May 27, 2024
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The Difference Between Rabbis and Sociologists

There are two ways of looking at Judaism, the Jewish community and the world. These views are not mutually exclusive but require definition and separation. If we keep the difference alive in our minds, we better understand ourselves and our world. However, I sense that we urgently need to remind ourselves of this distinction.

A sociologist sees things as they are. He keenly observes practices and attitudes, noting cross-cultural similarities and key differences that distinguish phenomena. The sociologist records rather than judges, examines rather than expounds.

A rabbi sees things as they should be. He teaches right from wrong, correcting improper practices and attitudes. He must be sensitive and wise to accomplish his goals, to inspire rather than offend. But his goals are markedly different from those of a sociologist. A rabbi prescribes proper behavior; a sociologist describes existing behavior.

Some sociologists are also rabbis but they are sufficiently expert to bracket their different roles. Obviously, every individual’s various activities inform each other and a rabbi-sociologist uses all of his capacities to his advantage. However, a professional knows when to describe and when to prescribe.

Our community is suffering from a blurring of these boundaries. What is, how people behave, is being confused with what should be. For too many people, surveys of attitudes and behaviors are becoming the new Shulchan Aruch. Sociology is important but plays only a small role in defining proper behavior. Our goal should be religious growth, strengthening our practices and attitudes. I am not calling for stringencies (chumros) but for recognition that we all fall short of perfection and must strive for improvement. Mistaking sociology for rabbinics prevents that growth because it transforms current practice, including occasional flaws, into the ideal. We say “yes” to minhag, custom, but “no” to complacency and indifference.

I recently compared two works of English grammar and style, and surprisingly found this same distinction in a very different context. The Chicago Manual of Style is the dominant American guidebook for writing style. Before discussing proper usage, the book takes pains to explain that it makes no claim to authority of what is right, only what is most stylistically acceptable. The background seems to be linguists who insist that language is merely a convention and grammar is only what people agree is correct. Therefore, whatever English speakers decide to accept is correct by definition. There is no right or wrong, just common practice.

Gwynne’s Grammar, a recent best-seller, presents an ardent contrary attitude. With great intellectual force, N.M. Gwynne contends that the rules of English grammar developed for good reasons. Language is not merely convention but a carefully evolved amalgam of logic, felicity, and clarity. Changes occur, for sure, but on the margins and only within the pre-existing rules. Changes that do not conform to the logic of the English language must be opposed.

If I may once again recreate our simple dichotomy, linguists tell us what is and grammarians tell us what should be. Gwynne is a grammarian, one who is very dogmatic and unforgiving. The editors of the Chicago Manual of Style, however, presumably under enormous pressure, attempted to act as both linguists and grammarians. They wished to prescribe without judging. In this misguided attempt, they confused categories to avoid judgment at the very time they should be judging.

You do not have to be a grammar enthusiast to appreciate the cultural trend Gwynne is fighting. Relativism, the denial of right and wrong, deprives all religious rules of authority. Whatever people decide is religiously appropriate becomes acceptable no matter how outrageous the deviation may be. A biblical historian may say that Judaism accepts idolatry because many Jews in the biblical era committed this ultimate transgression. According to news reports, many Conservative rabbis are currently agonizing over their prohibition on officiating at interfaith marriages. Jews are intermarrying so why should rabbis stand firm in opposition? When the highest standard is common practice, there is no standard whatsoever. Leaders are supposed to lead, not merely provide a stamp of approval.

I have remained intentionally vague about what common practices in the Orthodox community are easily overlooked and justified. Listing them would cause offense and divert attention from the methodological point. In general, I am arguing that just because members of the Orthodox community engage in new or old practices, or entertain new or old beliefs, that does not automatically legitimate those beliefs and practices. We must constantly reexamine our actions, conduct a cheshbon hanefesh, and ask ourselves what room remains for religious improvement.

The biblical book of Shoftim, Judges, begins: “And it was in the time when judges judged.” Commentators throughout the ages have pondered the redundancy of “when judges judged.” Perhaps our generation has found the answer. When sociology dominates rabbinics, when we elevate current practice to the ideal, the judges fail to judge. Rather than encouraging improvement, they justify religious failures with complex, often strained Talmudic arguments. Woe to the generation whose judges fail to distinguish between rules and common practice, between ideal and current reality, between what should be and what is.

Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com. Raised in Teaneck, he is a graduate of Solomon Schechter, Frisch, and Yeshiva University.

By Gil Student

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