Monday, March 19, 2007

Fundamentalism may be a good thing

So, my second grader mentioned in passing that they learned that a child is not allowed to remove a splinter from his parents' finger because it may make the parent bleed which would be against halacha. And he goes to a fairly middle of the road MO day school.

About twenty years ago, there was a movement in Computer Science to try to apply a mathematical concept known as Fuzzy Set Membership, or in more common parlance, Fuzzy Logic. It stemmed from the fact that while computers are really good at regular boolean logic, they are terrible at situations where there is a gray area. For example, you tell a computer, if the temperature reaches 75 degrees, turn off the heater. If the temperature reaches 65 degrees, turn on the heater. But if you tell the computer, when the temperature gets too cold turn on the heat, and vice versa, they are not able to interpret this simple rule that even a child could follow.

Something analogous happened to our religion. I don't know how to tease it out, but somewhere we have lost the ability to apply common sense. G-d stopped talking to us a while back, so we don't know exactly how we should live our lives. If you go back to the sources, to the first time when people tried to figure it out, to the Tannaim of old, you will see it in their conversations, the disagreements, the arguments, the conflicting opinions, the desparate attempts to recollect forgotten traditions.
The concept of a fence around the Torah makes sense. As soon as one starts living a Halachic lifestyle, one begins to see the wisdom of this approach. However, like anything else, it can be taken to to level of absurdity. The absurdity develops gradually, accreting over the centuries, and exarcerbated by the fact that at each opportunity to get back to the core, we burden ourselves more. At some point, we need to be able to trust ourselves to say that we know that as much as we are not sure of exactly what G-d wants us to do, it probably isn't THIS.

A (now seemingly defunct blog Meanderations) blew my mind when the young woman(?) writing the blog turned off comments lest she be unwittingly engaged in conversations with men. Once again, at some level there is something to the fact that frivolous conversations between members of the opposite sex can lead to undesirable outcomes (whoa, I've turned into a Victorian schoolmarm), but is it really necessary to avoid all conversation so as to not risk doing something immoral? Do we not have the ability to control ourselves and use sound judgement?

On another blog, Tobie mentions the fact the the purpose of the Seder, to tell the story, is these days so masked that it is almost impossible to discern.

So, oftentimes, the corner of the JBlogosphere that I frequent bashes the so called fundamentalists. But I would argue that they are not fundamentalists in many respects. The true fundmentalists would not be afraid to remove the crud that has grown on our beloved Judaism over the centuries and allow the beauty to sparkle and shine once again.


Blogger Shoshana said...

Excellent post. I think I might have liked Torah more without the lick, opaque layer of "fence" that is now so difficult to see through and that clouds the shining rays.

March 19, 2007 12:32 PM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Oops, that should have read "thick" instead of "lick." Maybe some day I'll learn to proofread.

March 19, 2007 12:35 PM  
Blogger Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>The true fundmentalists would not be afraid to remove the crud that has grown on our beloved Judaism over the centuries and allow the beauty to sparkle and shine once again.

By true fundamentalist, I take it you mean those who return to the fundamentals. Like the Wahhabists of Arabia who rolled back centuries of accretion onto Islam on the Arabian peninsula, destroying hundreds of shrines to Islamic saints, destroying ancient monuments and relics.

To a certain extent Jewish fundamentalists do the same thing when they choose which fundamentals to focus on to the exclusion of others, regardless of how "it was done" in the past.

March 19, 2007 1:41 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

MFM, I am not sure that destruction of ancient monuments has to be a part of the fundamentalist movement, does it? That is how the Wahabis chose to interpret their doctrine but I don't see it being a necessity. I think that the ideas that motivated any mis-steps in our history are basically positive in intent, so why should be destroy any evidence of them. We should preserve them and learn from them.

March 19, 2007 2:29 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

The problem is that a) it's not so simple to decide what is fundamental and what is fence and b) legal systems need to evolve in their own way, and once something becomes law, there isn't so much room to remove it. And legal systems tend towards black and white distinctions because it makes legislation/adjudication a lot easier, simpler, and more stable. Which means that often silly things simply become unfortunate, possibly historically inevitable realities that I am very dicey about messsing with. That said, there is still a lot of room to cut through the junk. A lot of the trash isn't legislated, protected, logical, or necessary, and I'm totally in favor of doing everything that one can to deal with that.

March 20, 2007 3:06 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


Your points are legitimate. However:

1) The first step is to acknowledge there is a problem. I am not sure that is done.

2) The second step is to stem the proliferation of the problem. I am not sure that is done.

3) The third step is where I get stuck. I am a big opponent of wholesale changes specifically because they typically become runaway trains. Human beings don't have the discipline to make small adjustments over decades or centuries. They just don't have the patience or they become infatuated with 'big ideas' which lead to catastrophies. Having said that, there has to be some way of gradually improving the situation. Otherwise, if the only direction is to restrict we will all wind up sitting in cocoons.

As an aside, you keep referring to Halacha as a legal system, but I don't think that is accurate. Although it shares a lot of attributes of a legal system, it is something else, or has evolved into something else.

So I mentioned the halacha of splinters. Did I mention yet that my son was told it is against halacha to burp outside the bathroom?

And while I don't want to turn this into a litany of halachot that seem ridiculous, I will mention in passing the halachot of picking your nose on Shabbos, and not holding your member when urinating (for those who possess such member of course).

March 20, 2007 7:50 AM  
Blogger frumhouse said...

Wonderful post. Fuzzy logic, eh. Good points. However, the question begs to be asked, is it the job of us "children" to interpret the correct logical meaning or is it the job of the rabbanim?

I agree that fundamentalism has gotten out of control - especially among laymen or younger bochurim who, if they don't know the answer, simply take the strictest stance on an issue (e.g. turning off commments so as not to inadvertently respond to male commentors).

However, the more modern orthodox folks, from what I have read on the jblogosphere, can also take very lenient positions (at best) based on what they emotionally feel should be the correct interpretation of an issue - the logical/emotional answer seems to them so self-evident that a rav doesn't need to be asked.

March 21, 2007 12:38 PM  
Blogger M.R. said...

To clarify: I did not ask a halachik shaila before turning off comments. I made a personal decision, based more on psychology and self-knowlege than halacha.

Here follows something that I've alway been able to take as a given:
I am different.
Different not as in a little quirky, but fundementally (unintentional pun there, but good) *weird*.

March 26, 2007 11:10 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I wasn't necessarily trying to slam you. Everyone has the right to make their own decision. But frankly, it is my opinion that your personal decision was probably colored by halacha. I've never heard of anyone secular doing anything like this. I have heard of religious people, both Jewish and Muslims, having the same outlook on intersex contact. Which I think leads to a serious problem in the more-right wing parts of our religion. People genuinely don't know how to relate to each other...

March 26, 2007 1:11 PM  

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