Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dubner's "Turbulent Souls" vs. Winner's "Girl Meets G-d" :two books, two viewpoints on faith

A few weeks back I recommended reading Stephen Dubner’s Turbulent Souls and got back a comment from Bill S. to read Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets G-d. I found it in the library and finished it off. Very different style from Dubner (I enjoyed Dubner’s writing style much more than Winner’s). Dubner tells the story of his re-discovering Judaism after being raised as a Christian; Winner tells the story of her turning to Christianity after converting and practicing Orthodox Judaism. Dubner is not content with accepting his parents’ conversion to Christianity being the result of a religious epiphany. He tries to trace back his family’s history and uncover the psychological and emotional dynamics that may have led to their conversion. The Judaism which Dubner attaches himself to is more of a cultural / historical identity than a mystical feeling or theological set of principles. Winner, on the other hand, reiterates a number of times that although one might attribute her return to Christianity to various emotional or psychological factors, she firmly believes Jesus reached out to her and led her. The book is filled with her professions of faith, her theological musings, her feelings about G-d and religion. Her faith is not the result of rational inquiry, but is the stuff of dreams and mystical experience. It seems her faith is no less deep than Dubner’s, even though her understanding of her religious attachment is so different than his. If I had to sum up Dubner’s faith, I would say he believes in Jews, the historical / cultural “peoplehood” that we share, though not necessarily Judaism, meaning a specific set of religious tenets. Winner believes in Christianity with all its rituals and theology, but I got very little sense of a her feeling a shared identity with all her co-religionists.

One quote from the book that stood out:
To tell this story, I would also have to talk about the crass materialism that snaked its way around New York Orthodoxy and the anti-intellectualism of the community. My five closest friends in college were the most intellectually capricious people on earth, but many of the other Orthodox Jews at Columbia were the worst breed of intellectually insular, mastering just enough knowledge to scatter their dinner party conversations with references to Freud or Kant, never mastering any more than that. I would have to talk about those things to tell the story of my leaving Judaism.
Of course not all Jews are materialistic and anti-intellectual. But have to admit my sympathies with this viewpoint, especially when I look around my neighborhood replete with nail salons, high-budget shoe stores, multi-million dollar homes, etc. and local newspapers advertising programs that promise college degrees in as little as 18 months. Is this the “am chacham v’navon” which should attract the admiration of the outside world? Perhaps I am being too harsh – your thoughts?

27 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:04 PM

    Yes.I'll admit it.I'm an orthodox jew and I join the majority of the world in not caring about Kant & co.After leaving Kollel I made sure to take a only 16 month course to become an accountant.I only took the CPA exam because advancing in the accountant world required it.Why does that make me MORALLY inferior to the author of above referenced book?

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  2. Who said anything about MORALLY (did your caps key get stuck?) inferior? It simply makes you intellectually inferior, by your own choice.
    Whether choosing intllectual inferiority is a moral crime depends on one's value system. In most of the Western world aspiring to deliberate ignorance is not exactly going to engender admiration as an "am chacham v'navon", as I wrote.

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  3. Barzilai2:08 PM

    I like the sound of your neighborhood. Any houses for sale there?

    Yes, we are a morally and intellectually arrogant people. We tend to deny the legitimacy or even existence of refinement in others, and this is shameful for us, but it does help to keep us a people apart. Separate but equal never has worked. It's hard to love and respect others while maintaining an impervious barrier between us and them.

    Anyway, it's mostly the women who frequent the stores you mention, and we don't have too many daf yomi classes for the women. What do expect them to do with their free time? By default, it's going to be television and shopping.

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  4. Yes, you are being too harsh. So most people are not "intellectual". Who cares. I don't see how that is a chisaron of "am chacham v'navon". Was Rav Moshe not part of "am chacham v'navon"? I am sur ehe didn't read Kant.

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  5. Anonymous2:40 PM

    Why am I or anyone else required to share Western values in regards to intellectual superiorty?Even Western society doesn't think they were G-d given.

    As far as I'm concerned an uneducated honest menial worker is just as good as anyone else.I find the insinuation otherwise to be very snobby.My apoligies if you find my comments offensive.

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  6. >>> So most people are not "intellectual". Who cares.

    Obviously some people do - it helped drive at least one person away from Judaism.

    >>>Was Rav Moshe not part of "am chacham v'navon"? I am sur ehe didn't read Kant.

    You are comparing regular people to R' Moshe - is that fair? (And what would you say if we use R' Soloveitchik as a point of comparison?).
    R' Moshe was not required to stop learning to go to medical school so he could learn to be a doctor and drive a hatzalah ambulance to save lives. But if you choose to be a doctor, if you already went to medical school, don't you perhaps owe it to the world and yourself to conduct your career in a particular tzurah that demonstrates that being a Jewish doctor is not the same as being stam a doctor?
    If torascha umanuscha, maybe you can closet yourself in Bnei Brak and avoid reading all secular books. But given that most of us do go to college, pursue careers, lead regular lives in society, doesn't it behoove us to be educated and intelligent members of society and not just shoot for the intelligence level of the average Joe?

    >>>Anyway, it's mostly the women who frequent the stores you mention, and we don't have too many daf yomi classes for the women. What do expect them to do with their free time? By default, it's going to be television and shopping.

    Exactly!!! Instead of brainwashing Bais Ya'akov girls into thinking learning Torah is evil and having them hang out at the nail parlor, start a daf yomi for women! Unfortunately, the latter is socially frowned upon even in many MO neighborhoods, the former is tacitly accepted as Ok for the veiber who have too much time on their hands anyway. This makes no sense to me.

    Not sure what you mean by "seperate but equal" in this context.

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  7. I read the Dubner book on your recommendation. Very interesting. But leaves many unanswered questions. Someone who saw me reading it suggested I also read "Im My Brother's Image" by Pogany. Interesting, but I am bothered by the author's free admixturing of imagined history. Still relatively near the beginning, though.

    http://www.amazon.com/My-Brothers-Image-Separated-Holocaust/dp/B000H2MAGS/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1213730096&sr=1-3

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  8. >>>As far as I'm concerned an uneducated honest menial worker is just as good as anyone else.

    On your next visit to the Bronx Zoo may I suggest that you visit the monkey house. The monkeys have a roof over their head, daily meals, a vet to take care of them when sick, and no worries aside from whether the banana served today is a little too brown and mushy for their taste.
    Kant (to use your previous example) also lived with a roof over his head, daily meals, etc. and probably had to struggle through life more than the monkey.
    Leaving aside religious considerations, would you rather be Kant or the monkey?

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  9. >>>Obviously some people do - it helped drive at least one person away from Judaism.

    I hate to break the news to you, but if this women left Judaism because people were not intellectual enough for her, then maybe the problem is with her. There are many fine people in the world and everyone is made differently. What interests one person does not have to interest another. There is no mitzvah d'oreisa to be an intellectual. If all you can see when you look at a person is that they are inferior and lacking because they don't aspire to be an intellectual then you have a serious bein adom l'chaveiro problem. In my circles I would call it being a snob.

    >>> You are comparing regular people to R' Moshe - is that fair? (And what would you say if we use R' Soloveitchik as a point of comparison?).

    Fine, lets use Rav Soloveitchik as a comparison. Do you think he looked down on Rav Moshe for not reading Kant? Do you think he thought that those talmidim who did not have his cheishik for intellectual pursuits were inferior? I am sure he recognized that not everyone is created or thinks the same.

    >>But if you choose to be a doctor, if you already went to medical school, don't you perhaps owe it to the world and yourself to conduct your career in a particular tzurah that demonstrates that being a Jewish doctor is not the same as being stam a doctor?


    Who says? As long as you keep up to date on the medical field so you can treat your patients responsibley why do you need to do more? Your first responsibility is to yourself and your family. Who are you to judge what someone should or should not do. In my profession there is a lot of room for academic growth. I have no interest in it. As long as I fulfill my responsibilities to my employer, why should I have to spend extra time on enhancing my academic credentials. I would much rather spend my time learning with a chavrusah, prpearing a shiur and spending time with my family. Do you consider me a lesser person for that decision.

    >>>But given that most of us do go to college, pursue careers, lead regular lives in society, doesn't it behoove us to be educated and intelligent members of society and not just shoot for the intelligence level of the average Joe?


    Why? If it comes at the expense of other things why should I ?

    One last point.
    Do you think the Kedushas Levi (who was famous for being dan l'kaf zechus) and other Chassidic rebbes looked down on their chassidim who might not have been as learned or motivated to learn? Or maybe they used their kochos to help their chassidim reach their potential without making them feel like inferior human beings.

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  10. >>>Do you think he thought that those talmidim who did not have his cheishik for intellectual pursuits were inferior?

    Apples and oranges. Mr. Anonymous was commenting about people who are capable but deliberatly choose to remain ignorant, and it was to that point that my comment was addressed. If someone is not bar hachi that is a different story.

    >>>If it comes at the expense of other things why should I ?

    Everything has a cost in terms of time and effort. It takes time and effort to go to a nail salon or a baseball game. Last time I went to a Mets game I saw plenty of white-shirted tzitzis-out yeshiva bachurim on line for tickets. I have only once been to a Shakespeare performance where there was a yeshiva bachur in attendance. I was so struck by the sight that I went over and asked what he was doing there and discovered attendance was mandatory because of a college class he was taking. Clearly choices have to be made and time budgeted. I don't the average person is so highly scheduled that he or she cannot cut back on less important things for a few minutes a day / week / month (whatever) to do some serious reading. It's not being ignorant which is the crime - it is the deliberate choice to remain so.

    >>>Do you think the Kedushas Levi... and other Chassidic rebbes looked down on their chassidim who might not have been as learned or motivated to learn?

    The Litvishe world did!

    >>>Someone who saw me reading it suggested I also read "Im My Brother's Image" by Pogany.

    I will try to get a copy if I can. Glad to get another recommendation!

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  11. I'll make one last comment then drop the subject.

    Whether a person decides to go to a Shakespeare play or attend a Met game is a personal decision. Noone is asking you to agree with the decision. However, to look down on someone because of that decision is snobbery. Especially when you go as far as to compare that person to a monkey.

    The goal should be too try and find the positive things about people, not always be looking for the negative.

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  12. Separate but equal, in this context, meant that if we were to recognize the humanity and middos tovos and intellectual and moral status of certain non-Jewish groups, this would lead to intermarriage and dilution of our mesora. Equal and separate cannot co-exist. Se we tend to demonize, or delegitimize, whatever is foreign to our tradition. Ve'ha raya-- for the MO that recognize the wisdom and beauty outside of our camp religion seems to take a smaller role. Of course, there are exceptions; I'm talking 'anecdotal, prejudiced, yada yada'. But in general, to broaden is to dilute.

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  13. See Pesachim 49b with the Maharal's comments before you pick on me : )

    It's not the individual's decision which is the issue, but the institutionalization of certain [wrong] values within the fabric of Jewish life. Isn't there a difference between social criticism and criticism aimed at individuals?

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  14. >>> Isn't there a difference between social criticism and criticism aimed at individuals

    there is a difference but it is also a fine line. When social criticism crosses the line into looking down at others as individuals, then there is a problem.

    so what does the Maharsha say?

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  15. Bill Selliger6:51 PM

    Wow, you took my recommendation. I'm glad it engendered some thought on your part; it did the same for me.

    To be fair: Winner by nature is an extremely curious, intellegent, seeking individual, who immersed herself in an environment where others of the same bent were likely to be found (whichever university it was). She took offense to the fact that the Orthodox who frequented that institution did not share her aspirations and interests, or feined enough interest to impress because they recognized their surroundings and dimly attempted to conform. Fine.

    But she is not claiming (and if she is then she is wrong) that Catholics by nature are intellectual, and that by contrast the Orthodox are not. I work with (and I know you do too) many very bright gentiles. I would classify less than 10% of them as "intellectual". They're the same as us. They wouldn't know Joyce from Homer, Napoleon from Hannibal, or Plato from Socrates. They could, however, tell you Shilling from Clemens and Cruise from Pitt.

    People are people, no matter what hat they wear.

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  17. ctually, the degree is offered in as little as a year, as I quote from the ad: http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/05/quick-is-not-right-in-context.html
    As for the first anonymous commentator who maintains the belief that to be frum is to get by on the bare minimum of Jewish education, I will refer him to the story of my grandfather I wrote over just for you here:
    http://kallahmagazine.blogspot.com/2008/06/what-justifies-yeshiva-bachurs-study-at.html

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  18. As for what could women spend their time at other than shopping, nail salons and watching television...well, I don't have a television and have never had my nails done -- hey, I don't even put on nail polish! There is actually much more for a woman to do than that even if she has lots of leisure time on her hands.

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  19. What is an intellectual in your mind? People dressed in black who drop words of 4 syllables and references to Foucault all the time? That is not the sum total of "intellectual." For those of us who fit the label, it means an interest in ideas, in leading an examined life -- rather than merely living a life as luxurious as we could afford to make it. It also means that we don't equate the end of formal school with the end of learning.

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  20. OK, some women find ways to spend their time profitably even if they aren't sweating over a Ktzos.

    The thing is that I never believed that the source of antisemitism was eisav sonei le'yaakov. Three thousand years of hatred cannot be purely irrational. I have little doubt that we, as a culture/nation/ethnic group, have unattractive traits. Maybe we can be pushy, uncouth, grasping, and greedy, and maybe our neighborhoods tend to accumulate trash in the streets and dead trees and lawns, and so forth. There's not much we can do about it. We yam what we yam. There are only a very few geirim that can see past this reality and see the truth that despite all, there are some good things about us too.

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  21. Barzilai, of course there are bad habits to be found among Jews as there are among any people. I wouldn't attribute anti-Semitism to those traits. In general, bigotry stems not just from a reaction to some individuals (for, after all, "some of my best friends are Jews") but from an us vs. them mentality. To use some intellectual jargon, the Jew becomes the "other" -- the outsider whose contrast defines the identity of the self.

    That doesn't necessarily mean you want to eliminate the other. Men view women as others, too, but would usually like to keep them around. Even those who would consider such activities as trivial, still would find it acceptable for women to occupy themselves with staying home in front of the TV, and would, possibly, expect nothing more of their own wives. The wife's "feminine" preoccupations contrast with the "manly" ones by which the man may define himself. This perspective is embedded in our language, for "virtue" is based on the root "vir" for male.

    So a Gentile who defines himself in contrast to the Jew would, naturally, wish to ascribe the more positive traits to himself. So Jewish intelligence would have to be spun as shrewdness with meaner connotations. Jews who stick together can be seen (and often, in fact are) as clannish, cliquish, and prone to nepotism. And the Jewish tendency toward sedentary professions would be cast as a reflection of physical weakness or lack of manliness. Jewish mothers' high involvement in their children's lives becomes parental suffocation and micromanagement. And the fact that women do fall into the behavior described above gives credence to the JAP stereotype. Yes, all of these stereotypes have a basic in truth -- and I've seen them all up close and personal in the frum community and can attest to the fact that frum Jews break both laws and halacha by ignoring their debts altogether even when summoned to court.

    In fact, Jews often will be the first to say not to work for Jewish outfits because they do know the truth of the matter. But I think that the Jew who says that is still not disassociating himself from Jews in the same way someone who says, for examples, the Palestinians are correct, is.

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  22. Do you mean 'other' in the Lacanne sense? Or as Derrida used it? See, I can drop names, too.
    Actually, I like the perspective on how otherification results in derision of what comprises the difference, but the fact remains that everyone hates us, and has since our time in Mitzrayim (except the Chinese and the Turks, mostly.) We even, as you said, don't much like each other, and for good reason. See, e.g.,
    http://jonrowe.blogspot.com/2005/01/strange-article-by-rabbi-daniel-lapin.html
    While we are sprinkled with angels and saints, on the whole we're just not a likeable people. Those that get along with us are the type that are kind to lepers and cripples.

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  23. I don't know if it is a universal truth that Jews, as a group, as less likable than any other. Generally those who hate Jews hate all "others," as well, including anyone of a different race, religion, or even lifestyle than what they consider normative -- think KKK, the Nazis, etc. Then you just have those who distrust Jews because of their insularity, like those among the British who don't trust or like the French, or any other "foreigner," for that matter. Really, do you think that the Puritans as a group were more likable than Jews? Are all Asians beloved by the rest of the world? I don't think so. Perhaps what you are saying reflects the adage on the effects of familiarity -- you are most familiar with Jews, and just as we always think our own family member the most annoying, odd, etc., we think the same of our people.

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  24. Look, it's the week of Parshas Shlach, I would be a fool to not learn from what the Meraglim did. So yes, of course you're right. We are the Ahm Hanivchar, rachmanus, baishanus, and gemilas chasadim is in our DNA, and any superficial minor flaws we have stem from millenia of homelessness and persecution. And all our women are strong, all our men are good-looking and all our children are above-average.

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  25. That's in Lake Woebegone. The Gemara, quoting Rabbi Yishmael, actually ascribes beauty to women, which they seem to have appreciated: "At the same time Rabbi Yishmael wept, and said, The daughters of Israel are beautiful, but poverty makes them ugly. And when Rabbi Yishmael died, the daughters of Israel raised a lament, and said, 'Daughters of Israel, weep over Rabbi Yishmael.'" and we don't hear much about outstanding Jewish male traits. But every teacher knows that Jewish children are above average (in the eyes of their parents) even when their work appears below average.;-)

    Am hanivchar notwithstanding, I am not saying that Jews are patently superior, just that I don't think they fare worse as a group than any other. We just are closer so the flaws are so much more obvious.

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  26. Anonymous3:10 PM

    Let me clue you in on a secret - you can do your nails and buy expensive shoes and still be intellectual. Even non materialistic.

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  27. Winner's complaints seem to be directed against a specific subset of the Jewish community (or more precisely, the "cream" of it); I don't believe that this subset is the same group that you've lamented about in the past (it's more akin to the group that you've dismissed).

    The anti-intellectualism within the two groups is similar, but the differences between the two groups preclude the conflation of the two phenomena. Call them the first two groups of the Rambam, perhaps.

    In your quote, btw, you mistyped capacious as capricious.

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