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Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby JRosemary » 23 Apr 2009, 02:23

Hi Art,

I'm going to hold off, again, on the question of God's mutability. I think there are a few issues we should try to clear up before going further. We have very different understandings of God and God's commandments. That's probably a good thing--I think life is better with multiple opinions. But I'd like to make a few points, especially considering what you say here:

friendofbill wrote:I see no reason to be bound by laws that reflect a basically primitive culture. When Exodus 21:7 tells me I may sell my daugter into slavery, I do not take that as a suggestion. When my neightbor goes to work on Sunday (our version of Sabbatyh) I do not demand that he be killed, per Exodus 35:2. When my wife wears a pantsuit made from a cottion ployester blend, I do not condemn her for violating the law stated in Leviticus 19:19. Quite simply, our understanding of God has evolved since that time.


Here are the points I'd like to make:

1. Again, I don't read the Torah or the Hebrew Bible in a vacuum. In Judaism, you read it side by side with lessons from the Talmud, commentaries (ancient and modern) and Midrashim. So, again, no one is saying that you should execute your neighbor for violating Shabbat restrictions! No one was saying that 2,500 years ago! You can pick out these verses, shake your head and say, "What a primitive notion of God"--and that's fine, but understand that you are picking and choosing verses to reject, reading them in the narrowest context imaginable without any recourse to the countless commentaries on them...and, heck, without even taking the rest of the Torah into account.

I think a more serious way of treating this material is to read it in a larger context, taking into account the Oral Law (which, traditionally, HaShem gave to Moses at Sinai along with the written Torah), not to mention the rest of the Torah and the whole Hebrew Bible. Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't take issue with verses that order execution or with verses that condone slavery. Far from it! The Torah itself, I believe, demands that we take issue with them. But I am saying that your narrow take on them seems to me incomplete.

I know that the Torah condones slavery. But I also know the immense value that the Torah places on freedom and liberation...and I know how the Torah has inspired not only Jews but our Founding Fathers and civil right activists to fight for liberty and justice. In fact, I think the whole story of the Exodus is one of Judaism's greatest gifts to humanity.

2. I want to make another point about halacha--you seem to regard it as a dangerous, primative legalism. You were even so kind as to warn me against "legalism and endless disputation." (Though I'm not sure why disputation should be a bad thing--I like arguments and discusions on points of halacha. I'd have a grand time on the Law Committee of Conservative Judaism, if I were knowledgeable enough. :toothy-grin: )

This is an important point to me: I do not regard halacha as a burden--I regard the mitzvot that HaShem has given to the people Israel as a blessing that helps sanctify our lives. Look at the very wording Jews use when we perform a mitzvah: "Blessed are You HaShem, our God, Sovereign of Time and Space, who has sanctified us with Your commandments..." etc. So when we perform a mitzvah, we bless HaShem for giving us the opportunity to sanctify our lives, to make this present moment holy.

It is very easy to poke fun and say, "well, you don't see me condemning my wife for wearing a polyester blend!" Ok, ok, it's worth a laugh. Heck, in Torah study we laugh all the time when we try to get to the heart of certain mitzvot. There's a lot of humor, intentional and unintentional, in the Torah. So no hard feelings. But don't dismiss those of us who actually do check the labels on our clothes. That's an opportunity to be mindful of HaShem and His commandments--it's an opportunity to think about God even while we're just shopping for clothes.

And I'll make an additional point here: if you're not Jewish, or planning to convert to Judaism, these mitzvot don't apply to you. You can take on these commandments if you want, I guess, but no one's saying that they're required of you. Nobody expects you to keep Shabbat. Nobody expects you to light Shabbat candles. Nobody expects you to shave in a certain way. Nobody expects you to keep kosher. You can live a wonderful, full, God-centered life without them--there's no question about that.

That being the case, I find it a little odd that you insist on repudiating these mitzvot. Unless you're a Jew, they're not addressed to you in the first place, so why bother? Besides, what difference does it make to you if I want to check the labels on my clothes...even if you think I'm endorsing a "primitive" and "tribalistic" notion of God? :wink:

Ok, ok...let me take a couple of Yoga breaths here. Now, it's possible that I expressed myself poorly and led you to believe that I was advocating halacha for non-Jews. I was not. This is a very Jewish way of interacting with the Divine. It's definitely not for everyone. Heck, lots of Jews reject it...I'm certainly not going to try to push it on anyone else!

IF we rest our confidence in being children of Abraham, Jesus reminds us that God could raise up children of Abraham from the stones in the road.


I may be misremembering the New Testament, but I think you're quoting John the Baptizer, not Jesus. Either way, I don't know any Jews who 'put their confidence in being children of Abraham.' To be a Jew means this: for whatever reason, God drafted you to be part of the people that He chose in order to bring the Torah into the world. That doesn't mean that God didn't also choose other peoples or individuals for other purposes. It just means that this is the job He handed out to us. And part of that job entails living the precepts of the Torah and allowing HaShem to sanctify us through His commandments.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Bluegoat » 23 Apr 2009, 10:43

friendofbill wrote:Justa thought or two, JRosemary. I understand your contention that God "changed His mind" often in the biblical accounts of, for example, Judges, Kings, and Chronicles. That is presicely why I contended that the characterization of Him in the early wrirings was not fully developed, and reflected the current cultural and religious biases of the people. Later, the prophet Malachi would bring the message from, presumably, the same God: "I am the LORD; I change not." So one must either agree with the early accounts (God can change) or with Malachi, or try to have it both ways
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Art


I've always understood these kinds of descriptions of God changing his mind to reflect the change in the people who were in the story. For example, they were being bad, and God disproved (as he is eternally not into being bad) and so they are good and he approves (because he eternally approves of being good.) Those passages are a very acurate description of that kind of interaction.

That being said, I don't think that believing that God changes can be ascribed to being primitive exactly. I have never met a philosopher or student of philosophy that would agree that God changes, but most everyday Christians and Jews I know would say that says God changes, based on scripture.

You know, if you want to look at scripture as NOT being the divine word of God, that is fine, but you don't understand it as a traditional Jew or Christian does. Even in the NT there is good reason to think that Jews who become Christians are still meant to observe the Law. Does it seem odd that someone is not supposed to wear clothes of mixed fabric? Sure, but God can make up whatever rules he wants. It reminds me of the army - some rules are for the sake of having rules - they are about discipline.
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Karen » 23 Apr 2009, 12:11

Bluegoat wrote:Does it seem odd that someone is not supposed to wear clothes of mixed fabric?


I'm going to throw my 2 cents in here, since people always seem to bring up this commandment as especially odd. But it's not, if you understand the context: that mixture was reserved for the priests in the Temple. It was a boundary marker of sorts, a way of setting them apart from the 'ordinary' Jews. And that's what the mitzvot (commandments) were about: they were signs that the Jews were not like their pagan neighbors: they worshiped one god, they ate only certain foods, they wore only certain types of clothing, etc. It was a tangible way for God to set them apart and make them holy. Far from being an arbitrary set of 'legalisms', they were the signs that marked out God's people as His own. Therefore, they embraced His commandments which, as Rose has said, remind Jews who are observant (to whatever degree that is) of God's presence throughout the day.

I think many Christians would do well to heed their example: how many of us really think, for example, about the food we're putting in our mouths, or the clothes we're wearing? Where were these things made, and how? Is eating/wearing them good for the temples which are our bodies, or for the lives of those who are employed to make them? Those peculiar-sounding 'legalisms' can have much to teach us.

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I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library. -- Jorge Luis Borges
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby friendofbill » 23 Apr 2009, 12:50

Thank you, JRosemary, for clarifying things. I see that I did not grasp your point at all the first time around, and I've been wondering why ... I think, because with a background of Christian (specifically Pauline) training, I automatically associate "keeping the Law" with "trying to earn salvation, " which concept would be foreign to an adherent of any religion other than Christianity. I'm beginning to see a contrast between two views of the Law, based on two views of human need and human relationship with God.

The first, with which I am more familiar, is the evangelical Christian view, that sees man as wortlhess garbage and God as rejecting anything man does (thus rejecting any effort to observe the Law). The outcome of that is the Christian doctrine of Atonement, which presents Jesus as the sacrificial lamb by virtue of Whose death and resurrection we are accepted by God in spite of who and what we are. The second, which I think (and I may still be misunderstanding) is what you are driving at, is that observing the Law has nothing to do with "salvation" and everything to do with giving honor to God through outward observance, which in turn produces inner worship. That is, BTW, something we Christians need to learn: that giving honor to God is far more important than "my salvation." Too many of the "praise songs" of contemporary Christian worship are centered on "me, my salvation, Jesus is mine, I am a friend of God, me, me, me."

Am I getting close to it? This may be what James was trying to tell us when he wrote that "faith without works is dead."

True, I am not Jewish, but I am a disciple of a Jew, and thus the Torah is part of my heritage in and through Him. Without some understanding of everything that happened from Ur of the Chalddes to Galilee, I cannot understand Jesus or the movement that He instituted.

Bluegoat wrote:You know, if you want to look at scripture as NOT being the divine word of God, that is fine, but you don't understand it as a traditional Jew or Christian does. Even in the NT there is good reason to think that Jews who become Christians are still meant to observe the Law.


I agree that I do not understand the Bible as a traditional Jew or Christian does, for I am neither. But to me it is nonetheless the inspired rhema of God, else I would not waste my time on it. Understanding of the way in which God inhabits and uses the Bible to convey Himself to us evolves along with the intellectual and scientific enlightenment of the race, and for that reason I agree with Bishop Spong that "Christianity must change or die." For the most part it is refusing to change, and the membership figures for organized Christianity suggest that it is in rthe early stages of demise as a religion. Which may not be bad: getting religion out of the way might clear the road for us to see the One about Whom religion spoke. The simple fact is, Jesus was not a Christian, nor were His followers: Christianity did not become a religion until after He was gone.

Religion: a set of doctrines, accompanied and enforced by a set of rules and regulations, and congealed by a set of rituals that unite the believers.
Spirituality: one's orientation towards or away from God.
Religion, As I see it, can enhance one's spirituality -- if one's relationship with God comes first and religion comes as a response to it. Most folks, I fear, work it the other way: hoping that through religion they will "get to God." the result can be debilitating. As C. S. Lewis noted, "There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ."

I'm not sure the NT actually backs the idea of continuing to follow or obey the Law. At least, not all of the NT writers do: Paul says "no way." "If you are circumcised, Christ will be of no avail to you," he wrote in Galatians. Jesus Himself "broke" the Law, particularly the Sabbath laws and the"laws" against speaking to or dealing with Samaritans and/or women. He was in fact so "lawless" that He was accused of being a "winebibber and glutton." And He said many time, "you have heard it said by them of old ... but I say unto you..." indicating that He could and in fact did set aside the Law and substitute His own teaching for it. I think He was simply fulfilling what had been prophesied, that "I will write my laws in their hearts." If we are indeed "born again," those laws have become part of us, not an external "thou shalt" but an inner "thou art." If we are remade in the likeness of Christ -- an ongoing process -- then the external Law is simply unnecessary; we only need to keep it around to remind us when we are falling short of the goal and spur us on to, in Paul's words, "complete the race." We are all works in progress.

Or so it seems to me.

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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby The Exodus » 23 Apr 2009, 20:17

JRosemary wrote:
I'll take them one by one--but let me start with this. In my opinion, it's perfectly acceptable to fight with HaShem in a good cause. If there's something in my religious tradition or Scripture that I think is totally wrong, I just argue with Him about it. After all, Abraham and Moses both argued with HaShem--and both in good causes. (And, besides, the meaning of 'Israel' is 'God-wrestler.')

But I don't argue about the small stuff. If a mitzvah--commandment--is easy, I just do it. (Or I at least have the grace to feel bad about not doing it.) For example, I don't have any love of eating shrimp, so why should I annoy HaShem by eating it? For some reason, He doesn't want Jews eating shrimp. That's His right, I suppose, and I have no compelling reason to make an issue out of it.


This is interesting. I also question my understanding of what things are "good". Some things you don't find problematic - eating shrimp, for example - that I would have a problem with. So I think in terms of our approach - that is, seeking what is good and praying about it, following our conscience, reason, and tradition - we handle things very similarly.

rosemary wrote:Why does God impose these restrictions on the people Israel? I don't know. But I can tell you is that I'm grateful to HaShem for the gift of halacha--and especially the gift of Shabbat--and I'm striving to increase my observance. (And believe me, I'm not all that observant. But I'm looking to deepen my practice, not run away from it.)


If you find meaning in observing these laws I think that is good. I don't think there is anything wrong in observing them - not that I even have any authority on telling you what is right in regards to your culture; I am simply saying I do not, personally, think there is anything morally wrong when I look at you functioning in your culture this way. I don't take offence to it, in the way I would to something I regard as sin - such as fornication, etc. I hope you understand the subtlelty I'm trying to express.

With that said, I don't think people are bound (that is, I do not think it is necessary) to observe these laws. For example, if someone thought I wasn't obeying God's will because I didn't follow the Hebrew law, I would tell them I don't think people are bound under *any* extrinsic law. (That doesn't mean I think people shouldn't follow the legal system or certain moral precepts. That is a different matter altogether. I'm only referring to the Hebrew "law.")



rosemary wrote:Whether we like it or not, HaShem is presented as a God who, at certain times, commands war. (And there certainly seem to be times when HaShem glories in war.)


There is a great difference in commanding war and delighting in it. Even "glorying in war" is not the same as delighting in it. If God delighted in war - delighted in the actual tragedy of death, pain, terror, grief - I don't think I could worship him. Again, this would be if he liked to see these things come about. No doubt, there is honor is dying for what you believe in, in the bravery involved in going through war. But glorifying in the grief and agony and torture of people is completely different.

I agree that there are reasons for just wars. I do not, however, think that because a war is necessary it is suddenly good. I may have to kill someone to save my life or my friend's life, but that doesn't mean I delight in the killing. It's just something that has to be done, since this "other", this consciousness that is not me and has a conflicting will, will not yield and is insistant on having his way.

The way I look at war is very much like the way I look at Hell. Wars happen, not because God or anybody *wants* them, but because people just won't change their ways.

Rosemary wrote:That said, we can still argue with HaShem over this. I think Saul should have argued with both Samuel and HaShem about destroying the Amalekites!


The fact that there is such arguing is, to me, evidence that the Hebrew Bible (and the New Testament, for that matter), are not completely "innerant" in the strictest sense. And, even if they were, what are we to make of the disagreements? No two people agree about everything in the Bible, which would mean, if we hold to utter inerrancy, that *at most* only 1 person has a correct understanding of God and what he wants from us.

Rosemary wrote:Re hell: as I said, it depends on how you want to read certain passages. I realize that Christians go in any number of different directions with this stuff. And, since I'm coming from a traditon that preserves majority and minority interpretations of Scripture (and everything in between), I think that's a good thing. There should always be multiple opinions and interpretations of Scripture. And I don't have any opinion on the matter myself--I'm agnostic about the whole concept of an afterlife.


I agree with you. Different opinions are a good thing. It's a shame though that you're agnostic about the afterlife. This life is quite nice (at times), but if it's *all* there is, I would be slightly disappointed (to take nothing away from our great existence at the present!) It would also be a great shame for all those who have lived short, terrible lives (like in Weisel's Night, that they never got anything better.

rosemary wrote:Interesting. As I said above, if I see something wrong in my tradition, I argue with HaShem about it. I don't mind annoying Him in a good cause. And if I were a Christian, I'd constantly be telling Jesus that he was completely in the wrong (and way out of line) for telling that boy to leave his father unburied in order to go follow him...especially considering how important the mourning rituals are in Judaism. Heck, Jesus would never hear the end of that from me. :wink:


I don't think God is "annoyed" by any honest request to understand his purposes. This seems to be a difference between our understanding of God. Would a father be mad at his child for honestly desiring to know his will?

I think Christ's point (I speak as only a very limited academic/student) was not to get so wrapped up in ritual/worliness. It is obvious that Christ cared for the fact that people loved their families. While he was dying he told John to observe his mother and his mother to observe John. Of course, Jesus also says one must be ready to abandon anyone - even family members if need be. But this is not meant as a slight against a person's love for family.

Thanks for the great posts so far!
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Re: Do Ethics Solve Anything?

Postby Bluegoat » 26 Apr 2009, 22:26

Paul very clearly tells Jews they should continue to follow the Law of the Jews, just as pagans must follow the Law of conscience. Although it isn't the Law that will bring salvation to either, they are morally bound to the law which applies to them. For example, as a Gentile I am morally bound not to murder - but it is not by following that rule that I gain salvation.
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