Monday, October 15, 2007

The "Neo Haskalah" and the Need for an Individualized Response

The purpose of this post is neither to give support to any specific books of Rabbi Slifkin(as I made clear in the actual post), and certainly not to support a movement of "Neo-Haskalah", if such indeed exists. My own inclination, is a rational and a thoughtful one(at least I try on that end), and my response to the topic raised by the Jewish Observer was to further examine the question of "Adults at Risk" in a psychological, historical and intellectual context. The points could be developed further, and other people probably will respond with their own ideas elsewhere ; I hope that those will indeed be printed in the Jewish Observer.

Following up on part of the focus of the Jewish Observer, which was that there are thoughtful people who think about issues fundamental to Jewish belief, I wrote of a need for them to have an individualized approach which Rav Dessler spoke about. I also hoped that people would get chizuk and inspiration from this current posting.

The general point of an individualized approach which could help people, and which includes previously acceptable opinions of Gedolim, should not have anything to do with to do with ideology--Centrist, Charedi, etc. Be that is it may, I do not make decisions for the tzibbur or for individuals, and obviously the post is merely to stimulate thought. If anyone has other ideas about what an "individualized approach" for Science/Torah issues should consist of, or if it indeed it should exist at all, please share that in the comments.

A commentor by the name of "Frum Guy" wrote the following(see link) about the Jewish Observer article titled "Adults at Risk" , which I quote from in part:

..We may be on the verge of a Neo-Haskalah. I'm not even sure what it would entail, but it's going to be something. The cover story of this month's Jewish Observer is about this Neo-Haskalah; they just call it "Adults at Risk" ...


"Frum Guy" raises an interesting historical comparison between Volozhin and the contemporary Charedi milieu. Perhaps history works in cycles, and there is a comparison(and differences, of course) between the European Haskalah and today, both in terms of the issues themselves, as well as the social milieu which cause vulnerability, like a risk to a disease.

At least some "Adults at Risk" need an individual approach. According to Rav Dessler(Michtav M'Eliyahu, IV, page 354) the Rambam wrote the Moreh Nevuchim for people who needed an individual approach. Rav Dessler says that this approach was acceptable for them as long as it was not against the Halacha. What is the equivalent of such an "individual approach today" ?

The approach of publicly stating that previously acceptable opinions are kefirah, while it would benefit many people, would not seem to help someone struggling with questions. Such people, indeed, need an individualized approach which is different that that which the multitudes require. I think that such calculations, indeed partially depend upon how one understands the causes of "Kids/Adults at Risk".

Two views are presented towards the end of the following Jerusalem Post article about what is bothering contemporary Frum youth:

"Some Jews will be scared away from Orthodoxy," said the anonymous rabbi. "I believe people should be allowed to retain their individuality. They should not be asked to behave like robots. I don't expect books like Slifkin's or Nadel's to become part of normative haredi Judaism. But these ideas should be made available to those who ask the questions."

The educator at Machon Lev agrees that answers should be provided, but believes the apparent contradiction between science and religion is not a burning issue for most religious youth.


"A century ago the contradiction destroyed the spirituality of thousands of Jews. But today there are many religious scientists and professors who have refuted supposed inconsistencies.

"I think what truly bothers contemporary religious youth is a much more personal, existential question. The real thinkers are concerned with why they were put on this earth and what they are supposed to do here."

I have no idea about what the numbers are, but one should not downplay the intellectual factor. And if indeed there are people who are questioning, they would need an individual approach, just as in the Rambam's time. While not answering every question, having a shittah such as Rav Avroham ben HaRambam, while eschewed for the multitudes as a result of some statements connected with the Slifkin ban, can be invaluable for the "individual approach".

Rabbi Dr . Aron Hirsch Fried(page 62) writes about the value of intellectual inquiry in education :

There is an unwritten but whispered rule amongst Bais Yaakov girls that, “If you have some really serious questions, whatever you do, don’t ask your teacher, not unless you don’t care what it does to your shidduch chances!” This attitude towards thinking and questioning drives away some of our brightest and most honest young people. It also flies in the face of Rishonim like the Mabit who insist that it is imperative that we learn to think and to and to question and to chase down answers on our own.

Rabbi Fried quoted the Mabit that:

"It is not fitting for a person, a human being, to neglect to research anything that is within his ability to grasp. For example: A person is told a novel phenomenon, and he believes it because it was told to him by a good and trustworthy person. If he has the ability to comprehend and know that phenomenon and he makes no effort to do so on his own, it is considered as slovenly laziness"

I don’t think I need to elaborate on the dangers of such an anti-intellectual atmosphere in our society and in our schools.

I also remember hearing Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb saying at the Slifkin book launch, to the effect, that we need to encourage questions and the exercise of the intellect. While I do not necessarily agree with the particular book, I do think favorably of Rabbi Weinreb's general point made below, and that anything which was acceptable by previous generations of Gedolim, should be preserved today as well:

Many of our Sages and leaders through the generations have had the luxury of “preaching to the choir.” Their constituents, followers, disciples, and students lived in the same intellectual world as they did, were willing to accept the teachings of their mentors without serious question, and indeed lived lives in which they were not exposed to ideological frameworks at odds with those of their master. However, throughout the ages, some of our leaders have had to cope with constituencies which did question them. These constituencies were exposed to different cultural and philosophical influences, often at odds with the core teachings of these great men. And so these men stepped forward courageously and often at the risk of their own reputations, to provide direction for those who were lost and answers to those who were puzzled, and even guidance and words of gentle rebuke to those who were rebellious and hostile.

The heroes of the latter category include Saadia Gaon and Rambam. In the post enlightenment era, the need for approaches modeled by Rabbeinu Saadia and Rambam, approaches which dealt head-on with
challenges from outside normative Judaism, increased many times over….

Today, too, there are leaders among us who are blessed with constituencies that are not exposed to ideologies alien to traditional Judaism, or who are oblivious, intentionally or otherwise, to the challenges of these alien systems. Fortunate are these leaders, for they can continue to teach and preach what they see as the unadulterated and pure message of the Torah. However, there are those among us who are confronted daily with Jews whose exposure to the culture and philosophy of our times stimulate probing and consuming questions about Judaism. Some of these Jews come from the ranks of the non-observant who wish to draw closer to Torah and mitzvos but who find it difficult to integrate the thought system with which they have grown up with the teachings of the Torah to which they are newly introduced. But also among these individuals are those who have been steeped from birth in a traditional education and in a traditional understanding of Torah but who are now confronted, either through formal secular education, general reading, or discussions with those in their everyday environment, with new challenges of doubtand perplexity.

I also wish to emphasize that the Jewish Observer article and Dr. Fried's point about validating and encouraging questions are unrelated to the merits of the Slifkin Ban or even the different opinions which were acceptable previously. Rather I am merely pointing out that according to Rav Dessler, many individuals may need special guidance, and assuming that such individuals exist within the FFB world, then having opinions which in previous generations were acceptable might be helpful.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the Chovos Halevovos in Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh discusses internal conflicts, including intellectual ones, that could turn a person away from Avodas Hashem; questions and doubts, are a human, and age old issue. Rav Yeruchem Levovitz(Daas Torah, V'Zos Haberacha) writes that it's possible that the Chovos Halevavos himself overcame such conflicts(similar to Rav Hutner's famous letter about the Chafetz Chaim and Shmiras Halashon), and therefore wrote about them. If it is true that the best of our people can, or need to, go through such a process in their spiritual growth, than their needs, at least in private, need to be taken into account.

I think that "it's the best of times, and the worst of times". In some ways the Charedi community is in a better position vis- a -vis 19th century Volozhin, but in some ways it is worse off. The historical comparison and contrast is probably a topic in of itself.

May we see the day when " the world will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem as water covers the bed of the sea".

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