Before discussing a matter, study it well

In my post Sunrise, sunset, which I wrote back in March 2011, I discussed Jewish law pertaining to the definition of a day in the polar regions. My main point was that it’s strange indeed to imagine that an omniscient deity who created the entire universe would not have laid down clear laws which would continue to be applicable as the Jewish people began to live outside the Levant. This kind of oversight, I argued, strongly suggests that Jewish rules and traditions were not created by a god but rather created by an ancient tribe of people limited in their knowledge of the world.

Before launching into that argument I made a brief, almost parenthetical remark that

[the] task of interpreting ancient rules to modern circumstances is interesting and absurd in its own right. I will never cease to be amazed that Orthodox Jews consider it “work” to drive a car (or be driven) to synagogue and therefore walk several miles on foot instead, or that they really do consider electricity to “count” as fire.

Recently, commenter Daniel Nuriyev wrote,

This article shows the extent of your ignorance in the Jewish religion. Before discussing a matter, study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way. Imagine a person completely ignorant in physics ridiculing some unobvious laws of physics, such as Einstein’s concepts of time and space.
For example you say that you don’t understand how driving is work. If before writing this you had tried to find this out, you might have found out the following: the Jewish Law forbids 39 specific types of ‘melakha’. The word melakha may mean ‘craft’. One of the melakhoth is lighting fire. When you start a car, you ignite fire. A deeper question is why it is so important not to light fire in any form or way but this question is deeper and requires preparation. LInear Algebra cannot be explained without a few years of intensive math study.

(I haven’t edited the comment in any way, but copied it verbatim from what Daniel posted.)

It goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway — that I’m not nearly as ignorant of Jewish law as Daniel presumes. I am aware that various kinds of work are prohibited on the sabbath, because it is supposed to be a holy day of rest, the same way that God supposedly rested after spending six days creating the world. In clarifying what counts as non-resting activities, halachic teachings hold that these specific forms of “creation” or “craft” meet the definition, by analogy to what God was up to before resting. My comment was primarily in reference to the fact that this list itself is bizarre. I sympathize with the idea of designating a traditional rest day (or two!) for the community, but who needs to rest after, for example, erasing? The “craft” definition of work doesn’t match up with actual exertion; see: walking instead of driving. Also, turning a key which closes a circuit through a spark plug, igniting a pressurized gas inside a complex mechanical assembly, is very technically “lighting a fire” but looks nothing like the labor-intensive process of fire-starting several thousand years ago. This is all pedantry and seems to miss the point, even if you grant the theological premises.

What I really want to talk about, though, is the underlying idea in Daniel’s comment: that before I discuss a religious practice, I should “study it well directly from people who observe and study it in the orthodox way.” Is this really the best way of examining beliefs that we don’t share?

Surely, you need to learn what you’re actually trying to talk about, before you talk about it. It’d be ridiculous for me to discuss Judaism and critique its key teachings without learning anything beyond the name of the religion. I should read some reputable sources, talk to some actual Jews about what they think and how they practice, and so on.

But it sounds more like Daniel’s saying I don’t have the right to criticize Judaism if I haven’t studied in a yeshiva, and a sufficiently orthodox one at that. (An interesting problem, because many Orthodox Jews wouldn’t permit a woman like me to study the Torah and Talmud in the same way that men do. Does that mean I can never criticize Judaism? Convenient.) It also seems strange to eliminate all other Jewish traditions besides the severest orthodoxy as not Jewish enough to be valuable here. I have a number of Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Jewish friends and extended family members who would be insulted by this insinuation.

Moreover, it’d be impossible for me to study Judaism “in the orthodox way” right now because I don’t believe it. The only way for me to meet Daniel’s standard of being sufficiently informed to criticize a religion is basically for me to first convert to that religion. I hope it’s clear on face why this is an unfair and unnecessary standard — but it is one held by many religious people, of a wide variety of theological stripes. Yet by presuming from the start that religious teachings are to be devoutly followed, we’re restricting the set of conceivable discussions. An outsider, informed by the facts but not extensively trained — or, one might say, indoctrinated — in orthodoxy, can offer much more objective insights. You need to be able to question, to think outside the box, in order to have a discussion that’s more than a regurgitation.

I suppose Daniel and I agree that before discussing a matter, one should study it well. We just disagree on what that good study should actually entail.

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