Eikev: Orthodoxy Vs. The World Part II

Part I of this two part essay reviewed the different approaches offered in how to deal with the challenge of reconciling faith and modernity. We have either intolerant faith, faithless liberalism, or some form of compromise in between. All the opinions don’t address the core issue, and they all are reacting to each other – leaving us polarized with seemingly no way out.

What is one to do? What does the Torah advocate?

Now, here is part II.

Often a problem seems impossible to solve because it is based on a false premise, which in turn has become a “given fact” defining, hijacking, the context of the discussion. Presumed solutions, then, are not true solutions; they are more like cosmetic band-aids, and band-aids upon band-aids, which not only don’t solve the problem; they become part – and an extension – of it. To solve a problem we have to get out from under any false premises and look at the issue with a fresh eye.

Hardly will you find an issue where this distortion is more apparent than the challenge of balancing faith and modernity, especially when it touches intimate matters of love and marriage. The dissonance between these two worlds, so powerfully captured by Noah Feldman’s experience, is built on a false premise, which completely dominates and directs the discussion, obfuscating the heart of the issue.

The false premise is this: We live in a compartmentalized world in which faith and modernity can never be truly integrated. Out of this premise stem all the different positions in the debate around faith and tradition: Some feel that the only way to live in the modern world is to reject many elements of ancient tradition. Others, in fear and reaction to the former, go to the other rigid extreme, preaching dogma, protectionism and intolerance. And yet others react strongly to religious condescension and ostracism, and compromise the standard.

Noah Feldman’s experience is obviously not the root of this misconception. Neither is his education at the modern-Orthodox Maimonides School. Even the birth of modern Orthodox Judaism in 19th-century Germany is not the cause for the distortion.

The conflict can be traced back to the early stages of the Jewish emancipation in the 18th century. The primary challenge facing the Jewish people following the emancipation was how to benefit from their newfound freedoms while not compromising the integrity of millennia-old Jewish tradition. Indeed, modern assimilation was birthed as a result of a people unprepared for the challenges of accelerated emancipation. The challenge would take on different forms in the subsequent years – the battle between religion and science, between church and state and between faith and reason. Some chose insulation to protect from these progressive forces; others compartmentalization, and yet others assimilation.

The problem with all these options is that they all are based on, what they saw as, a fundamental rift between the secular and the spiritual. Thus, the only choice is to either opt for one or the other, or to find partial solutions to balance the two.

As centuries passed, this compartmentalized flaw became ingrained in the consciousness, and has shaped the thinking and education systems of hundreds of schools (by the name Maimonides or by other names), affecting the minds of millions, and has by now, understandably, taken on many lives, which control and define the dialogue – with each position reacting to the other.

Once a fundamental misconception becomes a “fact,” it is extremely difficult to dislodge its power without radical rethinking of the initial premise. Often, we have to hit “rock bottom” to shake us out of our presumptions and recognize the logical missteps that led to the distortions.

Though Feldman’s article doesn’t offer any new thoughts, its mere content and the reactions to it – including that which is omitted from the dialogue – reflect the current mindset and sheds a powerful light on the present predicament. It gives us the opportunity to revisit the stereotype, about the unbridgeable gap between faith and modern life.

[It reminds me of the powerful words of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev to a self-proclaimed atheist: The G-d you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in. Once the definition of G-d has been hijacked, we can never discover G-d’s true meaning until we revisit the initial premise].

What is the philosophical flaw – exposed by the challenge of emancipation – in compartmentalization? Why is it problematic to say that faith and modernity cannot be bridged?

The problem is that compartmentalization implies a duality, which challenges the very notion of G-d Himself and His purpose in creating the universe.

The root issue is not just how we cope with balancing both worlds and what attitude we should have to intermarriage (these are but symptoms), but question missing from the discussion is: What does G-d want of us? Is Torah actually inconsistent with modern, secular life?

Earlier in history people lived in secluded environments, insulated and protected from outside influences. The challenges were internal. The question of a pluralistic (or dualistic) universe was more philosophical than practical. As the world broadened due to emancipation, the issue of reconciling G-d with the modern world became very real, with far reaching consequences. The question of duality stormed to the fore with enormous force.

But “the cure precedes the illness:” When the duality challenge arose the spiritual masters of the time, anticipating the great battles it would spawn, began emphasizing, like never before, the deeper spiritual nature of Torah and G-d’s plan with creating this seemingly dualistic universe.

And here lies the “new” option that upsets the very premise of the discussion on faith and modernity (not new at all, just going to back to the original Torah and recognizing its relevance today):

The Torah approach is based on the cardinal principle of Divine unity. As we declare in the most famous of all liturgy – the Shema: Hashem Echod. G-d is One does not merely mean that there is one G-d and not many. In its fullest, richest sense, it means that there is only one reality; the Divine permeates all of existence. So though on the surface the universe seems fragmented and multi-faceted, in truth there is no duality or plurality. Underneath it, all everything is permeated with Divine Unity. It is our role and mission in life to expose and reveal the inherent unity in every fiber of creation.

The Torah offers us a comprehensive system to bridge the schism between the material and the spiritual – presenting a dynamic blueprint for Jewish life today, one that makes the spiritual journey personally relevant to contemporary times.

Briefly, the Torah teaches that within all of matter lies potent spiritual energy. Each of us is charged with the mission of discovering the Divine “sparks” allocated to us in our respective corner of the world and sphere of influence.

We relieve the tension between matter and spirit by spiritualizing the material, releasing the Divine energy embedded in every person, object and experience. Redemption is the natural culmination of this process. Recognizing the Divine soul in each person naturally leads to a loving attitude toward every individual, regardless of background, persuasion or faith.

This seamless interface between the Divine and the human allows us to enter the emancipated world without compromising timeless values. On the contrary: it begets the opportunity to integrate both freedoms, material and spiritual, by refining and spiritualizing material secularism, turning the world into an intimate home for the Divine. The Torah offers man the tools to perceive and reveal the Divine in every aspect of life: to integrate personal independence with the highest moral standards of Torah, to blend fiery passion with profound intellect.

There are, however, two conditions for effective integration: 1) A system of guidelines and boundaries how to achieve this fusion. Living in a complicated world of rich diversity, with each of us facing the battle between narcissism and soulfulness, affected, if not consumed, by our own individual subjective desires and needs – the right choice isn’t always clear. We therefore require a roadmap to navigate the complexities of life, directing us to make the right choices in allowing spirit to dominate over matter, while respecting the uniqueness of diverse aspects of existence.

The second requirement is 2) Spiritual maturity. We don’t throw a young child into the world to face its cruel challenges until s/he is fortified with the wisdom and resources to face life’s battles. The same is true collectively: Before the 18th Century, communities were insulated from many outside forces. But the challenge of a modern world requires a particular level of spiritual maturity, so as not to be overwhelmed by the newfound freedoms and the endless options that prosperity offers; a fortitude that allows one to generate spiritual passion that will parallel and surpass material passion; spiritual strength to counter ego-strength.

And this is where the Torah comes in: Torah is a roadmap that instructs us how best to fuse spirit into our material and modern lives, and to so at the right pace, with the appropriate boundaries honoring the diversity of our lives.

The Torah in effect offers us a comprehensive spiritual vision of life that teaches us how to infuse soul into every aspect of our lives. It tells us that the way to look at life is not from the outside in: First there is a material universe and a modern world, then we try to find ways to fit spirituality and G-d’s laws into the pre-existing framework of life. No. First there is G-d. He chose to create a universe, and our mission is to align the universe with His plan. A universe on G-d’s terms, not ours.

The do’s and don’ts of Torah are not merely about commandments and prohibitions. They reflect a universal spiritual vision of life, while respecting the rich diversity of different souls in our universe.

This, of course, includes the issue of marriage: The Torah view on marriage is highly sophisticated – defining the dynamics of a true spiritual union. It is about the mysteries of every soul’s unique journey and destiny, It highlights the spiritual compatibilities necessary in marriage, even more than physical, emotional and intellectual commonalities.

When you appreciate the spirit of Torah you also come to understand that G-d created all humans, Jews and gentile, in the Divine Image. The Torah’s prohibition against intermarriage is not about petty discriminations and parochial concerns. It is not due to elitism, exclusivity, or plain, primitive superstition – all juvenile concepts that are as foreign to Torah as idolatry itself. It is also not merely about protecting Jews from gentile influences.

Without entering into an elaborate discussion on intermarriage (which deserves its own focus to do it true justice), suffice it to say that it has nothing to with the narrow interpretations heard from the reactionary right or the dismissive propositions heard from the progressive left. The tragedy is this: As long as we do not know the Torah’s spiritual approach to marriage, we in a way are all “intermarried,” in the sense of confusing spiritual roles and adventures in life.

Let us now return to Noah Feldman’s story, which vividly captures the approach of so many of us today desperately trying – without success – to make sense of and bridge a dualistic universe, in which G-d and existence are two distinct entities, rendering faith and modernity as two dissonant forces, unable to fully meet.

If we look upon the Torah only as a book of laws, as grand as this legal corpus may be, we will ultimately never be able to overcome the rifts, some more subtle than others, between the Torah view and the world view, as Feldman so accurately describes. And ultimately, a rift between our ideals of love and marriage and the Torah’s expectations.

A pluralistic or dualistic material world, and by extension – modern life – poses a profound challenge: What to do when the world of spirit conflict with the world of matter? How much of modernity do we allow into our spiritual lives? Or how much spirituality do we allow into our material lives?

We are left with either those dismissing Torah’s relevance to our modern lives, or the opposite extreme – “ultra-orthodox” insulation and intolerance (reacting to ultra-liberalism), or some compromise in-between. [1]

However, if we see Torah as a spiritual blueprint our entire attitude is different: In a unified world, with inherent Divine unity running through every fiber of existence, there is no such challenge, because everything – matter and spirit, faith and reason, the secular and the sacred – is driven by the Divine energy within. The only challenge is this, and it is a great challenge: Will we have the discipline and fortitude to overcome personal desires and be able to recognize and reveal the Divine purpose latent in all of existence, as outlined in the Torah and its guidelines?

In such a spiritually cohesive world the challenges of modernity actually do not even exist. We don’t need to be “modern” to engage in the world and its beauty. From the outset we should be engaging the world and its gifts in order to reveal the Divine sparks within.

For one who has lived in a “ghetto,” isolated from the larger world, emancipation becomes an “eye-opener,” offering many new seductive options (both positive and negative), leaving one to make personal decisions: “how much” to let in and at what point am I compromising my Judaism (or it may even come to a point where one doesn’t care).

But one whose world outlook encompasses all of existence will not be seduced by modern options; on the contrary he sees the world as channel, a tool to express the Divine. His spiritual life is therefore not challenged by modernity – he does not see it as emancipation nor as compromise; simply as a development that needs its Divine sparks revealed and elevated. His only question is: How? What are the Torah guidelines that define the best way to align any new discovery with the Divine plan?

If, for instance, Torah’s prohibition of intermarriage is no more than another “legality” (which may be seen outgrown in modern times), then yes, “modernity” may include marrying anyone, even outside your own faith. Aren’t we all part of one human race? But if you study the universal and timeless spiritual nature of Torah’s guidelines, you come to appreciate the beautiful diversity of souls, and not every soul must unite with another to respect its majesty and reveal its Divinity.

Who is more hip and modern? The one who sees the modern world as a novelty, and is perpetually trying to juggle with the dissonance between faith and modernity; or one who initially sees the entire universe – with all its cutting edge developments – as a Divine “playground,” for us to tap and access its Divine energy?

To his credit Noah Feldman does sense the need for true unity. He was taught “to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected.” But clearly, he does not have a method and strategy how to implement a workable integration.

How else is it possible that someone so erudite in Torah, able to “recite the better part of the Hebrew Bible from memory,” should be able to disconnect to the extreme and not see how his marriage out of the faith is a major statement?

But ironically, Feldman does us a service by accurately observing that his own dissonance – which ultimately resulted in his ability to intermarry while not feeling that he rejected his Jewish upbringing – was a result from the ultimate duality of his Modern Orthodox education, an “attempt to bring the ideals of Orthodox Judaism into dialogue with a certain slice of late-20th-century American life,” whose goal it was, as Feldman sees it, to “strive to be, as a poet of the time put it, “a Jew in the home and a man in the street.” [Though this statement, I believe was used by the original leader of Reform Judaism, its quite prescient of Feldman to describe Modern Orthodoxy in this way].

“Even as we students of the Maimonides School spent half of every school day immersed in what was unabashedly a medieval curriculum, our aim was to seem to outsiders — and to ourselves — like reasonable, mainstream people, not fanatics or cult members.”

But only to “seem” that way. Since faith and modernity ultimately are two different, conflicting worlds, any attempt to normalize Judaism (“to normalize the observance of traditional Jewish law — to make it possible to follow all 613 biblical commandments assiduously while still participating in the reality of the modern world”) will ultimately fail. The only question is to what extent it will fail. For some the dissonance would be simple compartmentalization, driven by

“the desire to inhabit multiple worlds simultaneously and to defy contradiction with coexistence.”

For others it would widen into a deep rupture leading to marrying out of the faith and bearing non-Jewish children.

Which is why Feldman could have experienced the ultimate dissonance –

“not felt myself to have rejected my upbringing, even when some others imagine me to have done so by virtue of my marriage.”

Feldman’s conflict saddens the heart: How does he possibly balance his deep-rooted “respect and love for the wisdom of the tradition,” which so profoundly impacted his life, with his life choices? How does he reconcile his education which influenced him so deeply and “informs every part of my inner life” with his ongoing effort to “reconcile Jewish faith with scholarship and engagement in the public sphere” – how he remains “of the community even while no longer fully in the community?”

So though on one hand he was taught how “to see the world and the Torah as profoundly interconnected,” at the same time the two worlds ultimately remain apart. While he learned how

“Maimonides taught that accurate knowledge of the world — physical and metaphysical — was, alongside studying, obeying and understanding the commandments, the one route to the ultimate summum bonum of knowing God. A life lived by these precepts can be both noble and beautiful,”

yet as Feldman concludes, as tantalizing a prospect the consilience of faith and modernity appears within the reach of modern Orthodoxy,

“it can be undermined by the fragile fault lines between the moral substructures of the two worldviews, which can widen into deep ruptures on important matters of life and love.”

The only way to explain such dissonance is by realizing that with all his academic Torah study and all his brilliance, when the unified spiritual vision is missing integration is impossible. It is therefore not surprising that in the entire article Feldman does not discuss souls and spirituality – which lies at the core of the entire Torah.

Truth be told, Feldman does make one meager reference to soul, but in doing so he demonstrates how little he knows about actualizing the soul. Quoting Maimonides, “who understood the soul pretty well,” “He once characterized the true love of God as all-consuming — “as though one had contracted the sickness of love.” But how do we integrate love of G-d into our personal love?

How could someone so brilliant, so well educated in an excellent Jewish school, be unaware of Judaism’s spirituality? This should not surprise anyone. This major omission plagues almost every Jewish school today, even the best ones.

The sad fact remains that Mr. Feldman – and millions of others – never learned about the spiritual dimension of Judaism and Torah. Perhaps even sadder, is the fact that many of Feldman’s orthodox critics share this ignorance.

How about all those that didn’t receive any Jewish education? Some may say that they are better off, based on the maxim that “knowing half of something is worse than knowing nothing.” But regardless, all of us are suffering.

I like to see every experience as positive: Seeing what is lacking ought to inspire us to do something about it.

Feldman’s story vividly captures the tragedy of our times, and teaches us what we need most: A true cohesive view of Torah that embraces all souls while appreciating their differences. An understanding of Torah that is neither dogmatic nor diluted, neither Orthodox nor Secular – it is about one G-d, and how the drama of life unfolds in expressing the Divine unity, in all its beautiful diverse manifestations, or sadly not.

Our challenge today – and a formidable challenge it is – is to teach people of the Torah personal relevance to our lives. From psychology to relationships, from pain to joy, from the moment we are born to the moment we die and beyond, every aspect of life, every nuance and dimension can be realized to its fullest through Torah.

Feldman’s article and its aftermath should serve as a wake up call. The best reaction to it is to create a true revolution in Jewish education – insisting on the infusion of soul and spirit in the Jewish dialogue and curriculum of our schools. Explaining to our children not just “juxtaposing traditional and secular curricula,” how “a rigorous secular curriculum” should follow “alongside traditional Talmud and Bible study… to try to be at once a Lithuanian yeshiva and a New England prep school,” not merely to find ways of “reconciling the vastly disparate values of tradition and modernity — of Slobodka and St. Paul’s,” us to recognize that Hashem Echod – all of existence is one reality, not duality, both actually part of one seamless whole.

The ultimate way to preempt “intermarriage” is not only by invoking law or ostracizing transgressors, but to address the root of the issue: A lack of awareness as to the true nature of a spiritual union (marriage) and the soul of intimacy; how to balance a universal vision with the unique spiritual journey of the individual. Without this awareness, there ultimately is no reason (besides for guilt or fear) not to marry outside of the faith.  Or, even if a reason can be found, it may not be more powerful than the reason to marry.

So to answer Feldman’s concluding question:

“Would we be the same people, in essence, had we remained completely within the bosom of modern Orthodoxy.” “Couldn’t the contradictory world from which we sprang be just as rich and productive as the contradictory life we actually live? Would it really, truly, have made all that much difference? Isn’t everyone’s life a mass of contradictions?”

In the final analysis, Judaism’s ultimate answer is: Yes, our lives are full of contradictions, because the universe is a diverse, multi-faceted fragmented world. But through our choices we can connect to Hashem Echod – the oneness and unity of G-d, and that can allow us to transcend the differences

But to do so requires putting an end to our compartmentalized life choices. G-d and Torah must permeate not just the food we eat, the holidays we keep, but our choices in love and marriage, in the “important matters of life and love.”


[1] This bizarre distortion also manifests in the irreparable rift between the “denominations:” As a reaction to those rejecting the Torah’s Divinity, Orthodoxy has laid claim to the Torah. And for good reason: The other denominations, by rendering Torah into man made literature, have in effect emasculated the Torah of its absolute authority.

The problem is that the Torah belongs to the Orthodox no more than it does to any group or individual. The reason Torah was given in the wilderness – not in a beautiful civilized city – was to declare its autonomy: Torah was given in a no man’s land to show that no one, no city, community, denomination or group, has a monopoly on Torah.

The Torah – and the soul – is not orthodox, conservative or reform. It is a Divine entity, that cannot be quantified by man-made definitions (see Was Moses Orthdox?).


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David Ebin
7 years ago

The two part article “Orthodoxy Versus the World” is interesting, but probably not helpful as a reconciliation. Saying the haShem echad means that diverse things must be reconcilable is fine, but the proposed reconciliation is through a set of undefined and metaphorical terms — spirituality, spiritual energy, Divine energy, etc. How can these serve to reconcile?

Personally I don’t find a conflict. All of our family including children and grandchildren is shomer shabbath and my wife and I and all of our children have advanced secular education. It works fine and has for many years.

It seems to me that the underlying conflict in Professor Noah Feldman’s article is one of romance versus social mores. This is an ancient one that exists in many societies, of course including ours.

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