Sunday, July 21, 2013

Judaism: Incubator for *Secular* Greatness?

I frequently read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's weekly "Thoughts to Ponder." Last week he wrote about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the Biblical figure described in Midrashic sources as jumping into the Sea of Reeds before it was split. Whereas everyone else was hesitant to move forward as directed, waiting for a miracle to occur first, Nachshon led by example, thus demonstrating his courage and faith. That's the idea in a nutshell. Rabbi Cardozo brings the idea to argue that the willingness to lead and take risks is one of the prerequisites for greatness:
"Looking back throughout history, we can see that the greatest accomplishments of mankind were achieved by the Nachshons of every generation."
He goes on to say:
"Judaism, throughout its long history, has always taken risks. In fact, it is built on the foundations of uncertainty: Avraham Avinu’s standing up to the injustices of his world and proclaiming ethical monotheism in defiance of the beliefs of his day..."
Rabbi Cardozo then laments the current religious climate in Orthodox Judaism as failing in this regard:
"Today we no longer encounter religious leaders who act as Nachshon did, prepared to jump into the sea, saving what needs to be saved and creating what needs to be created. Instead, we experience a constant desire to stay with the old and not rock the boat; to look over one’s shoulder fearing possible failure."
Regarding the "greatest accomplishments of mankind," it's clear that Jews have contributed more than our share. But how much of that greatness is attributed to "Judaism" per se? Sure, with Avraham Avinu, Judaism was the great innovation. It was the ideas of Judaism, and in particular monotheism, which our tradition hails as forging a bold new path in the world. Judaism was the radical new idea.

So yes, when we think about the Jewish contribution to the "greatest accomplishments of mankind," we can certainly include Torah ("The Bible") as having had a monumental impact on the world. But thinking about more recent times, and Jewish individuals who've had an impact - people like Marx, Freud, Einstein, the disproportionate number of "Jewish Nobel Prize winners" we love talking about - it's not Judaism itself which is the accomplishment. The accomplishment is entirely secular.

That's not to say there isn't true greatness to be found among the great Torah luminaries over the past 2000+ years - moral greatness, incredible genius. There certainly is. But their greatness and accomplishments are almost exclusively in the domain of "internal Jewish affairs." By and large, they're not people you'd point to in the history books and say, "Wow, what a contribution to humankind!"

One might even argue further - that many of the "greatest accomplishments" of Jews (particularly in the past few centuries) were achieved in part by people's rejection of Judaism, at least the traditional/Orthodox/Halachic version of it. Without the insular Torah world's obligations and expectations (and "head-trip"), many brilliant Jewish minds have been freed up to think on their own, immerse themselves in secular scholarship, and strive with single-minded determination toward the particular area in which they were destined for greatness.

Yet at the same time, even those Jews who leave the religious fold typically carry with them a strong sense of Jewish identity, including knowledge and values, and also the distinct feeling of being "different" - which is reflected back by the rest of the world, who views them very much as "the Jew," not fully part of the club. As painful as that nonacceptance is, it equips these Jews with the valuable perspective of an outsider, allowing them to see things about the world and about society that many others can't see - another factor that helps them to accomplish great things.

So again, even if "Judaism" per se hasn't been among the world's "greatest accomplishments" for quite some time, it - and the whole culture built around it - undoubtedly seems to serve as a kind of launchpad for greatness, a milieu for greatness, an incubator for greatness.

Regarding Rabbi Cardozo's thesis, my critique is this:

Even if the Torah world would produce a new crop of leadership which fulfilled his definition of greatness - people willing to "rock the boat" and meet the needs of the Jewish people in the 21st Century, that's still a matter of "internal affairs." It might be great for the Jewish people, but it's not "greatness" in the sense of leading the world in a positive new direction, adding something to humanity, being a "great accomplishment for mankind." That accomplishment comes from Jews who contribute to the secular sphere, regardless of whether any boat-rocking takes place in the religious sphere.

So yes, we can and should try to foster more internal health as a people, and I appreciate and encourage Rabbi Cardozo in his efforts along these lines. Truly I do. However, if we're thinking purely about "great accomplishment," really all we have to do is let the Jewish "incubator" keep doing its thing, just like it's been doing, despite (or possibly because of?) all our fragmentation throughout history - which includes all our crazy zealots, our establishment curmudgeons, our dauntless rebels, our staunch secularists, and everyone else in between.

(I have more to say about the idea of a future contribution from Judaism per se, but I'll leave that for Part 2.)


  1. two points first if you read r caroza's piece on the outgoing English chief rabbi you might understand that he see's a "gadol" in jewish culture as one who is a sincerely religious man of spirit who is able to have the open mindedness to genuinely respect the spirituality of people of another religion (or of no religion for that matter) and thus give over the message of his faith in broad and inclusive enough terms that he will not alienate the "other" but will inspire and draw people closer together (much as r sacks is seen by the general English populace as a spiritual leader who happens to be of the Jewish faith)

    second point i think you and r cardoza are coming from a very ultra-orthodox centric point of view, most of the Jewish people over the past 200 years have grown past there fundamentalist beliefs that carried the day in the dark ages the large majority of Jewish people today are actually still making huge socio-theological contributions to the worlds conscience as we continue to evolve and develop our religion think of all the humanistic causes social justice tikun olam fighting for equality freedom and respect for all people and real nondenominational-charity liberalism that the reform-consirvatve-reconstructionist-humanistc-nonafilaited preach and earnestly try to practice all of this is given a very Jewish religious flavor that is seen as the direct continuation of the last 3500 years of our mesorah (that was a horribly put together sentence but you get my idea) the idea that these branches of Judaism are not "religious" is a ultra-orthodox lie that is so entrenched that even those who leave have trouble grasping that this is not at all true, the vast majority of modern jews have a much more evolved and nuanced understanding of what that term means and how it is experienced.

    1. Yes, I know he respects R. Sacks for being broad-minded, well-read, erudite, dignified and relatively inclusive. I do too - although sometimes I think his erudition and wit create a "blind spot" which prevents people from seeing the flaws in his arguments. I'm not sure though what point you wanted to make about my post.

      Re: your second point about my being "ultra-orthodox centric" and not thinking of other branches of Judaism as religious... I certainly don't mean to demean other denominations or their contribution. I very much *respect* them and think there's much to emulate there, and I agree that humanitarian work is not just "religious" but perhaps should even be considered the pinnacle of Jewish spirituality. That said, I do see the value in the keeping of Halacha and the study of Torah which is characteristic of the Orthodox camp, and if that makes me "ultra-orthodox centric", well I suppose I am then.

      Thanks for the comments,

  2. I have a radical new idea. I suggest that in future, a traditional Jewish group (it cannot be Orthodox) reach out to non-Jews and promote what I call "Noachides Plus" (for lack of a better word) a new religion based on Torah beliefs and the observance of Shabbat, kashrut, niddah and brit milah. This traditional group would then say that they would help and mentor this Noachides Plus, and they would allow Noachides Plus believers to marry Jews. Dave.

    1. Hi Dave - What's the idea behind the idea? I assume it's a solution to something you feel is needed/lacking. If so, what?

      Best, AJ