Thursday, September 21, 2006

A Rosh Hashana Sermon

There are hundreds of Jewish bloggers. Few if any, me included, talk about deep issues in Jewish thought, ethical or metaphysical or even psychological. Why is that? Why are so many of the blogs either fundamentally unserious or when serious frequently stale and clichéd? At the level of middlebrow culture bloggers are a welcome addition to the Jewish scene. They make every attempt to tell it how it is, and the anonymity of the internet enables them to be spunky and frequently audacious. It is at the level of high culture that bloggers fail to make any headway.

There are tens of thousands of advanced students of Talmud, maybe more than a 100,000 world wide. In Europe there were never more than 12000 – 14000 yeshiva students. There never has been such a quantitative explosion of Torah studies in the history of Judaism, Why are the chidushei Torah, the essays and comments on Talmudic issues, so second rate, so uninteresting. Almost every new sefer (book) of import in Torah studies has been written by someone trained in Europe. The American successors are a lame bunch. Most recent seforim are likutim, anthologies, repackaging older material every which way. Why is that?

Why are there no serious Jewish philosophers inside the Jewish world? There have been some major philosophers in the last century who were Jewish. A few had thoughts on Judaism, but they were essentially outside Jewish life and have virtually no religious Jewish readership. Three examples are Benjamin, Derrida and Levinas, each a major figure that continue to be studied at universities. In the Jewish world most have never heard their names. Few have read their books. And to tell the truth few would have any interest or even be capable of understanding what they were saying. I am not puzzled why these philosophers are unread. I want to know why are there so few home grown major thinkers?

I seem to remember Dr. Chaim Soleveitchik used the word ‘anachronism’ in describing the rebirth of Jewish life in one of the versions of his much discussed essay Rupture and Reconstruction. An anachronism is something or someone that is not in its correct historical or chronological time, especially a thing or person that belongs to an earlier time: The sword is an anachronism in modern warfare. The intuitive idea was that Jewish life was not allowed to develop naturally because of the Holocaust. When it came back after the war, religious Jews attempted to recreate a version of Orthodoxy that was supposed to have existed at an earlier more idyllic time. A composer who would write today in the identical style of Mozart is not a mini Mozart…he’s nothing. So too a culture of Yiddishkeit that makes every effort to be derivative lacks freedom and courage to be itself. The imagined past is always watching. I would go one step further. I am not sure traditional Jewish life in the Diaspora ever developed naturally. Much of traditional life in Europe, though not anachronistic, existed in a ghetto isolated in many areas from events and trends in the larger society outside the ghetto. It never developed in a natural way, i.e. in an environment that was free and open to the new ideas that were circulating in the larger European society.

I do know this….most serious native born American religious Jews are afraid of their own shadow. They are terrified of stepping out, getting ahead of anyone else. The burden of the past weighs so heavily on their shoulders; it crushes much of the generation’s natural creativity. The current generation of Talmudists sees no way other than slavish emulation of their predecessors as a way forward. Their attempt to become like scholars who flourished in earlier centuries and in different milieus means they can’t say anything new, anything interesting. In Harold Bloom’s jargon, the anxiety of influence is so great, we, our generation, cannot produce strong, new thinkers, not in Talmud, not in haskafah and not in philosophy, chasidus or kabbalah. We are a generation of pygmies.

The Torah has seventy faces, facets. Only a few have been developed. So many more remain to be created/revealed/developed. Maybe it’s our fear of the past, of our societies, of being isolated and alone that is holding us back from becoming what we should become. We walk around covering out tracks, afraid we will become the object of derision and gossip. Is it absolutely necessary that for every intellectual baby step, we must find some proof text in a medieval rabbinical source so as to cover our backside? We live in apocalyptic times, (beikvata dimeshicha), in a time when we can already see signs of redemption Maybe it’s our conservative clinging to what we have and know that is holding up the spiritual redemption. It is high time we stopped being so afraid and develop some intellectual courage. The alternative, I am afraid is complacency and mediocrity.

L’shana tova. Wishing everyone a happy and healthy New Year.


At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well said. It is the fear of their own shadow that causes this type of mediocrity. there are groups of vigilantes sitting out there and watching every pronouncement of someone who wants to think for himself and innovate. Fortunately there is a ray of hope in israel in the Dati leumi groups. They need to come up to snuff in Torah learning (with the exception of RAL) but they are slowly getting there. they are freer and more innovative thinkers and Erlich.

Shan Tova and keep up the good writing. i enjoy though I seldom comment.

At 3:16 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Uh, your well-said piece would seem to be in line with advocating a more left-leaning, Modern-Orthodox- (idealogically, not behaviorally) friendly yiddishkiet.

Your piece does not square with many of the previous posts exulting dafka the more stultifying beliefs advocated by Haredim (cf. Daas Torah, inter alia). You will not find a more anachoronistic yiddishkiet than the Haredi one.

Perforce, I am now of the opinion that you have multiple personalities. I wish all of you guys a Shana Tova.

At 6:49 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Baalabus…Hashem gave you 2 hands so that you can go ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’. Every complex group has many different threads, and the task is to unravel them. I really don’t understand your need for black vs. white, good guy vs. bad guy. Each group has strong and weak pts. etc. I argued daas torah worked out well for charedim …that’s all I said. At my worst I am doing something like phenomenology…what is it like to be an X, and I intend to use the same method for secular Jews. Not everything I explain do I advocate.

I fail to see why all these issues should be seen through the prism of UO vs. MO. If the topic is recognizing modern biblical criticism with its heresies MO is the same as charedim; they are slightly better on Talmud and nowhere in philosophy. If we are talking internal chidushei Torah, duh! …YU is Brisk ,USA. Left wing MO has written no groundbreaking work to my knowledge either. You can take the MO out of charedi Flatbush for example, but it’s not so easy to take the charedi inhibitions out of MO. In short the issues I raised are IMHO invariant over MO and UO, and the belief to the contrary is a conceit of MO. I don’t see anything very contemporary about MO other than their sportswear.

I want to stress I am not advocating a shift from one group to the other; my comments apply to the place where a person is, including myself. Shana tova and thank you again for your comments these past months.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger B. Spinoza said...

nice post.


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