Synthesis and Dialectic

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Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenbergzt”l passed away. He was more commonly known as Rav Shagar, a nickname he picked up when a friend starting calling him by the initials on the corner of his tallis. Rav Shagar was Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Siach Yitzhak, staunchly Religious Zionist, with a mystical, spiritualist bent. Rav Shagar was 57 years old when he lost the battle against pancreatic cancer.

In looking for a thought of his to write, I found the following quote in Haaretz (11 Jan 2005):

One can say that it is a difference that can already be found in Rabbi Kook compared to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. Rabbi Kook presents the goal as being harmony among all the various values, whereas Rabbi Nachman viewed contradictions as a source of religious ecstasy. When you try to live simultaneously in all the worlds, there is a danger that you will end up living simplistically and superficially, or that you will try to force harmony. I identify with harmony as a goal, but in the real world, one must learn to live with contradictions. From this respect, one of the original sins of the religious-Zionists was their enslavement to the vision of Ben-Gurion’s ‘melting pot.’ Instead of creating a uniform prayer service, each community should have been allowed to foster its own identity, and what they would all share would be the very feeling of Jewish brotherhood.

To Rav Kook, the concept of unity is fundamental. Everything flows from Hashem Echad, and therefore all distinctions are, at the deepest level, illusory. The “secular” Zionist is in reality doing sacred work. In fact, the notion of secular can be defined as that in which we can not perceive the underlying sanctity — even though it’s no less there. Rav Nachman doesn’t write from the perspective of ultimate realities. Given that we are human beings living under a condition of tzimtzum (a “constriction” of [the perceptability of] Divine Presence), we do face contradictions. It is in how we face them that provides us with challenge and growth experiences.

Rav Shagar suggests that one can divide their statements in terms of context — Rav Kook discussing the ultimate goal and Rav Nachman describing how to live through the reality that we are always “only” trying to get there. Therefore one can fully believe both, but it would be Rav Nachman’s perspective that is more useful in defining a lifestyle.

This reminded me of a thought about one of the differences between Rav Hirsch’s “Torah im Derekh Eretz” (TIDE) and Rav JB Soloveitchik’s notion of Modern Orthodoxy, which YU dubbed “Torah uMadda” (TuM). I am tempted to apply the same observation, about differences in context, here.

Rav Hirsch sought synthesis. To him, the ideal person was one who was ennobled by Torah and refined by high culture (Derekh Eretz). My favorite formulation of the TIDE position is that of the Seridei Eish:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derekh Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

– Essay in “Shimshon Rephael Hirsch: Mishnaso Vishitaso”

TIDE is a lifestyle that is wholly Torah and wholly derekh eretz, in that the Torah is what gives form and function to a cultured life, and culture is the substance to which one applies Torah.

Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, on the other hand, spoke in terms of unresolvable dialectics. In an earlier blog entry I noted his use of contrasting archetypes of cognitive man vs. homo religiosus (in Halachic Man), Adam I vs. Adam II (in the Lonely Man of Faith), the community of destiny and the community of fate (Community, Qol Dodi Dofeiq, the SCA responsum), etc..

This is also true in his formulation of TuM. (Despite Rabbi Lamm’s frequent use of the word “synthesis” in describing TuM, I do not believe that this meaning of the word “synthesis” was R’ Soloveitchik’s goal.) One of his few talks on TuM is commonly referred to as “Ramatayim Tzofim” — two peaks from which to look out over the landscape, using a phrase from Shemu’el I 1:1. Man is torn between two peaks, which stand distinct. And in fact, it is the free will that emerges from choosing between these alternatives that is man’s “image of G-d”, our entire calling.

In true neo-Kantian fashion, Rav Soloveitchik argues that human nature is characterized by antinomies, equally true but conflicting models of reality. They present philosophical tensions. Halakhah gives us the tools to navigate these conflicts of values, but they are not to be resolved.

Notice that here too, Rav Hirsch speaks in terms of theory, defining the ideal human being as one living a life that is entirely Torah and yet composed of Derekh Eretz, whereas Rav Soloveitchik describes the reality, and living with the conflicts that we actually confront. The ideal may be one of unity, but life is a process of reaching for an ideal; not actually ever getting there. Thus, the two perspectives need not be taken as contradicting.

(At least, not on this point. TIDE and TuM differ in other ways. A topic for another entry.)

Rather, one must know when to use each perspective. I think that seeking unity where there is none is no less fraught with danger on this front than in Rav Shagar’s original case. The TIDE seminary did not succeed at producing its own leadership; the Torah study in such a school was always lighter than that of the full-time Torah study of the Lithuanian yeshiva. It also failed to produce secular education of the quality of Germany’s universities.

Many complain about some of the material taught at Yeshiva University; classes that include Greek mythology, or teachers that espouse heresy. However, Rabbi Soloveitchik (according to vol. II of R’ Rakeffet’s book) lauded YU’s independence, running a full yeshiva and a full university totally unconnected from each other but under the same roof. In Lander College, the rashei yeshiva have veto power over what is taught in the university. The YU experience allows a student to deal with the confrontation of the two unadulterated worlds in a safe context, rather than provide a fused experience that will provide less preparation for living according to the Torah in the “real” world. To my mind, Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective is more appropriate. The only question is whether there is sufficient rebbe-student connection for the exposure to the more questionable parts of the secular world to truly be safe. A pragmatic problem. But if this side issue were addressed, I would conclude that we do live in a world of dialectic, not synthesis, and that is what a school must prepare its students to face. We need to learn harmonious coexistence, and realize life is a never ending struggle for a unification only achieved at history’s culmination.

Note that without the resolution of that pragmatic problem, though, YU runs the risk of presenting students with questions they are ill prepared to answer. Dialectic is a way to live, but we can’t focus on it as though it were also the goal toward which we are striving — or else we run the risk of winning the battle by losing the war.

And your thoughts...?

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