Friday, October 2, 2015

Principled Disputes For An Enduring Intellectual Life

Jewish Life

“Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure. Which is a dispute that is for the sake of Heaven? The dispute(s) between Hillel and Shamai. Which is a dispute that is not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korach and all his company.”
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), 5:17

JTS Luminaries: Chancellor Louis Finkelstein, Professor Mordecai M. Kaplan, and librarian Alexander Marx at The Jewish Theological Seminary, early 1950s. Daniel Gordis writes what the luminaries at JTS, the intellectual headquarters of the Conservative movement, shared: “What they all had in common, despite their great differences, was a sense of urgency. Each of them sought to forge an intellectual and religious path that could bridge the chasm between the worlds in which they had been raised and the American community to which they were devoted. Jewish thought had to be couched in language that would appeal to a generation of university-educated Jews. Jewish practice had to be reshaped so it did not remind them of their grandparents (or at least not too much). Jewish particularism had to make space for a post-war American world that was proving hospitable to Jews in an unprecedented and distinctly non-European way. The challenge of Conservative Judaism was to refashion Jewish thought, study, and practice so that what was most important and vital in Judaism could survive and even thrive in a bright new America.”
Photo Credit: Gjon Mili; The LIFE Picture Collection and Getty Images.
Source: JRB

One of the beauties of Jewish thought is that disputes or sincere disagreements are not only acceptable, but also expected and in some cases even applauded. In other words, a healthy mind is a product of the thoughtful and respectable disagreement and debating of ideas. New ideas that are versed in doing and promoting good are always worth debating and pursuing. But not all new ideas are worth pursuing.

We are not here talking about petty and personal disputes, but disagreements based on principled and productive arguments. Is this not a path that the world’s Jews ought to always pursue? We are also not here referring to changing the pursuit of fundamental and universal moral principles, but only the application and understanding of these in the light of modern life. For example, what is our place in the universe?

In “Tradition, Creativity, and Cognitive Dissonance,” in The Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2015). Daniel Gordis, makes this very point in an excellent opinion piece that compares and contrasts the Zionist enterprise with Conservative Judaism. One seems to be doing well, while the other is floundering:
On one level, the following reflections are personal. I grew up in a family that produced several leaders of the Conservative movement (including my grandfather, Rabbi Robert Gordis, my father’s brother, Rabbi David Gordis, and my mother’s brother, Rabbi Gerson Cohen). And for almost two decades, I have lived in the state first envisaged, and argued over, by the turn-of-the-century Zionists.
Yet I have also had occasion to think about Conservative Judaism and Zionism in ways that are not merely personal. Why, I have found myself wondering, did one project largely succeed and the other mostly fail? For all its many shortcomings and rather uncertain future, the State of Israel is in large measure what its founders had hoped it would be—Jewish, democratic, able to defend itself, and a center of Jewish cultural life. Conservative Judaism, however, for all its many accomplishments, did not achieve the fundamental goal the movement set out for itself—the creation of a modern, yet halakhically committed laity in which Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayer, and serious learning would be the lynchpins of a renewed American Jewish life. So what might the history of those two movements tell us about our own intellectual initiatives and prospects today?
Obviously, there were factors—historical, sociological, geopolitical—beyond the control of any intellectual tradition or movement that were involved in the (relative) success of the Zionist project and the (relative) failure of Conservative Judaism. Their respective fates may even have turned, to some extent, on matters of sheer historical contingency (or, if you prefer, divine providence). Nonetheless, both movements were moved by thinkers and ideas, and it is worth thinking about them as such.
Gordis goes on in the next few thousand words to give an excellent summary of the tradition defined in America by Conservative Judaism with its easy ideological agreement, and in Israel with its passionate and often heated disagreements that defy easy answers; it is to live with cognitive dissonance. Perhaps, as some say, Conservative Judaism gave away too much and kept too little of what has longed defined Judaism. In other words, it was an agreement made in good faith, but with insufficient knowledge of future outcomes. It might be that the old traditions and observances are necessary after all; too much water can dilute the wine until it is no longer officially wine.

This all leads to what I consider the essential point of the argument, one that bears repeating:
Thus far, however, on all these fronts, shrill argument has replaced productive intellectual engagement. Too few Jews on either side of the ocean have inherited the Jewish cultural capital necessary to understand how Jews in the past wrestled with and responded to the challenges of their day. Too few Jews have the access to Jewish texts that would enable them to engage in authentic Jewish discourse. And too few Jews live their lives in the dissonant space at the intersection of traditions where creativity happens. The number of Jews worried to their core about the condition of the Jews—and willing to acknowledge that they have no ready solution—is very small indeed.
When this happens it becomes a wonderful and fruitful period for Judaism and the Jewish People. If only others would agree with this view, or, even better, wrestle and grapple with what it says, suggests or intimates. Authentic Jewish discourse is filled with contradictions and uncertainties. New ideas reside alongside old ones, often uncomfortably, for a long time. Disagreement, if it done for the right reasons, can lead to the implementation of new and productive ideas, but only when the time is right, the examination is complete and the over-all plan for humanity is fulfilled.

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For more, go to [JRB]

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