Piety left the center stage of Jewish life with the destruction of the Temple, when we moved from a religion based in priestly rite to the academic, detailed, and all-encompassing structure of rabbinic Judaism. The paradigm shift not only moved our community from a religion centered on animal sacrifices to a religion of prayer and study; it was also the transition from piousness to an intellectual, legalistic religion. Judaism came and proclaimed to the world, “Ideas matter!”

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Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya and founder of the Hasidic Chabad movement, taught that we have the spiritual power to bring ideas into existence.

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Whenever my master [Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch], conceived an original [Torah] thought, he would voice it aloud, although those present could not understand him. He would speak as if to himself. By articulating the idea, he would draw it into this world. Once the idea was present in this world, it could occur to another person – even one at the other end of the world – who was laboring in the study of Torah and the service of G-d… Had it not been drawn into this world, even if the other were to toil mightily, he would not arrive at this idea – for it would still be in heaven (Ma’amarei Admor Hazaken Haketzarim, p. 474).

In the Baal HaTanya’s view, we bring ideas into existence and they have great power once in this world. We are not merely concerned with simple meditations about peace; rather, complex ideas matter in the world.

Some have lamented the so-called “decline of the Rabbi-Intellectual.” As rabbinical programs have become more focused on pastoral counseling, homiletics, social action, and management, intellectual pursuits have often fallen by the wayside.

In modern times, Jews have a disproportionate number of secular intellectual accomplishments in modern times; for example, that Jews have won 18 per cent of Nobel prizes despite only accounting for four-tenths of a percent of world population. This success has not come because Jews are inherently smarter than everyone else; it only shows that the community is very intellectually engaged. Yet, why does that intellectual curiosity not always bridge over into the Jewish learning and discourse.

On college campuses, we see more young Jews interested in engaging lucrative careers as law, medicine, and commerce (all admittedly respectable) and a decline in pursuits of philosophy, literature, and the humanities. For example, among Yeshiva University graduates in 2011, Accounting and General Finance majors were nearly three times as numerous as Hebrew Language and Literature majors. However, it should be noted that, unlike national trends where business degrees were paramount and accounted for nearly one-fourth of total degrees issued in the United States, Yeshiva graduates were most likely to have majored in Psychology or Biology than the business fields. This seeming paradox in Jewish intellectualism extends to the Ultra-Orthodox: Whereas Maimonides, the Jewish legalist par excellence, was also deeply engaged in philosophy, science, and other intellectual pursuits, the culture most engaged with Torah study today rejects altogether the value of secular study.

What’s the value of an intellectual Judaism anyway? Why not just work hard, make money, donate, and spend the rest of our time in leisure with family and friends? Why should one be committed to lectures, books, classes, journals, and asking hard questions?

General trends in America may provide a warning to those who think this way. Reading at Risk, a 2002 Census Bureau survey of U.S. adults, reached this conclusion: “…literary reading in America is not only declining among all groups, but the rate of decline has accelerated, especially among the young.” Among the reasons given is that while reading a book requires concentrated attention, Americans have increasingly turned to activities that “foster shorter attention spans and accelerated gratification.” Furthermore, it portended ill for the future, as those who did not read were also less likely to be involved in political or cultural activities. Among the findings of the report, comparing results in 2002 versus 1982, were:

  • The share of Americans who read literature declined from nearly 57 percent to less than 47 percent, the first time in history that fewer than half of all Americans read books
  • The number of those reading books of any kind declined by 4.3 percent
  • Literary reading has declined at all education levels, including a drop of more than 15 percent in those who had completed college and graduate school, and 20 percent among those who had attended college
  • In 2002, 43 percent of literary readers performed volunteer and charity work, versus 17 percent of non-literary readers
  • This survey took place before the arrival of Facebook, text messaging, and Twitter

 

Many have expressed the hope that eBooks would improve the situation. However, a December 2011 Pew Internet poll of adults recorded that more than half of U.S. adults reported having read 5 or fewer books (including eBooks) over the past year.

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What are the consequences of this decline in reading and intellectualism? One result is that in an era of pundits on the airwaves, intellectuals and credentialed experts have lost influence. A century ago, lawyers such as Louis Brandeis prepared a “Brandeis Brief” for court cases, incorporating sociological, demographic, economic, and legal data to form a compelling legal argument. During the New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt employed a “Brains Trust” of Columbia University professors who worked on legislation that would promote economic growth. However, today many bloggers, talk show radio hosts, and cable news guests are more performer than intellectual. As a result, alarming numbers of Americans retain long-discredited conspiracy theories and other illogical fantasies such as:

  • A CBS poll released in April 2011 revealed that 25 percent of Americans (and 45 percent of Republicans) believed that President Barack Obama was not born in America, and only 57 percent believed correctly that he was born in America. This poll was taken nearly 3 years after the charge had been conclusively proven false.
  • Polling among registered voters in the spring of 2013 revealed that 13 percent (obviously Christian) believed that President Obama was the Antichrist and another 13 percent were “unsure.”
  • Several YouTube videos claim that this past December’s mass shootings at a Newtown, CT, school was a hoax staged by the government in an effort to take guns away from Americans. Recently, a father of a girl slain by gun violence was shouted down by a group of conspiracy theorists who screamed “propaganda” as he tried to mention the name of his daughter at a rally sponsored by Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

These deep-seated, erroneous beliefs have contributed to the complete paralysis of the federal government today. When you see your opponent as the devil, you are not going to engage in respectful behavior or move toward compromise. This is why climate change, the environment, poverty, and other critical issues remain ignored.

Fortunately, we can act constructively by encouraging intellectual activities. Judaism teaches that “Rachmana liba ba’ei” – the Compassionate One, i.e. God, desires the heart. For the heart to be pure, it must be honest and critical; to dismiss big and important questions and concerns is to jeopardize one’s spiritual health. When we live a life committed to ideas, we declare that we won’t close our eyes to reality.

Jewish social justice depends upon a community that is attendant to the human condition, aware of contemporary social systems, well learned in Jewish texts, and critical in merging different systems of ideas. Maimonides goes so far as to argue that if we don’t remove our own ignorance then we’re at great risk of perpetuating evil in the world.

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These great evils that come about between the human individuals who inflict them upon one another because of purposes, desires, opinions and beliefs, are all of them likewise consequent upon privation. For all of them derive from ignorance, I mean from a privation of knowledge. Just as a blind man, because of absence of sight, does not cease stumbling, being wounded, and also wounding others, because he has nobody to guide him on his way, the various sects of men—every individual according to the extent of his ignorance—does to himself and to others great evils from which individuals of the species suffer. If there were knowledge, whose relation to the human form is like that of the faculty of sight to the eye, they would refrain from doing any harm to themselves and to others (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:11).

Many Jews go on to get advanced secular degrees but remain 8-year-olds in their Jewish knowledge. How can someone take Judaism (or any religion) seriously if she has a child’s education in it? To properly live a religious life, a Jew must not just rely on the education of his or her youth but continue to relearn the religion, and re-understand the Torah as he or she develops and society evolves. Rabbis and educators also must stop teaching adults as if they are children simply because they are not yet advanced in their Jewish learning. We must all raise the bar challenging ourselves and others to learn more critically and openly.

Intellectual life is connected to spiritual life in this regard. Martin Buber explains the Baal Shem-Tov’s teaching here:

 

The Baal Shem Tov [the founder of Hasidism in the eighteenth century] teaches that no encounter with a being or a thing in the course of our life lacks a hidden significance…. If we neglect this spiritual substance sent across our path, if we think only in terms of momentary purposes, without developing a genuine relationship to the beings and things in whose life we ought to take part, as they in ours, then we shall ourselves be debarred from true, fulfilled existence (The Way of Man).

We have a precious legacy in our pursuit of intellectualism. As with other aspects of our tradition, true study requires discipline and concentrated attention, and a willingness to resist the constant use of text messaging, computer games, and other distractions. We know from our history that the rewards from these endeavors are great, and we can see around us the risks that come with neglecting them. Jewish intellectualism is not reserved for the elite. Rather, taking ideas seriously is an essential part of living a Jewish life.

 

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

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