Every so often, I hear complaints about the intellectual backwardness of Orthodox Jewry. R. Yanklowitz’s post on the subject a few months ago is typical of such lamentations. If only Jews would get more degrees and become more “sophisticated”, there would be a genuine flowering of Jewish life and a subsequent strengthening of Jewish commitment.
Color me unimpressed. For one thing, R. Yanklowitz commits the typical leftist fallacy of assuming that intellectuals only exist within the Progressive or “liberal” political orbit. His implicit assumption that anyone who holds politically conservative or libertarian views is not “sophisticated” would come as a shock to many of my college-educated and erudite friends who are so inclined.
But even if R. Yanklowitz redressed this bias, it would not address the main problem in Jewish life in general: We don’t have too few intellectuals, we have far too many. Seriously, stick in a pin in any major publication in the United States on any intellectual subject and you will find no shortage of Jewish names. Jews have on average twice as many college degrees as the general population in America, and the modern section of Orthodoxy is no slouch in this field.
None of this has translated into a flowering of Jewish commitment or intellectual life. Jews are assimilating just as they becoming more “sophisticated”, regardless of whether they started Conservative, Reform or secular (and in some cases, Orthodox). The explosion in “Jewish” publications and Jewish Studies programs has yet to produce the measure of a Levinas, Buber, Ginzburg or Soloveitchik.
To the contrary, this great growth in “sophisticated” Jews seems to be leading to an ever-growing class of second-rate mediocrities whose ignorance of the basics of Judaism would have shocked even the staunchest of secular Jewish intellectuals but fifty years ago. For God’s sake, there are Talmud Professors out there who can’t read fluent Aramaic!
Nor are the discussions about Jewish life in these publications particularly enlightening. Most are regurgitations of topics which other, better people of generations past expounded upon already. All this generation has really added is PC and post-modern jargon and obfuscation. There are a few diamonds in the rough to be sure, but they are drowned in a sea of non-entities.
Again, even if these issues were somehow redressed and we started churning out intellectual giants like politicians churn out bad laws, we would still be investing far too much energy in the wrong direction. In the name of intellectualism, we have greatly inflated the number of “thinking” Jews to the detriment of other Jewish archetypes and values which are no less needed for Jewish life. Perhaps more so.
What are these values and archetypes? More on that in the next column.