Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Orthodoxy Triumphant...Maybe

Daniel Pipes has just published an intriguing article entitled 'The Future of Judaism.' In it, in light of the growing percentage of the Orthodox community within an ever shrinking American Jewish Community (see the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey):

Should this trend continue, it is conceivable that the ratio will return to roughly where it was two centuries ago, with the Orthodox again constituting the great majority of Jews. Were that to happen, the non-Orthodox phenomenon could seem in retrospect merely an episode, an interesting, eventful, consequential, and yet doomed search for alternatives, suggesting that living by the law may be essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term...It also could portend a much deeper shift in Jewish life in America and beyond, being a leading indicator of Orthodoxy's political coming of age and perhaps even its eventual replacement of non-Orthodox Judaism. (Emphasis added-JRW)

I have really mixed emotions over Pipes' remarks. On the one hand, I welcome them. After centuries of suffering the contempt of 'progressive,' 'modern,' 'non-primitive' forms of Judaisms, History ( or better, Divine Providence) is bearing out the axiom, which Traditional Jews have known for millenia, that 'living by the Law is essential for maintaining a Jewish identity over the long term.'

On the other hand, Pipes' remarks both sadden and sober me. I am sad because of the millions of Jews who will die spiritually by assimilation. This, we must recall, is the other side of the equation. I am sad, because deep down inside I ask myself if we could not have done more to spread Torah in North America and Western Europe and, thus, prevent some of those souls from going to oblivion. I am also sad, because in Israel we are losing hundreds and thousands of Jews to ignorance and 'Haskalah-syle' self-loathng. To a very significant degree, this is because we've isolated ourselves far too much.

This brings me to the 'sober' part of my response. In the last conversation that I was privileged to have with my beloved Master and Teacher, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל, we actually discussed what already then (March, 1985) looked like an Orthodox resurgence. I was fairly upbeat in my observations. the Rov was noticeably less optimistic. He expressed serious misgivings about Orthodox triumphalism. Self-satisfaction, he seemed to say, is a very dangerous draught. In fact, he observed, he was unsure whether one could even speak of an 'Orthodox movement.'

I was sobered by the Rov's caution then, and I find it even more apt today. It is certainly true that the Torah has had tremendous achievements since it was eulogized as dead in the fifties and sixties. On the other hand, we do not have any time for self-congratulation. We are losing not a few of our young to the insidious temptations of western relativism and hedonism (which masquerade as sophistication). We are more assimilated than we would like to admit. We have created conditions that delay marriage, condemn thousands to bachelorhood, and have put ourselves on a path where our birthrate is lower than it should be. We do not reach out enough or reach in enough.

In this connection, it would be well to reconsider the bans issued against Rabbi Slifkin, the gravity of which I did not appreciate until I was enlightened by a knowledgable friend. There is, in Jerusalem and New York, a group of highly sophisticated Ba'ale Teshuva who entered the Torah World because they had been shown that one can be educated and Torah observant as well. The vicious attacks on Rabbi Slifkin, which are themselves heretical as they contradict the words of literally dozens of Rishonim and later authorities, are creating an atmosphere which will drive these wonderful people from Torah. [Why they can't join the world of the Rov and his disciples is another matter.] What do we have to offer these fellow Orthodox Jews, when the Roshe Yeshiva they so admire deny them their place in the World to come?

If Orthodoxy is to triumph, it must meet its internal challenges, as well as its external ones. There is too little time, too much to do, to indulge ourselves in triumphs.

Monday, January 24, 2005

The Battle of the Bans

I've been following the controversy about the banning of Rabbi Slifkin's book and Gil Student's call for a counterban (all relevant material is available at Hirhurim) with a mixture of outrage, bewilderment and bemusement (mostly the latter). I've spent most of my adult life involved in trying to advance a responsible form of modern Orthodoxy. That has often put me on a collision course with various Haredi polemicists. In retrospect, though, I think that a lot of the time I spent in these polemics was a waste. The time could have been put to better use by learning, teaching and (in a positiv way) disseminating my own ideas and those in which I believe.

Apparently, that was the Rambam's position, too. In a letter to his student, R. Yosef b. Yehudah, he admonishes him NOT to get involved in controversies with those who disagree with him (i.e. the Rambam). It's a waste of time, said Maimonides, who then set out a carefully crafted curriculum for R. Yosef to follow. [The text is in the seconf volume of Y. Shailat's Iggerot HaRambam. Unfortunately, I don't have the volume in front of me.]

So, in the matter of R. Slifkin, I suggest that those who support him should read him and push others to do so. To take on the hotheads who would like to crucify him woulkd be a waste of time and of little effect (ibid zeman u-mi'ut ha-to'elet).

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

On Modern Orthodoxy and Daas Hedyot

My comments about Daas Hedyot appear to have struck a serious nerve, and were clearly misunderstood. I had written that had DH been exposed to Modern Orthodoxy, he would have been spared much of his present angst. He took sharp exception to my remarks, both in his comments here and on his own blog posting.

DH misses my point. For present purposes, Modern Orthodoxy, entails the expansion of one's religious, spiritual and intellectual vistas- primarily through thinking and through expanding one's Torah curriculum. IOW, there is a vast literature that provides the searcher with legitimately Orthodox ideas, but which are outside the very narrowly drawn borders that currently obtain in the Yeshiva World. I trust that DH would not consider such writings or ideas to be heretical. [The late Professor Yitzhaq Twersky used to say that studying the full-range of Jewish intellectual history is an excursion into 'penimiyus ha-Torah.]

In addition, Modern Orthodoxy does see a positive value in engaging and mastering 'General Culture,' though there are wide differences as to the degree and importance of that engagement. Nevertheless, as I did note, this path is both harder and gives one the tools to engage the challnges of a world that imposes itself upon us, whether we like it or not. At the same time, it requires an equal portion of intellectual humility to undertake. [See the Rav's remarks in his noted shiur Gerus and Masorah.]

Reading over DH's remarks, I can't help but feel that he's caught between worlds. He rejects the basics of Yeshiva culture, but rejects the authenticity of anything else. He reminds me of Chaikl Vilner's friend in The Yeshiva (aka Tzemach Atlas). The boy can't leave and he can't stay within the yeshiveshe velt.

England's Shame

My brother, David, offers these comments onm Prince Harry's Nazi proclivities:

I am just amazed about the way the issue about Young Prince Harry's wearing of a Nazi uniform has been set out. The thing that amazes me is that it has become solely a 'Jewish issue'. The Jerusalem Post talks about the need for Holocaust education and sensitivities on the Nazi atrocities. In fact, the Jerusalem Post, quotes the BBC saying that 60% of those surveyed under 35 had never heard of Auschwitz. But what the BBC didn't survey, I guess, is how many of them never heard of Coventry? Or the terror bombing or the battle of Britain or V2 rockets for that matter? How many had never heard of Winston Churchill? Or of D-Day? If I am not mistaken, the Nazi's were pretty actively at war with Britain. And for a long time, a war waged indiscriminately against civilian targets. I find it shocking that the British media felt it was just a case of the Jews being overly sensitive. This is apparent by the only questions they asked. The should have surveyed, as Tom Lehrer said in his song, "...the widows and cripples in old London town who owe their large pensions to Werner Von Braun."
And as for a Prince of the Realm dressing up in the costume of the enemy who brought such death and destruction to Britain and not even think it is wrong, is amazing. And for this to be only a Jewish issue is a sign of a deeper problem on "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

It seems he's more like his great-grand uncle, the ex-Edward VIII, who was a Nazi stooge than his great-grandfather George VI who backed Churchill and stood with his people against the Nazi menace.

Friday, January 14, 2005


Gil Student has devoted a very long posting to the latest attempt to censor a book. This time the controversy revolves around the works of Rabbi

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Classic QED

On several occasions, I've noted the insightful musings of QED. His lates post is worth citing in full:

Over the past couple of bloody years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,
there have been quite a number of efforts on the part of well-meaning people, famous and not-so famous, to bring peace to this area. Such efforts have often been given media attention, culminating with the recent attempt by Mr. Richard Gere to call on the Palestinians to vote in the upcoming Palestinian elections. These efforts have, as far as I can tell, have had negligible, if any, effect on events here. This is why I would like to request that this constant flow of goody-goody peace initiatives cease. They are at most a joke, a curiosity, a temporary repreive from the real and difficult events here. At worst, they divert attention and hope from the real and messy process of give and take conducted by Israelis and Palestinians to reach, if not peace, then at least some sort of modus vivendi.

I make this appeal not only as an Israeli citizen, but as an aspiring historian who has read a thing or two about well-meaning but clueless individuals who tried at one time or another to bring about a lasting peace between Jews and Arabs. The list is long: Avraham Kalvarisky, Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, Folke Bernadotte and others. All, without exception, came away empty-handed. At most, they served as fodder for partisans who aim to 'prove' that there might have been peace if only the plans of so-and-so had been implemented.

The people who achieved actually something were not the well-wishers, but the hard-nosed and knowledgable professionals such as William Quandt, Henry Kissinger and Ralph Bunche. Ultimately, however, peace or cease-fires were achieved when it was in the interest of both sides to do so, regardless of outside help. The world does not lack problems which you can help stop or reduce - AIDS, illiteracy, poverty. These are worthy causes over which you can have some effect. The Israel- Palestinian conflict is not.


The Tragedy of Monochromatic Orthodoxy

During a sweep through my links, I came upon a blog entitled Daas Hedyot (and thanks to Allison Kaplan Sommer for the reference). The author describes himself as a former yeshiva student who is grappling with life 'on the outside.' He deeply resents, for example, that:

Basically, in the frum world, when you reach adulthood you’re expected to have essentially the same views on Yiddishkeit that you had when you were in 3rd grade. And probably nothing would make our rabbeim prouder if when we died at a ripe old age we still thought everything we read in The Midrash Says really happened.

I found myself deeply pained when I read his musings. My first response was triumphalist. 'See! If Modern Orthodox thinking were more available, he would have the tools to struggle with his Judaism from within!' That, however, is too facile and a bit disrespectful. The Modern Orthodox path is the harder one, the more challenging one, the bigger humra. The Rambam would probably say it's for everybody, according to his capacity. I think that's true, but I understand the fears of those who are afraid to try (or to try it out on their children).

In any event, I am convinced that it is the moral obligation of the Modern Orthodox Leadership to agressively assert itself in both ideological terms and through the cultivation of careful, sensitive piety and solid Talmud scholarship (i.e, lomdus). Historically, the latter validates the former. The former can save the souls of many more like Da;as Hedyot.

Future Classics

One of the commenters on my posting about the Rambam asked who would stil be read in a hundred years. The question intrigues me. So, I"m asking anyone else who's intrigued to post comments or e-mail me suggestions. Who are the classic writers (Jewish and non-Jewish) who lived from 1900-2000, who you think will still be on the front shelves in 2100.

Monday, January 03, 2005

The 800th Yahrzeit of the Rambam: The Human Side

Rambam 1138-1204 Posted by Hello
This past Shabbat (20 Tevel 5765) marked the 800th anniversary of the death of Rabbenu Moshe b. Maimon (bin Abd'allah). Strikingly, little was said about the anniversary in the press. I will add more to this posting later today.
Add to the Posting:
Anyone who grew up in Boston, near the Rav zt'L, trying to creat some sort of Modern Orthodoxy that has both religious integrity and intellectual honesty (never mind those of us who studied under Prof. Yitzhaq Twersky) has his life dominated by the Rambam. Following an old custom of reading the works of a person on his yahrzeit, I spent Shabbat reading Rambam. This time, however, I didn't crack open the Commentary on the Mishneh, the Mishneh Torah, the Moreh Nebuhim or the 'heavy letters.'
I spent my free time reading his lighter correspondence (in Y. Shilat's incredible edition). It was a pleasure. What a change of pace. In these leters (as in a lot of his responsa) you get to see the human, passionate side of the man behind the timeless prose. He was a kind, involved communal leader. His sense of compassion for the needy is inspiring. His tenderness toward his disciples is moving.
I used to say that if I needed to choose with whom to go out to dinner, Rambam or Ramban, I"d pick Ramban-who seems to be a more social person. (After all, he chummed around with King James I of Aragon). Now, I'm not so sure. I think the Rambam would be an engaging interlocutor outside the Bet Midrash too. The only problem is, as he describes in his letters to Yosef b. Yehudah and Samuel Ibn Tibbon, he'd never have time for such an evening.