Okay—this is going to be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle approach: let’s see if I can fit the pieces well enough to make a picture.
(1) There are divisions within rabbinical Judaism as there are within Christianity: specifically Orthodox (and for this discussion I’m going to place the Hasidim here), Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. The latter three recognize each other (and the Orthodox) as valid branches of Judaism, though with some disagreements—that is, they do not hold that the others are “heretical.” At least some (most?) Orthodox do not
view the others as valid expressions of Judaism.
(2) Although the distinction might be a little too sharp, most people note that “Orthodoxy” in Judaism is really “Orthopraxy.” The main difference between the different groups is not doctrinal, but on how they view and keep the mitzvot
, the commandments—e.g., whether or not and how they keep kashrut
(3) Everything I have to say is based on my own studies, both “academic” and to some extent “participatory,” as I study Torah and Talmud (and Midrash and Kabbalah) contemplatively. I am probably closest to Reconstructionism, generally.
(4) All rabbinical Judaism is religion of the “dual Torah”—i.e., written (Tanach) and oral (Talmud); also Midrash and (for many) Kabbalah are also parts of the rabbinical tradition.
The Talmud* (Mishna + Gemara, commentary on Mishna) has two elements: aggadah
; the first is commentary (generally midrashic) on the narrative portions of Torah, the second is rabbinical commentary and discussion—read argument—about the mitzvot
. The two are not separate sections of Talmud, but are woven together.
Halakha (often translated as “law” ) really takes the form of rabbinical argument and interpretation about the mitzvot, carried down orally until written down between the third and sixth centuries. The Mishna generally presents a halakhic conclusion; and the Gemara, (extremely complex) dialectical discussion about it. Even where these arguments reach a conclusion about interpreting Torah (and they often do not), the discussion is not closed—what is written in the Talmud serves as a springboard for further study, argument, etc. There are rules of argument and interpretation—the most common being the thirteen rules of Rabbi Ishmael, but there are other sets by other rabbis (notably Akiva) as well.
(5) Here are what I would tentatively argue are the “absolutes” of Judaism:
(a) The Shema: Sh’ma Ysrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad
, “Hear, O Israel, Adonai our God, Adonai is one.” This statement may be interpreted monotheistically, monistically (Hasidism) or panentheistically (a strong strain in Reconstructionism). Polytheism of any degree or kind is excluded, as is idolatry.
(b) Shabbos (or Shabbat—i.e., Sabbath). All religious Jews keep Shabbos; they disagree on how to do it. (Again, this is really about orthopraxy.)
(c) Dual Torah, as described above, and
the open hermeneutical approach to Torah (again, the Orthodox may be somewhat more strict about hermeneutical “fences” ).
(d) The principle
of a covenantal relationship with God, though the nature of that covenant is interpreted variously (and may become more allegorical in the monistic versions).
Note that one thing that is absent from this list is any doctrine about an after-life, heaven and hell, etc. Some Jews believe there is an after-life, some do not; some believe in a heaven and hell, some do not; the Talmud has different opinions about who is eligible for the olam ha ba
, the “world to come,” by different rabbis.
Again, I would argue that the continuous hermeneutical approach to scriptures is also a basic principle in Judaism; Reform Jews admit historical-critical analysis and the like; Orthodox do not; Reconstructionists I’m pretty sure do; I think the Conservatives do with some limitations. Below, I will succumb to citing again my favorite Talmudic story on that subject (and some of my favorite quotes). Here I will quote (again) Ouaknin:
“To avoid the trap of idolatry—the illusion of possessing the
meaning—Hebrew tradition has introduced the idea of levels of meaning.” (Marc-Alain Ouaknin, The Burnt Book: Reading the Talmud
) This is based on the language itself. Hebrew is more of a “depth language” than a “precision” language. Words have layers of meanings, which deepen and expand in association with other words, phrases, etc. My argument is that it really is impossible to derive a unitary meaning from the Hebrew in nearly all cases. This does not mean that we simply shrug and say, “Oh well, then why bother with that old language.” We look at all the possible meanings, we search them out, we argue over them. And, at least on the Sabbath, that must all be done with passion but without rancor (only joy on Shabbos).
There is no central authority in Judaism to tell everyone what they must believe about, say, Torah.** As you can see from my various attempts at midrashim
, a literalistic/historicistic reading of the scriptures is not prominent in Judaism. That is why David S. Ariel refers to Torah as the “sacred myths” of Israel.
Now with regard to your comments about whether or not one can know
the absolute truth. It seems to me there are three positions: Yes, no, and some but not all. The last admits of arguments about what and what not, and degrees of certainty/uncertainty. (These same three viewpoints could be applied to the question of effability.) In addition, from the perspective of Judaism, there is an element of “existential truth,” named, e.g., lucifershammer, without which the “whole truth” of the cosmos is incomplete; and if lucifershammer does not bring his torah to the Torah, Torah remains incomplete.
I may have meandered around here too much, but I think I’ve touched on your questions. If you want to describe Judaism as “relativistic,” that’s okay—but I would suggest you append something like this post as a footnote.
* Actually, there are two Talmuds: the Babylonian and the Jerusalem, which are similar but not exactly the same; I believe that the Bavli
is usually considered more “authoritative” than the Yerushalmi
** There may be some exception to this in Hasidism, where the charismatic Rebbe becomes an authority. However there is a question of how much hermeneutical, “doctrinal” authority a given Rebbe might claim. And there are currently at least two groups of Hasidim who do not have a Rebbe: the Bratslavers, whose Rebbe Nachman died in 1810; and the Chabad-Lubavicthers, whose last Rebbe died in 1994 without a successor, and the Lubavitch have not yet sought one (and that whole thing is very controversial).
There is a Talmudic story: Some rabbis are arguing over an interpretation of Torah. Rabbi Eleazer put forth an interpretation that all the other rabbis disagreed with. R. Eleazer therefore called forth a series of miracles to prove his point—“If I am correct, let this stream run backwards!” etc.—but the others were not impressed. Finally, R. Eleazer cried: “If my Torah is correct, let a voice (echo) from heaven descend and declare it so!” Whereupon a heavenly voice said: “Why are you arguing? The Torah has always meant what Rabbi Eleazer says it does.” At that point, Rabbi Joshua jumped up and shouted, “It is not in heaven!”
Meaning? Torah was given to men to interpret without any heavenly meddling. Later, one of the rabbis died and met Elijah in heaven. He asked Elijah what God’s response was when the rabbis declared, “It is not in heaven”? Elijah said, “The Blessed Holy One just laughed, saying ‘My children have bested me! My children have bested me!!’”
“Why are the words of Torah like fire? A fire is built of many logs and the words of Torah survive only through many minds.” (tractate Ta’anit)
“Whenever a man studies words of Torah, he is certain to find a meaning in them.” (tractate Eruvin)
Rav Hisda said: “To learn Torah…it is better to go to several teachers. The many different explanations will help to give you understanding.” (tractate Avodah Zarah)
“The words of Torah are fruitful and multiply!” (tractate Hagigah)
“He who toils in Torah and discovers in it new meanings that are true contributes new Torah which is treasured by the congregation of Israel.” (the Zohar)
“A place has been left for me to labor in it [the Torah].” (tractate Hullin)
--Talmudic quotes from The Talmudic Anthology, Louis I. Newman, ed.