Blogfriend Nazar is a long time member of Joshua's Army, and contributes incisive comments that truly enrich the site. He left one last week that I hope he doesn't mind me using as a launching pad to expand the discussion...
Last week , I published a piece on scientific findings that circumsion in males reduces AIDS risk by up to 60 percent.
I gave a very brief background on the origin of circumcision among the Jews and wrote that once again, here's proof that much of what is in the Bible makes practical as well as spiritual sense and that G-d really knew what He was doing...and I ended it with a favorite quote of mine from Yogananda: "Spirituality is useless if it isn't practical"
Nazar left the following comment:
"Spirituality has its benefits, but practicality is not usually one of them. This circumcission story is an unlikely coincidence of old-time religion being compatible with modern science.
I think, if one wants to make a generall analyzation of spirituality's "practicallity", one should also examine staunchly religious folks' opposition to things like the teaching of evolution, stem-cell research, etc. These things are all very practical and have great potential to help people.
And let's not overlook the countless silly rituals that different religions compel their followers to abide by. For example, when Catholics go up to the pulpit for their bread and wine, they are told by the priest that they are eating and drinking the body of Jeses Christ, and they really believe it! It's harmless, but I see no practicality in this.
To give another example, in the Islamic and Christian religions, usury is prohibited. This is one of the reasons why the Muslim world is in the state it is today. In Europe, Jews did most of the business transactions until Christians got over their hang-ups...and became practical.
This isn't intended as a diatribe against religions, but simply to point out that practicality and spirituality aren't usually compatible."
I have a rather different take on this. To me, the practicality Yogananda was talking about was that religion should seek to help us function in the everyday world, rather than focusing so exclusively on the afterlife the `pie in the sky when you die' or the party with the 72 virgins. And thus, spirituality is eminently practical at its best!
To that end, I find that what's in the Torah generally makes common sense when translated into every day terms as a blueprint, if you will, for humans to live together.
The examples Nazar cites (evolution, stem cell research) are not Biblically prohibited per se, but because of they involve acts that symbolize, on the one hand, the denial of G-d as Creator and in the other, the idea of using a human life as a commodity.
In any event, again, common sense rears its ugly head - evolution as given by Darwin is an unproven theory with a lot of holes in it, and EMBRYONIC stem cell research has proven to be an unstable chimera. The great strides in stem cell research have come from ADULT stem cells, like umbilical chord cells.
The other example Nazar gave, that of usury is likewise interesting. Unlike Islam, where any collection of interest is haram, usury in the Judeo-Christian tradition is loosely defined as excessive interest, but it is not forbidden as such.
The reason that Jews were prominent in money lending in medieval times was not because they were more `practical' but because in many parts of Europe they were prohibited from owning and farming land and were kept out of many professions and guilds...so they concentrated on banking, lending, trade and small business. Also, as `middlemen' they were denied legal protection in many cases, and debts owed to them could be conveniently erased if they were killed or expelled, as happened frequently.
An interesting point in passing; while expelling Jews and confiscating their wealth was certainly lucrative in the short term, it was ultimately highly impractical, in that it eliminated a whole class of people who were experienced inbusiness and finance and generated wealth that could be taxed. A classic example of this is the gradual but pronounced economic decline of Spain after 1492 and the economic rise of the Netherlands, England, and ultimately America, which is where many of those Jews eventually relocated...yet another example where the more ethical and spiritual course was also the more practical!
Now, as to `silly rituals' - hey, everyone's entitled. But how do any of us KNOW they're silly? For centuries, people washed themselves after elimination without knowing precisely why (bacteria were not even remotely thought of until the 18th century) but they realized that it kept them healthier.
Perhaps the Catholic practice of taking in the essence of Christ at communion serves a spiritual purpose of reminding them that they are G-d's children and to be mindful of it.Regular attendance at Mass no doubt does the same thing...to focus imperfect humans on the Divine Law and aid them in treating their fellow humans accordingly.
In the Jewish tradition, the idea of the kippa (ritual skullcap) tzit tzit (small fringes worn on the garments of religious Jews)and daily prayers have the same function...to remind Jews of G-d's presence in everyday life.
One man's silly is another man's salvation!
The only problem with that comes, as we've seen in our modern age, when one faith feels it has to conquer and dominate all others by whatever means...but then I would likewise consider that a policy (at best) of non-spiritual short term gain and long term impracticality.