Tuesday, March 7, 2006
On "The Stain of Sin"
So I've been engaged in this great debate over at the blog of the brilliant, irascible, thoughtful, immoderate Hal Duncan. It started with his rant about the reaction to the Mohammed cartoons, "Duncan Does Deus"... which is not recommended for monotheists with fragile sensibilities. Then we got into it with Hal's posts Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy" and "The Stain of Sin". I'll give you a little of the former for context -- Hal says,
So I return to Sodom [the city destroyed to show what "you must not be", what you must not even look back at]. I stand in its ruins and I say, I'm the shaitan they hate, those fundamentalists and conservatives. I'm the fucking symbol they use of the other they don't want you to be like...one of the symbols at least. And if you don't think I'm completely wrong, completely crazed, then you're probably part of what's being symbolised, one of the innocents of Sodom, the women or the children, who get wasted just for being a citizen....[T]he Sodom story is disgust, fear, hate and self-righteous satisfaction all packed together into one of the building blocks of a boot-strapping boot camp morality designed to keep the believer from the pernicious influence of all us others, to turn them into God's good soldiers....
So maybe the perimeter of the encampment, where the liberal believers chat happily with the liberal non-believers and with the loose cannon atheist mystic nutjobs like me who wander all over the fucking place, maybe that's a garden. Maybe the whole ground where they've built their machine morality used to be a garden, and could be once again, a place of contemplation and cultivation; but at the moment it looks very much like a boot camp. They've trampled the flowerbeds, scorched the earth and built a bloody big barracks for training people to not think. If that's not what your religion is to you, I'd dearly love to see you.... turf those fuckers off your land. ....I'll keep lobbing grenades at their power generator, that core of disgust and fear and hate they use to keep the system running. If the sprinkler system for your gardens is on a separate power supply then the flowers will be fine, they'll survive. ...All too often it looks like [liberal believers are] more concerned with keeping the system ticking away nice and fine, because the roses are really rather lovely this time of year, don't you think? So I may well be stepping on a few flowers trying to get at that fucking generator. Just... all I'm asking is... before you raise the alarm and shout, Oi! Intruder!... stop a second. And take another look at Sodom.
Hal frames the notion of moral systems using Lawrence Kohlberg's psychology of moral development, arguing that the monotheistic traditions enforce and propagate the "conventional" stage of law-and-order morality, where deviance from the norm must be punished lest order collapse. In the comments on "Wisdom, Justice, and Mercy" I respond:
I do accept responsibility for turfing the fuckers out of the engine room, and for the fact that most days, I'm more likely to be found pruning the petunias....I'm not saying that, in fighting for your life and mine, you don't have the right to trample the flowers.
What I am saying, though, is this: when people offer me a system -- like the Tanak's, like Kohlberg's -- to teach ethics, a system to inspire empathy, a system which offers a moral description of the world, I perk up; I like systems, stories, traditions that do that, since we all have a lot of work to do here, what with the weevils getting on the tomatoes and the early frost killing off the begonias.
When they tell me the system *completely specifies* the good, that it will *ensure and validate ethics*, guarantee empathy, and describe the world *accurately*, I get nervous. And when it sorts people into those who are worthy to be listened to and those who aren't, the saved and the damned, the sheep and the philosopher-kings, I reach for my... well, I don't have a gun right here, but I reach for my pruning shears....
What I'm suspicious of is your confidence in the alternative you offer. I'm saying, "ok, look, I have these tools; they've got problems, I've had to patch them here and there, you wouldn't believe the things I've done with baling wire and duct tape; they're really old and cantankerous, and unfortunately I've noticed a lot of people who don't understand them end up just mauling up themselves and others when they use them. But I've got them more or less working; they mostly do the job I need them for. What have you got? What advantages and disadvantages does it have? What are the costs? What can we mix and match, trade and learn?" And you're saying "fuck those old tools, man, just burn 'em -- I've got the shit right here."
Right, 'cause it's obvious, right, that if we were to ditch this embarassing old tribal crap from three thousand years ago, we'd have, you know, just normal stuff, compassion and science and democracy and stuff. Everyone would just be normal, and we could all breathe a sigh of relief and agree to all the things that every right-thinking person agrees on. Because ethics is really easy, after all. You just take this test. It's from Harvard.
So, that was all just intro so I could post (below the blog entry break) the entirety of my reply to "The Stain of Sin". Just 'cause I like it, and because if I'm going to be typing this many words on Hal's blog, my blog gets jealous, because it's partly a liturgical memoir of a liberal Jewish childhood, and because it contains the line "A whole religion of centralized power, heirarchy, sacred cleansing rituals... hijacked by geeks."
On the stain of sin
A fine rant, and I've been wrestling with it. I have to admit, I prefer your metaphorical imagery of responsibility and burden to the Tanakhic imagery of stain. So if I was, you know, an ancient Israelite, I'd be bowled over.
However, I also prefer Rabbinical Judaism's metaphorical imagery -- or rather, Rabbinical Judaism's choice, prioritization, and extension of the conceptions of sin available in its source texts -- to yours.
"The Hebrew word translated as sin is khate, Strong's Concordance:2399a crime, sin, fault. The root of khate is khaw-taw, Strong:2398to miss, to err from the mark (speaking of an archer), to sin, to stumble."
"Doing charity and justice is more desirable to the Lord than sacrifice" (Proverbs 21:3).
Once, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y'hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said "Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!" Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: "Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written 'Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice.'" (Hosea 6:6)
Midrash Avot D'Rabbi Nathan 4:5
Sunday School and Sumer
There's something slippery, something apples-to-oranges, in your argumentation that I want to point out. You say you are interested in the actual practice of the modern religion, what happens in Sunday School -- or what can happen, across the ranges of Sunday Schools; that obscure theological arguments are beside the practical point. You also say that you are interested in getting down beneath the engine room, to the hidden source of power beneath it, hence the interest in the Sumerian, the Akkadian, the Ugaritic, the original tribal motivations for the words of the Tanakh.
I think you can have it both ways, I think that's a great deal of the strength of your argument -- but only if you're rigorous about it.
What raises my hackles about this post -- and, mind you, my hackles are my responsibility, not yours -- is its (wholly unintentional) echo of part of the bizarrely illogical conception of the Jews by Christian propagandists. Jews were dismissed as relics of Old Judea, atavisms frozen in time by our rejection of the Savior, practicing a brutal unforgiving religion of goat-sacrifice and public stoning -- while at the same time those propagandists were secretly fearing and loathing us as the precursors, symbols, and agents of modernity.
My hackles are neither here nor there. But the reaction does point to where your analysis is muddy.
See, if I had to pick between the religion of the ancient Israelites and, oh, orthodox Stalinism, I expect I'd pick gulags and purges and show trials over public stonings and immolations and the slaughter of whole towns by the sword for being the wrong tribe.
Luckily, though, that isn't the Judaism I'm stuck with, since the history of Judaism is a history of continually rewriting and reimagining the meanings of its texts, maintaining its connection to them, but often completely changing their meanings, weight, and resonance. I was taught (in my Sunday School) that this is the job of every generation -- to receive the tradition, and to pass it on; but not to pass it on unchanged. To reimagine, reinterpret, recast.
I'm going to talk about Reform Judaism as actually practiced in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America, not because I think it's the best monotheism (God forbid I should convert anyone to Judaism -- you don't need the grief, believe me) but because it's mine. Sin-as-stain may have more currency in Christianity than it does in Judaism; your critique of that imagery may or may not be answered or counterbalanced by the impact of the Jesus story (who, I heard somewhere, came to obviate the Law and replace it with Love --- where did I hear that? Oh, right, Jesus Christ Superstar! -- and spent a lot of time hanging out with whores and preferring them to priestly authorities). I don't have a dog in that fight, really, so I'll stick with what I know.
Yom Kippur at Adas Israel Congregation, 1978
Let me tell you how sin functions in my tradition -- since I'm not an ancient Israelite. I'm not going to spin any abstruse complex philosophical speculative hermeneutic analysis -- I'm going to tell you about real practice, and the context in which it was presented; my understanding of sin and the rituals of sin at age nine, going to a big, middle-of-the-road Conservative synagogue in Washington, DC. I'm happy to engage in a bit with the historical argument about the origins and root meanings of monotheism; but let's start with the present practice I'm most familiar with.
The absolute center of the modren Jewish conversation around sin is Yom Kippur; it's the holiday of redemption, of liberation from sin. And the imagery of Yom Kippur is not one of stain, nor of burden, but rather of judgement and appeal.
The story goes like this: on Rosh Hashana -- the birthday of the world -- every human being is judged; their sentence for the next year (who shall live and who shall die, who shall prosper and who shall grieve) is written down in the Book of Life. Then we have ten days to appeal that decision -- on Yom Kippur the Book of Life is sealed, "but [until then] prayer, repentance, and deeds of loving-kindness can avert the severe decree".
Two things about this I had been explicitly taught, by nine years old:
1) Repentance is communal. At issue was not just my own individual sins, but the sins of the community. We erred together, and had to clean it up together. In terms of the Christian, or the Modern, idea of sin as individual moral fault, this makes no sense; and if sin is viewed as the supernatural judgement of a vengeful tyrant-god not only on sinners, but on their children to seven generations (those women and children of Sodom) it's horrifying. To me, though, as allegory, it made perfect sense. In point of fact, if we destabilize the ecosphere (with a Dad who worked at the EPA, I was worried about the greenhouse effect way before it was trendy) we will all suffer -- not just those who individually polluted. Not only Hitler and the Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, but everyone who failed to act to stop them -- all the Germans, all the world. If you tolerate brutality in your community, your community will be judged.
Now, you could say, "if you're talking about natural consequences, that's fine -- if you're talking about the arbitrary imposition of supernatural authority, it's immoral." But I think even at nine I would have said (maybe not in so many words) that that was a logic foreign to the metaphor we're dealing with. The categories of "natural" and "supernatural" are not in the Bible.
(I know this image of judgement is abused by the arrogant -- the hurricane that kills your opponents is God's supernatural judgement for their sins, the hurricane that strikes you is natural and random. That this was in bad faith was apparent to me at nine; and in my synagogue, anyway, the idea was not really that you should watch out for plagues or hurricanes if you were bad. Nor was there much discussion of an afterlife. You repented of sin because it was sin -- the commandment to repent was both an obligation and an opportunity. There was a good deal of quiet scorn for the idea that you'd need the carrot of Heaven to bribe you into righteous behavior; rather, you should want to be a moral human being because to be anything less was a waste.)
2) Expiation had two parts. For "sins against God", prayer and heartfelt contrition would suffice. For "sins against man", reparation must be made. So the ten days before Yom Kippur were not just supposed to be meditating on how we'd erred and resolving to do better next year -- they should also be (we learned in Sunday School, and we learned that it went back to the Talmud) about cleaning up loose ends -- apologizing to those we'd hurt, making reparations for those we'd wronged. This half, the "sins against man" half, is like your intellectual conception of sin-as-burden -- but communal, clothed in ritual, and with a yearly time limit that was impossible to miss. Most sins were both sins against people and sins against God -- since hurting people is also breaking God's law.
Two things that were not said explicitly, but that I'd inferred by nine years old:
1) I knew it was a metaphor. Anyone in my synagogue you told there was an actual celestial book, made of celestial paper, would have rolled their eyes at you. Nor did I think of the God Who Judged as much like a human judge, nor of the judgements as supernatural miracles. I mainly thought this was an elegant way of talking about what happens in the world. Like traditional religionists throughout the centuries, and unlike fundamentalists after around 1850, I regarded natural law as the expression of God's will -- whatever God was. Actually, to put it more exactly (and again, in ways I could not have articulated at nine), I regarded natural law as a partial expression of God's will. The other part was the moral law -- what was left for us to do. I was familiar, at nine, with the old Midrash which has always been my favorite Jewish theodicy. Why did God create the world broken? So that we could mend it.
[Note: the mainstream Jewish conception of the world is explicitly positive. Though there recur over and over again minor Gnostic-influenced mystical tendencies that hold the world to be an evil place, the principal conception of the world is that is both GOOD and INCOMPLETE. The world is a beautiful gift, but not a safe place, not yet a place where humans can live without fear or suffering. It is not our job to escape the world, but to mend it -- to practice tikkun olam -- to make it that place. In Hindu terminology, karma yoga, the way of doing, is absolutely central to Judaism, while raja yoga, the meditative path to transcendance, while it exists, is absolutely peripheral. (There's a Kabbalistic story -- I may be getting the details wrong, but this is the gist -- of a young Kabbalist who achieves satori-like communion with God while saying the evening prayers in synagogue and, rushing out to joyously tell his rebbe, ignores the Shabbas greeting of some old guy in the aisle. "I got it! I got it!" cries the aspirant, and his teacher says, "No, you missed the point -- go back and do it again")]
2) I knew the definition of sin was up to me. Precisely because the list of sins I was presented with was so ancient and bizarre, the task of reinterpretation was in my face. Most people in our synagogue didn't keep Kosher -- and even if they did, I knew by nine that their version of Kosher was not the Biblical version -- that separating milk and meat plates and silverware came from "you shall not boil a kid in its mothers milk". My father wore a tallis with white threads at the ends, because the bible says to wear a fringed garment with blue threads, and at some point the rabbis had decided that that particular blue was no longer available. Nobody would definitively tell me what the modern sins were, other than the obvious kindergarten ones (and even then it was awfully fuzzy; you shouldn't hit other kids, yet the Maccabees were right to strike back against oppression). The rabbi's sermon would come close to implying that voting Republican or stockpiling nuclear weapons might be sins, and my father would be incensed about her mixing politics and religion. I knew we didn't stone people for adultery or wearing wool and flax together. So what we had was God's Law, but it was an obsolete snapshot of God's Law. The real message was that we had to find God's Law. We had lists of sins to publicly repent for on Yom Kippur, but they were like "we have lied. we have stolen. we have committed murder. we have defamed. we have committed evil unwillingly and willingly, in ways we could predict and through unexpected consequences." In its eagerness to find a candidate for the letter "Z", one English translation of an acrostic prayer offered "we have been zealots for bad causes" but no one ever told me what the bad causes were -- and it was clear my Dad and Rabbi Avis violently disagreed about it (at nine I had already incorporated the joke "any two Jews will have three different opinions about anything" into my self-definition).
We weren't obsessed with sexual sins. No one ever told me not to masturbate or have premarital sex, and what I learned about being gay was that it would be tragic, since gay people were often very sad (which was kind of traumatic for a kid with bisexual inclinations, but that's a different story) -- but that it was explicitly NOT a sin (and my Dad, who'd had miserable tragic Tennesse-Williams style gay friends in the 1950s, was deeply incensed on their behalf at the idea that homosexuality would be considered a sin as opposed to a plight). Sex, shmex. Sin was about hurting people.
What I was given was not a list of well-defined sins, but time and space and ritual to meditate on my sins. I was asked to repent: I was given the job of figuring out what to repent of.
Towards a Wittgensteinian Biblical Hermeneutics
So why do I prefer the imagery of judgement -- with its two parts, "sins against human beings" and "sins against God" -- to your imagery of sin as burden, a burden you must carry until you have satisfied the community of those you have wronged?
Postponing further criticism of Kohlberg's heirarchy, let me accept it for the moment as framing the terms of the debate.
I'm not going to deny that the monotheistic tradition works very well to solidify and enforce conventional morality. In fact I think it works perfectly well in terms of preconventional morality, too. It's really too charitable to characterize a lot of those fire-and-brimstone "Katrina was God's wrath against Mardi Gras" preachers in terms of Kohlberg's conventional "law-and-order" Level 4; they're more like Level 1: "do what God wants or you'll get smacked"; similarly, much of the covenantal framework of Tanakic morality is really at Level 2 ("if you follow My Laws, I will make of you a great people" seen as a fair deal, rather than simple extortion or coercion).
It's probably a good bet to say that most adult monotheists relate to the morality of the Bible as a naturalized, absolute version of conventional morality -- the Law, which is known to the community, which must be followed lest things fall apart, deviance from which must be punished. In fact it's more than a good bet, it's almost a tautology in terms of Kohlberg's theory, since almost everyone in industrial societies is Level 4 or below in Kohlberg's theory (just as almost everyone in the preindustrial regions of the Third World is Level 3 or below). Since your chance of being Kohlbergian Level 5 or above is inversely correlated with your distance from Kohlberg -- your distance from being an elite, articulate, academy-socialized intellectual in a prosperous democracy -- and monotheists are thinner on the ground at Harvard than in Topeka and Timbuktu, monotheism's conventional-morality status is pretty much a sociological certainty.
But since I, after all, am close to Kohlberg in culture and class, I like the sound of Level 5 -- morality as a constantly evolving democratic process rather than a fixed set of rules -- and Level 6 -- morality centered on values that transcend one's own society. And guess what? Big surprise, given a theory from a guy with a name like Kohlberg (who was "shocked to discover how much [kibbutznik youth]'s moral development had progressed compared with those who were not part of kibbutzim"), those values are core to Rabbinic Judaism.
What's suboptimal about your imagery of burden?
We may carry that burden until an alloted time has passed, until the time has come to lay it down, if others allow us. Those others may then take that burden from us -- our victims and/or judges -- accepting that we have "changed", that we're not the "same person"... We must suffer until they appreciate our suffering, until they look at us with empathy and say "enough".
It's a moving imagery, and it beats the hell out of revolving-door quick-and-easy ritual absolution, or the sale of indulgences -- whether the coin is gold or emotional catharsis. You're not going to get any argument from the Jews that consequences trump intentions, and that, when it comes to repentance, the proof is in the pudding.
But here's the problem: you assign the community the role of arbiter. That's an improvement over a fixed and static Law, just as a fixed and static Law is an improvement over a single human authority figure who arrogates the role of ultimate Judge. Democracies beat theocracies beat tyrranies -- I'll sign up for that.
But is the consensus of the community sufficient to define sin? Is that the end of the story -- if the community forgives me, if the community didn't find my sin a big deal, I'm off the hook? If the community disagrees on the point, we democratically go with majority rule?
Here's the moral reasoning you don't easily get with that imagery:
"You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust....
Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. ...Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong."
-- Martin Luther King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Here's what my tradition offers, in the matter of sin: first, there's the community. Repentance means literal, physical restitution to those that you have wronged; penitence means asking their forgiveness. Where disagreements arise about what this means, the tradition is consulted -- the sum of all the arguments thus far -- but the tradition must be reinterpreted for each generation. How do we do that? We argue. Boy do we argue. We don't have priests; we don't have anyone with any special access to the Law. We lost that when the Temple fell. So to define sin? We argue, as a community.
But then there's also something more than that. There's something that goes beyond the provisional, democratic agreement of the community. It's the thing that allows you the space to step back and look at the agreements of that community and say, "wait a minute -- that can't be right".
What is that? It's the idea of a transcendant Law, a Law that isn't written down here in books, or not fully, or not in any way that can be finally understood. The idea of a law that is utterly just, that we can only yearn for and always reimagine. Of a Judge against whom any human judge must be found wanting.
We don't know what's written in the Book of Life. What we get, what the ritual provides, is a space in which we evaluate our sins and the sins of our community not from the perspective of what the community agrees to, but in the silence of the Amidah. We stand with our community, and we sing and chant for a while about all the stuff we've done as a community, going through it item by item, making mental notes of what not to do next time, what must be repaid, what we owe, where we missed the mark.
And then we fall silent and we look somewhere else -- we peer, through a mist, at that Book of Life that we can't read. We repent, not before the community, but before God. And that's the moment in which Kohlberg's very abstract Level 6 morality -- the level he had to take out of his test when he finally realized the folly of trying to measure it, of capturing a consensus description of the morality which defies consensus -- that's where it lives. That's the moment in which you can have the thought: wait -- holy shit -- this isn't considered injustice by our law, but what about by God's?
It's not only good stuff that comes out then. It's not only the Underground Railroad and the abolition of human sacrifice. It could be a crusade or a jihad or a pogrom, because frankly morality is a lot harder and messier than Kohlberg thinks, and there's no guarantee, once people start questioning their society, that those questions are going to take them somewhere nice. You pays your money and you takes your chance.
The Birth of the Law
I like your exegesis of how it emerged -- the me, the Sumerian Tablets of Destiny, "where the often-arbitrary divine powers of polytheism are consolidated, legislated, abstracted into 'systems of the world'." Yes, that's how it began. And not cleanly: it's not even some hypothetical Tyrant God who drove that process, it was real tyrants.
Here's the great irony of monotheism. Its adoption has been everywhere driven by monarchs -- by the concentration of power. It takes the Law out of the provisional agreements of tradesmen, the bickering of local authorities, the vagaries of local traditions, and situates it way up there in the sky, an image of absolute power, absolute rightness. What better way for the king to claim legitimacy? What better way for the king to silence his opponents, than to point to the altar, the cross, the magic artifacts that show that he is the representative of God on earth, that his laws are the reflection of that Final Heavenly Law?
But then, at the same time, in that process, monotheism -- the more it advances along that road, the more it pushes that Law up higher, more abstract, more universal, more fundamental -- calls into question that concentration of power, that very mortal kingship. The king who points to the tablets and the altar soon finds the old man from the desert striding into his court, pushing aside the courtiers and supplicants, and suddenly the people are listening to this crazy old fuck, who says: you are not the Judge. Your law is not the Law. Maybe under polytheism, you were a god. Now you are a man. Now you are a grain of sand. Now that you've allowed yourself to imagine that Law -- how obviously, how ridiculously, how vastly you fall short, my king.
And that crazy old fuck suddenly gets to speak for God -- not the local god of his rosebush -- which would be like, "whatever, let's see how long your rosebush god lasts against the gods of the capital". Nope, sorry, king, you don't have that out any more. You've centralized, first your administration and your power, and now your ritual and moral basis for power, so guess what -- if the old man speaks truth at all, he speaks for God.
And the crazy old fuck says:
Is this the fast that I required of you?
And of course that's also why monotheism is often so brutal to dissenters, so attached to the notion of heresy, to the rack and the auto-da-fe. Because that crazy old fuck had BETTER not speak for God, whisper the courtiers, or we're all up shit's creek. If he just spoke for a rosebush god, whatever, who cares -- if he's annoying, chuck him out of the court. But if he speaks for God... go get the fire started.
Yes, monotheism is about power. Monotheism is like one of those stories where the great sorcerer puts all his power into a fingerbone -- and then loses the fingerbone.
Once you imagine God, it's too late to bring Him fully under your control -- however bloodily you try.
Next Year in Jerusalem -- but not that Jerusalem
So you know what I love about Rabbinic Judaism?
We lost the temple.
We lost the land.
Those sacrifices? We can't do them any more.
That Law? Well, you know, if you actually read it -- and if you don't have the easy out of a Messiah who's already arrived and crossed out all the bits you don't like this week -- it doesn't really make any fucking sense. Burn your house down if it's got mildew? Take and hold the land I have given you? And what ever you do, don't interbreed with the Moabites....
Every damn thing you do -- eating the wrong food, wearing the wrong clothes -- is a sin. And look -- it says right here -- the only way to cleanse the stain of that sin is to sacrifice a goat in the temple. The temple we don't have any more. It says right here we're all condemned to death.
The Levites and the Cohanim can't do those sacrifices any more -- so what are they for? They've lost their palaces, their rights to the first fruits and the lambs and the bulls. They've lost their fancy clothes. They're just like everyone else. Whatever, they have a special prayer they can say for us and they can't go into cemeteries. But hell if we're going to listen to them any more.
So what do we do? Do we just stubbornly insist that everything is as it always was? (Those were the Karaites). Do we just give up and become Romans? (Plenty did). Do we go with this new guy who says that the Law is obsolete, on account of he's God and God is love and from now on everything is going to be peace and harmony and everyone will turn the other cheek? (I think we know what happened to those guys).
Or do we listen to the rabbis -- you know who the rabbis are? They're just the guys who've read the most.
A whole religion of centralized power, heirarchy, sacred cleansing rituals... hijacked by geeks.
How did they do it? Because they had an answer to the problem. And the answer was: hold on, hold on, calm down. We're not throwing anything out, it's God's word, right? Would we do that? Of course not. But hold on... I know, I know, sacrificing goats, Moabites, mildew, okay, but listen... look right here, in the text? See where it says "goats"? Well let's just say it really means, ah... contrition. Right? Goats are contrition. You with me? Okay, so, and over here?
Let's just say...
That's the birth of my religion. Abraham, yes, Moses, yes, David, why the hell not, Isaiah, damned straight.... but really it's Rabbi Yochanan. During the last seige of Jerusalem, while the rest of the Judaean Zealots were ready to fight to the death with the Romans, swords and spears and macho battle cries, ready to die for the return of the Kingdom, for the Temple, for the priesthood, Yochanan had himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. He went straight to Vespasian and he talked him into sparing a little university town, Yavneh; and there, when the Temple was in ruins and the macho guys had died bravely, they started Rabbinic Judaism -- a decentralized religion of eternal argument. A religion fundamentally characterized by its ambivalence toward tradition. On the one hand, it's precious -- it's all the work we've done so far, it's what we've preserved of our encounter with the Divine, it's our glimpse of that Eternal Law. And on the other hand, it's pretty clear that it can't mean what it seems to say on the surface. So it's a mystery -- and we'd better get all our heads together, all of us equal, and start applying both sober analysis and midrash, crazy imagination, fiction -- to figure it out.
Let's just say...
I'm Too Tired To Think Of A Title For This Section
So do monotheism's bloody origins matter? Its crawl up from winner-takes-all henotheism, the bloodthirsty brutality and small-mindedness and tribalism which is inexorably intertwined with the moral message of The Book? Sure they matter -- and soon (but maybe next weekend? this was a long post!) we'll have that debate about the origins, about Sumer and Sodom. Sure, they're something we need to take responsibility for (indeed, that's one of my major struggles in life, in religion, and in fiction -- did you read that Strange Horizons story yet?) Never forget the children of Jericho.
Yes, it's an old, dangerous tool.
But what I'm going to argue for (in a bit) is the value of gentle syncretism, the value of hermeneutic patchwork. There's a usefulness in treasuring things that have a capacity to horrify as well as delight, to a (troubled, critical, ambivalent) allegiance to those who came before in all their faults and vices. There's a usefulness in my religion's pack rat approach to the world. We never throw anything out. We might turn it inside out, darn it, sew a bit of it in here and another bit over there, turn its meaning all around and make something new out of it.
I would be delighted to look at your shiny new tools. Indeed, I can't wait to sew your Shaitanic Midrash of Sodom into the fabric, along with all the Enlil-religion, Pharaonic ritual, Zoroastrianism, Greek philosophy, Muslim and Christian and Freudian and existentialist bits we've got in there already. But to the extent that you want to tell me a story in which there's a single mistake, made long ago, that led to all the suffering around us; a single wrong path was taken -- the technocratic egalitarian culture of Sumer or the radical libertine cosmopolitanism of your imagined Sodom was replaced with a tyrannical religion of power, and it was all downhill from there, say -- to the extent that you want to tell me a story about a single, sinful error led to a Fall, and have me accept it as the Answer -- well, you'll permit me a little skepticism. I think I've heard that one before.
Posted by benrosen at March 7, 2006 01:44 PM
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This is a marvelous post.
I have too much to reply to it to actually do so, but I would like you to know that I am and will be thinking about it.
I'll take a quick moment to say something explicitly that I don't think you state quite explicitly enough here: both Christianity and Judaism are responses to the destruction of the Temple and all the Judaism that preceded it. Among other things, of course. But there's this sense, I think more among Christians than Jews, although we have internalized it as well, that there were Jews (in the modern sense) first, and then Christians split off from that, like the Jeffersons from All in the Family. In fact, you could make an argument that modern Christianity is Pauline, and therefore predates modern Judaism which really Judah the Prince -ine. I think that's wrong, as Modern Christianity is at the earliest Nicine, but the point isn't to be accurate in that sense, the point is that neither is Solomonic, or Mosaic, or Abrahamic. They took that tradition and, in the tradition of that tradition, made what they would of it.
Anyway, lots of people who are looking at religion generally, and who live in mostly Christian areas, make the mistake of thinking that what Christianity took from Temple Judaism is what Judaism is, where Judaism is mostly stuff created after all that, together with some stuff that Christianity took from Temple Judaism and some stuff that Christianity didn't take as well. You can't work from one to another.
Hmph. That was long, for a quick moment. I really ought to take longer and make it shorter, but then my blog would get jealous...
A very good point, V.
I was actually wondering about your take on it, and so I hope that you will be unable to resist the temptation to comment further. :-)
On that issue of Christianity and Judaism (among others) being post-Vespasian responses to and reimaginings of ancient Israelite religion, a little thought experiment:
If King David were to find himself transported by time travelers to the modern era, and had a chance to look around and acculturate, whom would he be most comfortable with? To whom would he dedicate his considerable artistic, political, literary, and pugilistic talents?
Got your answer ready? Here's mine:
I think David was devoted to several things -- outside of art, wine, sex, deserving the loyalty of warriors, and a good party. I think he was concerned with passionate love of God; with the fortunes of his royal lineage; and with the fortunes of his nation.
But his nation is gone. He wouldn't recognize the modern Israel (which is mostly situated where the Philistines were in his time), any more than he would modern Palestine (which is where Israel was) as anything like the nation he ruled, despite an abundance of people who revere him as an ancestor in one, and as a prophet in the other.
He might recognize the land around Jerusalem -- but he wouldn't recognize the city, which is mostly Turkish, and surely bears no resemblance to whatever was there (if anything) when he got there.
David was a king of a small embattled country, a promiscuous lover, a hot-blooded fighter, a passionate devotional singer to God, the kind of guy who'd get drunk and dance on the tables singing how God was going to liberate his nation, then get in a fight over a woman.
He was also a monarchist.
If he came back, he'd probably look for people of his sensibilities, who consider themselves monarchical vassals of the House of David and of his lineal descendants.
And you know who that would be, right?
The Rastafarians. (As Matisyahu seems to have figured out...)
Your piece provoked me to write a note I called On On
; in writing that piece, I found myself putting some words in your blogmouth that really shook me. Im rattling them around now, and Id like to explain what I mean, and why they are shaking up my worldview, and why if I adopt those words, it will be a big deal to me. Whether I do or not, I am grateful for being shaken up by the words (even if the words themselves are not yours, and if you disavow them after reading all this). So. In order to explain all this stuff, Im first going to have to lay out a good deal of my own personal philosophy, which I will do as briefly as I am capable. Which wont be very brief, Im afraid, because Im that way. In an attempt to keep it a little briefer than it might have been, please take in my perception and it seems to me as qualifiers for pretty much any sentences following; Im not claiming Universal Truth but describing the view from here.
How I perceive the universe
First of all, the universe is tremendously complicated, and each bit of it is so complicated that its beyond human capacity to encompass. Just as the plane is infinitely large, and any finite subset of the plane, however small, still contains infinitely many points, so is the universe both too large for our comprehension and too small. Yet we muddle through anyway, for which gift alone all creatures with breath should praise the Creator (as they understand the Creator, which is also incompletely).
The human ability to muddle through is primarily due to our extraordinary talent for pattern-matching and modeling, which we do (and train ourselves to do) by telling and listening to stories. Stories tell us what the universe is like, and then, when were trying to figure out what the universe is like, we use the stories to match patterns, and when we find out what story we are in, we can use that to make decisions about how to act. This helps us both reduce the universe to the bits of it we can use, but fill in the gaps in what we can perceive. In other words, it helps us muddle through.
What do I do now
A couple of years ago, I wrote
If I may be allowed to pontificate, Ill say the basic human question is What do I do now? To put it more pedantically, Given the state of the universe as I perceive it, what should my goals be, and what actions should I take to achieve those goals? Thats three questions, now: How should I best perceive the universe? What should my goals be? How do I work towards them? All of those are tough; ethics, metaphysics, psychology, history, politics, physics, all that stuff comes into it. But theres more
If I want to know how to behave, I need to know something about the universe. The more I study it, and the more other people study it and tell me about it, the better Im able to choose which stories are central, which stories really do tell me something about the universe, which stories I am really in (All of this presupposes that the universe actually exists, which I believe is the case. The existence of the universe, or at any rate my faith in the existence of the universe is another magnificent gift of the Creator, hallu Yah
). Ultimately, when I choose what I should do now
, Ill make better choices if I draw on better stories, and draw on them with some knowledge of how I go about drawing on them (which is another story, and one Im telling you now). There are, of course, infinitely many stories; the universe of stories is like the universe, there is more there than we can use.
The Story of Religion
To me, religion is the core story, the story we cling to that provides the frame for everything else. That story is what the world is really like, and even if it isnt like that in some places or times, its the real story that we eventually come back to. The big story is the one that all the others have to fit into, somehow. Theres some sense in which we get to pick that story, but for many people, that story, like all the best ones, is a story we cant remember ever first hearing. We cant remember a universe that wasnt perceived through that story, and were not really sure there ever was such a universe, because after all, the story usually tells us there wasnt.
For Christians, for most Christians at any rate, the core story of the universe is that the Lord so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. Thats quite a nice story, although honestly it doesnt do much for me, which frankly I wouldnt expect it to, since I didnt hear it until I was twenty. And, of course, there are different versions of this story, including the one that ends and They killed him and the one that ends with the bit about the thief in the night. If you perceive the universe one way, well, its big enough to confirm that, and if you perceive it another way, well, that story is contained in it, too. Particularly when the story you think you are in influences your actions to the point where you create that story around yourself, and particularly when its a story everybody shares to some extent.
For me, the core story that tells me what the universe is like is that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Again, this story has several different versions, but in the one I have held in my head, part of it is that we were not particularly deserving of either slavery or redemption. We are grateful for what the Lord did for us, of course, and part of that gratitude includes acknowledging that the Lord didnt do it because we were particularly good, or kind, or ethical, or powerful, or tall, or musical, or clever. Not that any of that is the point of the story, you understand, just that the story implies that (a) slave arent slaves because they are in any particular way slavey, but rather because of social and economic forces beyond their control, and (2) liberation, Gd-given or otherwise, is not dependent upon deserts (or deserts) but droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven, upon the just and unjust alike.
Of course, the story is also that we are Different, we are Chosen (vaddevah dat means), and that we shouldnt trust outsiders. A good deal of my adult fiddling with the story has been to break that down (Jethro!) but still, that story is how I see the world. As I pass the story on to my daughter, I try to pass it on with the good and not so much the bad, and I have no idea how much I will succeed, or if she will ultimately simply reject the story altogether. Well, thats for time to tell.
Fighting for my Judaism
It seems to me that many if not most Jews of our generation (and Im assuming you are more or less of my generation, that is, post-Boom) grew up with a different core story. That story is that the Nazis killed six million of us in the gas chambers, and nobody did a damn thing about it. This is a tremendously powerful story, and at least most of it is true, and it, too, is part of the universe. On the other hand, what an awful story to have as the central story of what the universe is really like. I understand how it happened, and I have sympathy with my Hebrew School teachers, but I think that it was Bad for Jews. Since I came to this opinion (and all of this thinking, about stories, and the universe, and religion, and so on is the product of the last dozen years or so, begun really in my late twenties), I have been thinking, lazily, of ways to combat the tendency to replace Exodus with the Holocaust. Mostly, as I am insufficiently energetic or ambitious to do much more than chat about things in shul, I have been keeping this struggle in mind as I raise my daughter.
This, of course, goes back to asking what do I do now. Because I care about Jews and Judaism, I want to do something that will be Good for Jews, and within a very limited set, one of the things that I can do is to raise my family Jewish, and not just Jewish, but Jewish in a way that is Good for Jews. And because I want to raise my daughter as a Jew, and I want what is best for her, the Judaism I want to raise her in is a Judaism that is in itself Good for Jews. I think (with Douglas Rushkoff, though I disagree with almost everything else he says) that Judaism has in large measure lost sight of itself. If Ive got the description right, and the goal right, and I still dont see an action, perhaps I need to start again, yes?
A Different Story
In writing about your essay, I found myself writing this:
Ive whinged before about how my fundamental understanding of the Jews boils down to we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And I will still say that, because its true, and its true to myself the way I understand it. And that story is part of both Judaism and Christianity. But its also true, as Mr. Rosenbaum points out, that you could boil the story of the Jews down to the Temple was destroyed, so we wrote the siddur.
What has been rattling around for me since than is whether that story, the story of the siddur, is really what the world is like. Or, taken from another point of view, when my daughter asks me what the universe is like (not that she will ask like that, but when she asks what it means that she is Jewish, as she does ask), which one do I want to tell her? Because, honestly, I think that is what I want the universe to be like. What I want her world to be like. Because, lets face it, the Temple is being destroyed (as it is in every generation, as it always is for everybody), and shell need a good siddur.
Where is the Lord in all this? Because when I say that all living things should praise the Creator, I mean it. That, too, is part of the story, that the Lord made the world in seven days (vaddevah dat means, because if its like building a house in a week, than that story is not the universe I perceive, but if it means that what we have is a gift, a tremendous gift that implies a Giver, and a Giver and a gift that we cant completely comprehend, then that is the universe I perceive). And the Lord didnt give us the siddur. Its not even like the mishkan, where yes we put the thing together, but to his specs. The siddur is a magnificent thing of constant creation and redaction (which is why the story appeals to me in the first place) but why bother? And the answer to why bother is that we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
The easy answer, finally, is of course to reject the idea that any of it boils down to a single sentence. And I accept that, yes. But my most powerful religious ritual is the Passover meal, for which we turn our house upside-down, and at which we feast like kings, and at which we say we were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord brought us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. And the more we tell the story of the departure from Egypt, the more are we to be praised. And, really, the more somebody tells of the departure from Egypt, the more I praise them. And we dont do that for the story of Jacobs ladder, or for Ezra finding Deuteronomy, or for the Binding of Isaac. Yes, we have holidays and rituals for all thatwe have at least two for the gift of Torah, and we celebrate the Creation once a weekbut its not the same. And, more crucially, we dont have a Yom ha-Mishnah or whatever we would call it. We have tisha bav.
And I dont want to take away from tisha bav; I, too, mourn the Temple, even as I dont want it rebuilt. And I dont think we need to stop grieving over the Temple, even as we celebrate the siddur. I dont want to lose any of our stories. But they arent all the core story, they arent all how the universe really is.
Ultimately, theres tremendous power in single sentences, in the moral at the end of the story, in reduction. Ultimately, theres tremendous power in being able to say, briefly and simply, who you are. It will be more complicated than thateverything always is, and it will be more complicated than any lengthy and nuanced answer as well. Theres a reason the guy with the fright wig has a John 3:16 sign. And a fright wig. Theres a reason why the Hagaddah is the way it is. Theres a reason why weve been fighting for fifty years over the Pledge of Allegiance. And theres a reason why childrens books have only a few words.
At this point, then, its all still rattling around. Ive written a lot of words to clarify, and probably also to muddy, what may be to you utterly pointless. And it certainly doesnt have much to do with the Stain of Sin. I didnt have anything to add to that, anyway; the universe he perceives is in that area not much like the one I do. But in explaining to Mr. Duncan what the Judaism you perceive is really like, you brought me to question my own perception of the Judaism, and since its all your fault, you bastard, Im kicking it back to you.
chazak, chazak, vnitchazek,
Ben has that effect on people, V. :)
He has said, casually and without any apparent effects on the structure of the Earth's mantle, things that have shaken my worldview utterly. Generally, ultimately, for the better.
Thanks for that excellent comment, Vardibidian. I will have to dwell on it a while.
I like this a lot:
Because, lets face it, the Temple is being destroyed (as it is in every generation, as it always is for everybody), and shell need a good siddur.
And I also think I should think about "Where is the Lord in all this?"
My easy answer would be "well, who do you think we wrote the Siddur for?"
But I need to think about it.
Anyway, lots of people who are looking at religion generally, and who live in mostly Christian areas, make the mistake of thinking that what Christianity took from Temple Judaism is what Judaism is...
It occurs to me that this is pretty much the same kind of thinking that leads to: “But if humans are descended from apes, how come there are still apes around?”
(It also occurs to me that to the extent I have a core story, at the moment, it’s: All this, just with brains evolved for the use of small tribes of African plains apes? Freeeow!)
That's a good core story! :-)
I feel I should clarify, although clearly David Moles has the perception not to need it, that when I say that religion is the core story I neither mean that people who aren't religious are somehow missing core stories or that any core story is by tautological definition a religion. That would be cheating.
In other words, in Mr. Rosenbaum's words in fact, that's a good core story.
No worries -- I didn't mean to imply that I thought you were implying that. :) I just grabbed the "core story" idea and ran with it.
And, you know, from a purely mercenary, writerly point of view, it seems like a useful concept. :)
...Anyway, I've just written more on the subject than I can comfortably fit in this comment box, so: Stories was everything, and everything was stories, #2.
I have a couple of questions relating to B.R.'s Judaism specifically. Starting with:
Two things that were not said explicitly, but that I'd inferred by nine years old: 1) I knew it was a metaphor. 2) I knew the definition of sin was up to me.
How would this statement change between strands Judaism, to the best of your knowledge? Would it be true in an Orthodox synagogue, for example?
You also mention that your Rabbi was female, and you talk about a lack of obsession with sexual sins -- how the attitude of your synagogue towards homosexuality was one of pity, not codemnation. Once again: how specific is all of this to Reform Judaism? I seem to remember reading an article about women praying at the Western Wall, and having men cursing at them the whole time; I've actually got links in my bookmarks folder to articles about the rarity of and obstacles facing women Rabbis. (Don't ask me why, because I honestly don't remember, except that it was interesting.) And what about homosexuality? How would homosexuality be treated in an Orthodox congregation? Um, again, to the best of your knowledge...
Lastly, at one point you said: I'm going to talk about Reform Judaism as actually practiced in late twentieth and early twenty-first century America, not because I think it's the best monotheism (God forbid I should convert anyone to Judaism -- you don't need the grief, believe me) but because it's mine.
A few months ago, on our way across town to look at houses for sale, our realtor started telling us about kosher practices. Somewhere in there she inserted a similar parenthetical comment, and added: "If you were to tell me, right now, that you wanted to convert to Judaism, it would be my job to talk you out of it. The rule of thumb is, you try three times to talk a new convert out of it. If they still want to convert after all that, then you let them be."
So, my question is: why? Specifically, could you elaborate on what you mean by "you don't need the grief, believe me"?
Great response. I've posted my own comment on me own blog; I wasn't sure if I should cross-post it here so your own doesn't get too jealous, but, you know it's kinda looooooooong (again!). Sorry, I'm just enjoying the debate too much.
Jackie, great questions.
> How would this statement change between strands Judaism, to the best of your knowledge? Would it be true in an Orthodox synagogue, for example?
I am no expert on current Orthodox practice; perhaps others will join in. But it's perfectly clear that traditional Judaism has taken great pains to specify exactly the *praxis* that is required of us, while allowing free speculation about the *meaning*. The closest thing to catechism in Judaism are Maimonides' rather minimalistic thirteen principles and even these are just one philosopher's opinion. For conversion, "profession of faith demanded is limited to the acknowledgement of the unity of God and the rejection of idolatry."
The Jewish tradition has certainly also always been to make vast use of metaphor in interpreting the Bible; the more Orthodox you get, the more important mystical (e.g. Kabbalistic) interpretations become wherein nothing is as it seems.
As for the definition of sin, the Orthodox are much more likely, I think, to see that definition as produced by a communal process of scholarly debate, rather than individual introspection. But even if they have a large body of laws on what is permitted, mandatory, discouraged, and forbidden, the ritual of repentance is still communal and unmediated -- there's no father confessor to explain what God wants in your particular instance, and if you seek a rabbinic opinion, it'll have to be at your initiative, and it'll be just that -- an opinion. When everyone falls silent during the Amidah on Yom Kippur, you still have to decide for yourself where you sinned.
the attitude of your synagogue towards homosexuality was one of pity, not codemnation
Just to be clear, that was my Dad's attitude. It might have been representative of that Conservative shul in 1979. It would probably be seen as offensively homophobic by many or most of the congregants of our current, Reform synagogue, which annually sponsors a booth at DC Gay Pride Day. Reform Judaism's official position on homosexuality is here (short version: they're all for it, here are some sample commitment ceremonies). Here is one potential (but not authoritative theological) reasoning for the change.
Reform Judaism's unofficial position is "Nu, at least he's Jewish."
(Seriously; it's currently way easier to find a Reform synagogue that will host a gay commitment ceremony than one that will host an intermarriage -- but we'll get into that particular social neurosis some other time.)
Orthodoxy, of course, is against (male) homosexuality. This seems to be a reasonably clear and comprehensive explanation of the Orthodox position. What's worth noting, though, is that there's no equivalent in Judaism of the Pauline/monastic impulse to regard the body and the world as fallen and evil. We are commanded to enjoy Creation -- we are also commanded to order it.
Rather than the idea that sex is inherently sinful, a necessary evil to be tolerated for the purposes of procreation, sex is something that the Orthodox are commanded to enjoy (oneg, the commandment to enjoy creation, is central in Jewish thought). Women are seen in the Talmud (typically in the classical near east, I think) as the more carnal sex, and men are obligated to provide sexual satisfaction to their wives.
"The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey drivers, once a week; for camel drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months." (Ketubot 61b)
"A man is forbidden to compel his wife to have marital relations...Rabbi Joshua ben Levi similarly stated: Whosoever compels his wife to have marital relations will have unworthy children." (Eruvin 100b)
Basically, sex is treated like food: it comes in kosher and trayf. Male masturbation, male homosexuality, and condoms (at least before AIDS) are like shrimp, pork, and cheeseburgers. Sex in marriage is kosher -- eat up!
Division of roles between men and women is a topic which is hotly debated within Orthodox Judaism -- while Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism are all solidly egalitarian and have been ordaining women for decades. I should say, egalitarian at least in theory, because I haven't seen your bookmarks, and we do live in a sexist world. But, back in 1978, it was never represented to me as at all odd that Avis was our rabbi. Everyone agreed she was an excellent rabbi.
As for "you don't need the grief, believe me", there are a couple of answers.
Judaism is a tribal religion, not a world religion like Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Marxism. World religions are answers to the question "how should people act in general?" Tribal religions are answers to the question "how should our people act?"
Becoming Jewish doesn't have much to do with accepting a set of philosophical postulates; nor is it necessarily an emotional experience of catharsis like finding Jesus. It's more like becoming Navaho. It's more an acculturation than a conversion in the Christian sense.
Many Christians, historically, believe that being Christian is the best way to get into heaven; it is thus incumbent upon them to evangelize. Jews, by contrast, think it's harder for Jews to get into heaven (insofar as there's a heaven), or to be moral, than it is for non-Jews. We have, traditionally, 613 commandments to follow, you have seven. "A non-Jew who keeps the Noahide Law in all its details is said to attain the same spiritual and moral level as Israel's own high priest/cohen gadol" (Talmud, Bava Kamma 38a)
From the point of view of the orthodox, if you're not Jewish the sexual law is greatly relaxed. Incest, bestiality, adultery, and male-to-male anal sex are still out; other than that, go nuts. You're also welcome to your shrimp and cheesburgers; just don't eat "flesh that was torn from the body of a living animal", because that's, like, fucked up.
So why take on the 613? Because they are mitzvot -- obligations which are also privileges, duties which are inherently joyful. (It's like being a writer. Most people don't have the duty to themselves to write every day. It's a duty that often sucks. It's also a glorious privilege.)
That's the traditional view. Obviously, I don't follow the 613 myself. But I nonetheless find the traditional view on prosyletizing and conversion healthy and sensible. I like the idea that the attitude to converts is one of sympathetic skepticism: not "Oh goodie!" but rather "Are you sure?"
I guess part of my reaction of "you don't need the grief" has to do with that suspect old Jewish core story, "people are always trying to kill us."
But more broadly, I also think the traditional attitude captures my sense of the world.
I don't think Rabbinic Judaism is the right way to do things. I think it's one way. I kinda like it. The Jews are not the Chosen People in the sense of being spiffier or better than anyone else, but rather in the sense of having been chosen to do a particular job -- like being Line Leader or Door Holder in my daughter's kindergarten class. There are lots of jobs to do.
We don't all need to be geeks hijacking heirarchical purity religions and turning them into ever-evolving moral debates grounded in transcendent imagery. Some of us need to be involved in passionate affairs with personalized, incarnated visions of God. Some of us need to be steely-eyed revoilutionaries eschewing every language other than modernity. Some of us need to be anarchic mystical roving Shaitans tearing down every structure and making goat noises.
Core story about evangelism: "Dude, don't follow me. I'm doing my thing. Do your thing. I can't wait to see what you come up with."
I think it was Abraham Joshua Heschel who said that the reason Jews didn't prosyletize waswho wants to live in a world with nothing but Jews?
I grew up in a Conservative shul, and in the late seventies, they did not allow women to read Torah, they did not allow women to witness Torah reading, and they certainly weren't hiring women as rabbis. On the other hand, we knew that there were women being ordained, and we knew that we were somewhere in a specrtum of Jewish practice ranging from strict segregation in synagogue with women behind a curtain, and equal opportunity, with all of us being Jews. I still find it moving to see a thirteen-year-old girl get a bat mitvah where she does all the things the bar mitvah did last week; I hope my daughter understands that only intellectually.
As for homosexuality, in the late 70's in the Conservative shul I attended, it was simply Not Discussed. Certainly not around children. So I can't help there, other than what is implied by all that.
Now, to confuse things further, the last shul I was a member of (as an adult, last year more or less) was an independent shul, using a heavily-edited Reconstructionist siddur. It was aggressively egalitarian; the rabbi was a woman, women read Torah and led services, and there was no apparent difference in the schooling. I didn't know any openly gay members, but I think our policy, insofar as it was formed, was close to Ben's, with perhaps a more pretentious attempt to celebrate life in its diversity. Furthermore that particular shul was incredibly open to mixed marriages, such as mine, and to including non-Jews (vadevah dat means) in services to the extent they wished.
I'll also add that the shul I attended before that was also not affiliated, although they used a Conservative siddur and appeared to me to be straight-ahead Conservative with a vocal faction of near-Orthodox members. I don't know what percentage of shuls really belong to one or another of the affiliations, and certainly the percentage of Jews who are even members of a shul at all is pretty small. So it's misleading to look at the affiliations and their semi-official positions as having all that much to do with the spectrum of belief, particularly on controversial issues such as sex, gender and conversion.
Oh, and Ben, you left out the political history of conversion. I was always taught that conversion was too risky, and that as part of adapting Judaism to the Diaspora, we decided to keep our heads down, rather than drawing attention to ourselves by sending missionaries around. I just wanted to add that to the mix; I think your point about a tribal, rather than a world, religion is the main point.
And while I'm at it, I'm going to link to my gloss on Jonah at Moles's place, in a response to this post.