‘The Tenacy of Unreasonable Beliefs’ II

Here’s the second part of my interview with author Solomon Schimmel.

Listen to the interview in full here. Read reviews of the book "The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth" here.

Solomon: "To the extent that I am ethical and moral — I don’t want to present myself as any tzaddik (righteous man) — a lot of it comes from the teachings of Orthodox Judaism. My first two books are exactly about that — The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology and Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness. They try to make the case that there is so much richness of psychological insight and wisdom and and value to people even if they don’t accept the dogmatic religious doctrines in which these teachings are embedded… One can learn a lot about anger or envy or greed…without believing that these teachings are divinely revealed. It might weaken to some extent the force and power, but overall I don’t believe that doubting that the Torah was given by God at Mount Sinai is going to make anyone unethical."

Luke: "How excited are those who hold this traditional belief to engage in this question?"

Solomon: "I think they’re not excited at all."

"I’ll give you an example from my shul. I have an open-minded rabbi of a very liberal [Orthodox] shul where a lot of the members are closer to me in their beliefs than they are to the traditional Orthodox formulations… We have an adult education committee and we invite scholars in residence for weekends. Several months ago, I suggested that we invite [Bible scholar] James Kugel."

Luke: Dr. Kugel has been a scholar in residence at Bnai David-Judea and at Young Israel of Century City. At neither place did he say anything heretical.

Solomon: "Kugel lived in this community for many years. He is a Sephardic Jew. He helped set up the Sephardic congregation in Newton Center. He is strictly shomer shabbat, he is a strictly Orthodox Jew. He doesn’t even like to be called "orthoprax". He claims that he fits the definition of Orthodox… We’ve discussed this issue. His book ‘How to Read the Bible’ accepts the validity of modern Biblical scholarship… He taught this at Harvard.

"I said that these issues were important, particularly for Modern Orthodox Judaism — how does it deal with modern Biblical scholarship? The adult education committee thought this was a great idea. The rabbi preferred not to do this because there are members of the congregation who would not be comfortable with Kugel’s orientation and the purpose of having a scholar in residence is not to be divisive. We’ve had Tamar Ross here. Even in a liberal Modern Orthodox shul, not everybody is comfortable discussing these matters openly. We do have in the shul professors of Bible, Mark K. Brettler, the new editor of the Jewish Study Bible. He teaches at Brandeis. One of the founders of the shul was Bible scholar Nahum Sarna. Dr. Shaye Cohen is a Professor of Jewish History at Harvard. His specialization is the history of Second Temple Judaism. Some of the other Jewish Studies academics who are members of Shaarei Tefilla are Professor Jonathan Sarna, at Brandeis and Professor David Jacobson at Brown (Modern Hebrew Literature). The shul has leading Bible and Jewish Studies scholars within it, people who are clearly accepting of critical scholarly approaches to the Bible and Judaism. Their livelihood is critical Biblical scholarship. They’re active in the shul. They leyn (recite the Torah aloud for the congregation). They get aliyahs. They give divrei Torah. They’re careful not to say anything too heretical. I’ve never given a dvar Torah in my shul even though I’ve been asked to because I don’t want to discuss these things in shul to a captive audience on Shabbat. I want them to read the book on their own time.

"Even if a shul sponsored talk was given outside of the shul building, some members would be uncomfortable with a person who is shomer shabbat but has theological views that challenge traditional Orthodoxy."

"Orthodoxy has to finds way to preserve its values even if it has to change in a radical way its theology."

Luke: "How many Orthodox rabbis have engaged honestly with you on this?"

Solomon: "Not many. I had one unpleasant interaction with one when I gave a paper at a conference."

"I want to be criticized. I want to be challenged. I like that you ask me tough questions."

"I wrote to the Editor of ‘Tradition’ [magazine]. I said, this is a book that should be read by Modern Orthodox Jews. It’s offensive. It’s heretical. It goes against what you people believe. But that’s the reason it should be reviewed in ‘Tradition.’

"I haven’t gotten a call from YU or Yeshivat Chovevei Torah to come speak because we want to hear your views criticizing us. Luke, maybe you can get me to come out as a scholar in residence to a Modern Orthodox shul in LA that’s willing to discuss these things and wants to have a provocative speaker come out so that they can lambast him or whatever the case may be."

Luke: "I can’t imagine that there’s any Orthodox institution that will invite you to discuss this book."

Orthodox rabbi Gil Student gave a talk at Yeshiva University about the ethical dilemmas of blogging. Among them, introducing the pious to kefirah (heresy):

Something about the nature of the internet, maybe the sense of freedom that accompanies anonymity or maybe something else, but for some reason there are many frum-friendly blogs that attempt to undermine traditional Judaism by teaching, really more advocating, kefirah. What I mean by frum-friendly is people who used to be frum, maybe still even act frum, and know how to use frumspeak to make their content welcoming to frum Jews. Through a combination of argumentation, cynicism and mockery they make the argument against Orthodox Judaism. The question for me is how I am supposed to relate to them. Should I engage them in debate? I don’t think so. The Gemara in Sanhedrin specifically says not to debate Jewish heretics because it will only make them worse off, which my experience and observation confirms.

Should I attempt to refute them? I don’t necessarily have all the answers but I think I have a lot of them. A lot of this is a matter of presentation and should I spend my time in building the proper presentation so that I can dispute them? After all, my time is severely limited. And, for that matter, so is my scholarship. I don’t have any advanced degrees in Jewish Studies or Bible or, actually, in anything. I don’t have any advanced degrees.

And there is also a problem of introducing many of my readers to kefirah who otherwise would be unaware of it. Some of my readers have taken graduate courses in Bible while others are yeshiva bochurim who have never studied Bible beyond being ma’avir sedra, reviewing the weekly Torah portion. Do I want the responsibility on my shoulders for introducing these yeshiva bochurim to biblical criticism? A rabbi recently asked me about this and pointed out that he, a YU musmakh, was not aware of biblical criticism until later in life when he started listening to Dr. Leiman’s tapes. Him, a Yeshiva College graduate and a YU musmakh. If he hadn’t listened to those tapes, I would probably have been the one who introduced him to it. Is that what I should be doing?

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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