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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

Torah & Norman Solomon

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Having just celebrated Simchat Torah, the festival of the Torah, the question of its source and authority remains at the very center of our current religious debate. But it’s a minefield, quicksand that can consume and even destroy the best of minds. In all the years I have worked in the rabbinate I have come across many devoted, hardworking men, but very few of them have been innovative thinkers of any note. Whatever gifts they may have had as speakers or writers, they have almost all avoided tackling fundamental theological issues. Some out of fear for their jobs, others out of fear of their peers, and of course others simply had neither the inclination nor the training to question and challenge core beliefs. It may be that the demands of the rabbinate are so overwhelming that they afford insufficient time. The fact is that almost all the intellectually creative rabbis I have come across throughout the Jewish world have left the full time rabbinate, mainly for academia.

Indeed it is in academia nowadays that all the creative Orthodox Jewish thinking is taking place. One can now find Charedi academics working in Israeli universities on what hitherto were always regarded as heretical approaches to Torah. Synagogues and communities, on the other hand, are centers of conformity and socialization. They do of course fulfill a very important need. Most people come to synagogues precisely to reinforce their social identity and needs and not to be forced into the painful process of grappling with ideas of faith.

I have just read Norman Solomon’s Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith. It is an important book for anyone grappling with traditional Judaism. And it calls to mind the great Louis Jacobs controversy that rocked and soured Anglo-Jewry for so long.

Louis Jacobs was a product of traditional Yeshivot and Kollels, a Jew who adhered strictly to halacha throughout his life, a gifted teacher, a caring pastoral rabbi and, his biggest fault if you could call it a fault, a painfully honest man. He was a man of such impeccable stature and religious integrity that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe called him to give testimony at a court hearing in New York over the Rebbe’s library. In a small work, We Have Reason to Believe, he brought traditional sources to show how the idea that all of the Torah was given to Moses on Sinai, was a complex idea, with textual, historical, and philosophical problems that needed to be addressed, and indeed could be, in modern philosophical terms. He was a senior lecturer at Jews College, a pulpit rabbi and a candidate to succeed Israel Brodie as Chief Rabbi.

But appointing Chief Rabbis has always been a fraught, Machiavellian political process, as recent maneuverings perfectly illustrate. Louis Jacobs was blocked by an unholy alliance of envious, narrow-minded, and politically ambitious rabbis whose background was both anti-intellectual and fundamentalist. They needed an excuse to hound him out of contention for leadership of Anglo-Jewry, and they succeeded. The result was that he was treated immorally by the religious leadership of Anglo-Jewry to his dying day, even being denied an aliyah at his own grandson’s Bar Mitzvah under a much lauded Chief Rabbi who ought to have known better. One can think of no better example of the moral bankruptcy of Anglo-Jewish Orthodoxy. I myself was banned at one stage from contributing to an establishment publication called Leylah because I had written a sympathetic article about him.

Norman Solomon was a distinguished rabbi in the Anglo-Jewish Orthodox United Synagogue with whom I have had intermittent contact over the years and whom I admire and respect. We share a Cardiff connection, as well as Cambridge and philosophy. Intellectually rigorous, sensitive, and modest, he served major communities with distinction before retiring to academia. First he helped establish the Centre for the Study of Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges, which put him in the forefront of interfaith activity, and then he became fellow in Modern Jewish Thought at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and a member of Wolfson College. Now, in the late stages of his career, he has tackled in public the very same issue that Louis Jacobs tried to deal with fifty years ago, but in greater depth and width.

It is a sad reflection on the current state of intellectual dishonesty and censorship in the Orthodox world that fundamentalism rules in the rabbinate. Only in academia can we find men like Marc Shapiro and Menachem Kellner, to name the best known, who are willing, from a position of committed Orthodoxy, to stand up and refuse to be deterred from examining honestly received ideas and showing how they are not simplistic clichés of belief but important, complex concepts that need more than superficial assent. Torah from Heaven stands with Marc Shapiro’s The Limits of Orthodox Theology as a seminal work that delves into the richness of our heritage to show that there is more than one way of looking at core religious ideas.

Catholicism reacted to the challenge of science in the nineteenth century by retreating behind the walls of certainty and dogma, insisting on papal infallibility. Orthodox Judaism has now adopted this mode. But I believe the easy access that modern technology and the internet gives us to the variety of texts and opinions that have existed in Judaism over thousands of years is taking the seals off the archives. The light shed will inevitably open minds and produce new approaches. The current battle over conscription in Israel gives the impression that the Charedi world in its entirety is set against secular education. But in reality, the interesting fact is that more and more Charedim are getting PhDs in Judaica nowadays, which means that new ideas are simmering within the fortress of Orthodoxy.

Orthodoxy lives by practice rather than theology. I get really offended when zealots try to suggest that unless you believe a specific formulation of whatever, then you are “beyond the pale”. The Torah does not use the formulation, “You must believe,” which is a very Greek idea. Instead it posits certain fundamental assertions and leaves it up to us as to how we understand them. If God did not insist on a rigidly defined credo, why should we? If we want to retain critical, thinking, and open minds, we must offer intellectual rigor, not just religiously correct slogans. This book gives us a history of the issues and how different thinkers over the centuries have dealt with the challenges of the Torah. It is a major contribution. Thank you, Norman.

Failing in Order to Succeed

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The rabbis teach that we can only truly understand Torah when we allow ourselves to fail at it (Gittin 43a). Unless we push ourselves to reach for deeper understanding, where we inevitably get it wrong before we can get it right, we will not grasp the very essence of the Jewish enterprise. Rashi here seems to think that it’s the public shame of getting it wrong (and the concomitant rebuke) that strengthens one’s intellectual rigor. It is not hard to think about giving constructive feedback (“rebuke”) when it comes to moral matters, but do we care enough about ideas that we (respectfully) challenge others when ideas are misinterpreted or misapplied? How much do we really value the marketplace of ideas and the assurance that we as individuals and as a society get it right?

History is full of examples of leaders who acknowledged that persistence in the face of failure was more important than individual failures. President Abraham Lincoln, whose army suffered many crushing defeats in the early years of the Civil War, said: “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” A century later, Robert F. Kennedy echoed the optimistic spirit of youth when he said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Besides for being tragically assassinated, what these presidents have in common in that their causes lasted, their legacies carried on, and they are remembered as being among the greatest and most successful men to occupy the Oval Office.

Very often, one can be lured by the traps of conformism (just follow others’ ideas or practices) or isolationism (just follow one’s own marginal ideas and practices). Our job as Jews is to break free from these ploys for mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves and the status quo to reach higher by engaging with societal ideas but without blindly accepting them.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) and founder and intellectual-spiritual leader in his own right, was anything but a conformist. He not only told his followers to be happy, but he also encouraged them to do silly things, highly unusual for a religious leader. Rebbe Nachman stated that each person had to fall in order to rise, and stressed the universality of this concept:

[E]ach person who fell … thinks that these words weren’t spoken for him, for he imagines that these ideas are only for great people who are always climbing from one level to the next. But truthfully, you should know and believe, that all these words were also said concerning the smallest of the small and the worst of the worst, for Hashem is forever good to all.

However, Rebbe Nachman went further, stating that it is “a great thing for a person to still have an evil inclination.” Even the tendency to evil could serve G-d, as people worked through these passions and eventually overcame them. To Rebbe Nachman, it seems, spiritual stasis is the only unacceptable path.

We must be willing to learn and debate with others. Ideas matter. Inevitably that will lead to some level of shame when we get it wrong, but the promise land afterwards is much greater. It offers a culture of more honest, informed, connected individuals who are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of truth and who are willing to be wrong in order to get it right. Our great rabbinic and presidential leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Wrong Track

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

On Dec 3rd, Naeem Davis, a homeless Muslim man, shoved a middle-aged Korean man in front of an oncoming Q subway train in Times Square. A Muslim photographer snapped a shot of him waiting to die that appeared on the cover of the New York Post and then went around the world. And that was that… except it wasn’t.

On December 28, there was another shoving murder. After the latest round of murders, suicides and accidental deaths, seven people have died under trains in 2013; a number that does not include the deaths previously mentioned. Last week two people committed suicide by jumping in front of trains. Another was killed in a possible accident. One lost a leg. Two others were seriously injured. And this week there was another suicide.

For those who might be wondering, these numbers are not normal. But they are predictable. While the MTA discusses the cost of putting up platform barriers, the actual triggering mechanism was the New York Post photograph of a dying man waiting to be hit by a train. And that photograph has dark implications for school shootings as well.

We like to think that we have free will. That we enter the station, knowing our destination ahead of time so that whatever delays or mistakes crop up, we will get to where we intended to go. And that may be true for most people. But it’s not true for all people. It may not be true for the people who push others under trains or jump in front of them.

Around the same time that the American Revolution was getting underway, the German writer Goethe wrote a book that would become the Catcher in the Rye and Twilight of its day. “The Sorrows of Young Werther” had the dubious honor of being disowned by its author, starting a fashion trend and a grimmer trend as well.

Werther Fever spread around the world. Readers wrote parodies of the book or imagined different endings for the characters. Some wrote themselves into the story or wrote poems about the story. There were unauthorized sequels, people dressing up like the characters and all the usual things that we have now come to take for granted, but that were still somewhat new and surprising then.

And some committed suicide like Werther. The Werther Effect was born and it had a sneaky way of resurfacing whenever and wherever the book became popular again.

Some 200 years later, German television debuted “Death of a Student”, a six-part series about Claus Wagner, a high school student who commits suicide by jumping under a train. Each episode began with Claus jumping under the train. The series was supposed to teach teenagers that suicide was wrong, or as Big Fun from Heathers sang, “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It)”; but it had the opposite effect.

The real message of “Death of a Student” was the same message as that of The Sorrows of Young Werther, if you kill yourself, lots of people will pay attention to you.  And suddenly the number of teenage boys killing themselves by jumping under a train increased by 175%. Having failed to prevent enough suicides, the show aired a second time. This time fewer people were watching and the suicide rate for teenage boys only went up 115%.

A few years later in neighboring Vienna, suicides went up when they were featured on the front page and fell 75% when they were pushed to the back page, without mention of the word, “Suicide.” Young Werther, in his blue-tailed coat and yellow vest, stopped chasing the trains of the Vienna underground.

The suicide cluster is a well-known phenomenon, especially among teenagers; it is why the media avoids coverage of teenage suicides… with one exception. A teenager who hangs himself in his garage, jumps under a train or turns on the gas will generally not make the front page or even the back page. But if he takes a gun into a school, opens fire and then commits suicide,  Young Werther will be front page news for days, weeks or even months.

James Holmes of the Aurora Massacre did not kill himself, but like Werther he picked up his own groupies, the Holmies, some of whom dye their hair orange and dress like him. Misery loves company and so do the unhinged. As the media began covering the Holmies, the fan club increased  with the amount of condemnatory coverage. The usual media cycle of promoting what it pretends to discourage for its own profit, so that it can cover it even more, had begun.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/columns/daniel-greenfield/the-wrong-track/2013/02/06/

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