Monday, July 8, 2013

Recognizing the stakes

The events surrounding outgoing UK Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shlita and the American Agudah just before Shabbos last week had me quite distressed. On the one hand, the Agudah's response seemed overly reactionary (and verbose), especially in light of our fast approach to the 9th of Av and all the discord that is associated with this especially sad time of the year. On the other hand, after reading Rabbi Sacks' pamphlet, I can't say I particularly blame the Agudah's indignation in response to his using the Siyum HaShas as an example of the burgeoning 'extreme' on the right of an increasingly insular society.

(I'm still not quite convinced that that was indeed the point Rabbi Sacks was trying to make; for starters, the Siyum was anything but monolithic - while under the auspices of the Agudah, the Siyum that I attended had more than a fair share of all types of Jews from all walks of life, many of whom do not subscribe to the Agudist party line, to say the least. Rav Hershel Schachter shlita - who is decidedly not an "Agudist" - was seated in a very nice place on the dais; moreover, a very warm and welcoming forum was provided for the former Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, shlita. To present it as an example of anything other than a swell in limmud haTorah is inaccurate.

I think the quote as read was an unfortunately [and uncharacteristic] awkward expression meant to illustrate the growth in numbers of people looking to connect to Torah vis-a-vis those who are growing away from it.

Perhaps a better illustration of the 'massing of extremes' would be the 'other' mega-event that took place a few months prior to the Siyum at neighboring Citi Field, but I digress...)

Still, this is not a new position for Rabbi Sacks. A cursory review of his works - both literary and his efforts as Chief Rabbi - will attest to this principle that he has advocated for years: engaging the world, opening up the universal beauty and wisdom that is Judaism to the other nations of the world, and seeking to elevate us all by celebrating what we have in common rather than focusing on what sets us apart.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does (perhaps ironically in light of the previous statement) highlight a significant difference between different groups of Torah true Jews concerning where our emphases should be.

This is not a novel idea, either. Some might say that this was the Judaism that Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch OBM championed, and they might be correct; there is no question that Rav Hirsch's Torah Im Derech Eretz is an attempt at synthesis that worked rather well for German Jewry (But the question remains whether this is an ideal - ab initio - or a response to the needs of the time in the face of existential danger to an entire community.).

Others might try to point to Rav Soloveitchik OBM as another paragon of this type of Judaism - Rabbi Sacks certainly characterizes him as such - but I would humbly disagree on that point as well. True, the Rav lived in the world, embraced it - not only the knowledge, but the culture - but he never seemed to lose perspective as to which was ikkar and which was taful. He earned a doctorate in Berlin, but he never left Volozhin. According to the Rav, there can be no true synthesis between the two worlds; thesis and antithesis must exist independently in order to maintain vitality. A blending would sufficiently weaken both worlds - a tragic occurrence for both.*

Regardless, Rabbi Sack is not suggesting anything radical or innovative. It is one legitimate approach to our mission on this world, an attempt to sanctify and glorify the name of God. But it is one approach among many, including that of the Agudah and others, all of which are valid to a degree, with certain qualifiers.

And both of the two approaches being presented in this false dichotomy are fraught with realistic dangers and concerns.

When Rav Kook spoke at the inauguration of Hebrew University in 1925**, he touched upon this very theme. His speech begins by quoting from Isaiah:
"Lift up your eyes and look about; they have all gathered and come to you. Your sons shall be brought from afar, your daughters like babes on shoulders. As you behold, you will glow. Your heart will fear and rejoice - for the wealth of the sea shall pass on to you; the riches of the nations shall come to you." (60:4-5)
After explaining how the first verse is being borne out with the nascent developments of the Holy Land, Rav Kook turns to the second verse:

But why "fear"? Why did the prophet preface the phrase "your heart will rejoice" with the notion of fear? When, however, we look back in retrospect at past generations, and at the spiritual and intellectual movements that have influenced us, we readily understand that the notion of fear, in conjunction with rejoicing, is appropriate. 
Two tendencies characterize Jewish spirituality. One tendency is internal and sacred; it serves to deepen the spirit and to strengthen the light of Torah within. Such has been the purpose of all Torah institutions from earliest times, especially the fortresses of Israel's soul - the yeshivot. This includes all the yeshivot that ever existed, presently exist, and will exist in order to glorify Torah in its fullest sense.This spiritual tendency is fully confident and assured... 
The second tendency characterizing Jewish spirituality served not only to deepen the sacredness of Torah within, but also as a means for the propagation and absorption of ideas. It served to propagate Jewish ideas and values from the private domain of Judaism into the public arena of the universe at large...It also served to absorb the general knowledge derived by the collective effort of all of humanity, by adapting the good and useful aspects of general knowledge to our storehouse of a purified way of living.
Citing this second ideal as the hopeful prospect of what the Hebrew University can accomplish, Rav Kook then continues with an exhortation:

Here, dear friends, there is room for fear. From earliest times, we have experienced the transfer of the most sublime and holy concepts from the Jewish domain to the general arena. An example of propagation was the translation of the Torah into Greek...There were also instances of absorption. Various cultural influences, such as Greek culture and other foreign cultures that Jews confronted throughout their history penetrated into our inner being... 
We gained in some areas and lost in others in our confrontation with foreign cultures. This much is clear: Regarding those circles that welcomed absorption and propagation joyously, with unmitigated optimism and with no trepidation, very few of their descendants remain with us today...[T]he vast majority of them have assimilated among the nations; they found themselves caught up in the waves of the "wealth of the sea"... 
Only from those who resided securely in our innermost fortresses, in the tents of Torah, enmeshed in the sanctity of the law, did emerge the truly creative Jews...Among these were many who propagated and absorbed. They exported and imported ideas and values on the spiritual highway that mediates between Israel and the nations. Their attitude, however, toward this undertaking was never one of rejoicing only. Fear accompanied their joy as they confronted the vision of the "wealth of the sea" belonging to the "richest of the nations."
Rabbi Sacks' vision is an inspiring, hopeful one, but it needs to be approached with the appropriate wariness and a firm commitment to Torah. While I don't doubt that Rabbi Sacks meets that criteria, we have to take painstaking steps to ensure that when we engage the world around us, it is indeed a confrontation - it may be civil, but we should never let our guard down.

v'Ani haKatan - I have so much more to say, as I try to figure this out myself.  As I said earlier, there are many approaches, and all have their drawbacks; I certainly don't subscribe to the idea that we should circle the wagons. I don't want to focus on negativity here, but there's a lot of room for improvement for all of us. That should be something to consider during these times...

* See Rakefett-Rothkoff, The Rav vol 2. pages 229-31
** All quotations are courtesy of Leiman, S.Z. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook: Invocation at the Inauguration of the Hebrew University TRADITION 29:1 (1994); retrieved from here

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