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November 30, 2017 10:41 am

The Retreat of Creative Thinking From Judaism

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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A torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org

Most of our yeshivot have retreated from creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than push for daring ideas. We are producing a generation that believes its task is to tend potted plants, rather than plant forests.

We offer our young people prepared experiences in which we tell them what to think — instead of teaching them how to think. We rob them of the capacity to learn what thinking is really all about. The plethora of halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts of Jewish law, hardly generate the inspiration for new ideas about these laws. In fact, they stand in the way. There is no time for anyone to process all the information, even if they want to. But instead of seeing this as a problem, they and their teachers have turned it into a virtue.

And that is exactly the point: We are faced with two extremes — either our youth walk out on or maintain a lukewarm relationship with Jewish observance, or they become so obsessed by its finest points that they are incapable of seeing the forest for the trees, and they consequently turn into rigid religious extremists.

What we fail to realize is that this is the result of our own educational system. In both cases, young people have fallen victim to the disease of information for the sake of information.

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Information is not simply to have. It is there to be converted into something much larger than itself; it is there to produce ideas that make sense of all the information gathered in order to move it forward to higher levels. Information is not there to be possessed, but to be comprehended.

Jewish education today is, for the most part, producing a generation of religious Jews who know more and more about Jewish observance, but think less and less about what it means. This is even truer of their teachers. Some are even talmudic scholars, but these very scholars don’t realize that they have drowned in their vast knowledge. The more they know, the less they understand.

Just as a young child may think that it’s an act of kindness to lift a fish out of an aquarium and “save” it, so too these rabbis may be choking their students while thinking they are providing them with spiritual oxygen. Doing so, they rewrite halachic Judaism in ways that are totally foreign to the very ideas that it truly stands for. They are embalming halacha, while claiming it is alive simply because it continues to maintain its external shape.

Fewer and fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great halachic arbitrators of the past. They know little of their weltanschauung. And even when they do, the ideas of these great thinkers are presented to them as information, instead of as challenges to their own thinking — or as prompts to the development of their own creativity. This is a tragedy.

Our current halachic, spiritual and intellectual challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backward and giving answers that once worked, but are now outdated.

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