Thursday, January 05, 2012

Great Jews


Rabbi David Wolpe, citing Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, asks a great question in his 12/29/11 blog post: When will Jews who are great also be great Jews? This questions begs another: What makes a great Jew? Is it observance of Jewish tradition? And, if so, how observant? Is it contributing to Jewish causes? And if so, how much?
Rabbi Wolpe notes that the kind of mind rabbinic Judaism requires—a mind devoted to critical thinking, reason, analysis, argument, and doubt; a mind at home with paradox and aflame with possibility and imagination—explains why so many non-observant Jews rise to the top of their respective fields: they still have that kind of mind.
Maybe. There is something in the training of a Jewish mind that, while not unique in the world of parenting may be quintessentially Jewish. That is to say that while nonJewish parents may raise their kids to be iconoclasts, Judaism elevates this kind of childrearing to the status of divine command. Jews are Yisrael, God wrestlers. We are trained to struggle with “God and humans and to survive,” (Genesis 22:24). We may not be the only people that do this, but we may be the only people that do it on purpose as a matter of cultural norm.
I am proud of this. The Jewish mind at its best is the mind of the prophets and sages who stood against the status quo and for universal justice and compassion. But if this is so, why is it that the very people one might expect to the most iconoclastic—the ultra Orthodox steeped in rabbinic tradition—turn out to be the most fetishistic and narrow-minded among us?
It is not enough to teach the content of rabbinic Judaism; we must cultivate the radicalism of the rabbinic mind.
For me a great Jew is a Jew trained from childhood to be an iconoclast, a person bold enough to destroy the gods of her parents (like Abraham), daring enough to argue with the Creator of the Universe (And win! Again like Abraham.), and strong enough to wrestle God to a standstill and survive (like Jacob).
What troubles me about the current state of Judaism is that we define “great” in ways that promote conformity (ritual observance measured by some arbitrary standard rooted in a fixed point in an otherwise fluid Jewish history), rather than as a bold encounter with what is in order to wrestle free what might be.
Here is my fantasy for a great Judaism that produces great Jews: Let’s build a postmodern yeshivah (probably in New York, though Jerusalem beckons) where Jews are first and foremost taught how to think Jewishly rather than how to live halachically (according to Jewish Law). We would study the same texts as other yeshivot but with a different intent: not to learn the law, but to learn how to think. And of course we would study the texts of the modern and post-modern Jewish giants as well: Spinoza, Freud, Kafka, Jabes, Einstein, Buber, Strauss, etc. whose thinking reflects the genius of Judaism even if their living did not.
A Jewish academy steeped in critical thinking and iconoclasm would be a huge draw among liberal Jews, and a way to secure that in the future Jews who are great will also be great Jews.

5 comments:

eashtov said...

Shalom Rav,

Actually, the question, "what makes a Jew" precedes the one you posed, "what makes a great Jew?"

What makes a Jew beyond an accident of birth, anti anti Semitism, and being politically liberal?

Glad to see you reference Rabbi David Wolpe. I've always
liked his writing and the thinking behind it.

Biv'racha,
Jordan

Raksha said...

This could very well be one of the best blog posts you've ever written.

Re [i]"Rabbi Wolpe notes that the kind of mind rabbinic Judaism requires—a mind devoted to critical thinking, reason, analysis, argument, and doubt; a mind at home with paradox and aflame with possibility and imagination—explains why so many non-observant Jews rise to the top of their respective fields: they still have that kind of mind."[/i]

You (or you and Rabbi Wolpe between you) have done a wonderful job of verbalizing exactly what it is about being Jewish that is most valuable and irreplaceable. But that unique quality of mind is in danger of being lost forever if the Jews were to assimilate completely. And that would be a great tragedy, both for us and for the world.

The big question is, what to do about it? Your post is somewhat synchronistic because I've been struggling with this same question for weeks, although I couldn't have verbalized it half as well. I really like your idea of a postmodern yeshiva, which of necessity would include traditionally secular subjects along with religious ones. That's only a starting point, of course. But half the battle towards solving any problem is correctly identifying it, and I think you've done that.

--Linda

Red Tulips said...

Wow! You should create this Yeshiva. I would come!!

Red Tulips said...

Wow! You should create this Yeshiva. I would come!!

The author of this blog is said...

I wrote a bit about this in my book Cutting Through the Mountain, because all of The Jewish activists in it were greatly aculturated