Friday, February 10, 2006

The Lone and Level Sands Stretch Far Away

Apparently, Ezzie still needs some goading before I get his take on my recent slew of posts, so here goes.

I’ve been mentally compiling a list of the things that make me incredibly uncomfortable with Judaism. By discomfort I do not mean that I feel a rule chafing against the way I want to live my life (not to say there aren’t a few of those), but certain demands that Judaism makes on my worldview.

The first and most obvious is the conflict between Torah and Science. I’ve seen cute ways of getting around this problem, from linguistic gymnastics to typical “kiruv klown” attacks on established scientific theory. I am not going to debate the contours of this conflict. Suffice it to say that the Torah, read literally, makes stark assertions of fact (e.g., six days of creation, existence of firmament, geocentrism, young universe, global flood, etc.) that are at odds with any modern understanding of the world. Any attempt to get around these issues is always intellectually unsatisfying and has the appearance of trying to give complex and kludgy explanations that were clearly never contemplated by the Ancient Israelites.

Far more disturbing then outright conflict with physical law, however, is the assumption that Judaism somehow transcends the law of time.

Time is an extremely unintuitive concept for man. If were to live for 90 years, we would think ourselves old. But what happens given large amounts of time? We can reconstruct what occurs given large expanses of time, but I think that we underestimate its power. On a very grand scale, for instance, you have geologic time. Glaciers form, rivers scrape mountains into canyons, etc.

My point, however, is that time does more than shape our physical surroundings. It changes culture as well. Every culture develops myths, complex social interactions, economic markets, religion, and political systems. These institutions in turn feedback on themselves and their complexity grows over time. Political and economic systems grow more complex. Some myths are forgotten, while some gain central importance to the culture. To be sure, there are some limitations on this cycle (for an excellent quick read on this, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel is a must read), but for all current developed civilizations this is true.

Therefore, what Judaism requires, in addition to a suspension in belief of physics, biology, etc. is a suspension of another natural law- the impact of time on a culture. It is inconceivable to me that while non-Judaic cultures have been subject to such a force, Judaism and Jews have remained free from the impact of time- that our Holy books have not always existed, that myths have not developed and attracted prominent feature, and that the basic tenets of our belief today are not fundamentally different than they were 5,000 years ago.

The opening Mishna in the Ethics of our Fathers glibly glosses over the transmission of the Mesorah. The unbroken chain from Sinai to present day is emphasized in Yeshivas and by Kiruv professionals. Indeed, in debates over whether to leave religion, the unwillingness to break with a tradition 5,000 years old runs strong. But would I be leaving a tradition 5,000 years old? I suspect if I was to live my life as Biblical characters did, I would be deemed as heretical as if I denied the existence of God Himself. On the other hand, embracing religion is to deny a fundamental law of nature- cultures change. The Faith of the Fathers is not the Faith of the Sons.