Thoughts to Ponder: Hearing, receiving and responding

It is detrimental to Jewish tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and the storing up of whole theories.

The curse of fundamentalism (photo credit: TNS)
The curse of fundamentalism
(photo credit: TNS)
The primary concern of Judaism is the art of living. To accomplish this goal, Judaism is committed to a strong sense of tradition and a determination to realize certain optimal goals.
It is this road that has made Judaism unique and makes it stand out among the community of religions. This unique directness – from a historical past into a messianic future, from Mount Sinai to justice for the orphan, widow and stranger and the ultimate abolition of war – has saved Judaism from death by ice and death by fire, from freezing in awe of a rigid tradition and from evaporating into utopian reverie (Walter Kaufman, Critique of Religion and Philosophy, p. 268).
Still, what Jews always looked for in the Torah was not just a way of living, nor the discovery of a truth, but – this is scarcely an exaggeration – everything. Their love for the Torah was not just molded by particular teachings but by their conviction that everything could be found within its pages. God is no doubt central to Judaism, but because the Jews never lost their intimate awareness of the multifarious colors of the Torah and its tradition, no dogma could ever gain authority.
Even after Maimonides attempted, under the influence of Islamic theology, to lay down definite formulations of Jewish belief, Judaism refused to accept these formulations as sacrosanct, and did not allow such attempts to come between itself and the inexhaustible Torah text. It is for this reason that the kind of tension between religion and the quest for truth is almost unknown in Judaism. No sacrifice of the intellect is demanded.
One look in the Talmud proves this point beyond doubt. The flow of thoughts, opposing ideas, and the making and rejection of opinions and insights are abundant. The interaction between legality, prose, narrative, illusion and hard reality is astonishing. It makes the Talmud the richest of all literature. Not even Greek philosophy was able to produce such a symphony of ideas in which the waves of the human intellect and divinity move forward and backward.
There is an absolute lack of systematization in the Talmud and it is clear that any such attempt was nipped in the bud. From a modern point of view, one might argue that the search for truth in the Torah was not directed toward proportional truth, because such a notion was lacking by definition.
The most persistent intellectual energy and analytic efforts were devoted to the continual contrivance of beautiful and profound interpretations to discover the totality of life.
Since the Torah was considered God-given, it might have been logical that fundamentalism would ultimately triumph, leading to conflicts with science and other disciplines. But this inference is founded on a major misconception. Precisely because the text is seen as the word of God, the essential ambiguity of the text was granted implicitly, and every verse by definition has many levels of interpretations, both poetic and legal. There is even the compatibility of playfulness with seriousness, since the former is a most important component of human existence as created by God.
TODAY’S ATTEMPT to streamline and straightjacket the Jewish tradition and create a final Jewish theology is a major mistake and a complete misreading of Judaism’s very character. While there is, for practical reasons, a need to put halachic living into a pragmatic context that requires conformity in action, this should never be the goal when focusing on Judaism’s beliefs. It is the task of the rabbis to do everything in their power to rescue Judaism from dogmatism.
While it can’t be denied that Judaism incorporates certain primary beliefs, these were always kept to the minimum and were constantly a source of fierce debate. Most importantly, one must remember that such “dogmas” never turned into a reductio ad absurdum, an appeal to extremes. Freedom in doctrine and conformity in action were the overall policy to which the Talmudic rabbis were committed, even when they were convinced of certain fundamental truths. This is also evident when one studies the relationship between the biblical text and the oral Torah: a minimum amount of words and a maximum amount of interpretation.
It is detrimental to Jewish tradition to transform words into fixed clusters of thought and the storing up of whole theories. The idea is not to become the owner of masses of information, which are entrusted firmly in one’s memory and carefully transmitted into notes.
Once one does so, one becomes scared and disturbed by new ideas, since the new puts into question the fixed sum of information that one has stored into one’s mind. As such, ideas that cannot easily be pinned down are frightening, like everything else that grows and is flexible.
Instead of being passive receptacles of words and ideas, the ideal is to hear and, most importantly, to receive and respond in an active, productive way. It needs to stimulate a thinking process that ultimately leads to the transformation of the student.
The attempt today to “halachalize,” or legalize, Jewish thought is missing the whole message of the Talmudic way of thinking. It will undermine the Halacha itself since it will kill its underlying spirit. There is little doubt that due to the pan-halachic attitudes that we now experience in certain rabbinical circles, we see the symptoms through which the Halacha becomes suffocated and often rejected by intelligent, broad-thinking people. A plant may continue to stay alive in apparent health after its roots have been cut, but its days are numbered.
IF THE kind of rabbinical censorship that we have encountered lately in relation to certain books and ideas on Orthodox Judaism were to be applied to the Talmudic text itself, it would mean that the best part of this great compendium on Jewish thought and law would be censored and burned.
Freedom of thought must be guaranteed if we want the Jewish tradition to have a future. This applies in particular to teaching. A man or a woman who holds a teaching post should not be forced to repress his opinions for the sake of upholding popular simplistic opinions or even more sophisticated ones. As long as his or her opinions are rooted in the authentic Jewish tradition, and expressed with the awe of heaven, it must be encouraged, however much this is disliked by some rabbinic authorities.
Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers is not only not to be sought but is, if possible, to be avoided, since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No religious Jewish student can pass as educated if he has heard only one side of the debates that divided the earlier and later sages.
One of the most important things to teach is the power of weighing arguments, and this is the foundation of all Talmudic debate. To prevent the teacher from doing so or to bring this to the attention of his or her students is misplaced rabbinic tyranny, which has no place in the Jewish tradition. It is the Christianization of Judaism by rabbis.
As soon as censorship is imposed upon the opinions that teachers may avow, Jewish education ceases to serve its purpose and tends to produce instead of a nation of men, a herd of fanatical bigots.
Today’s Talmudists must realize that they can become imprisoned by their own Talmudic knowledge. They may have tremendous Talmudic expertise, but they may have forgotten that one needs to know more than only all the intricacies of text.
One needs to hear the distinctiveness of its content, the spirit it breathes, the ideological foundations on which it stands. To know the Talmud is to know more than its sum total.
Techniques for dealing with men whose opinions are disliked have been well perfected. Especially so when the condemners are men of power and the accused is young and inexperienced. It is easy and a well-known tactic to accuse him of professional incompetence. Most of the time he is quietly dropped. In the case of more experienced men, public hostility is stirred by means of misrepresentation and character assassination.
Since most teachers do not care to expose themselves to these risks, they will avoid giving public expressions to their less “orthodox” opinions. This is a most dangerous state of affairs. It is a way to muzzle genuine and important knowledge and to deny people insight. But above all, it allows obscurantism to triumph.
Certain religious leaders, including rabbis, may believe that such tactics of repression and character assassination work, but they should know that books can get burned, but the ideas expressed in them do not die. No man and no force can put a thought in a concentration camp.
Trying to do so is similar to the act of somebody who is so afraid of being murdered that he decides to commit suicide so as to avoid assassination.