Theology Outside the Tribe

The ravishing and brilliant Ilana Mercer has a column on input from Judaism to economic principles.

In line with its efforts to educate about Judaism’s philosophical affinity with the free market, the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies has inaugurated the Center for the Study of Judaism and Economics …

This got me thinking about theology.  What’s it for ?  It’s obviously tribal in essence, though you have to extend the meaning of “tribal” to include “fictive tribes” like Christianity and Islam. (Well, I think you do.)  Any given theology is of zero interest to anyone outside the tribe.  If someone tells you he’s making a deep study of Rabbinic Literature, you can be 99 percent sure he’s Orthodox-Jewish; if deep in Thomism, he’s Roman Catholic; etc.

And yet the intellectual effort that’s applied is tremendous.  Think of an Orthodox-Jewish shul, those rows of earnest young men rocking and chanting as they memorize vast chunks of material.  The material is difficult.  Rabbinic literature is a colossal edifice of intellection, by some very smart people indeed.  It’s not just memorization; there’s a strong tradition of debate and textual analysis, with great respect awarded to those who can most subtly elucidate what Rabbi So-and-so meant back in the 13th century.  And yet, for all that intellection, the material is of no interest to anyone who isn’t an Orthodox Jew.  Similar things apply to Roman Catholic theology, which RC readers keep urging me to explore.  Why would I — as opposed to picking up the Talmud?  It’s all just tribal chanting.

When, as in Ilana’s piece, theologians apply their lucubrations to topics of universal interest, I find myself thinking of the early space program, when billion-dollar projects to put men in orbit were justified on the grounds that we would get non-stick frying pans out of it.  If it’s a non-stick frying pan you want, get some materials scientists together in a lab and let them work the problem.  You don’t need a Saturn 5 rocket. Similarly, if it’s rational, maximum-benefit economics, you want, how does it help to know what that rabbi said back in A.D. 1250?  Get some economists, historians, sociologists, and business people together and let them thrash it out.

I don’t see how theology helps.  And I’m sure that if your theologians can come up with theological justification for free markets, his theologians could offer just as robust a defense of state socialism.  Where is the informed guidance here?

Perhaps I just don’t— well, obviously I don’t — see the appeal of theological study.  It doesn’t seem to make anything happen.  It’s just a waste of good brain power, in a tribal cause. 

Ilana’s piece, in any case, disabused me of one of my consolations.  I’ve always assumed, based on occasional and casual encounters, and a priori assumptions about Ashkenazi intelligence, that Rabbinic theology is intellectually head and shoulders above any other, a sort of gold standard for theology; but that it is very intensely tribal, so that the scholars of it don’t bother the rest of us with it.  RC theology, by contrast (what happened to Protestant theology, by the way?  is it still around?) is much more at ease with going out of the tribe and trying to make things happen in the larger world; and Islamic theology of course even more so.

I don’t really have a conclusion here.  I’m just thinking out loud.  And trying to get Ilana’s attention.

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