Is it possible to grant, without being naive, that a diverse group of people are united by a shared idealism? Is it reasonable to assume that the satisfaction of fulfilling a responsibility, rather than wealth and fame and power, is sufficient incentive to motivate someone?
Although the traditional Jewish world is extensively diverse, running the gamut from the ultra-orthodox chassidic and yeshiva worlds, to the often more centrist Sephardic world, through the nationalist/zionist orthodox to the modern orthodox, and including, as well, many in the conservative and other liberal movements as well, there is at least one defining belief that unites everyone here. We believe the validity and authority of the rabbinic tradition is the exact equal of the written scripture and that both are of divine source.
Although the function and the development of these traditions vary widely, that’s not because they’re somehow in competition, but rather than they complement each other as two interdependent channels which create a “three-dimensional”, i.e. real world experience of our holy Torah.
Even within the orthodox tradition, there is often a tendency to dismiss a rabbinic injunction as being just not that important or authentic. Just a d’rabbanim, it’s only from the rabbis, is all too frequently cited when a halacha (religious law, but it more literally means “a walking”) is inconvenient. However, the liberal Jewish world too often tends to relegate the entire rabbinic tradition wholesale to irrelevance or, at best, interesting ideas by smart people. “The rabbis” are too often disparaged is “dead white males who disapprove of our lifestyle”, so they ask why should their thoughts and values have any say over us today.
Anyone who has spent much time at all trying to understand our rabbis on their own terms realizes that they were the most creative, free-thinking and unprejudiced thinkers in our past and I really don’t want to defend a “when did you stop beating your wife?” attitude. Rather, I’d like to look into some of the faulty assumptions that can lead to this often biased, always self-righteous attitude.
Perhaps the most obvious weakness is that it’s based on applying a very new, very contemporary attitude and philosophy to times that were not remotely like ours are now. This seems to be a consistent mistake of modern philosophy, modern literary criticism and modern historical analysis. All three assume that people in the past shared our values and prejudices and experience and motivations, and this is completely non-supportable.
Starting with Watergate, the political break-in scandal that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency, “Follow the money” has been a consistent theme in the American lexicon. For all practical purposes, what it really means is to see who profits in a situation. This implies that people, especially those in some sort of leadership role, usually have nefarious side purposes to their plans and actions–they seek power and money.
While that might well often be true in contemporary politics, it’s an arrogant view of our contemporary culture to assume that people in the past had identical values. However, it can be a useful tool if applied in reverse. If there isn’t any money to follow, perhaps there are no “back channel” deals?
Since the destruction of the Temple and throughout our extended exile, which is also the rabbinic period of Judaism, very few of our Torah scholars had any wealth or any political power whatsoever. There wasn’t any wealth or power to gain by “enslaving” Jews to pointless ritual just in order to boss them around. It just appears impossible to find any ego or material gains our scholars, as a whole, could receive from their discussion, development and transmission of the “authentic” meaning of the Torah.
Opposed to most other spiritual faiths, Judaism has never relied on private revelation to one or just a small group of “insiders”. Rather, and this is emphasized by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi (mid-11th century), author of the Kuzari, along with Maimonides (also 11th century) and the Mishna of Avot (3rd century), one of the foundational texts developing immediately after the destruction and exile, the Torah, our spiritual tradition, was received publicly by the entire nation, men, women and children. Of the say, two million, who experienced this and then told it over to their children and grandchildren, only an insignificant number, if any, could possible have any side motivation to impose irrational and arbitrary laws on their descendants. Rather, they celebrated the knowledge and insights, saw them for what they are, a national treasure, and idealistically, and from love, desired to preserve this treasure both for their children, and also for the welfare of the world. They just wouldn’t have any motivation to lie, and if they did want to fabricate something to entrap people in, wouldn’t it make more sense they would have deleted all the do’s and don’ts to make it appear more attractive?
I’m not so naive as to believe there were no rabbis in the past who were motivated by self-interest, just as I have to admit there are too many today. But, I think the “test of time” has filtered these ego-driven distortions out of the “authentic” stream. Perhaps it’s like comparing a top-40 music station with an “oldies” one. It seems like, compared to today, they only made great hits in the past, but that’s because the trivial are forgotten and only the best have survived. That which has survived and has been added to the מסורת, mesoret, tradition, represents a pretty pure stream.
We’re obligated to give others the benefit of the doubt. דן כל אדם בכף זכות, Dan Kol Adam B’Caf Zechut (Mishna Avot), judge everyone to be innocent/worthy. From that perspective, of course, the suspicion of “the rabbis” would never have come up. But even though it does arise in some contemporary western approaches, we can rely on the back-handed application of “Follow the Money”. If there ain’t no money, there ain’t no conspiracy!
With this in heart and mind, may we all become one people (always working from the center outwards (see A Lesson From Creation post), starting with our own and extending to all humanity) within the walls and the shade of the Sukka. Let us enjoy and develop and share these sublime insights together. Chag Sameach