Thursday, April 25, 2013

who broke the mold?

You know world has forgotten you when you don’t even get your own Wikipedia entry.  R’ Moshe Avigdor Amiel, who I mentioned yesterday, was a man of towering intellectual ability, a lamdan, a Zionist leader, a great darshan, yet he is probably known today only in the YU world because he beat out R’ Soloveitchik for the post of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.  Wikipedia only gives him a short mention under the history of the Jewish community in Antwerp, where he first served as Rav.  I have to raise a general question that has long bothered me.  What happened to all the people like this?  When was the mold broken?  We don't even remember that people like this existed, much less seek to emulate them.  How did that happen?  Forget all the lomdus in his Midos l’Cheiker HaHalacha.  Forget the beautiful derashos collected in his Dershos El Ami.  I am sure you can list other great lamdamin and darshanim.  But how many of those people can also discuss machlokesin between Decartes and Kant and quote Ahad ha’Am (as Rav Amiel does in his sefer L’Nevochai HaTekufa)?  What has driven gedolim who have a broad and deep knowledge of the outside world into extinction? 
Those in the YU world will point to the Rav and R’ Ahron Lichtenstein as comparable role models, which is true, but these figures are also a generation or two removed from the present.  So different people, same question – What caused this sea change?  I don’t think these people were aberrations, completely outside the norm.  Their abilities were/are surely exceptional, but that is a different in kamus, not eichus.  I remember someone telling me that he once had the privlilge in Eretz Yisrael of giving a ride to a gadol of the previous dor and he was amazed when his passenger began to recite poety of Bialik b'al peh from the back seat.  Today, you have stories about gedolim who (as I saw mentioned in a book I thumbed through at the seforim store) don’t even know what a food processor is, and this is held up as an example to admire and emulate.  It’s not that ignorance is accepted because we can’t do better – it’s that ignorance has become an ideal because we don’t want to do better.

My wife thinks that things are as they are as a reaction to the Holocaust, which created a distrust of outside culture in any form that lingers to this day.  Western thought has proven itself a poor moral bulwark against the forces of evil, and so we have withdrawn inward.  Perhaps such withdrawal was necessary, as we struggled to rebuild what was lost.  If you would like to put a positive spin on it, perhaps the rise of the State of Israel has inspired renewed interest in uniquely Jewish poetry, writing, and culture, to the exclusion of outside ideas.  My own thought is that the Chassidic movement has had an enormous post-war influence that has reshaped our expectations.  Talmidei chachamim these days are expected to be like Rebbes, not intellectuals.  People want brachos and segulos, not to be challenged with Kant. 

All this is armchair speculation.  Bottom line is that the memory of what once was is fading and is being replaced by a less enlightened and less interesting world. 

1 comment:

  1. The mold was broken when somebody smashed it with a copy of "The Making of a Gadol".