Thursday, September 19, 2019

Joseph's Adventures in Communism and College

Previously, I talked about my great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Shapiro, and the late Prof. Louis Feldman of blessed memory as examples of antifragile Judaism, people who created Jewish lives for themselves under unplanned circumstances. In the world of antifragility, what looks good on a day to day basis is not necessarily what will work in the long run because what makes such systems look good is precisely what can bring it down in a once in a generation disaster. I would like to return to this issue of antifragility and its implications for Judaism.

Critical to Jewish survival has been its ability to adapt to situations in which our faith, as envisioned by previous generations, was not designed to handle. The most extreme example of this was the rabbis after the destruction of the Second Temple, who reimagined Judaism without its central sacrificial cult and without the majority of the biblical commandments. This requires us to rethink who the heroes of Jewish history are from those who lived ideal religious lives under ideal circumstances to those who lived non-ideal lives precisely because their circumstances made such ideals impossible. 

The biblical Isaac is someone held up by the rabbis as a person who was able to live his life in Israel in purity without sin. As Rashi teaches, Jacob wanted to live that life but God sent him the calamity of Joseph. Joseph lived his life in Egypt as a slave, a prisoner, and finally as viceroy. Joseph had to carry on for all those years under the assumption that he had been cast out by his brothers and that there was no future for him as part of the Children of Israel. It is Joseph who not only physically saved his family but also made it possible for Israel to spiritually survive 210 years in Egypt. It is not for nothing that, every Friday night, Jews bless their sons to be like Joseph's children, Menashe and Ephraim, who grew up in the court of Egypt. Similarly, we have the later models of Daniel and Esther in the courts of Babylon and Persia, cut off from Israel and with no hope of being able to return. In Esther's case, she even intermarried.

Let us be clear as to what the challenge is here. Ignore the strawman argument that Egypt or Persia (or America) is different. This is easily countered by "we, the faithful, do not change." This strawman argument, though, covers an alternative utterly devasting attack of not that the world has changed but that you have changed. The moment a person wakes up and sees themselves as different and irreparably cut-off from their former selves with no hope of returning, then casting off one's former beliefs and practices becomes natural. One realizes that the hard act of changing has already happened and now it is only a matter of accepting the reality of the situation. In fact, the very tenacity that one held on beforehand, insisting that the new circumstances did not matter, will come to work in favor of giving in as it will make the break, once it happens, that much more obvious.  

Imagine trying to train a twentieth-century version of Joseph. It is the year 1900 and your newborn student lives in Czarist Russia. You have him until he is seventeen. In 1917 the Bolsheviks are going to take over and put an end to open Jewish observance. Your Joseph will have to live out his life without the support of a Jewish community and his observance will be compromised at best. What can you give him that will allow him to maintain a Jewish identity in his own mind and pass it along to his own Menashe and Ephraim to the extent that when he dies in 1991, with the fall of the Soviet Union, it will be as a Jew surrounded by a Jewish family?

The members of my family who came closest to living out this story were my maternal great grandparents, Yitzchok Isaac and Feigy Schwartz. (Note that both my father’s father and my mother’s grandfather were named Yitzchok Isaac.) They survived the Holocaust only to go back home to a Soviet-controlled Hungary where they raised three daughters. As a teenager, my grandmother took advantage of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution to flee to the United States because there weren't any good Jewish men to marry. My great-grandfather passed away when I was a kid. I only knew him as an old man sitting in a dark corner of my grandmother's house, who did not speak English. Frankly, he scared me. (I confessed this as an adult to my father and he laughed telling me that I had no idea what a kind man he was.) If I could talk to him now, I would want to ask him how he found it in himself to raise a Jewish family with no Jewish community to rely upon and offer hope for a future.  

The 20th century gave us Communism, the Holocaust and ultimately the destruction of Eastern European Jewish life. Jews in 1900 could not have prepared for this but, at the end of the day, all of their efforts to build up Judaism that were not centered around the United States and Israel were going to be little better than futile. I have no idea what this century will bring. That being said, is it not unreasonable, for those in the United States to construct an educational system on the assumption (whether or not you are Haredi and oppose college on principle) that students are going to go college for four years without meaningful Jewish support. You have kids from the age of 5 until they are 18. What can you teach that will allow a student to go to college and, regardless of the compromises that they might make there, they will have a Jewish identity that will persevere to the extent that they will seek to rejoin the Jewish community afterward and raise a Jewish family? Anything that is not clearly focused on this goal needs to be cast aside as a waste of time and a distraction.  

Whether we are dealing with the extremes of Communism and the Holocaust or the mundane challenges of college, I assume that a successful pedagogical strategy will try to build a strong Jewish identity backed by theology and a deep emotional attachment to Judaism. Jewish identity here means a knowledge of ritual practice as well as a sense of Jewish history. Theology means having open and honest discussions about God and not simply assuming that kids believe in God just because they are ritually observant. Developing an emotional attachment to Judaism means getting away from threats of hellfire and, instead, make sure that Jewish practice is both joyful and meaningful. This is not to be confused with being fun and entertaining as that will have little staying power. A Passover Seder is not very entertaining but it can be effective if conducted by adults who understand what the Seder is about and are not simply going through the motions. Discussions about identity and theology should best be conducted over a Shabbos cholent or during shabbatons/summer camp along with plenty of singing. 

Take away a Jewish community and a person with a strong Jewish identity will continue as a Jew because, at a fundamental level, they see Judaism as essential to who they are and not merely a culture they grew up in or a set of practices they used to follow. To abandon Judaism would become unthinkable as almost a form of suicide. For all intents and purposes, it would be a different person living that non-Jewish lifestyle. A strong identity can allow a person a continuous sense of self that is not broken by anything that happens on the outside. Defending a Jewish identity requires a theology in the sense that our Joseph should be able to answer the Wicked Son's question of "what is this service to you." Having a theology is useful precisely when there is no community to give meaning to your identity. One thinks of the example of Maimonides, who lived for several years as a Muslim, who developed the first list of Jewish doctrines. You could have a person living their entire lives without ever being able to practice Judaism. They are still Jewish because they are able to believe certain things even if it is only in their heads. Finally, all the arguments in the world are not going to keep an intelligent person Jewish if they do not already love Judaism. If a person sees Judaism as a burden to be carried in the hope of getting into heaven, a college campus will provide plenty of intellectual justifications for discarding that burden.  

If we accept this model of Jewish education then it raises some difficult questions about Haredi education. Frankly, Talmud, at least how it is conventionally taught, becomes a kind of "spork," in theory good for a lot of things but fails to do any one thing particularly well and is better replaced by alternatives. For example, there are better ways to teach halakha. It is even more difficult to use Talmud to teach theology. Talmud, with its jumping across generations, lacks a clear narrative in contrast to the Bible. The Talmud's strongest selling point would be that it can build Jewish identity by allowing students to develop a sense that they are a continuation of the rabbis with their discussions. Note, though, that while this form of Jewish identity, is well suited for people operating within a Yeshiva system, it is likely to crack precisely when that community is no more. Our Joseph, whether in college or under Communism, is not going to be a rabbi. That option is closed. If our Joseph is to remain Jewish it will be precisely because his sense of himself as a Jew transcends him being a rabbi. 

I readily acknowledge that the Haredi system is better at producing Jewishily knowledgable and fervent kids than the Modern Orthodox schools. Clearly, if the question was keeping kids religious tomorrow, Haredim would win easily. But the lesson of antifragility is that you have to prepare for the extreme. Breaking Haredi kids should be relatively easy. There is no need to argue with them. Take away their tzitzit and yarmulkas; clip their peyos and let them see themselves in the mirror. No need to force them to eat non-kosher, just let them feed themselves from a dining room not designed for kosher eating and make their own compromises. The fact that these compromises may be quite defensible will not change the fact that they are compromises. Once you create a break with their past selves, the rest should follow easily. 

Remember that Haredi kids have not been trained to imagine themselves living outside a Haredi community. On the contrary, they have been conditioned to make that imaginative leap impossible. Thus, the moment you take them away from their community, they will likely see themselves as different people. This is not the case with Modern Orthodox kids, who have identities distinct from their Judaism. This might make them less fervent and more likely to abandon the faith on a day to day basis. It also might allow them a stronger sense of continuity even under difficult circumstances. As long as mental continuity exists then Jewish identity stands a fighting chance.