The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Electronic goats and indoor succahs

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  1. Today is Eid al-Adha, the Islamic day of sacrifice. One of the observances of the day is a requirement to have an animal slaughtered and to donate the meat to the poor. There will be many Muslims who are more than happy to make this financial sacrifice but who find it difficult or impossible to spend the necessary time purchasing and delivering an animal. So a scheme has been made available in Jakarta whereby customers of a local bank may use its automatic machines to buy an animal (at costs starting at about £40 for a goat) following which all the necessary arrangements are made electronically and the purchaser eventually receives photographs of the slaughtered animal and a letter of thanks from the community which receives the meat. The BBC asked a “senior Muslim leader” whether he thought the electronic purchase satisfied the requirements of Eid: his reported reply was that “it was in accordance with Islam, but … unless you witnessed the slaughter first-hand and donated the meat personally, the religious experience would never be the same”.
  2. This last sentiment appears to me to be both perfectly expressed and capable of application to a variety of observances in a variety of religions. Perhaps particularly for Jews because of the multitude or religious observances of various kinds required from us daily, there is always a temptation to look for ways of facilitating compliance with ritual laws. Nor is this necessarily to be criticised in itself: on the contrary, anything which enables or encourages more people to participate more fully in their religion is to be welcomed.
  3. But there is a price to pay, and it is important to be realistic. One can see how physically acquiring an animal, supervising its slaughter and actually handing it over to a soup kitchen to be cooked and distributed, for example, could be a spiritual experience of profound impact. It could make a person more appreciative of his or her blessings of wealth and more sensitive to the needs of others; and different people would doubtless be affected in different ways. It would be much more difficult to draw the same kind of spiritual inspiration from the action of pausing for a few seconds to purchase an electronic goat: not necessarily impossible, but inevitably more difficult. Of course, a person who could not or would not fulfil this requirement any other way, is gaining by the electronic method more than he or she is losing: and a person who by the electronic method is able to give more than he or she could or would be able to give actually may be gaining spiritually by that consideration more than is lost by the unreality of the electronic method. But there is a balance to be struck, and the important thing is to be honest with oneself in striking it.
  4. A good example of the application of this issue in Judaism would be the indoor succoh. Once, the standard practice in this country was to construct something more or less rickety in the garden. Nowadays, more and more people have extensions or other parts of their house with removable roof panels, enabling succos to be experienced without sacrificing carpeting, furniture, space, comfort or even, to a degree, heating. Again, it is indisputable that this fulfils the halachic requirements. But what about the religious experience? This is an intensely personal matter, a balance which each Jew must strike for himself or herself. Some will conclude that the difficulty of keeping succos in any other way means that the spiritual gains clearly outweigh the losses. The elderly and infirm, for example, may be enabled through the use of an indoor succoh to keep a mitzvoh from which they would otherwise be exempt, shut out from a spiritual experience which they have perhaps found particularly uplifting in other years. But for others, the annual experience of building a personal commemoration of the exodus from Egypt (not forgetting the fact that there is one Talmudic opinion that the process of building the succoh deserves its own brochoh) is an integral part of the process and one which can be either a moving experience or an ineffable nuisance, depending at least in part on how one perceives it.
  5. We must avoid becoming so habituated to the use of technological and other advances to facilitate religious observance that we come routinely to adopt the least burdensome route, without making a personal calculation on each occasion whether the facility dilutes the religious experience unnecessarily and undesirably.

Written by Daniel Greenberg

January 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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