By Avi Bieler
See what I did with the title there? I don’t like the term “Modern Orthodoxy”. Others learnt philosophy before Rav Soloveitchik and they too incorporated it into their theology. “Modern Orthodoxy”? That’s just a new name for a type of Orthodoxy that has existed for hundreds of years.
The argument about “Grecian Wisdom” dates back to Talmudic times and has continued throughout the proverbial ages. Only at some point along the way those of us who had heard of Aristotle deemed ourselves to be especially modern. It’s as if the 2400 year old writings of a guy who wore a toga outside of his frat parties are the arbiters of who is hip. You see, I know of a certain “yeshivish/charedi” Rosh Yeshiva who receives translations of Artie’s works so he can better understand the RaMBaM. Does he lose modern status because of proclivity to wear hats when he prays? No one is “Modern Orthodox”; people are “modern Orthodox”, or perhaps “Grecian Orthodox”. Torah conscious Jews throughout history live in different permutations of the “Grecian Wisdom” argument. Like the Matrix.
Why do I start with this other than to be obnoxious? In today’s modern environment (Jewish and otherwise), the pro-Greece lobbyists are haunted and hunted by the idea of being “irrational” and therefore “immodern”. So much so that I dare say it places them in many uncomfortable positions with regards to religion. I once ate Shabbat lunch with a family whom I deeply respect. At one point the father and son told a story about a poor man who approached them at the Kotel. The man said that if you give me charity and the name of a sick person I will pray for him. O how the father and son laughed at the concept of prayer (Tefilla) and charity (Tzdaka) removing the evil decree. The family is very pious and I have no doubt that they pray very hard on Yom Kippur, but they struggled with one of the most basic concepts of that Day and of Judaism in general. Why is that?
The wise Hillel Mansfield once suggested this brilliant theory. The RaMBaM’s religious thought is based on Apophatic Theology, a word I only use to make myself sound smart. In English that means that Maimonides only discussed what G-d is not. In the Jewish tradition, this goes back to a gemara in Brachot where one rabbi says many wonderful things about G-d and upon finishing his fellow rabbi asks him “can you possibly be done”? It’s a very sound idea with a major weakness. When you only talk about what G-d is not, you can eventually conclude that G-d is not anything. Eventually, you may decide (perhaps only in your subconscious) that He/She/Zee has no effect upon this world. Simply put, G-d becomes so transcendent that He ceases to meaningfully exist.
Rav Soloveitchik once said “my students understand my brain, but not my heart”. The biggest threat to modern Orthodoxy is the tin man problem. I would like to propose that one of the causes of this quandary is our insistence on the word “modern”. The word carries with it a suggestion of subservience to current ideas of what is scientific even though many aspects of religion necessarily fail the rationality test. G-d cannot be completely understood with the head no matter how hard we try.
Worry not though; the Good Lord creates no disease without first creating its antidote. One solution is to look to the past. The heroes of “Grecian Wisdom” in Jewish history did indeed believe in the irrational (as did Grecian Wisdom itself) while incorporating rational ideas into their theology. We should be able to as well. It is my belief that chassidus (combined with Grecian Orthodoxy) holds the power to synthesize rational thought with spirituality. In these blog posts I hope to demonstrate that one can bathe in kabbalistic waters without drifting off into the deep sea and that ideas in chassidus can sometimes be best understood by the intellectual mind.
Until next week, (showing how the main principle of chussidus and Grecian Orthodoxy are related), raise a glass and sing a niggun.