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December 17, 2018 1:14 pm

Judaism Needs Big Ideas and to Challenge the Orthodoxy

avatar by Nathan Lopes Cardozo

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A Torah scroll. Photo: RabbiSacks.org.

It is time to start thinking big about Judaism. Great opportunities are awaiting us, and too much is at stake to let them pass by. For too long, Judaism has been jailed in compartmentalized and awkward boxes. It is time to liberate it.

Most religious Jews are not aware that Judaism has nearly become passé. They believe it is thriving. After all, we have more learning, more Jewish schools, yeshivot, women’s seminaries, and outreach programs, and more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, Judaism suffers from a serious malady.

In truth, it is not only Judaism that suffers from this disease, but the whole world. We lack bold ideas. We have fallen in love with — and become overwhelmed by — an endless supply of all-encompassing but passive information, which does not get processed but only recycled.

Most of our yeshivot have retreated from creative thinking. We encourage the narrowest specialization rather than pushing 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 experiences in which we tell them what to think instead of teaching them how to think. We rob them of the capacity to learn. The plethora of Halachic works, which educate them in the minutiae of the most intricate parts of Jewish law, hardly generate the inspiration of new ideas about these laws. In fact, they stand in the way.

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Right now, we are faced with two extremes: either our youth walk out on Judaism 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 from the trees, and consequently turn into rigid religious extremists.

What we fail to realize is that this is the result of our own educational system.

Information is not simply just 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 latitudes. Information is not there to be possessed, but to be comprehended.

Fewer and fewer young religious people have proper knowledge of the great Jewish thinkers of the past and present. 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 spiritual and intellectual challenges cannot be answered by simply looking backwards and giving answers that once worked but are now outdated.

There is social ostracism in any kind of healthy rebellion against the conventional. Eliezer Berkovits was ignored when he argued that Halacha had become defensive; the master thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel is completely disregarded by Orthodoxy; Chareidi yeshivot pay no attention to Rav Kook. Above all, we see dishonest attempts to portray fundamentalism as a genuinely open-minded intellectual position, while in truth it is nothing of the sort. Great visions of the past are misused and abused. Today we are seeing many people taught that they must imitate so as to belong to the religious camp.  Spiritual plagiarism has been adopted as the appropriate way of religious life and thought.

In fairness, it is not much different in the non-Jewish world. Were Socrates, Plato, Kant, or Spinoza alive today, they would barely be mentioned in the media other than in some specialized philosophical journals that nobody reads. What our generation does not understand is that without these giants of the past, we would still be living in a primitive world without all the knowledge and luxuries that we enjoy today. Whether we agree or disagree with them, it was these thinkers who produced the great ideas that laid the foundations for much of what we have harvested through the centuries. Today, they would be crowded out by massive quantities of trite sound bites that lead only to self-satisfaction.

And so it is with Judaism. Most Talmudic scholars don’t realize that the authors whose ideas they teach would turn in their graves if they knew their opinions were being taught as dogmas that cannot be challenged. They wanted their ideas tested, discussed, thought through, reformulated, and even rejected, with the understanding that no final conclusions have ever been reached, could be reached, or even should be reached. They realized that matters of faith should remain fluid, not static.

Parents today who are worried by their children’s lack of enthusiasm for Judaism do not realize that they themselves support a system that systematically makes such passion impossible. What today’s Judaism desperately needs is verbal critics who could spread and energize its great message. It needs spiritual Einsteins, Freuds, and Pasteurs who can demonstrate its untapped possibilities and undeveloped grandeur. Judaism should be challenged by new Spinozas and Nietzsches; by remorseless atheists who would scare the hell out of our rabbis, who would in turn be forced into thinking bold ideas.

The time has come to deal with the real issues and not hide behind excuses that ultimately will turn Judaism into a sham. Our thinking is behind the times, and that is something we can no longer afford. Judaism is about bold ideas. Its goal is not to find the truth, but to inspire us to honestly search for it. Torah study is not only the greatest undertaking there is, but also the most dangerous, since it can so easily lead to self-satisfaction and spiritual conceit.

There is an urgent need to set up “Tents of Abraham” throughout the Land of Israel, where religious and non-religious Jews can study, discuss, and argue the great faith positions of earlier and later generations. The need to break idols and slaughter sacred cows is itself a Jewish task, which none other than Abraham initiated. No doubt there will be fierce arguments, but we should never forget that great controversies are also great emancipators.

We are in desperate need of bold ideas that will place the Torah in the center of our lives and make us receptive to God’s presence through a daring new encounter with Him. Let it be heroic — not staid and comfortable, but painful and hard-won; a deep breath in the midst of the ongoing conflict ever-present in the heart of humankind.

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