Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Morality Cannot be Found Under a Rock 3: Yaacov Yadgar on "Traditionism"

Yaacov Yadgar, Traditionism 
Cogent Social Sciences (July 9, 2015)

This is the third post in a series on morality. The first post (link here) took exception to a New York Times op-ed piece about how there seem to be no right, correct, and well justified reasons for condemning "honor killings." I argued that the author framed the issue all wrong and that we can indeed find right, correct, and well justified reasons within our legal, philosophical, and religious traditions. The second piece (link here) examined more closely how our emotions are an unreliable guide to different moral situations and how we have to look to our legal, philosophical, and religious traditions (not our emotions) to come up with right, correct, and well justified answers to moral problems. 

In this third piece, as promised, I take a look at Yaacov Yadgar's recent article discussing the false dichotomy he sees between our secular-rationalist Enlightenment endowment (legal, philosophical, scientific traditions) and our conservative-religious traditions. In reality, he says, rational-secular traditions are not rational and secular in a vacuum--they reflect our understanding from earlier traditions; and conservative-religious traditions are not passed down to us in a sealed box--they also require our active engagement to make them current and alive for our time. He calls this dialogue "traditionism." Traditionism requires us to continually reinterpret and update our traditions in order to carry them forward and to maintain them as meaningful. 

Tradition, Identity, and a False Dichotomy

There is a false dichotomy between our secular rational traditions and our conservative-religious traditions, says Yadgar.  Secular rationalism found expression during the Enlightenment as a reaction to centuries of religious conservatism. The Enlightenment emphasized reason, analysis, and individualism over traditional lines of (religious) authority. Ever since, says Yadgar, there has been a temptation to divide our ways of looking at the world into mutually exclusive categories of secular rationalism (looking at the world without regard to tradition) on the one hand, and (unquestioning) adherence to orthodoxy and tradition on the other hand.  

By secular rationalism we mean the hard sciences, the social sciences, the modern nation state and all its trappings. To be a secular rationalist is to look to reason and human constructs for our morality and to reject the irrational; it is rejecting God as an explanatory force in life. Instead of looking to morality as a set of God given rules, secular rationalists conceive of morality in terms of rules of reason: e.g. the greatest good for the greatest number, rules that bring happiness or utility to the greatest number, a commitment to rights that one imagines no one would want to give up. Secular rationalism thinks of human rights not as God given rights, but as rights that are guaranteed by the modern secular nation state, or by nature and reason. 

At the other end of the spectrum, the orthodox religious attitude accepts tradition as sealed, unchanging, and binding. Yadgar describes orthodox religious conservatism as follows: 

Conservatism views tradition as sovereign in an absolute manner, set and eternal; it views tradition as the way of nature, a set, finite and unchanging body of rules, values, practices, and norms.... As such, conservatism ... freezes tradition in a static past....[T]he conservative stance strives at constituting all-encompassing social orders, which are aimed at preserving, sanctifying, and perpetuating tradition, while guaranteeing absolute loyalty, a presumed self-conscious submission of individuals and community to that sealed image of the past. From a conservative point of view, humans are the dutiful, passive creation of tradition, which “determines what is legitimate and what is illegitimate in all realms of life: proper behaviors, perceptions, and aims. It sets the standards for evaluating everything. .... Conservatism does not leave room for challenging tradition, for a reflexive examination of it, or for introducing it into dialog with competing traditions.

Self-conscious submission of the individual and community to a sealed image of the past is the key idea here. The orthodox religious attitude, as described here, chooses to forego reflexive examination. 

We have a tendency, says Yadgar, to view the world in this binary manner: secular rationalism on the one hand, and rigid orthodoxy on the other. Everyone who falls awkwardly in between these two extremes, we are tempted to think, is simply muddled; they are waiting to become fully enlightened as secular rationalists, or to become fully inspired with faithful adherence to orthodox religiosity. 

But this binary way of viewing our traditions is false, says Yadgar. Most people inhabit this in-between world. And in fact, tradition is never fully anchored to an immutable past, just like reason is never fully adrift of our connection to the past. Because we are born into tradition, raised in traditions, and because our traditions provide a language and infrastructure by which we come to experience and understand the world, we are always and necessarily in conversation with our traditions. And even if we rebel against tradition, it is away from and in the context of our inherited traditions.

The Recognition of Tradition

We do not become aware of human tradition as tradition, says Yadgar, until it is named. And tradition is not named until it is noticed, and it is almost never noticed until it is challenged and its existence becomes a matter of concern.

Before the Enlightenment, Yadgar implies, the moral authority of God and religion appeared self-evident. Popes in the 13th century did not have to justify religious orthodoxy because there was no alternative. By establishing reason, analysis, and individualism as an alternative to religious orthodoxy, the Enlightenment forced communities to make a conscious choice: would they continue to accept conservative orthodoxy as authoritative, or not.

So what are people doing in churches and synagogues and mosques today?  Once tradition is named and becomes just one option among others, its source of authority is no longer self-evident and inherent in the tradition itself, rather its source of authority necessarily becomes a declaration of loyalty towards it by adherents of the tradition.

Such a declaration of loyalty implies a dialogue with tradition. Although we carry the past within us from the moment we are born, as bearers of tradition it is up to us to interpret it and instill it with meaning. Such interpretation and comprehension of tradition in current terms is a necessary condition for the very existence of tradition, says Yadgar.  He quotes Shils (1958):

“Tradition is not the dead hand of the past but rather the hand of the gardener, which nourishes and elicits tendencies of judgment which would otherwise not be strong enough to emerge on their own. In this respect tradition is an encouragement to incipient individuality rather than its enemy.”


The choices we make with respect to tradition are therefore not all or nothing. There is no binary choice between tradition and no tradition. We can never completely shake tradition we are born into, any more than tradition can remain unchanged through the march of human history.

Dutiful subjects of tradition cannot be non-reflexive followers aping standards of acceptable thought and behavior handed down by tradition. We are and must be in an ongoing dialogue with our traditions.


“Traditionism acknowledges that the tradition is no longer obvious or self-evident and given; “traditionism does not address tradition as an eternal, total and unchanging element, whose authority is absolute and all encompassing, but rather offers a complex stance of basic yet not “fanatical” loyalty to tradition, as the main practice with which to address this reality.
“[W]hile conservatism views tradition as being “reported” or “dictated” from the past to a passive audience in the present, in a one-directional manner, traditionism—and, at that, the very concept of tradition—assigns both sides taking part in the act of transmission with similar (though not necessarily equal) responsibilities: the loyal receiver is assigned with the task of interpreting and applying the “message” (or custom, practice, etc.) from the past in an ever changing present setting. Reflexive, interpretive subjectivity, in other words, is an essential element of this act of transmission.

This strikes me as correct. If we can’t make tradition our own, it will soon lose its force.

So What of It

Yadgar’s article is largely about tradition as it relates to secular rationalism vs. religious orthodoxy. But the attitude of “Traditionism” he describes applies equally to all traditions: scientific traditions within a specific field, philosophic moral reasoning, social sciences, and law. All these fields have their traditions. And each field must engage with its tradition and carry it forward.

When we think through moral problems, we are not limited to one tradition. We are not limited to secular rationalism vs. religious traditionism. Our inheritance is broader than that. We are born into a national tradition, a legal tradition, a constitutional tradition, several cultural traditions, philosophic traditions, scientific traditions, professional traditions, family traditions, as well as religious traditions. Each of these traditions is subject to its own “traditionist” process, and all of these have a hold on us to varying extents. These traditions overlap and our connections to them is of varying depth and sophistication. But, consciously or unconsciously, they all come into play in our moral reasoning.

It’s noteworthy that in Yadgar’s discussion of traditionism the concept of God does not enter the picture. Secular rationalists might find that surprising because if there is no God, shouldn’t that end the discussion? But I think Yadgar’s omission is not an oversight and it would not end the discussion. As a traditionally religious community engages with its tradition, revising and reinterpreting the tradition to carry it forward, who is to say that God having existence is an essential element. There seems to be no reason that a religious tradition cannot be revised and reinterpreted to bring God forward as a character in a story.

Scholars have long recognized that the existence or non-existence of biblical figures are not essential to the impact of the stories. [See Jonathan Freedman’s fascinating book Music in Biblical Life] Freedman quotes this excerpt from Ahad Ha’am’s 1904 essay Moses:

I care not whether this man Moses really existed; whether his life and his activity really corresponded to our traditional account of him; whether he was really the savior of Israel and gave his people the Law in the form in which it is preserved; and so forth. I have one short and simple answer for all these conundrums. This Moses, I say, this man of old time,whose existence and character you are trying to elucidate, matters to nobody but scholars like you. We have another Moses of our own, whose image has ben enshrined in the hearts of the Jewish people for generations, and whose influence on our national life has never ceased from ancient times till the present day. The existence of this Moses, as a historical fact, depends in no way on our investigations. For even if you succeeded in demonstrating conclusively that the man Moses never existed, or that he was not such a man as we supposed, you would not thereby detract one jot from the historical reality of the ideal Moses—the Moses who has been our leader not only for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, but for thousands of years in all the wildernesses in which we have wandered since the Exodus.

And what is true for the man Moses is equally true for the deity God. Of course, the fact that God can be made a leading character in a story highlights that there is no insurmountable schism between secular rationalism and religious orthodoxy. It brings religion firmly into the secular rationalist conversation, which after all easily encompasses literature and stories. Although this reinterprets the tradition, it does not abolish the tradition.

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