The Psychological Power of Tradition over the Jewish people (in rejecting Christ)

When Rabbi Akiva coined the phrase: “Tradition is a fence to the Torah”[1], it’s doubtful he imagined how the rabbinic tradition of the so-called “Oral Law” would influence the people of Israel throughout the generations.
Rabbinic “Oral Law” has dominated the Jewish world to the degree that other variations or streams of Judaism present during the Second Temple period (such as the Sadducees, the Zealots, the Essenes, the Karaites) were all but wiped out.[2] It’s been two thousand years since the Pharisee sect took over the Jewish world, and Judaism has been identified with their tradition ever since, including all their ritual laws, symbols and customs. Because of that, rational claims demonstrating the lack of veracity of the “Oral Law” have no effect, as this ancient tradition has developed profound psychological ties with the Jewish soul over the years.

Don’t confuse me with the facts!

Even when all the facts show otherwise, well-established tradition can still have an incredible psychological power over the individual, influencing him so far as to deny the truth in order to protect himself from being labeled as “different” from the rest of the flock.
Researchers who were faced with the issue of the individual against ancient traditions found that since religious traditions reflect the accumulation of cultural values and assets – both spiritual and emotional – the individual can become “a sort of slave to frozen traditions, customs, opinions and faiths that were acceptable since long ago, but their meaning, in many cases, isn’t clear or understood by him.”[3] Religious tradition becomes the central anchor providing the individual with a specific lifestyle, with thought habits, and with familiar behavioral patterns founded by his forefathers and which now apply to him. Therefore, it is no wonder that the Jewish people in Israel, even if they don’t define themselves as “religious”, cling to their religious tradition as the default psychological basis for their Jewish identity.[4]

Why are we so welded to tradition?

Tradition acts as an important link between the past and the present.[5] In addition, relating to ancient tradition infers a pseudo-instinctive feeling, because every well-established and significant tradition is accompanied with an authority that the individual cannot oppose.
The Talmud puts it this way:

“If the earlier [scholars] were sons of angels, we are sons of men; and if the earlier [scholars] were sons of men, we are like donkeys”. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 112b,16).

Therefore, it is mandatory to accept the authority and tradition of the ancient Jewish Sages, and of their “Oral Law”, to the degree that breaking these traditions is considered blasphemy, a sin, and a deviation from the Jewish spirit.[6]
Even secular Jews who have a weakened attachment to their religious heritage might feel detached when deviating from Jewish tradition in such a way that would not only cause them to have pangs of conscience, but also cause an instinctive defensiveness when encountering anything new or different that might threaten the ancient tradition their forefathers identified with.[7] The power and influence of religious tradition comes from its conservative and stiff character; for this reason, even a secular man who firmly opposes religion can be compulsively influenced in a very deep, psychological way (sometimes without him even knowing) by the religious tradition his forefathers belonged to.[8]

The rabbinic monopoly defining what it means to be Jewish

The psychological roots of religion aren’t easily erased, and the secular lifestyle in modern society will not completely save the individual from the tradition identified with his Jewish heritage.[9] Therefore, it is unsurprising to find many Jews who have disconnected themselves from the Orthodox lifestyle and belief in the living God, but who still keep following rabbinic customs out of their commitment to continue the traditions of their forefathers, and a desire to preserve the unity of the nation of Israel.[10] Under the authority of rabbinic Judaism, the uniqueness of the nation of Israel was expressed through the merging of nationality and religion. Nowadays, this merging no longer exists, meaning that a completely secular Jew is still considered a part of the Jewish nation. Still, the need of the secular Jew to have an attachment to the Jewish heritage of the nation of Israel keeps bringing them back to the arms of the rabbinic tradition.[11]
Alongside the secular Jew, his religious brother finds himself in a situation where he isn’t required to verify the rabbis’ tradition or demand proof for the spiritual authority of the “Oral Law”; thousands of years of tradition have also brought the religious person to follow the rabbinic commandments “on autopilot”, as “just another habit”, even if such religious practice would be completely Godless.[12] In other words, the Jewish feelings involved in the psychological process that creates the longing for the rabbinic tradition are more than enough to justify the blind faith in the “Oral Law” religion.  Moreover, the rejection of any faith that may be considered threatening or foreign to the rabbinic tradition serves to strengthen the Jewish man’s (whether religious or secular) innermost sentiments through which he preserves his Jewish identity.
Lastly, rejection of any alternative faith, other than that of the rabbinic tradition, is more than enough to give the contemporary Jew the feeling that his Jewish identity is grounded and preserved.[13] The Sages of the “Oral Law” ruled, “For anyone who repudiates idolatry is called ‘a Jew’”.[14] It seems that behind this statement hides a rabbinic longing for a different extreme assumption: that any Jew who repudiates the rabbinic tradition (thus falling into “idolatry”) isn’t considered a Jew. Releasing the people of Israel from the heavy burden of the rabbinic “Oral Law” requires not only rational refutation alone, for the Jewish nation today is still chained to this tradition with historical, traditional and psychological chains, from which it seems much harder to release.[15]

[1] Avot, Chapter 3, Mishnah 13
[2] Professor Jacob Malchin, What Do Secular Jews Believe? Raanana, published by: The Poalim Library, 35: 2000
[3] Yehoshua Rash (editor), Regard and Revere, Renew Without Fear: The Secular Jew and His Heritage, Raanana, published by: The Poalim Library, 57: 1986
[4] ibid p.58
[5] ibid p.64
[6] ibid p.59
[7] ibid p.65
[8] ibid p.70
[9] ibid p.37
[10] Professor Jacob Malchin, What Do Secular Jews Believe? Raanana, published by: The Poalim Library, 32: 2000
[11] ibid p.34,37
[12] As Dr. Ronny Bar-Lev, who researched the “Chassidic” belief, wrote in his book: Radical Belief: The Avant-Garde Belief of Rabbi Nahman from Breslev, Bar-Ilan University, 2017: 22. See another expression for this idea in Arik Parum’s book: “And You Will Be Like God”, published by A. Rubinstein, Jerusalem, 1975: 22
[13] See comprehensive discussion on the matter in Prof. Avi Sagi and Prog, Tsvi Zohar, Jewish Identity Circles in the Religious Tradition, Raanana, The United Kibbutz, 2000: 9-11, 33-57
[14] Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 13a
[15] It is no wonder there are so many Jews who call themselves “Traditional”, or “with a certain longing for the rabbinic tradition”, even though they aren’t religious, but consider themselves secular (as noted by Dr. Jacob Idgar, in his book: Beyond Secularization: Traditionalism and Criticism of the Secularism in Israel, Raanana, The Von Leer Institute in Jerusalem, The United Kibbutz, 2012: 47, 128

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