Wednesday, December 21, 2016

On Platinum Partners and Orthodox White Collar Crime

The Modern Orthodox World is once again aghast at the news of a major financial fraud, allegedly involving graduates of YU and Gush Etzion. Social media are burning up with understandable angst and outrage. These are my initial thoughts:

There are (it seems to me), two separate issues: the punitive and the educational. As the commenters note, in a decentralized Jewish Community, punitive actions are very difficult. Deny someone Maftir Yonah here, he'll pay for it there. That doesn't mean that convicted criminals and their actions should not be excoriated. It doesn't mean one should honor them. [Yet, given the financial crunch of every school, yeshiva and shul I'm less than sanguine that this will happen. Will honest people make up for the donations of the wealthy corrupt?] The situation is extremely frustrating. 

More promising,I think, is the educational piece. This horrific phenomenon of widespread 'Orthodox' White Collar Crime is a function of a number of factors. 

1) We've assimilated the regnant culture of 'No Shame.' We have no shame morally, sexually, religiously--you name it. Compare the reactions today to the total abashment of the Orthodox Community when Bernard Bergman was exposed for abuse in his nursing homes. He was effectively driven out of the communal structure. 

2) This is the downside of the first time, that I can recall, in history that Orthodox Jews have massive amounts of money, and their education has totally failed to prepare us ethically for that circumstance. There were always wealthy Jews, but I have the impression that the amount of fraud that they might commit (and it did happen, as attested in responsa) was tempered by the awareness that if caught, all Jews would suffer expulsion or death. Also, sectors of the MO community have apparently become charter members of the Universal Church of the Golden Calf. While observing mitzvot (and giving Tzedakah), it puts its vacations, homes, cars, jewelry, posh Restaurants, the size and opulence of its weddings aand other smachot etc at the top of its agenda (never mind that it's destroyed Pesach along the way). There is nothing inherently wrong with these, but the prioritizing is a structural flaw. It preaches the centrality of money and that can spill over into evil. 

3) Aiding and abetting the distortion of values engendered by having money is the wholesale abandonment of Hoshen Mishpat. We don't teach it in schools or Yeshivot. We don't hear it from the pulpit. Nada. We are obsessed with ritual minutia (much of it unnecessary), while ignoring basic ethics. The Rav זצ"ל once told me that ritual that is not grounded intellectually AND morally is nothing less than ceremonialism. And, he added, ceremonialism is fundamentally pagan. 

4) This all, of course, is related to the phenomenon of Tax evasion, the inability to distinguish between taxes paid to the US Treasury and those paid to Phillip IV of France (who expelled the Jews anyway). 

5) So what's to be done? Educate in Hoshen Mishpat (in school curricula, sermons, parsha sheets etc.) Take the hit and refuse donations (and honors) from convicted criminals (and let the other wealthy and less wealthy share the burden). Impose serious sumptuary practices on the community. (Think of what the $100,000 a family pays for Pesach in the Alps could do for a Day School.) Every participant in a Dinner or Even should be asked to write two checks, for the dinner and the donation. (The message will be obvious. Doing less is really לפני עיוור). Anyway, that's my two cents. Here in Israel, the present challenge is dealing with Men harassing women and how to deal with them in a communal setting. Similar problem, slightly different set of considerations.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Islam and the West: A Medievalist's Ruminations

                                          The Battle of Vienna   September 11, 1683

   This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Bernard Lewis' now-famous article, 'The Return of Islam.' Lewis presciently (actually, prophetically) anticipated the return of Islam as a central actor in World Politics; even before Samuel Huntington had ever thought about a 'Clash of Civilizations.' One key element of Lewis' argument was that the Christian, now Post-Christian, West had long ago forgotten what it was like to confront the Islamic World, even though the latter had long been its major adversary. That process of historical amnesia began (eerily enough) on September 11, 1683, when the combined forces of the Hapsburg Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth turned back the armies of Kara Mustafa Pasha, vizier of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet IV, from the gates of Vienna. Thereafter, the Muslim World began a period of deep decline and decay, just as Europe entered the Age of Science, Enlightenment, Imperialism, and Colonialism. 
     Europe, Lewis observed, had never really 'seen,' understood either Muslims or Islam. As he put it: 'This recurring unwillingness to recognize the nature of Islam or even the fact of Islam as an independent, different, and autonomous religious phenomenon persists and recurs from medieval to modern times.' Instead, Christendom consistently projected itself and its world view upon the Muslims; in an ongoing habit of that which noted historian Richard Landes has aptly termed, 'Cognitive Egocentrism.' If, prior to 1683, Europe had respected the Muslim World, that was out of respect for its proven military prowess. After their victory in the Battle of Vienna, as the Ottoman Empire slid into receivership, whatever fear or respect Christian Europe bore its erstwhile enemy metamorphosed into benign contempt.
    To continue Lewis' line of thought, one should add that during the subsequent three centuries, the European West (and later the United States) entered into an era of dizzying growth and unparalleled achievement; one that ended in de facto, world domination. During that time, and especially since the end of World War II, West has also undergone a dizzying cultural transformation. Some term it Modernity. Others prefer to call it Post-Modernity. For the present purposes, neither the terminology nor the etiology matter. What does matter is the result. In varying degrees of intensity, Western culture and thought have become profoundly materialist (in the Marxist sense), morally and epistemologically relativist, anti-authority, individualist, and increasingly atheist. At the same time, the (now Post)-Christian West has lost none of its intellectual arrogance. Like their medieval forbears, Western intellectuals (and their mimics in the media), not only assume  that they represent the only possible worldview; but that every other person on earth must, perforce, subscribe thereto by dint of their own humanity. To put it more homely. The Contemporary West is afflicted with Cognitive Egocentrism on steroids.
     In a sense, the West (e.g. Western Europe and United States) hasn't changed all that much. It still assumes that it represents the only path to Man's, now secular and atheist, salvation. There is, however, a key difference. Owing to its deep seated moral relativism (with more than a soupcon of post-colonial guilt), the West cannot find it within its capacity to criticize the Muslim World, even when actions undertaken by Muslims, Muslim States and Organizations and supported by normative Muslim legists and theologians contradict its most cherished values and ideals. However, and paradoxically, Western thinkers are as convinced of their absolute truth as were their Christian ancestors. These two facts seem mutually contradictory. You can't respect others. You can't be truly multi-cultural, if you dogmatically maintain only your point of view. So how do contemporary pundits resolve the conundrum? They simply project their relativist Truth upon everyone else, and deny the existence of any alternative (except, perhaps, as a benighted aberration).
    If we were to confine the discussion so far to the hallowed halls of academe, we could file away this delicious irony under 'Ironic Curiosities,' and go on to another topic. However, we do not have the luxury of confining the discussion to the Ivory Tower. The stakes we are gambling are far too high for detached, ever so sophisticated discussion over drinks. It is important to parse and understand the reality that emerged from the above conundrum. What is it about Islam that the West can't get? The answer(s) to that question can be best be provided by searching not the present, but the Past.
In its blindness to any value system other than its own, lies the weakness of the West and the seeds of its potential destruction. For it has, in the course of the developments outlined above, forgotten the lessons that its medieval progenitors knew well; and which allowed it to survive over the course of 1100 years of confrontation with the Civilization of the Crescent.

1) When Cross and Crescent faced off in the eighth century, both sides were deeply aware that they acted in the name of God, Whose Revelation represented absolute Truth and the sole path for Human Salvation. And while, of course, Muslims would not literally subscribe to the assertion that extra ecclesiam nulla (est) salus (There is no salvation outside of the Church), they would certainly have endorsed the sentiment if formulated around belief in Allah, the mission of Muhammad and the Qur'an as representing the final and perfect expression of God's master plan for man. What both sides had in common was an appreciation of the total, absolute devotion that the other side would have for its beliefs. Both sides appreciated the commitment that would drive a person to sacrifice all he had to do God's Will, as he understood it. Both sides could understand the idea of total sacrifice in testimony to faith in God. One called such a one martyr. The other called him shahid. Both words mean witness, and make the same point (even as they, at different times, understood the specific nuances differently). [Indeed, there each side paid begrudging respect for the other by attributing its successes to the Anti-Christ or the Shaitun.]
Contemporary Western life has no room for Absolute Truth, at least not one that lies outside of wo/man, him/herself. Its worldview is relativist, materialist and dedicated to the proposition that society must strive to fill one's desires. Hence, our society cannot accept the idea that there might be a Truth that not only obligates, but also demands the sacrifice of comfort, convenience, material goods and, yes, even one's Health or Life. Besotted by our self-importance and impressed by our achievements, contemporary culture absolutely refuses to accept the proposition that one might defer to the demands of Faith and Tradition, even (or, especially) when these are both inscrutable and inconvenient. When one adds that worldview to a strong dose of cognitive egocentrism, the result is the inability to accept that anyone else could maintain such beliefs, either. The result is frequently either denial ('They really don't believe that'') and/or social engineering ('If we solve their economic woes, they will not be forced to resort to such things').                                                                          [The most extreme version of this response, though, is also (in my opinion) the most egregious, as it constitutes the ultimate in Western Paternalist Cultural Imperialism. I refer to the bon ton of non-Muslim deciding what is and what is not legitimately Muslim. Properly addressing this deeply disrespectful activity would take me far beyond the limits of a blog post. Suffice it to say that it is the ultimate expression of the double bind that I described above.] 

2) There is another quality of medieval life that is a direct corollary to this first. Both Christianity and Islam are all enveloping ways of life. All of reality is refracted through the prism of each faith (though Islam, based as it is upon a vast legal code, is more all-inclusive). Throughout the Middle Ages, religion provided the all-pervasive context within which people experienced and evaluated their lives. This, of course, is not be any means intended to imply that people were not moved by circumstances or interests, by passions or by privilege. However, they understood these (including their sins and trespasses) against the background and through the mirror of their religiosity. Secularism did not really exist until the turn of the seventeenth century. And, while moderns might smirk at sinners who bequeathed ill-gotten gains to the Church for prayers for the salvation of their souls, we must not forget that they believed therein.
This is a point that even medieval historians forget. Trained to reconstruct (and evaluate) past events and personalities in light of material causes, historiansfrequently fall into the trap of reducing the actions of historical personages to their apparent interests and responses. What they fail to recall is that prior to the advent of secularism, Christians and Muslims understood themselves (or, in some cases, convinced themselves) that their actions accorded with the demands of their faith. As an historian, I am absolutely convinced of the religious sincerity of the overwhelming majority of historical personages whose lives I have studied. Certainly this is so when their actions go against what are, prima facie, their material interests (e.g. the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which wreaked permanent havoc on the Spanish economy). Nevertheless, here too, the Post-Christian West cannot comprehend the kind of all-encompassing worldview that still obtains in broad swaths of the Muslim world.            

3) Medieval historians with an anthropological bent (e. g. Mikhail Bakhtin, Aron Gurevich and Jacques LeGoff) have noted that Medievals (as with members of other Traditional societies) pursued their lives with a sense of intimacy with the past. Biblical events, Foundation Legends were experienced as imminent, even by illiterate peasants (as expressed by the fact that the roots of European Theater lie in the portrayal of Biblical stories). Islam, in particular, cultivated historical awareness. Indeed, Ibn Khaldun is often credited as the founder of Historiography and Sociology. Christians and Muslims alike had long historical memories, and the formative moments of each were relived (in the Eliadean sense) and ever accessible. Consider, for example, the little appreciated fact that the bloody battle for Kosovo, twenty years ago, was for the Serbs revenge for the fall of their kingdom to the Ottoman Muslims in 1389. Or, there is the enduring potency of Ali's victory over the Jews of Khaybar in 628; the invocation of which is a leitmotif of anti-Israel demonstrations 
Needless to say, the hic et nunc quality of modern day life does not jibe with this kind of sense of permanently accessible, identity forming past. If anything, contemporary historical discourse tends to dismiss and debunk, trash and tear up events and figures that were earlier admired. The past, far from being a source of inspiration, is today judged (and severely so) in light of the same constellation of relativist values that creates the cognitive disconnect with traditional societies, such as is most of the Muslim World.

The prime directive of Islam, of all stripes, is to bring all of mankind to submit to the Will of Allah, as received by Muhammad and passed on through the ages. Optimally, submission means acceptance of Islam. Less than optimal is a situation in which the world is ruled by Islamic Law, Shari'ah, but wherein non-Muslims exist as tolerated, protected minorities (dhimmi). The process by which areas not regulated by Shari'ah (Dar-al-Harb; the House of War) are made part of the 'House of Islam' (dar al Islam), is 'struggle' (jihad). Desiring this outcome is a principled, understandable position for a faith community which recognizes only One Truth, imparted by the One God. Many strains of Islam (especially within the Shi'a) have a strong messianic component, which infuses the drive to spread the Word of the Prophet with powerful millennial force. In the binary worldview that characterizes Orthodox Islam, one can easily understand how the three forces noted above (absolute commitment to God and His exclusive Truth, an integrated religious outlook and a profound connection and identification with the formative events and figures of Islamic history (Muhammad, Ali, Salah-a-Din, Suleiman, Khaybar, Karbala, and so on) can combine into a prodigious wave of religious fervor. We are, as Lewis predicted forty years ago, in the midst of just such a wave (whether all Muslims support the timing, or not).
The difference, the potentially tragic difference, is that the Christian West now lacks every one of those qualities that once allowed it to stand against Muslim attempts to fulfill its own, principled mission (from the Battle of Tours in 732 to the Victory of Jan Subieski at the gates of Vienna in 1683). It no longer believes in Truth. It values nothing beyond the individual's needs, rights and desires. It holds its own history in contempt. And, arrogantly contemptuous as it is of the fabled 'other,' it refuses to acknowledge that that 'other' subscribes to a very different value system. That refusal contains the seeds of the West's undoing. For, if it does not learn to respect the 'other,' it may end up facilitating the dream of the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha---only three hundred fifty years later.  

[Note: Related to this discussion is my professional conviction that the conflict over Eretz Yisrael is, and always has been, religious and civilizational. That, however, requires a separate discussion.]   

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

YU's Next President and the Crisis of Modern Orthodoxy

Yeshiva University faces many challenges in the years to come: Financial, Structural,and Educational. I don't envy either those who are charged with choosing the new president, or the individual charged with charting the course that Yeshiva will adopt in the coming years.
I am, at the same time, concerned that Yeshiva's institutional self-concern will blind it to larger issues that attend to its future. Yeshiva is sui generis as both an educational institution and the formative leader of Modern Orthodoxy. As such, it is not enough to identify the person who can solve its structural woes. One must make sure that whoever assumes the reins also commits himself to identifying those who can advance Yeshiva in its broader, religious role. (In a sense, this was part of Dr. Belkin's genius in letting Rav Soloveitchik carve out his own intellectual bailiwick.)

Yeshiva, if it is to survive both institutionally and spiritually, has to put its mission as the sole specifically Modern Orthodox school in the World on an equal par with other concerns. It is not enough to produce rabbis or to provide an educational experience for MO Jews. Yeshiva's mandate is to chart the ideological waters of an ever more turbulent Western World. We require not only Poskim, Rabbis, Lawyers and Accountants. We require Orthodox intellectuals who can guide the community, all over the world, in courageously engaging, confronting, and criticizing Post-Modernism which has slowly eaten away at the inner sancta of the Modern Orthodox soul. Here, Yeshiva (and the community at large) have failed miserably, just when the need has never been greater. Since the passing of מורי ורבי Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל and his leading students no significant effort has been invested in developing Modern Orthodox intellectual leaders who are both תלמידי ותלימדות חכמים and who can also engage pagan Post-Modernity on its own turf. The result is uncritical adoption of Post Modern babble by many on the Left and Jingoistic, Simplistic Heresy hunting on the Right. Both are expressions of the intellectual lassitude and flaccidity that has become the sad lot of Modern Orthodoxy. Spiritual and Intellectual Dry Rot will destroy our vision of Torah, and undermine the meticulous world of learning and observance that is at the center of Yeshiva's achievements.

If we are to survive, it is the sacred obligation of the Search Committee and the new President to place not only Yeshiva's body, but its soul as well, at the top of its agenda.
It is a matter of Spiritual Life or Death: Nothing Less.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Torah and Masorah - Part I

[My previous two posts have, inter alia, a common theme: The problematic interaction between Jewish Tradition and Academics, especially Jewish Studies. I would like to continue that discussion, with an eye to segueing toward an examination of one aspect of the role of Tradition (מסורה) as a factor in Halakhic decision-making, and the setting of religious policy. This is a work in progress (with revisions), so that as this series progresses, אי"ה, I hope to touch on others.]

Almost twenty years ago, I had the opportunity to address the plenum of Kenes Lavie II (of which I was a founder). On that occasion, I discussed the fact that the leadership of the Religious Zionist community was woefully ill-prepared to engage the unprecedented religious, ideological and cultural challenges that the Post-Modern, Liberal West laid at our door. We lack the tools to critically examine the unstated (and often religiously hostile) assumptions of contemporary intellectual discourse. We lack the learning necessary to discern the full range of legitimate options with which the Torah provides us in order to engage the challenges of (post)-Modernity. Far too few representatives of Torah are able to present eternal truths in ways that the Western oriented can understand, much less respect. Even fewer are attuned to the ways in which General Culture enriches the life of the God Fearing, Observant Jew while, at the same time discerning of the limits to that encounter.
[A very promising methodological response to Modernity, which is actually Maimonidean in its contours, was recently provided by Professor Baruch Brody. As I will note in a future post, the situation is not appreciably better today than it was two decades ago, and demands attention.] 

My specific point on that occasion was the need, the dire need, to include the study of Jewish History as part of the Torah curriculum in Yeshiva High Schools, Yeshivot Hesder and Midrashot and as part of the overall training of Rabbis and Educators. Such training was, and in my opinion remains, both valuable per se as well as critical for engaging the historicist challenge that, even then, was manifest in the community. The point of departure was a paragraph from R. Zvi Hirsch Chajes' introduction to his work 'דרכי הוראה.' 

Maharatz Chajes, who himself possessed a PhD in History, cogently identifies the challenge posed by critical Historiography as of equal moment with that of Graeco-Roman Philosophy in the Middle Ages. As with Maimonides, who was his intellectual hero, he assumes that mastery of Jewish History and Academic method will enhance Judaism's intellectual stature. In this way it will help to fend off the criticism of Reformers that Judaism is antiquated and riddled with superstitions. I offered, in addition, that if one reads his closing paragraph carefully in light of parallel Programmatic sections by Maimonides, one can conclude that the study of Jewish History can serve as a source of increased spirituality and Service of God, as it uncovers the Ways in which Providence works in History, and preserves both Judaism and the Jewish People, despite all odds and unending travail (the addressing of which also arises as part of this effort).
Feeling immensely satisfied with my presentation, I descended the stage and encountered Rabbi Professor Ya'akov Blidstein. He pointedly asked me: 'What will you do with Historicism?'  Embarrassingly, not only did I not have an answer; I hadn't seriously considered the question. 

Looking back, there were several reasons for this (and for the fact that I have only started to deal with this issue in recent years). 

Religiously, I was (and remain) firm in my conviction as to the essential autonomy of Torah and Halakhah (see here and here). This is a point of departure that I learned from Mori ve-Rabi, Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל and I have never seen any reason to deviate therefrom (which is not to say that Tradition doesn't change in details and applications. We will, אי"ה, return to this point.) My personal inclinations were reinforced professionally by the unique training which I received at Harvard. The program that was founded by Professor Isadore Twersky זצ"ל. Prof. Twersky was an avid exponent of the application of the 'History of Ideas' approach to Jewish Intellectual History (somewhere between the approaches of Lovejoy and Skinner). He sought the continuity in Judaism. He devoted himself to demonstrating that, alongside obvious interaction with the contemporary world, there are basic ideas and themes, dynamics and patterns that spanned the continents and transcended the generations (with an exclusive emphasis on the Post-Talmudic era). In this way, consciously or unconsciously (I suspect the former to be the case), he strove to balance what he viewed to be a facile, superficial historical reductionism that characterized Jewish studies. And, while he argued forcefully that Halakhah should be restored to its rightful place at the center of Jewish Intellectual History, the possibility that academic findings might impinge upon practice never arose (in my time, at least). No doubt, the fact that the overwhelming majority of his students were Orthodox and Yeshiva trained (many of them former students of Rabbi Soloveitchik and themselves Orthodox rabbis), reinforced this tendency.

There were also good sociological/social reasons for ignoring Historicism. Thoroughgoing historicism was (and remains) the hallmark of the Conservative Movement (a.k.a. Historical Judaism). Whatever it was that Solomon Schechter intended 'Catholic Israel' to mean, by the 1960's and 1970's it came to mean whatever Jews did in the name of Judaism. Hence, the prime directive became the adaptation of Jewish Tradition to contemporary mores by means of reducing any given law or practice to its original (presumed) context, which is itself achieved through academic research. Indeed, the late Professor Gerson Cohen (a noted medieval historian and Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary), was quoted as saying that 'the study of history is Torah as we know it.' The threat posed by Conservative Judaism was a formative element of Orthodox religious awareness from the 40's through the 70's, even though Orthodoxy was well into its dramatic resurgence by the late 70's and early 80's. As a result, the use of historical research within the context of Halakhic discourse was simply not done.

By the late 1990's, much of this had changed. For reasons that are unclear, to me at least, the Modern Orthodox World became increasingly flaccid, intellectually. Rabbis and Laypersons quoted Rav Soloveitchik, but not as a result of engaging with the thought processes that lay behind his writings but, rather, dogmatically. This, in turn, was fed by the two, contradictory tendencies within the community. On the one hand, the same global deference to Rashe Yeshiva that had long marked the Haredi community, and a variation on the institution of Da'at Torah, appeared within the Modern Orthodox community in North America and its Religious Zionist counterpart in Israel. This more authoritarian turn led to a downturn in Orthodox Intellectual discourse, and a concomitant inability to rigorously engage intellectual and cultural challenges.

At the same time, ironically, a crisis of authority was actually starting. Orthodoxy was beginning to experience the first results of the dissolution of what Professor Haym Soloveitchik has famously call 'Mimetic Judaism.' In his famous essay, 'Rupture and Reconstruction,' Professor Soloveitchik addressed the disappearance of a living tradition of religious observance and spirituality that had dissolved in the Post-Holocaust World, leaving Religious Life to be determined by Religious Texts, alone. To this shift, following similar suggestions by Yoske Ahituv and Menachem Friedman, he attributed the increasingly strict, some would say authoritarian, observance of Halakhah that marks contemporary Modern Orthodox Jews (the so-called, 'swing to the Right'). 

This unstated fabric of religious life, wherein one patterns one's religious comportment on that of one's elders, and its replacement by religious life based upon books led to a serious shift in the quality of religious life and observance, per se. For much of halakhic decision-making is predicated upon a living, sometimes unstated consensus as to which authors have more valence and which have less. Similarly, there is a cautious and reverential flexibility to Halakhah and Religious Policy, which is also based on intuition and mimesis (again, a point to which I will return anon). This breakdown of living tradition of how Halakhah is adjudicated and Talmud Studied, came precisely at a time when the level of Torah and Halakhic Literacy among Orthodox Jews was greater than at any time in recent history. In tandem, the appearance of databases and websites (e.g. Bar Ilan's Responsa Project and אוצר החכמה, respectively) flooded, democratized and transformed the study of Torah and, especially, of Halakhah. This combination of basic skills and unlimited material, merged with an anti-authoritarian trend among acculturated Orthodox Jews who were increasingly affected by Post-Modernist individualism

It seems to me, then, that the disappearance of the religious fabric that informed Traditional Jewish Life is responsible for the present chasm that threatens to divide Orthodoxy on both sides of the Atlantic. It is responsible both for extreme conservatism and even Halakhic Paralysis (in the case of מסורבות גט, for example) and for an increasingly aggressive type of religious individualism, on the other hand. In the absence of this religious fabric, other approaches to Jewish Tradition are being advanced by members of the Orthodox intelligentsia. That is where Professor Blidstein's question enters.

(To Be Continued)