Monday, June 26, 2006

Faith Meets Truth

Jewish Week reported recently (6/02/06), that Rabbi Ithmar Schorsch in his farewell address as outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary delivered a scathing attack on his students. Rabbi Schorsch said "As opposed to the dense and demanding discourse of scholarship, students crave instant gratification. The primitiveness of rap and the consumerism of the mall threaten to trivialize the literary culture that is the pride of Judaism. Our addiction to instant gratification has stripped us of the patience to appreciate any discourse whose rhetoric is dense and demanding. Mindlessly, we grasp for the quick spiritual fix." The chancellor lamented the loss of “great scholarship,” which he said has “ceased to energize [the movement] as it had in the past.”“Once, the polarity of truth and faith at the Seminary had made it home for the acme of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, a venue of ferment and fertility,” he said. “Faith once moved us to study our heritage deeply, while truth asked of us that we do it critically, in light of all that we know. Willful ignorance was never an acceptable recourse. The interaction set us apart as the vital center of modern Judaism. But no longer.”Conservative Jews, he has argued, are primarily distinguished by an embrace of critical Torah scholarship coupled with a view of Halacha as a binding, albeit evolving, process. "The Orthodox surely have Emunah(faith)," Schorsch later told the Forward, "but they don't accept critical scholarship. And the Reform certainly has critical scholarship, but they don't accept the legitimacy of the halachic system. We're distinctive because we are trying to wed both.”

I know, as I am afraid Chancellor Schorsch knows the battle is lost. He was one of the last defenders of the tradition of serious Talmud and Bible scholarship at the Seminary. Once he’s gone, other ideals will dominate. Chancellor Schorsch appears to have acknowledged the battle is already over. In his address he said “Internally, we have already become Reform, and it will only be a matter of time before [externally] we appear like Reform." In this respect Rabbi Schorsch is similar to LouisXV. He too can say with some justification “"Apres moi le deluge”.

I am in sympathy with much of the values the Chancellor has espoused. At the same time, I feel what he said has some serious problems. Let us analyze this important address and see what he is demanding. He asks that the seminary train its students and promote to the entire Cnservative movement the ideals of:Serious historical inquiry and CRITICAL Torah scholarship designed to reveal the spiritual richness in our ancient texts. Deep but ‘critical’ study of our heritage in the light of ALL THAT WE KNOW.

What does this mean? In the case of the Bible it’s the study of Torah, the Prophets and the Writings in light of the different variants of the Documentary Hypothesis. Such a study would have to include the connections between the Bible and its predecessors, and in particular the Canaanite corpus found at Ugarit. And then it has to be spun one more time to reveal its spiritual richness. Anything less than this violates his second condition. Scholarship, though certainly not our faith, “knows” Torah is a reworking of Ugarithic material where the various characters of the Canaanite pantheon are merged and attributed to one God.

Such a wedding is doable, provided you are willing to accept the consequence that no Conservative Rabbi will believe that Moses as a prophet, or God at Mt. Sinai wrote the Pentateuch. It is not the best thing to set out an educational curriculum for your divinity students that guarantee heresy. It might happen in due time.Why push it ? Without divine revelation of the written Torah, forget the Oral Torah, you have to talk really fast, to generate a Halacha with any normative, deontic punch. So all the yada- yada about Halacha as binding, though evolving over time, is seriously weakened. We are left with a movement where everything is tradition and summary rules: “It is our tradition to keep the Sabbath”, and not “One MUST observe Shabus in accordance with halacha because God commanded us.” Halacha as a summary of our customs and traditions is not a very Schorschian value, or maybe not. I don’t know. Maybe he believes tradition alone can bind us…My father ate garlic every Friday night, so I must do the same. It is all left vague. It would be very helpful if Rabbi Schorsch would say something not just about the wedding of critical scholarship and halacha, but also about the marriage, and how to withstand the long term strains of commitment to contradictory ideals.

In the case of Talmud study, critical study would involve a continuation of the Saul Lieberman tradition of lower criticism, exact philological study of the semantics of the Talmud, plus source criticism in the tradition of Halivni and Friedman.I must say this double program for Talmudic study is REALLY, REALLY tough even for people with advanced Talmudic training. Think about it for a minute. Lieberman, after so many years at the Seminary, and so many students produced a handful of scholars that even attempted to follow in his footsteps. Most students were not interested and weren’t trained to even approach the paths laid out by the master. The source critical approach to Talmud while very promising is also very, very difficult. After many years of work there is Halivni’s work on the theory of the stamm, Jeffery Rubinstein’s books on aggadah, a chapter in tractate Yevomoth and a few other bits and pieces. There is so little, because source criticism is difficult work.

Is the Chancellor serious that some kid with a Solomon Schecter - Camp Ramah education, and a liberal arts BA is going to know Ugarithic, Akaadian, Aramaic,(eastern &western dialects) and Greek, (classical and eastern dialects),plus how to compare complex texts to all the parallels and deconstruct how they were layered? And then you have to teach these kids how to be a rabbi, how to marry ’em and bury ‘em, how to give a sermon and so much more…teach kids for their bat mitzvah, convert gentiles whose conversions will not be recognized in Israel, how to administer a Temple and a Sunday school, and on and on.

It is all an illusion. The Seminary never produced such rabbis. The lay people have no idea what this scholarship is about. It’s an ideal that was never realized. It is a myth that the typical Seminary graduate combined a full understanding of scholarship with strong commitment to halacha. I must say, however, the program laid out by the Chancellor was from its inception a grand and noble ideal. Sadly it was never realized. It was much too difficult and contained too many contradictions. Some rabbis had some faith, some rabbis had some truth. Some, but far from all, had lots of both.


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