Orthodoxy, orthopraxy and the Jewish New Year

Happy Year 5767 everyone! As this article from the Westchester Journal News observes, precisely what that number means remains somewhat unclear:

at a time when growing numbers of evangelical Christians are thumbing their noses at science -- insisting that the Bible says the earth is really 6,000 years old -- what do modern-day Jews think their calendar year means?

As with so many other things in Judaism, there is no simple answer. Mainstream interpretations of the calendar year range from the purely metaphorical to, in Orthodox circles, the semi-literal.

The lack of clarity comes from the fact that Judaism, unlike Christianity, is not a fundamentally orthodox religion. Writers like Maimonides have tried to systematize a right doctrine (the literal translation of "orthodoxy"), but the nature of what is presented in the Torah doesn't lend itself to that.

The Jewish Bible is built around the idea that there are behaviors that are required and others that are forbidden. This makes Judaism, like Islam, what is called an orthopraxy, literally "right practices." In this sense, Razib is right to argue that a cladogram of religions probably ought to put Judaism and Islam closer together than either would be to Christianity.

Interestingly, this tells us something important about the difference between the motivations of Christian authoritarians and Islamic authoritarians. Islamic authoritarianism demands orthopraxy, that everyone conform themselves to Muslim law, but not necessarily that they change what they believe. By contrast, Christian authoritarians tend to fight over beliefs and their consequences. American politics is dominated by debates about the consequences of a particular doctrinal belief about when life starts, whether it be abortion or stem cells, and arguments about the consequences of particular interpretations of the relationship between Old Testament law and how exactly the advent of Jesus is supposed to have changed the Mosaic Law.

Promoting creationism in American schools is about enforcing an orthodoxy. The Taliban's obsession with music and head scarves was a concern about orthopraxy. Both are bad but the former, as an attack on how you think, seems even more dangerous.

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Fortunately we live in a society where, by Constitution, rules may only be expressed in terms of required and prohibited acts rather than required or prohibited beliefs. This reduces the problem to comparing the relative scope of what is required and prohibited. On that basis, it is ludicrous to say that the religious right (at least to date) is more dangerous than the Taliban.

The relative scale does not excuse the Republican position on issues like stem cell, gay marriage, or the like -- but it does mean that your rhetoric is overblown.

By Michael Poole (not verified) on 25 Sep 2006 #permalink

The danger of the religious right is that they are attacking the system's fundamental defense, one that you correctly identify. Arguments about teaching creationism or the legal status of gay couples are not fundamentally about required or permitted acts, they are about what people are allowed to believe.