Friday, September 23, 2005

The walls we put up are not sukkat shalom

I finished reading the recently published biography of R. Saul Lieberman. It not only gives a fascinating view on R. Lieberman, but also sheds light on how the denominations of Judaism view themselves and others. R. Lieberman from the outset had impeccible credentials, went to Yeshiva at Slobodka, studied at a Mussar Yeshiva , was the cousin of the Chazon Ish, and came from a distinguished line of rabbonim. However, there also were aspects of what he did that put him "outside the club" or cast doubt in some people's eyes about his "kashrut." R. Ruderman(of Ner Yisrael fame), a classmate at Slobodka, noted that R. Liberman was suspect even back then because he went to movies and read books. Others, like R. Kamenetsky, admired him tremendously for his learning.

R. Lieberman tried going to medical school in France, but wound up in Israel, and learned and taught at Hebrew U., where he was exposed to "critical methods of scholarship"- in other words, how to approach Shas not just from the point of view of the Rishonim and commentators, but looking at the text and the history and the context. However, he maintained that the text of Shas was something to be learned, not a corpse to be dissected. He published his first studies of Yerushalmi, and since Hebrew U. would not hire him full time, looked around for other employment and was offered a job at JTS. Others who were considered for that job were RYBS, and R. Belkin.

R. Lieberman viewed the position at JTS as an opportunity to study, since he only had to teach 6 hours a week, and also a way to influence the American rabbinate. At the time, R. Louis Ginsburg and R. Finklestein, the heads of JTS, viewed the institution as traditional, aligned with the orthodox in opposing the changes introduced by the reform. In fact, later they tried to have a joint bet din with the RCA(they also tried to have one with the reform rabbis) but it fell through when the RA(conservative rabbis) refused to be bound by the decisions, and R. Lieberman didn't want to force the issue.

R. Lieberman did not view himself as the halachic decisor for the conservative movement. More telling, he viewed himself as trying to keep the rabbis as traditional as possible and influencing them as much as possible to stay on "the path." All agree that personally his shmirat mitzvot was impeccable. His religious influence lasted only until his death, and obviously we have seen JTS and the Conservative movement move to the left, until sometimes it is hard to distinguish Conservative from reform at times.

In summary: He had yichus, went to impeccable yeshivot, was a genius and wrote brilliantly, was personally shomer mitzvot, tried to keep JTS traditional and yet, there are those who would not put a R. in front of his name, or put his books in a brown wrapper to study from them. And apparently(I dont know if this is true) a major publishing house wont even allow his name in its books.

Worse, it appears that there was an opportunity for intellect-based traditional judaism(my substitute for what would pass as modern orthodox) to flourish. After all, how much difference was there really in the approaches of R. Lieberman, R. Ginsburg, RYBS, or R. Belkin? Couldn't they have all worked together, instead of having been pulled to extremes? Or at least have their legacies claimed by those who are more to one side or another? It was very interesting reading the introduction written by the present chancellor of JTS. Obviously, someone who does not have the same Hashkafa as R. Lieberman did. He does all sorts of gymnastics to cast R. Lieberman in a more liberal light, which is clearly not accurate at all.

So now, we have a small part of the what used to be the Conservative movement, the true heirs of R. Lieberman, the UTJ(Union for Traditional Judaism) on one side, and the dwindling masses of Conservative Jews heading leftwards at an increasing pace(it seems that gay/lesbian ordination is on the horizon)on the other. On the orthodox side, we dont seem to have a true heir to RYBS(R. Aharon is probably closest in intellect and learning), but a group holding down the more liberal end(Edah, Chovevei Torah) and a group moving rightwards(rest of the YU world).

The sad part is that when you put a label on someone or some group, like Conservative, or Orthodox, people automatically make assumptions about what you do, and decide whether to affiliate or invite you to things, based on that label. If R. Lieberman had taught at any other school(except obviously the reform seminary), he would not have been denigrated by those termed orthodox. Similarly, RYBS would have commanded a lot more respect in the "yeshiva" world, if he had taught at a different school. Neither would have had to say a thing different, do a thing different, just have a different address and title. Interestingly, those who had an open mind and were scholarly enough to recognize genius and erudition, usually held both of those rabbis in great respect, regardless of the affiliation, but usually were not able to publically express it because of the political ramifications.

Worst, we continue to have these artifical walls and continue to make decisions on who to listen to and who not to, just based on an address. And this goes both for the right and the left, selective hearing has no prediliction for sides.

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Friday, September 09, 2005

Outside culture and Jewish philosophy

If you look around at what Jews wear, eat and, pray in, it is very clear that surrounding cultures have affected us. Chassidim wear the dress of Polish noblemen. Ashkenazim eat Russian/Polish/German food. Sefaradim build shuls that look a bit like mosques, while the Ashkenazim seem to reflect churches a bit. Look at Jewish music. It is quite clear that the outside culture affected food, dress, architecture, and other aspects of Jewish life. What about philosophy? How much have non-Jewish philosophical trends and developments affected what and how Jews think about their religion? Have the non-Jewish trends affected our basic beliefs and attitudes?

Clear examples:

the Rambam reflects classic Aristotilian philosophy.

The Rav(RYBS) reflects Kant and Hermann Cohen(obviously a Jew, but not observant and so would not count as a philosopher of Judaism)

As noted in the post below, R. Nadler notes that ascetic trends in Judaism seem to reflect the non-Jewish religious philosophy of the surrounding time and culture.

It may be possible(and I am sure someone has done it, if you have a reference, please let me know) to look at when ideas are first noted in Jewish philosophy(life after death, eternity of the soul, etc) and see how it compares with the presence of those ideas in the history of philosophy in general.

Has Jewish philosophy simply used the tools provided by general philosophy to refine and better express what we think and believe? or have our beliefs been significantly affected by what has been believed around us? It could be that different aspects of our beliefs have been muted or expressed to a greater or lessor extent either to agree with or provide more seperation from the outside philosophical milieu.

Shabbat Shalom

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