Chaim Amalek emails: "Why are there no prominent, widely accepted rabbis in America who can speak truth to torah and torah to truth? Because Judaism has been centrifuged into two components, the first a fossil faith incapable of change in the face of new knowledge; the second an exercise in nostalgia and liberal/cultural feelgoodism that most don’t take seriously. And maybe that’s where things should stand.. After all, nobody really expects physicists to pay heed to the torah, so why should rabbis steeped in torah to pay attention to advances in science?"
A learned, witty writer, informed about everything, a sophisticated theologian and incisive cultural critic, a creator of institutions, alliances and acolytes, confident as a public representative of his faith, from which he thought the world could learn a lot – would you name the contemporary rabbi who can be compared to Neuhaus?
To write innovative seforim, to give illuminating shiurim, to lead a synagogue, to defend the interests of Jews and the Jewish state – these are wonderful things. But we are called to be a "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), ministering not only to ourselves but to the world. According to Jewish tradition, our forefather Abraham was the first evangelist. Why else did God make Jews?
I know rabbis who write interesting essays or give interesting sermons. That’s not the same as founding an intellectual trend and a magazine to articulate it, shaping assumptions among members of your own faith, of other faiths and of no faith. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) would surely be such a figure if he were alive, but in America and Israel today, we have no one similar. Rather than thoughtfully confronting secular culture, our leaders mostly either find ingenious rationales for surrendering to it, or they simply condemn it, or they ignore it. Lately, I’ve been calling attention to the failure to grapple with Darwinism and its corrosive moral effects, an issue that Neuhaus understood, but there are many other examples.
With its hint of condescension, Neuhaus’s attitude to Judaism is a generational artifact, fast slipping away. Among Christians there is an increasing openness to the influence of Judaism’s worldview, if only Jews would share it. Of all the divisions in the factionalized Jewish world, the obvious candidate to undertake such a mission is the modern Orthodox community. Yet we modern Orthodox Jews constantly lose track of the bigger picture of what Torah is about. No, it’s not just about having a prestigious professional career or a Harvard PhD while keeping strictly kosher and learning daf yomi.
I recently attended a screening here in Seattle of a new film on Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s life. A beautifully made documentary, but striking in that it gave not even a hint of what worldview the Rav stood for.