Thursday, May 30, 2013

Judaism and the Death of Feeling

This is my submission to the latest issue of Makom, the journal on Jewish studies that I'm the academic editor for. Read the full issue here.

Jewish belief used to be compatible with a scientific worldview. In the days when it was still possible to believe in physical resurrection, in man’s instantaneous creation, and in the historicity of the Exodus, it made sense to call Judaism a rationalist religion. Faith in the Bible needed no cognitive effort: no elaborate metaphors, no furious attempts to reduce it to merely “moral truth.” God really split the sea.

That is no longer true. If we take history seriously, we will conclude that the Exodus probably didn’t happen. If we take biology seriously, we will conclude that man came from pikaia and apes, not a special act of creation. The religion that can survive in the world must be able to survive the onslaught of empirical science taken to its logical conclusion.

For that reason, if Judaism is to live, it cannot maintain scientific dogma like it used to. Modern Jews can no longer believe that the Exodus really happened; nor can they believe that God interrupted history to tell his people not to eat pigs. Judaism must therefore be understood not as a set of dogmas that contradict science; but as a relationship between man and the world. A Jew can have a vivid experience of God without forcing himself to believe doctrines that he doesn’t hold.

But this raises two problems. First, if Judaism is a matter of inner devotion, of individual orientation in the world, where is there room for communal experience? How can I share my attitude to God with other people if dogma is eliminated? Second, if religion is purely transcendental—if there is no such thing as a miracle—where is there room for an experience of God? Man does not live by abstraction alone.

Aesthetic experiences can solve both problems. A congregation united in song does not necessarily subscribe to any common dogma. It does, though, adopt a common attitude to the sacred, transcendent God. The raising of the sefer torah in a synagogue doesn’t ask for any belief, but for common reverence.

The Catholics have understood this for millenia: the solemn mass is a sublime communal union in a devotional attitude to God. Perhaps, as the historians say, Christ never rose from the dead. Even so, the congregation shares tremendous joy in its salvation from sin and its love for God.

The Jews, though, do not understand it. Walk into an Orthodox synagogue today, and you will likely find a grim scene. Tired men sway mechanically, mumbling under their breath. The man leading prayers trips over his tongue in his rush to finish the service in under half an hour (it would be awful if any longer, anyway). The few women in the room, penned in on the side, bury their heads in their books, their silently moving lips the only activity on their expressionless faces.

The situation in most Reform and Conservative synagogues is little better—the aesthetic poverty is almost as acute, but this time it is accompanied by congregational indifference. Most liberal Jews I know attend services only on the “High Holidays”, and even then they find the service boring, puerile, and long.
Guess which religion has more adherents.

The synagogue where I grew up is an exception. The Sabbath service takes place in a vast, august sanctuary. Flickering candles ring the scarlet tebah, and a choir chants magnificently from the loft. The sanctuary is just that—a sanctuary from the world, where a Jew can feel peace in the presence of God. (None of this, by the way, is an innovation: the congregation was founded in the time of Oliver Cromwell, and it hews strictly to traditional observance.) If Judaism is to respond to the problem of modernity, it must embrace this this kind of experience.

How is this to be done? Here is what I propose:

  • We should regularly sing the psalms. We should revive the Spanish piyyutim. More than that—we should write new religious poetry. 
  • Synagogue sanctuaries should be silent, beautiful, and dimly lit. 
  • We should write sublime religious music—and failing that, we should set our texts to melodies from the Western, Islamic, and Russian classical traditions. Reform and Conservative congregations that use instruments on Shabbat should move beyond the guitar.
  • Optional: Rabbis should wear ceremonial clothing, like most Christian and Muslim clergy. Not optional: Rabbis should speak to our souls, not just our intellects.


At the end of Monday-morning prayer, the shaliach tzibbur murmurs the opening verses of the Aleinu, and the congregation follows suit by rote, quickly lapsing into silence. “Hu elokeinu ein od, emes malkeinu efes zulato,” the tired, bearded men mumble under their breath.

But at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the choir exclaims:

Ihr stürzt nieder, Millionen?
Ahnest du den Schöpfer, Welt?
Such’ ihn über’m Sternenzelt!
Über Sternen muß er wohnen.

                                                 Bow down, ye millions!
                                                 Do you sense your creator, O world?
                                                 Search for him above the starry vault:
                                                 Over the stars he must dwell.
Then a man can believe.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

How to Stop Reading and Enjoy Your Life

If you ever hear anyone speak worshipfully about the warrior Achilles, there's a good chance he's a scholar: a lifelong academic with good language skills, a coffee addiction, and three degrees.

But people like this live less like Achilles than anyone else. Achilles loved his friend to the point of slaughter and death, burned with energetic youth, and laughed at cowardice. He never touched a book. He never painstakingly learned an ancient language. He never sat still for two hours in a hot room, teaching a flock of restless nineteen-year-olds.

Not a conjugation in sight.
Students of history and literature face a fundamental problem. Cloistered in comfortable universities, they face few of the problems and passions of the outside world. And this isolation makes them lose sight of the point of their studies: to understand those very problems and passions. So instead of drinking parties devoted to plumbing the mysteries of love, we get dry "symposia" on sexuality in 13th-century Thuringia. Instead of the ROTC, we get 350-man lectures on "War and the Nation State." Instead of open nudists, we get tie-wearing history majors presenting their discovery that modesty is only a Victorian neurosis.

I don't mean to suggest that there's no value in reading for its own sake. I'm the one, after all, who advocates a heavily classicist curriculum. It's fun, interesting and useful to read old books in old languages. But there are more things in life than reading, and in any case, to really take the classics seriously, we must live lives outside the library. The best reader has felt the rage of Achilles, the madness of Saul, and the longing of Orpheus.