[Take a look at Circling the Gates of Jerusalem on Adar, at the Muqata]
Some months back, a friend noted the rising popularity of a rabbi whose approach is rather anti-intellectual, anti-academic. It fit, I thought, with the recent attraction to Breslov, to Chabad, to Rav Amnon Yitzchak (who I discovered, a couple of weeks ago, is a lot of fun to watch on YouTube when you’re stuck in a rut on a Motzaei Shabbos working on a shiur) and so on.
This trend is surprising in that it has taken hold among Jews who go to university, who live in an academic world.
On the other hand, it actually makes a lot of sense, based on an observation by another friend, Dr. L, a professor of religion at an American college.
Dr. L noted the rise of kabbalah in Christian lands in the later Middle Ages, and he argued that the popularity of mysticism at that moment in Jewish history was not coincidental. This was a time when the Church forced Jews to attend sermons, to participate in debates, and to otherwise face Christianity on an intellectual level. The Christians of the time believed that their faith could be proved correct through analysis and debate. All they needed to do was bring Jews into the proper forum, and the Jews would readily convert.
Jews, of course, had no way to win – either ‘lose’ the debates and accept Christianity, or continue in stubborn insistence that they were right and be accused of heresy.
Faced with this dilemma, Jews found a third approach, orthogonal to the playing field. They abandoned intellectual debate altogether, and adopted a school of thought which, by definition, could not be debated and discussed in any rational way. It had its own givens and stipulations, it was neither provable nor testable, and it did not claim fealty to any logical system or extant, accessible text. This was mysticism, and its adoption made perfect sense. If I can’t debate you, I can refuse to debate you.
And I suspect a similar appeal in today’s anti-academic, anti-intellectual adoption of faith-based and mysticism-based Judaism. (This is not to question the legitimacy and meaning of these approaches; they are Torah, too. I'm only discussing why they enjoy such popularity now.)
The world of the university lays claim to truth, and it’s very hard to argue the point against a world of scientific scholarship. To argue the point from a scholarly perspective is to invite charges of naivete at best, and dishonesty at worst, from the legions of people who believe that Judaism cannot be reconciled with scientific analysis.
To concede the point is to be forced to convert, so to speak.
And so many of today’s Jews opt out, choosing anti-intellectual schools of kabbalah or emunah peshutah (simple faith) or chassidus of custom rather than logic (a form of orthopraxy?), rather than engage in what they fear is a losing battle.
Call it a post-modern Orthodoxy.