Marc Angel republished an article of his in the Winter Conversations journal, put out by his organization, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. In this piece, titled Reflections on Torah Education and Mis-Education, written in 2008 for Tradition, he decries the seeming miseducation of Jewish children because teachers are unaware of sophisticated, meaningful ways to answers challenging questions.
He presents five case studies to prove his thesis. In each of these stories, the common theme is that the Rabbis must be correct and any dissent is just completely wrong. As with Rabbi Angel, those stories struck as me as sad but true. I recall having heard some of the same responsed during my formative years growing up, attending a Chabad synagogue (though my high school education also was based on the ultra-rationalism of Mesora.org fame [which will require its own separate piece]). Rabbi Angel then proceeds to explain how each of those cases can be handled in a competent, clear manner, with both respect to Hazal as well as the changes in understanding that have occured. In each of these cases, he provides sources to rely on. Of course, finding sources to back most opinions is not too difficult.
In thinking about this article, I felt a sense of satisfaction in Rabbi Angel’s attempts to confront standard questions that repeat themselves in Jewish Education. He doesn’t fault the teachers for teaching certain ideas, but he does fault them for not knowing how to respond to questions today. Yet, something seems to be lacking from his perspective. Going back to the previous piece on belief, answers are not always needed. Sometimes questions will remain. The reason answers are secondary is because the whole enterprise is secondary. Belief takes a back seat to action for most people. Sure, we pay lip service to the “tenets” of Judaism, regardless of whether we are talking about Maimonides’ 13 principles or some other system. Yet, I would suggest most people who attend Orthodox synagogue tend to be more focused on checking off mitzvot than in contemplating theology or belief. This is especially true when it comes to interpersonal relationships. I happen to also believe that this is the correct approach. Nefesh HaHayyim, the great Kabbalistic work of R. Chaim of Volozhin, the father of the Modern Yeshiva, discusses in his opening chapters about recognizing that all of our thoughts, actions and words, whether good or bad, have an effect on the divine realms (this is obviously not a unique theme to R. Chaim of Volozhin, but it is a source with which I am quite familiar). However, he also cautions his reader that if we constantly dwell on the affects of our thought, speech and action, we will be immobilized and never accomplish anything. I think the same can be said for belief. Belief is important and can be a foundation for our actions. Yet, when it comes to action, if we first were to consider our tenets, it would be detrimental and cause actions to be delayed or forgotten about.
I should also state that I am not advocating for an Orthopraxy. I advocate for the idea that beliefs, while important, are not primary. If you look at my list from the previous discussion, you will see that the beliefs are general principles that are to guide the grand scheme of practice. Specific aspects of belief on the other hand are important from an intellectual and philosophical stand point but should not be barriers to the true calling of following ritual and commandments, namely growing spiritually (we will discuss spiritual growth in a further piece).
To conclude, let me return to the piece by Rabbi Angel. I must commend him for writing such a thought provoking piece as well as for his other recent works, especially Maimonides, Spinoza and Us (of which I wrote a short review). For many in our community, modern science and modern thought, whether popular or academic, offers challenges to “traditional” understandings of our texts. As such, I do believe our educators need to be better prepared to handle these questions. This is true whether the questions have answers or require a sincere response of “I don’t know, let us study this some more together.” Of course, part of the problem is that “our” educators are often not “our” educators but come from communities that do not espouse a MO mindset (in whatever form that might be). Just to add, all of the above about engaging questions and being up-to-date on contemporary challenges is a requirement for clergy regardless of career for people look to any Rabbi when contradictions arise. It is not enough to be well-versed in Judaica.
For the next installment, we will use another article from the same Conversations volume to discuss studying Bible today. For those interested in looking ahead, see Torah min haShamayim: Conflicts Between Religious Belief and Scientific Thinking by Daniel Jackson.