Yaacov Yisroel Bar Chaiim

The Questionable Faith of our Thought Leaders

Some weeks ago, there was a US congressional hearing of three Ivy League university presidents about their free-speech policies. At the peak, each of these supposed thought leaders were asked a very simple question:  If there would be an explicit call for the genocide of Jews, would that be allowed on your campus? The hope was to extrapolate from there to convince them that calls for “Intifada Now,” “F the Jews,” “From the river to the Sea, Palestine will be free (from Jews),” ad nauseum, amounts to calls for genocide, and therefore should be banned.

But their answers threw everyone for a loop.

“It’s context dependent,” was the self-satisfied response of one of them, which was then proudly parroted by the other two.

You could see each taking comfort in the thought of having deflected an attack with such an elegant soundbyte. When pressed, the first clarified that as abhorrent as calls for Jewish genocide personally are for her, free speech rights require that these chants should be allowed until there is hurtful “conduct.” Oops. Her congressional interlocuter exploded, dare we say, with an exasperation straight from her soul:

“Conduct – meaning committing the act of genocide!!?”

It was an awesome The-Emperor-Has-No-Clothes! moment.

Nesivos Sholom (I:1), by the previous Slonimer Rebbe, of blessed memory, compares two types of religious faith: Simple (emmuna pashuta) and Intellectual (emmuna sikhlit). The latter can lead to profound truth, but it’s also very vulnerable to deception. Once the logic driving this belief doesn’t fit your present reality, crisis sets in. Not so with emmuna pashuta, which revolves around whole heartedness, which is an end in itself. Once you’ve found it, your spiritual health is assured.

The Nesivos goes on to define emmuna as always involving yagia, effort. That’s the only way to nullify one’s will to the ultimate Will, which is the whole point. This is in contrast to the “blind faith” spoken about in many religions. That boils down to spiritual passivity, expecting salvation to be handed to you on a silver platter, if only you accept the right dogma. But genuine faith could never do that. If one feels he doesn’t need to think further, on his own, that’s a sign that he is losing his emmuna grip. Like the way Judaism celebrates Passover via discussion about Four Sons with differing levels of emmuna. The last (most problematic) is defined by “not knowing to ask.”

Indeed, that’s what struck me about those Ivy League empresses. Their views were so offensive because they displayed such obvious bad faith by not asking the simplest question: What is the INTENT behind such protests? Is it to exercise America’s great principle of freedom to speak about what you believe is right and just, or is it to crudely incite hatred and inflict pain?


Some call it moral clarity. I call it intellectual humility.

To be sure, we all struggle with the humbling work of emmuna pashuta. Especially in politics. Even the holy patriarchs did, as we see in the present Torah portions (Gen. 37-50), which amazingly parallel these events:

10 brothers conspire to eliminate the 11th, Joseph, due to his cozy position next to their father’s heart. You can virtually hear them justifying their envy turning into hate because of … CONTEXT. “We wouldn’t go after him if he didn’t enter our territory; if he’d just stop reminding us of Father’s critiques; if he’d simply cease sharing those damn dreams!  Honestly now, we’re not anti-Joseph, only proudly defending our right to live in a Joseph-free land!”

Thankfully, Scripture reveals the truth behind their moral posturing. Joseph encounters a “man” (Rashi: The angel Gabriel) who greets him on his way to see his brothers and proceeds to inform him that they have abandoned their family loyalties and have begun seeking a legal pretext for murdering him. There it is. Black on white. They’re out to get you! But being the good ole liberal Jew that he was back then, Joseph doubles down on his compassion for the underprivileged, who never got a fair shake from Dad’s love …

Until October 7th.

It’s all relative. Brothers throwing one of their own into a pit and letting him be sold into slavery is a comparable atrocity. What’s different, of course, is that they would eventually express total remorse, confessing (42:21):

Guilty are we (…)

 as we saw the distress of his soul

 in his pleading with us,

 but we did not listen

They didn’t listen, but at least they saw his soul, which allowed them to eventually listen.  Something which the beasts of Hamas could never do. People with a sense of soul don’t gleefully overkill.

And so our heroes ended up surrendering, with emmuna pashuta, to Joseph’s leadership.  Even though logic dictated that the nation’s leadership should come from the tribe of Judah, as their father would prophesize (49:8). Still, the divine call of the hour was to recognize Joseph’s right to exist, and the fact that he was doing one hell of a good job at the moment.

Fascinatingly, a millennia later, via the Chanukah miracle, Jewish leadership would again be usurped. The Maccabees were Levites, and once they brought Jewish freedom back through the miracle of Chanukah, they wouldn’t relinquish control to the Judeans. And, once again, we find the Chosen Nation embracing their deviantly heroic brothers in the way they celebrate that holy week with emmuna pashuta. We may not agree with all their politics, but we don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

What a dream to imagine these Ivy League thought leaders following suit and demonstrating a bit of genuine faith in the way they manage the politics on their campuses. It’s really quite simple, if you’re willing to make an effort to put your intellectual clothes on.

About the Author
The author was born and raised in a small American town, with a marginal connection to traditional Judaism. At age 19, he embarked on a journey of investigating Judaism, starting with a wide spectrum of Jewish communities in Israel, then youth group work in the Conservative movement in the US. He studied at J.T. S. and U.C. Berkeley, and then returned to Israel to study in traditional Yeshivot and Bar-Ilan university (Jewish Philosophy and Ed. Counseling), before becoming a member of the Slonimer hassidic community in Jerusalem. All his children are serious hassidim. He has taught English and Jewish Thought in Israeli highschools and adult ed programs, as well as in various Jewish communities around the world as a visiting scholar. Today, he lives, studies and writes in the town of Beitar Illit.
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