Friday, March 31, 2006

Doctrine versus social convention

In a comment on a recent posting, one reader wrote about their own Mormon traditon and how the basic tenets of the faith embraced or reconciled "individual creativity with spirituality," but how the social convention made it "easy to overlook."

I believe that this description is true for perhaps all religious faiths and even many, many intellectual movements. The original source (you could call it revelation) often holds and encourages much individual creativity, and in fact, strives to nurture our freedom and spirituality.

Yet, over time as faiths and movements grow and develop, it is easy for them to become more rigid and controlled. That initial entrance of the divine into our world and the wonder and awe it can draw from us, can very easily be bottled up and tamed.

One of the things I love about the Talmud (please realize that I am not Jewish, but simply have a deep affection for the tradition as I read it) is that it seems to do its best to not bottle up God's revelation, but instead to strive to find Hashem in places and situations, one would never normally look. And by keeping the dissenting opinions alive within it, the Talmud does much to allow the Divine to continue to reveal Herself through our study and exploration.

The late Rabbi Walter Wurzburger from an article in Tradition magazine volume 3.1 from 1960 adds these lovely lines about the Talmudic tradition:

Halakhic questions call for a creative approach; they can not be answered by some electronic calculator which grinds out its answers the way an electrical brain finds the solution to a complex differential equation. It is precisely this creative aspect of the halakhic process that led the sages to the remarkable statement "both these and these are the words of the living God," that at times even conflicting halakhic opinions represent, in the final analysis, legitimate elucidations of the word of God.

The Torah "is not in Heaven"; it must be interpreted by the proper authorities [perhaps by each individual] of each generation.

When, according to the Aggadah, Rabbi Akiba found in the Torah meanings that had eluded Moses, he was not creating a new Torah. What he did was something altogether different. Reading the Torah in the light of the conditions of an entirely different age, he discovered chidushei Torah, new meanings of the Torah. Yet, in spite of their manifest novelty, there were implicitly contained in the Torah as received by Moses on Mount Sinai.

To employ the well know rabbinic simile, just as different sparks are emitted when a hammer breaks a rock into pieces, so does the word of God yields numerous meanings. And it is the function of the Halakhah scholar, employing creative halakhic processes, to unravel the specific meaning which the timeless message of Sinai holds for his own time.

Rabbi Wurzburger alludes to a number of very famous Talmudic stories that I will try to share in the next few days. His words also remind me of the stories I have heard and read about Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, who was one of the leading Orthodox thinkers and leaders of the 20th century.

There are innumerable stories about him that often have him present in very different lights (sometimes from the Right, sometimes from the Left and even the Center). But one thing seems clear -- he rarely decided specific individual halakhic or legal questions for people. If you came to him with a question, he would encourage you to read the texts yourself and come up with a decision. He did not want to make the decision for the person. This perspective seems to fit perfectly with his lifelong desire to encourage creativity in his students.

And it is this creativity that is so important for an individual, for a community and for an entire faith to keep alive.

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