Friday, September 19, 2014

Whose Life is More Important? When Modern Ideals and Ethics Conflict with Chazal

Orthodox Jewish Rationalists, and I include myself among that group, consider it appropriate to reconcile conflicts between the statements of Chazal and modern science by understanding that not all statements of Chazal were derived from Torah and Divine inspiration.  Thus, a rationalist doesn't have to perform mental gymnastics to understand why the Talmud makes many statements that conflict with our current scientific understanding.  As far as I am concerned, this remains the only intellectually honest way to remain faithful to our religious heritage, while still embracing the truth that we are presented with through honest scientific observation and study.

However, this is easy when it comes to facts of science, but much more difficult when it comes to the analysis of the moral and ethical observations that we find in Chazal.

For example.  It is easy to say that when Chazal stated that it is permissible to kill lice on Shabbat because they do not sexually reproduce, that this was based on their best understanding at the time, but we now know that lice actually do sexually reproduce.  It is easy to say that when Chazal prohibited eating fish and meat together, that they indeed believed that it was dangerous to one's health, though we now know that this is not the case. 

However, it is much more theologically difficult to say this when Chazal teach us about moral, ethical, behavioral or social observations.  While we innately know that their statements were clearly affected by the prevalent social attitudes, it is much more theologically challenging to say that these types of statements are no longer consistent with our current, and supposedly more advanced, attitudes.

Examples of this abound throughout the multitude of clashes between "modern" ideals that don't seem to be consistent with what Chazal teaches.  It seems to me that this area of conflict is often swept under the rug because it is just too controversial and too difficult to maneuver through the many potential pitfalls without seriously risking our adherence to Orthodoxy.  However, I also believe that for precisely this reason, if we are going to maintain our faith in both the written Torah and the Oral tradition, it is absolutely essential for us to tackle these problems.

The Chareidi approach is to claim that we have to ignore modern values and learn our values exclusively from Chazal and the traditional sources.  I believe that this approach is intellectually very dishonest, as it is abundantly clear to any honest observer that many modern values have become completely acceptable in Chareidi society despite the fact that they conflict with "traditional" values as expressed by Chazal and other traditional sources.  The guest in R Slifkin's latest blog post makes this point very eloquently.

I decided, when I began this blog 4 and 1/2 years ago, that I was not going to shy away from these types of conflicts.  More than anything else, I want to remain faithful to the Torah while finding  intellectually honest answers to these types of conflicts.  Naturally, I will focus on medical topics, because that is where I am most competent.

My previous posts on the subject of treating gentiles on Shabbat represents my most comprehensive foray so far into the morass of trying to sort out the halachic imperatives of keeping Shabbat while understanding the different social environments and ethical mores that existed in the time of Chazal.  I hope that my approach to that issue has helped my fellow rationalists on the path toward finding a way out of these types of conundrums.  Let us continue together on this path as we tackle more issues like this on this blog.

The next topic I will address, bli neder and B'ezrat Hashem, is even more challenging, and even more fraught with potential pitfalls.  It will take us some time, and serious research, and I hope you can stay with me as I develop my thoughts.

The topic is the subject of triage in life-threatening situations. In particular, what should the priorities of society be when there are limited resources and those resources must be dedicated to one person or one group of people to the detriment of others.  Hang in there for my next post, where I will begin the analysis of this issue in depth.

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