Judaism: The art of bold ideas

It is time to start thinking big about Judaism.

Yeshiva 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yeshiva 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
(This is the first part of a two-part essay)
Many of us believe that Judaism is thriving.
After all, we have greater religious observance, more Jewish schools, yeshivot, women’s colleges and outreach programs than ever before. The truth, however, is radically different.
Judaism is nearly irrelevant. It suffers from a major malady.
In truth, it is not only Judaism that suffers from this disease but the whole world. We have fallen in love with an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive information, which does not get processed but only recycled.
We no longer produce bold ideas.
They demand too much effort and do not suit our most important need: instant satisfaction. With the exception of science, we only admire bold ideas when we feel our empty pockets, but not when they dare challenge our empty souls. We love the commonplace instead of the visionary.
While in ages past, discussions within our faith could and did ignite the fires of debate, incite revolutions and fundamentally change our views about Judaism and the world – as when the Baal Shem Tov founded Hassidism – we are now confronted with an increasingly post-idea Judaism. Provoking ideas that would stagger our minds are no longer “in.” If anything, they are condemned as heresy.
Most of our yeshivot have retreated from creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than push for daring ideas. We are producing a generation that believes its task is to tend potted plants rather than plant forests. We teach young people what to think instead of teaching them how to think. The onslaught of halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts of Jewish law, hardly generates inspiring new ideas about these laws.
AS A result, we are faced with our youth either walking out on Judaism or becoming religious extremists who can’t see the forest for the trees.We fail to realize is that this is the result of our own educational system.
Information is not simply to have but to produce ideas that make sense of the information gathered and move it toward higher latitudes.But Jewish education today is mostly about producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance but think less and less about what they know.
This is even truer of their teachers.
Many of them are great Talmudic scholars, but these very scholars do not realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand. Just as a bird may think that it is an act of kindness to lift a fish into the air, so these rabbis think they are providing their students with spiritual oxygen but may actually be choking them.
They are embalming Judaism while claiming it is alive because it continues to maintain its external shape.
Fewer and fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great Jewish thinkers of the past and present. And even when they do, the ideas of these great thinkers are presented to them as information instead of as challenges to their own thinking or as prompts to the development of their own creativity. This is a mistake. Our current spiritual and intellectual challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backwards and giving answers that once worked but are now outdated.
Instead of new theories, hypotheses and great ideas, we get instant answers to questions of the greatest importance, offered via a variety of self-help books, which seem to claim that their philosophical information came directly from Sinai.
Trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information displaces significant ideas. The information is merely “tweeted” – thus too brief and unsupported by proper arguments – yet still presented as “the answer.” By delivering “perfect” answers, everything is done to crush questioning.
The quest for certainty paralyses the search for meaning.
UNCERTAINTY IS the very stimulus that compells man to unfold his intellectual capacity. Every idea within Judaism is multifaceted and filled with contradictions, opposing opinions and unsolvable paradoxes. The greatness of the talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts, and their attempts at resolving them, as when Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated the essential, existential question of whether man should have been created or not (Eruvin 13b).
Those teachers made students privy to their own inner lives. In that way they made their discussions exciting. They created tension in their classes, waged war with their own ideas and asked their students to fight them with knives between their teeth. They were not interested in teaching dogmas, but instead asked their students to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions.
These teachers realized that not all paradoxes can be solved, because life itself is a paradox.
It is true that this approach is not without risk, but there is no authentic life choice that is risk-free. Nothing is worse than giving in to the indolence and callousness that stifles inquiry and leaves one drifting with the current.
Such an approach shrinks Judaism’s universe to a self-centered and self-satisfying ideological ghetto, robbing it of its most essential component: ongoing debate about the religious meaning of life, how to live in God’s presence and how to move toward higher levels.
Outreach programs, although well intended, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are. By doing so, they crush the minds of many newcomers who might have made major contributions to a new and a vigorous Judaism. The goal is to fit them into the existing system. To them, only numbers count.
Millions of dollars are spent to create more and more of the same type of standard religious Jew. We are not unlike the Tower of Babel generation, when the whole world was “of one language and of one speech.” We are producing a religious Jewish community of artificial conformism in which independent thought and difference of opinion is not only condemned, but its absence is considered to be the ultimate ideal.
In doing so we have created a generation of “yes men,” but we desperately need to heed Kierkegaard’s warning to Christianity: “The greatest proof of Christianity’s decay is the prodigiously large number of [like-minded] Christians” (M.M.
Thulstrup’s “Kierkegaard’s Dialectic of Imitation” in A Kierkegaard Critique, H Johnson and N Thulstrup, eds., NY 1962).
The author is the dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books on Judaism and an international lecturer.