Friday, July 27, 2007

The moral problem of orthodoxy

It's been my experience that adherence to orthodox beliefs--be they Christian or otherwise--leads to profound moral challenges in daily living that orthodox teachings themselves rarely satisfactorily address.

Take the example of Noah Feldman (HT: Andrew Sullivan), orthodox Jew who found, after taking a group photo at the 10th reunion of his orthodox yeshiva, that he and his non-Jewish girlfriend were Photoshopped out of the picture before it was published in the yeshiva newsletter. This spawned a reflective essay in the New York Times whereby he recounted some of the dilemmas and complexities inherent in orthodox living. This one stuck out for me:

One time at [my yeshiva] a local physician — a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young — addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

Depending on how you look at it, this ruling is either an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking, because in principle it values Jewish life more than non-Jewish life, or an instance of laudable universalism, because in practice it treats all lives equally. The physician quite reasonably opted for the latter explanation. And he added that he himself would never distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish patients: a human being was a human being.

This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged. One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor’s attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient’s life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.

Later, in class, the teacher apologized to us students for what he said to the doctor. His comments, he said, were inappropriate — not because they were wrongheaded, but because non-Jews were present in the audience when he made them. The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved. To accept this version of the tradition would be to accept that the modern Orthodox project of engagement with the world could not proceed in good faith.

This is exactly the kind of headspinning challenge that orthodoxy presents to those who want to both adhere to orthodox teachings and live normal, moral lives in peace and harmony with their non-orthodox neighbors. And it's hardly peculiar to Jews. I saw plenty of examples in the evangelical churches I attended over the years.

Take, for instance, the new Christian who wondered if being "unequally yoked" meant that he had to not spend time with his "unsaved" family members. Or the teenager who burned the tapes under his bed because a Bible teacher told him that they were "unclean."

I podcasted some time ago about those who determine that they are admonished to be "not of this world" and end up imposing upon themselves a kind of cultural Christian kashrut--this movie is Christian, that one is not. This friend is Christian, that one is of the world. World, bad! No wonder orthodox Christians can be so insufferable.

Orthodoxy leads to ghettos and ghetto thinking. It also leads to washing the outside of the bowl while neglecting the inside. And that, to me, is the fundamental moral weakness of orthodoxy: it just makes it too damned hard to love your neighbor while you're busy trying to please God through obedience.


At 11:34 PM, Blogger ninjanun said...

Every orthodox (depending on how you use this term, of course) Christian I've met has been...well, kind of an asshole when you got him on the subject of orthodoxy.

At 7:06 AM, Blogger dorsey said...

I think that's part and parcel of any orthodoxy. It's function following form. Religion kills. All religion.


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