29 March 2009

Towards an Appreciation of Ontology for the Modern Orthodox Community

Rabbi Kelsen speakingThis past Thursday’s parshah shiur at my school (as a part of YCT's weekly parshah shiur series) featured Rabbi Jonathan Kelsen, who spoke on “Encountering Reality”. He had a very fascinating set of things to say, beginning around the 31 minute mark,
I’m saying in this beis midrash specifically … because it’s Modern Orthodoxy. I think that - and I include myself in this - that many Modern Orthodox Jews - not all - shy away from what I just said - they shy away from this kind of ontological talk and they shy away from talking about somehow there are specks of dirt on the soul because that’s kind of crazy – that’s kind of fundamentalist – that’s kind of radical.

The worry I have for the Modern Orthodox community is that, in denying any ontology and any talk of these types of things and only insisting on thinking things through (I’m going to contradict myself in about two and a half minutes, so stay tuned), as long as it’s not psychological and it’s not about our current narrative and our community’s sphracht or our psycho-spiritual whatever – those types of terms, we don’t know what to do with it. And, in fact, I think a lot of us, I think you will find that a lot of your congregants, I imagine, are not going to want to going to talk about legal constructs, about legal authority either, kind of positivist legal constructs.
I don’t think that a lot of Modern Orthodox Jews like to talk about, “Well, I don’t mean that the soul actually has a stain, but when you do a חטא, it generates a חיוב of a חטאת, as a חלות שם חיוב חטאת, and I don’t know how it affects metaphysics or not or what it has to do with the other world, but because God commanded and I just do גזירת המלך and there’s sort of like this cause-and-effect legally, it’s halakhic reality – not what we call ‘real life’ and ‘actual reality’ and what you end up with is ‘halakhic reality’ and ‘real life’ and the twain shall never meet and that’s a problem.

I’m telling you why I am saying this: I, as much as anybody else, cannot adopt ontological language – it is very hard for me. For a long time already – I have been through the positivism, I have been through the social constructs, and I have been through the psychology and I am still there. But I will tell you what I think I am missing by doing that. And what I am missing is everything about human experience, which ontology actually describes accurately. And here’s what I mean by that: When people talk about the stain of sin, they talk about it for a reason; they experience sin as stainful. When people talk about guilt, they are not talking about wrong-doings, they don’t mean that "I have a חיוב to feel guilty right now, legally." Or "As part of filial loyalty to my community, I am going to feel guilt for my sin" - they may, but I hope they don’t.
That means they are missing out on the experience of guilt, or of joy or of קדושה.

I think that by being reductionist in our language, in shying away from ontology all together, we are blocking ourselves off from part of human experience and I think that’s really what my theory is. I am afraid that if we are always symbolizing things – talking about what the referents are, and what’s beyond the immediate, then we miss out on what the point of it was to begin with.

So I think that while it’s hard for me to adopt – to really go all the way towards ontology and really accept the Ramban and really accept the Ramban’s notion of my soul is stained by sin and I want to encourage the Modern Orthodox community to start returning to that as far as we can. For those of us who can think in those terms, I think that’s great and they have a lot to offer our community, which has been so sophisticated sometimes that it forgets about life. And if you can’t get all the way there, which I can’t, then psychologically to remember that there are those who experience sin as being real.

1 comment:

wrpn said...

As a Modern/Open Orthodox Jew, I have no problem with ontology. Anyone ever hear about Thomas Aquinas?