Two questions of momentous import, and a third it'd be nice to talk about over some Girl Scout cookies

Are you listening, readership? I want the answers to these on my desk by nine o'clock tomorrow morning. (It's too bad there isn't a column called "Ask the language hat Rabbi.")

1. When people say, on parting, "Be good," is it a colloquial rendering of the too-formal "Be well," or a wink-wink-nudge-nudge "You be good, now, you hear?", like "[Johnny] B Good"? And how would you know, O linguists, which one it was?

2. When I learned Spanish in high school, and soaked up a fair bit of it in Spain and Mexico, the way to say "How are you?" (or one of them, anway) was ¿Que pasa?. As long as I've lived in the U.S., though (both in California and in New York), I've always heard ¿Que pasó? from Spanish speakers. Past tense, that is, though it doesn't seem to be used that way. Any explanations?

Oh, and here's another thing I'm wondering about (this article in the Forward, about interreligious dialogue between Orthodox Jews and Christians, got me thinking). When Orthodox Jews say, quoting Soloveitchik, that one shouldn't engage in theological discussion with Christians, lest one fall prey to "relativism" -- what does that mean, exactly?

The strong version of relativism, if I may speculate for the sake of argument, might be something like this:

One should not find any points of comparison between Judaism and Christianity, lest the Jewish Gestalt be contaminated by association with an idolatrous faith.

Note that I do not hold Christianity to be idolatrous, but [most] sectors of Orthodoxy, and today's Orthodoxy in even greater measure, do. (Yes, I know about the Meiri, but I don't think he's all that popular these days . . .)

But the points of comparison do, in fact, exist, whether or not one seeks them out. How can one refuse to take notice of them, if the Jewish tradition has been shaped in part precisely by great thinkers and rabbis who made use of such comparisons in their creative life? (I'm thinking of Ibn Ezra and the Ramban, but I'm sure the list can be extended almost indefinitely.)

Thus I find this strong version implausible. But perhaps a weaker version is meant (and indeed, I think I've actually read something like this in essays on the topic):

One should not actively discuss points of theological comparison between Judaism and Christianity, lest the development and observance of the former be contaminated by the influence of an idolatrous faith.

Again, I find this implausible. The underlying assumption here, I think, is that all developments in religious Judaism are internal, driven by a mi-Sinai dynamic. If any Christian influence were to be allowed in, the chicken soup of Judaism would be rendered treyf . (And since Christianity -- to extend the metaphor -- is not milchig or fleischig, but treyf itself, any amount of contamination is unnullifiable.) But -- again with history! -- Christianity has influenced Jewish history in great measure and often to positive effect.

There must be some more convincing argument I'm missing. I'll have to read Soloveitchik's essay., although to tell the truth I find him much more convincing as a stylist and rhetorician than as a philosopher.

Oh, here's the article. The core of the argument, I think, rests on this passage:

This failure rests upon two misconceptions of the nature of the faith community. First the single-confrontation philosophy continues to speak of Jewish identity without realizing that this term can only be understood under the aspect of singularity and otherness. There is no identity without uniqueness. As there cannot be an equation between two individuals unless they are converted into abstractions, it is likewise absurd to speak of the commensurability of two faith communities which are individual entities.

The individuality of a faith community expresses itself in a threefold way. First, the divine imperatives and commandments to which a faith community is unreservedly committed must not be equated with the ritual and ethos of another community. Each faith community is engaged in a singular normative gesture reflecting the numinous nature of the act of faith itself, and it is futile to try to find common denominators. Particularly when we speak of the Jewish faith community, whose very essence is expressed in the halakhic performance which is a most individuating factor, any attempt to equate our identity with another is sheer absurdity. Second, the axiological awareness of each faith community is an exclusive one, for it believes - and this belief is indispensable to the survival of the community - that its system of dogmas, doctrines and values is best fitted for the attainment of the ultimate good. Third, each faith community is unyielding in its eschatological expectations. It perceives the events at the end of time with exultant certainty, and expects man, by surrender of selfish pettiness and by consecration to the great destiny of life, to embrace the faith that this community has been preaching throughout the millennia. Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community. It is as unique and enigmatic as the individual himself.

Again, the author quite reasonably elaborates upon his premises, as is his right -- but these premises are not so much argued as asserted. "There is no identity without uniqueness": not, I think, the case. Indeed, we can understand Judaism as a separate religion precisely through those points of contact and departure from other religions. It might be an Orthodox axiom (I don't know) to believe that Judaism is, in fact, entirely unique (unique in what way? at what level?), but I don't think I buy it.

The second, larger paragraph is, similarly, studded with ringing statements that are not grounded in disputable points of argument. I find this unfortunate. One community's religious being "cannot be equated with the faith and ethos" of another community -- but why can't one compare without equating? If, in fact, we don't find Judaism to be unique (still a confusing term: in all particulars? throughout all time?), then we could perfectly well compare it to Christianity, say, without equating the two.

"Each community is engaged in a singular normative gesture . . . it is futile to find common denominators": But, with all due respect, I don't find it futile. The Jewish community is engaged in a great "gesture" (if you will), and I do accept it as normative. But I can only call it "singular" in obeisance to the great power and beauty of Jewish life and thought, in the same way that a work of art is singular, but not unique in all particulars.

"Standardization of practices, equalization of dogmatic certitudes, and the waiving of eschatological claims spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience of any religious community." Why does a non-uniqueness of eschatological claims qualify as a "waiving"? Could I not firmly believe in the coming of the Messiah in such a way as might apply to all (suitably qualified) human beings? Would not such a belief qualify as a Jewish eschatological claim? I assert that it would, though it might not meet the standards of the author's eschatological claims.

And lastly, even if I accept the author's terms (that is, my differing eschatological claim would indeed mean some sort of "waiving" of the Jewish uniqueness he has in mind), why and how would this "spell the end of the vibrant and great faith experience"? I find it strange that Soloveitchik here adopts the approach (which he caricatures in Halakhic Man) of homo religiosus: that of subjective claims of "greatness" and "vibrancy." I claim (though I am dust and ashes!) that my faith experience is indeed great and vibrant.

I should get some work done today. However, I want to conclude with the observation that Korn's justification, as given in the article, for his call to re-examine Soloveitchik's stance ("I contend that it wasn't a halachic position of Rabbi Soloveitchik, but a policy decision.") is somewhat strange. Given that Soloveitchik's position, as put forth in the essay, seems to be based on a philosophical approach to the Book of Genesis and to religious observance in general, how can Korn characterize it as a public policy decision -- unless he disagrees with the claims of the essay and doesn't want to say so?

PS: I'm glad the Forward is now glossing "halachah" as "rabbinic law" and not as "rabbinic canon law", which always gave me fits of giggles. Thanks, guys. Now if you could just stop glossing it altogether, and have faith in your readers' ability to use a dictionary . . .

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