Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Let All the Others Look to Their Own Lives

'When one of a company dies, the whole company should fear' (אחד מבני חבורה שמת - תדאג כל החבורה כולה), Shabbat 106a

The case of Noah Feldman has elicited the expected mixture of outrage and condemnation (from Modern Orthodox circles), glee and support (from non-Orthodox and secularist representatives). One quarter from which I have yet to see a reaction, though it will doubtless come, is the Haredi/Hardali world. With undisguised glee and horror, the Jonathan Rosenblums will declare that Feldman proves the bankruptcy of Modern Orthodoxy (as if Agudah would have been interested in Rosenblum, if he hadn't earned a JD at Yale). These latter will be just as off the mark as the others.

At the same time, as my wife cogently observed, something clearly went wrong here. It could have been a matter of personal psycho-pathology, or of the vagaries of romance, but that's too neat an answer. It lets the rest of us off the hook far too quickly. Is it possible that, somewhere along the line, Dr. Feldman got the message that secular achievement is of equal value (or superior to) devotion to God and the Torah? Is it possible that somewhere along the line his loyalty to Torah was taken as a given? It certainly seems like a plausible scenario. The fact that Hazal constantly warned us not to become spiritually or intellectually complacent, arrogant or conceited would appear to indicate that this is a signal danger on our spiritual path (cf. Avot 2, 4 and Berakhot 29a). As such, perhaps it was specifically this young man's promise that should have set off alarm bells that he should receive more, not less, special attention and followup? [ I admit that I don't know the specifics. I do, however, know the then principals at Maimonides School and many members of the faculty at the time. They are wonderful, devoted educators and Modern Orthodox Jews in the finest tradition of the Rav, and Prof. זכרונם לברכה and תילחטו"א Dr. Twersky. I, therefore, want to emphasize that my comments here are in no way meant to imply criticism of them. I am discussing a more general phenomenon.]

Does this, therefore, put the lie to the entire Modern Orthodox enterprise? If the Rav's own school can produce this type of product, is his life's work thereby refuted. Some, it may be sure, will reach exactly that conclusion. However, such a conclusion is patently unfair. Would the same critics totally dismiss the Netziv because of the bad apples that grew in Volozhin? Are we to devalue great Hassidic Rebbe'im because some of their disciples apostasized? Was R. Yehiel of Paris a failure because of Nicholas Donin? Was R. Eliezer of Tarascon a nobody because of Paulus Christianus?

I categorically reject such a conclusion.

Nevertheless, the case of the Noah Feldmans in our community should give us pause. Those of us who firmly believe that Judaism has nothing to fear from the wider world must ask ourselves some serious questions. At what price do we engage that world? Given that there are tangible risks involved in our path, how do we provide for them? Obviously, there are no guarantees in this world. It does, however, behoove us to be forearmed (as we are all fore warned).

It seems to me, and this is only the starting point, that our point of departure must be intellectual and spiritual humility. This is a very difficult quality to develop, especially in a neurotically narcissistic culture such as ours. It is, however, a conditio sine qua non for a Jewish existence.

By humility, I mean that we are obliged to cultivate in ourselves, in our children and in our students the readiness to withhold judgment. Human knowledge and understanding are, by definition, conditional. That is the essence of the scientific method. For an Orthodox Jew the truth of Torah is not conditional. There may, albeit, be a number of legitimate doctrinal or halakhic alternatives on specific issues. The whole, however, is a datum. It is a given. That given requires tremendous sacrifices of the Jew. It determines what one eats, who one marries, where one lives, and how one behaves. That, as the Rov said so many times, is the essence of Qabbalat Ol Malkhut Shamayim. One is encouraged to master the totality of human creativity and culture. However, it remains just that, human, conditional. God's Torah, the Divine logos, trumps it. Period.

Acknowledging this fact of religious life is very difficult. It requires an ongoing, titanic struggle with doubt, misgiving and sincere feelings of humanity. The struggle is legitimate. Impulsive, ultimately self-serving resolutions are not. As Reb Haim Brisker is reputed to have said: Fun a kashe shtarbt man nit. One doesn't die from a question. One does, however, need to develop and hone the emotional, spiritual and intellectual muscles to sustain that question. The greater the intellect, the more pressing the need to cultivate exactly these tools of question-maintenance and surrender that balance it. [This is not a new circumstance. The achievement oriented, individualizing tendencies of Tosafist France led to the cultivation of German Pietism (חסידות אשכנז) with its heavy emphasis on humility. Ultimately, both were correct.]

Tisha B'Av starts with mourning and ends with consolation and the possibility of repentance. Rather than simply mount the barracades against someone who is clearly having an immature tantrum, we should look to our own souls and develop the emotional and spiritual modalities required to both constructively engage the wider world, while simultaneously surrendering to God's greater wisdom.


Anonymous said...

Jeff -- tisk, tisk, how about waiting to bash the haredim until they responded with their critique of Feldman and Modern Orthodoxy...

Anonymous said...

Withholding judgement?

You look at this situation, at the dangerously fine line MOs must walk, and come up with.... withholding judgement?

One of the most mindless traps of the mindless political correctness that stifles modern discourse?

Perhaps the PROBLEM is a withholding of judgement - largely to allow ourselves to dance at two cultural weddings, which grow increasingly incompatible.

As a non-frum neocon Jew I know puts it:
"When my parents convinced themselves that liberalism was the modern equivalent of Judaism, liberalism meant standing beside Martin Luther King and all he represented. Now it means standing beside RuPaul and all HE represents."

It's funny - until you realize that there are some high-power MO leaders actually having tortured discussions with themselves about the normalization of homosexuality.

Talk about withholding judgement!

A bit more Torah-im-Derech-Eretz rigor - including full-throated assertion that the Torah is the yardstick by which other cultural phenomena are measured (and if necessary rejected) - a bit more of that would do the Torah-u-Maddah crowd a world of good.

And prevent the Noah Feldmans of the community from getting the wrong message.

Jeffrey said...

I don't understand why you're fetting yourself worked up. That was exactly my point. See MT Meilah 8,8 and Twersky, Introduction to the MT, 407ff.

I was also referring to ideological issues. In cases of action, obviously the stricter sense of the Torah receives priority. המוציא מחברו and all that.

Ben Bayit said...

Now that Rosenbloom has written the piece you said he'd write - and exactly as you predicted he would write it - can we bestow upon you the title of Prophet?


Anonymous said...

Wow, Jeff. Hakham adif mi-navi.

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