Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The dangers of the "Individual"

As we enter the month of Elul, I return to teaching. As a teacher and parent, I think a great deal about the factors that craft our spiritual and religious personality. A passage from an article by Rav Lichtenstein (Orthodox Forum - Contemporary Impediments to Yirat Shamayim) , gave me pause for thought recently:

"We — more the ben Torah in us, than the modernist — are not content with training our children or ourselves to bring our faculties to bear upon coping with the quandaries of life and its vicissitudes. We strive to mold the self, proper — to maximize ability, to extract and exploit the potential immanent, by divine gift, in our inner core. We share the Greek passion for paideia, as an educational and civic
ideal — and this, out of religious aspiration, as an end in itself, rather than merely as a means to inculcate or improve the capacity for dealing with issues. Ba’alei ha-mussar speak incessantly of the responsibility to build kohot ha-nefesh [traits of the soul], beyond activating or energizing them; and this emphasis is an integral part of our authentic collective tradition. Moreover, we encourage, as part of this process, a stress upon dynamism and vibrancy: man as agent — gavra in contrast with object — hefza. This is reflected in the extraordinary emphasis upon will as the epicenter
of the self; and, in the tradition of the Rambam, free will, postulated as both experienced reality and desideratum …
And yet … the course may boomerang. The capacity for chosen spiritual aspiration may issue, instead, in vaulting secular ambition. The more powerful the personality, the graver the potential for rebellion, the stronger the passion for independence, the greater the reluctance to submit. The kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim of the docile may be less attractive or even significant, but it is probably more secure."

What Rav Lichtenstein is saying is that Judaism desires the empowerment of the individual, the strengthening of independent resolve. But that if we empower the individual, it can backfire! If that independence of mind and spirit, the dynamism and force of the individual suddenly turn away from Judaism to other pursuits, then we have proverbially shot ourselves in the foot..

Now, Rav Lichtenstein attributes the passion for individual empowerment "more to the ben Torah in us than the modernist," but I am not so sure. As I see the Haredi community, the sense of the collective - the uniform dressing, the prescripted life-choices, and the emphasis of conformity – is far more prominent. In the secular environment as in the Modern-Orthodox community, far more emphasis is placed on self-expression, individual life choice, wide ranging self enrichment and fulfillment.

I would go further: From a religious vantage point, the Modern Orthodox worldview sees the development of the individual as an expression of tzelem elokim, of the unique individuality that God has invested in each and every one of us. Talking to my Haredi cousins, they simply don't promote the self exploration and wide opportunities that we desire for our children. They will be less likely to value the experiences and ambitions that my kids voice – whether in music and art, whether in sport and reading, whether in understanding science or History. Their strength is in the group. They create a "weaker" individual., which engenders a more powerful collective. However, for the Modern Orthodox community, this very empowerment makes us more susceptible to people taking their choices elsewhere, away from Torah, and possibly from Judaism. We promote a stronger individual. The stakes are higher. Success will be sweeter, but failure is higher. In RAL's word's: "the stronger the “heart,” the greater the
potential for just such a life, the bolstering of personality and of will, as its dynamic principle, engenders the risk of enabling rebelliousness."

Rav Lichtenstein follows his logic in the field of intellectual development:

"Here, too, we deal with abilities much valued by ourselves, in the Torah world no less than in the academic. … the overriding emphasis upon study as a value, and the development of the capacity and the desire to study as central to spiritual growth.

… Almost inevitably — particularly, in the modern context — this entails inculcating and encouraging a modicum of critical perspective, as regards both the reading of texts and the analysis of concepts, which, in turn, fosters a measure of independence.

Here, too, then, we risk encounter with a golem who may turn upon his creator and/or mentor; with forces which, once unleashed, may reduce an educator to the role of the sorcerer’s apprentice. As the primeval serpent well knew — and this was crucial to his temptations, as appealing to spiritual pride, no less than to sensual appetite — da’at opens access to knowledge, and knowledge is power, not only in Bacon’s sense, as enabling a measure of human mastery over man’s natural environment, but as providing and possibly encouraging spiritual autonomy. That autonomy is, however, precisely what possibly distances man from the Creator, undermining yirat shamayim at its root."

This has given me some room for thought over the summer, both in regard to child-rasing, and the education of our students. Sometimes, the same values that we instill as an expression of our spiritual mission and legacy, have to be delicately nurtured so that they yield the correct fruits. And yet, as Rav Lichtenstein points out, intellectual empowerment – itself a mitzvah - generates independence of mind, but then … we can never have assurances as to where our minds will lead us!

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

You never know who you are talking to!

I would like to relate a remarkable story of everyday human respect. In response to Tisha B'Av this is an attempt to reflect upon one of the simple, small ways in which we can all improve our regular interaction with other people.

The story begins when I visited the gallery at Beit Avi Chai ome time ago. I had been interested in a photography exhibiti there, and when the opportunity arose, I went along to enjoy what was, a fantastic display. However, I took issue with the curator's written commentary finding it objectionable, and I decided to write a letter of complaint to the organization.

I am not usually a complainer. I rarely write letters of praise or criticism to public foundations. And yet, since I have great respect for the Avi Chai Foundation which champions Jewish unity, Zionism, and Jewish Education, and the aforementioned comments seemed at variance with those values, I decided to write an email.

10:30 pm - It was late Saturday night, and I searched online for the email of the curator. I couldn't find it. In the end, with some unsophisticated web-surfing, I guessed the museum director's email and sent off a one paragraph, polite email, articulating my objection.

8:45 am, Sunday: I opened my gmail to find a letter from the director of Beit Avi Chai, Mr. Dani Danielli. It was written in respectful, intelligent, gentle language. It explained, the museum's decision with reference to academic sources and historical evidence. The email was quite lengthy - 3 times th elength of mine - and it upheld the museum's perspective and demonstrated the validity of their approach.

I was bowled over.
1. Who forwarded it to the director?
2. Why did he respond to me?
3. He responded so promptly – first thing in the morning.
4. The fact that he wrote to me so respectfully and with no hint of aggression. I am so used to the Israeli "attitude" problem which generally means that any complain will be agressively rebuffed as a reflex defense mechanism automatically springs into place. In addition I have also become used to the telegraphic Israeli correspondence (army-style?) style which can strike an Englishman as rather abrupt.
5. The director was totally in touch with what was going on in his institution. He was fully versed regarding the topic at hand. He had thought through the issues and grappled with the ideological nuances.

Anyhow, this was quite a breath of fresh air, and a highly impressive response by Beit Avi Chai.

What do I take from this situation?

So often, I get an email at work. Sometimes, it is irritating. Other times, I am busy and I simply respond with a two line rushed statement. Sometimes, I am a little short or brusque.

So, 1.) I should respond to anyone who writes to me with respect. Mr. Danielli received my email. I had not listed that I was a Rabbi or educator. I could be just some nudnick off the street. And yet, he took the time to respond, present his case, articulate his thinking.

And 2.) I should take two extra minutes to ensure my language is not telegraphic, but gives my correspondent the sense that I value them and take them seriously.

If we all begin to respond to one another in more humane ways, we can genuinely make the world a better, human-elevating place.