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Jewish Journal

Spiritual Agoraphobia

by Rabbi David Wolpe

November 14, 2002 | 7:00 pm

In the late Middle Ages, some Jews first banned and then instigated the burning of the books of Maimonides, the greatest philosopher Judaism ever produced. The book burning of 1232 was one episode in a controversy that lasted for some two centuries. The fight was not over Maimonides as an individual, for all agreed he was a great scholar and a pious man, rather the dispute centered on his incorporating Greek learning into his philosophy. Maimonides revered Aristotle; he called him "the philosopher." His opponents attacked him and the intellectual battle raged.

History has rendered its verdict; the defenders of Maimonides have been vindicated. No one takes the side of his attackers. Yet, the battle of insularity vs. openness endures. It is an old battle, and it has taken a new and ugly turn. Two new salvos were reported this past week, and the Jewish community must be aware of their implications.

Jonathan Sacks, the erudite chief rabbi of Britain, was forced to retract statements he made in his book, "The Dignity of Difference" (Continuum Publishing Group, 2002). In that work on tolerance. Sacks stated that no one tradition has a monopoly on spiritual truth and that one could learn from other traditions as well. For thus acknowledging that others were not bereft of truth, Sacks was charged with heresy by his fellow Orthodox rabbis in Manchester, England.

In a kindred development, Rabbi Joseph Reinman pulled out of a book tour schedule with his co-author, Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch (see page 33 of the Nov. 8 Jewish Journal). Together they had written "One People, Two Worlds" (Schoken Books, 2002), a book that explores the differences between Hirsch, a Reform rabbi, and Reinman, an Orthodox rabbi. The Agudah statement, forbidding Reinman to tour, stated that "light cannot coexist with darkness, nor can falsehood be peddled with truth."

The Talmud teaches that there is wisdom in other traditions. This recognition has found prominent Orthodox advocates in our own time. As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein wrote, "Who can fail to be inspired by the ethical idealism of Plato, the passionate fervor of Augustine or the visionary grandeur of Milton? Who can remain unenlightened by the lucidity of Aristotle, the profundity of Shakespeare or the incisiveness of Newton ... there is nothing in our modern literature to compare with Kant, and we would do well to admit it." In other words, Lichtenstein wrote, all truth does not reside in one religion, and certainly not in one denomination of one religion.

But this argument is not decisive for spiritual agoraphobics. They will not venture out of their own house. They are afraid of the world beyond the walls of their own ideologies. What will they find out there? A great deal of junk, to be sure. But also great beauty, learning, spirit, goodness and truth.

Contrary to Sacks' critics, Judaism has, in fact, long benefited from encounters with other cultures. The Talmud was enriched by Greek language and wisdom (the Jerusalem Talmud cites Rabbi Akiva as explicitly permitting the reading of Homer, whose poetry can hardly be said to enshrine Jewish values). Kabbalah was deepened by Sufi mysticism, as acknowledged by such unimpeachable authorities as Bahya Ibn Pakuda and Abraham, the son of Maimonides. Medieval Jewish poets, including among the most pious and learned like Yehuda Halevy, wrote elegant poems in imitation of their Islamic contemporaries on the topics of "wine, women and death." On the testimony of his own children, the Vilna Gaon, the greatest rabbinic mind of the modern age, "mastered the seven branches of secular learning."

For Reinman to present his views along with Hirsch's, in the opinion of some, is to grant Reform Judaism a legitimacy the Agudah wishes to deny it. Of course this is delegitimizing a population far larger than Orthodoxy. Even more, the principle of being an or lagoyim, a light unto the nations, seems to suppose that one will speak to the nations, and at the very least to other Jews. If the population must accept in advance what one has to teach, there is no reason to teach it. If we will not teach because others do not accept our view, we are a blinkered, narrow people, unable to influence those who would benefit from our wisdom.

Spiritual agoraphobia masquerades as spiritual confidence: We are so certain we are in possession of the truth we need not grant that anyone else has a scintilla of it. But, in fact, it is a deep and unwarranted insecurity.

There is great beauty and meaning to be found in what is often denominated "ultra-Orthodoxy." But too insistent a purity becomes airless, and the profundity of the culture is dissipated by an unwillingness to look outside itself. Many of the greatest rabbinic figures -- Saadiah Gaon, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon -- and in modern times scholars and rabbis such as S.R. Hirsch, A.J. Heschel, Saul Liebermann, Joseph Soloveitchik and countless others, deepened their understanding of Torah by studying insights outside of our their tradition.

Orthodoxy is not monolithic; spiritual agoraphobia is a trend, not a movement. If life teaches us one invariable lesson it is that we are not stronger for forbidding criticism from those who think differently. Listening to others is not a weakness. Staying home with those who act and think like you may strengthen your own convictions, but it does not deepen your soul, or ultimately ensure your closeness to God, the Author of all.

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