In a recent discussion on facebook, Halakhic scholar Anne Gordon drew my attention to a very interesting difference between traditional responsa and Conservative and Reform responsa. Conservative and Reform responsa, she suggested, are both “agenda based”; they adhere to a clearly-stated platform, with the goal of steering the course of Jewish life according to particular ideals. Traditional responsa, on the other hand, is fairly pedestrian; it deals with the mundane issues of whether this particular pot is kosher, or that specific business practice allowable. “In Orthodoxy,” Anne pointed out, “change rarely happens by intent….”
Does Judaism need a steering wheel?
It turns out that both the Conservative and Reform movements have clearly-stated platforms and goals, something that is glaringly absent from traditional Jewish practice. Now, on the face of it, having a rational agenda on which to base ones practice seems like a wonderful idea—after all, why have a brain and a moral compass if not to rebuild the world according to a rational, moral plan?
And yet, the study of organizational dynamics on a state and sub-state basis has revealed the pitfalls of agenda-driven organizations. It turns out that organizations that grow out of “conscious engineering” are much shorter-lived than those whose evolution is organic and “unconscious” and not part of an overall plan—at least not a plan made by any of the participants. The most robust organizations are the ones that “just happened,” rather than the ones that were purposely built according to a well-defined blueprint.
Ah! But is not the Torah itself a blueprint for Jewish society?
Not in the sense that organizational dynamics uses the term. In fact, Halakhic process is more clearly expressed in the open-ended debate of the Oral Law than in the written Torah. the overall “plan” that informs the traditional responsa is the totality of received Mesorah up to that moment. The blueprint is there, but it is internalized, and for that very reason, unconscious. The impact of this Mesorah on responsa is of the greatest significance, but may not be conscious at all. I would even argue that to the extent that it is conscious, the responsa may have less actual authority, and less application to the larger body of Klal Yisrael.
Essentially, legislation follows societal needs at the individual level, even as the values embedded in the unconscious body of Torah inform individual desires.
In Praise of Chaos
“Chance is God’s signature when He preferred to remain anonymous,” runs an old saying. Interestingly enough this idea came into Halakhah very early on—in the lesson of how Yehoshua divided up the Land of Israel between the tribes by lot. Clearly Yehoshua, who had led the tribes into the Land and held unquestioned authority, could have simply apportioned the Land according to tribal strength, demographics, influence, or any number of other criteria. But he didn’t. Instead, the apportioning was left to chance; basically, he flipped a coin.
There is a lesson in humility here. There are things that are beyond our ability to decide, simply because we can never know what the best outcome will be, and what factors will bring about that outcome. And in fact, this lesson also comes to us from two other sources: Chaos Theory and Mathematics.
Chaos Theory teaches us that some systems are simply too complex for any predictions to be made. We can estimate probabilities and we can observe general trends, but we can’t say with absolute certainty what the outcome of any particular input to the system will be.
And Mathematics? Goedel’s Incompleteness Theorem implies that rich axiomatic systems can never be completely described from within. Or, more precisely, that statements about the nature of the system itself—its consistency and its completeness—can never be proven from within the system. Such statements are unprovable not because their formulation makes no sense; they are correctly formulated according to the rules of the system. They may even be “true” when regarded by an observer outside of the system. But from within the system, they are undecidable.
Both of these viewpoints are different ways of stating the same truth—that not everything is predetermined, and for that reason, not everything is knowable by finite minds.
Here again, Shabbat provides a crucial insight. On Shabbat, we give up trying to control. We cease making tools, and use only what’s given. We allow ourselves to be acted upon, rather than acting. In short, we allow ourselves not only to acknowledge our limitations—as created beings—but revel in the knowledge that it isn’t all up to us.
Were we to posit that everything beyond our control is chaos, this would be an exercise in masochism. But somewhere in our psyches is one of those “undecidable” statements that is not provable within our own logical system. We can know its truth only by reference to something beyond the system. And that statement is simply this: lack of control is not surrender to the forces of darkness, simply because there are no forces of darkness. There is no dualism. Rather, we instinctively know that God is present in what appears to us to be chaos, that there is an Other that knows better than we do.
Shabbat is an acknowledgment that there are things that are beyond our control, and that this is a good thing! There is a kind of humility and trust in relinquishing control.
The Goals of Undirected Evolution
This is a lesson that, if taken to heart, can be applied to other realms, including human evolution. And (finally getting back to our topic) it can be applied to the evolution of Jewish life. We are part of a system. Or if you will, we are part of an organism. The DNA of that organism is Halakhah, which evolves over generations in response to changes in the environment. The mechanism for change however is the individual Jew, or at times, the individual Jewish community. Halakhah is case law, and addresses each individual case on a sui generis basis.
Yes, there are factors that weigh into each individual decision: the circumstances of the individual, the impact of the decision on the community, the benefits or pitfalls of setting a precedent…. But all of this is based on considerations of a particular time and place, informed by all that went before it. “Go to the judges that will be in that time….” Our tradition includes within it the guidelines for change, but that change is made according to local, mundane—even trivial—considerations. There is no direction from above—at least not human direction. There is no agenda.
This isn’t to say that we can’t steer our course, or even alter the course of the river on which we float. It simply means working within the system, rather than outside of it. So long as we stay within the stream of halakhic process (even when we aren’t clear on what that is), it will support our journey, no matter how difficult the terrain it flows through. We can subtly alter its course by pushing against one embankment or another, widening the course wherever we meet a sharp bend. But it’s all from within, and largely unconscious—a reaction to particular needs of real human beings. There is a deep trust in the process itself.
However, if we cut ourselves off from the river, even if our intention is to try to alter its course from the outside, we are lost. The river flows on; it’s course adjusts without us, leaving us high and dry. All we can do is go on riding the rapids, trying to steer between the rocks without running aground. And what a ride!