Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shabbos Reading

I came across a few interesting things in my reading over Shabbos, and I figured I’d write them down before I forget them.

There were two interesting articles in this month’s National Geographic. The first was about the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, a group that broke with the Mormon mainstream over the issue of polygamous marriage. According to the article, members of the FLDS believe that their purpose in life is to have as large a family as possible, as this family will be with them through eternity.

What struck me were the similarities between the FLDS society and Orthodox Jews. Not the polygamy, obviously, for all that polygamy is technically muttar. Nor are the societies really similar overall. It was more the small things, like the notion of proper women’s roles as homemakers, the tznius dresses the women wore (though it seems their wardrobe is far more restricted than even the most machmer OJs), and the pictures of FLDS “gedolim” in a picture of a family’s living room, complete with a large portrait of the FLDS prophet that would compare favorably with the pictures many Chassidim keep of their Rebbe.

The article raises some interesting questions, such as whether society at large has a right to object to the FLDS lifestyle when its members seem to be happy and leading fulfilling lives. The same question could be asked of any religious group. It’s just that polygamy is further outside our society’s accepted norms than other differences between religions.

The second article was about nomadic blacksmiths in India who keep five-hundred-year-old social restrictions like not using lamps after dark in remembrance of their ancestor’s defeat at the hands of the Mongols. While many of the people said they would settle down if given the opportunity (despite another restriction against living in villages) there is no outside force compelling them to keep these traditions. Nor are these traditions religious. There is no fear of divine retribution for lighting a lamp. Yet they maintain these traditions, bound to them by a centuries-old sense of honor and internal social pressure. It occurred to me that this was a pure example of a meme, a tradition that is self-sustaining, which has no utilitarian purpose and is in fact restrictive, and which continues to exist only because it is passed down as a norm.

I’ve also been reading “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett. While he gets a little preachy at times, on the whole I’ve found the book to be well-written and impeccably rational. There are many interesting points that the book discusses, but as I read a few jumped out at me.

Dennett puts forward a theory that the group worship found in many religions is a means for ensuring the accurate transmission of the religion. If many people are worshiping together, no one has to remember the whole thing perfectly because it is very unlikely that everyone will forget exactly the same bits, and parts that any one person forgets will be filled in by the majority of people who remember them. He describes this transmission as a mesh rather than a chain. It occurred to me that this would be a much better argument for mesorah than the lists of those who held Torah knowledge in succession from Moshe to the present. (Of course, this wouldn’t act as a proof of Torah miSinai, merely as a better argument for mostly accurate transmission once the Divine origin of the Torah is assumed.)

A few pages later he writes about how the inclusion of incomprehensible elements in religious worship enhances the fidelity of their transmission. If we understand something, we are likely to try and modify it or to paraphrase. Instead, he writes, we are told to, “Say the formula exactly! Your life depends on it! (If you don’t say the magic word just right, the door won’t open…)” It’s striking how similar this is in form to the shiur I wrote about last week where the speaker admonished us to stick as closely as we possibly could to the nusach hatifilos handed down to us by our parents and grandparents.

Lastly, he writes about a distinguishing feature of “folk religions,” the religious beliefs of aboriginal populations as opposed to those of organized religions. Members of folk religions aren’t aware of being religious and don’t spend time thinking about their faith. The deities and demons that populate their world are taken for granted, known to exist in the same way as trees do. When asked, they are unable to describe any tenets of their faith, often coming up with flimsy and vague explanations clearly concocted on the spur of the moment in order to answer the strange question put to them by anthropologists. Their metaphysics is just the way the world is, and it never occurs to them to think about it. I think this may be true not just of philosophically unsophisticated folk religions, but of religions in general. While many yeshivas and Bais Yaakovs have rudimentary hashkafa classes, in my experience only a small number of people really think about their faith. The majority just assume that the world, metaphysics and all, is as their parents and teachers describe it.


  1. We have a inside joke in our house related to this.

    My son in law is allergic to our dog. Everytime before he sits down on the sofa, he mindlessly but consistently takes a towel and wipes the sofa to rid it of the hair. It has become a ritual, and the ever-present hand towel has become known as the "minhag avoteinu towel". We envision that their grandchildren will all have a minhag to wipe their seats before sitting on them, but nobody will no exactly why they do it. They will come up with various possible explanations, having to do with tuma'ah, zecher l'mikdash or perhaps they will attribute special qualities to such a towel which a tzadik used.

  2. I just finished Breaking the Spell as my Shabbos reading a few weeks ago. I like the last point you mention, and how it ties into his point about how religious beliefs often differ from other ones--for many other ones, you may not understand something, but you can at least trust that the experts do (eg E=MC squared). With religion, many of the claims are held to be incomprehensible by all. But many people don't really reflect on that, and assume that someone knows what's going on.

    If you like his style, you may like Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which contains his philosophy of life, science, meaning, morality, etc in light of Darwinism (I haven't finished that one yet).

  3. Members of folk religions aren’t aware of being religious and don’t spend time thinking about their faith. The deities and demons that populate their world are taken for granted, known to exist in the same way as trees do. When asked, they are unable to describe any tenants of their faith.... I think this may be true not just of philosophically unsophisticated folk religions, but of religions in general.

    (1) It has been a long time since I read Dennett's book, but I think that the point of difference is that when religions are formally institutionalized, they have learned authorities whose business it is to expound doctrine, while in folk religions the authorities are purely charismatic figures, even if the rank and file are equally ignorant and unreflective in the two sorts of case.

    (2) "Tenet of faith," not "tenant." "Tenant" = "one who holds"; "tenet" = "something held."

  4. DrJ, reminds me of the old joke about the woman who had a minhag to cut the end off her Shabbos roast every week, and found out that it had become a family tradition because her grandmother didn’t have a pot big enough to fit the whole roast.

    JG, I probably will get around to reading his other books eventually. He’s a good writer.

    MKR, 1) Could be, but the impression I got was that he was also differentiating between Christians (and others) who are constantly talking about and thinking about God and folk religions where the Divine is rather mundane. His overall point was that organized religions have sophisticated theologies while folk religions just have a set of practices without any philosophical justification. My point is that the average member of an organized religion is hardly more reflective than the theologically naïve members of the folk religions.
    2) Thanks for the correction.