Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Reb Chaim versus Reb Ithmar

Rabbi Ithmar Schorsch, in what appears an increasingly desperate attempt to stop the Conservative movement from moving in the direction of Reform, has continued to argue in recent months that deep study and critical understanding should be viewed as key ways of deepening faith and the commitment to observance. Schorsch has stressed that, in his view, intellectual engagement with Judaism is meant to enrich spirituality and observance, and that it is the task of the rabbi to translate intellectual insight into religious meaning.

There are two separate theses involved in these remarks. The first is his demand that the Seminary continue the tradition of viewing rabbinical training as academic and intellectual vs. an emphasis on pastoral training and other more holistic and spiritual instruction. I have argued that the students are too weak to do the requisite serious critical and theological work, and in any case it might not be so clever to train a clergy committed to heresy, (apikorsus).

There is a second thesis that has nothing to do with the training of Conservative Rabbis. It is about how anyone, rabbis, lay persons, grown ups are to go about enriching and deepening their faith, spirituality and commitment to observance. He believes the KEY WAY, the main road as it were, is through deep study (of texts) and critical understanding. Just ‘lernin’(traditional Talmud study), even if it is done slowly, and in the analytical style that has become so popular in yeshivas in the last century, will be less efficacious than deep study and critical understanding.

I am wondering if this is true and if so why? The issue here is not deep vs. fast, as in the daf hayomi (the daily page) program. (The latter involves 2 pages a day for seven years, whereupon you will have finished the ENTIRE Babylonian Talmud. You then have the privilege to start again. I personally know Jews who have completed the daf hayomi program seven times. It has attracted an unbelievable number of participants, 100,000 + worldwide.) Many lomdim, (analytical Talmud scholars), are not convinced that the daf hayomi method is all that it is cracked up to be. They will tell you it is superficial. Many classes are 45 minutes and you are done, somewhat like Lacanian psychoanalysis, 8 minute sessions and you’re out. Schorsch seems to believe that even learning in depth, as it the custom in many yeshivas in the morning session, 40-50 pages an academic year , will not produce the same quality of faith and spirituality and observance that deep study conjoined with critical understanding will produce. The issue to put it bluntly is critical study versus yeshivish Reb Chaim Brisker style analysis. I don’t think Rabbi Schorsch would say the work being done in yeshivot is not deep.The flaw in the yeshiva method, if any, is that it doesn’t read the text in the light of scientific Wissenschaft & academic research. When you do, Rabbi Schorsch is saying you grow in faith, spirituality and observance. When you don’t, you don’t, at least not to the same degree. This idea is breathtaking in its audacity. It takes my breath away.

Is it true? It certainly doesn’t look that way. Orthodox Jews if anything ARE strictly observant. Most Conservatives are not. Schorsch might say that is because the Conservatives are not learning in depth. It seems a forced counterfactual. If they did learn the Schorsch way they would be observant, but they don’t. How would we ever going to find out? We are in a Catch 22. If they are not observant why would they undertake the heroic task of depth/critical learning? And round and round we go.

One more question. What is the causal mechanism that is supposed to make it work? I read a text in depth. I read it critically. Monday I do source criticism. Tuesday is Nietzsche/Foucault time. Wednesday is Derrida country. Thursday is devoted to psychoanalytic/anthropological readings. Friday, Erev Shabbus is comparative Semitics and philology. What will happen on Shabbus and why? How is critical understanding related to observance? How is it related to faith or spirituality? What are the causal mechanisms involved? The Chancellor has not, to the best of my knowledge addressed this little nagging problem

It is easy to be critical of the Chancellor’s theology. Nevertheless, he has articulated what so many Jews of a certain stripe believe. He has given expression to the GEEK conception of how to serve God and be a good Jew. You can’t help but admire such a person.

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