It is a well-known fact that after the death of Darwin, his evolution theory became more and more popular and many young Jews were attracted by his ideas and left the fold. In 1885, in the city of Kovno, there was a meeting of rabbis that included the famous geonim (Torah giants) Rabbi Elchanan Spector and Rabbi Alexander Lapides. One prominent leader suggested that any Jew who studied Darwin’s works should be ostracized. Rabbis Spector and Lapides strongly opposed the move on the grounds that “mayim genuvim yimtaku” (2), stolen waters are sweet, and banning Darwin’s books would only make his theories more appealing. (3)
Judaism has little interest in using thought control. Prior to the emancipation of the Jews, bans were sometimes used when the coherence of a Jewish community, living in gentile and often hostile surroundings, was at stake. Yielding to unity then was crucial to the survival of the Jewish people. The rabbis, however, were very reluctant to impose bans knowing how harmful they would be for the so-called renegades and even for their families. (4) But above all, they realized that such condemnations were for the most part counter-productive.
Religious condemnations today, by ban or other means, reflect negatively on those who issue them. They are symptoms of fear and lack of intellectual honesty. They indicate a refusal to conduct intellectual debate, and they display fundamentalism and dogmatism. Willfully or unintentionally, bans are identified with the Christian clerical authorities who condemned Galileo in the seventeenth century for suggesting that the earth was not the center of the universe. Bans have been enforced against demons, witches and other objects of superstition. Hardly activities that rabbis would want to be identified with.
Should rabbis wish to send a message to their followers that they are not in agreement with the contents of certain books, they should first realize that bans and condemnations are not the road to take. It is no longer possible to contain censorship or condemnation solely within a certain social group. Once released, it travels to every corner of the world to be seen by all, Jews and gentiles. Most of the time, it elicits laughter and greatly embarrasses authentic Judaism. This is especially so when certain rabbis try to withhold scientific information from their followers, or want to hold on to ideas that the intellectual community and authentic Judaism have long since rejected as simplistic, outdated, and even incorrect.
No doubt, rabbis have a right to convey their displeasure, but they should do so through appropriate and convincing arguments, never through mind control. (5)
Refuting arguments in one’s study is easy when one has only to answer oneself. The art is to confront the adversary and see if one’s arguments really live up to the challenge. Instead of condemning a book, one should meet the author, ask him to explain his point of view and then try to refute his opinions. In that case, the first requirement is to actually read the book carefully from beginning to end. Reviewing or criticizing a book before having read it is highly problematic, unless the reader is afraid of being too prejudiced by reading it!
Furthermore, a truthful criticism should reflect great expertise. Recklessly condemning scientific claims is a sign of great ignorance, even if some of these claims may be open to debate. Such statements are an indication that one cannot suffer disagreement because one is unable to defend oneself. They reveal an inability to handle opposing views. Pulling something apart is often the trade of those who cannot construct. As English writer Charles Caleb Colton once said, “Criticism is like champagne: nothing more execrable if bad, nothing more excellent if good.”
It is also a matter of decency not to condemn somebody’s views when they are in essence restating earlier and well-established sources quoted by great rabbinical authorities. One should have the courage to challenge or attack the earlier sources and not those who rely on them and who are more vulnerable. Yet lately, the latter has become the practice. This is dishonest. To hide behind false valor and take the easy way out shows great cowardice. Courage is the direct result of resisting and mastering fear; never is it a consequence of escaping fear.
Criticism should not be quarrelsome and destructive, but should rather be guiding, instructive and inspiring. Judaism has never feared dissent and debate but has in fact encouraged it. What, after all, is the benefit of condemnation when Judaism simultaneously loses its soul?
It is time to reestablish Judaism on its authentic foundations as a religion of moral and intellectual heroism, one that encourages open-mindedness. We must never forget that we owe most of our knowledge not to those who have agreed with us but to those who have differed.
Jews have greatly suffered from condemnations and inquisitions. The Talmud and its many commentaries have often been put on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books) of the Catholic Church. It has been condemned and burned but has outlived all its foes. Let us therefore be careful not to follow in the footsteps of the Church, which loved the truth so much that it was afraid of overexposure. Such attitudes have no place in the Jewish religious world of today. The truth cannot be served by imposing bans, but only by honest investigation and dialogue. Today it is wrong to use a ban or open condemnation, even when one is right, let alone when one is definitely mistaken.
Judaism was able to overcome many of its intellectual opponents because it showed courage. It is committed to the truth because it is convinced that the truth is represented by the holy Torah.
“The stones that critics hurl with harsh intent,
A man may use to build his monument” (6).
Aleks 'SpikeyApples' Yakubson says
a very important issue, and kudos to rabbi Cardozo for raising it(to be honest, i didn’t expect him to do so, thought he was more of a ‘party line’ type of a guy 🙂 ), but gotta note something. it’s not very convincing, to claim Judaism as a tolerant religion par excellence, for is it not in our very Torah that we get quite a few instances of dealing with opposition in a not so mild a manner, what with Moshe vs Korach, Elijah’s exploits, latter struggles between saducees and pharisees, in modern times–between Litwish and Chassidic movements, and so on? and were it not our sages who first banned all Greek knowledge, then allowed some of it, and then claimed it as actually originally and authentically ours (and not only those sages of the ancient times, but as recently as the Vilna gaon)? Actually, didn’t they cast out several important books as ‘apokrifa’, not only refusing to include them in our religious canon, but pronouncing as ‘dead’ everyone who reads’em? seems like our eventual tolerance and intellectual openness and adaptability are themselves products of historical process of learning and subjugation to certain peculiar circumstances. that’s to say, if we weren’t FORCED to be tolerant and intellectually astute, we probably wouldn’t be.
and i am somewhat irked a quite widespread with tendency on part of our intellectual leaders, to constantly proclaim that Judaism has ‘defeated many of its challengers’. first of, i don’t know whether say Hellenic culture as such, wanted to defeat or destroy Judaism, or even as much as paid a specifically big attention to it; and secondly, if you adapt heathens’ professions(such as science and medicine), many aspects of culture, even names–what ‘defeat’ is there to speak of?
rabbi Cardozo mentions rabbi Sifkin, but for some reason–not rabbi Boteach, and the scandalous treatment his ‘Kosher Jesus’ book got from some of his fellow rabbis, especially fellow CHABADniks. meanwhile, this case better than any other illustrates the problem contemplated by the author of the article.
finally, on Spinoza: very often, what falls and what doesn’t into the frame of ‘religiosity’, depends on the point of view of the evaluator. For our authorities, Spinoza for almost 400 yrs has been ‘a philosopher who happened to be a Jew, but not a Jewish philosopher’, whereas to a great gentile thinker like Kant, Spinoza is ‘a G-d-intoxicated man’. sure, our sages’ opinions are closer to us and probably to G-d, but Kant’s take deserves consideration as well, don’t it?
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
Thanks for your observations. This is a complicated topic. No doubt there are elements in Judaism which are not very tolerant. The question is however why it was not always tolerant. Was this because the rabbis themselves were really afraid of foreign thoughts or were they concerned because they knew that most common people could not handle these thoughts because they did not have enough knowledge. There was also the issue of conformity and the protection of the community in a non jewish world.
In the case of the Torah itself, the issue was very different. Because there was still open divine intervention for everybody to notice, matters of emunah were not so much intellectual challenges but rebellion against Divine authority.
Concerning defeat: It is not that everybody was out there to destroy Judaism but Judaism was strong enough to respond to these challenges.
As much as I appreciate your perspective and essentially agree with it, I believe you need to concentrate a bit more on a term that pops up several times in your essays: “authentic”; a term which to my mind does no real philosophical work and simply serves to establish that the speaker views himself as “authentic”. For the most part everyone today thinks himself to be espousing “authentic Judaism.” Yet, if we go back to the pre-modern period there was no such concept. Arguments of great theological significance were over who was right or wrong, not who was authentic.
The entire concept of authenticity is an edifice built of modernity’s sense of historical dislocation and hence identity as something that needs to be self-consciously asserted. Your use of the term authentic is therefore to my mind, at best unhelpful, and at worse a symptom of the very loss of unselfconscious authenticity it tries to reassert.
Moreover, the various Hareidi communities’ attempts at censoring certain ideas, banning books, rewriting history, enforcing conformity in dress and speech, suppressing dissent, etc. are all an attempt to establish a sense of “authenticity.” But authenticity is nothing more than an expression of an individual or community’s self-perception as possessing some intangible claim to be an “authentic” bearer of some tradition as established by a narrative that places the present in a certain relationship with the past. You present one narrative placing your philosophy in the role of authentic and the Hareidi community espouses a competing narrative where it is the standard bearer of the title “authentic. (And in a world focused on externals, by adopting some of the imagined hallmarks of shtetl life or the bygone great yeshivahs of Europe, they are going to win this kind of authenticity battle).”
I would urge you to do the philosophical work necessary to dispense with the threadbare concept of authenticity and find something something more robust to take its place such as the search for truth, integrity, and moral vision. These are aspects of tradition that we we honor because they are values essential to our understanding of Judaism as an ongoing relationship between ourselves, humanity as a whole, and God–not because they make us feel more authentic.
From this perspective we can respect various streams of contemporary Judaism, from Hareidi to Reform to Secularist, in their attempts to honor these values and criticize them when we believe they have failed– without hiding behind assertions of authenticity.
Rabbi Lopes Cardozo says
You are right that the issue of authenticity needs more explanation. What I mean by it is that Judaism should not become artificial (hypocritical?) and stay true to its own values. What these values are is indeed an issue and needs explanation. Needs much more work! Thanks for making me aware of this!