Sunday, January 13, 2008

Where do our values come from?

By Sandor

People live their lives according to the values they subscribe to. But where do these values come from? For most people in the world, and in this “secular” nation, these values come from religion. Where, then, do religions get their values? And can adherents to a religion disagree with and contradict its values?

I was raised a “Modern Orthodox” Jew. The term is complicated to explain, but basically, Modern Orthodoxy holds that the Torah is literally the word of God and that its rabbinic interpretation – beginning in the second century with the Mishna and culminating in the writing of the Shulchan Arukh in the sixteenth century – is completely faithful. Therefore, with the exception of certain added laws that the system acknowledges are rabbinic in origin, all Jewish laws are to be treated as direct commandments from God to the Jewish people.

This sounds pretty orthodox. Where does the “modernity” come in? Basically, the Modern Orthodox movement – as opposed to Ultra Orthodoxy – sees inherent value in secular knowledge. The Ultra Orthodox (a scary, not self-chosen term), engage the world around them only to the extent that it allows them to make a living and sustain their own educational system. Modern Orthodoxy, on the other hand, actively promotes engaging the world through secular study and success, and contribution to the community at large – all the while strictly observing all commandments.

I should add that these commandments are extremely broad in their scope. Indeed, Orthodox Jews see the Torah as a guide for every moment, every breath of life. The Torah, or rather Halakha – its legal system – mandates everything from thrice-daily prayers and dietary laws to charity-giving and proper business conduct.

I am no longer Modern Orthodox. I fundamentally do not believe that the Torah was written by God or that its laws are in any way binding for me. While Halakha is generally based on and in agreement with values of compassion and responsibility, it contains many aspects which are unacceptable to me. Furthermore, these flaws are not divine mysteries – they are completely and typically human flaws and intolerances. Inequality across gender, sexual orientation, and religious lines is so incompatible with my beliefs on the nature of goodness that I simply cannot accept a system that upholds it.

I still love Judaism and am committed to being an active and proud Jew. But this is not because of anything God did or did not tell Abraham, or for anything God did to people who may or may not be my ancestors, or because we are better than other people. I love the culture, from the legends of the Bible to latkes on Hanukkah – it is the culture I grew up in, it is a small but loud group of people, and they’re my people. I love taking peeks at other religions’ or nations’ traditions and culture, but I do think the diversity of human culture is a great thing and I will work to maintain my own.

So culturally, Judaism is very important to me. But it does not provide me with a moral code. Where do I get my values from? How do I live my life? Accepting Halakha as God’s word did not always provide me with a clear-cut answer to every problem, but I at least had guidelines. And at least had qualified experts – there was always a rabbi I could ask! After all, if we share the same value system, I must be able to trust his opinion, right?

I don’t have a good answer. Where do my values come from? They’re constantly evolving, and they come from my life experiences. I try to consider what my favorite rabbis would say, being careful to be skeptical of traditional wisdom, but not too skeptical, still seeing value in the tradition.

I do not dislike the Torah for calling homosexuality an abomination, or for focusing only on the achievements of men, or for seeing the Jewish people as inherently more valuable than others. These are all bad and offensive aspects of the Torah. If this is God’s word, then I’ve got some issues with Her. But no – the Torah is a 3,000 year old document from a specific point of time, written by specific people, with their own, very human, thoughts, agendas, and of course, prejudices.

The clash between some aspects of traditional Judaism and my own, personal, secular values has been a large component of my life for the past few years. Indeed, most of my friends who grew up Modern Orthodox are now going through the same struggles. I would like to hear – what kinds of struggles do young Muslims face in integrating traditional/religious and modern/secular values? What is it like being at Yale, reading about the primacy of reason, thinking critically, being skeptical, and having God on your mind as well? Are there differences in how various mosques or communities approach this issue?

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