Sunday, August 11, 2013

Toward an Asperger Judaism or Why I, Under No Circumstances, Should Be Placed in a Position of Leadership

As readers of this blog know, I am an Orthodox Jew and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. As an Asperger, I tend to value abstract ideas over socially interacting with people. Ideas have the advantage of being clear, logical and consistent as opposed to people, who are ever changing and are difficult to predict. While Asperger’s Syndrome is associated with autism, I, in no way, view it as a mental illness. On the contrary, I tend to see other people (neurotypicals) as suffering from a lack of consistent rationality. (Admittedly, marching to one’s own drumbeat and telling the rest of the world that they are the ones out of step likely counts as a form of insanity all of its own. I am not sure what the technical label for such an illness is, but I know that it is something distinct from Asperger’s Syndrome.) At the end of the day I seek to pursue this peculiar mode and be granted tolerance in the same way as countless minority groups of various kinds.     

Being an Asperger and relating to ideas and socialization in a different manner has implications for how I approach Judaism in that Judaism consists of both a set of ideas and a social community. Judaism has its beliefs such as Maimonides’ thirteen principles of faith. These tend to relate to the nature of God, the Torah and future reward and punishment. That being said, Judaism is primarily about performing rituals as part of a community. At first glance, one might think that an Asperger like me would hate Judaism for all of its rules and demand for social conformity. The funny thing about Judaism is that it offers precisely the sort of socialization that is well suited for an Asperger like me. Judaism has clearly defined rules and which do not simply have to be intuited. If one follows these rules, one is a member of Jewish society in good standing. Ironically this serves to save a person from having to constantly engage in the sort of dances one has to within general society in which one’s social standing is always on the line. Ultimately with Judaism, I can pay any debts to society in advance and save myself unwanted social interactions in the long run.  

With Judaism, I can show up, perform the necessary halachic rituals and in return receive a basic social structure. For example, I can pray for two hours on Shabbos morning with a minyan. This is the perfect form of socialization for me as it does not require me to speak to any mortal human beings, but only to read a text and use it to contemplate the larger universe. Having paid my social dues, I can go home and be sociable with my books and my brain. The hope is that by paying these dues I will have a community of people to talk/argue with possibly over a meal after shul. Even I acknowledge that I need such a structure order to get by in this neurotypical world and as an Asperger, I am particularly ill-equipped to find it by conventional means. 

Let me be clear, this is not some Orthoprax manifesto proclaiming the practical benefits of Judaism regardless of theology. On the contrary, I care tremendously about theology. Recall that as an Asperger it is precisely this realm of ideas that are real to me. Unfortunately, I long ago came to the conclusion that most Orthodox Jews, particularly Haredim, do not really care about theology. Instead, they engage in “social thinking” where theology serves merely as a mask to cover the principle of “we in the community are good and everyone else is not.” Or, to paraphrase Mel Brook’s 2,000 Year Old Man, let them all go to hell except cave 76. Ironically enough, a large part of what convinced me of this has been precisely the rise of the use of bans against supporters of potentially heterodox ideas within the Orthodox community itself. These bans seem remarkably selective and do not seem to cover principles that many in the Haredi community are guilty of violating. My concern here is not those who hold positions that I see as heretical. Obviously they disagree with me and many of them are far more learned than me. My objection here is to people who acknowledge that these ideas are heretical or at least are willing to denounce them when they manifest themselves in other religions, but refrain on following through on their principles and place believers in these ideas outside the pale of Judaism.

My wife (also an Asperger, but who will like it noted that she disagrees with me) and I live in Pasadena, CA. As she notes, the biggest problem in our marriage is that the closest shul to where we live is a Chabad House 3.5 miles away and I have come to the conclusion that the rabbis there, though very nice people, are heretics. This has nothing to do with any of their messianic beliefs. The problem is that they view the Lubavitcher Rebbe as something more than just a great and wise Torah sage. Furthermore, they do not see Chabad as one of many legitimate interpretations of Judaism, but as the definitive version of Judaism. To be fair to Chabad, most of my objections to them apply at least to some degree to the Haredi community as a whole and I am therefore well on my way to declaring them to be heretics as well.   

On more than one occasion I have heard Haredi rabbis proclaim that “our gedolim are always right.” Now my Asperger brain takes statements like this in a very matter of fact fashion to their logical conclusions. Always being right implies omniscience. Only God can be omniscient. So any claim of omniscience is a claim of godhood. Thus any claim that the gedolim are always right is really a claim that they are gods or at least extensions of some sort of godhead. To the best of my knowledge, no one has been removed from a position of leadership for making such statements. Such people have not even been reprimanded for showing inappropriate zeal for God’s unity in making imprecise statements that could lead to misunderstandings by oddball Aspergers like me. Now there is no doubt in my mind that anyone who lectured on the efficiency of Catholic saints as manifestations of divine power on Earth would be thrown out of the Orthodox community. (Let me note for the sake of anyone who thinks that I am being too academic that, as an academic historian of medieval Jews, I need to be familiar with Catholic doctrine and formulate opinions as to its compatibility with monotheism so this is, after a fashion, a relevant issue to me.) It seems to me then that the problem most Jews have with Catholic saints is not some higher principle of God’s oneness, but the fact that these saints are Catholic. Judaism must be superior to Catholicism because we are Jews and we need to think well of ourselves. So we appeal to high-sounding theological principles which we, regardless of whether we actually believe in them, have no intention of sacrificing the community for their sake.

The practical manifestation of this doctrine of the power of gedolim is the organization Kupat Ha’ir. This group collects money on the promise of blessings from various gedolim, which are presumed to carry some sort of power. I once called Kupat Ha’ir’s hotline to ask them to explain the difference between their claims about Mother Rachel wanting to hear our prayers and Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, Kupat Ha’ir’s crack team of theologians manning their lines proved unprepared to handle such questions.

I am hardly original in opposing Kupat Ha’ir. The problem is that no one, besides for perhaps R. Marc Angel, seems willing to take action against them. I once heard a prominent rosh yeshiva denounce Kupat Ha’ir in very harsh terms. I asked him afterward whether he believed that rabbis associated with Kupat Ha’ir, such as R. Chaim Kanievsky, are heretics. His response was not to deny that Kupat Ha’ir is heresy, but simply that the people involved are gedolim so they cannot be guilty of heresy. I can only conclude from this that the rosh yeshiva, as great a scholar as he is, is trapped by his social thinking and is unable to follow through on a purely theoretical principle even if that principle is nothing less than belief in God. His sense of Judaism requires the acceptance of gedolim even more so than it does a clear and consistent sense of what it means to not have any intermediaries between man and God. As for me, I am first and foremost a Maimonidean style monotheist. If have to sacrifice the entire Jewish community for that belief I will. King Ahab, according to the Talmud, was a great Torah scholar and worshiped idols. I see nothing wrong with viewing the present Haredi leadership in the same manner. Admittedly this makes me a poor candidate for any position of authority but still leaves me eminently qualified for being a street corner or blogosphere crank. What else should you expect from someone with Asperger’s Syndrome?              

I have no objection to those who wish to take a Moses Mendelssohn position of a Judaism without dogma and create an intellectual free for all; your beliefs are consistent. Similarly, those committed to defending all of Maimonides’ principles are also consistent. To those who wish to take a hard line on some of the later principles while taking it easy on the earlier ones I have a question. Are you willing to let Christians off the hook as well? If no then you have to demonstrate how your beliefs differ in principle from what Christians claim. If you cannot answer that then this Asperger Jew, with all the power he has invested in himself, will declare you to be a heretic (or simply a neurotypical who cannot think past his social ideology).


jblumenkopf said...

Always being right does not necessarily imply omniscience, if the doctrine is properly limited, as the actual Catholic doctrine of infallibility is (to ex cathedra statements about doctrine). The Gedolim could merely know when what they know is absolutely correct (through prophecy or whatever) and only then issue pronouncements. It is not claimed that the Gedolim know what the weather is on Jupiter right now, only that if they claimed something, it is correct.

Izgad said...

Ex cathedra limitations would no longer be omniscience. It should be noted that many of the Haredim I have run into specifically avoid this limited understanding and claim that the gedolom's knowledge extends to all things. An example of this are the claims made regarding the Chazon Ish's knowledge of medicine.

PMEM said...

It's largely childishness, this idolization of gadolim, particularly today's gadolim if indeed we have any. But also it's a way of people to claim their own power. I put the gadol on the end of my stick and beat you over the head with it.

Larry Lennhoff said...

Our gedolim are always right need not imply omniscience, if Hashem defers to their rulings. Of course, I can't see the difference between this and the heterodox interpretation of Ahkni's oven (it is not in Heaven, my sons have defeated me, etc.)