Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Anti-Academic Judaism

[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.


  1. sorry-already taken- see R. Walter Wurzburger, "Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik as Posek of Post-Modern Orthodoxy" in Tradition (1994:1)

    btw my guess is popularity also has something to do with "transit time" (for actuaries-how long it takes to finish all the exams) why go to a profession that takes x years to be credentialed when you can enter one that takes x/2. hameivin yavin
    Joel Rich

  2. That's kind of an interesting theory, because before this period the predominant Christian mode of exegesis was heavily allegorical, and this proved frustrating to the Christians, because the Jews responded with philology ("but it doesn't mean that"). Around this time the Christians discovered Rashi and the Radak, and were prepared to argue philologically for the first time - and perhaps then the Jews began to view the Torah in ways that can neither be proved nor disproved. Interesting, especially as certain Christians at that time saw Kabbalah as completely compatible with and useful to proving Christianity, because of its similarity with the earlier allegorical sense.

    Re the issue of people not wanting rabbis to be academics, I am reminded of Shir (SJ Rapoport, historian extraordinaire, later av beis din of Prague). He inclined toward the idea that chakira chofshis was permissible and desirable - but not for rabbis. He felt that the people expected the rabbis to be completely traditional, and rightly so, and when he became CR of Prague he essentially abandoned his academic pursuits.

  3. 1. This article assumes a lot about people's motivations.

    2. When we lived in MI, I went to a hesped for Rav Soloveitchik ZT"L held at a local Jewish day school. I believe they were simulcasting the audio of an event at YU. Anyway, it seemed as if the YU speakers I heard were so conscious of being academics that they had checked their passion at the door. Possibly, it's the detachment, the lack of Jewish emotion and sensibility, combined with the adoption of academic jargon, that has turned off many to "Academic Judaism".

  4. Rabbi-- can you define your terms more fully? I don't understand equating anti-intellectual and anti-academic. Rav Chaim was incredibly intellectual, though clearly non-academic. And in my view there are plenty of academics in universities who aren't intellectuals (this isn't an anti-university attack, I could give specific examples but it's not really the topic here). It might help if you would describe the approach of the Rabbi who is gaining popularity and explain why it is anti-intellectual and anti-academic.

  5. My own guesses were at more straightforward phenomena...

    1- Our self-definition ends up hinging disproportionately on what it takes to be non-Conservative. This cost our boys a strong background in Tanakh and in diqduq. (Our girls also, but far less so.) Similarly, it makes for a mindset that doesn't want any academics in their Judaism.

    2- People are lazy. The masses are willing to invest effort knowing their profession, but why put in that effort in their religion? Must easier to deal with a simplistic black-and-white universe than have to actually think.

    3 (or maybe 2b)- Today's westerners want a quick fix. Therefore, versions of Judaism that emphasize an ecstatic experience that is reachable (although not in its full depth) with no development time are going to be popular.

    As for the historical question...

    I firmly disagree with R' Dr L in his implied identification of Qabbalah with mysticism. Look through the Ramchal, the Gra, Nefesh haChaim, the Leshem... there is much reason and philosophy, no less so than in the Rambam.

    The real difference is the Rambam's a minimalist and the mequbalim, maximalists. It's kind of like Garnel's attempt to redefine the line between Mod-O and Chareidim in terms of personal reason vs authority. The Rambam valued reason, which in his day meant developing Aristotilian and neo-Platonic thought, to the extent that he downplayed the import or literality of many statements by Chazal. The spread of Qabbalah was a logical counter-reformation -- embracing numerous claims made by our sages (whether really said by chazal or not aside) on authority. And then limiting the range of reason to making sense of that far larger set of givens.


  6. >1- Our self-definition ends up hinging disproportionately on what it takes to be non-Conservative. This cost our boys a strong background in Tanakh and in diqduq.

    Is this really true or is it an urban myth? If you are saying that any time someone comes up with a suggestion to improve in these areas, it reflexively gets shot down because they seem not so frum, I get that (if it's true). But if you're saying that in the good old days "our boys" would get a strong background in these areas, surely this isn't so, at least among Ashkenazim. Closer to the truth is that the Ashkenasim never emphasized these things, or at least hadn't in 500 years. For example, this choice quote expressing a certain attitude from the Bach Hachadashos (siman 42):

    שאינו אלא כאחד מהתלמידים שכל כוחו אינו אלא במקרא ובטעמים ואפשר שכל ימיו לא לא למד אפילו הלכה אחת בתלמוד

    Also, isn't it a myth that Conservative Judaism emphasizes Tanach and dikduk? I haven't found this to be a strength of Conservative Jew, or rabbis.

  7. S., are you Orthodox?

  8. I wonder if this relates to the larger question of why Jews who are looking for a spiritual direction are to turning to Messrs. Schachter-Shalomi, Green, and the like?

    The Jews of my generation simply headed for the ashrams, by and large. Today's move is towards imposing a Jewish veneer on the ashram, etc. Rather than engage in deep pursuit of Torah, at least for a while (as many newly observant Jews my age did), they go get ordained as 'maggids' and 'pastors' and all manner of concocted things.

  9. Joel-
    I was sure I wasn't the first to use the term...

    Where could I find out more about Christian adoption of kabbalah in that era? I thought that was a later phenomenon.

    1. Agreed.
    2. Really? The hespedim I heard were anything but academic.

    Anonymous 9:42 AM-
    I mean "anti-academic" in the sense that there is a resistance to depth of scholarship, or development of a formal theme that is consistent and coherent.
    For "anti-intellectual," perhaps it would be more precise to use "anti-rational," that's closer to my intent.

    1 - Is that still relevant?
    2, 3 - Perhaps, I suppose.

    History (and it's just a Dr. L, not a rabbi) - Would you say the same for the Kabbalah of 13th century Spain? That was really Dr. L's focus.

    R' Mordechai -
    Is that really it? Or is it that the students want that Jewish part of it, as an anchor?

  10. Sidenote: Over in my neck of the woods (the Avodah email list), we tend to throw in a "R'" before names. A sizable percentage of the people on the list are rabbis. It's therefore very possible that you're about to call a rav ha'ir or the like "Elazar". So, we just prefix names with an ambiguous "Reb" or "Rabbi", as the case may be. I see the habit triggered here.

    Yes, I think we still define ourselves by what makes O unique. This is part of why we shifted from focusing on becoming ehrlicher yidn to frumkeit. Ritual mitzvos have taken a position they didn't have historically, because they are unique to belonging to the community.

    As for my other two point(s), I was making a riff on the theme I often repeat besheim R' Hutner. I heard R' Wender of the YI of Houston speak at a Mussar conference. He said that when he was in Chofetz Chaim they would tell of these two bachurim who took a survey of Slabodka trained American rashei yeshiva. These two boys wanted to know why none of them established Mussar Yeshivos like the one they came from.

    R' Hutner said that he looked around America, and didn't think an American boy could be motivated to keep to a path which requires years of work before seeing real progress. R' Hutner said that he therefore looked to the Maharal to establish an inspirational philosophy, and used that to move the students at Chaim Berlin.

    I just took that story, and applied it to why Carlebach minyanim and Breslov rather than modalities that require more thought and preparation before getting anything back out of them.


  11. Done properly, Breslov encompasses a serious approach, not all on the surface, and not all for instant "success". A movement as decentralized as Breslov will have a multiplicity of approaches, as investigation would reveal. I think comments about Breslov here and elsewhere are often way too flip and stereotype-ridden.

  12. Bob-
    I'm not one to dismiss or diss a group (or an individual, for that matter), but what I described is what I've seen of Breslov's recent recruits in the US as well as Canada, and it matches what I've heard from Israel as well. I certainly recognize that there is serious scholarship among Breslovers, but my experience is that it's not there in the great wave of recruits seen in the past decade.
    Can you point me to evidence to the contrary?

  13. I would make a weaker claim than our host's... I think the people joining Breslov, or those who pull Breslov into a spiritual "chulent" (like the Chavaqu"q phenomenon) are doing so thinking it's a means to get an ecstatic experience today. Whether or not that's true, or real Breslov, or what they find once they get involved, is a different story.

    Thinking about it, hisbodedus seems pretty clearly to be the kind of practice that takes significant work before seeing fruit.


  14. They have their own take on this:

  15. Bob-
    Fascinating link, thank you - and I think it supports my point. The focus in that document, repeatedly, is on how one lives life, finding lessons for life in Rav Nachman's teachings, applying the teachings to life. Study of the teachings is geared toward learning practical lessons.

  16. My wife has very strong Chabad roots and we are close with several Chabadniks. That being said, I have told friends that I can see why a BT might be attracted to Chabad. You buy the kapateh, gartel, hat, get sets of Sichos, buy a painting or photo for your walls and...there you fit in.
    Of course, externally. The real work, that most BTs don't see is what's internal.

    These Jews (and this one too) are looking for something. It's up to all of us to give them something authentic.
    If a Jew can be turned on by one lecture by R A Yitzchak, then that either says very little about our religion or it proves that each person has that moment when their spark is lit. I hope it's the latter.

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  18. Indeed, Chassidus was revealed in order to combat the assimilationist influences that the Jewish have faced in our long and painful exile. See here and here. These include the enticing lure of the Haskalah and the deification of the human intellect that reeks from the churches set up for brain-worship—the universities.

  19. RYO: Isn't Volozhin and its offspring (Lithuanian Yeshivish, Mussar, American Yeshivish, Chareillim) also "academic" in the sense of this blog post?