Borer ("selecting") refers to separating out, by hand, something undesirable from something desirable. The Torah tradition identifies borer as one of the thirty-nine major categories of work involved in preparing items for the Mishkan (mobile Temple), work which is forbidden to do on Shabbat.
But what I'm alluding to here is not the separation of unwanted pebbles from plant material. I'm talking about borer in the mind - separating out untruths, myths, and superstitions. I count this as a highly constructive activity, one which not only is never "forbidden" on any days of the week, but is probably obligatory at all times for anyone who wishes to eschew idolatry, in the sense of attachment to falsehood, and who wants to live with a "lev tahor," in the sense of striving for clarity of mind.
I'll start off with an anecdote about alternative healing, and then move onto matters pertaining to Judaism.
I used to be open to any and all alternative health practices, allowing for the possibility that they may hold secrets for tapping into hidden "energies." But now I've become, shall we say, a good deal more "discriminating" in my taste for this kind of thing. (Here's a great comedy sketch that pretty much sums it up for me.) My wife is also relatively skeptical, wary of "woo" (a.k.a. hooey, bunk, baloney), but she's still open to trying these things from time to time.
Case in point - she heard about a local "healer" and took our son in to try to deal with certain lingering health issues which we haven't had particular success in tackling using conventional means. This healer's methodology was to ask the patient questions, while holding a special type of dowsing rod - a kind of wooden stick with a metal, spiral-shaped attachment on the end. When she asked questions, the dowsing rod would "move" in one of two directions, indicating either a "yes" or a "no." It's essentially used as a diagnostic tool, to hone in on what exactly is causing the health issues.
Now, I wasn't there, and I haven't talked to this healer about her beliefs as to how this "works." But here's a video with what I imagine is a similar technique, i.e. "dowsing," wherein the person claims to be "training" the rod, and that it's the rod that "answers" the questions, not him. (See around 6:40 to 8:30 of the video.) He says straight out: "I am not moving the rod." But if you watch closely, it is abundantly clear that his hand most definitely is moving - and I don't mean in response to the rod, I mean before the rod starts moving. Which should be obvious even without watching closely. After all, if the rod could move on its own, why not wedge it into a wall, ask questions, and just let it do its thing? Because... it needs to connect with the "energy field" of the healer? Because... it moves the muscles that are needed to move the rod? Because... because of the wonderful things it does?
Any explanation you want to give is transparently covering over the obvious truth that the person is subconsciously moving the rod. (I say "subconsciously," as opposed to "consciously," since unless I see evidence to the contrary, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt of not being willful charlatans.)
"I can see you rolling your eyes," my wife said to me. Which I have no doubt was true. But then the thought occurred to me: Yes, precisely, a subconscious movement! Let me explain what I mean.
Billions of years of evolution have imbued us with a formidable intuitive capacity, i.e. the ability to make spot assessments of circumstances, to sense things about ourselves and our environment, in order to take the kinds of actions that will help us survive. Only since eating from the Tree of Knowledge (figuratively speaking - literally, since the conscious mind has developed the faculty of analysis, comparative reasoning, abstract self-awareness and reflection), we now have the tendency to "over-think," rationalize, and "abstract" ourselves away from the more primitive, instinctive tools of assessment. And while it's certainly a "plus" that we can think, ponder, and circumvent our instincts, it can also be argued that instinct and intuition sometimes have something constructive to say. The question is, how can we access this faculty when it's normally so obscured by our everyday, conscious thinking? Well, maybe by using techniques that help us to temporarily bypass the conscious mind in order to access our more subconscious intuition.
To me, that would be a rational "perush" (explanation) of the dowsing rod technique - it simply helps the practitioner focus and hone their own subconscious intuition about the patient standing in front of them. Nothing magical, just a way to articulate certain subtle aspects of the person's presentation (posture, expression, gait, eyes, emotions, etc.), which they may have picked up on subconsciously but wouldn't necessarily be able to express were it not for this unconventional technique. Now, I'm not saying it "works" necessarily. As a teacher of mine likes to point out, intuition can be very right, and it can also be very wrong. But at least it's a way of thinking about the idea of dowsing - something that's almost always explained in ways that are patently absurd - in a more rational, intellectually honest way, and at the same time allowing that it may be a viable technique for gathering certain types of information. Maybe.
But going back to the idea of "borer," here's a case where it's possible to extricate, separate out, the superstition and magical thinking, and still come away with a technique that has some utility. The problem is though, with many other alternative healing practices, the magical thinking is the utility. Take homeopathy for example. By all accounts, the alleged efficacy of homeopathic remedies is attributable solely to the placebo effect.
Point being, once you methodically debunk the dubious principles of homeopathy, you have effectively stripped it (i.e. the patient's mind) of any placebo effect and therefore taken away whatever utility it had. So there is no "separating out" the hocus-pocus in homeopathy. The hocus-pocus (i.e. the belief in homeopathy) is the only thing it has going for it.
Now let's bring this discussion to Judaism.
My whole approach in Torah and Judaism is one of "borer." As I've said before, I'm an unabashed believer in cherry-picking, taking what I believe to be constructive, positive and true, from the tradition, and rejecting what I see as either untrue or outright damaging or immoral. I'm attempting to construct (i.e. reframe, interpret) a version of Judaism that is entirely free of myths, superstitions and self-delusions. Yes, I recognize that these have been part and parcel to Judaism for the last 3,000+ years. But if we are to be a people of "emet," then we must be unafraid to face the truth, even if it hurts, and even if it requires us to acknowledge untruths in the Torah itself.
An important clarification: When I say, "even if it hurts," I do not mean in any way to imply that it's okay to hurt others, insult them or otherwise tear down their internal world, in order to show them the "truth." That would make us "skeptical fundamentalists," or "militant rationalists." What I mean is that as part of our own personal intellectual growth process, in order to make headway, we sometimes have to destroy the castles we've built in the sky, "disillusion ourselves" of the illusions we've relied on. And that can be truly painful. But it's a growth-oriented pain, one that - if we persevere, and we do our job of formulating a positive vision of Torah to replace it - can pave the way for a more robust foundation.
When I say "untruths in the Torah," first of all I'm referring to anything which is plainly mistaken according to our current knowledge. So for example, the Creation story is based on Bronze (and/or Iron) Age ideas about how the world - and human life - came about. Yes, there are other lessons to be learned from these narratives, but as a cosmology it is incorrect, period. So rather than make the ludicrous claim that the Creation I and/or Creation II narratives are literally/historically "correct," and that science is wrong, we owe it to ourselves as intelligent people - and as Jews - to be honest about it. Rather than embarrassingly (though, I admit, creatively) claim that the narratives in fact "knew" what we know today and can (if you do enough interpretive gymnastics) be reconciled with modern science, we simply need to be honest here and acknowledge that the Torah was mistaken.
Which is not to "condemn" the Torah. I wouldn't have expected it to say otherwise. It is what it is - a product of its time. But it does condemn us if we continue to cling to untruths.
It also doesn't mean that we throw out the text. We can use it - as has been done
throughout the centuries - as a way of carrying interpretations which
are meaningful to us (i.e. do "work" for us). Again, like the "dousing" idea, the goal is to take out the myth and leave what works.
Another example: The "Shaken Faithless" blog recently put up a post trying to rationalize the traditional view that ktav Ashuri (Aramaic - lit. "Assyrian" - script, i.e. the primary script used in Judaism for the past 2,500 years, to which great mystical significance has been traditionally attached) was the original script of the Torah. How can we explain this historically, given that the earliest known Israelitic writing (i.e. early First Temple period) is in ktav Ivri (Paleo-Hebrew script), not ktav Ashuri? In the post, Rabbi Jacobs (with whom you may recall I had a lively back-and-forth discussion a few months back) cites a different blog, explaining that ktav Ashuri was the original "sacred" script of Hebrew, and that the First Tablets were written in ktav Ashuri, but that after the Israelites sinned with the Golden Calf, they were deemed "unworthy" of such a sacred script, and so from the Second Tablets onward, everything was written in ktav Ivri, which held less sanctity.
On its own, this might be a reasonable "svara" (line of reasoning). The problem however is that all of our historical/archeological evidence says otherwise! After all, how did ktav Ashuri get "reintroduced"? Was it "secret knowledge" held by the pious few since the time of the First Tablets, yet somehow "leaked" to the Assyrians/Arameans around the 8th Century BCE (i.e. when the script was first known to exist)? Or was it a script that the Jews picked up during the Babylonian/Persian exile, Aramaic being the lingua franca in that region at that time? By all reasonable estimations, it was clearly the latter. Ktav Ashuri became so ingrained in Jewish life that it gradually replaced ktav Ivri over the course of the Second Temple period.
If anything, there are signs that ktav Ivri was considered "holier" than ktav Ashuri - e.g. where the four-letter-name of God alone appears in ktav Ivri in certain Dead Sea Scrolls, i.e. to indicate its special sanctity. (Ah, you conjecture - as I did at first - maybe it's just the opposite. Maybe they wrote the name of God in ktav Ivri to keep it from being shemos/genizah. But it turns out that the Septuagint does the same thing. And I doubt the writers considered Greek to be "holy" and ktav Ivri not!)
Furthermore, the shapes of the letters of ktav Ashuri are documented as
having evolved considerably between the 6th and 1st Centuries BCE,
eventually forming the script which is close to what we're familiar with today. So to maintain the traditional position, one would have to argue that they just happened to "morph" into the forms of the original sacred letters! (You can read more in this paper by Prof. William Schniedewind, UCLA Near Eastern Languages & Cultures Dept.)
So why would people deny all this? To me it reflects a mood of desperation throughout the Orthodox world, about so wanting the Torah tradition to be "right" that ironically it is willing to rationalize blatant untruths in order to make its case. My recommendation: Let it go. Don't be afraid of the truth. Acknowledge that in this case the traditional concept is wrong. Again, Chazal lacked the knowledge we now stand equipped with today. Their error was entirely excusable. It's ours that is hard to justify.
And we can still make drashot (interpretations) involving the "traditional" (Aramaic) Hebrew letters, in order to convey ideas that we find meaningful (e.g. the Midrashic idea that the letters of "emet" have "two legs" each, i.e. that truth "stands," whereas those of "sheker" only have one each, i.e. lies will "fall." And I'd say that's a particularly meaningful drash, given this discussion!). Once again, just separate out the myth and keep what works.
And this same "borer" principle obviously extends to practices as well: We can put on Tefillin, shake the Lulav, observe Shabbat, but without having to invest these things with any myth or superstition. We can enjoy these practices, derive meaning from them, and use them as anchors for our Jewish identity, but without overstating the matter - i.e. without claiming that these are "commanded" from On High or that there are metaphysical consequences to doing them or not doing them.
Yes, like alternative medicines, there are some parts of Judaism that are harder to do "borer" with than others. Meaning, there are whole areas of the tradition that arguably need to be "separated out." For instance, there are a slew of commandments that we don't have to deal with today (e.g. sacrifices, monarchy, slaughter of Amalek, death penalties like stoning, etc.) because fortunately, thank God, they only become practically relevant in a theoretical "messianic" time. So I'll leave all those out for now. But as I've said on this blog and on my other (dormant) blog, I have a big problem with certain parts of Judaism that are very real for us today - such as women not being treated equally before the law in Jewish tradition. In 21st Century free society, where women commonly hold the highest, most esteemed positions, maintaining the status quo of Halacha is, to me, totally indefensible. There's no "reframing" the issue to take out the myth - e.g. "Yes, legally you're your husband's 'acquisition', but we think of you as equals..." No, I see no way around making radical changes in this area.
And in commandments relating directly to supernatural beliefs, e.g. "loving Hashem," there's also a problem "separating out" the myth. Because that's the crux of the mitzvah! Yes, some who are uncomfortable with the idea of mandated beliefs may try to paint the tradition as being ultimately anti-dogmatic, that really there are very few if any beliefs required in classical Judaism. But I'm not sure that is entirely honest either. The honest thing to do is to acknowledge that such beliefs are traditionally a part of Judaism, and to either reject them on a personal basis (which I already do), or remake Judaism in a way that de-emphasizes them (which I'd really like to do if I had my druthers).
And of course prayer is something that is hard to sustain once you take out the myth. Yes, there's the communal aspect of prayer. There's the personal, meditative, self-reflective aspect. There's the aspect of focusing on things that are important to us (e.g. healing, sustenance, peace, etc.). All these are technically "rational" aspects of prayer. But I can say from personal experience that davening is difficult to want to do (at least on a three-times-a-day basis) without the idea that God "wants" us to, or that God is "listening," or that God will "answer" us in our time of need if enough of us pray long enough and hard enough, and say the right combination of words at the right times. Take the "God" idea out of the equation and prayer loses 90% of its "oomph."
And like homeopathy, a lot of the traditional Orthodox ideology (i.e. the whole religious "mindset") is based on placebo. Meaning, if you take out the myth and superstition, you've now taken away what "works" for so many people - e.g. the sense of God's protection and providence, the belief in Olam Haba (the "next world"), that evil people will "get theirs" in due time, the hope for Mashiach, the idea that the universe and our lives have inherent purpose, that by doing mitzvot we "accomplish things" in Shamayim (Heaven). These are beliefs that give people strength, hope, fortitude, a sense of purpose and in some cases the will to live itself.
It's one thing not to start a person on a placebo - and I would agree that we should work to decrease such "dependence," but once a person's "on" it, once they're "hooked," we have to think very carefully about when and how to wean them off of it.
So again, I'm wary of waging "intellectual jihad." I don't believe in tearing down people's worlds. However... I don't believe that we should "censor" ourselves either. It doesn't say much for our respect for people if we think they're so fragile that we can't even express what we believe to be true and untrue, and why. In fact I think we owe it to people, to those who are ready to be "mekabel" (receive, digest) these ideas, to present them honestly and articulately.
And perhaps most importantly, we need to keep working to develop a vision of Judaism that's rich and robust and compelling - and one which doesn't rely on any "woo" - so that people who dismantle their own castles aren't forced to abandon the "ruins" of their Judaism, but instead have something tangible to start the process of rebuilding.