Suggestion: Read “Judaism as a First Language” (right now)

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On Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein recommends a recent article written by Dr. Moshe Koppel. Seeing as Rabbi Adlerstein rarely makes recommendations, I decided to see what the fuss was about.

The article is a 36 page masterpiece. Honestly, I think it is the best article I have ever read and I read a lot of articles, especially on Judaism.

Dr. Koppel proposes an elegant theory of how Judaism changes, Jewish law evolves and how that relates to many of our social issues today. He touches on insularity, the one-upmanship of piling stringencies upon stringencies, the necessity of belief and many other topics in this far ranging article.

I found myself agreeing with most of Dr. Koppel’s arguments and assertions. He builds a grand edifice from which the article could have made many different points. I found the final point that Dr. Koppel actually made in the article less compelling than the edifice from which the point was made. But I think there are several issues that I do find compelling that can be analyzed effectively using the tools provided in the article.

Here are three very poignant items from the article that I think demonstrate the breadth and beauty of the article.

On the various versions of core beliefs that have developed over time for different segments of orthodox Judaism:

While for some, it may be enough to believe that Judaism has evolved helter-skelter from some special origins in the murky past, others might need to feel certain that every detail of Judaism such as it is today can be traced directly to an original revelation in a specific place at a specific time. While for some, it may be enough that the process is limping forward in some vaguely understood, positive direction, others might need the ultimate destination of the process to be specified in terms of concrete political events and/or miraculous interventions, and signs of the imminence and inevitability of such events to be already discernible. While for some the satisfaction of leading a life bound to Torah is its own reward, others might need to be assured that the righteous reap rewards and the wicked suffer punishments in the most prosaic of ways, preferably instantly and in plain sight.

On acts that demonstrate that a person is associating with orthodox Judaism:

The effectiveness of signals can, however, vary with time and circumstance. In the world of American Orthodox Judaism, the refusal to eat non-kosher meat or Hostess Twinkies was once regarded as sufficiently onerous, due to the dearth of alternatives, that it could serve as an effective signal. But then the easy availability of kosher meat and snacks rendered such signals ineffective, because they were insufficiently costly. As a result, the old signals were replaced by new ones that were onerous enough to serve as signals. Kosher was replaced by glatt kosher, which was replaced by hasidishe shechita, yashon, hydroponic vegetables, and so on up the ladder of costliness and strictness. The easier each of these becomes to obtain, the less useful it is. 

On the increased emphasis on the infallibility of the sages and demonization of the non-observant:

The need for the faithful to signal loyalty to ever-narrower splinter groups has led to increas- ing emphasis on precisely those aspects of tradition that are obscure and unnatural, while the lack of opportunity for constructive sacrifice has given rise to socially costly signaling. Like- wise, the need for the faithful to affirm an articulated narrative has become much greater, just as the specificity of the narrative has become more pronounced. Affirming the belief in the genius of the sages, the powers of the righteous, and the inevitable downfall of the wicked has become a litmus test of loyalty. Increasing monasticism and obscurantism have led to in- creasing defection. Each of these reactions has been triggered and exacerbated by the others and together they have constituted a vicious cycle, driving the community further and fur- ther away from a good equilibrium. 

These examples are a mere taste of the amazing insight prevalent in the article.

I selected these sections as they support many of the ideas that I have written about on this blog. Much of our current “system” – if we can even call it that, is a result of social choices, consequences and needs. They are not specicically spiritual or halachic in nature. They evolved parallel to halacha but from a human perspective.

This does not mean that they are insignificant or that they are wrong. But it does mean that they need to be treated differently than halacha.

I think Dr. Koppel’s theory can be applied wonderfully to women rabbis and other contemporary issues facing orthodox Judaism today. In fact, I thought that is where he was going with the first 30 pages. Then he took a turn into an issue that I am as concerned with. But as I said above, the edifice is a platform for explaining and understanding many issues.

I hope you will take the time to read the article in its entirety and consider its message. It is long, but absolutely worthwhile.

Find it on Azure’s website here: Judaism as a First Language

Link: Cross-Currents

  • Refreshing ideas and wonderful writing.  Thanks for the recommendation – I will definitely read the whole article!

    • I think you’ll enjoy it.

  • David Sher

    Agreed,  this is a brilliant article by a brilliant analytical thinker. In some sense he is following in the footsteps of people like Eliezer Berkovits in suggesting that Halacha is much more flexible historically then has been applied at this time. 

    You might like the series of posts by Ben Chorin:  the series starts on October 7 if you scroll down a bit.

    • Thank you for the recommendation.

  • Shragi

    Thanks for linking to this earlier today on Facebook. I read most of the article and am enjoying it very much.