“I’m planning on making a career out of religion.”
Apparently, you shouldn’t say that to a rabbi. Even one with a good sense of humour. What resulted was about 30 minutes of an explanation of the dangers of approaching Judaism from a “without” perspective – that is to say, from outside a Jewish environment. Don’t get me wrong, I agree wholeheartedly, but the conversation left me feeling numb and feeling as if I’d been punched in the stomach.
So, what is the real question here? Rabbis make a career out of religion, don’t they? Religious teachers, female and male, equally do so too, no? They get paid for teaching religious ideas and running a community? The question is in fact about the impact of different environments and analytic approaches to Judaism. “Is studying Judaism from an inside perspective the only way? Is it wrong to study Judaism from an academic perspective?” For me, the answer is a clear “no.” Let me tell you why.
My training in critical analysis did not come from my Orthodox school; not in any way whatsoever. Unfortunately, the opposite. I was encouraged to accept “because this is what g-d says” by some teachers and the others had no idea what they were talking about and promptly changed the subject. The only place I found analysis, debate and answers to questions was at university. With non-Jewish teachers. Ironically, they were often very anti-religion despite their clear lack of understanding thereof. However, the debate still lacked that final satisfaction required for a young Orthodox Jew’s inquisitiveness. That dissatisfaction rested in the lack of a Jewish approach to the answer.
Approaching Judaism from an academic standpoint needs to be done with extreme caution. There is no doubt about that. Why? Because a lifestyle is not just a set of intellectual beliefs. It’s a “package” as a friend said the other day, of understanding and doing: intellectualism and feeling. One needs to feel their choice of life. Academic analysis of life doesn’t (for many at least) bring a sense of enjoyment and a higher sense of emotional connection.
That said however, in a world where many, if not most, are not going to accept a “because this is the way it is”, we need to find another approach. We need to bring critical analysis into religious topics of discussion concerning hashkafah (life philosophy). We need to be unafraid of questioning the given answers and beliefs. For me, I strongly believe that “if this is the true life and the g-d given religion, then the answers are there.” Why be afraid of questions? If this is divine truth, then the answers are there and need only be found.
It is crucial that we understand that this is not a non-Jewish approach. One only needs to study the Spanish medieval Jewish philosophers and one finds masses of books debating theology, morality and science: all of which read as secular analyses. They combined secularly-originated critical thinking with Jewish thought which led to some of the most excellent books ever written – The Guide for the Perplexed for one. That, most famously, received extreme criticism for its open-minded outlook and academic, philosophic examination of Judaism. We now embrace it as one of our literary canonical works. Maimonides took his contemporary standards of critical analysis and he remained a hallmark of an Orthodox Jew. We need to be unafraid to approach questions and if viewing Judaism from an outside perspective is the way to do so, then we need to reach out and bring academic analysis into our lives.