn't to say that if not for all the focus on finer points of ritual observance, nobody would believe in Judaism. Far from it. All varieties of all religions have some level of attrition to atheism. All I'm saying is that the obsession with hairsplitting over ritual keeps the Orthodox attrition rate artificially low. While people from other denominations and religions are grappling with the issue of God from an early age, the product of a traditional Jewish education will have skirted such issues entirely. One can easily spend his entire life marveling over the great edifice of Jewish law without ever having asked the tough questions on life.