Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You can take the boy out of the Bible Belt...

Commenting on the previous post, Mississippi Fred McDowell wrote:

The same tale is told all over the world, where modern European civilization collided with traditional cultures. Indeed, the fact that you are now typing and probably thinking in English means that some form of compromise with modernity was eventually achieved, but not without much growing pains and casualties along the way. The idea that in Germany it could have been resisted entirely by not giving in to any of modernity's temptations is nice, but it would have resulted in a handful of hardline rabbis without a flock, as such a position would not have taken into account the realities and tempermants of German Jews, who were indeed ready for and on the cusp of speaking in German and the like. They were, in fact, chaleshing for it, and it would have happened with or without Mendelssohn, only perhaps without him it would have taken on the form of total apostasy. Or not; I could be wrong. But the point is that modernity itself was a powerful force seducing away from traditional religion.

Could a Lubavitcher have the perspective to sit back and realize, "it wasn't Mendelssohn it was modernity?" For them, the Rebbe said it, no matter how based in polemical distortions of a century earlier, therefore it's gospel truth. Literally. Because their Rebbes are Tzaddikim as described by the Tanya, and thus embody God's will in this world.

The anonymous commenter in the previous post cannot admit the Rebbe was wrong in attributing "Jew in the home, man in the street" to a man who lived his life as "Jew in the home, Jew in the street, Jew in the courts of kings and scholars." There is a letter where Mendelssohn notes that he had to refuse the wine of a nobleman because of stam yeinam. He wrote "Jerusalem" to defend the Jews in the public sphere. He wrote peirushim on the Chumash and the Rambam to make Judaism remain palatable to those affected by modernity.

(Well, there's some debate as to what extent that was the motivation for the German translation, and to what extent he wanted the Jews to be able to speak clear German, as they were already moving into outer society. There are two letters with contradictory ideas: that he wanted to make the Torah palatable to Germanized Jews, and that he wanted to make German palatable to Torah Jews. In either case, he did want to make sure that Torah remained compatible with Germanized Judaism.)

There is a commenter on some of the J-blogs, whom I know IRL. He lives entirely in the modern world, doesn't consider himself a chasid Chabad, but cannot escape the attitudes and ideas about history and relationships among Jewish groups inculcated by his Lubavitch upbringing.

This is hardly an issue limited to Lubavitchers, of course. I took a course on Islam in college, taught by a Muslim academic. He had no end of frustration with the orthodox Muslim students in his class (he was one himself). He required the students to step back and be able to look at Islam and its history as an outsider, without the prejudices of the believer. The students should be able to step out of themselves, but these students, for the most part, could not.

It may be easier for me, having been an outsider all my life. I was raised non0bservant, although my parents have since grown in observance as well. But they sent me to Ramaz, and we went to Lincoln Square Synagogue, because R' Riskin was more accepting of children than R' Miller at the SAJ, where we had been until 1973 or so. So wherever I go in the Jewish world, it's with the experience of not having come to it natively.


Joe in Australia said...

What was true in Germany was not true in Russia. In Germany, sure, it was modernity and if it hadn't been Mendelsohn's synthesis it would have been someone else's, and the fact that his own children converted to Christianity doesn't necessarily mean that his synthesis was morally bankrupt. At any rate, Mendelsohn himself wasn't directly attacking traditional Judaism.

But in Russia the maskilim were in league with an antisemitic government that was using them as a wedge to destroy Jewish culture. They were complicit in government repression of Jews in order to gain government patronage and thereby (so they thought) win ideological battles. Why should they be given the benefit of any doubt?

thanbo said...

Because in neither case was it as monolithic as you make it seem. Germany was the home of Reform, and undoubtedly many of the early Maskilim joined in with Reform.

While in Russia, some Maskilim were undoubtedly Orthodox, such as those in the Vilna Gaon's circle of talmidim, and while committed to bringing the best of secular science into the Torah world (albeit as instrumental, not as an end in itself), were not out to destroy Torah Judaism.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Thanks for highlighting that Mendelssohn was very much a Jew in the street. He was, in fact, probably Europe's most famous Jew; in the street, in his own home, in the home of non-Jews. It is a perfectly fair point to argue that he was unusual and that most people, certainly in his time, were and are unable to achieve what he could and therefore it is no more a model for life than the Gra sitting in a room without windows learning for 22 hours a day, but it's good that you made the point about what he really was like.

Joe in A, ThanBook's post was about Mendelssohn ("in Lubavitch eyes"), not Haskalah in Russia 75 years after he died. While it is probably natural that the hero of the Russian Haskalah was despised by Chassidim, though long dead, that doesn't subsequently make him guilty of various crimes, real or alleged, on the part of those same maskilim.

As for a kind word, or a benefit of the doubt, on behalf of those maskilim, I gave it in the post below. Both sides were trying to use the heavy Russian boot (or Austrian, in the case of Galicia) which was oppressing all Jews, to their advantage. Most maskilim didn't think that all would be well if the Jews stopped keeping shabbos. They thought (naively) that all would be well if they dressed differently and worked different vocations and the like. While you're right that in effect this amounted to destroying the traditional culture, they were also a part of that traditional culture, and in their eyes it stank, and their people needed help and rehabilitation.