In a new symposium at The Lehrhaus entitled “Reclaiming Torah u-Madda,” I was given the chance to reflect on the state of “Torah U-Madda” (the relationship between Torah and Western culture) in the Modern Orthodox community today. I sought to address this topic on a philosophical level, through an analysis of a wonderful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as through some “real-world” examples of how these ideas might play out in practice. My latter comments generated more controversy than I would have liked. I would like to emphasize that my account of what has challenged me personally about my native community is not meant to constitute a comprehensive indictment of all that is wrong with Modern Orthodoxy. My goal in the essay is to introduce a philosophical framework and then briefly suggest how this framework might cohere in real-life scenarios. I don’t mind disagreement about the relevance of these scenarios but I am even more interested in discussing the worldview that underlies them.
A recent conversation over at Tradition Magazine discusses the potential relationship (or lack thereof) between “Great Books” and Judaism. I weighed in with the help of one particularly great book, Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick. Please read the full essay here.
An excerpt: “There are many wonderful cases to be made for the contributions of great books to our culture, our civilization, and to ourselves. But on a common-sense level, Menand is right. While people who love literature (myself included) can make a compelling case for why these texts enrich our lives, we cannot generalize that those who read great literature are on the whole better people than those who are interested in other matters. Countless well-known authors and literature scholars have been involved in every kind of sordid affair imaginable. Indeed, whenever a new anti-Semitic tinged crusade against the Jewish State pops up, literature departments are inevitably leading the charge. Menand writes that “knowledge is a tool, not a state of being.” To me there is no doubt that the experience of reading Cervantes or Jane Austen can generate profound insights into the complexity of human experience, and morally sensitive writers like George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy create a powerful case for virtue. Yet clearly something else is necessary in order to lay the foundations of a moral life in practice.”
This past February 14th marked the 116th anniversary of the publication of Theodor Herzl’s manifesto The Jewish State, which lay the groundwork for the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel. That same evening a special event took place in the Jerusalem Theater: a performance of Herzl’s play The New Ghetto, written in 1894, just a few short weeks before he began composing The Jewish State. It is commonly understood that the turning point for Herzl—the moment he realized there was no escaping from anti-Semitism even in enlightened Western Europe—was the Dreyfus Affair that began in the fall of 1894. Yet The New Ghetto, written shortly beforehand, is proof that, as some scholars have argued, a proto-Zionist sensibility had already been roiling in Herzl’s mind.
Last month’s production was a historic privilege for those who attended it: it was the first time the play has ever been performed in Israel.
In his 1905 philosophical analysis of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud cites a classic Jewish joke: “Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’”
On the surface, the joke is a self-deprecating jab at the Jewish tendency to overthink things. But on a deeper level (and for Freud of course there is always a deeper level) the joke comments on the difficulty of discerning truth. He asks, “is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say?” Freud proposes that jokes like the one above “attack not a person or an institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself.” He is struck by how many jokes of this nature are Jewish ones.
“In delineating the various people and parties who could conceivably be offended by a Jewish continuity agenda, Bitton leaves out the most important population of all: the future humans upon whom the entirety of civilization rests. It’s true that having children is physically and emotionally taxing, and undoubtedly the burdens are unequally distributed between genders, at least for discrete periods in a child’s life. Some of these challenges can certainly be remedied; others are on a certain level inherent. Eve is told “in pain you shall bear your children,” and Adam too, is destined to work hard for all the days of life. Yet any account of these difficulties needs to be contextualized with at least a passing mention of the vast potential that accompanies bringing forth new life into the world.”
Please see here for the full response, thank you to Sources and to Mijal Bitton for the opportunity to reflect.
A review of Judaism Straight up by Moshe Koppel
Several years ago, a blog called Judaism Without Apologies began to circulate on social media. The blog began by juxtaposing two Jewish characters’ lives and ideals: Shimen, a Gerer Hasid of sorts and Holocaust survivor living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and Heidi, a cosmopolitan Princeton graduate who thinks of herself as a citizen of the world.
A photograph by George Kalinsky of my own Polish Holocaust survivor grandfather at the Siyum HaShas in 1990. I imagine Shimen having a similar intense, independent-minded look.
The series was narrated by the American Israeli computer scientist Moshe Koppel, who had attended Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel in his youth. After obtaining a PhD in mathematics, Koppel spent a year at Prince- ton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he met the original Heidi, the first of many he would encounter in the years to come. Koppel’s blog may have been rooted in comic sociology, but it quickly morphed into a serious discussion of moral philosophy, game theory, cultural anthropology, the nature of language, and ultimately an argument about the future of Judaism itself. Despite its rather niche appeal, the blog’s unique fusion of a no-holds-barred attitude with serious erudition attracted some diehard fans. Koppel has just published an expanded book-length version, which presents a cleaned-up and even more compelling defense of the old-fashioned Judaism Koppel imbibed in the shtiebel.
Shimen, a real-life acquaintance of Koppel (Heidi is a composite), is at the heart of the book. He survived the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, but his wife and two precious children did not. After the war, Shimen picked up a handgun and collected Jewish children who had been hidden by Polish families and returned them to their communities. Elie Wiesel, who prayed in Shimen’s Gerer shtiebel from time to time, once told a story about celebrating Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz without wine. An inmate announced, “we’ll take out tin cups and fill them with tears. And that is how we’ll make our kiddush . . . heard before God.” That, apparently, was Shimen. Koppel writes of Polish Hasidic Holocaust survivors like him:
[They] were intense, they were angry, they could be funny in a biting sort of way. . . . But one thing they had no patience for was high-minded pieties. They despised pomposity and self-righteousness. Their devotion to Yiddishkeit, old-fashioned Judaism, as a way of life, and to the Jews as a people, were as natural and instinctive as drawing breath.
(from Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, Tradition Journal Online)
“In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold argues for the role of reading “the best that has been thought and said” as an antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest.”
“Ours is physically the healthiest and most affluent society that has ever existed, and, in some ways, raising children is also more convenient than it has ever been. Yet, children are increasingly perceived as a burden.”