Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Component Parts of Modern Orthodoxy: The Question of Culture

Sometimes, it amazes me that after three millennia this issue still has to be thrashed out. All one has to do is review the discussions in Judaism's Encounter with Other Cultures in order to realize how rich and vital a case has been made for the integration of 'secular studies' within a Torah curriculum. (In the Israel context, I must say that it is nothing less than tragic that this volume, and others like it, are not available in Hebrew. Anyone who undertakes such a translation, or sponsors such an undertaking, would be performing an invaluable service to the cause of Torah in Israel.)

In any event, it is a fact that the value of secular knowledge has not penetrated the rabbinic or Jewish educational world in Israel, much as religiously observant academics all too often treat the world of Torah learning with barely disguised contempt. The result is that the Torah is perceived by those Western educated as (חלילה) 'primitive,' while the Torah community sees the former as a wast of time (at best) and out and out dangerous (at worst).

Both positions are seriously flawed.

Contrary to the supercillious judgements of some, there is no flaw in the Torah. There are, however, serious flaws in the way it is often approached and, a fortiori, the way in which it is presented. There is nothing new in this. A galaxy of medieval scholars can be invoked who inveighed against the puerile interpretation of Hazal, which leads to the Torah being treated with derision. The most penetrating comments come (not unsurprisingly) from the pen of Maimonides. Twice, in the Introduction to פרק חלק and in מורה נבוכים III, 31, the Rambam inveighs against those who present the Torah in a way that will not command the respect (never mind the assent) of the intelligent person (Jew or non-Jew). That assumes, of course, that the Torah is understandable in an idiom that is universal. In order to do that, one must acquire the cultural and intellectual tools to intelligently interpret and understand the Torah's manifold wisdom. Anything less is, let's face it, a Desecration of God's Name (רחמנא ליצלן).

However, secular study is not merely an apologetic, or pedagogic, tool. It possesses intrinsic value for the observant Jew. In an article I published many years ago in the now defunct British Journal L'Eyla (Spring 1989), I argued that a large section of what passes as 'secular studies' (and not confined to Math and Physics either) should be seen as an integral part of Torah (along lines set by Maimonides in הל' יסודי התורה פרק ד הלכה יד and הלכות תלמוד תורה פרק א הלכה יד). How this wisdom should be used in a Jewish Religious context is discussed by R. Aharon Lichtenstein in his magisterial essay in the 'Encounter' volume. However, he was preceded in this by the way in which Professor Twersky characterized the R. Soloveitchik's זצ"ל use of secular studies. It is used masterfully, and judiciously in order to elicit the deeper, highly sophisticated, levels of Torah spirituality and insight. Furthermore, in a world in which the Jew is bombarded with alternate cultural models, it is an absolute requirement to courageously and forcefully engage those models.

Engagement does not betoken surrender. On the contrary, all too often the absence of a sophisticated engagement with the West (for example) abandons the Torah to the 'graces' of those who would distort it in order to decorate an a priori surrender to general culture.

Mastery of Western Culture (music, philosophy, belles lettres, history, art etc.) provides depth of thought and sensitivity, as well as precious tools to illuminate our Tradition (מסורה), for the sake of our own minds and souls. Not everything outside is acceptable, or valuable. Sometimes, though, even from those things we are forced to reject, we arrive at a deeper sense of who we are.

As I've written before, all of this is predicated upon an all too rare quality: intellectual and spiritual humility. It is lacking both among western intellectuals and among too many rabbis.

That discussion, though, will have to wait for another day.


robert said...

The problem is that the orthodox approach the study of the secular from the biased precipice of the superiority of the torah. This approach negates the possibility of objectively studying the secular and properly gaining from the vast lessons it has to offer.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

I beg to differ. The classic opinion is to weigh them both against one another. If Reason is more convincing, one reinterprets the Torah. If Reason is flawed, it's rejected. See Harry A. Wolfson's classic essay: 'whats new in Philo?' OTOH, it is true that given the vagaries of human intellect (and the conditional nature of the scientific method) Tradition will be in a stronger position.

Anonymous said...

jeff, i think if you read your own comment you will see a lack of clarity. furthermore, as you point out in your post, torah must stand in the objective center, and reason must be rejected when it conflicts with essential torah beliefs. [i believe this is what you partly mean when you discuss humility.]
why cant we say that torah, or the way it has been traditionally studied, cannot do it all? we need secular studies on their own merit to help make a complete human being.
living with two independent, at times conflicting systems of thought sharpen our sense of each; this is an important edge 'tuma' has over 'torah only.'
it also means we will have to reconcile ourselves to living with paradoxes, contradictions, moral conflicts, etc. this is a weakness in the system methinks, altho one can use this friction to generate some creativity.

always looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

robert said...

JW Said:
"If Reason is more convincing, one reinterprets the Torah."

I do not think that you really believe this statement.

I do not believe that the orthodox scholar can study biblical criticism without the bias of being a jew who at the core of his existence believes in TMS.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I do not think that there exists a course in Bible Dept. of YU that objectively examines and teaches biblical criticism. Why is this? Is there such a course in Bar-Ilan?

It would be impossible for there to be a hava amina that reason would possibly lead one to the conclusion in a course taught at YU, that there can be any veracity to biblical criticism.

You say engagement does not betoken surrender. The reason for this is that we approach this engagement with a bias, which mitigates the objective study of the field of modernity we are engaging in.

If reason were to lead an orthodox scholar or student to the conclusion that the modern approach to homosexuality, for example, is more convincing than the torah approach, would this person have a prayer of being taken seriously by the orthodox oilam? I think not.

Jeffrey Woolf said...

To both Anonymous and Robert,
You're right that I was unclear in my statement, which is why I referred to Wolfson's characterization of Medieval Philosophy.

My position,telegraphically, is this. The Torah is the point of departure (Faith, if you will). That faith commitment can't be proven, only cultivated (which is what I think Ramban says in the Sefer ha-Mitzvot, albein in defense of BeHaG.) So, epistemologically, Torah has an advantage. However, there is truth in science and the Humanities and the Social Sciences. When these mesh with the straightforward understanding of Torah, fine. Since they too come from God, as all Truth must, they not only should but must be harnassed. This includes huge swaths of culture and knowledge.

The question arises when there is a prima facie conflict between the two. Here. the traditional philosophical method worked both ways. In cases where Reason made an absolutely unassailable case (e.g. anthropomorphism), the Torah was interpreted allegorically in order to resolve the conflict between two truths. In cases where Reason (or science or Social science) did not make an iron-clad case, as in the instance of Creation, then it was rejected. In middle cases, other types of mechanisms were developed, based upon the assumption that Hokhma has validity and raison d'etre.

In a sense, Biblical criticism and the case for Homosexuality are related in the sense that both are based on the scientific method, neither of which allows for absolute certainty. In the former case, it actually places man in judgement of Torah and undermines the basses of Torah amd Masorah. (In a sense, it reminds me of the Rambam's comments about the Eternity of the World' in the second part of the Moreh Nevuhim). The latter case is trickier, because it mixes up two separate issues: behavior and psychology. The prohibition against homosexual activity (including foreplay) is straightforward and absolute. No subjective mitigating factors are relevant (at least as far as the prohibition is concerned. What a Sanhedrin would say is anyone's guess.) The question of its pathology (or etiology, to be more charitable) is a matter of politicized dispute. That raises the deeper question, to wit, in a relativist-anarchic world where society preaches the absolute autonomy of the individual, and encourages intellectual arrogance for everyone, who has the right to an opinion?

I admit that I struggle daily with that question, and that is a major disconnect with the Middle Ages, when people deferred (osensibly) to authorities greater than they on questions of Reason and Faith.

The Rav tried to resolve the problem by positing the absolute autonomy of the Torah, allowing all of the best that man has said and written to enrich it and its devotees. I wonder whether such an a priori axiom works today. That's the $64,000 question which I hope to engage down the road.

Thanks to you all for your comments/

robert said...

anonymous said:

"...it also means we will have to reconcile ourselves to living with paradoxes, contradictions, moral conflicts, etc. this is a weakness in the system methinks..."

I believe that this is THE ELEMENT that defines the modern, yet orthodox jew. However, I believe that it is incorrect to call this a "weakness in the system". If anything, I would characterize this as a strength. To yearn to live a life w/o paradoxes, contradictions, moral conflicts, etc., is to yearn to live a life of "shalva". Ya'akov Avenu yearned to live like this, and we are taught that HKB'H says that this is not to be the way man lives in THIS world.

JW Said:

"Contrary to the supercillious judgements of some, there is no flaw in the Torah."

Perhaps this is why there is a philosophic divide b/w MO and Chareidi. The MO (to the extent that each individual is unique) can tolerate that relativism and subjectivism exists in this world. The MO understands that torah is objective, and secular studies including the physical sciences, is subjective, and that's ok, b/c subjectivism isn't poison, and the study of the subjective can be enlightening and enriching even as it might lead to the paradoxes and conflict that is the Weltanschauung of the MO.

Chareidi, OTOH, are opposed to the subjectivism of secular studies b/c it might lead one to consider autonomy which undermines the "objective" authority which is so essential in order for judaism to thrive and not be diluted as they perceive the MO as doing (perhaps that is the meaning of "torah true judaism" that seems to be the preferred term of the chareidi). The subjectivism of secular studies may lead to a slippery slope in which the objectivity of the torah is undermined. Thus, even though there may be truth in secular studies, they must be avoided b/c of the subjectivism contained in them. We should not test ourselves to live a life filled with paradox and moral conflicts. Let's keep it simple, let's avoid the secular subjects which inherently dilute the objective purity of the torah.

From the Chareidi point of view, anonymous is correct to call this a weakness in the system.