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Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict

Reviewing Jewish tradition

Jewishness is a question of religion, yet many Jews are atheists, perhaps unwittingly. They seem unaware of theist arguments to respond to skeptics, such as the statistical impossibility of evolution by mutations. The rabbinate must try to explain Judaism to Jews, not just command them to believe.

The Talmudic tradition should not be static. It postulated originally that later rabbis’ opinion prevails. There is no reason to say tradition stopped developing centuries ago and left Judaism as a fossil. Even the opinions of the sages are open to argument. Ancient theologians cannot dictate for modern humanity. Arcane food laws, for example, are confusing and impede acceptance of core teachings.[1] Kashrut may remain a valuable tradition for those willing to accept it, just like the other people’s revulsion for eating dogs and roaches, but not an absolute rule on equal footing with the commandments.

Sages greatly expanded the rules to protect the core commandments from inadvertent violations. That created wide no-man’s land around Judaism, preventing violation but also impeding enjoyment by making legitimate actions like eating cheeseburger off-limit to Jews.No-man’s land, deliberate desolation of some territory to protect another, is just one measure against violations; there are other, less wasteful. People build fence before starting a house; religion also requires a fence of additional prohibitions. They should be, however, minimized, so that the fence does not become a tall wall, closing the outside world to the house’ inhabitants, the Jews. They concentrate on auxiliary Talmudic prohibitions rather than the commandments.

Three forces drove the rabbis to heap the legislation: curiosity, ambitions, and the obsessive fear of breaking the law. That fear long crossed a border to superstition. Priestly authors of the Leviticus rooted out pagan superstitions and gave the Hebrews simple rites to expunge fears of inadvertent violations of taboos. An enlightened society is difficult to maintain. The all-too-human superstitions came back with vengeance in rabbinical teachings. The simplicity of cleansing from inadvertent sins is central to the priestly doctrine. Judaism recognizes that inadvertent sins do happen, cannot be easily avoided, and cause no trouble if promptly regretted and expiated. Rabbis went the opposite way and tried to prevent any and all inadvertent sins. In just one example, the rabbis expanded a simple prohibition of a pagan rite of cooking a kid in his mother’s milk and equally clear prohibition of certain kinds of meat into the huge and arcane system of kosher laws. Yes, the Talmudic legislation helps decrease the number of inadvertent violations. But what is the cost/ benefit ratio of the Talmudic protection? The costs are huge: every prohibition reduces the opportunities to do what one wishes, to enjoy his life by whatever non-prohibited means. Thousands of minute prohibitions make Jewish home a monastery. And the benefits are none: inadvertent sins do not contaminate their subjects or the community. Judaism requires not sinning voluntarily. There is no demand to take every possible precaution against sinning incidentally. Every act may cause unintentional sin. The desire to limit involuntary sins at any cost leads to prohibiting more and more actions, and forfeiting many opportunities of enjoyment. Talmudic law imprisons Jew in moral cells; superstitions act as their bars.

Judaism is about practicality; no need to legislate practically unimportant cases. To attempt to foresee and legally explain every case is futile. Every law has boundary effects. The more laws, the more boundary cases are there. Scholars see many such cases only because they search specifically the gray areas.

Rabbinical attempts to explain every commandment created a mass of legalisms, similar to civil jurisprudence. As formal laws, genuine observance degenerated into rituals, some of which verge on idolatry. Blowing kisses to the mezuzah is no different from kissing statues; rabbis and priests rationalize both as symbolism, as did the ancient pagans. Jews hypocritically kiss Torah scrolls but disregard its content, the ostensibly antiquated commandments. Even ancient religious legislation, much less developed than the current one, allowed many people to neglect the spirit of Judaism while claiming to be good Jews who follow superficial rules which led one famous reformer to proclaim, “Hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matter of the law: justice and mercy.” The saying is especially relevant in the communities that emasculated famously efficient Jewish courts into powerless arbitrages that tolerate all kinds of evil.

Otherwise efficient complex adaptive systems are hugely deficient when practiced inconsistently; government regulation of free markets provides typical example. Judaism, an extremely complex ethical system, is excellent in its entirety, but uncompetitive piecemeal. That makes superfluous religious regulation dangerous: adherents of rabbinical Judaism obey many insignificant and non-systemic rules, and have no time left to build a society based on essential Judaic rules.

Overregulation unwarrantedly limits one’s choices, available time and income, thus reduces enjoyment of life, violating a major purpose of human existence. Super-observance of idealists is attractive, but counterproductive because it sets the standard most people cannot and should not attain. Rabbinism saw in the mass of Jews not a nation of priests but people who could not understand the law and had to rely on rabbinical guidance. It is better that people think and err about the commandments then mindlessly follow instructions of other humans. Unthinking people cannot be free. The Talmudic heritage includes many sensible rules not expressly stated in Torah but indispensable for keeping the commandments, yet the Talmud is not binding law but expert opinion on divine revelation. A Jew does well to keep the commandments as he understands them from Torah and to ask the rabbi for help when he is confused. Modern Jews do not study the Talmud, nor do they consult rabbis at every step. Rabbis equate Talmudic rules with Torah; to ignore Talmudic regulations is to ignore Torah. Overdeveloped rabbinical laws destroy Judaism’s practicality, turning it from a teaching for living in the real world to ascetic religion. For many Jews, the alternative to the practical religion of Torah—equated with the Talmudic law—is apathy, atheism, or assimilation. Secularism undermines the Jewish community metaphysically and practically: non-religious people dismiss the decisions of rabbinical courts since they do not fear excommunication.

It is ludicrous to demand rigid observance from people who tolerate Christian and Muslim sanctuaries in the Promised Land. If they consent to that, lesser rules and rabbinical interpretations mean little. Strict Orthodox observance seems no less radical than closing down the Christian shrines in Jerusalem.

Few Orthodox rabbis demand rebuilding the Temple at once, neither because there is no clear prophetic command to build it nor because the Aqsa and Dome of the Rock are political problems, but because keeping the Levitical rituals precisely is impossible: not even a Chicago slaughterhouse could sacrifice enough sheep to keep the principal festivals.

The Talmud’s weaknesses are well-known. Only slightly based on Torah, it is theological speculation by ancient rabbis which often requires far more than could be inferred from the commandments—most of which, in their turn, interpret the revelation to Moses. Though Talmudic sages claimed to interpret the divine will, that claim presupposes direct communication with God: impossible since the line of the prophets failed. The Talmudic opinions were often majority decisions or scholarly opinion, not revelation. De-emphasizing the Talmud would make learning Judaism—Torah or Tanakh at most—accessible without professional, full-time study—and eliminate the clerical class that usurped the priestly privileges. Jewish laymen are often content to let rabbis interpret the law as mediators with the divine. The tendency to avoid the responsibility to think is natural, but a priestly nation cannot afford it.

Excessive religious requirements make observance impossible and lead to a cynicism which erodes Jews’ consciousness. Many of the restrictions lost their significance as precautions against unintended transgression, such as extending the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother’s milk to all animal meat. Only doable laws could be observed, and only law-abiding people live comfortably. To relieve Jews of an undue sense of guilt caused by seemingly continuous transgression, the Law must be cut back to its pragmatic, practical biblical dimension. Judea would probably observe the full Talmudic law, while Israelis would exercise less rigor.

What many Jews believe are religious excesses, are in fact questionable human opinions. Torah sets no punishment for blasphemy and desecration of Sabbath other than karet, some kind of expulsion from the offended community.[2] Punishments for sexual deviations are only priestly interpretations of You will not defile yourself by adultery.

Attempts to tighten the Law beyond reason inevitably lead to legal evasion, a problem ancient scholars spotted in the Pharisaic penchant for legislation. The Talmud (Sotah 22) says the worst kind of Pharisees seeks legal ways to circumvent the Law. Excessive laws are bad enough; but circumvention is hypocrisy, and the more radical the Orthodoxy, the more hypocritical the evasion.[3]

The proliferation of rituals and obligatory prayers led to the emergence of synagogues, houses of worship other than the Temple, prohibited in Torah; the explanation that every place of prayer is a Temple would also validate the high places the prophets condemned. Giving the Temple a monopoly on worship prevented the Jews from slipping into pagan rites simpracticality of Orthodox observance led to the emergence of Reform Judaism, which disregards both, alters Torah and Talmud, shares buildings withtrance fees, and other indecencies. Modern rabbinism turns Jews away from the Temple-centered religion of Torah. If animal sacrifices are outdated and the Levites have vanished, then the old Law has gone, and rabbinism is no less a substitute than Christianity.

The impracticality of Orthodox observance led to the emergence of Reform Judaism, which disregards both, alters Torah and Talmud, shares buildings with Christian churches, and lets women serve as rabbis. Jews might cooperate with Christians in secular matters, and Judaism respected women rights millennia before they came on political agenda,[4] but religious matters should be closed to innovation, unless Jews deny the divine origin of Torah and opt for man-made laws and interpretations instead. In that case, the issue of Israel is moot, since Jews are better off materially in New York than in Tel Aviv.

The intellectual methods of Orthodox and Reformist Judaism are similar. Both believe they can interpret scripture correctly, which is a claim to understand the divine will. From there it is only one small step to modifying the divine will to suit one’s objectives. A reasonable person might doubt the man-made parts of Torah, including some specific regulations, but Torah’s authority is so high and our knowledge of the intentions and ideas of the priestly authors so slight that often seemingly meaningless commandments prove profound. The burden of proof is very high for anyone wanting to abrogate the commandments. The Reformists use the opposite approach, dismissing regulations they cannot justify, rejecting reasonable commandments because they do not square with political conventions or comfort. No restriction is perfectly comfortable, and the Reform approach dilutes religion into a set of pronouncements instead of a way of life. Reform Judaism nevertheless upholds modern state legislation, which says a lot about their real loyalty.

Today’s Orthodox Chassids were the Reformists less than three hundred years ago, and today’s rabbis were the Pharisaic reformers at the first century C.E., and invented the Temple-less Judaism. Modern Reformists have some sensible ideas, but they must prove themselves through the barrier of hostility which preserves the religion against unworthy innovations popping up all the time.

Modern Reformism is a political, not religious movement. It advocates political correctness with Judaic tint. The involvement of women proceeds not from a careful evaluation of the Torah and honest attempt to distill the religious principles and apply them to the current situation. Virtual abrogation of Sabbath is tribute to convenience. Gentilized Jewish reformers dislike even the concept of the religious chosenness: it is so intolerant and illiberal. They call on the Jews to melt culturally, and offer no reason to avoid melting ethnically, assimilating and ceasing to be. True reforms must be fundamentalist, a return to the fundamentals of Judaism buried under the heap of the Talmudic legislation.

The Orthodox put themselves on a par with the priestly authors, introducing rites and regulations neither explicit nor implicit in Torah. The Pharisaic rabbis sometimes flout the commandments by substituting and circumventing the law instead of rejecting it head-on. For example, the prozbul avoids forgiving debts in the seventh-year by transferring title into the public domain. Torah does not require the release of public debts. Reconstructionists employ the worst of the two approaches, rejecting the commandments like the Reformists and inventing new laws beyond the Pharisaic excesses.

Opening ancient religion to discussion transforms it into philosophical theory, with conflicting schools of thought creating confusion, apathy, and cynicism. Religion rests on authority—which is why the new laws pose as revelations. Innovation strips religion of its ethical authority. The Law’s shortcomings are often exaggerated: human nature remains unchanged over the ages, and new circumstances are not so new. People who suggest abandoning the commandments are on shaky ground and in no position to force their views on others. Interpretation is a matter of individual conscience.

People naturally lean toward liberalization: from hard-core Essenism to the Sadducees to the Pharisees. Atheism is the simplest of all. From that, one might expect simple, Torah-only religion to thrive, yet it does not, as the Karaites’[5] fate shows. Atheism masquerades as modernity. Opting for liberal religion, people observe no daily rituals at all and lose their religious identity. This is why fundamentalists win: many people want a clear identity, as well as high and important reasons to oppose secularism. Fundamentalists build a Manichean barrier against the material world. Judaism, however, is arguably not religion but a prescription for a happy life in the real world. Torah does not tell us how God looks and offers little advice on spiritual matters, is even unconcerned with afterlife. Most of Judaism’s religious commandments relate to the Levites only and were hardly realizable even in the past. Torah defines a just society compatible with modern liberalism, and Jews need not be fundamentalists to observe the ethics of Judaism. If Judaism is not about ethics, why obey the religion? People endowed with free will should not be puppets or slaves even of God. Commandments serve not a divine purpose, but practical needs of the communities. Daily observance of religiously termed social rules would make Jews contemptuous of others and prevent assimilation. High religion, as high art, is elitist.

Jews might structure their opposition to gentiles as happens in the fashion business: a qualitative advantage without a perceived fundamental difference. Most people do not like to be at odds with others, yet they like to be better than others in the same system of values. People won’t wear odd clothes but will wear unusual clothes if they are top-of-the-line. Similarly, Jews who prefer to accommodate Christian or secular beliefs rather than be loyal to odd Judaism would wear their Judaism proudly if it were seen as part of both Christian culture, where Jews are senior partners, and of secularism, where Jews are the most senior liberals.

Reevaluation might go beyond the Talmud to numerous innovations, such as the Feast of Purim, which anti-Semites call an example of Jewish animosity to gentiles. The holiday, celebrating Marduk and Astarte disguised as Mordechai and Esther, is a part of Jewish tradition but not of Judaism.

Public charity for religious Israeli Jews is morally questionable and costly and prompts some to join yeshivas to get income security, government benefits, and tax and military exemptions—while voting for expensive settlements and war stuffed by the cannon fodder of second-rate Jews. Religious studies, however, should come second to productive living and defending one's community. Some eminent rabbis were poor; the obligation to earn one’s living knows no exceptions. Living at the expense of hard-working people is corrupt. Government sponsorship, moreover, suppresses charitable support for scholars—should they accept charity which Jews have an obligation to avoid, taking any work to avoid becoming a public charge. That scholars cannot even charge for teaching but must support themselves is not incidental: Judaism insists on productive living in the real world. Some connect the whole matter to the biblical tithe, but modern rabbis are not Levites. Others say subsidies replace the income religious scholars would have earned otherwise; but such compensation has been paid only to the few full-time rabbis communities specifically invited. Rabbi Karo overruled Maimonides, who worked himself and insisted that rabbis should work for living, by surmising that the people must have supported a teacher as famous as Hillel. Not only does Rabbi Karo's opinion contradict the Talmudic tradition that Hillel worked arduously, but the argument does not apply to ordinary rabbis and seeks to turn charity into obligation. People often degenerate without disciplined productive labor, and certainly not all rabbis work or learn assiduously.

Many rabbis may well reconsider their attachments: they often were loyal to Christian colleagues rather than Judaism. Jews have been respected for their firm beliefs, but collaboration with former persecutors, a snobbish reaction to their advances, undercuts that strength. The rabbinate has even declared Christian icons somehow different from idols. The commandment calls any chiseled image an idol, even if the prohibition deals specifically with objects of worship. The church is inherently hostile to Jews, claiming to replace them as true Israel. Christian incitement led to the Holocaust, and willing executioners were good Christians. Peaceful coexistence is one thing; Jews do not have to wage jihad. Passive intolerance of Christian religious theory is another, and the difference should not be blurred.

Israel observes a number of religious holidays unprecedented in free market societies. Most Israelis, however, do not keep most of them. If they followed the Bible, Israelis should work six days and rest only on the Sabbath. The two-day weekend is, however, common. Superficial religiosity damages the economy.

[1] Shrimps illustrate the point: their chitin cover is similar to scales, and tentacles are essentially fins; they neither swarm, nor creep, yet prohibited.

[2] Death sentence for Sabbath violation was introduced only in the context of the Tabernacle construction. Moses’ ad hoc punishment of the wood gatherer hardly qualifies as a case law.

[3] For example, implicitly inviting gentiles to work on Shabbat contradicts the commandment that no one should work in Jewish homes. Rabbis must honestly define unavoidable, thus acceptable work instead.

[4] Jews invented mandatory marriage contract before the Common Era. The reasons for divorce were light then as now—people cannot be made to live together—but compensation made men cautious about divorce.

Menstruation or childbirth make women unclean, but so do nocturnal emissions to men. Uncleanness relates to loss of life force, not to sex. Uncleanness implies no despise: priests could be unclean, and valuable camels are unclean for food.

Males and females distract each other, and prohibition of praying together is practical, not offensive. Maimonides declared that women do not have to pray because they are closer to divine than men, not inferior.

The politically correct advocatnot separated from gentiles by minutely prescribed behavior. Dilution of Judaism with metaphysical speculations, added to assimilation. Literal adherence to commandments/div>

[5] Jewish sect that rejected the Talmud, fundamentalist in rejecting Pharisaic innovations, and liberal in releasing its members from the Oral Law. The sect has almost dissipated because it was not separated from gentiles by minutely prescribed behavior. Dilution of Judaism with metaphysical speculations, added to assimilation. Literal adherence to commandments is doable and guards against innovations that blur religious identity.