Letters, Summer 2021

Mitzvot and the Modern Dilemma

There are book reviews that are more informative than lengthy articles and articles that are more informative than whole books, but David Wolpe’s “Between Literalism and Liberalism” (Spring 2021) is the rare book review that provides more insight than many a book. That is because of the accuracy with which he characterizes the main intellectual tensions within American Judaism, which arise from the fact that a life of mitzvot cannot be taken as a given but must be justified without resort to the premise that they are the knowable commands of a knowable God. Hence the turn—in one of the many apothegms of Wolpe’s review—“from explanations of obedience to ideologies of encouragement,” from “you must” to “you should.” He also explores, briefly but trenchantly, why the anthropological approach of Mordecai Kaplan—arguably the most intellectually consistent and honest thinker of American Jewry—is fated to be less compelling to the increasing number of Jews with an attenuated sense of emotional attachment to the Jewish people. (An attenuation, though Wolpe doesn’t mention it, which is both a cause and effect of increasing levels of intermarriage, as well as redefinitions of Judaism that jettison its ethnic element.)

Wolpe notes but does not dwell upon the key intellectual challenges facing Orthodox Judaism, above all the question of the actual meaning and plausibility of divine command (Torah min ha-shamayim) as the basis of Jewish belief and practice. One could argue that contemporary Orthodoxy is constituted by what Peter Berger called its “plausibility structure,” by which membership in the community is based on not raising certain questions. As Wolpe rightly points out, Soloveitchik’s most famous essay offers a phenomenological description of the experience of an idealized life within halakha while bracketing off the plausibility of the premises of that life.

In any case, as a primer on the dilemmas of Jewish life and thought in the contemporary United States, Wolpe’s review is hard to beat. I doff my kippa to the editors of the magazine that commissioned and published it.

Jerry Muller
Catholic University
Washington, D.C.

I find myself both baffled and saddened by Rabbi David J. Wolpe’s review of Michael Marmur and David Ellenson’s American Jewish Thought Since 1934: Writings on Identity, Engagement, and Belief (“Between Literalism and Liberalism,” Spring 2021). My reaction is not because I dispute any of his observations on the collection but because of the non sequiturs and straw men in the considerable portions of the article that consist not of review but of self-reflection.

Wolpe justifies nonhalakhic Judaism, writing that “the very idea of being a metzuveh, one who is commanded, affronts the modern ideal of human autonomy.” Does he imagine that impressionable Jews of the past, surrounded by polytheism and idol worship, weren’t affronted by the idea of monotheism dedicated to an unseen deity? He writes of his congregants who eat treif after synagogue on Shabbat that “the only rationale that will not yield is: God said you must not do this. It did not occur to me to say it, and, had I done so, it would not have occurred to them to believe it.” It seems to me that Rabbi Wolpe expects too little of his congregants and himself. One has no doubt that among his Southern California congregants, some are devout practitioners of yoga, or meditation, or veganism, despite the lack of a commanding God judging their balasana or whether their plant-based meals are also fair trade. Why wouldn’t they be receptive to the spiritual refinement offered by observing the Sabbath and the ethical basis for the commandment not to combine meat and dairy? The role of rabbis is to challenge, teach, and nurture growth, not to serve as some sort of spiritual concierge service.

Toward the end of his review, Wolpe writes, “While literalism is intellectually untenable and liberalism is numerically imperiled, many Jews find that what they believe cannot be transmitted, and what can be effectively transmitted they cannot believe”—as if this binary choice represented all the intellectual possibilities open to Jews. I can assure him that Orthodox Jews are passing on their tradition with the full understanding that many of its teachings can only be understood figuratively. “The Torah speaks in the language of men,” Rabbi Ishmael said. Do some Orthodox Jews hew to understanding our mesorah literally? Of course. But we don’t need a modern thinker to point out their error. Already in the twelfth century, Maimonides told us to “pity such ignoramuses,” because “their intellect is not sufficiently developed to spur them to a deeper understanding, nor have they found someone to stimulate them to think deeply.”

I believe that rabbis such as David Wolpe have more to offer the Jewish people (and the world) from within the community of those who consider themselves bound by halakha than outside it. Who better to push back against the literalists and stimulate them to think more deeply?

Tamar Schmidt
via email

David Wolpe responds:

I thank Jerry Muller and also Tamar Schmidt for her impassioned letter, but she seems to give my congregants too little credit for their own thought processes and reasoned choices. Ancient Jews, of course, had their own social pressures and intellectual challenges. Still, they did not live in a world with Enlightenment notions of the autonomous self or face the intellectual onslaught of modern science, sociology, history, and critical textual study, to mention but a few disciplines that challenge traditional understandings. This is a new problem, the modern dilemma, and wishing it were not so does not erase its reality.

It is worth remembering that some of the contemporary “practitioners of yoga” and so on came from families who were rigorously observant and left it, not because they did not hear eloquent rationales but because they judged (rightly or wrongly) yoga, or whatever, to be more suitable to their spirits. Does Ms. Schmidt not realize that all of modern Judaism has been an attempt to provide just the rationales for a Jewish life she seems to believe my congregants have never heard? I spend my life arguing for a more rigorous Jewish life. And, of course, such Jews can also go on YouTube and listen to a panoply of Jewish religious figures right and left. Yet, remarkably, they often still choose something other than fidelity to classical Judaism. Reclaiming them is hardly a matter of rabbinic resolution, as Ms. Schmidt seems to believe.

Finally, I am well aware that many Modern Orthodox Jews are not literalists. They are, in fact, roughly comparable to Conservative Jews of one hundred years ago. I also see in their communities the same intellectual erosion that we have all seen in Conservative Judaism over the last several decades, for the same reasons. It will take—forgive me—far more rigorous and deep thought than to call upon Maimonides to label those who disagree with their particular intellectual compromises as “ignoramuses” to reverse the trend.

The millions who have left or become less observant cannot be reclaimed with bromides or denigration. To conceive of their choice as a simple mistake is a mistake; denying the reality of an earthquake will not keep the ground intact.

Tzuris Spoiled?

Shai Secunda’s review (“A Season of Tzuris: The Shtisels Return,” jewishreviewofbooks.com), without warning, gave away important plot events in the first episode of season 3 of Shtisel just before the first airing of the program on Netflix. I am very annoyed.

Jonathan Gerard
via jewishreviewofbooks.com

Shai Secunda responds:

Plot spoilers are the great occupational hazard of book and cinema reviews. Equally unforgivable is criticism that does not live up to its name. The reviewer of prestige TV finds himself attempting to say something meaningful about a plot-driven art form more than worthy of our critical attention without giving away the goods. If I’ve stumbled, I apologize. But better to fall on the side of saying something than to say nothing at all.

Hill 24’s Answer

After reading Stuart Schoffman’s review of Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (“Revisiting Hill 24,” jewishreviewofbooks.com), I watched the film and was quite impressed. Schoffman notes that the question of why true believers suffer the most goes unanswered. Here is the dialogue from the movie: “This is the heart of the matter: That which is most holy suffers the greatest destruction. . . . If you truly believe in God, you have chosen to defend good against evil. . . . The battle between evil and good is never ending. Those who are at the front of this battle suffer the greatest casualties. It is a choice we have to make. It is not decided for us. . . . Who cares what choice we make? God cares. If we tolerate evil we are forsaking God, and the seed of our own destruction lies in this toleration.” This sounds like an answer to me.

Meshulam Gotlieb
via email

Vilna Gaon, Zionist?

I found Allan Nadler’s article “Like Dreamers” (Winter 2021) very instructive with regard to Shlomo Zalman Rivlin’s publication of Kol ha-tor (Voice of the Turtledove) whose authenticity Nadler doubts. But to go from this to denying the innovative approach of the disciples of the Vilna Gaon, known as the Perushimto rebuilding the Land of Israel in advance of the messiah’s coming is less than convincing, especially when he takes on Arie Morgenstern’s recent study on this issue.

If, as Nadler contends, the Perushim were not the forerunners of the later secular aliyot, how to explain the vicious attacks against them by Zevi Hirsch Lehren, who was in charge of the Haluqah money that passed through Amsterdam in the mid-nineteenth century?

Morgenstern also points out that Israel of Shklov, one of the Gaon’s disciples, explained that the rabbinic prohibition against rising up en masse to return to the land (the prohibition of the so-called three oaths) is no longer binding since the nations of the world did not keep their condition of this bargain and oppressed the Jews too heavily. Morgenstern also points to the Vilna Gaon’s commentary on the Passover haggadah, in which he conveys the idea that the land’s redemption and the rebuilding of Jerusalem will precede the nation’s redemption.

Eliezer Bregman, one of the Perushim, began to think about how to create a functional economy for people wishing to settle the land, who would not be subject to handouts by the Haluqah. He compiled a list of the various profitable trades: watchmakers, jewelers, bakers, bookbinders, cobblers, and so on. When his boat went down in a storm, Lehren wrote that “it is decreed from heaven that there is no livelihood or settlement to be had on the basis of commerce or agriculture in the Land of Israel.” His proof was “that all [Bregman] possessed went down at sea between Sidon and Jaffa, including the money he had borrowed to engage in commerce in the Land of Israel.” Bregman did not give up. He suggested that small groups of Jews should settle in various places and regions, as they saw fit, since “the Land is still spacious and very good.”

So, while all credit goes to the founders of the Zionist movement and the series of mass aliyot that followed, let us also not forget that the first agricultural settlement in the land, known as Petah Tikva (“the mother of all moshavot”), was founded by a group of Perushim, led by Rabbi Yoel Moshe Salomon, in 1878. The secular settlers of the land may not have been inspired by the example of the Perushim, but that does not detract from the significance of the first steps taken in the modern period by haredim to attempt to settle the land—before they switched course and turned violently against their original professed teachings.

Mordecai Paldiel
via email

Allan Nadler responds:

While it is gratifying to hear that Mordecai Paldiel found my exposure of Shlomo Zalman Rivlin as a prolific fantasist and forger to be “very instructive,” this makes all the more mystifying his rebuking me for taking on “Arie Morgenstern’s recent study on this issue.” Morgenstern has published numerous articles and books claiming the Vilna Gaon as some kind of forerunner of Zionism, and all of them rely on the credence he lends to Rivlin’s numerous forgeries, none more than the pseudepigraphy Kol ha-tor.

As for Eliezer Bregman, Paldiel fatally confuses his fiscal pragmatism in seeking increased economic viability for the Perushim (whose very name reflects their essentially reclusive and pietistic nature) with some kind of Jewish national program for settling the Land of Israel. The anecdote he cites about Lehren’s reaction to Bregman’s shipwreck testifies—assuming there is any truth to it—to nothing more than a nasty internecine dispute between two sectors of the late nineteenth-century haredi world.

As for Petah Tikva, the property next to the Arab town of Khirbaat Mulabbis was purchased under the leadership of a group of rabbis from the Jerusalem community, or Old Yishuv, led by Yoel Salomon, Yehoshua Stampfer, and Zerah Barnett, in 1877. These dissenting rabbis had been inspired by the proto-Zionist writings of Rabbi Judah Leib Kalischer; they never cited the Vilna Gaon or any of the Rivlins in this connection. Although these ambitious men briefly settled what was later to become the eim ha-moshavot, mother of Zionist settlements, the persistent spread of malaria endemic to the area’s swamps resulted in the colony being all but abandoned by the end of 1880. Petah Tikva became a permanent moshav only after being renewed in 1883 by the mostly secular pioneers of Leon Pinsker’s Hibbat Zion movement. 

Finally, no one among the haredi people ever “switched course” to turn against the proto-Zionism of the founders of the Kolel Ha-Perushim, because neither they nor the Vilna Gaon were Zionists in the first place. Today, the heirs of the Vilna Gaon are to be found in the Lithuanian yeshivot in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, not among the most radically messianic settlers in Judea and Samaria, who are the principal audience for the revisionist history of Morgenstern and others.


Suggested Reading

Zero-Sum Game

Zero-Sum Game

Matti Friedman

Most liberal Israelis once believed the 1990s-era Western narrative about Israeli-Palestinian peace: that the Palestinians would eventually be satisfied with a state alongside Israel, that everyone desired the same kind of progress, that maximalist rhetoric on the Arab side masked more modest goals, and that the Palestinian talk about millions of refugees and their “right of return” to Israel was a starting position that was bound to be bargained away.