Saturday, June 11, 2011

Two Ways of Splitting Fish

When a tradition is in good order, it is always partially constituted by an argument about the goods the pursuit of which gives to that tradition its particular point and purpose. --Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.

On the first night of Shavuot this week, I went to a synagogue in my neighborhood to hear Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo give a talk called "The Unfrozen Torah: Rethinking Halacha and Religious Beliefs." I was more than surprised--given that I was in a Modern Orthodox shul--when he opened his lecture by asking if anyone was familiar with Walker Percy. Inside I was nodding vigorously, excited by what would likely be the most tangential nod to the American literary world, but outwardly I remained immovable, having sensed that nobody around me was expressing familiarity with the 20th-century American Southern writer--the very existentialist and Christian writer, Walker Percy.

Cardozo went on to contextualize his entire talk in an analogy drawn by Percy in one of his works. One group of boys--presumably in some kind of lab or medical school--is told to cut into a fish, to split it open and see what they find. But they are also, in the spirit of education, told exactly what they will find. And so they find, of course, nothing new.

Another group of boys gathers together at the end of a dock. They split open the body of a dead fish, not having been told to do it, but acting merely on impulse. Curiosity. A desire to know. They find an entire world. They discover it for themselves.

Both groups of boys split open the same fish, so to speak. They find, for the most part, the same biological phenomena. And yet, the ways they tell the story must surely differ. The boys in the lab acquire data that was set in stone before they even considered picking up the knife to split the fish in two. They are not so readily apt to ask the questions that might lead to the discovery of new information. But the boys on the dock do not have the luxury of benefitting from the precision and propriety of data tested and true. They also are at a disadvantage, it would seem.

And yet, their eyes behold the same vision: the once living body, rent in two, turned inside out to prove its former capacity to breathe.

But the boys' meaning-making and knowledge-acquiring processes are vastly different. And here is the crux of Cardozo's argument. If there's anything that Judaism teaches us, it's that process takes precedence over product. The parts that move are more significant than the parts that stop, that stop us. But more importantly, at least for Cardozo, we need both processes. Judaism, as it were, recognizes and allows for the possibility of various processes--different ways of doing things--and so Jews must recognize not just the value but also the necessity of these varying routes.

There is a certain recklessness, perhaps, that characterizes the impulses of the boys on the dock. They are tempted. Here lies this body before you. Cut into it. Peer into it. Method is replaced by mayhem.

The boys in the lab, on the other hand, recognize and respect the intellectual and scientific work that precedes them. One mustn't go cutting recklessly into fish. Ingenuity is replaced by insight of another. These boys may miss what's new.

Cardozo's second point drew on the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (see the quote at the top of this post). We argue about what's good, and we are good. We are constantly in a process of becoming. Of becoming good. Some things should not be written in stone or we undo everything that makes them good, worth writing down. Codification reflects our ossification. Some things need to be felt, learned, struggled through. I will not let you go until you bless me, Jacob said.

Yes, there's nothing new under the sun, says the writer of Ecclesiastes. But turn it and turn it, the sages say. This is how we move.

(Image above by Jeanette Jobson)