To Keep Young Jews, We Must Tell Them to Question Their Teachers
For me, it is a great privilege to dedicate my life to Jewish education, and I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else. But I have to admit that it’s far from easy.
On a practical level, there is almost no money in it. There were times that I taught with no compensation, because the institutions where I lectured had no money or could only pay meager salaries. Many of us continued to teach, since teaching Torah is a mission and not an occupation.
On several occasions, I had to use my own private money, take loans, or get help from my parents.
Even today, many of the projects that I am passionate about are hindered by the lack of funds. This is highly unfortunate.
I love teaching and sharing exciting concepts. This is closely related to my deep concern for the future of Judaism. I admit that Jewish education is much better today than it was in my younger days, but I am terribly worried that we will soon experience a backlash of huge proportions. Not much different from what happened in the days of the Aufklärung (the Enlightenment).
The reason for this is that we still don’t deal seriously with the real existential questions — the meaning and the experience of religiosity, and what Judaism really stands for. There’s a great amount of denial in religious circles about confronting serious questions. On top of that, since the establishment of the State of Israel, its enormous spiritual, moral, and Halachic challenges have not been dealt with on the level that is absolutely necessary. Often, religious communities and their leaders actually run away from them.
Many of the answers given are still embedded in a Galut (exile) mentality, as if we are still living under Galut conditions, and as if the establishment of the State of Israel has not created a radical change in the life of the Jewish people even though the Mashiach has not arrived. Ultimately, this will backfire and the price will be extremely high. One cannot fit “exile Judaism” into the modern State of Israel.
Only very few religious institutions really deal with these problems. I taught in the introductory program of a ba’al teshuva yeshiva for many years, where “newcomers” would arrive. Some of my colleagues and I would discuss the great existential questions and the Jewish responses to them. Although I believe that the answers, including my own, were much too simplistic, at least we dealt with them in a serious way. This excited the students and they decided to stay and continue to learn more. But once they were out of the introductory program, these questions were not just ignored but actually looked down upon and sometimes even made fun of. All that counted was to fit in with the ultra-Orthodox community and to learn Talmud nearly all day long.
The biggest mistake was that these students never got the opportunity to give their own opinions, outside of the “yeshivisheh hashkofeh” (the ultra-Orthodox worldview), which is often a complete rewriting of what authentic Judaism really is trying to convey.
Instead of asking them to use their own talents, often learned at famous universities, they were told to keep silent and “just listen.” This talking down to the students (after all, what did they know?) was detrimental and robbed them of being themselves and making a contribution to Jewish learning. I think that even I was guilty of this, although less than some other teachers. I often had to deal with students who were totally put off by this and wanted to leave. Others were clever enough to see the fallacies and superficiality in the answers that some teachers gave, and left, since they saw Judaism as a simplistic and outdated tradition. This still happens today, as I know from personal experience when I meet yeshiva students.
The mistake of the ba’al teshuva movement was that it demanded students ignore their past, forget about their secular studies, and often suppress their creative talents. They had to fit into the existing ultra-Orthodox world. As such, they could not create a new spirit within Orthodoxy and were often treated as uninformed beginners who had nothing to offer and were considered failures if they didn’t become Talmudists. By making them feel inferior, Orthodoxy lost one of its great opportunities to recreate itself and bring in a new spirit, which was and is sorely needed and to which these young people could have greatly contributed.
Another huge mistake was that Judaism was taught as if it had ready-made answers to all questions and nothing was left in doubt, still to be dealt with. This is completely untrue. Judaism still has many issues to deal with and to answer. It’s an organic tradition that still has so much to discover. But it can only do so when it is prepared to change its mind and rethink its former teachings, and takes joy in the fact that it doesn’t have all the answers, but has powerful foundations and the courage to see new horizons.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote:
It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion — its message becomes meaningless.
This is true to this very day. There is still too much of this malady, in which secularism is being blamed, while in truth it is commonplace Judaism that is at fault. This has done great damage. I feel, therefore, that it is my mission to try and turn the tide. I am looking for ways to make Judaism exciting and novel.
Every generation has to do this in accordance with the times in which it lives. One cannot teach Judaism now as it was taught a few hundred years ago. When a new spirit has overtaken society and new ideas are promulgated, one needs to speak in that language. This is what Maimonides did in his day. Aristotle was the person who set the intellectual stage, and Maimonides wrote his masterpiece, The Guide for the Perplexed, accordingly. While its contents are still very powerful and worth studying, its style, use of language, and mode of argumentation are dated. And so it is true with all other great Jewish thinkers, from Saadia Gaon (882-942) to Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903-1993).
And so it will happen with my own ideas. And that’s the way it should be. God opens up new vistas that deepen our understanding, and we have to make full use of this, because it will give us more profound insight into what Judaism has to offer.
This is why I teach Judaism as a rebellion, because it is rebellion and autonomy that are now in the air. I strongly believe that when new ideas, ideologies, and movements come about, these are God-given and have great religious meaning, even if most people see them as secular or downright atheistic. (I learned this from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook). This means that we are religiously obligated to incorporate them into Judaism — sometimes by just accepting them and other times by reworking them. The goal is to bring everything back to Judaism (or, for that matter, to other religions).
It is important to remember not to fall victim to using just any argument as a means to ensure that people remain committed to Judaism or become religious, if these arguments are doubtful, cheap, and untrue. That would be dishonest. This is what some outreach programs often seem to do, especially with their often outdated so-called proofs for the existence of God or the divinity of the Torah. We must protest against that sort of dishonest approach.
But because there are truthful elements in each serious philosophy, which can help us understand and deepen our insights into Judaism, we must become familiar with them as long as we don’t treat them as axiomatic.
When Maimonides used Aristotle’s ideas to explain Judaism, he did so because he honestly believed it would enrich our understanding of Judaism. He clearly believed that Aristotle was sent from Heaven to give him ideas to explain Judaism. At the time, Aristotle’s ideas were seen as representing truth. As such, it was intellectually honest for Maimonides to use his ideas to explain Judaism. Maimonides would not have used these ideas had he known that they are actually untrue.
I have no doubt that if Maimonides were alive today, he would be writing a very different Guide for the Perplexed, using the latest discoveries in science and recent insights into modern philosophy.
In some way, we can argue that all philosophic and scientific insights are a kind of indirect explanation and elaboration on Torah and Judaism. And so it is with all literature, even if the authors were unaware of it or had none of that in mind.
When I claim that Judaism is rebellion, as I have done in my latest book Jewish Law as Rebellion, A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage, it is because I honestly believe it is really rebellious, and I emphasize that element within Judaism because it speaks to the generation in which I live. The next generation may see the need to use another truthful element that will speak for that generation.
For some people, these ideas are sometimes considered to be fanciful, mind-boggling, implausible, and exaggerated. Occasionally, I am accused of wishful thinking and even of being superficial. Without comparing myself to Rav Kook, I have learned from him to let one’s thoughts run wild and just write down anything that comes to mind, which may not yet be at all sophisticated or properly thought through. But we know there are seeds that are planted, and we need to wait until they start growing and make a great contribution.
I am reminded of the story about the famous scientist Wolfgang Pauli, who gave a talk on elementary particle physics at Columbia University. Niels Bohr, one the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, was in the audience. After the lecture Pauli said to Bohr: “You probably think that these ideas are crazy.” “I do,” replied Bohr. “Unfortunately, they are not crazy enough.”
This is the secret to successful teaching, and why it is one of the greatest and most exciting missions a human being can be privileged to take on.
Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.