, , , , , ,

There are loads of discussions about the position of the Torah on issues that are out of date with our modern sensitivities. To defend the real intention of G-d, one line of argumentation that is often used is the following [X = slavery / sacrifices / eating meat / …]:
– In the societies of the time X was a normal practice.
– G-d knew it would have been impossible to abolish X directly.
– G-d let X continue and only made sure X was reglemented as much as possible (because G-d didn’t actually want X).
– As society advanced, X was abolished which is totally in line with G-d’s original intent.

I have read an interesting version of this line of argumentation recently (a comment by Yitz on October 02, 2014 at 02:40 AM). The context was a discussion about Yom Kippur and that aspects of the rituals are supposedly similar to pagan festivals of the time (I did not do any background reading, so that’s why I write supposedly). Of course the first explanation that comes to mind is that people copied them from others, so all of it is made up by men. The argument in favor of G-d now goes like this [X = the rituals in question, e.g., kapparot, scape goat, …]:
– In the societies of the time X was a normal practice / the only mode of worship they knew / enjoyed by people.
– G-d knew it would have been impossible to abolish X completely and make people worship him with completely new and foreign rituals.
– G-d let X continue and only made sure X was reglemented in a way that made the people worship Him instead of some random idols.

The rational is that people expect certain things of religion which G-d had to include. Familiar elements like a holy book. Prayer. Holidays. Lifecycle celebrations. Candles in winter. Nobody would join a totally foreign religion (think SciFi aliens). Or even if they joined because of some supernatural event (think Sinai), people would forever miss their old celebrations (or probably continue them anyway). If you are looking for real-worls examples where this has happened: some descendants of forcibly converted Spanish Jews still light candles for Shabat or cover the mirrors when someone dies, Christians put out milk for Santa’s reindeers, some Israelis of Polish origin don’t go swimming after October even though it is still warm in Israel.

So to give people something familiar to hold onto, G-d modeled "His new religion" after existing practices. I think this is an interesting theory. Of course if this actually means we should go one point further along the line of argumentation and it is justified to abolished certain traditions and rituals is another question.

This is the whole comment with a longer (and maybe better) explanation:

I think you’re missing the point, and misreading my use of the word “borrow.” This isn’t about God writing a novel where being original is the ideal; it’s about God shaping the beliefs of a new nation that already knew of these myths and believed in them to some extent. If you want to correct the belief system established by a creation myth for example, you need to address that myth; not just make up a brand new story that has nothing to do with the old myth. If you did that you wouldn’t be uprooting the old myth, you’d just be adding a new one to the collection of myths.

There is an established principal in Jewish thought (and a logical one as well) that “The Torah speaks in the language of man.” Among other things, this means that the Torah speaks in the context of the time in which it was given and in a way that is appropriate for the people of the time. Many of the commentators write that God had to gradually wean a pagan slave population off of it’s pagan ritual and belief system. It would not be effective for God to create brand new rituals that have no meaning for the worshipers. To give a silly example, if God were to create a brand new religion now, he would not create one where worship of God is done by standing on one’s head 5 times a day. You can be sure that prayer would be somewhere in the new religion, because prayer means something to man as he exists now. Maimonides makes a similar point about sacrifices. It it not the ideal way by which to worship God, but the people receiving he Torah knew how to worship by way of sacrifices and other active rituals, therefore God allowed them to worship Him in the same way, while making it clear to them – through the stories and mitzvot of the Torah – that he was a very different God than the ones they believed in; He was the One God, an omnipresent omniscient Creator who created and masters all the laws of Nature (e.g. the story of separating the waters during Creation, the flood, the splitting of the Sea, whether or not these stories are true literally) and is directly involved in the history of man (the stories of the avot, the exodus). If I remember correctly, Maimonides says that while in the ideal world you may not need sacrifices (or even mizvot if you want to take it a step further than he does) in the time of the Bible (whether you want to say it was given by Moshe, or Ezra or whoever) human nature required a tangible way to serve God, and sacrifice was the method of the times; the method that meant something spiritual for them that they could relate to. The lack of this practice is what led to the Golden Calf. So God deemed it more meaningful and more pragmatic to give the people rituals they were familiar with so he had them build the mishkan, which is very similar in its layout to the temples of the pagan gods.