Bondage of the Mind

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My wife took one look at an advertisement in B’nai B’rith Magazine, and said “I see a post in your future.” She was right. At first, I was tempted to offer the following as if such an ad had actually appeared in the Jewish Observer. But given the level of careful thought and analysis which characterizes much of what is written on the Internet these days, I thought the likelihood that someone would half-read my post and go off on an inflammatory rant about the evil “ultra-Orthodox” who actually wrote this sort of book was entirely too high. So let’s understand from the beginning that the following has, to my knowledge, never happened. At least, not from those who favor traditional Judaism.

Imagine, for a moment, an advertisement in the august pages of the Jewish Observer, promoting a book aiming to convince you of the authenticity of traditional Judaism. There are, of course, any number of such books, discussing various aspects of the topic from a number of philosophical angles. But instead of laying out a series of arguments about why traditional Judaism is good, this book is entirely devoted to the idea that “liberal” Judaism is evil and wrong.

Imagine that the book is titled “Bondage of the Mind,” and the subtitle is “How Liberal Judaism Perverts the Torah and Enslaves the Jewish Soul — Toward a Better Understanding of the Religious Experience.” The ad calls the book “a powerful new message about truth and freedom,” and invites yeshiva and seminary students to participate in a $30,000 essay contest, discussing the following topic:

In his new book, R.D. Gold takes the following position: The doctrines of Reform Judaism — and, by extension, the doctrines of all liberal “denominations” of Judaism — are false. Therefore, it makes no sense for an individual to abandon his or her Jewish soul to the foolish and temporal pleasures of secular Western living and its demonstrably false promises of a happier and more satisfying life.

Thus the writer is given 2000 words in which to dismantle the arguments of a 250-page book, or to take on the much more reasonable task of explaining why, given the book’s position, it indeed makes no sense to live a lie. Or, I suppose, a writer might posit that we shouldn’t really care about the facts, and just live for today. But I think it not at all unreasonable to suspect that the winners will universally have chosen the second of the three options.

And, finally, let us imagine that the advertisement celebrates the endorsements of leading rabbis, with quotations from a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University as well as a Lakewood Rosh Yeshiva. One calls the book a challenge to Liberal Judaism, “the enemy of truth and the Jewish soul,” while the other says it is a courageous and long-awaited critique of Reform philosophy. And this, the ad declares in a bright red highlight, “will give you a powerful answer when anyone tries to convince you — or your children — to abandon the path of authentic Judaism.”

As I said, to my knowledge there has never been such an ad in the Jewish Observer. When an observant writer cares to argue the truth of Judaism, he or she will write about — now imagine this — the truth of Judaism! I have yet to see the book which makes its case by bashing Reform philosophy. Perhaps such existed in the 19th Century when Reform was new and different, and people didn’t realize how it differed with — and rejected the tenets of — traditional Torah observance, but that day has long since past.

But the opposite has just been published. The actual subtitle of “Bondage of the Mind” is “How Old Testament Fundamentalism Shackles the Mind and Enslaves the Spirit.” The author equates Torah Judaism with Bible-thumping Fundamentalism before you’ve even opened the book, and to judge from the ads, web site and accompanying introductory video, it only gets worse from there. The web site goes on to claim that Orthodox Judaism engages in a literal reading of the Bible akin to that of evangelical Christianity, casting Jewish tradition as the enemy of truth and freedom. The book’s cover art is a brain composed of rusty chain links. Another quote, from the video:

On one side, you have those who say the truth about the world can be found through reason, through use of the human mind. On the other side are the religious fundamentalists, who insist that truth can only be found in the Divine Revelation of the Holy Scriptures.

Without a review copy, I’m not able to review the book itself, only these promotional materials. But one sees so many falsehoods that perhaps a better title would be “Blinding of the Mind” — on the part of the author and publishers. Torah Judaism does not read the Torah literally (“an eye for an eye”) but as one component of a rich Written and Oral teaching. And, far from talking about leaps of faith, Torah engages reason, demanding the full engagement of our intellectual faculties and critical thinking. The quotation above is a paradigmatic false dichotomy, and this was obviously no idle mistake.

In the end, what the publishers (who, apparently, are publishing only this book) present is the idea that the best way to build up liberal Judaism as authentic is to bash the alternative. This is much the same angle used by Past CCAR President Rabbi Simeon Maslin in “Who Are the Authentic Jews?” — but now it’s an entire book. By itself, the book could be dismissed. But given the endorsement of leading Reform and Conservative thinkers, plus the great similarity with Maslin’s earlier speech, it reflects a school of thought that cannot be denied.

They say the Orthodox bash Reform? Try finding a book that engages in this sort of argument. It is akin to negative political advertising — it only makes both sides look bad. Despite what you are told, it’s not the Orthodox who are engaging in it. It is the other side that no longer seems capable of making positive arguments about its own beliefs without at least an implied criticism of someone else. But “we are not the narrowminded orthodox and we are not the crazed messianics, come join us” is simply not the kind of message that fosters an enthusiastic response.

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29 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    YM: The argument that some people make, that they believe in G-d and the Torah but the message got garbled along the way is incredibly lame.

    Ori: I wrote a comment with my reasons for thinking that way, but the moderators decided it’s inappropriate. If you want to discuss this, my email is ori at simple-tech.com . As you might expect, I don’t think it’s incredibly lame.

  2. S. says:

    >They say the Orthodox bash Reform? Try finding a book that engages in this sort of argument. It is akin to negative political advertising — it only makes both sides look bad. Despite what you are told, it’s not the Orthodox who are engaging in it.

    R. Menken, do you think this really flies? Orthodox rabbis really don’t bash Reform? Whom do you think reads this blog? We don’t know what we’ve heard from rabbis and rabbeim and read in many periodicals and books all of our lives?

  3. Yaakov Menken says:

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear, but I’ll try again: Toemoe8 made the assertion that yeshivos specifically bash those hashkafically to the left. Once again, to the left, implying, and not to the right.

    My own experience is quite the opposite. Thus the rational conclusion is that the summation of these experiences seems to prove that it happens on all sides. Is anyone confused as to whether “left” comprises the set of all possible directions? Otherwise, left is not all. That is what I was trying to say.

    Meanwhile, Garnel (and others) clearly misconstrued what I said. All agree that “The Rav” was a Talmid Chacham. But the Moetzes clearly had issues with the hashkafos of the Rav which they did not with, by contrast, those of the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum zt”l — although both were not part of the Agudah due to differences in hashkafah.

    What the comments suggest is that unless these differences are laid out in stark terms, they don’t exist and the Gedolim had no rationale (besides politics) for their position. This is obviously untrue, and itt’s also not our topic.

    If we go back to Dr. Gewirtz’s original comment, he argued that the JO’s “insufficient respect” was tantamount to bashing. Whether or not the language in that article was a mistake, it was made by sincere people who were trying to craft a statement that was too PC for everyone. There were — and are — a lot of different positions on the Rav and his hashkafos. Personally, I’m happy that his name is frequently found in the Divrei Torah on Torah.org, from Rav Yissocher Frand and many others.

    Comments related to the book and its advertising are more than welcome at this juncture, but I don’t think this detour warrants further space.

  4. G says:

    Huh?

    First there was…”What I can say categorically is that Toemoe8 is mistaken when he states that yeshivos specifically “bash” those hashkafically to the left.”

    and then…”Moishe’s personal experience isn’t necessarily of greater relevance than my own,…Individual experiences only seem to prove that it happens on all sides.”

    So does it happen or not?

  5. YM says:

    The argument that some people make, that they believe in G-d and the Torah but the message got garbled along the way is incredibly lame. Sit down and learn the Torah, and you will conclude that:
    1) The Torah process is straight and true and I will become Orthodox (flavor to be decided by me) –or–
    2) The Torah process is straight and true and I should become Orthodox, but I don’t want to and I won’t, –or–
    2) The Torah is ‘made up’ and does not need to be followed.

  6. YM says:

    A group of people who, together, make up all of the people at the highest level, form an organization to guide their community. This group includes all of those at the highest level, except one. That one individual, who is also at the highest level, but who is not the highest of the highest in the consensus opinion of the first group, separates himself and takes the leadership of an organization where he is the only one at the highest level. Is this an issue of conscience, or an issue of wanting to be the top man, or an issue of not wanting to concede to the consensus of the first group, or not feeling confident that his opinion can prevail?

  7. Nachum says:

    “They did not, by any measure, “bash” him”

    Of course they did. Have you read the obituary?

    “To say that one is not a Gadol on the level of the Moetzes is quite different from saying a person is not a Talmid Chacham.”

    You’re doing it again. You’ve just said that someone not on the Moetzes isn’t, by definition, as great as them. And that’s just wrong. (Moshe Rabbenu wasn’t on the Moetzes.)

    “I think I, or any of us, can claim all the necessary qualifications to comment.”

    Sure we can. You don’t have to be a gadol b’torah to know basic derekh eretz. That they know more than me about halakha I’ll admit in a second. Anything else? Not neccesarily.

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > Moishe makes quite a leap there. To say that one is not a Gadol on the level of the Moetzes is quite different from saying a person is not a Talmid Chacham

    So here’s the implication I draw from this statement: You can sit and learn, come up with great teshuvos and chidushim, be a model of piety and righteousness, but if you don’t belong to the Agudah, you can’t be a “real” Gadol because you’re not on the level of the Moetzes.

    Hence the Rav, or in our day qualified leading sages amongst the Dati Leumi/Mizrachi or even Yeshiva University can grudingly be considered talmidei chachamim but their potential for “godlus” is squashed by their political affiliation. Oh, if only the Rav had stayed in the Agudah, Artscroll would have commissioned a hagiography… I mean biography on him too!

    If this is true, then “Gadol” is not really a religious term but a political one. It’s not what you know but who you hang out with. And therefore, not being a member of the Agudah, what allegiance do I owe to their halachic decisions? Now that’s an absurd thought. Would I dismiss the psaks of Rav Auerbach, zt”l or Rav Feinstein zt”l simply because they wore black hats and I don’t? Yet that is what I take away from this statement.

    Maybe Rav Menken could clarify this a bit further.

  9. Binyomin Eckstein says:

    I think this piece provides a very cogent rationale for the lack of enthusiasm in the JO obit.

    http://bariveshema.blogspot.com/2006/05/problematic-legacy-of-rav-soloveitchik.html

  10. Moishe Potemkin says:

    I’m not sure I understand why my disagreement with the JO’s decision represents any more comfort in “determining what the Moetzes should think” than does Rabbi Menkin’s defense thereof.

  11. Yaakov Menken says:

    Moishe makes quite a leap there. To say that one is not a Gadol on the level of the Moetzes is quite different from saying a person is not a Talmid Chacham. I’m glad others are comfortable determining what the Moetzes should think of other Talmidei Chachamim or should say in eulogies; it’s simply not something on which I think I, or any of us, can claim all the necessary qualifications to comment.

    And it’s also not on topic.

  12. Moishe Potemkin says:

    I agree that Rabbi Menkin has identified the idea on which we disagree. I am dismayed that he defends the idea that belonging to the Moetzes, rather than gadlus batorah, determines whether one is worthy of being treated as a talmid chacham.

  13. dr. william gewirtz says:

    Rabbi Menken, your argument is flawed on two counts. First, given an adom gadol less kavod than deserved, might be much worse than bashing. Second, not sitting with the moetzet, was as many have pointed out, based on RYBS ztl distinctly different derech. However, not honoring those with whom you disagree, is not a hallmark of the righteous.

    and one more point. I would not expect the JO to eulogize the Rav like every other Gadol, “the way they did to those whom they consider the leading Gedolei Torah.” In fact RAL makes a striking point that often eulogies of gedolim are insufficiently differentiated, a point he illustrates by many/most of the hespedim for RAK ands RMF ztl. But to describe him inadequately and/or to assume only members of the moetzet, are true gedolim, is something deserving of remorse/regret not excuses.

    bill aka “uncle axe.”

  14. Yaakov Menken says:

    Moishe’s personal experience isn’t necessarily of greater relevance than my own, finishing up at Princeton as perhaps the sole charedi member (though I probably wouldn’t have yet identified myself as such) of Yavneh. Individual experiences only seem to prove that it happens on all sides.

    Kerem B’Yavneh is an interesting example of how the terms “Modern” and “Centrist” and “Ultra” really don’t do justice to the diverse nature of the observant community. Rav CY Goldvicht zt”l was a Talmid of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, zt”l — Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l’s father in law. It is reported that Rav Goldvicht repeated a parable attributed to the Chazon Ish, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, and/or others, regarding Rebbe Akiva, and applied to Hesder service. Rebbe Akiva turned back after 12 years without speaking to his wife, when he heard her declare (through the window, as he approached the house) her desire that he remain another 12. Why didn’t he say hello? “Because 12 + 12 doesn’t equal 24.” This is the Rosh Yeshiva of a Hesder Yeshiva, speaking to his Talmidim!

    One of his Talmidim, by the way, joined a largely charedi group of counselors at a brief summer camp for children of English-speaking olim. He appeared to be mispallel the most seriously of all of us.

    Anyone who knows my wife’s family and my own knows that we live with religious diversity on a daily basis. To differ with someone philosophically, if addressed in a civil and intellectually honest fashion, is not to “bash.” I’m sure we all have family members with whom it’s safer not to talk religion, family members with whom it’s safer not to talk politics, and family members with whom it’s safer not to talk parenting. Then there are those with whom it’s barely safe to talk about the weather, but we’ll leave Uncle “Max the Axe” out of the discussion.

    All joking aside, to address Moishe’s second point: he’s put his finger on the issue. Rav Soloveitchik wasn’t considered, by the Moetzes, to be one of them. If Garnel is right that it was his own decision to separate, rather than that of the Moetzes, then it is even more surprising and even irrational to expect the Talmidim of the Moetzes to grant him equal reverence. They did not, by any measure, “bash” him, which is the topic of the present discussion. Let’s try to stay on-topic.

  15. Natan Slifkin says:

    And, far from talking about leaps of faith, Torah engages reason, demanding the full engagement of our intellectual faculties and critical thinking.

    It depends what you mean by “Torah.” Which Torah? The Torah of the Rishonim, the Torah of YU, or the Torah of Bnei Brak? At the yeshivah I attended in England, one maggid shiur famously publicly stated, “A Yiddishe bochur doesn’t ask ‘why’!” Outside of kiruv-talk, I think that his attitude was quite representative of the Charedi world. Most yeshivos would actively (and not without good reason) discourage critical thinking when applied to theology (as opposed to when applied to Bava Kama), and in general discourage people from pursuing questions of religious philosophy. Emunah peshutah is definitely presented as the ideal.

  16. Moishe Potemkin says:

    RYM#1: “What I can say categorically is that Toemoe8 is mistaken when he states that yeshivos specifically “bash” those hashkafically to the left.”

    For whatever this is worth, when I attended a right-wing yeshiva for high school, the left-bashing was incessant. On the other hand, at Kerem B’Yavneh, there were exactly zero instances of any rebbeim deriding any other hashkafos.

    RYM#2: “It’s a claim I’ve seen frequently, but no one has shown what they should have said, in light of the fact that the Moetzes of the Agudah did not seat him among them, despite how he was revered in other circles.”

    I don’t want to sound snarky, but they should have been maspid him the way they are maspid any other gadol. The failure to include him in the Moetzes was bad enough – I don’t see how that error justifies any continued bizayon of a talmid chacham.

  17. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > It’s a claim I’ve seen frequently, but no one has shown what they should have said, in light of the fact that the Moetzes of the Agudah did not seat him among them, despite how he was revered in other circles.

    This is very selective history. It can easily and successfully argued that Rav Soloveitchik, zt”l, had no interest in sitting amongst the Agudah’s leadership, considering he left them for YU and Mizrachi. The fact that a leading, possibly THE leading Jewish mind of that generation, rejected them for non-Chareidi schools of thought is not something the Agudah has ever gotten over.

  18. Yaakov Menken says:

    Thank you for the good comments (they’re all good)!

    Gershon and Avigdor, you would have a good point — an excellent point — if I were critiquing the book. But I’m not, and I was very up-front about that: “Without a review copy, I’m not able to review the book itself, only these promotional materials.”

    I’m reviewing and critiquing the advertisement, the website, and the video, all of which I have, of course, actually read. Whether or not a person actually picks up the book, the full-page, full-color advertisement in B’nai B’rith Magazine makes its own contribution to Jewish dialogue, for better or worse.

    To those who argue you can find similar literature from Rabbi Miller zt”l and others, I must disagree — although I have not read them with any depth (I must admit that I never truly appreciated his writing style). What I can say categorically is that Toemoe8 is mistaken when he states that yeshivos specifically “bash” those hashkafically to the left.

    As I said in a recent post, “Children in cheder schools are not taught the beauty of Judaism with generous doses of ‘intolerance and fraternal hatred.’ When I began studying in Ohr Somayach, I only learned that the Orthodox don’t think a [Conservative] JTS ordination is legitimate because a Conservative co-worker (whose nephew was studying in JTS) told me so. It simply isn’t part of the program.”

    On the other hand, I know a young woman who went to charedi schools and then to charda”l (charedi dati le’umi, which would be to the ‘left’ of charedi). She said that it really bothered her the way teachers would complain how charedi Rabbis dismissed their charda”l philosophy, and two minutes later would be claiming their path was the only correct one. And further, she barely heard anything about this while she was in charedi schools.

    To go far further to the ‘left’, Ismar Schorsch of JTS made bashing the Orthodox a recurring theme in his weekly Divrei Torah published online. None of Ohr Somayach, Aish HaTorah, the OU, or Torah.org did anything even remotely similar.

    Dr. Gewirtz, I realize that the JO did not show respect to Rabbi Soloveitchik zt”l the way they did to those whom they consider the leading Gedolei Torah. It’s a claim I’ve seen frequently, but no one has shown what they should have said, in light of the fact that the Moetzes of the Agudah did not seat him among them, despite how he was revered in other circles. No one seemed amazed that the passing of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l did not draw adoring spreads in Chabad journals… But the evidence remains that people appear to bash “to the right” more often than the opposite.

  19. Ori says:

    YM, everybody knows that the US constitution was made up by men. Yet we have people who vow to follow it even if it kills them. However, that is not evidence that Heterodox Jews who believe that Judaism is completely man made will agree to die or suffer discrimination for it. That has not been tested.

  20. dr. william gewirtz says:

    YM, the word of God or the word of God transcribed by men or the word of men inspired by God, etc. may be vastly different to some and rather similar to others. I strongly agree, however, that absent some Divine encounter, we have something other than religion; common law may be very practical, but is not all that inspiring.

    Rabbi Menken, the JO has a bit of history giving insufficient respect to the opinions and person of “traditional,” non-chareidi gedolim. Given their readership, doing that while not bashing the Reform as you claim, may be more aptly attributed to practicality than refinement. IMHO it is equally deserving of condemnation.

  21. Avigdor says:

    I have not read the book, but I saw it in a bookstore and skimmed it. I’m not sure that I see R. Menkin’s problem here.

    Most of the book is a refutation of the standard kiruv arguments, like Bible codes, the Kuzari “proof”, and the camel-hare-hyrax argument. If it is fair for kiruv groups to present these arguments for TMH in the first place, it is certainly fair for people who believe to the contrary to present the contrary perspective.

    The last (and smaller) section of the book seems to be an attack on the hashkafah of the “fundamentalist” divine-revelation understanding of Judaism. Again, if Orthodox Jews can criticize more liberal Jewish movements as not being authentic forms of Judaism, I think it is fair for people who disagree not merely to defend their own beliefs, but also to criticize Orthodox Judaism for not being based on what they believe is the accurate historical record.

    Of course, Orthodox Jews can disagree with the book, just as liberal Jews can disagree with the opposite position. But I’m not sure I see the difficulty than this. Am I missing something here, or is there something more problematic with this book?

  22. YM says:

    Ori, regarding your second reason, if someone believes that Chumash was made up by men (c’v), then their Judaism is no more than a hobby or a preference. Nothing worth getting killed for or being discriminated against for. The fact that the heterodox world thinks that their Judaism is important shows me that the Jewish Neshoma (Soul) continues to exert itself. Regarding your first reason, a person needs to engage in a period of serious Torah learning, then judge for themselves.

  23. Yeshiva Graduate says:

    “Not “entirely”, perhaps, but that’s a pretty good description of some books by Rav Avigdor Miller.”

    Also some by Rav Shimon Schwab. And quite a few others! Not to mention the countless unrecorded examples from yeshivas rabbeim to impressionable children.

  24. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Welcome to the double standard. For years people following the news and popular entertainment media have seen repeated examples of religion, almost always Chrisianity, being portrayed as singularly evil and twisted. The only good religious figures in the news, movie and on TV and generally those who fight agaist the church for what is “truly” right. Bash a Muslim, a homosexual or an African American and you get howls of outrage. Insult a Catholic and you get a pat on the back.

    Within the Jewish world, the Torah observant community has long held the role of “Catholic”. The same Reformers who are so quick to scream when the question of “who is Jew” is raised and their definition is not accepted are the same ones who block the construction of Orthodox shuls and eiruvs because they don’t want “religious oppression” in their neighbourhood.

    Therefore it’s no surprise that this book exists. Frankly, the author would probably be the first to shout in protest should the fictional book about bashing Reform be published.

    But I have to take exception with one point in the post:

    > Torah Judaism does not read the Torah literally (”an eye for an eye”) but as one component of a rich Written and Oral teaching

    So are we going back to the whole “six days of creation means 144 hours” argument?

  25. Bob Miller says:

    True books can take a positive or negative tone, and each type serves some good purpose.

    False books can take a positive or negative tone, and each type serves some bad purpose.

  26. Toemoe8 says:

    Who are we kidding here? Every yeshiva is filled with bashing of those to the left of its hashkafa. It would be better if the yeshiva world wrote a book, instead of institutionalized criticsm not subject to debate.

  27. Max says:

    “But instead of laying out a series of arguments about why traditional Judaism is good, this book is entirely devoted to the idea that “liberal” Judaism is evil and wrong.”

    Not “entirely”, perhaps, but that’s a pretty good description of some books by Rav Avigdor Miller.

  28. Gershon Josephs says:

    Perhaps you should read the book before condemning it? I actually read it. While it is a bit ‘over the top’, and he trots out the usual stuff – Baruch Lanner, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, his basic argument is that Orthodox Judaism isn’t true, not because it takes the bible literally, but rather because (he argues) the Torah was written by men.

  29. Ori says:

    For us Heterodox Jews to define ourselves as “Jews, but not Orthodox” is intellectually lazy and frankly wimpy. It might have made sense for my grandparents who were raised Orthodox to say it. It makes absolutely no sense for me.

    To basic definition of Heterodox Judaism is tradition(1) gets a vote, not a veto. If tradition is irrelevant, then there is no reason to do anything Jewish. If tradition constrains us and we have to follow it regardless of what we personally think or feel about it, then we need to be Orthodox.

    * (1) Tradition here is everything in the Mesorah, from the text of the Torah, through the oral law as written down in the Mishnah and the Talmud, all the way to who are the current Gedolei Israel.

    I can think of two reasons for a person to think that tradition is useful, but not binding:

    1. Believe that G-d gave a Torah (in the original meaning of the word, teaching), but that His message got garbled over the generations. That is my opinion. We’ve argued about it in this forum in the past and we’ll probably do so in the future.

    2. Believe that Jewish tradition is a human invention, but that it was invented by really smart people, tested in diverse circumstances and found useful. This means giving Judaism the same kind of respect that Common Law gets.

    Either of these positions can lead a person to be Conservative or Reform. Both are logically consistent. Neither requires you to bash the Orthodox – you can believe that somebody is factually wrong without losing respect to that person.

    So, on behalf of myself and any other Heterodox Jew who’d like to join me, I’d like to say: “this guy doesn’t represent us, we believe you are wrong, but that’s a result of our beliefs, not their source”.

    PS
    Most “Bible Thumping Fundamentalists” with whom I discussed the Tanakh were interested in different angles on what the text could mean. They are no more likely to pluck off their eye if it causes them to sin (Matthew 18:9 – I had to give an example from a part Christians don’t consider superceded) than Orthodox Jews are to execute murderers. Being compared to them isn’t as damning as some people might think.