New Dogmas in Modern Jewish Education

In one of my classes, we are studying Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), one of the most complex and troubling books of the Tanakh (Bible). Indeed, the Sanhedrin seriously considered suppressing the book entirely, because of the danger that it would lead readers into heresy. In the end they did not, and Kohelet has the same religious standing as every other book in the Tanakh. It is considered to be the product of Divine revelation.

This only sharpens the central questions of the book. How can a book derived from Divine revelation, and written by King Solomon himself, declare that "all is vain under the sun"? How can such a book advise readers not to be overly righteous (7:16)?

Careful study of the book clearly shows it to be a painfully honest critique of the human condition, which ends in the affirmation of Divine rule. (Essentially, Kierkegaard's philosophy was plagarized from King Solomon.) For many students, the honesty in this book is far too painful. Indeed, many of the classical commentators wrote glosses that deliberately diverged from the strict meaning of the text and conveyed more conventional lessons that would be more palatable to most readers. Rashi was one such; his grandson, Rashbam, wrote another commentary that is rigorously text-based, and in many instances is directly opposed to that of his grandfather.

This book is one of my favorites in Tanakh, and studying it has been fascinating. Even more fascinating has been watching the reactions of some of my classmates. Kohelet comes as a challenge to certain strains of thought that have gathered followings within the religious Jewish education system. In many communities, the usual method of education has been for students to be presented prepackaged ideology, and required to accept it uncritically. Very few students in these types of schools are ever expected to grapple with the fundamental questions of religion and ethics; they are simply given the "answers," like second-graders given calculators to learn about multiplication.

This mindset is compounded by the popularity of mussar works, generally from the early 1800's and on, which advocate specific worldviews as remedies to the essential flaws of human nature. I do not say this to criticize these works, but rather the way that they have been presented. In many cases, study of the rabbinic authorities of the last few centuries is placed on a de facto plane higher than that of much of Tanakh itself! Fewer and fewer students have any sort of knowledge about most of Tanakh, and what they do know is refracted through the teachings of the recent rabbinic leadership, often to the detriment of the literal text.

Do not misunderstand me. Studying a text with associated commentaries is wonderful and often necessary; one gains access to the wisdom of the ages in trying to understand the text. But when such works replace the text entirely, we have a problem.

Some of the students have objected to ideas in Kohelet, saying things like, "This is not a Jewish idea" (direct quote!). Remember, they are talking about a book in the Tanakh itself, written with Divine revelation. If these ideas aren't Jewish, then what is? Apparently, whatever falls within the specific narrow strands of ideology that have been pounded into their heads from birth. Others have said that to truly understand the book, we must go beyond the literal reading. Fair enough; but then they say that not only is the literal meaning insufficient, it should be disregarded entirely!

What has gone wrong here? How can it be that certain ideologies have become so strong in the Jewish world that adherents would rather belittle the word of God itself than change their minds? (And this among a community that bases its identity, in theory, on adherence to the word of God!)

I don't know. But I think this may have to do with something Dennis Prager implied, that our community has effectively replaced veneration of the Torah with veneration of the rabbis and the Halacha (Law), which is not the same thing at all. When most people use rabbinic exegesis to supercede the literal text, instead of as a tool to better understand it, we have lost sight of the word of God.

What can be done? I think we need to restore a degree of respect for the literal text, and we need to get students to work through the big questions, instead of feeding them prepackaged spam masquerading as religious philosophy. In this regard, I am very happy that my school has an extensive Bible requirement in which just these sort of issues are addressed. But the rabbis should not have to work so hard to break down the accumulated sentiment of twelve years of groupthink.

Meanwhile, if you ever feel like confronting the deep questions of life, read Kohelet. It is unsettling, it is provoking, but it is the word of King Solomon, written with the aid of God.

1 comment:

weldon berger said...

Shalom, dude: Weldon Berger here. I think Drenzer closed comments on that Woflowitz thread, but I wanted to follow up on your response to my last post regarding neoconservatives and their associations with Likud governments.

First, what I said has nothing to do with mythologizing Likud: it has to do with whether or not it's fair to say that neconservatives, or a particular subset of them, have close ties to Likud when they demonstrably do. My sense is that the answer is obviously "yes," and that slapping the label of anti-Semite on anyone who does say that is 1) unfair and 2) dangerous in that it dilutes the meaning of the expression.

I'd also quarrel with your comment that Likud has no clear-cut ideological positions. The platform is pretty definitive, and the recent fractiousness within the party over the evacuation of settlements is a direct result of what a number of party members see as Sharon's faithlessness to it.

What really strikes me as absurd is your Clinton analogy. Neoconservatives aren't called neoconservatives because they associate with Likud, but because that's how they self-identify. It would be nonsensical on a couple of fronts to call U.S. supporters of Labor governments "necommunists;" first, because that's not how Clintonites self-identify, and because communism is not the antonym of conservatism.

You could make a good case for calling centrist Democrats neoliberals—they call themselves "New Democrats," which seems to me a euphemism for "Jacob Javitts Republicans only not quite so liberal"—and if that were their professed identity you could in perfect fairness remark any associations they might have, but neocommunists would be a truly farcical description.

Be well, and I apologize for intruding on your thread here.