Monday, December 5, 2011

The lost art of bold ideas?

I've read and re-read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's pair of essays on The Art of Bold Ideas (part 1 and part 2), but I must admit that the author's thinking is beyond me.

Two thoughts:
1. It seems to me that the author inappropriately conflates a range of frustrations (intellectual laziness, foolish certitude, addiction to information as opposed to knowledge, religious defensiveness, poor teaching, etc) under one heading (lack of bold ideas).

2. In writing off the many foibles of our generation as a "lack of bold ideas", R' Cardozo not only does his many causes a disservice, but he also ignores reality.

Sectors within 'Orthodoxy' of the past two generations have seen several major changes; some of these have affected only some of Orthodoxy, and some of them have affected the whole:

* An embrace of the State of Israel and Zionism on practical and philosophical levels

* Social engagement with secular Jewry - a marked change from much of European Orthodox culture in the 19th century

* Acceptance of a liberal arts education in Orthodox circles

* Political engagement with the non-Jewish world on a level not seen for many centuries

* Development of women's religious education and secular education, including the achievement of advanced certification in both areas

* Shift of the center of halachic authority from Europe to North America to Israel

* Funding of Orthodox institutions by non-Orthodox Jewish institutions

* Translation of Torah - both verbal translation and philosophical translation - to appeal to the masses

And more; this is just a quick list.

In fact, it might be argued that we need a generation of consolidation, for that which changes too quickly loses its center of gravity. This would no doubt frustrate those who champion change and call for revolution, but it may be a necessity nonetheless.


  1. Liberal arts--humanities and social studies are worthless and in most universities highly Marxist.
    These are the exact studies that
    pseudo intellectuals learn
    to show off their sophistication without knowing any Gemara.
    To indicate that Marxism is
    a fraud let me mention that it is no accident that Marx is rigorously excluded from economics departments in which real world economics is studied.
    why would you consider the inclusion of Marxist theology into Jewish education to be a plus?
    For me i would take reading writing arithmetic and gemara any day of the week.
    while it is true that litvak Torah scholars have traditional learned a specific area outside of Talmud but these unspoken areas were in general rigors sciences --not pseudo sciences. I believe Reb Elchanan Wasserman had some expertise in Kant and i had a friend in Safed who besides learning Gemara all day also learned the biology of trees. (Other people like Reb Berenbaum did not have other areas of interest -- so this is not a universal phenomenon.)

  2. "I believe Reb Elchanan Wasserman had some expertise in Kant"

    B.M. Levin (of Teshuvas Ha-geonim fame) said that he kept a copy of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, not that he had expertise in it.

  3. Adam, that argument serves only itself.

    First, you posit that liberl arts must be 'highly Marxist'. I would need to see evidence for that. As much as I think many liberal arts programs are, well - very liberal (read politically left-leaning); I don't see that they are specifically Marxist. Hard to really assess either way; but you provide no evidence for that assertion.

    You then go on to build on that unfounded assertion and say that Marx has been discredited in economics faculties (although his theories would in any case be studied by historians and sociologists as a matter of theoretical interest), and that must indicate how his thinking is a waste of time. But we haven't established the first premise - namely that his work is really all that influential.

    You use the term 'Marxist theology', which leads me to think you don't really know what Marx wrote or what theology is. Of course, had you a well-grounded liberal arts education you might have been at least exposed to his general role in the history of social thought. And you would have been exposed to some theology. Then you would have known he didn't write theology.

    Writing and arithmetic are subjects that one should have mastered before high school; never mind college level studies. Any of the liberal arts people I currently know (mostly St. John's College types) who study math are studying the history of mathematics and higher mathematical functions and applications.

    I once heard of some talmid hacham, a Rav J. B. Soloveitchik I think?, who had spent some time studying classic and contemporary non-Jewish thinkers. They say he even cited them in his own writings. He had a reportedly brilliant and deep student and son in law, a Rav Lichtenstein I believe?, who had a PhD in English Literature and often referred to all manner of classical thinkers and writers and even claimed that the study of their works helped sensitize a ben Torah to the finer values important in Torah.

    There was also this Rav Hirsch fellow who honored German thinkers and authors of his time.

    Might I suggest that your comment indicates a lack of liberal arts education (whether formal or otherwise) and training in the logical construct of an argument? And I would point out anecdotally that many of the liberal arts trained people I know (and learn Torah with) are actually social and philosophical conservatives; and show no obvious trace of Marxist influence in their thinking. This is especially true of the Great Books students, in my opinion.

    You might, by the way, do well to look at the current series on the Gra from the Virtual Beit Midrash at Yeshivat Har Etzion. In one of the shiurim it is pretty well established that the Gra not only learned more than what you called 'general rigors sciences' (study of tonic-clonic seizures? fever symptoms?), and advocated that for others as well.

  4. It is interesting to compare this with the piece you linked to yesterday about dynamic rabbis. One seems to think that Orthodoxy is too staid, the other that it is too dynamic.

    Of course, some people (in Orthodoxy and outside it) may take the first point of view, others the second and both could find evidence to support their assertions.

  5. There's a difference between boldness as such and boldness in line with one person's or one institution's agenda.

    In this case, the author may be seeing few signs of the specific kind of boldness he wants. Maybe the rest of us outside his circle question that boldness.

  6. Adam-
    I wasn't discussing whether these changes were improvements are not. I do question your statement about the value of liberal arts education, though. [And this despite the fact that my own degree is Comp Sci.]

    Quite true.


  7. Adam: I would also add you forget the philosophical exploits of hakhmei Sepharad and the East, from Se'adya Gaon to Rambam, and their many followers afterwards. There's no reason to limit the pursuit of science and philosophy to rumors about a few rabbis. Second, as someone who teaches in university, I can tell you that the playing field is very wide, and that Marxist historians spar with intellectual historians and cultural anthropologists, all of whom have a place in the academy. The healthiest point of view takes economic and cultural factors into account.
    R. Torczyner: I think that the splinterization of Orthodoxy and of Judaism, and intellectual dogmatism, are not contradictory but two sides of the same coin. One can claim that each political group develops "intellectuals" who tell their respective choirs what they want to hear, and that those who would try to bridge the gaps between groups are regarded with suspicion (for an example, look what happened to R. Chaim Amsellem).

  8. To answer briefly my critics here let me just say that I am not doubting the value of walking in the path of the Rambam and Saadia geon. But social sciences and humanities are the indoctrination laboratory of "new" Marxism since the 1990's. But these are easy areas in which pseudo intellectuals like orthodox rabbis like to get degrees. It is not that I doubt the essential value of these fields but rather that since they were dumbed down in the 1960 they are both now worthless expect as being good indication of pseudo intellectuals. I hope this answers your questions.

  9. If existing institutions can't provide us with humanities and social studies curricula that can help us be better Jews, the onus is on us as a group to fill the gap.