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Taking a note from progressive Judaism(s)

This will be a short surface analysis of jewish law and how it’s application in progressive judaism may help with handling vinaya.

Jewish law.
Halakha is roughly speaking, Jewish law. It deals largely with interpreting and working with the commandments found in the torah. Though it extends a bit further than that.

The word Halakha is an interesting one, this is typically translated as law. When we peel into this we learn it isn’t quite right, rather the correct translation is something like “The way to walk”.

Every Jewish person lives a little bit differently and the application and viewing of Jewish Halakha can vary widely, generally speaking however Halakha acts as a way of guiding Jewish people to living an ethical and spiritually pure life. Many rules deal with what the individual is supposed to do for themselves, but also have a dual function of rules to be observed to act as an example to the community around them both Jewish and non Jewish.

Jewish law and it’s observance is also dealt with by the community, Rabbi’s being the ultimate authority on it.

Judaism when it comes to not only Halakha but to other aspects of the religion also encourages debate and ruthless study of the texts which make up the law and the Jewish canon.

While this allows for great innovation, there’s also Halakhic precedent not to overturn laws after they have been agreed upon by the community. That said, there’s also a principle which observes the authority and responsibility of modern figures. An argument is also had in orthodox and conservative spaces that Halakha is normative and binding.

How then do Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism handle Halakha?

Reconstructionist

Reconstructionist Judaism takes the opinion that Halakha is normative and binding. But their interpretation is that it also changes and evolves with time in order to meet the needs of the modern jewish community. Though they view Halakha as an evolving construct, they still hold traditional Jewish practices dearly.

“We accept the halakha, which is rooted in the Talmud, as the norm of Jewish life, availing ourselves, at the same time, of the method implicit therein to interpret and develop the body of Jewish Law in accordance with the actual conditions and spiritual needs of modern life.”-Mordecai Kaplan, Founder of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Reform

Reform Judaism holds that modern views on how the Rabbinic and Torah law developed imply that the Rabbinic Jewish law is no longer normative and thus not binding on modern Jewish people.

Traditonalist followers of Reform Judaism believe Halakha acts as a personal starting point, ultimately deciding that each person is supposed to interpret Torah, Talmud, and other Jewish works for themselves, resulting in separate commandments for each person.

Both liberal and classical followers believe that many old Jewish laws and rituals are from an earlier stage of evolution in Judaism, and that as such the majority of them are no longer applicable to the modern day and age.

The views in this area can be a bit wide as it can be in any branch of Judaism, but the ultimate view is one of personal autonomy.

Ultimately, both reconstructionist and especially reform Judaism, hold that the ethical asepct of the religion are it’s center function.

A proposal for handling vinaya in early & theravadin buddhism

Those who are more studied in the vinaya than I am will have doubtlessly noticed many parallels in the struggles and questions in regards to religious conduct. The same problems which have haunted Judaism have haunted Buddhism when it comes to vinaya, the ultimate question being…

How do we deal with the vinaya in the modern day and age without losing the tradition?

It is here I would like to point towards the Alagaddupama Sutta, and in particular highlight the watersnake and raft similes. Both of these have to do with not clinging to the dharma.

I would then point towards the Parinibbana sutta and the confusing allowance of doing away with lesser and minor rules, as well as not laying down new decrees.

What follows next will be a rough draft of my thoughts on what would be best to do, with my currently limited vinaya knowledge.

I believe that the best course of action would be to view this from a similar angle between Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism. Rather than viewing the Vinaya as an unchanging thing, we may resolve to see it in the light of something which adapts to the time and place it’s in. This would allow for the vinaya to still be normative and binding, but also give sanghas more leeway in normalizing the ordination procedures of Queer, Intersex and Disabled peoples.

By looking at the vinaya and it’s handling as an evolving structure, I think we uphold the example the buddha gave us; Let the Vinaya be your teacher.

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I think the attitude that I see in my community is this:

Vinaya fixed. Don’t change it.

New stuffs, use the great standards to compare to know if it is allowable or not. Here’s where the different interpretations of vinaya comes in.

Example: copyright infringement.

To even copy and paste a copyrighted book onto one’s mobile phone/ kindle is considered piracy if one doesn’t pay for the book. But vinaya reading wise, many had regarded this as not theft, as the original item was not taken away, just copied. This could be dangerous. If the value of the book is high enough, that’s a parajika offence, so does this means a lot of monks are not actually monks if we interpret this wrongly in accordance to the vinaya?

Sensitive area: sex.

Summary

Then there’s stuffs to do with the parajika on no sexual relationships. What about virtual sex? Sex bots? Once we can access the internet via thoughts alone, does visiting prostitutes using mental actions alone, and triggering all the right neural pathways to simulate sex considered sex?

A lot of readings on the vinaya can either be to the letter, or to the spirit. As more tech comes, the distance between the letter and the spirit may drift further away as the space in between them are explored by the techs.

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This is from vinaya translated from pali by bhante @brahmali

Discussion of the lesser training rules
Ānanda said to the senior monks, “At the time of his final extinguishment, the Buddha said to me, ‘After my passing away, Ānanda, if the Sangha wishes, it may abolish the lesser training rules.’”

“But, Ānanda, did you ask the Buddha which are the lesser training rules?”

“No, I didn’t.”

Some senior monks said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion, the rest are the lesser training rules.” Others said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion and the thirteen rules entailing suspension, the rest are the lesser training rules.” Still others said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion, the thirteen rules entailing suspension, and the two undetermined rules, the rest are the lesser training rules.” Still others said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion, the thirteen rules entailing suspension, the two undetermined rules, and the thirty rules entailing relinquishment and confession, the rest are the lesser training rules.” Still others said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion, the thirteen rules entailing suspension, the two undetermined rules, the thirty rules entailing relinquishment and confession, and the ninety-two rules entailing confession, the rest are the lesser training rules.” Still others said, “Apart from the four rules entailing expulsion, the thirteen rules entailing suspension, the two undetermined rules, the thirty rules entailing relinquishment and confession, the ninety-two rules entailing confession, and the four rules entailing acknowledgment, the rest are the lesser training rules.”

Then Venerable Mahākassapa informed the Sangha:

“Please, I ask the Sangha to listen. We have training rules that relate to householders. The householders know what is allowable for us and what is not. If we abolish the lesser training rules, some people will say, ‘The ascetic Gotama laid down training rules for his disciples until the time of his death. But they practice the training rules only as long as their teacher is alive. Since their teacher has now attained final extinguishment, they no longer practice the training rules.’ If it seems appropriate to the Sangha, the Sangha should not lay down new rules, nor get rid of the existing ones, and it should undertake to practice the training rules as they are. This is the motion.

Please, Venerables, I ask the Sangha to listen. We have training rules that relate to householders. The householders know what is allowable for us and what is not. If we abolish the lesser training rules, some people will say, ‘The ascetic Gotama laid down training rules for his disciples until the time of his death. But they practice the training rules only as long as their teacher is alive. Since their teacher has now attained final extinguishment, they no longer practice the training rules.’ The Sangha doesn’t lay down new rules, nor gets rid of the existing ones, and it undertakes to practice the training rules as they are. Any monk who approves of not laying down new rules, nor abolishing the old ones, and of undertaking to practice them as they are should remain silent. Any monk who does not approve should speak up.

The Sangha doesn’t lay down new rules, nor gets rid of the existing ones, and it undertakes to practice the training rules as they are. The Sangha approves and is therefore silent. I will remember it thus.”

The senior monks said, “You have committed an act of wrong conduct, Ānanda, in that you didn’t ask the Buddha which are the lesser training rules. Confess that wrong conduct.”

“It was because of lack of mindfulness that I didn’t ask which are the lesser training rules. I can’t see that I have committed any wrong conduct, but I’ll confess it out of faith in the venerables"
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well I have read 95% of the vinaya and consent is what determines whether that is a theft or a non theft act but I forget the exact passage maybe bhante @brahmali can help

Re: “vinaya fixed”

The biggest question I would have about that is that if the Khandakas say that dwarfs, for example, aren’t to be ordained, how on earth did the Arahant Lakuntaka Bhaddiya (Bhaddiya the Dwarf) ordain, and would we turn away the Arahant Bhaddiya today?

Vinaya is only as fixed as the person who is interpreting it; Khandaka fundamentalism =/= sophisticated textual hermeneutics.

(Thanks to my acquaintance, Buddhist disability theorist Fiona Kumari Campbell, for explaining this to me.)

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Because the rule was created after he ordained the same thing happened to Venerable badda he was 7 years old when he got arahantship but then buddha banned all people with the age below 20 years old from ordaining

Sorry, I am not familiar with him. However, the Buddha did had some special stuffs which he seems to be above the vinaya sometimes.

The Buddha displayed the twin miracles, told his disciples cannot display miracles.

The Buddha ordained Angulimala. But say cannot ordain people who are wanted criminals.

On handicap thing, I get the sense that it’s becoming outdated to insist that all people who ordains must not be handicapped. With tech, we can have robotic arms/legs which moves via nerves signals, and can be indistinguishable from real flesh if no one told people about it.

On must be humans to ordain, to what extend does a human turn into a cyborg? When they have pacemaker in their hearts?

One science fiction idea I have is that in the future, say 1000 years from now, there’s a group of Buddhists who are very attached on being human, no genetic engineering, no DNA selection for their kids to avoid bad genes, no robotic implants, no uploading and linking with the internet to become part of the technological singularity. The attachment is just so that their kids can have the opportunity to choose to ordain if they so wishes. Then some of these kids who are disinterested in the holy life sue their parents for relative disadvantage due to not using basic tech to help in their lives, whereas almost everyone else are living much more comfortably.

It’s really a challenge for the current Sangha to look at the Vinaya, evaluate and adapt to more and more tech changes, as science accelerates ever onwards.

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Thanks for bringing this up and reminding us of the connections between the challenges faced in different religious communities.

It’s interesting that a prominent word in the context of Vinaya, ācāra, means essentially the same thing. It’s usually translated as “conduct”, “behavior”, or “deportment”.

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The same is true of the word sharia, which from memory means a “path”.

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Yes, Ratana, you are correct, we should all read more vinaya, I’m just on the side of reading better, that’s all.

I’m also just trying to reconcile the dwarf ordination prohibition in the Khandakas with the commentarial statement (re Bhaddiya) that only an ignoble worldling would despise a dwarf.

So either (A) the commentary is correct, and the dwarf-hating Khandakas were written by ignoble worldlings

Or (B), the commentary is wrong, and arahants really do just hate dwarves.

Or (C), the dwarf ordination prohibition does not actually count as hating on dwarves, but is really, you know, for their um…own good. (Because the sangha, you know, knows what’s best for the short statured).

I picked out Bhaddiya because he can show us a lot about the poverty of not only our responses to modernity, but just our logic in general on these issues.

OP was correct, we need more sophisticated approaches to face issues like disability and queerness. But from my perspective, it’s not a progressive/conservative thing, it can be a profoundly orthodox endeavour to find ways to read our texts more deeply in light of their compassionate intention. (:

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I think the problem with this comparison is that Vinaya only applies to a small % of Buddhists who chose to become officially ordained as monks/nuns. Hence, there isn’t so much pressure to change/reinterpret it, because ppl who dislike the currently existing Vinaya could always just not bother being ordained at all (or stay as novices/8-precepters, or whatever).

Halakha is theoretically binding on all Jews, so there is much more pressure to change it. It’s intolerable to expect all members of a community to follow such a strict set of rules simply because they were born into the religion — hence, you get Reform, Conservative, etc.

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I think we should take a second to consider the difference in the scale of the problem faced by interpreters of the Jewish and Buddhist traditions. Namely that:

  • Vinaya applies only to a subset of Buddhists who voluntarily take it on, but Halakha applies to all Jews.
  • The majority of the individual mitzvot are unambiguously physically impossible to carry out now (e.g. because they require the existence of a Temple)
  • Generally speaking, it is a plain literal reading of the root texts (Torah) that is most problematic in Judaism, while generally it is later texts that are more problematic in Buddhism
  • Plain literal readings of Jewish texts include calls to kill others and similar extreme acts, while the problematic aspects of vinaya are much less extreme (at most being exclusionary)

Even ultra-orthodox Jews, probably even Second-Temple Jews, had to look at certain statements in the written Torah which call for its highest penalty (E.g. Dueteronomy 21:18-21), the death penalty, and find something in the Oral Torah to abrogate it. Whereas I don’t think anyone has any serious basis on which to suggest that the highest offenses in the Vinaya, the Parajika offenses, should be abrogated.

I think the challenge faced by progressive Buddhists can be dramatized by imagining equal respect and opportunity being given to a phenotypically normal cis het Bhikkhu and an intersex female-identified gynesexual mendicant with a large number of phenotypical differences, and then asking oneself how to realize this vision.

I don’t think you need to take nearly as radical an approach to meet this challenge faced by progressive Buddhism as that which has been taken by progressive Judaism (and all forms of Judaism) to take on literal life and death challenges.

Especially as a layperson, it is really quite easy. There is literally no barrier in the Vinaya to a layperson giving the exact same respect to those sorts of person. (Because the vinaya places no restrictions on laity).

Tangent

There’s also the matter of historicity. I believe the secular historical consensus, even before the work of Bhikkhus Analayo and Brahmali, is that the Sutta’s and Vinaya genuinely originate in the work of a historical author (the Buddha) passed down through a largely faithful if imperfect effort. Meanwhile, even most religious Jews recognize that the Tanakh was not literally historically authored by Moses. Re-arraigning the Mordecai Kaplan quote, we get, “Halakha… is rooted in the Talmud [not the written Torah], [and] implicit therein [is the method where we] interpret and develop the body of Jewish Law in accordance with the actual conditions and spiritual needs of modern life.” A fair summary of what we think happened in the Second Temple Era, in the Talmudic Era, and today. Whereas the Vinaya is rooted in the word of the Buddha 2,500 years ago.

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These are all great points, but vinaya is still a major source of ethics for the lay Buddhist community as well. Issues like abortion, etc, are frequently treated according to how they are worked out in the vinaya.

The people who teach lay Buddhist ethics, at least in Theravada temple Buddhism, are nearly 100% monks who had vinaya-based education.

So vinaya still has a huge role in normative Buddhist discourse in general, in creating ableism and queer excluding discourses. Even if no-one has to be put to death, there is still structural violence in Buddhist communities. You just get put to death slowly as the resources and love of your community are denied to you through exclusion. Structural violence kills.

If you happen to be that person who is queer and disabled and Buddhist, these discourses could affect most of your life.

You could be successful, have a great career in the world with a disability, even be a well known teacher of ethics, be a sincere practitioner, but back at your own “little temple”, they wouldn’t want to know you if you wanted to ordain. I think this is a huge problem for the WHOLE Buddhist community that should be taken just as seriously as halakha reform.

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Actually I like the Karaite Jews and the Samaritans. They’re like the Early Buddhists of Judaism, they only follow the pentateuch and they take everything at face value. E.g. not cooking the baby in the mothers milk vs the rabbinical interpretation of not mixing meat and milk. Whereas Rabbinical Judaism is like the Vissudhimagghist or Mahayanists.

If you look into early judaism, you can see that it is vastly different than Rabbinical Judaism. They pray on sand in the synagogue, and on their knees like muslims do. In fact, muslims borrowed the praying posture from early jews.

Rabbinical Judaism is actually persian, and was heavily influenced by Cyrus the great, a non-jew who was maybe Zoroastrian. Before him, jews didn’t really believe in an afterlife or heaven and hell. There was even a civil war between the early jews and the Pharseas (Rabbinical persian jews).

So in short, I prefer the earliest texts.

Oh, forgot to add, the most important thing in Judaism is what the Rabbinical Jews misinterpret:

The torah says the biggest rule is to put on the teffilin everyday. Now the Rabbinical jews interpret this as physically writing the 10 commandments on a scroll and putting it in a box on their head.

Whereas the Karaite jews interpret it as reciting and remembering the 10 commandments.

So it actually means to remember the 10 commandments (like sati), not to literally tape it to your head.

The 10 commandments are like the 5 precepts by the way, so you can see the importance of actually remembering them and reciting them daily, as to not break them and cause bad karma, which in early judaism terms, means not dying prematurely by doing foolish things, since afterlife wasn’t really taught in the torah.

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Actually just had a bit of a chat with an orthodox rabbi today. One thing I was interested in was the very fact that they use labels like “orthodox”, “progressive”, “reform”, etc. So you can go to a synagogue and know (generally) what kind of service it will be. I find it interesting that in Buddhism we don’t use any such labels, even though in some cases the practices are identical, for example, separation of men and women during services. For us, we just have to go along and see how they do it. If we don’t like it, try somewhere else.

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I think the whole gender segregation thing might be a bit more obvious for Jewish people because of the use of a physical divider. If your synagogue has to install one, it’s a bit more infrastructure than turning up and seeing what they do…

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I hate to go too far on this tangent because it’s such a touchy topic, but it’s something I kinda want to get off my chest — namely, I think we need to be careful with using the word “queer.” “Queer” is a huge category that includes a lot of separate people, not all of whom have the same grievances and opinions. I know as a lesbian myself that trans issues are extremely controversial within the lesbian community, for example. In fact, although I have nothing against individuals who wish to identify as queer themselves, it’s not a term I use for myself or as a catch-all because it kinda tramples on this diversity (even if it’s not the intention…not to mention people who do still find this word offensive). If we really want to talk about, say, trans ordination/acceptance, let’s talk about that particular issue in its own right rather than just bundle it all up as a “queer” issue.

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Thank you for pointing this out…the terms should really be the classes termed ubhatobyanjanaka and pandaka in Pali.

On which, BTW, Jewish sources are an interesting point of comparison, especially the Mishnah.

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I’m glad you don’t have anything against people who use this term, considering that I am one of those people and had used this term for people like myself whom are victim to interpretations of pandaka and ubhatobyanjanaka. I was careful with the term queer, I used it in a very particular way on purpose.

Wonderful post Ven Suvira, trying to illustrate the way this structural issue has very serious consequences is not an easy one and I think you handled this very well.

Excellent Point Ven Sujato, we do lack this. I think in some ways it’s a good thing-a whole lot of different titles and separations can be so unhelpful and detract from larger and more important points, but at the same time it would be nice to be able to enter into a monastery and know that you won’t be discriminated against.

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