The Death of Genuine Dissent

By Allan Nadler

Published August 03, 2007, issue of August 03, 2007.
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Last month, noted legal scholar Noah Feldman set off a firestorm of controversy with his screed against Modern Orthodox Judaism in the New York Times Magazine. The story has by now been hashed and rehashed in other newspapers, on blogs, in heated conversations: Feldman discovers, to his dismay, that he and his non-Jewish girlfriend were excluded from his yeshiva high school reunion photograph in the alumni newsletter; the yeshiva failed to publish congratulations on the occasion of Feldman’s marriage to a Korean-American, and its bulletin also ignored the birth of his two children. These omissions are, in Feldman’s view, symptomatic of a broader set of failings in contemporary Modern Orthodoxy, which Feldman suggests (rather absurdly, it should be said) are also at the root of the crimes of assassin Yigal Amir and mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, both of whom, like Feldman, are alumni of Modern Orthodox academies.

And yet, in the ensuing imbroglio, one detail from the story has been largely overlooked: Early in the article, Feldman links his story with that of Baruch Spinoza. With that small, seemingly offhand remark, Feldman actually revealed himself to be part of a wider cultural phenomenon — one with much greater reverberations than the internecine squabbles of a religious denomination. We are experiencing, I fear, the death of genuine dissent.

There was a time when heretics were strong and brave men and women who nobly accepted the arrows and wounds of their Orthodox tormenters, even wearing them as a badge of anguished honor. When Jews began in the 18th century to break in significant numbers with Orthodoxy, they advocated a variety of new paths, ranging from developing secular Jewish identities and more liberal denominations of the faith, to cultural assimilation, even conversion to Christianity. The one thing these dissidents shared was the absence of any claim, or apparent desire, to be honored by the very religious institutions and authorities they had willfully defied. These rebels understood that it would both cheapen the importance of their dissent from the tradition, and at the same time undermine the integrity of that tradition’s norms, were their break to carry no agonizing consequences.

But in today’s America, whose proud heritage of rugged individualism has curdled into mushy narcissism, there seems little appetite for bearing the consequences of one’s choices, certainly not when those consequences include wounds. Today’s deviants from Orthodoxy insist proudly upon their freedom to dissent, and in the same breath deny the bearers of the values they have betrayed the freedom to condemn them with exclusion. Worse, they complain about the personal hurt their banishment from the religious institutions, whose most cherished values they have chosen to flout, has caused them. In addition to Feldman, one is reminded of, say, journalist Andrew Sullivan’s sad mewing about the Catholic Church’s rejection of his choice to live, and advocate for, an openly gay life. Closer to home, there are also the good folks at a new rabbinical school in Manhattan that proudly promotes its “open” alternative to mainstream Modern Orthodoxy, choosing at its benefit dinners publicly to vilify the latter’s flagship institution, Yeshiva University, only to then complain bitterly that the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America refuses to recognize the credentials of its graduates.

There is, to be sure, enormous pain involved in making the difficult break from religious life, as even I would attest. Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, I have over the years made a series of gradual moves away from that segment of the Jewish community whose integrity, learning and traditions I still most respect. After I agreed to officiate at High Holiday services at a synagogue with mixed seating, my revered rebbe — a great Lithuanian Talmudic Sage from whom I received my ordination — stopped speaking to me. I felt the loss very deeply, but never did it occur to me to fault him for having distanced me.

Then again, I had the benefit of studying at the feet of one of the 20th century’s greatest apikorsim, the Yiddish writer and poet Chaim Grade. Steeped in Talmudic learning, a veteran of the austere Novardok Yeshiva in Bialystok and then a star personal disciple of one of the greatest rabbinical scholars of the past generation, Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz (known as the “Hazon Ish”), Grade made the incredibly bold step of leaving the yeshiva world and becoming a secular Yiddish romantic poet in Vilna. As a student at Harvard Graduate School, where Grade was a frequent lecturer, I vividly recall his recounting the manifold indignations he suffered as a consequence.

And yet, Grade’s literary oeuvre is a loving monument to the very yeshiva world that he abandoned and which responded with such ferocity. Among his most powerful poems are his loving elegy to the Hazon Ish, and his amazing ballad, “Mussernikes,” which brilliantly and affectionately depicts the dark and austere world of the students in the most demanding of the Lithuanian yeshivas. Grade loved to tell the story of how his rebbe took leave of him when Grade departed the yeshiva world: “Chaim! You will go to Vilna and become a celebrated poet, a free man; beautiful women will be falling all over you; you will be wined and dined in Europe’s finest restaurants; the world will be yours. But remember what I decree upon you: May you never be able to enjoy any of it.” Grade shared this tale not with any sense of anger or hurt; but rather with a twisted smile that betrayed his ceaseless love for the rebbe who wished him such misery.

Of course, any serious discussion of heresy must include Spinoza, the man who, as scholars today have come increasingly to acknowledge, founded the radical European enlightenment that eventually led to the Hebrew haskalah (and, in turn, the many non-Orthodox tributaries spawned by that modernizing movement). Upon hearing of his banishment, Spinoza responded, as have all persecuted heretics and dissenters of days gone by: with an almost heroic, silent altruism. In his subsequent years, he wrote a great deal, including a significant body of personal correspondence published posthumously. Not once in that rich collection of letters does Spinoza refer to the terrible experience of having been so cruelly and completely cut off from his community; never does he bemoan the pain he surely experienced as a result of not being allowed ever again to communicate with any members of his family. Spinoza understood all too well the heteronymous nature of religious values, just as he insisted on his autonomous right to reject those values and the authorities who vigilantly maintain them. He certainly didn’t expect anyone in Amsterdam’s Shearith Israel Synagogue to sponsor a Kiddush to celebrate the publication of the “Theological-Political Treatise.”

All of which is what makes Feldman’s association of himself with the great philosopher so misguided — as if there were little difference between developing the world’s most daringly determinist and immanentist philosophy, a system that preserves the idea of God while robbing the Lord of Israel of every one of His transcendent attributes and powers, on the one hand, and a yeshiva bokher falling for a nice Korean girl, on the other. Not that one is morally inferior to the other, as Spinoza himself would have insisted. But Spinoza’s anguished break with Judaism was the result of weighty struggle with ideas, whereas Feldman’s is — by his own account — a fight for personal acceptance.

Indeed, this is the very problem: Today’s “non-conformists” exhibit an insatiable need for personal approval by the communities they have betrayed — the surest sign that they have not engaged in any serious intellectual or theological struggle with the tradition. Their “breaks” are motivated not by the search for transcendent truth, but one for practical comfort in their lifestyle. All of which is their prerogative. But today’s “heretics” insist that their acts be viewed as “dissent,” as the kind of bold stand that contributes to some greater good. But, because these “heresies” stem from the desires of individual hearts (or loins), there is little of universal importance to learn from them. Their posturing is then not simply selfish hypocrisy; it is spinelessness. And the dissenting heart demands the support of a strong spine.

Allan Nadler, formerly of Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, is director of Jewish Studies at Drew University. He is a regular Forward contributor.

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