Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden
Psychology, Medicine, Science, Politics, Oppression, Integrity, Philosophy, Jews

How the Talmud may ruin the Jewish mind

The title is exaggerated a bit, because the mind gets only temporarily jammed by intensely learning Talmud the recent way — a stoppage that can be undone. Also, I have no proof that if these students would not have learned Oral Law extensively they would be in better mental shape. And most importantly, the best Talmud scholars don’t have this problem — but most of the regular smart ones seem to.

I’m going to point out how the study of Judaism should look radically opposite of dedication to secular Philosophy, classical Christianity and Islam. I’m going to plead for yeshivot protecting and promoting: listening, being amazed, feeling, in doubt and rebellious. That’s in short. Let’s go to the details.

Some people have sometimes compared my writing style to that of the late author and teacher Yaakov Fogelman — and I don’t mind. I heard him once ask (a question like): “How is it possible that someone learns the most intricate portions of the Talmud at length and in the greatest depth and still is shortsighted when it comes to the problems of his attitude concerning women, evolution, etc.? They know how to think; how come they stay stuck on specific issues?” Questions that I can’t answer, always stay somewhere in my mind until one day an answer pops up. And the following is what I thought today, suddenly.

Ever tried to explain anything to the smart student of Judaism? Great chance that you didn’t get very far. Often, they can’t really hear you out. They interrupt after a word or two because it’s not necessarily true what you said and they can show it to you. Forget about sound bites. They won’t let you finish a quarter of a sound bite. Even the polite ones, who just let you talk, afterwards have no idea what you said because they were just tallying the number of inaccuracies you made.

A humble person might say about his own thesis: anything I said is up for debate. The problem is that scholars of Talmud seems to think this about other people’s thinking – which is less humble.

Instead of getting a chance to explain your train of thought to them, and after that, understanding it better yourself (or finding a mistake yourself), they stop you when the first wagon is barely in sight – forget about a whole train passing by.

What is worse, they seem to be of the opinion that they do you a favor not letting you talk. Unless you sable down their sentences, they must be right, no? But, maybe I am right too. Or maybe I don’t want to be so aggressive. And maybe this is not about what is right or about what they think. Could me talking not be about what I think?

I remember trying to tell a yeshiva student from the neighborhood on our way to synagogue a new idea of mine. The whole four minutes he argued any sound I made. When we came at the door, it was still closed and the sexton was approaching in the distance. I said to him: the whole precious four minutes you argued and argued and I didn’t have a chance to tell you anything. How about spending the last two minutes that we have now in listening so that I can actually tell you my novelty. He agreed, and then liked what I had said.

Will we be able to stem this over-criticalness, which actually results in not being critical and humble enough about one’s own thinking? How can our children learn if anything told to them is up for debate? Except pronouncements by Jewish authorities, which need to be swallowed wholly with amazement and without any second thought.

So the problem is not: lack of criticalness. And the solution then seems to be to ask them to listen to someone else and humbly quietly endure doubt, or the fear that the one speaking might be more right than the one listening. Or, without comparing, thinking about how far the person who is speaking could be right, has something worthwhile to say and teach, inspire you.

But if present regular yeshiva learning can ruin the mind, that cannot be Judaism. Let me ask then, if it isn’t Judaism, then what is it?

My answer: Then it must be what Philosophy students do in university. When they are supposed to learn something, they dissect it immediately, in the process totally destroying what they were supposed to look at. They don’t read or hear sentences and thoughts – they see words only. Look at this dead beetle I found. After they take off its wings, legs, shields, take apart the head and anything else that can be divided into components, they think they’ve seen it all. What they missed is the beetle itself. They did not get amazed. They gained knowledge but no insight. They mastered the subject in detail but the subject made no impact on them and they did not begin to see the basics.

And that is the other thing that seems to get lost. Not only don’t they listen – there is no wisdom and no amazement. It’s all brainy having everything under control. They are not moved – they pretend to be the movers. That’s plain secular studies.

What’s more, too much self-control means that one will never shiver, cry, laugh or be stunned. Being calm and collected became desirable goals instead of enemies of progress.

Am I on to something? Am I the only one who thinks like that? Apparently not. Look at the following. (The three people I quote say much more than the little that I bring – it will make your day – click on the links for more.)

In one of his weekly articles, Judaism: The Art of Rebellion, my friend and rabbi, Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes:

“One of the great tasks of Jewish education is to deliberately create an atmosphere of rebellion among its students. Rebellion, after all, is the great emancipator. We owe nearly all of our knowledge and achievements not to those who agreed but to those who differed. It is this virtue that brought Judaism into existence. Avraham was the first rebel, destroying idols, and he was followed by his children, by Moshe, by the prophets, and finally, by the Jewish people.

What has been entirely forgotten is that the Torah was the first rebellious text to appear in world history. Its purpose was to protest. It set in motion a rebel movement of cosmic proportions the likes of which we have never known. […]

Judaism, in its essence, is an act of dissent, not of consent. Dissent leads to renewal. It creates loyalty. It is the force that compels the world to grow.”

Famous US Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote a 29th book (out of 40+ by now), about death and suffering: The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Suffering and Tragedy. If I got it right, he says:

“There are three traditional religious responses to why a good G^d allows the righteous to suffer, and none of them works.

  1. The most popular and most offensive: They are not really innocent – it’s deserved.
  2. The suffering is not really suffering – it’s redeeming and therefore good.
  3. G-d is all good, but what can He do – He’s limited too, by Nature and our Free Will.”

Have your pick which one you find the most ridiculous. Boteach rejects all justifications and rationalizations. He thought about it a long time and concluded that there is only one good reason for suffering: to challenge G^d about it and to demand an end to it. He too points out that Israel means: wrestling with the Divine. Just like Abraham argued with G^d, even for the lives of the wicked of Sodom. Just like Moses was our lawyer, not our prosecutor.

If Yeshivot do not teach what they should, to be rebellious, then what do they teach when they inoculate the students with obedience? Sounds to me as classical Christianity and Islam. Piety there is only doing as you’re told.

My friend Yael Unterman referred me to her article “If You Seek Him With All Your Heart: Nurturing Total Individual Growth in Yeshivah,” from: Wisdom From All My Teachers : Challenges and Initiatives in Contemporary Torah Education, (eds. Prof. Susan Handelman, Rabbi Jeffrey Saks). Two quotes:

“When I was nine, I was the king of the playground,” he told me. “I ran, I played soccer. I wanted to be a prophet when I grew up. But now… I just schlep myself around. There’s something empty inside.” One would not know it to look at him; this was no dropout but on the contrary, an exemplar of the best and brightest of Modern Orthodox Judaism. He spent years in an elite yeshivah and was now a Torah educator, inspiring students and enriching their lives. Yet his own life seemed so impoverished. I sadly asked myself what had caused the lively, deeply religious little boy to become this disheartened man.”

“A female friend observed in disgust as several of her male acquaintances emerged from yeshivah with flat personalities and no emotional skills, having acquired chauvinistic opinions and a regrettable habit of arguing opinionatedly. In a different vein, others have contended that socialization to be “yeshivish” leaves students without sufficient learning skills.”

Thank G-d, most of the yeshiva students will get married and their wives will make human beings out of them again. But this un-Jewish detour should stop to happen. And orthodox feminists should think twice (make that three times) before making Talmud study their prime learning focus.

About the Author
The author is a fetal survivor of the pharmaceutical industry (DES - Diethylstilbestrol), born in 1953 to two Dutch Holocaust survivors who met in the largest concentration camp in the Netherlands, Westerbork, and holds a BA in medicine (University of Amsterdam). He taught Re-evaluation Co-counseling, became a social activist, became religious, made Aliyah, and raised three wonderful kids. He wrote an unpublished tome about Jewish Free Will. He's a vegan for 8 years now. * His most influential teachers (chronologically) are: his parents, Nico (natan) van Zuiden and Betty (beisye) Nieweg, Wim Kan, Mozart, Harvey Jackins, Marshal Rosenberg, Reb Shlomo Carlebach and lehavdiel bein chayim lechayim: Rabbi Dr. Natan Lopes Cardozo and Rav Zev Leff. * Previously, for decades, he was known to the Jerusalem Post readers as a frequent letter writer. For a couple of years he wrote hasbara for the Dutch public. His fields of attention now are varied: Psychology (including Sexuality and Abuse), Medicine (including physical immortality), Science, Politics (Israel, the US and the Netherlands, Activism - more than leftwing or rightwing, he hopes to highlight Truth), Oppression and Liberation (intersectionally, for young people, the elderly, non-Whites, women, workers, Jews, GLBTQAI, foreigners and anyone else who's dehumanized or exploited), Integrity, Philosophy, Jews (Judaism, Zionism, Holocaust and Jewish Liberation), Ecology and Veganism. Many people can't understand or like him because he has such a wide vision that he never fits any specialist's box. But that exactly what others love about him. Many of his posts relate to affairs from the news or the Torah Portion of the Week or are new insights that suddenly befell him. * He hopes that his words will inspire and inform, reassure the doubters but make the self-assured doubt more. He strives to bring a fresh perspective rather than bore you with the obvious. He doesn't expect his readers to agree. Rather, original minds must be disputed. In short, his main political positions are: anti-Trumpism, for Zionism, Intersectionality, non-violence, democracy, anti the fake peace process, for original-Orthodoxy, Science, Free Will, anti blaming-the-victim and for down-to-earth optimism. Read his blog how he attempts to bridge any discrepancies. He admits sometimes exaggerating to make a point, which could have him come across as nasty, while in actuality, he's quit a lovely person to interact with. He holds - how Dutch - that a strong opinion doesn't imply intolerance of other views. * His writing has been made possible by an allowance for second generation Holocaust survivors from the Netherlands. It has been his dream since he was 38 to try to make a difference by teaching through writing. He had three times 9-out-of-10 for Dutch at his high school finals but is spending his days communicating in English and Hebrew - how ironic. G-d must have a fine sense of humor. In case you wonder - yes, he is a bit dyslectic. November 13, 2018, he published his 500st blog post with the ToI. * He likes doing age-appropriate and age-inappropriate things and looks forward to getting to know his timeless mature out-of-the-box soul mate. * To send any personal reaction to him, scroll to the top of the blog post and click Contact Me.
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