22 April 2009

Conversations & Different Epistemologies in Orthodoxy

I haven't yet written here before about Conversations, the Center for Jewish Ideas and Ideals' publication which appears thrice yearly, but I am finally starting to write about. It is, in the words of Rabbi Joshua Yuter (who wrote, in vol. 2, "Balanced Approach to Social Justice" (pp. 112-117)) that, as opposed to "the Edah/Meorot journals, the journal is supposed to be more accessible than academic" and there are "two editorial conditions: 1. keep it short and 2. no footnotes". It is certainly interesting format-wise, and so, too, is the content. For instance, in the most recent volume (3), the most interesting piece is that of the aforementioned Rabbi Yuter's father, Rabbi Alan Yuter, entitled "Conversions, Covenant, and Conscience" (pp. 96-99), in which he concludes on p. 99 (the piece is available in full here)
Authentic Orthodoxy advances principles and not politics. Torah is about rules and not rulers, it is about the law of Torah and not standards of self-selecting elites. There is room for vigorous and public discussion. We undermine our own bona fides when we succumb to incivility and when we put up with put downs. Judaism is about the fear of Heaven and not the fear of people. In order to restore its existential credibility, Orthodox Judaism must affirm Jewish law honestly, because this alone is our eternal Jewish standard.
Aside from Rabbi Yuter the elder's article, another really interesting piece is David Balint's "The 'Grasshopper Effect' and Other Defects in Modern Orthodox Leadership" (pp. 58-67)(available here), wherein he describes this so-called "grasshopper effect" (p. 59):
When the Jews left Egypt, they left with the direct intervention of God, with all God's visible power and with the promise of continuing intervention in the conquest of the Promised Land. Moses assembled the leadership of the time and sent them to reconnoiter the land. Despite having all of the power of God behind them, the majority had a crisis of confidence. Ten of the twelve spies projected their own insecurities onto the situation with the Canaanites, and in a famous bout of self-criticism said: "We were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes" (Numbers 13:31-33).

In the context of this discussion, many in our Modern Orthodox world, including congregational rabbis and organizations, seem to frequently operate with one eye on the Hareidi world as if it consisted of giants. As a consequence, they seem to view themselves as inferior. It is time to stop this grasshopper effect.
As to the latter part of the title of this posting, I meant it referring to Rabbi Aryeh Klapper's discussion in his "Fostering Modern Torah Leadership" (pp. 85-91) (online version (uploaded yesterday)), where, on p. 87, he writes the following:
Imagine for a moment two Orthodox Jewish communities. In the first, rabbis are given the narrowest of talmudic educations and censured if they seek any kind of breadth of knowledge. Rabbis are expected to remain ignorant of economics, history, jurisprudence, biology, and the liberal arts except insofar as they can be derived from traditional talmudic study.

In the second, rabbis are expected to obtain broad and deep general knowledge and competence. Rabbis are expected to have a good grasp of economics, history, jurisprudence, biology, as well as the liberal arts, and to have graduate competence in at least one field other than traditional talmudic study.

Now imagine further two Orthodox Jewish communities. In the first, rabbis are given broad authority over areas of religious life that impinge on economics, history, jurisprudence, biology, and the liberal arts. In the second, rabbis are given authority solely over issues of technical halakha.
Rabbi Klapper presents a very interesting irony, although it actually makes sense that where the Modern Orthodox place epistemological importance is different from that of the Haredim: whereas the latter rely on primarily on rabbinic literature for information, the former see it in the world, while seeing rabbinic literature as informing their Jewish lives, thus they look to their rabbi to provide guidance in a Jewish context. Rabbi Klapper writes that
It should be evident that Modern Orthodoxy is the community that expects great breadth of knowledge in its rabbis while greatly narrowing their authority. The reason for this is that the community does not believe that its rabbis live integrated religious lives, that their breadth of knowledge is effectively translated into Torah and halakha. And the community is certainly not entirely mistaken in this regard. The gaps between values and law, and between intellectual commitments and creeds, are significant.
My point is that it doesn't necessarily mean that "the community does not believe that its rabbis live integrated religious lives", it's just that the Modern Orthodox and the Haredim value a different sense of deriving truth.

1 comment:

Izgad said...

You just have to love Rabbi Klapper.