Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Geek Jews

I think of Geek Judaism as the Judaism of people whose primary form of worship is the scholarly study of the books and ideas of historical Judaism, and the attempt to understand the philosophical and theological underpinnings associated with these books and ideas. I once heard Yehuda Liebes, the great Kabalah scholar say that in our time the way to find God is only inside the book, on the page. He said “God resides between the lines”.

On this definition an Orthodox student of Torah is a geek if his primary connection to religious life is the study of Torah. An observant Jew, whose primary connection to his religion is daily prayer 3 x a day, is not a geek. A Jew whose primary form of service (avodath hashem) is charity or organizational work is also not a geek.

A person can be a Geek Jew and not be Orthodox. A person can be a Geek Jew and not be observant. He can have a deep and abiding interest in the classic Jewish books and not keep Shabus. Gershom Scholem, Martin Buber, Leoplod Zunz and Moritz Steinschnider are famous examples of Jews who certainly were geeky, Steinschneider was unbelievably geeky, but were neither Orthodox nor observant. Yehuda Liebes, Joseph Dan , Rachel Elior and Moshe Idel, may they be separated in life, are some of the stars (gedolim) of the Hebrew University branch of Geek Judaism, who are neither Orthodox nor observant.

Can you be an apikoiris (a heretic) and be a Geek Jew in good standing? For sure. One of the founding fathers of the movement was Baruch Spinoza. His heretical views shook the very foundation of traditional philosophical thinking about God. One hundred years after his death to be called a Spinozist still counted as a mark of shame in most people’s eyes. Yet Spinoza remains a model for all Jewish Geeks how to conduct an exemplary life of scholarship and philosophical contemplation. Harold Bloom recently described Spinoza as ‘greatly cold and coldly great”, a Geek ideal if there ever was one. The Amsterdam Rabbinate was justified in excommunicating Spinoza. He certainly was a heretic. Geek Jews might add Spinoza was also and at the same time justified in not recanting the ideas he worked so hard to develop.

Can a person whose primary form of service is the scholarly and philosophical contemplation of Torah be thought of as secular? I would say NO. He is religious, in some interesting and not peculiar use of the word, simply in virtue of being a Geek whose geekiness is expressed in the study of Torah. I am inclined to say all the 8 scholars mentioned two paragraphs back were/are religious, but not believers in the dogmas of Judaism. A Jew who devotes his life to the study of the Zohar is a religious Jew even if he eats treif, and never sets foot inside a shul. When the study of Torah is so important, when it is your primary interest, when it is an object of ultimate concern, then the study ceases to be a curiosity or a hobby and becomes a life dedicated to Torah, a life that was literally SPENT on behalf of Torah.The issue here is not the use of a particular word ‘religious’. If somebody would object, “You call THAT religious?” the word can be deleted. The thesis could then be reformulated using some other term, try ‘nazir’, or ‘porush (Pharisee)’, thereby indicating that this person has removed herself from the vanities of our world to dedicate her life to the transcendental object called Torah. What is important is to recognize that Geeks form a coherent type of Jewish group that is different from but still closely related to other traditional religious groups.

Can a Geek be an atheist? I am not sure. It depends if a religious form of service requires a recipient of the service. Is it like sacrifices? You can’t make a religious sacrifice without dedicating the sacrifice to someone, God, nature, the heavenly pantheon, the terrestrial sovereign. You can’t spend your life studying Torah unless it is somehow other directed, at least in part. The easiest way of dealing with this question is to run around it. Geeks as a class tend not to announce their atheism, and feel quite comfortable using religious language. Buber and Scholem, neither of whom ever saw the inside of a synagogue unless they were giving a lecture, used religious language creatively and profusely. Geeks usually leave it open for whose sake they are studying. Is it for God, the Jewish people, history, Torah itself?

Geeks express their religious impulses primarily through their sacrifices for Torah, their clinging, (devekuth) to Torah. Jewish machers and apparatchiks, community leaders, philanthropists, anti anti-semites, Zionists, members of the IDF approach God through their service on behalf of the Jewish people (klal yisroel). And Jews who form a doxological community, whose central focal point is their public prayer and corresponding rituals approach heaven in the most direct and holy way, through prayer and the performance of mitzvoth. There is a very famous Trinitarian aphorism attributed (incorrectly?) to the Zohar: God, Torah and Israel are one. If one can some how make sense of this idea, then one can say that whichever approach is emphasized, a person who clings fervently to one pillar will have some connection, in a deeply mystical way we do not fully understand, to the other two.

I’ll end with a Geek aphorism, this one from the beloved philosopher, raconteur and very special Jew, Sidney Morgenbesser. Sidney when he was old and ill was reported to have said “God, just because I don’t believe you exist is no reason to torture me like this”. The relationships Jews have to God, Torah and Israel are frequently intense and complex.


At 10:24 PM, Blogger Mis-nagid said...


At 12:42 AM, Blogger ikkarim said...

Very nice -- this post convinced me to start reading your blog!

At 1:02 AM, Anonymous Eitan Levy said...

But if a person studies and doesn't follow the laws he studies what's the difference between that and any other study? I studied Plato in college, quite intensely and deeply, but I am not a Platonist (and if I were it still wouldn't be a religion for me). I also studied Islam and Christianity but would never dream of following either faith. I may have studied them, but since I never believed the ideas, or followed the dictums which would result from considering them true, I was never a Christian or Muslim.

The difference, of course, is that one is Jewish if born Jewish whether or not they are religious, but Judaism is as much--if not more--a religion of doing than a religion of contemplation. One who knows all about the halachot and chooses not to follow them is, to my mind, more of an actively non-religious person than one who is simply ignorant, and they are more responsible for their failure to follow the rules.

Also, what about non-Jews who dedicate their lives to studying the 'Hebrew Bible?' Are they religious Jews? How about if they don't actively follow any other religion?

At 7:57 AM, Blogger David Guttmann said...

Excellent. Just found you via S.

I once posted that there are two definitions religious Jews and Observant Jews. One is either one or the other or both. The latter is a rarity.

Eitan, A religious person is a seeker not necessarily one who has arrived. In fact who ever has? Isn't trying to understand Torah one of the greatest searches?

At 10:33 PM, Anonymous Some Guy said...

I resemble that remark....


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