Monday, February 8, 2010

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz Responds


I emailed Rabbi Dovid Schwartz some questions regarding his letter to the Yated. Rabbi Schwartz was kind enough to respond.


Haredim are often in the habit of using the failures of Spanish Jewry in 1391 and 1492 to discredit Maimonidean rationalism. Why is this same logic not used to discredit Eastern European Jewry?

Apples and oranges. The primary failure of Spanish Jewry in  1492 was the advent of the conversos and their inability to flee (often equating to Mesiras Nefesh with sinking ships and communicable disease) rather than convert.  There's was a test of the willingness to die al kiddush Hashem.  The Holocaust and it's precursors OTOH were about genocidal racism.  They may have been outgrowths of a clash of faiths/civilizations but by the time Jews began defecting en masse from observance it a. was not to embrace Christianity and b. did not improve their coping or survival rates.

Could not your defense of Eastern European Jews be also used to apologize for Modern Orthodox Jews and even for Reform and Conservative Jews?

Which MOs , conservative and reform do you mean?  For those in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe it might (while there is still a big difference between defecting to the Bund or joining a Reform Temple).  But for those in America I don't see how it could as one can't begin to compare the poverty or discrimination levels of the old and new worlds.  TTBOMK Modern Orthodoxy is a distinctly American post-war phenomenon and had no models in interbellum EE Jewry.

How do we measure spirituality? Does this not simply turn into a defense of any group we wish to offer a positive outlook for?

While by it's non-material nature spirituality is not subject to the kind of qualitative analysis one accomplishes with a good centrifuge there are some relatively objective and quasi-empirical yardsticks.  The "efficiency" argument that I made in the letter i.e. that a smaller volume  Yeshiva World produced a higher number of higher quality Lamdanim and Talmiday Chachomim will not be denied by anyone familiar with both worlds.  If nothing else is convincing see the published works of the products of that world compared to the published works of our own.

But essentially I would not say that I can refute your assertion empirically.  What I can say is that if one believes in the truth of the "intangible" known as spirituality or kedushah at all then, like good art or music, it can be discerned and graded intuitively without resorting to metrics.  Which supreme justice famously opined "I can't write a legal definition for pornography but I know it when I see it?" [Justice Potter Stewart]    While I am certainly no world class expert I fancy myself qualified to voice some opinion on the relative tzidkus, chochmah, pikchus, lev tov and kedushah of the two Jewries.

How do we measure intellectual greatness between different generations particularly considering the major shift in pedagogy over the past few decades in regards to memory? Granted past generations, both Jewish and gentile, were superior in terms of memory. Memorization was a major part of traditional educational systems. We focus less today on memory because information is so easily accessible. In theory at least, we are more devoted to developing analytical skills. 

This point has some validity but more so in the secular sciences than in Torah scholarship in which vast bekius is indispensable. Yeshiva urban legend has it that Rav Chaim Brisker once bragged that his 15 year old Velevla (the eventual Brisker Rov) knew all of Shas Baal Peh. When the person hearing this boast remarked that he considers this insignificant and unbecoming for a son of the great Rav Chaim who would be a fitter son of his father it he excelled at severa and/or lomdus . Rav Chaim supposedly said that any sevara forwarded without complete awareness of all of Shas is by definition krum. Accessing a Talmud data base cannot replace this kind of internal, encyclopedic checks-and-balances on ones analytical skills.

More simply put we have the teaching of Chazal who said that divrei Torah aniyim hem b'mkomam v'ashirim hem m'mokom acher formalizing the symbiosis between bekius and sevara, between sinai v'oker Harim.

If you were put in charge of Artscroll what kind of changes would you make to the type of history books and biographies of gedolim they traditionally publish?

As I haven't read many it's hard to say.  But In general I feel that the culture of Godol hero worship today, while well-meaning, has backfired.  We have made such angels out of our gedolim that an impression of their being born rather than made prevails.  I think that this has nipped the career of many a late-blooming talmid chochom or tzadik in the bud.  Artscroll biographies in hand, the Yetzer Hora comes to such bochrim and claims "forget it.  You're too old already.  If you weren't a child prodigy, if you have already wasted many minutes of your childhood and adolescence then there is no way you will ever vaks ois to be another ______(fill in the blank with the name of a godol of your choosing)".  This is what I meant in my letter when I wrote that I found the surface honesty of the original article refreshing.  At least it wasn't another fluff-piece fairy-tale hagiography.  IMO these are not only untrue but they retard the growth of many a potential spiritual seeker.

Do you believe that we can build a stronger Judaism than that which existed in pre-Holocaust Europe? What would that stronger Judaism look like?

A.  Yes, but it will take a millennium and woe betide us if Moshiach isn't here by then.

B.  The shorthand answer?  Like that which existed in Lithuania and Poland before the war with all of the passion, self-sacrifice and intellectual ferment but with none of the disaffection, poverty and genocidal anti-Semitism.  However I'm not enough of a Sociologist to know if it's even possible to build one without the other.  As Nietzsche said "Whatever doesn't kill me only makes me stronger". (I referenced this maxim in my letter as well but did not attribute it for fear of scandalizing the readership.  They are probably furious that the editor left words such as Trotskyite and revisionist Zionist in!)

1 comment:

Mikewind Dale said...

Rabbi Schwartz,

I was heartened by what you say about hagiographies; your words are very refreshing.

Now then, you say, "Modern Orthodoxy is a distinctly American post-war phenomenon and had no models in interbellum EE Jewry."

I couldn't possibly agree more. I mean, really, you stole the words out of my mouth. I wrote an entire essay about the fact that Modern Orthodoxy has no Eastern-European antecedents; see my essay On the Turn to the Right in Modern Orthodoxy, And Some Possibilities for Its Solution. In short, I say that Modern Orthodoxy has been Haredizing because it pays homage to Eastern-Europe (wrongly), and I argue that Modern Orthodoxy ought to look to the Sephardim instead.