Making rules where rules should not exist
One of man’s strongest longings today is for authenticity. We want to be ourselves, or to become ourselves. We admire children’s spontaneity, because they do not yet know how they “ought to” be. They are still impulsive and natural.
More and more, we distrust objective information because it is distant from our inner lives. It reasons too much and makes us forget what our real lives are all about. It has straight-jacketed us into the mainstream. What we want is to recapture and hold on to genuineness. Otherwise we choke. We even need to purchase pure butter and natural foods without artificial additives. We have been overwhelmed by the artificiality of our lives and we crave authenticity.
The more we are suffocated by this disingenuousness, the more our emotional relationships with ourselves and others require space, because we have learned that neither science nor modernity can offer us a spiritual sanctuary. They are unable to teach us the stuff of life. Science is a shell surrounding what is real.
We are still romantics searching for candlelight, instead of electricity, in our complicated existence. But even romanticism has succumbed to rules. It began prescribing its own set of laws and decided how authenticity should be expressed in art and even music. Suddenly we were introduced to ambiguity.
Place Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man next to the poetry of the romantics and you discover the difference. Poetry becomes suggestive rather than literal. In the knowledge of this ambivalence we recognize that the world is not really what it appears to be. As in Plato’s world of Ideas, we discover a world much more real than its mirror image, which we mortals consider to be our world.
And so it is with us. We are not who we appear to be. We long to be ourselves, attentive to our subconscious and unconscious spiritual urges and experiences. But we are limited, bound by pressures and needs that we cannot escape because they are inherent to the outer world we live in. They make this world possible, and consequently unbearable to live in as untainted and real human beings.
And so we recognize that authenticity reflects a paradox. What, after all, is it? Is it dealing with our inner lives, or is it our sincere attempt to live in the outer world? Or maybe both simultaneously?
Perhaps we human beings are genuine, but we also play the part of being genuine. We may be good, but we love to impress others with our goodness; and we don’t know where one ends and the other begins. There is artificiality in authenticity.
To use a French expression, we have cast aside l’homme sauvage, the natural, wild, and free man, and replaced him with l’homme civilisé, the civilized man of today. We have become estranged from ourselves, abandoning the paradisiacal purity of the natural man. Through the incessant “ought to” education of norms, the childish innocence has systematically been suffocated and ultimately destroyed. We are caught up in social conventions and behavior patterns. So, real love, friendship and even good citizenship are frustrated.
The ideal of authenticity is like Adam and Chava’s eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Once one has bitten into the apple of genuineness, artificiality emerges. Then man is in need of laws to restrain him so that he may survive, but his inner self pays the price. We, like millions of other people, sit in front of our computers that have opened new worlds for us but have made it no longer possible to see the other. And so we long for more contact… more love…more human trust.
But within this lies an aspect of narcissism as well—the yearning to be with ourselves. This longing clashes with the needs of the other, social conditions, family, and society at large.
So, does real life not include social tradition and the “ought to,” despite the tension between authenticity and the needs of the society? It is this constant paradox that we must accept, however difficult it may be. Real life is the clash between our inner needs and our outer conditions. To choose one and reject the other is no longer life. To be sure, all this is the irony of our existence, but it should not be confused with cynicism. Since the time of Adam Harishon (the first man), it is the acceptance of paradox that gives life substance.
Halacha is built on this paradox and is the reason behind its call for authenticity as well as for norms and behavior patterns that do not agree with the inner man. Halacha is not consistent; it is full of seeming contradictions that sometimes cause us deep frustration. One day it asks for inner authenticity; the next day it demands conformity. It refuses to inform us why in one case it asks for a genuine, personal inner experience, while in another it disturbingly demands compliance with rules and standards.
The great halachists battle over what should have priority, because they themselves are part of the “problem.” Since they are human beings, not angels, they reflect all the dimensions of human limitation and are therefore highly competent to decide on matters of Halacha, because Halacha deals only with a life of paradoxes and constraints.
Great halachists do not possess absolute knowledge. They are not scientists who deal with impartial conditions. They deal with human life. And once they or others start to believe that they are infallible, they have left the world of Halacha and succumbed to radical inauthenticity. It is for this reason that God gave the Torah to man. Torah lo bashamayim hi – the Torah is no longer in Heaven. Halacha is and needs to be unfinalized, since life can never be perfect. It is unable to conclusively solve all problems because this world is a place where romanticism and its own artificial rules clash with the external conditions of society. Life consists of tradeoffs: equality vs. liberty; justice vs. mercy; kindness vs. truth. All Halacha can do is offer guidelines when absolute answers do not exist. But it converts arbitrary solutions into demands because loyalty to these guidelines needs to become part of the worship of God, since it is God who set up this ambivalence and demands from man to live under these conditions.
Halacha makes rules where rules should not exist but need to exist lest chaos ensue. But it is these very rules that create unsolvable problems that are inherent to our existence.
In trying to ask for both religious authenticity and conformity, Halacha nearly collapses in its attempt to satisfy both, and consequently builds bridges that dangle loosely and are then declared by Halacha to be castles of security. Halacha is constrained by man’s need to look after his own spiritual wants: the playfulness and innocence of the child in all of us; our real I; and the fact that we have consumed the apple and must now behave because we could not deal with the tree.
It is this balancing act that becomes beautiful once the Divine Will declares it holy and teaches us that life’s absurdity has meaning.
“Questions to Ponder” from the DCA Think Tank:
- Is authenticity a Jewish value? Is it taught as a value in your Jewish circles, and if not should it be?
- Should we be aiming to return to authenticity we knew as children, or rather to an adult form of authenticity – and how do the two differ?
- Is it absolutely true in your experience that “neither science nor modernity can offer us a spiritual sanctuary”? And if not true, in what ways do they offer this?
- “Real life is the clash between our inner needs and our outer conditions” – but should both of these be granted equal weight, or should one outweigh the other
- What do you feel about the portrayal of halacha as “unfinalized” and “unable to conclusively solve all problems” – does that idea make you feel uncomfortable, delighted, comforted, or something else?
Janice Block says
There is truth, and there is deat Hashem. My understanding is that “knowing” God, does not mean “understanding,” but rather the “knowing” of connection and familiarity. Whereas truth in its essence means understanding Hashem. If we were equal to God, these things (truth and deat Hashem) would be identical. But due to our obvious limitations, they are not the same at all. Who knows his mother better, the infant child, or an unknown woman of similar age who lives in a similar community, has a similar lifestyle, and is trained in the same profession? Obviously the infant “knows” (= i.e. is “familiar with” and “connected to”) his mother better than the strange woman; but the strange woman “knows” ( = i.e. “understands”) his mother better than the infant ever could. We don’t “know” (familiarity) Hashem as well as we could, because we stray after our eyes, we distract ourselves, we turn away in shame, anger, or indifference. This aspect has little to do with science and everything to do with morality, love, and trust. This is also the aspect that we find within the essence of our own inner selves, when we look for it. This is the aspect that we usually think of as “spirituality,” or “spiritual awakening.” The East taps into it through meditation and self awareness; the West focuses on davening, connection, and submission; but all of these religions are focusing on deat Hashem as familiarity and connection. Mistakes in UNDERSTANDING of God can interfere but cannot prevent this aspect of spirituality. On the other hand, science is all about truth. Not that it provides the full or complete truth; it never could. But it’s purpose is to search for the truth and to refine our understanding of the world. “Spirituality” which is not wedded to truth becomes misguided, or at worst, idolatry. You can be an idolator and still have a connection to the Creator of the universe. So — in order to really “know” Hashem as best as we possibly can, we must have both aspects: trust, belief, self awareness, external connection and communication, and submission… but also an ear for the logic and reality of the world around us; i.e. “science.”
Janice Block says
Judaism is, or should be, about authenticity. Each one of us has a wellspring of wisdom within, but our vision is clouded by external distractions, temporal desires, and self-centered misperceptions. In a general sense at least, when we attempt to “clear the glass” and reach deep within ourselves for the answers to right and wrong, we usually find them. As Rav Cordozo says, the problem arises with specific issues whose nature or category is not clear, and with real human beings who have real human foibles — especially a tendency toward bias. To control these natural human tendencies and limitations which obscure the authentic truth, we have to have rules and courts. But as soon as we have rules and courts, we subject ourselves to approximations and generalizations which often cloud the truth rather than reveal it. We try to do the best we can, but our best is never THE best for each individual issue (even when we have the Torah to help us). On the other hand, loyalty to that system of laws is what brings us together as communities and as a people the world over, and through time as well. So I think that the sacrifice of personal authenticity to generality is at least partially compensated by the cohesiveness which is produced by that same system of laws. Maybe in Olam Haba we won’t have many of the laws anymore because we won’t need them: freed from most of our self centered biases, we will be able to focus on refinement of our actions as individuals, without blurring the ethical borders with generality. But — having come so far as a cohesive people, we will remain so, even as the focus of life becomes more and more individualized.