The Caving Walls of the Study Hall

My favorite story in all of Judaism isn’t in the Torah. It’s in the Talmud, where it’s written that rabbis were arguing over whether a certain oven was ritually impure or not; one rabbi said it was, and others said it was not.

The rabbi who said it was said, “If I’m right, this tree will prove it!” and the tree to which he pointed uprooted itself. But the other rabbis said, “An uprooted tree isn’t an argument; do better than that.”

So the first rabbi pointed to a stream and said, “If I’m right, this stream will prove it!” And the stream began flowing backwards, but the other rabbis shrugged and said, “A stream isn’t an argument, either; do better.”

And finally the first rabbi pointed to the walls of the study where they were arguing, and said, “If I’m right, and Heaven agrees with me, the walls of the study will prove it!” And the ground shook, and dust fell from the roof, and walls of the study leaned, and tilted, and began to fall in on the rabbis, and the sky opened into light, and an angel appeared and cried, “Why must you argue with him, even as the study is about to bury you alive, since the whole world shows that Heaven is in accordance with his opinion!”

Upon which one of the disagreeing rabbis leapt to his feet and said, “How dare you!”

The walls stilled; the ground ceased to shake. And the disagreeing rabbi said, “The law is not in Heaven; the law was given to us, on Earth, at Mount Sinai. God wasn’t invited to this argument. God doesn’t own the Torah – humans do; and if the walls cave in on us, that won’t prove a thing. Walls aren’t an argument. Make a real argument, with reason and logic, with the law. Do better.”

And the walls stood upright again, and the stream began to flow in its natural path, and the tree rooted itself back into the ground. And the rabbis continued to argue; and the first rabbi, who had called the tree and stream and walls to move, was found to be incorrect, since the majority of the rabbis disagreed with him.

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The Jewish faith places a certain emphasis on duty and obligation. It’s at the heart of the way the Torah writes God: the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah go by, are discussed in terms of righteousness and obedience, of knowledge and ignorance. But it’s not until the story of Abraham that any Jews actually come into the narrative: the first Jew is Abraham, because God comes to him and says, “I am going to make a covenant with you.”

The word covenant means agreement; it carries the connotation of contract, of alliance, of bargain. The Jewish people’s bargain is this: they will be God’s people, and in return, God will be their god. God will give them a way of life, and in return, they will live it; they will choose God, and in return, God will choose them.

As I’ve said, I don’t believe in God, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in Judaism. In this case, what that means is that I believe in bargains. I believe in debts. I believe that law is not just rules for rules’ sake; instead, law is duty, obligation, an action you owe to another person in exchange for what they have done for you. Duty is a debt to be repaid.

For that reason I think about this photo:


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Returning to Narnia

I woke up Sunday morning in an absolutely awful mood – a straight week of rain, friend group drama, the deep and existential dread that pervades all otherwise unburdened moments of our brief lives, my cat was mad at me, etc. – and decided to put the feeling to good use before it went away by rereading the Chronicles of Narnia.

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Congress, Culture, and a New Year’s Resolution

American religion has been in the news lately, specifically regarding federal partisan politics: we’ve seen stories about Democrats’ “religion problem” (as code for a problem with middle-American white Christianity), Congress’ increasing religious diversity but stable amount of Christian members, and just yesterday, an explanation for the latter phenomenon: the complex place of religiously unaffiliated voters within American religious politics.

It’s the last story that I’m interested in. The author is seeking to explain the “demographic mismatch between Congress and the rest of the country” – specifically, the underrepresentation of the “religiously unaffiliated”, who make up 23% of the country but are only represented by one religiously unaffiliated member of Congress.

The explanations for this are sensible and coherent: that religiously unaffiliated Americans tend to be young and therefore rarely vote; that they aren’t a demographically coherent group – they’re made up of atheists and agnostics, but also converts-in-progress, people in mixed-faith homes, and people who just don’t care very much about their religious identity – and are therefore unlikely to organize with each other; that it’s also difficult to organize based on a lack of identity, an unaffiliation.

It is these factors, the author suggests, which keep Congress’ religious demographics standing as they do – and if religiously unaffiliated voters are dissatisfied with the current state of affairs, “they can vote”.

The article is an excellent exploration of why the religiously unaffiliated are unlikely to be specifically represented in Congress. However, it does not explore what seems to me to be the more pertinent question: why this 23% of unaffiliated Americans should be almost universally represented by Christian members of Congress, instead of members of a variety of faiths.

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