Sunday, August 29, 2004

Cultural History is not a Religion

In the latest issue of the Edah Journal (Iyyar 5764), Alan Brill presents us with an article entitled, Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda. His basic argument is that the discussion of the interaction betwen Judaism and outside culture has been unhealthily restricted to 'high culture' (hoch kultur). He suggests, instead, a broader and 'thicker' approach which, in his opinion, is both more supple, applicable and correct than the (essentially) Maimonidean model that has characterized scholarly discussions of the subject to date. As a result, he sugests that we accept Geertz' (and Peter Berger's) definition of culture as a total system of meaning. Torah, in his opinion, does not engage itself with culture but is to be found within it (and constantly modified thereby).

To his credit, Brill gives the reader an excellent introduction to the dominant trends in cultural history and cultural studies that have dominated historiography for the better part of this decade. He refers the reader to some of the best scholars who have written on the subject. (Though he, surprisingly, ommitted Peter Burke's, Varieties of Cultural History). Also, he is quite correct in noting that serious changes in the discussion of Torah Umadda are required in light of the changes in assumptions regarding the nature of Culture in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

However, I find his presentation problematic.Cultural History and analysis are tools for describing phenomena, as Ranke might say, 'as they actually are.' Thus, Brill has given us some interesting insights into the way Orthodoxy functions. That, however, is not the goal of much of Torah UMadda writing. Here the question is how things ought to be. What type of issues should loom high on our agenda. Thus, certain types of theatre might well be part of Orthodox culture. That does not mean that this is a desireable situation! There are moments in which the 'Rabbi' and the 'Dr.' really do part company (though how they deal with that is not a simple matter). On this level, Brill's often virulent criticism of certain thinkers is both unfair and somewhat besde the point.

In addition, if we restrict our analyses to cultural historical methodology, don't we risk relativizing the Torah? Isn't there the danger that such a move will lead us pell-mell into post-modern relativism and anarchy? The implication, though I"m sure Dr. Brill was not implying this, is the acceptance of absolute autonomy in the interpretation of Torah, without the type of intellectual humility that the Rov zt"l thought was indispensible for spiritual growth and the survival of Judaism.

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