Judaism – The art of bold ideas

In Judaism one does not inherit faith, one struggles and fights to earn the Torah. The second installment of a two-part essay.

Einstein 311 (photo credit: Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jer)
Einstein 311
(photo credit: Albert Einstein Archives, Hebrew University of Jer)
The great pillars of Judaism, the great value of spiritual, intellectual and moral dissent, have become anathema. Instead of teaching the art of audacity we are now educating a generation of kowtowers.
Insight has been replaced with clichés, flexibility with obstinacy and spontaneity with habit. There is social ostracism of any kind of healthy rebellion against the conventional.
Eliezer Berkovits was ignored when he argued that Halacha had become defensive; the great thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel is largely disregarded by Orthodoxy; Haredi yeshivot pay no attention to Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook. Above all, we see dishonest attempts to portray fundamentalism as a genuinely open-minded, intellectual position, whereas in truth it is nothing of the sort. Great visions of the past are misused and abused. Today we are seeing many people being told that they must imitate so as to belong to the religious camp. Spiritual plagiarism has been adopted as the appropriate way of religious life and thought.
Yes, there are still dissenters in Judaism today – and they are increasing in number. There are even some yeshivot and institutions that dissent, such as Yeshivat Otniel, Yeshivat Siach Yitzchak and the David Cardozo Academy’s Beit Midrash of Avraham Avinu. But the great tragedy is that while these places encourage courageous and independent thought, the vast majority of Orthodoxy ignores their voices.
Instead, the-powers-that-be put their weight behind the insipid and the trivial, and have fallen in love with the flatness of mainstream institutions, which deliver large numbers and offer instant answers to people who find themselves in religious crisis.
Original Jewish thinkers today fall victim to the glut of conformity. While these thinkers challenge conventional thinking, they remain unsupported and live lonely lives because our culture writes them off. It serves only the idol worship of intellectual and spiritual submission rather than saying yes to new religious ideas, which we desperately need.
MOST TALMUDIC scholars today do not realize that the authors whose opinions they teach would turn in their graves if they knew their opinions were being taught as dogmas that cannot be challenged. They wanted their ideas tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, nor could they or should they be reached. They realized that matters of faith should remain fluid, not static.
Halacha is the practical upshot of unfinalized beliefs that remain in theological suspense. Only in this way can we prevent Judaism from either becoming a religion that is paralyzed in its awe of a rigid tradition, or evaporating into a utopian reverie.
TODAY’S JUDAISM desperately needs great critics to impassion and energize its important message. We need spiritual Einsteins, Freuds and Pasteurs to reveal Judaism’s untapped potential and yet-to-be developed grandeur. Judaism should be challenged by new Spinozas and Nietzsches; by remorseless atheists who would scare the hell out of our rabbis who would then be forced into thinking bold ideas.
Our thinking is behind the times, and that is something we can no longer afford. Judaism is about bold ideas. Its goal is not to find the truth, but to inspire us to honestly search for it. Torah study is not only the greatest privilege there is, but also the most dangerous, since it can so easily lead to self-satisfaction and spiritual conceit. The leashing of our souls is easier than the building of our spirit.
We must search for Judaism in its embryonic form, before it was solidified into the Halacha as we know it today. We have a desperate need to return to its great ideas with its many opinions and develop them in ways that can answer the many different spiritual needs of modern man and inspire his soul.
We should emulate Rembrandt, the great Dutch painter who, unlike all the other painters of his generation, used the raw material of Holland’s landscape to perceive hidden connections – linking his preternatural sensibility to a reality that he was able to transform, with great passion, into a new creation. He found himself in a state of permanent antagonism toward his society but today inspires us as never before.
In Judaism, too, one cannot inherit faith and one cannot receive the Jewish tradition. One must fight for the Torah and earn it. To be religious is to live in a state of warfare. The purpose of religion is to disturb. Judaism is a building that is still surrounded by scaffolding. That scaffolding should remain while the building continues.
We do not need revisionist, reform-like positions. History has shown that such approaches do not work and often lack the genuine religious experience. We should not be overanxious to encourage innovation in cases of doubtful improvement. And one does not discover new lands by losing sight of the shore from where one began one’s journey.
But the time has come to rethink Jewish education.
We are in need of yeshivot in which students are challenged about their beliefs; where they are confronted with Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers’ critiques on Judaism and learn how to respond.
Our young people must become aware that doubt, not certainty, leads to real education. We need yeshivot where religious authenticity rather than rabbinic authority reigns supreme, where teachers have the courage to share their doubts and where students have the freedom to learn that, just as in life, Judaism is the art of drawing sufficient conclusions from insufficient premises.
There is an urgent need to set up “Tents of Avraham” throughout the land of Israel, where religious and nonreligious Jews can study, discuss and argue the great faith positions of earlier and later generations. Where they can engage in the wonder of Judaism and study its struggles, its worries and its constant search for new understandings of itself.
The result of those discussions could well be the discovery that some components now seen as fundamental to Judaism may have to be replaced. But the need to break idols and take down sacred cows is itself a Jewish task, one that the first Jew, Avraham, initiated. No doubt there will be fierce arguments, but we should never forget that great controversies are also great emancipators.
Sure, this is painful. But it is also liberating and refreshing. Without it, not only is there no future for Judaism; there is also no real purpose.
The writer is dean of the David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem, the author of many books on Judaism and an international lecturer. For more information on this topic, the writer can be contacted at [email protected]