Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Faces And Faiths | The New Republic

Faces And Faiths | The New Republic
This is another phenomenal and challenging article by Leon Wieseltier. His critique of Israel's Chief Rabbinate is extraordinary and well articulated.
...The problem is the very existence of the Chief Rabbinate. It is a poisonous institution. It has diminished Judaism into an apparatus of the state and conflated it with power and patronage. It disguises low politics with high theology. Its resort to coercion in matters of belief is a mark of spiritual emptiness. In its outrageous pretension to central religious authority, it is a deeply unJewish office that would abolish the local and improvisatory and variegated character of Jewish religious life since the Sanhedrin. The Chief Rabbinate was not created by God at Sinai; it was created by the attorney general of the British mandatory government in Palestine. Many of its occupants (though not the one who was my cousin, of course) have been intellectually mediocre. It has become the most powerful instrument of the takeover of Orthodoxy by the ultraOrthodox, who grow wilder and more insular all the time: they prefer the Torah without Jews to the Jews without Torah [italics mine], and their lack of compassion for anyone but themselves is sinister. Worst of all, the Chief Rabbinate solves nothing: if it did not exist, the legal and denominational perplexities of Jewish life after the era of religious reform—the rupture, again—would still be with us. Two hundred years ago this week, in the town of Seesen, in Westphalia, “Jacob’s Temple,” a synagogue with a bell tower and an organ, was dedicated with a German chorale and a sermon about universal brotherhood—and there is nothing that any of the holy beards in Jerusalem can do about it.
This is the actually existing Jewish people. Insofar as the ultras in Israel do not believe in religious liberty, they are at odds with the state in which they live, whose Declaration of Independence “guarantees full freedom of religion [and] conscience”; and insofar as politicians in Israel pander to them and play their sordid games, they, too, are in defiance of first principles.“Laws do not alter convictions; arbitrary punishments and rewards produce no principles, refine no morals. Fear and hope are no criteria of truth. Knowledge, reasoning, and persuasion alone can bring forth principles.” Those Jeffersonian words were not written by Jefferson. They were written by an observant Jew in Dessau, in the most neglected classic of the Enlightenment, and the greatest Jewish contribution to it. Moses Mendelssohn established this wisdom in Jerusalem, or on Religious Power and Judaism, in 1783. In one of the more sublime coincidences of history, he was composing these reflections at precisely the time when Jefferson, a world and a culture away, was preparing his own argument, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “[i]t is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”  The rabbis Mendelssohn and Jefferson.
Indeed truth can and should stand by itself.  It is in moments of desperation and weakness that we resort to coercion.  And it is then these very moments that push people away.  Coercion is the enemy of religion and faith.  Truth is our friend--even when it might be an ugly truth.  Read the article in its entirety!  There is even more there to discern.

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