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The rebels’ rebel
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The rebels’ rebel

Monday marked 30 days since the death of Rabbi David Hartman, the Orthodox philosopher and visionary who fought a sometimes lonely battle to reconcile the mitzvot and Torah with the challenges of the modern world. To mark his “shloshim,” Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Teaneck Jewish Center, a student of “Duvie’s,” hosted an evening of reflection and study dedicated to, as speaker Rabbi Eugene Korn put it, “a prophet of pluralism and tolerance in a part of the world where you don’t see a lot of either.”

The previous Thursday, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a glowing appreciation of what the headline called “The Orthodox Surge.” Not only is the Orthodox population booming, wrote Brooks, but they are creating a “counterculture” in which every act is “minutely governed by an external moral order.” He visits a high-end kosher grocery store in Brooklyn, and attaches deep spiritual and moral significance to the glatt knock-offs of mainstream snack foods.

Brooks’s paean to Orthodoxy set off a fierce and fascinating debate. In comments and blog posts, many observant Jews were grateful.  Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York’s Ramaz School forwarded the article to supporters, noting that it “seems hard to believe how far Orthodox Judaism in America has come in my lifetime.  Once a cultural anachronism, we are now the subject of complimentary news coverage.” “Kiddush Hashem happens — even in The New York Times,” declared the Orthodox blog Cross-Currents.

Critics of the piece were legion. Bloggers pointed out that Brooks’s dewy-eyed portrait left out the costs of insularity, the restiveness of Orthodox feminists, the anti-intellectual strain among the fervently Orthodox, and what a Jewcy blogger called “competitive piety,” in which the time and money spent adhering to ever-more-stringent laws become just another form of conspicuous consumption.

I found myself agreeing — in parts — with both sides. Just last month I wrote that “Jewish life is a counterculture” that “thrives when it offers a critique of the mainstream.” I live in a largely Orthodox neighborhood and appreciate how ritual and custom, in Brooks’s words, “give structure to everyday life” and “infuse everyday acts with spiritual significance.” I love that Shabbat is Shabbat, when the hectic rhythms of the work week shut off at sundown and neighbors leave their houses not to climb into cars, but to stroll to shuls and parks and nod a smiling “Shabbat Shalom.” I like the tension between the demands of Halacha and the choices (and temptations) that bombard us at every turn.

And I acknowledge that the Orthodox are shoring up a Jewish community that is in demographic decline.

But by romanticizing the “obligations that precede choice” — as opposed to “the supremacy of individual autonomy” — Brooks doesn’t grapple with the plus side of autonomy, or the downside of fundamentalism. Brooks has written about the Christian Right in similar terms: How wonderful that they surrender to a higher authority! How sad that most Americans practice “soft-core spirituality,” which is more of a danger than “religious dogmatism”! 

Yet it’s only fair, when touting the life-affirming benefits of religious obedience, to note that Pakistani Muslims are killing Pakistani Christians, the Christian Right wants public schools to teach creationism, haredi Jews are financially dependent on a state that they treat with disdain, and violent, yarmulka-wearing settlers are carrying out “price tag” attacks on Palestinians. Or to point out the explosion of Jewish intellectual, creative, scientific, political, and cultural energy that was unleashed when generations of Jews left Orthodoxy behind.

Which is why, in addition to his visit to the kosher grocery, I wish Brooks had either attended the Hartman shloshim, or (like his fellow Times columnist Thomas Friedman) had gotten to know Rabbi Hartman.  The Brooklyn-born Hartman grew up in traditional yeshivot. At Yeshiva University he was a student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the giant of Modern Orthodoxy. He transformed moribund shuls in the Bronx and Montreal. In Israel, his Shalom Hartman Institute gathers rabbis and lay people from every denomination for advanced, provocative Torah study. Its Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought is a haven for scholars who are grappling with how Judaism and Zionism can be reconciled with pluralism, democracy, sovereignty, and power.

Korn said Hartman cherished his Orthodoxy (“I’m the real thing,” he’d tell critics) and was passionate about Torah learning. But Hartman would also refer to his study of Torah as “masochistic,” as he encountered ideas and interpretations he found “repugnant.” “Rabbi Hartman felt the Torah could be made pure, and serve, without the dross, as a book of moral and intellectual excellence,” said Korn.

Hartman always hoped secular Jews would discover the joys of Torah study and the beauties of the mitzvot, but he also worried that observant Jews would treat the mitzvot only as an end, rather than the means to realize God’s vision for “moral action.” As a result, he was often tagged, unfairly or not, as an Orthodox rebel.

Which only goes to show: Even a counterculture need a counterculture.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author.

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