Thursday, April 19, 2018

Moshe Eliezer: Toward an Antifragile Judaism

This past Friday was my son, Mackie's, first Hebrew birthday. So I am taking the opportunity to post the speech I gave at his bris. This speech lays a framework for some ideas that I have been hoping to explore on this blog at some future point. 

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a concept called "antifragility." The idea is that, if you want to evaluate if a system is stable, you do not simply go by how well it handles everyday stresses. What is important is how the system handles extreme "black swan" events. Systems that are antifragile not only can survive a crisis but even gain strength from it. Part of what is counterintuitive here is that it is possible to end up rejecting the system that is superior based on what we can observe. Often, what appears as the day to day strength of a system is precisely what will bring it down in a crisis. This concept can be applied to Jewish survival. Passing on Judaism to the next generation means not becoming seduced by things that look impressive from the outside to the neglect of things that can survive a crisis. It is one thing to talk about how it is great to raise children in Brooklyn or Jerusalem and what is the best way to do so under those circumstances. The interesting and relevant question is how to raise children when Brooklyn and Jerusalem are not options. In the end, the only kind of Judaism that is going to survive, regardless of geography, is that which can make it outside of such places. 

We have decided to name our son Moshe Eliezer in honor of my great-grandfather and my teacher, the late Prof. Louis Feldman. What they both had in common was a Judaism that was antifragile and could survive even under less than ideal circumstances.

My great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Shapiro, grew up in Israel but had to flee during World War I. He ended up as the rabbi of Atlantic City, NJ. Atlantic City in the 1920s was a relatively family-friendly resort town that inspired the game of Monopoly. That being said, this was never his plan for how he was going to lead his life. For example, my grandmother grew up going to public school. Things would have been much simpler if he could have stayed with his father, my namesake, in the Old City of Jerusalem, where he could have lived out a more ideal Torah lifestyle. Perhaps this is the origin of the Chinn family preference for out of the way Jewish communities. My father was raised in McKeesport, PA and I was raised in Columbus, OH. I now find myself raising my children in Pasadena, CA.

The character trait about Prof. Louis H. Feldman (Eliezer Tzvi) that most struck people who knew him was that he was so much more than the short old man in a baseball cap, crumpled chalk-stained suit, and sneakers that he appeared. At one level, his appearance disguised the fact that he was a genius and the foremost scholar of Josephus of his age. Feldman embodied humility; he honestly did not seek honor nor did he desire people to recognize his greatness. He was able to do this because it really was never about him. He wanted other people to know and love the classical world like he did. The more he could get others to see this and not himself the better.

To dig deeper, Prof. Feldman's scholarship disguised what a holy person he was. If he was not most people's idea of a great scholar, he was certainly no one's idea of a tzadik. What kind of nice Jewish boy would spend his life on Greek and Latin? Feldman was not just a classics scholar who also happened to be a religious Jew. Underlying everything he wrote, was an implicit apology for what Jerusalem had to do with Athens. The world of Philo and Josephus was a model for Feldman as to how to be a Jew in the modern world. Feldman's Judaism was never pure or ideal, but that was its strength; it was capable of surviving in an impure non-ideal world.

In his final years, I used to regularly visit Prof. Feldman. More than history, what he liked to talk about was growing up in Hartford, CT. If you are looking for the key to Feldman's unconventional Judaism, the place to start is in Hartford. As with Atlantic City, Hartford was not anyone's ideal place to raise Jewish children. Maybe that was the point. How could someone be a religious Jew in academia? The same way that one could be religious in Hartford and the same way that one could be religious in ancient Alexandria or in Rome; with unwavering values and a sense of humor.

Moshe Eliezer, welcome to the family. I can't tell you that things are going to be simple and I am sure you are going to have lots of questions but that is the Judaism that I am offering you. It is antifragile enough to survive even when things are less than ideal. There are challenges ahead here in Pasadena but you are capable of handling them. How do I know this? Because your roots run much deeper than just Pasadena. They go back to Columbus, to McKeesport, to Atlantic City, and to Hartford. If you dig deeper you will find that they go back to Alexandria and Rome. I look forward to teaching you about your classical heritage. If you stick with it, you just might find your way back to Jerusalem.   

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