Mesorah Project V

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Thank you Michael for a contribution that is both very personal and scholarly.

I think the most important thing we can do is to inculcate in our children intellectual perspicacity and intellectual and moral courage. If there is one thing that I believe it imperative to transmit to them, and which I believe we will have failed as parents if we fail to inculcate in them (besides the obvious, viz. technical Torah observance and upstanding moral character), it is such a perspicacity and courage and independence of mind. We don’t have all the answers yet; the Torah is an ongoing challenge. But we must accept all of life’s challenges and all of modern scientific and worldly knowledge, and have the courage to admit the questions, and have the courage to explore daring solutions without looking over our shoulders. Even if the questions all remain unanswered, we must acknowledge the challenges posed, and not shy away. And we must not be fazed by charismatic leadership and authoritarian censure. Perhaps I am influenced by the fact that growing up, I had almost no friends in school, until high school. Putting aside the various explanations offered by my family and myself for this fact, I nevertheless learned very early on, approximately fourth grade, at the latest, that I was not beholden to anyone, and that if I knew I was right, and I knew I was following the truth, it mattered not what others said. And if the result was that I hadn’t a single solitary friend, so be it; life isn’t a popularity contest. Now, fourth-graders were not debating philosophy; my independence and iconoclasm were regarding far more petty and immature matters, but the principle remains the same, and I believe it has continued to serve me well in life. I recall someone (Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in all probability) saying that in fact, perhaps the blood libels were a blessing in disguise. The whole world vilified us; could the whole world be errant in this? Perhaps they were right? But the blood libel prevented our acquiring Stockholm’s syndrome (this syndrome is also endemic in the present Israeli political leadership, but we have not the time to be detained by this); we knew that we were not drinking gentiles’ blood, and so we knew that the entire world could be wrong in not only this, but potentially, in every regard. Thus, the blood libels saved us from moral surrender to the majority. I believe I learned this lesson as a child, and I believe the Orthodox Jewish community must learn this lesson within its own ranks; all too often, we see ourselves as grasshoppers in the eyes of the Haredim; really, just as with the meraglim, we are merely projecting our own insecurities into the others’ eyes. We must have the courage to resist the “Grasshopper Effect” (See David Balint, “The “Grasshopper Effect” and Other Defects in Modern Orthodox Leadership”), and have the courage to stand up for what we believe is the truth.

Also, many of the criticisms made, that these studies and occupations will weaken faith in the Torah, seem to me to have basis only insofar as our educational systems are lacking. I myself was raised with a staunch Jewish weltanschauung by my non-Orthodox mother. (Besides not being Orthodox, my mother was actually raised as an Evangelical Christian!) My mother never taught me to keep halakhah, but all the same, she never let me wonder what our purpose in the world was as Jews. Never once did I ever doubt that my purpose in life was to be part of a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation”, to be a “light to the nations”, to engage in a perspicacious and audacious search for the truth, in order to enlighten all mankind and bring all man to accept His Kingship. Never did I doubt all this, and I was not even raised Orthodox; I did not even attend a Jewish day school! When I later became ritually observant, I received further education from an abridged Hirsch Humash, (Trumath Tzvi, ed. Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, Judaica Press, 1986.) but I found little if anything therein which contradicted that which my mother taught me. Today, secular studies and engagements do not faze me in the slightest bit, and I have never had to wonder whose yoke I am still bearing, first and foremost. Cannot our Orthodox day schools do as well as my non-Orthodox mother’s informal pedagogy did? I should shudder to think that our schools and rabbis are so poor that they inculcate Jewish weltanschauung less effectively than did my non-Orthodox Christian-raised mother. I might further add that though I have been Orthodox for approximately some five years, nevertheless, almost all my weltanschauung was either inculcated in me by my mother, or acquired by myself autodidactically. Though I presently learn in yeshiva, nevertheless, almost none of the material in this present essay, and almost none of my beliefs in general, are due to education; it is almost all self-taught, based on my own personal reading. Surely our Orthodox day schools can do as well as I have on my own, together with my mother’s inculcating her teachings in me as she did. (There are a few exceptions, a few things which my rabbis have taught me, and I will be the first to admit these; these especially include technical learning of Gemara, and the writings of Rav Kook. But by and large, most of my Jewish knowledge – especially the hashkafic – is all self-taught. The fact that I had to teach this all to myself, of course, paints a bleak picture of the present state of Orthodoxy. It is not for any vain reason that I have not learned from rabbis; the simple fact is that there are almost no rabbis today to teach me.)

According to Rabbi Hirsch (Collected Writings (New York/Jerusalem: Feldheim) vol 7 pp. 415-6, quoted in “Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch—Torah Leadership for Our Times”, by Rabbi Dr. Yehudah (Leo) Levi):

It would be most perverse and criminal of us to seek to instill in our children a contempt, based on ignorance and untruth, for everything that is not specifically Jewish, for all other human arts and sciences, in the belief that by inculcating our children with such a negative attitude … we could safeguard them from contacts with the scholarly and scientific endeavors of the rest of mankind….You will then see that your simple-minded calculations were just as criminal as they were perverse. Criminal, because they enlisted the help of untruth supposedly in order to protect the truth, and because you have thus departed from the path upon which your own Sages have preceded you and beckoned you to follow them. Perverse, because by so doing you have achieved precisely the opposite of what you wanted to accomplish… Your child will consequently begin to doubt all of Judaism which (so, at least, it must seem to him from your behavior) can exist only in the night and darkness of ignorance and which must close its eyes and the minds of its adherents to the light of all knowledge if it is not to perish.

Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz, in his Einaim Lirot (trans. as Eyes to See, Urim Publications) devotes a chapter to the fact that the Jewish people, as the descendants of Avraham – the man who as the paradigmatic and foremost iconoclast smashed his generation’s idols and engaged in a perspicacious philosophical quest for the truth – is a nation of skeptics, who will not accept anything unless it is proven. Rabbi Schwarz assumes we should take honor in this fact; this is our essence as the Jewish people, in fact, says Rabbi Schwarz.

The rest of this submission can be found here.
By Michael from My Random Diatribes

Mesorah Project I

Mesorah Project II

Mesorah Project III

Mesorah Project IV

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8 thoughts on “Mesorah Project V

  1. Michael, I am struck by your mentioning you had no friends until high school. I had friends, but on very personal matters I often did not connect. One friend told me recently (via Facebook) that her years at our Orthodox Jewish day school were the best of her life; for me, I was so glad to get out of there. Two people, same teachers, totally different experiences.

    I don’t care for some of the recent proposals to lower costs for schools, because they will make it extremely difficult to teach a child according to his way (by taking out teaching assistants, raising class size, taking out music and art).

    It is easier to block out everything that is not Jewish. Hard to live with cognitive dissonance. I suppose that is why the more right wing schools do so.

    • I think for me, it was that I simply have such an…unusual…personality, that people either love me or hate me. Generally, I think it’s my geekiness; I remember once at summer camp, that some fellows, on July 4th, were ragging on one of the British counselors, about how America whupped Britain. I chimed in, “Actually, after the War of Independence, America’s economy was in shambles, with rampant inflation and much loss of property. It was highly doubtful whether America would survive, and many thought Britain would soon return and successfully conquer.” Now, I was not trying to show off; I was just trying to constructively contribute to the discussion. But suffice it to say, the other campers were not enthused by my historical correction, as they were more interested in some good-old-time fun, ragging on the British. At summer camp, I didn’t have many friends either.

      As I got older, my intellectuality seemed to become more appreciated, and others, though still finding my geekiness peculiar and sometimes a tad annoying, became able to at least tolerate me.

      Interestingly, it was at a gifted-and-talented program from 4th through 8th grades that I was most disliked. I can only suppose that the other students, being quite gifted themselves, were jealous. By contrast, students in non-gifted programs did not pride themselves on their intelligence and academic ability, and so they were not threatened by mine, only slightly annoyed by my locquaciousness.

  2. Michael, I always think I can write a lot, until I read your blog and comments!

    I really enjoyed reading this – a real mixture of your own experiences and personal history, commentary from Rabbis and then general history into the bargain. You are indeed an interesting person!

  3. 😀 Toda!

    Oh, you’ve reminded me: I’ve recently written an essay, and all it’s lacking is an audience. If anyone wants to read an essay covering everything from the vagaries of hashgahat kashrut, the importance of acknowledging psychology and sociology in kiruv efforts, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch’s view of non-observant Jews, the influence of sociology on pesak halakhah towards a polemic tendency in both German Neo-Orthodoxy and Haredism, and how Sephardism will be the salvation of Judaism – all in one forty page essay! – please contact me. 😉

    (However, the essay, since it has no audience, has also not yet been proofread or edited to be readable or to be of good-quality writing.)

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