Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Don't Break the Mitzvot - SHATTER them!

The Talmud (Niddah 61b) states that it's permissible to make burial shrouds out of a garment that contains shatnez, a forbidden mixture of wool and linen. The implied question here is: How could this be allowed, because in the future (at the time of the resurrection) the person will "wake up" wearing a forbidden garment and will be transgressing a Torah prohibition! To which Rav Yosef answers:

"This implies that the mitzvot will be abolished in the future to come." 

In other words, it won't be a problem for the person to wear shatnez, because there will no longer be any halachic prohibition against it - or against anything else for that matter.

There's a machloket (dispute) among subsequent halachic authorities over which commandments exactly will be abolished, and when exactly this will take place. The Gemara however simply says "mitzvot" (in general), so the straightforward understanding is that all the mitzvot will be null and void. As far as timing, it's implied from the Gemara that there will be no more mitzvot at the time of the resurrection. But the Gemara didn't use the words "techiyat hameitim" (resurrection of the dead) - it said "le'atid lavo" - "the future to come", referring to an unspecified future era, presumably connected with the redemption. All the Gemara is saying is that the mitzvot will be abolished by the time of the resurrection, meaning that the actual abolition may happen well before that.

Fast forward a few dozen centuries. Here we are today, arguably having met the basic halachic criteria for the "future to come" in redemptive terms. The land of Israel has become fruitful, a substantial wave of "ingathering of exiles" has already commenced, much of the famous Mishna in Sotah has come to pass. And of course, since 1948 and the establishment of the State of Israel, we've essentially thrown off the "subjugation of the nations", which other Gemaras explicitly equate with Messianic times. The noted halachic authority R. Chaim Zimmerman indeed ruled that the State of Israel ushered in a new halachic era - atchalta d'geulah, "the beginning of redemption".

So perhaps we can say, even halachically speaking:

It is now the "future to come" and the mitzvot are hereby abolished!

Now, any savvy reader will know that I did not simply "deduce" this conclusion in a purely objective manner. I want it to be the case. I want the mitzvot to be abolished. And since I want it, I've found a possible traditional entry to say what I want to say. (And I think I'm in good company, since this is what frum Jews do all the time - i.e., find sources to justify positions they already hold. Only rather than disingenuously claim that my position came as a result of the sources, as people often do, I fully admit that I already held this position from the outset, and I'm merely looking for textual/halachic support.)

The question is, "why" do I want to abolish the mitzvot? Am I a pleasure-seeking hedonist who can't take the thought of not eating a bacon cheeseburger? Mmm, does sound tasty, but that's not it. Am I a self-hating Jew who wants to destroy Judaism? God forbid! I'll tell you why I want the mitzvot abolished:

Because there's too much judgment going around - judgment of oneself relating to the performance of mitzvot, not living up to God's or familial/communal expectations, and judgement of others - people overly fixated, anxious, angry, even belligerent over how or whether other people are keeping mitzvot. That is what I want to change - to pull the rug out from under that judgment. But where does that leave Judaism then, if there are no more mitzvot?

Ok, so now let me be clear what I mean here. When I say the mitzvot are abolished, I mean "mitzvot" davka - i.e., that it's specifically the aspect of Jewish practice being "commanded" which is abolished. But the practice itself remains, to the extent that we choose it. (Such an interpretation is in fact brought in the Sefer Ye'arot Devash - the mitzvot are abolished, but we keep them anyway.) What I'm advocating therefore is not the abolition of Judaism - it's the abolition of "compulsory" Judaism, i.e., as something commanded/obligated from On High.

Imagine practicing Judaism from a place of pure volition, as something that brings joy, meaning, and self-identity - without the guilt and neurosis, without it being a burden. Imagine being committed to Judaism out of the desire for national cohesion, positive, growth-oriented challenge, to infuse family life with a rich heritage of culture, ritual and thought - not because we're somehow ripping the spiritual fabric of the cosmos if we don't. Imagine engaging in Torah and mitzvot from a purely "lishma" place, with no motives other than wanting to learn and grow - not because we're being "watched over", not to obtain reward or avoid  punishment. (As the above Gemara also states, there will be "neither merit nor guilt" in the future.) Imagine having no theological/ideological basis to condemn others (or oneself) for not conforming to ritual practices. ("Do not steal, murder" etc. are another matter, obviously.) No, not "imagine no religion" - IMAGINE JUDAISM as a much better, higher, more mature, tolerant, peace-affirming, joy-affirming practice - without all the strings attached.

To tie this into the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, the abolition of the mitzvot is ironically all about "Kabbalat Hatorah" (receiving the Torah). Only instead of the heavy-handed, har kegigit ("keep the Torah or else") experience of Sinai that's come down to us throughout the generations, in the future era - i.e., NOW, we accept only what we want to accept, receive only what we want to receive. The first Kabbalat Hatorah ended with Moshe smashing the tablets of the law. It's high time for us to once again "shatter the tablets" - to abolish the mitzvot as a set of compulsory "commands", and simply embrace the best of our great Jewish heritage as a matter of personal and national choice.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Shelo Asani Isha / Shelo Asani Goy

Yes, it can be dicey when talking to your kids about Judaism as a non-believing frum Jew. But sometimes I'm able to impart things which I feel particularly good about. Over this past Shabbat I had a such a moment.

We were taking a walk, and my teenage son asked me to explain the idea of the mitzvat aseh shehazman grama - usually translated as "positive time-bound commandment". I explained what it is, a mitzvah which is supposed to be performed at a specific time, and that women by and large are exempted from these mitzvot. I told him that given the domestic role to which women were routinely assigned until very recently, and the tremendous load of responsibility that went into that - especially in former times when there were no laundry machines, and you had to grow/raise a lot of your own food, weave your own clothes, etc., to obligate women to do time-dependent mitzvot would make their lives even more difficult than it already was. So Chazal (the Talmudic Sages) gave them a break - if a woman wants to do the mitzvah - great, but she's technically exempt.

He asked why it is then that men say "shelo asani isha" (the blessing of not being made a woman) if men are in a certain sense weighed down by being obligated in more mitzvot. I explained that the commentators say it's precisely for that reason that we do say "shelo asani isha", as well as "shelo asani goy" (not having been made a non-Jew) and "shelo asani aved" (not having been made a slave). Non-Jews, slaves, and women are obligated in fewer mitzvot, and Chazal wanted men to embrace their additional obligation as an opportunity for growth, rather than see it as a burden.

All standard, classical answers thus far... But then I went on to speak more personally about it. I told him that I frankly felt a bit funny, not right, about saying these brachot - at least "shelo asani isha" and "shelo asani goy". (Now I'm talking about the "content" of the brachot, mind you - I didn't get into "baruch ata HaShem" which is another issue altogether.) I said that even though there are ways of understanding these brachot positively, to the listener they have the potential to be insulting. It's like if your name was Bob, and someone next to you said the blessing "shelo asani Bob" - thank goodness I'm not Bob! Or even saying "shelo asani goy" in front of a non-Jew... I said I thought it would be a bit insulting. My son laughed - "A bit? That would be really insulting!"

A nachas moment! He really got my point. And what was my point? Basic Sensitivity. On several levels:

1. To women and non-Jews (or anyone for that matter). Even if the intention is 100% positive, if we know what we say is going to be taken otherwise, or if we'd be embarrassed to say "thank God I'm not Ploni" in front of Ploni, then we really need to think twice about saying it. That's actually my one-off lashon hara rule: If you'd feel embarrassed saying something about a person in front of them, don't say it. That's why I'm uncomfortable with these brachot.

2. To Chazal/the Mesorah (tradition). But I didn't want my son to think I meant to scorn the tradition. As much as I feel it's important to be sensitive to people about whom the brachot are said, I also want to give due honor and benefit of the doubt to Chazal, who penned these brachot. So I offered a bit of context.

Regarding "shelo asani goy", we have to remember that it was a far more brutal world back then, and the Roman Empire - which ravaged the Jewish people, enslaved us, mercilessly tortured us, destroyed our homes and cities and sent us into exile - was certainly no exception. So at that point in time, to say "shelo asani goy" would have made a lot of sense. The non-Jewish world was seen as cold-blooded and cruel, and we didn't want to be associated with that.

As far as "shelo asani isha", it's more in the sense of not being made a slave. Women at that time in history (and until very recently) were universally treated as second-class citizens. Even in the most advanced societies, women were not given anything close to what we'd call "equal rights". Some commentators on these brachot in fact point out that just as a slave has a "baal" (master), so is woman's husband called a "baal", a master. A woman used to be considered her husband's "property". So again, in this context, it would have made much more sense at that time to say "shelo asani isha" - because indeed being a woman was a very difficult lot in life, something like being born into slavery.

But there's another way to honor Chazal - to make changes where appropriate. I believe it gives no honor to Chazal to simply copy exactly what they did without question, acting essentially as robots and parrots, and effectively "freezing" Judaism like a museum piece according to the way life was 2000 years ago (or even 200 years ago). What would give Chazal honor is to think, reason, and behave according to where we are and what's appropriate today. Nowadays, when our experience with non-Jews is very often positive, and when women in free societies are treated equally before the law, these brachot come off as inappropriate and derogatory. I told my son that as sure as I am that the sun is in the sky, if Chazal were here today, there is no way they would have us say these brachot.

(Of course they arguably wouldn't have us say any brachot - because addressing and giving praise to a deity is well beneath our dignity as a reasoned people in the 21st Century. But that's another story.)

3. To the Kehilla (congregation). I also explained to my son that at the same time, I wouldn't hesitate to say these brachot when davening from the amud (leading the service). Sometimes it's important to be sensitive to where people are at, even if you don't agree with them. There's a place to disagree as a yachid (individual) and agree as a tzibur (community) for the sake of shalom. That said, there's also a place to respectfully disagree in the community context as well, so if I were davening I might have someone else say these brachot. No judgment against people, no making a fuss about it - just to gently and respectfully stand on principle if I feel it's truly important.

That's basically what I gave over. We had a good walk together, and it served as a chizuk (reinforcement) to me that if we try to be sensitive and reasonable, what appears to be a "paradox" of being a practicing non-believer is not only doable, but in fact also has the capacity to do a lot of good. True, I didn't "lay it all out there" from an atheistic point of view, but again it's about sensitivity - wanting to be sensitive to my son, to impart to him some of my thinking bit by bit, over time, and let him reach his own conclusions.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Throwing off the imaginary shackles

There's no actual evidence for a Creator of the Universe. But it's not totally "unreasonable" per se to speculate that some sort of mega-intelligence is behind it all. However, where it comes to believing in the God of the Torah, claiming that the Torah is literally and/or historically true, that God came down in fire on a mountaintop and dictated the Torah word for word to Moshe Rabbeinu... This not only lacks evidence - it's completely unreasonable. A person who does a bit of research into the ancient world, and thinks openly and reasonably about the Torah in its historical context, will come to the inevitable conclusion that it's a myth. Not a myth in the sense of being completely non-historical, but that things that sound like a myth (e.g., splitting the sea) are indeed myths. I speak a bit about this in my book-blog, but the point of this post (really, this blog) isn't to make that case - it's to take as the starting point the fact that there's no demanding, overseeing deity whatsoever, and to see where we go from here.

The first conclusion we come to of course, is that there's no "contract with God" that we're beholden to. The yoke around our neck, the shackles which bind us to Torah and Halacha - they're all of our own making. We're the only ones who care whether or not we put on Tefillin or Tzitzit, how much of our hair or knees are showing. We're the only ones who care how thoroughly we clean for Pesach, how close to specification our Sukkah is built, or when exactly we light the Chanukiah. We're the only ones who care about how many hours it's been between meat and milk, how well the lettuce was checked for bugs, or what hechsher is on the packaging. We're the only ones who care how much of the davening we say, if we even daven at all, or how much Torah we're learning. It's just us. We're the only ones who care one single iota about it. 

I realize that I'm stating the obvious, but I bring this up because personally, even though I've known for many years that the mitzvot have no "Commander", I still find myself occasionally obsessing about this or that point of Halacha, getting upset or anxious at "mishaps". For instance, if someone throws a hot dairy spoon into the meat sink - yikes! If it's getting close to shkiya on Friday night and I still haven't gotten into the shower - yikes! If my beautiful etrog rolls off the table onto the tile floor - yikes! If it's Pesach and the backpack I'm putting our food into turns out to have pockets full of chametz - yikes!

What I'm saying is that despite my non-theistic frame of mind, despite my wariness of superstitious beliefs and associated neurotic behavior, I still have to keep reminding myself of the mantra: It's only us who cares about any of this. Calm down, it's okay... Point being, it's one thing to know that the shackles you're wearing are imaginary. It's another to actually throw them off.

The good thing about this struggle though, is that each time I come to my senses and stop obsessing - it turns into a fantastic moment of freedom!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Hello and welcome

Welcome to the Atheodox Jew's blog. This is the companion blog to "Atheodox Judaism", which is more of a formal project (a book in blog-form) about the concept of Jewish religious observance without God. This blog will be more of a free-flow, where I post on topics as they come to mind.

In the meantime, feel free to check out this short bio and interview about me, posted on the Coin Laundry blog.

Cheers, AJ