Thursday, August 10, 2006

Conservative Baseball Cards

Conservative Judaism, if it is ever to go on the offensive in the religious marketplace, has to address the problem of how do you create a uniquely Conservative way of being in the world? As a first approximation think of it as a style, but not necessarily a style of dress or decorating, though outfits and decorating always help. What would it be like to have a way of being in the world that involves, in an essential way, a Conservative style and sensibility? Is there a special way of talking or walking or reading? I can’t think of anything. At present, there isn’t any special way of being in the world as a Conservative that is not inextricably tied to philology.

The Reaganites used to have little pictures of Adam Smith and Edmund Burke embossed on their ties. The Charedim have ‘Rebbe’ baseball cards’ as part of their show and tell. Forget dogma, forget theology, forget catechisms, think stars. Conservative Jews badly need some celebrities. They need heroes and stars the young and old can idealize and look up to. My idea is to first pick the “gedolim,” the stars. Parents and teachers would be able to talk about these great people and what made them special. Maybe someday, some genius will be able to put it all together and call it the Conservative style of Judaism.

Let’s start by trying to create Conservative “baseball cards”. (Orthodox kids trade them. I’ll give 2 Rabbi Moshe Feinstein for 1 Steipler. Don’t ask.) Conservative Judaism needs its own special cards. Who should the Conservatives go with? Who are the stars in the Conservative pantheon? We can’t get very picky. At this point there are none, so we have to lower the bar, a lot. For starters let’s think 18 cards divided into 6 areas: sports, scholarship, spirituality, the sciences, the media and the arts. The people we choose don’t have to actually belong to a Conservative Congregation. All that we should require is that they were proud Jews, who made a contribution, are idealizable and were not antagonistic to Judaism. So Freud and Trotsky are out.

Let’s try first for a list of famous sports stars that showed some sacrifice, however small, for Judaism. There is Sandy Koufax and Sandy Koufax and… Maybe we better forget about sports and substitute literature.

Scholarship is easy. There is first of all Moses Mendelssohn. The Conservatives should grab him, since the Orthodox these days don’t really want him. He’s just lying there, free for the taking. And Solomon Schecter. You can’t really not take him…the schools are named after him. And I would pick Adin Steinsaltz. First, he is a fine scholar and the author of a serious, praiseworthy and popular translation and commentary on the Talmud. He speaks frequently at Conservative Congregations, and is immensely popular. The three are a visual treat and that is always important in cards. I would not pick Saul Lieberman for reasons too complicated to discuss today.

Spirituality, let’s see…. Edith Stein, ok philosopher but she converted. Shame on her. Hannah Arendt, too controversial, who needs the aggravation? Bertha Pappenheim of Freud Dora- O. fame…nice choice, trafficking in women is an important now topic, but she was a Frankfort secessionist Agudist. Unacceptable. Golda Meyer is too tough, too secular, too political. I’ll go with Henrietta Szold of Hadassah fame. She did pine her whole life for Louis Ginsberg the Seminary Professor, and she was a formidable and easily idealizable woman. Who else? We need a German. Walter Benjamin is too Marxist, too secular. So we’re left with the big three, Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem and Franz Rosenzweig. I’d say Rosenzweig. The Conservatives used to go ga-ga over him in the 50’s. It’s hard not to pick him. And for my third choice, I would pick Rabbi Abraham Heschel, theologian, ‘great man’, marched with Dr. King for civil rights, scion of a Chasidic dynasty, faculty member at the Seminary. He’s perfect.

The sciences…hmmmm. Let’s start with Einstein. He wasn’t religious, but he was a proud Jew and a Zionist. And he did say “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” And he was Einstein. Perhaps he could be an honorary Conservative. What about physics Noble Prize winner Arno Penzias? I believe he actually belongs to a Conservative congregation. I think not. He doesn’t look like a star, and we already have a male physicist. I would pick Robert Aumann, this year’s Noble prize winner in Economics. Great mathematician and game theorist, and he looks like a Conservative gadol. Long white beard, knitted yarmulke, the whole nine yards. There is a small problem though, he is Modern Orthodox and somewhat gushy (a hawk on the return of the West Bank). I would still pick him. Think of his choice as satisfying the Conservadox wing of the movement. To round out the three, I would pick the 1977 Noble Prize winner in Medicine, Rosalyn Yalom.

Media should be easy. Woody Allen. No way! He is funny, but scummy, self hating and assimilationist. He is totally ambivalent and the worst kind of Jew. He should be on the ‘How not to be a Jew' cards. Groucho would be better, but far from perfect. Mel Brooks is also not a totally happy choice. As far as woman actresses go, here are some choices: Theda Bara, Fanny Brice, Lauren Bacall, Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, Natalie Wood, Elaine May, Barbara Streisand, Barbara Walters, Lisa Kudrow, the wrong half of Gweneth Paltrow…we are racing to the bottom. Let’s try the actors…Danny Kaye, half of Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas. This is proving impossible. These people all intermarry and they are not such big stars. Jackie Mason, Sumner Redstone, Larry Tisch are acceptable but not inspiring. I am almost ready to chuck media as a category. OK, OK, OK I’ll go with these choices: Adam Sandler for his 2 Chanukah Songs; Mario Kreutzberger, a.k.a., Don Francisco, the most widely watched television personality in the world, and a proud Jew in a world where everyone is Catholic, and very reluctantly Barbara Streisand.

We are left with the arts. Yitzchak Perlman is a very good choice and head and shoulders over Haifetz, Rubinstein and certainly Barenboim or Yehudi Menuhin. The latter are all major, but they belong in the secular Jews baseball cards. Chagall is nice and colorful and shtetl oriented. And for my third pick we need a design, architecture person. The obvious winner is Frank Gehry.

In literature, I pick S. I. Agnon over Issac Bashevis Singer. Agnon has strong shtetl values and his oeuvre is a good way of introducing piety. My second choice is the Yiddish speaking literary critic Harold Bloom for his work as a critic of Christianity and for his advocacy of kabbalah as a way of reading texts. We need someone to represent the Holocaust literature. In my opinion, the best of the lot is not Elie Wiesel but Aaron Applefeld. He is a far greater artist.

The 18 Conservative Stars are:

Mendelsohn, Schachter and Steinsaltz. Szold, Rosenzweig and Heschel. Einstein, Aumann and Yalom. Sandler, Gigante and Streisand. Perlman,Chagal and Gehry. Agnon, Bloom and Applefeld

I’m already working on my next set. There is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and the baseball catcher Moe somebody who was this spy in Japan and ….

If any reader has any ideas I would be most happy to hear the suggestions.

10 Comments:

At 7:04 PM, Anonymous MF said...

To be an inspiring model, being brilliant isn't enough; you also need to be *sexy*. If someone is brilliant but not sexy, they will never inspire. The Jews you list are mostly brilliant but mostly fail in the sexiness category, therefore they can't be good role models.

I know it will sound weird to you but both Adam Smith and Edmund Burke are very sexy. Imagine Edmund Burke, standing in Parliament and looking the King in he eye and giving a sermon in defense of the American fight for liberty against that very
King, or imagine him standing in Parliament, all cold and alone, being a lone voice against the mass massacres in the name of the people during the Reign of Terror. That is so sexy. And imagine Adam Smith, the weird academic with the funny accent even by Scottish standards whose mind was so out there he couldn't even sign his name like a normal person - coming up with a series of genius insights about how humans feel and our emotions and how we can an do relate to and help and support those in our society around us (Theory of Moral Sentiments), theories which led to an intellectual, emotional, and economic renaissance for his part of the world, theories which (especially when thought of in conjunction with the economic applications years later in his later Wealth of Nations), these ideas inspired a whole nation to break free from the motherland, ultimately leading to the country we know today. Isn't that sexy?

Most of the people you list aren't strong on the sexy component. Edith Stein, the old atheist who just followed the sexiness of the Catholic Church? Agnon? Applefeld? Geniuses, to be sure; but not sexy.

Some of the people you listed are sexy. Sandy Koufax is largely forgotten except for the summary sentence ("he didn't play in the world series because of rosh hashanah" or something like that) but, I'm guessing, he was very sexy to an earlier generation. (What the conservative Jews really need is a new, modern Sandy Koufax!). Einstein, is very sexy, too, very much so.

What is boils down to is the formula: Sexiness = genius + marketing. Einstein was a genius and he also positioned himself as the ultimate eccentric brilliant crazy professor (sexy!). Koufax was an amazing baseball player and also positioned himself as willing to sacrifice the greatest honor in the sport for his belief. Now that is great marketing.

All of these inspiring men have something in common, and different from the uninspiring ones: to be inspiring, you need to *stand for something*, strongly and clearly. Marx, Che, Castro, and Gandhi -- each one of these guys might have been despicable human beings and corrupt politicians who brought god-knows how much murder and difficulty and totalitarianism to this world, but each of them satisfies the criteria for being sexy role models. They all stood for something very clear, and they were all amazing at marketing themselves to the world for it, and they were all geniuses in their own way.

(I'm leaving aside the whole ancient "Q" question of, "can an evil man still be a great orator?", ie, leaving value judgments on on these men aside, if that's possible which it may not be. Note here that my mention of the "Q" question reveals my background in Greek and Roman classical studies -- I can refer to the ancient debates there, but not to the ancient Jewish debates! Haha!)

Sadly, offhand, I can think of no contemporary Jews today who satisfy all of the criteria.

Maybe Sarko, if he's able to save France? Nah -- he's still a corrupt politicican, no matter how you look at it. Plus, he won't be able to save France, at best give it a few more years :)

Personally, I think Dick Feynman is an amazing Jewish "gadol" but that's more about my preferences than anything else.

I also think that we should study and imitate amazing men, *regardless* of their ethnicity. I have a gut instinct-level hesitation about this, similar to my gut instinct level hesitation I feel whenever I read or hear about someone who thinks that black children should read lesser books by black authors rather than greater books by authors who happen to be whatever-color. I want to have a greater role model, not a bad role model who happens to have similar DNA to me. (Although finding people in your own tradition is also warming and wonderful, so long as we keep them in perspective.)

Also, I think it's dangerous to take role models too seriously. I want to point out that, in my understanding of Judaism - which is much much much less than yours! - I think that the basic tenant of Judaism, is probably the most brilliant insight ever -- that there is no God but Hashem. It took me 20 years before I understood the genius of that insight. That Abraham broke down the idols in the idol-shop. Think abou how "idol" today isn't a theoretical God believed by some mesopotamians but an "idol" is a person "worshipped" by many other people. Studying, learning, and imitating the actions of amazing men and women is valuable; it is also too easy to turn those men into false idols. Judaism was born as a warning against the cult of personality, against any society where other men are worshipped as though they are gods. And we all know the name for those societies in our modern world....

This insight is one of the many ways in which the American ideology is very similar to the Jewish ideology: see Daniel Boorstin's brilliant observations on the changes from transformation from "hero" to "celebrity"... I kinda want to write an updated version of The Image, adding in "idol" dimension into the hero-celebrity continuum....

Yes, Daniel Boorstin. Now HE would make a great Jewish role model :)

-MF

 
At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

Using mf's criteria, how about Alan Sokal? (I don't know if he's Jewish, but I'm surmising it from his name, his all-purpose geekery, and the best and most elaborate joke I've ever heard. [See http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html.])

 
At 9:01 AM, Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

Let me try that again, with spaces after the slashes (which of course you shouldn't use [the spaces, I mean]). http:// www.physics.nyu.edu/ faculty/ sokal/ lingua_franca_v4/ lingua_franca_v4.html

 
At 11:41 AM, Anonymous MF said...

I LOVE Alan Sokal! I just don't think he has enough mass appeal.

I think that we need to brainstorm out of the world of intellectuals... an Einstein (sexy intellectual role model) comes along only once ever few centuries! :)

 
At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Mike Koplow said...

You may be right. But he seems not to be a slacker in the self-promotion department.

 
At 2:26 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

mf….you are sui generis.

Harav Moshe Feinstein was 4’11’’, maybe. No one ever called him sexy. When he died 100,000 people showed at his funeral, in gratitude for his responsa and the privilege of having someone so great as our guide in practical halacha. We find those persons ‘sexy’ in a derivative sense whose achievements we value. I imagine you value Adam Smith and Edmund Burke for who they were even if they didn’t have ripped abs.

 
At 1:46 AM, Anonymous MF said...

I'm sorry for not being clear in my long response: when I used "sexy", I was NOT refering their physical looks -- not at all. It's an attitude, an attitude that strongly attracts people (attractive = one who *attracts* others). My examples of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Albert Einstein, and Sandy Koufax as being sexy has *nothing* to do with their physical looks.

I know nothing about Moshe Feinstein; if he was such a powerful role model, my guess would be that he was very sexy in the way that certain intellectuals (such as Einstein) are.

A generalized form of this question could be this: I know nothing about the great rabbis of the chassidim, and I'm left wondering, of the many learned, great men in those communities, who come some became great leader rabbis with huge followings and others don't? What made Menajem Schneerson, Menajem Schneerson? My guess would be that the difference is that the gadolim weren't only great scholars, but were also great at marketing themselves and inspiring others and knew how to position themselves as "sexy" to their "demo" (demographic / target audience). In a word, they were charismatic too. I would love to learn more about them to see if this hypothesis holds true or not.

Also, "Moshe Feinstein" = MF. Haha, but that's not me ;)

-MF

 
At 7:32 AM, Anonymous MF said...

I got it!

Kinky Friedman.

Very talented musician. Amazing at marketing. Key cult following. Strong vision for the world and good political ideas (and he might even be the next governor of Texas). Quite sexy. Total Jew and proud of it (the name of his band, after all, was Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys!).

I think he satisfies all of the criteria I'm putting forth for a conservative Jewish role model :)

Hehe :)

 
At 7:34 AM, Anonymous MF said...

Oh, another who also might possibly satisfy all the criteria, in very similar ways (eerily similar ways) to Kinky Friedman: Jerry Springer.

:)

Also, why do these two examples make me think that the Jews have entered and Age of Irony even with their Heroes?

morgan

 
At 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How could you pass over Natelie Portman

 

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