Showing posts with label J. B. Soloveitchik. Show all posts
Showing posts with label J. B. Soloveitchik. Show all posts

Monday, March 21, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Scandal of the Evangelical (and Orthodox Jewish) Mind

Ryan Harper at the Huffington Post has an article on C. S. Lewis' influence on American evangelical Christianity, noting that Lewis is particularly valuable in countering arguments based on relativism. Harper argues, though, that the very strength of Lewis' ideas are having the detrimental effect of furthering Mark Noll's "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind."

As is the tendency with all powerful ideas, Lewis's arguments have become a rhetorical talisman, an epistemological panacea. Because they offer a number of compelling insights that strike at the root of important questions, they are taken to resolve all root matters. Therefore, however new the wineskins, readers of popular evangelical apologetics end up drinking some version of that sound old Oxford vintage.

The result of this Lewis-worship is a two-fold narrowing of evangelical intellectual life. First, as Lewisian thought becomes the discursive structure of critical inquiry, it ceases to be the object of critical inquiry. Lewis is never put in the dock for inspection, revision, abandonment or refinement. Lewis is the dock.

Second, an evangelical milieu that so prides itself on its "engagement" with secular thought and culture begins to count reading and rehearsing Lewisian argument as such engagement. "Engagement" thus becomes a second-hand affair -- synonymous with finding out what C.S. Lewis has said on a given topic. But the 21st century has some new topics; and while it is unwise to execute some great divorce with the past and its great thinkers, each generation must write its own books.

Lewis certainly has had an influence on me and I openly admit that when making arguments about the need to put forth coherent statements about ultimate values, that I am channeling Lewis. That being said I see myself as engaging in a conversation with Lewis, a conversation that goes to different places. For me the bigger issue than just trying to make moral statements is trying to pass those statements on to one's children. (See "When Lesbian Nazis in Bell-Bottoms Attack.") Perhaps this is because Lewis lived in a world in which even his atheists were still deeply in touch with a traditional culture. I live several generations down this path and worry when the heritage of the Enlightenment, based ultimately on early modern Christian thought, will finally run out on us.

This problem posed by Harper needs to be taken a step further. Yes Lewis was a powerful writer. That the evangelical community has an unhealthy relationship with him I think, though, is due to the fact that it has yet to produce a writer who can match him. Perhaps this is the true scandal of the evangelical mind. Forget about being able to match secular academic culture; it has yet to match C. S. Lewis. Thus the theological conversation never moves beyond Lewis. Readers have nothing better to read than Lewis as writers are not capable of doing anything but reproduce Lewis.

I would go so far with this as to make a comparison to Orthodox Judaism and R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch, a nineteenth century German rabbi, was certainly the Jewish writer that most influenced me as a teenager and college student. Now as Dr. Alan Brill once pointed out to his class, Hirsch as a major influence on American Orthodoxy is a fairly recent phenomenon, due in large part to his having many descendents who translated his work into English and got them published. The other side to this, I would point out, that in terms of looking for books on Jewish thought that were sophisticated enough to pass muster with an intelligent teenager and which took an engagement with an outside world as a given I did not have much in the way of alternative options but for Hirsch. So this millennial American Orthodox teenager found himself in a situation in which the only Orthodox Judaism he could relate to was from nineteenth century Germany. This is not a critic of Hirsch. He was a great thinker and writer. I am sure if I would be able to read him in German I would appreciate him all the more. That being said one has to ask why I was never given any serious twentieth century Jewish literature to relate to. (The closest thing I could think of is Herman Wouk's This is My God which is Hirsch updated for 1950s America.)

As for me, I must admit that there was something particularly dangerous in Hirsch in that, considering my Asperger mental framework, I was not intuitevly aware that I was not operating in nineteenth century Germany and that I should not be trying to be a nineteenth century German. So I had to push forward on my own to realize that I needed to face the reality of the twenty-first century and its unique issues; all this without the help of a useful Modern Orthodox literature. More recently I have begun reading the books of R. Jonathan Sacks and at least he is a step in the right direction. But until Modern Orthodoxy builds its own literature, it will remain caught between feeding off of Haredi and secular sources, while trying to create some personal dialectic whole between the two, and reaching back to some past thinker and trying to make him relevant for the present.

(Before readers bring up the examples of R. Joseph Soloveitchik and R. Abraham Isaac Kook, let me point out that I have been writing about my own personal experience as a teenager trying to mature into an intellectually serious Orthodox adult. Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook were not major influences on me at that point in my life. Furthermore neither of these thinkers set out a coherent weltanschauung like Hirsch's Horeb, certainly not one that can be presented to teenagers. Most importantly any attempt to use thinkers like Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Kook, both of whom distinct non-products of late twentieth century American culture, runs the same risk as turning to Hirsch.)


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Making Goethe Jewish

David Goldman has an article, "Faustian Bargains," on the continued importance of German cultural tradition for Judaism. Much of the article focuses on Orthodox Judaism, particularly R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, Michael Friedländer and R. Joseph Soloveitchik. Unlike most narratives, which focus on the Kantian philosophical tradition, Goldman argues for the preeminence of German literature, particularly Goethe, for understanding German-Jewish relations. According to Goldman:

Two German thinkers demarcate the opposite poles of German culture and its Jewish response. One was Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), whose Critique of Pure Reason leapfrogged 2,000 years of debate about the ultimate nature of reality. We cannot penetrate into the inner nature of objects that we perceive, Kant asserted: All we can know is the mechanisms for understanding them that are hard-wired into our brains. The apogee of Enlightenment rationalism, Kant thought that reason would prescribe ethics and foster world peace. The poet and polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) saw instead the dark side of the Enlightenment: Freed from constraint, tradition, and faith, modern man faced instead existential despair and self-destruction. Men use reason, Mephistopheles tells God in the prologue to Goethe’s great drama Faust, to be beastlier than any beast. Kant dismissed Judaism as a relic of ancient irrationality; Goethe learned Hebrew and drew on the Bible to make sense of the spiritual crisis of modernity.

Jews who veered toward assimilation embraced Kant’s universalism, most prominent among them Hermann Cohen, Germany’s leading academic philosopher in the last years of the 19th century. Cohen never abjured his Jewish identity and struggled until the end of his life to reconcile the unique calling of Israel with Kant’s universalism. His story has become an object lesson in failed assimilation. The Jewish encounter with Goethe in many ways is more telling, for its failures as well as successes. Some of the great rabbis of the 19th century did not hesitate to draw on Goethe’s reading of the Bible; Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik saw theological importance in Goethe’s rejection of scientific determinism.

Monday, August 9, 2010

St. Augustine Teaches Rabbi Aharon Feldman Authentic Jewish History

I recently decided to spend part of the morning reading through Rabbi Aharon Feldman's The Eye of the Storm: A Calm View of Raging Issues, so brilliantly skewered by Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein. Part of the book deals with messianism so I had a good excuse. (It is sort of relevant to my dissertation so it counts as work.) Central to Rabbi Feldman's claims is that he offers a Judaism untainted by outside values; he is a believer in "authentic Judaism," so to speak. As such I believe it is of interest to closely examine some of Rabbi Feldman's "authentic" Jewish beliefs.

In his discussion about messianism, Rabbi Feldman offers the following model of history:

The struggle of human history is the struggle over whether the glory of God or the glory of man will reign supreme. It is the struggle which began when the first man sinned. Adam Ha-Rishon was given the choice between serving God and making his own self "like God, who knows how to choose between good and evil." The choice which faced the first man was: Shall he worship God or shall he worship himself?

It is the struggle which took place between Yaakov and his brother Esav. Yaakov was "a man who sat in the tents [of Torah]," while Esav chose to sell his privilege of serving God in the Beis Hamikdash (the Holy Temple) for a pot of lentils.

The same struggle was replayed was replayed in the wars between Rome and the Jewish people, which ended with the destruction of the Temple. Rome, who the Sages tell us were the descendents of Esav, saw Jerusalem as the antithesis of their world-view. To Rome, man was meant to conquer lands, develop commerce, build highways – in short, to glorify man and his power. For the Jew, man was meant to subordinate his appetites and his passion for conquest to the will of God. With their diametrically divergent world-views, the Romans and the Jews could not inhabit the same world: … "when one stands upright, the other most fall." (Pg. 168-69.)

Now for someone so concerned with offering authentic Jewish beliefs, Rabbi Feldman offers little in the way of sources for this idea so it is up to us to consider where such an understanding of history could come from.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in his Lonely Man of Faith, famously talked about the struggle between two types of Adam. Adam One is the man of this world who seeks to conquer it; Adam Two is the spiritual man alone in this world, seeking a relationship with God. Rabbi Soloveitchik was attempting to grant some legitimacy to the pursuit of the glory of man in the hope that the two Adams could be reconciled. So we could rest assured that Rabbi Feldman was not influenced by Rabbi Soloveitchik; if anything he is responding to and denouncing such Modern Orthodox views.

The real source for Rabbi Feldman's model of history was that great authentic Jewish thinker, St. Augustine of Hippo. According to Augustine:

… two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, You are my glory, and the lifter up of mine head. In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all. The one delights in its own strength, represented in the persons of its rulers; the other says to its God, I will love You, O Lord, my strength. And therefore the wise men of the one city, living according to man, have sought for profit to their own bodies or souls, or both, and those who have known God glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened; professing themselves to be wise,— that is, glorying in their own wisdom, and being possessed by pride—they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things. For they were either leaders or followers of the people in adoring images, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator, who is blessed forever. (Romans 1:21-25) But in the other city there is no human wisdom, but only godliness, which offers due worship to the true God, and looks for its reward in the society of the saints, of holy angels as well as holy men, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:28) (City of God Book XIV Chap. 28)

Thus Rabbi Feldman's understanding of history is about as Jewish as the Incarnation, Trinity, or, dare I say it, women's prayer groups. To be fair to Augustine, his view of the earthly city, as exemplified by the Roman Empire, was more nuanced than he is generally given credit for, much closer to Rabbi Soloveitchik's Adam One. I am interested in how Augustinian ideas of history entered Jewish thought. We see an example of this in the apocalypticism of Rabbi Abraham bar Hiyya, in the early twelfth century, and Isaac Abarbanel, in the fifteenth century, certainly read Augustine. If anyone knows anything about the issue please feel free to comment.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Patience with Frank Schaeffer

In discussing Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, James Pate suggested that I would be interested in Schaeffer’s upcoming book Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion {or Atheism}, saying: “…it addresses people who aren't satisfied with fundamentalism or atheism. That kind of reminds me of what the top of your blog says: seeking a third path, other than secularism and religious fundamentalism.” I just got the book and read it over last night and this morning. I sincerely wished to like this book, since I see Schaeffer as being one of the people on “my” side. That being said, I found myself disappointed with the book as a whole, though there were parts that I found worthwhile. The fatal weakness of the book is that it lacks much in the way of a sustained argument. Rather it is a running meditation, one that fails to say anything that has not been said and better said in other places. This would not be considered a fault at all if this was a series of blog posts. If this was a blog I could just take it as is, the rambling chaff of an intelligent person written on the fly, which contains numerous valuable nuggets. I would like to pay my respects to those specific parts of the book worthy of consideration while acknowledging the larger failings.

The book opens with a beautiful prologue about Schaeffer feeling the need to pray upon holding his grandchild and a sober summation of the danger of our ghettoized media culture where everyone has created their own news and reality filters. The book itself is divided into two sections. The first part, containing the central thesis of the book, confronts both the New Atheists and Christian Fundamentalists, who Schaeffer sees as having a lot more in common with each other than they themselves would wish to admit. In particular Schaeffer goes after Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, on the atheist front, and Rick Warren and the authors of the Left Behind series, Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, on the fundamentalist front. The chapters on atheism are the weaker ones. They certainly fail to match up to Terry Eagleton’s Ditchkins attack. Even here, Schaeffer has his moments. I particularly liked his comparison of Dawkins selling Scarlet A Letter pins to his mother’s Gospel Walnuts, which, much to Frank’s embarrassment, she used to start witnessing conversations with random strangers. “So Dawkins, it turns out, is my mother, circa 1959! Hi Mom!” (pg. 30) This illustrates an important thing about Schaeffer; he is strongest when talking about his personal life and experiences. There is also something to be said for Schaeffer’s discussion of Dennett, mainly because Schaeffer is actually quite positive about certain elements of Dennett’s thought even if he comes to different conclusions.

Patience takes an upward swing when Schaeffer turns to fundamentalism. Again, I think this is because Schaeffer is one of those writers who is best when there is something personal at stake. One may find it interesting that Schaeffer would target someone like Warren, who has risen to fame largely on his reputation for being a more “liberal,” social-action evangelical preacher. Schaeffer main objection to Warren is that he sees Warren as an example of one of the principle weaknesses of the entire Protestant legacy, its lack of a tradition and the need, in the absence of such a tradition, to create larger than life cult-figures to stand in its place. This argument is one of Schaeffer’s valuable intellectual points and it is a pity that he, in both Patience and Crazy for God, does not delve more deeply into this issue. I would love to see Schaeffer do a book just on this point. It would make it even better if he did more to place this attack on Protestantism in the context of an explicitly Eastern Orthodox position. I suspect that Schaeffer fears, and probably rightfully so, that such a book would fail to reach a general audience. My thinking is that, in this religious climate, the most important thing for American Christians to see is a serious and vigorous Christianity, any Christianity, that is not Evangelicalism. Similarly, on my particular front of the religion wars, one of the key things to defeating Haredism is merely to show that such a thing as a serious non-Haredi Judaism even exists.

I loved the fact that Schaeffer discusses C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and the fact that the same Christian colleges that adore them would never put up with their drinking and their theology. I must object, though, to Schaeffer’s categorization of Lewis as someone who “ruined what could have been a decent literary career by slavishly working Christian propaganda into his ‘novels,’ especially once he began to cater to the evangelical/fundamentalist subculture after he became a star.” (pg. 102-103) Lewis, to the end of his life was a professor of literature, who incidentally wrote books on Christian apologetics and one of the best-selling series children’s books of all time. Lewis never tried to make a living from being a “star” on the Christian circuit. Even Lewis’ most propagandistic novels, the Chronicles of Narnia, are filled with elements from pagan mythology. Lewis, long after he became a "Christian star," wrote Till We Have Faces, a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth that remained explicitly pagan, and a Grief Observed, in which he muses over whether God is a cosmic sadist, torturing us for his own amusement. One of Lewis’ strengths was that he did not sell out; he was willing to put people out of their comfort zone. As a Tolkien fan, I will treasure Schaeffer’s description of one of his school teachers, Bubble:

Having Bubble for a master was something like having Gollum for a teacher. Only Bubble didn’t disgust us by gnawing raw fish. Rather, he revolted and riveted us by snorting huge quantities of filthy, face-staining snuff, he never bathed, and he smelled oddly of pepper and was clearly drunk at times, although he did know a lot about music and made science interesting. (pg. 132)

Schaeffer’s attack on LeHaye and Jenkins also deserves mention. Schaeffer remarks:

If I had to choose companions to take my chances with in a lifeboat, and the choice boiled down to picking Tim LaHaye, Jerry Jenkins, or Christopher Hitchens, I’d pick Hitchens in a heartbeat. At least he wouldn’t try to sink our boat so that Jesus would come back sooner. He might even bring along a case of wine. (pg. 109)

Schaeffer’s primary concern with LaHaye and Jenkins, though he knows them both and personally finds them to be decent people, is that they feed a radical element that could easily turn to violence in order to bring their particular version of the end about. Schaeffer again makes an important point about the religious right and its failings.

The words left behind are ironically what the books are about, but not in the way their authors intended. The evangelical/fundamentalists, from their crudest egocentric celebrities to their “intellectuals” touring college campuses trying to make evangelicalism respectable, have been left behind by modernity. They won’t change their literalistic anti-science, anti-education, anti-everything superstitions, so now they nurse a deep grievance against “the world.” (pg. 113-114)

The second half of Patience is largely a rehash of material from Crazy for God, with some more theology thrown in. At this point it is still interesting to hear Schaeffer talk about his life, even if it is beginning to wear a little thin. This takes time away from talking about belief. All the pity, because it is precisely this element that could have used more elaboration. It is fair enough to say that belief is something that goes beyond reason, but if one is going to go this route one needs to make all the greater effort for clarity and, dare I say it, “rationality” in one’s writing in order to avoid the obvious counter argument that one has lost the argument and is now trying to cover up that fact by hiding behind mystery. Every chapter of Patience is headed by a quotation from Soren Kierkegaard, the Christian thinker who best exemplifies this notion of faith as a leap into the absurd. It is unfortunate that Schaeffer did not make the effort to integrate Kierkegaard more into the book itself.

For those looking to understand how Kierkegaard can be made relevant to modern religious issues, Abraham Heschel wrote a book comparing Kierkegaard and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk called a Passion for Truth. I would particularly recommend this book to readers of this blog. It is about analyzing a type of religious “fundamentalism” that instead of walking lock stock and barrel behind the establishment, attacks and ultimately rejects the religious establishment precisely because the establishment fails to live up to the true standards of the faith. This is the sort of thinking that tells you that anyone sporting clothing that costs thousands of dollars in a world in which children are starving is not a real Christian regardless of how “orthodox” the gospel he preaches sounds. On the topic of Jewish thinkers influenced by Kierkegaard, another person who comes to mind is Rabbi Josef Soloveitchik. I first learned about Kierkegaard from reading Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith which discusses Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.

Probably the greatest flaw in the book is the fact that it lacks any footnotes or even an index. For example I would be interested in finding out Schaeffer’s source for Baruch Spinoza (yes Schaeffer refers to him as Baruch and not Benedict) being offered one thousand florins to remain within the Jewish community. Such a story smacks of legend to me. This indicates a book that was rushed to print without much thought or effort. In the end, in judging this book, I feel like I am in the position of a teacher being handed a B paper by a talented student, whom the teacher knows could have done an A paper if only he had put in the effort. My inclination would be to hand the paper back and say: “Please go back and write the paper that I know you can.” Mr. Schaeffer, you have written a mediocre book. From most people I would accept this, but I know you can do better. You have the talent to write the sort of defense of non-fundamentalist religious beliefs that needs to be written. Could you please go back and write that book!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rabbi Yissocher Frand on Shabbos and Repentance

This past evening Rabbi Yissocher Frand spoke in Silver Spring at one of the local congregations, Shomrei Emunah. I went, not expecting much, simply to fill in as a neighborly blogger, reporting on the important events of in the community. To my surprise Rabbi Frand managed to exceed expectations (granted that is quite easy when you have expectations as low as mine). There was nothing seriously offensive and nothing particularly heretical in his speech. Rabbi Frand even brought down a story by Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik. Here are my notes. As usual any mistakes are mine. Since this blog is read by a wide variety of people, I have taken the liberty of translating many of the Hebrew terms Rabbi Frand’s uses.

There is a tendency to relapse back to undesirable behavior. Even if we actually repent we slip back and our efforts go for not. This is one of the main impediments to repentance. Repentance is like dieting. We might lose a few pounds but we know that we will get it back. I speak from personal experience. In past years I have suggested numerous things. This year I would like to suggest a new approach. This does not involve taking on something new. My suggestion is to keep Shabbos. Most of you have kept Shabbos all of your lives without the intended result. What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? There is a story about a person who was involved in five accidents. It was shown that four were not his fault. The insurance company still wanted to drop him because of “bad karma.” Rabbi Weinberg advised this man that these accidents were a form of stoning because of violating Shabbos. This was a Shabbos observing family so what does it mean that they violated Shabbos. Rabbi Weinberg asked what the household looked like before Shabbos. It was chaotic and the man’s wife often lit candles less than eighteen minutes before Shabbos. This was changed and the policy was reinstated now that the “religious problem” was taken care of. (I have a problem with anything that implies that God is likely to directly interfare in the lives of lay individuals to punish them. It smacks too much of an arbitrary father in the sky, landlord deity. Insurance companies deal with odds. They of all people should understand that statistically you will get people who have five accidents and most of them not their fault. If the people who are supposed to understand statistics are failing in the defense of reason than we are in serious trouble.)

What does Shabbos have to do with repentance? We know the story of Cain and Abel. God curses Cain and Cain exclaims that he could not bear the punishment. God puts a mark so that no one would harm Cain. Cain goes out from God. According to the Midrash, Adam asked Cain what happened and Cain said that he repented and that God forgave him. Adam exclaimed how great repentance was and sang the song of Shabbos (Psalms 92). Adam did not know about repentance? Why is his reaction to sing about Shabbos? According to the Nesivos Shalom (Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, the previous Slonimer Rebbe), Cain was not just worried about his physical being, Cain was worried about his soul. Cain was being banished to a world of temptation and he knew that he could not survive that. God made a sign. That sign was Shabbos, which is called a sign. God was offering a solution to Cain, that he could keep Shabbos and save himself. This was what excited Adam. He knew about repentance but never connected Shabbos to repentance. (My father is a big fan of Nesivos Shalom as is my thesis advisor.) Sin does something to someone’s soul, just like a stroke affects a person’s mind, cutting off the connection between the brain and the rest of the body. Shabbos is the spiritual therapy that restores the damaged connection to God. We are constantly assaulted in this world. But as the Zohar says, Shabbos is the day the soul is restored.

Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, in one of his sermons on repentance, told over how, as a child, he used to go to a Modzitz shtiebel (small synagogue). The Hasidism would sing into the evening because they did not want Shabbos to end. There was a porter there whom he knew from his weekday work. Rabbi Soloveitchik could not recognize the man’s regal bearing on Shabbos. Rabbi Soloveitchik, as the Litvak (Lithuanian), asked when the evening services were. The man responded: “are you so impatient for Shabbos to end?”

Back in the old times when it was still okay to go to movies they would show newsreels. In 1933 the Munkatcher rebbe’s daughter got married and this got onto the newsreels. You can check this on Youtube. (There is a group of little boys and girls singing Hatikvah and a large group of older children engaged in mixed dancing.) It was a major event. The Rebbe got the chance to speak to Jews in America and he told them to keep Shabbos. The Rebbe who did not like pictures, agreed to be in a movie so he could speak to American Jews and tell them about Shabbos.

I am not a Hasid; my parents were German Jews. I eat gabruchts (wet matza) on Passover and put tefillin on during Chol HaMoed with a bracha (blessing). There is one thing that I envy about Hasidim, Shabbos. Go to New Square for Shabbos, go to Belz. The better the Shabbos you have the better your soul will be and this will help repentance last. It will allow us to stave of what the world throws against us. If Shabbos is merely a day to crash it will not have the desired effect. There is a program called “Turn Friday Night Into Shabbos.” We need a program to turn Shabbos into Shabbos.

The problem with Shabbos is that it happens every week. We take it for granted. There was a rabbi who had a conversation with a Roman Catholic from Topeka Kansas on a plane. The Catholic asked the rabbi if he kept Shabbos like when the woman of the house, in her finest, lights candles and the family sits down to a meal with silverware and crystal. The Catholic had the advantage of only seeing one or two Shabbosim.

If you want to appreciate something invest in it; buy and read books on Shabbos. We need to stop doing certain things in regards to Shabbos. Try praying at a slower pace; try coming early and say Psalms. Limit your reading to things that are not secular, no newspaper, no sports, no business. The words “never mind Shabbos” should never cross our lips. You have to want Shabbos. Women have the advantage in that they already actively prepare for Shabbos. All they have to do is think about it. I have a letter from a woman who decided to accept Shabbos by midday on Friday. Is this woman crazy? She heard her daughter complain about it being Shabbos because Friday was such a tense time. Now her children come from school to a calm home. Now her children are used to her planning for Shabbos all week long because she cannot start planning Thursday at midnight. (I can easily see this only exacerbating the problem.)

Rabbi Mattisyahu Salomon writes that there is no better way to install faith in children than Shabbos. We all know the temptations that our children are up against. I tell my wife that I am glad that we are out of the child raising business. Let our children deal with it.

I would like to close with an atypical Holocaust story. Judith Novack wrote a book called the Lilac Bush about her experiences. In her town they would speak Hungarian during the week but only Yiddish on Shabbos. In 1944 when the Jews were deported, she was the only one to survive. After liberation she and other survivors got on a train to go back home. They hatched a plot to throw rocks at the synagogue to show how angry they were at God. When she picked up the rock she remembered her Shabbos table. She thought how she could not bear to live her life without Shabbos.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Teaching Jewish Thought

Jonathan CohenThe Concept of Responsibility in Levinas and Soloveitchik: Implications for Jewish Education

Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity makes for an interesting comparison to Rabbi Yosef B. Soloveitchik. This should not be surprising as they both came from the Lithuanian tradition. Levinas has three different types of people. Soloveitchik, his essay “Confrontation” is similar. The first level for Soloveitchik is the natural man. Levinas, similarly, has the level of enjoyment. These are the unmediated imbibing of the environment. At this level there is no reflection. The next level for Soloveitchik is Adam the First; he is a dignified planner. For Soloveitchik there is no dignity without responsibility. One cannot assume responsibility as long as one cannot live up to his commitments. Levinas has man engaging in labor. He plans for the future and sets means and relations to ends. Soloveitchik’s Adam Two is devoted to total sacrifice to the other. Levinas has the man forced to sacrifice in the face of the other. For Soloveitchik, communication becomes a redemptive act while for Levinas one is commanded by the mere face of the other.

The major difference between Soloveitchik and Levinas is over the issue of responsibility. To be responsible, for Soloveitchik, is to take charge. For Levinas it is the readiness to respond to the other. This does not require power. On the contrary, human beings, by definition, are not powerful. This is the basis of Levinas’ attack on Paul and Christianity. As we fulfill commandments we take on more responsibilities so we can never fulfill them all. We are by definition inadequate; we are always late. This leaves us in a state of insomnia as we need to be in a state of perpetual readiness.

To apply this to education. Soloveitchik seems to follow the Dewy education system. Education should be a microcosm of the real world. If one wants a democratic system you have to bring democracy into the classroom and teach the students the sort of responsibility and restraint necessary for a democratic society. Levinas would need a different educational strategy. One that takes into account the perpetual debt to the other and perpetual guilt. This would require a system that works counter to what we want; much as art and sports education run counter to what we want. We want spontaneity, but to get that we need drill. For Levinas, we need to give students a sense of empowerment even though we intend to depose the ego.