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Great Jews

by Rabbi Rami ShapiroJanuary 11, 2012
Grow
Rabbi David Wolpe, citing Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, asks a great question in his 12/29/11 blog post: When will Jews who are great also be great Jews? This questions begs another: What makes a great Jew? Is it observance of Jewish tradition? And, if so, how observant? Is it contributing to Jewish causes? And if so, how much?
 
Rabbi Wolpe notes that the kind of mind rabbinic Judaism requires—a mind devoted to critical thinking, reason, analysis, argument, and doubt; a mind at home with paradox and aflame with possibility and imagination—explains why so many non-observant Jews rise to the top of their respective fields: they still have that kind of mind.
 
Maybe. There is something in the training of a Jewish mind that, while not unique in the world of parenting may be quintessentially Jewish. That is to say that while nonJewish parents may raise their kids to be iconoclasts, Judaism elevates this kind of childrearing to the status of divine command. Jews are Yisrael, God wrestlers. We are trained to struggle with “God and humans and to survive,” (Genesis 22:24). We may not be the only people that do this, but we may be the only people that do it on purpose as a matter of cultural norm.

 
I am proud of this. The Jewish mind at its best is the mind of the prophets and sages who stood against the status quo and for universal justice and compassion. But if this is so, why is it that the very people one might expect to the most iconoclastic—the ultra Orthodox steeped in rabbinic tradition—turn out to be the most fetishistic and narrow-minded among us?
 
It is not enough to teach the content of rabbinic Judaism; we must cultivate the radicalism of the rabbinic mind.
 
For me a great Jew is a Jew trained from childhood to be an iconoclast, a person bold enough to destroy the gods of her parents (like Abraham), daring enough to argue with the Creator of the Universe (And win! Again like Abraham.), and strong enough to wrestle God to a standstill and survive (like Jacob).
 
What troubles me about the current state of Judaism is that we define “great” in ways that promote conformity (ritual observance measured by some arbitrary standard rooted in a fixed point in an otherwise fluid Jewish history), rather than as a bold encounter with what is in order to wrestle free what might be.
 
Here is my fantasy for a great Judaism that produces great Jews: Let’s build a postmodern yeshivah (probably in New York, though Jerusalem beckons) where Jews are first and foremost taught how to thinkJewishly rather than how to live halachically (according to Jewish Law). We would study the same texts as other yeshivot but with a different intent: not to learn the law, but to learn how to think. And of course we would study the texts of the modern and post-modern Jewish giants as well: Spinoza, Freud, Kafka, Jabes, Einstein, Buber, Strauss, etc. whose thinking reflects the genius of Judaism even if their living did not.
 
A Jewish academy steeped in critical thinking and iconoclasm would be a huge draw among liberal Jews, and a way to secure that in the future Jews who are great will also be great Jews.

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Author and teacher Rabbi Rami Shapiro will lead “Walking Without, Journeying Within”—a trip to the Holy Land with S&H in fall 2018.

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. His spiritual advice column, "Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler," addresses reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more.

His newest book is The World Wisdom Bible.

He has this to say about religion: "To me, religions are like languages: no language is true or false; all languages are of human origin; each language reflects and shapes the mindset of the civilization that speaks it; there are things you can say in one language that you cannot say or cannot say as well in another; and the more languages you know, the more nuanced your understanding of life. Judaism is my mother tongue, yet in matters of the spirit I strive to be multi-lingual. In the end, however, the deepest language of the soul is silence."

To comment on this installment of One For the Road or submit a question, email the editors. Questions may be edited for length and clarity; all are published anonymously.

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