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The Uphill Battle of Teaching Orthodox Judaism

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I read with great interest the JVO blog posting from Moshe Daniel Levine entitled The Uphill Battle of Teaching Liberal Judaism and found myself agreeing with many of his points. In many ways, I found him actually describing the difficulties I also face, as an Orthodox rabbi, in teaching the Judaism to which I adhere.

Indeed, “the Judaism that I [also] try and teach my students is one full of questions, discussion and debate” and it clearly is a challenge to teach such a system. For me, my adult, professional life has unabatedly reflected the uphill battle of teaching Orthodox Judaism.
 
The fact is that many people associate Orthodoxy with a fundamentalist approach to religion – and there are reasons why people may have this perspective. Dogmatism, however, exists across the religious-secular spectrum and we can thus find fundamentalism/dogmatism across the continuum of Jewish perspectives from Orthodox to Liberal to Secular.

I have also found that “[s]implicity and certainty [are] often misleading when [they] come face-to-face with reality” and, as such, cannot accept dogmatic perspectives be they from the right or from the left. This, to me, is also a central teaching of the Orthodox world of the Talmud.
 
As “[a]ny student of Talmud knows that for every page of Talmud, there are hundreds of pages of commentaries questioning, revising, and reinterpreting every minor detail” and this is, furthermore, also intentionally existent on the Talmud page itself. It is precisely because reality is so inherently complex that Talmudic thought mirrors this depth.
 
Disagreements, as such, abound within the study of Jewish Law but, perhaps more importantly, there is also the powerful and Divine call for one to understand opposing views with which one may disagree.
 
This is because there can be truth, often paradoxically, in these variant viewpoints.
 
Dogmatism – be it from the right or from the left -- is unacceptable because the dogmatist cannot see beyond their narrow conclusion. Such a person must see the world in black-and-white because their answers have to reflect this simple design of black-and-white.
 
Within the Orthodox world of Torah, however, God wants – even, demands -- humanity to see, study and learn the complexity of the Divinely created reality with its paradoxes and dialectic essence. It is only thereby that a human being can even contemplate the realm of the Divine and the incomprehensibleness of God.
 
The further challenge for humanity, though, is that decisions as to behaviour in our realm, of course, still have to be made – with a proper recognition of our Creator. To arrive at a concrete conclusion given this vastness and contradictory nature of existence, is obviously a most difficult task. This, I have always seen as the very basis of the system of thought that is Orthodox Halacha [Jewish Law].
 
Its objective is the determination of the necessary, final singular action which must be undertaken by an individual even as one recognizes the grey and that any decision can still have both positive and negative elements and possible results.
 
The rule of shema and bari discussed in the above noted article on the uphill battle of teaching Liberal Judaism actually reflects this idea. This directive is really an evidentiary rule and not a Talmudic yardstick for the determination of the actual truth.

As disputes between individuals demand answers, such evidentiary rules exist to assist us in weighing the facts before us in order to be able to reach the best possible practical decision. These rules, furthermore, do not exist in a vacuum but are always weighed together with other such rules in order to reach for this best possible decision given the facts, specifically the divergent facts.
 
In regard to the actual truth of reality, however, its limitation is also always recognized. As reality may actually reflect a dialectic, the absoluteness necessary in reaching a practical decision may in fact only hinder our ability in seeing the complexity of the real truth. The call of the Talmud still is to see this full spectrum of thought, even as it may result in a greater difficulty in arriving at a decision.

Dogmatists have it easy, as they are so sure of their position – and such surety exists all over. I find it within some communities within Orthodoxy but I also find it within all the branches of Judaism, anywhere where people cannot, or do not want to, see the true and valued depth of the variance of opinions.

Yet, to me, the very basis of the Divine nature of the Torah system of thought is that this is precisely the challenge of thought that God presents to us. The world is complex because God created it as such and part of our service of Him is to embrace and accept this challenge.
 
When a definite action is demanded, I do not have the luxury of allowing uncertainty to weaken the performance of the decided action but, to be truthful and fully thoughtful, I also cannot allow surety – even a surety about doubt -- to mislead me about the depth and complexity of reality.

The dogmatist has it so much easier in action.
 
And, at the other extreme, the one who simply accepts all alternatives as equally valid can more easily assert the complexity of thought.
 
The Talmudic call of Orthodox Judaism, however, is to embrace both demands: to see the complexity of reality, while still being able to be forthright in making a decision. To teach this inherently dialectical system is truly an uphill battle.
 
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of Nishma, which fosters the critical investigation of contemporary issues. For further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com. You can follow Rabbi Hecht on Twitter @NishmaTorah.
 
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