Monday, October 09, 2006

Milan Kundera on Spoonicus19

Once upon a time there was a college girl in Israel who wrote a post which included this:

The more I explore the blogosphere, or at least that area of the blogosphere which is comprised of the musings of various young Jewish philosophers -disenfranchised, disenchanted, frustrated and struggling, intellectual, searching, and running around in semantic circles like chickens with their tongues cut off- the more agitated and frustrated I become. When will you realize you are all falling into exactly the same patterns as every Jewish thinker (read: Jewish person who has thought)that ever came before you? you are still defining your areas of thought by the same rules, restrictions, codes and guidelines as everyone you're trying to break away from (read: everyone who has ever thought seriously about Judaism.)I can feel you guys trying to break into new territory, an undiscovered concept, an original perception, and almost getting there, then at the last minute falling back into the same inevitable loop you have been falling into since the entire thought process began.

Once upon a time there was a famous Czech writer who wrote an article for New Yorker magazine which included this:

Like a woman who has applied makeup before running to her first tryst, the world, when it rushes toward us at the moment of our birth, is already made-up, masked, reinterpreted. And the conformists won't be the only ones fooled; the rebel types, eager to stand up against everything and everyone, will not realize how obedient they themselves are; they will rebel only against what is interpreted (pre-interpreted) as worthy of rebellion.


Blogger Shoshana said...

Do you agree with what she is saying? That all people who question will be led out of religion? I ask this sincerely, because I hope she's not right, and have to believe that some of the great thinkers in Jewish history were questioners whose questioning led them to feel closer to religion rather than farther, but I'm not always sure. Will be looking forward to your treatise that you mentioned in a previous post.

October 09, 2006 6:26 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I am not seeing where she is saying that all questioners will be led out of religion, at least not from the part I quoted. I think what she is saying is that most of the people trying to "break out of the system" are still within the system, just not realizing it...

But to answer your question... I don't know about all, but I think many of the "true" questioners will be led out of religion. For a variety of reasons among them the viability of living a secular lifestyle, which would not have been possible for most of history.

Who are you thinking of when you say that the great thinkers were questioners whose questions led them closer to religion?

October 10, 2006 8:06 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Arg. Sometimes Blogger just doesn't make me so happy. Had a comment all written but it doesn't seem to have gone through.

What I said was, approximately, that I think you are right, and I was reading the post wrong, though I do think she has animosity towards religion and those who do or don't really think about it.

In regards to thinkers and questioners being brought closer to religion, I didn't have anyone in particular in mind, but I would think that Rabbi Akiva or Rambam would be two examples of people who questioned and searched and ended up dedicating their lives to Torah. I know the Rambam was considered by many a heretic in his day, but he definitely made an incredible impact on the Jewish world. I don't know that much about his personal life, but it seems that his questioning led him to find answers within, rather than outside of, Judaism.

I also asked about your distinction that questioning leads people away today due to the viability of living a secular lifestyle. I don't understand how that has changed from years past - the Hellenistic period or the Intellectual Enlightenment in Europe of the late 1800's come to mind as examples through history where Jews chose to be part of secular culture, giving up their own heritage.

Wish me luck in posting this time!

October 11, 2006 6:05 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Hmm. I am not sure that I would say that this girl has animosity towards religion. I believe that she is observant and from a frum family. I suspect that she has some of the same existential angst that a lot of people are trying to resolve...

The thing about questioners... I think there are two issues. The first is that in general, the notion of questioning is antithetical to the master/disciple model of early rabbinic judaism (as I perceive it), and there are a lot of valid reasons why this was the case (in the context of the social and technological maturity of those societies). The general rule is that no Amoraim could question the Tannaim, and so if there was a seeming problem or contradiction, then it was up to the former to come up with an explanation for this seeiming discrepancy. And while it produced some amazingly inventive and creative questioning in the Gemara, it really was constrained. There were lots of questions that couldn't be asked.

The Rambam is also an interesting case. He tried to show that there was no conflict between the "modern" world of his time and the events of the Tanach. In many ways his works were limited by the knowledge that he had available to him. I wonder where he would wind up had he been alive today. His views on prophecy and miracles are pretty untraditional even by 13th century standards.

What I mean by the "viability of a secular lifestyle" is that I'd say that prior to the last 100 years or so, there was no secular options for Jews. If you wanted to join gentile society you had to convert. In Europe it was to Christianity, in other places it was to Islam. So really if someone is really a questioner and not just doing it to make their life easier, this is not a solution for them.

Actually, it is interesting that you bring up the Hellenists, because I'd say that in many ways this was the time period very similar to current day, where you also had a viable secular option. Although, like my statement about the Rambam, at the time, people really didn't have much understanding of how the world works and so many questions that bother people today really didn't come up.

The above is my opinion entirely. I am not a scholar in this area.

October 11, 2006 9:49 AM  
Blogger Shoshana said...

Thank you for the explanation. I really find it interesting, especially the part about the master/disciple model. Though the way you describe does trouble me a bit, in that it seems you are saying that if a later scholar were to have a question in which he couldn't bend an answer to fit in with those to come before him, he was forced to throw away the question (please correct me if I'm interpreting your explanation wrong). It seems today most of our problems (at least a lot of mine) are with those types of questions that would most likely have been forced to have been thrown by the wayside.

October 12, 2006 8:23 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

if a later scholar were to have a question in which he couldn't bend an answer to fit in with those to come before him, he was forced to throw away the question

I am not sure how often this happened. I haven't been learning Gemara for very long... In general it seems that an answer of some kind is always found , but oftentimes it seems very forced to me, certainly non-obvious. For example, person A will say something is allowed. Person B says something is forbidden. They both have to be right, so the latter rabbi will say, well what A really meant was that under these circumstances it is allowed, and B really meant that under these circumstances it is forbidden, so they really don't disagree at all. But there is no "proof" for this specialization of what seemed prima facie to be stated as a general case. So it is hard to figure out whether the Gemara actually has this information and just doesn't provide it, or whether because of the a priori constraint that A and B can never be wrong that they had to invent this difference.

However, and I am sure we can think of many examples, at times it seems like all sorts of answers that conflict with Halacha or History are invented, and accepted by the various subcommunities as normative, e.g. Chassidic customs.

So go figure...

October 12, 2006 2:12 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

first of all, I think generally said rabbis prove such reconciliations through interpretive devices sanctioned in the process of Torah study and halachik derivation; finding other places in the Torah where a similar lashon was used, etc.
secondly, I was ranting against two very specific groups of people, both of whom are groups of people who have essentially stopped questioning - the first bc they've despaired of finding an "intellectally satisfying answer" and the second bc they've found their spiritually or emotionally satisfying answer. and I was saying that neither group ought to stop questioning bc, the first group isn't being intellectually honest with themselves if they give up without anything; and the second group bc,despite the whole conversation you guys were having about which questions are and aren't allowed in Judaism, I still feel very strongly that constant questioning is an essential piece of Judaism and true service of G-d.

October 15, 2006 10:29 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I think my post was really just an attempt to connect two excerpts of text which seem to share a common message.

I think the other discussion in these comments is more of a tangent.

October 16, 2006 9:52 PM  

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