Jason Rubenstein
Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale

When Fear Corrupts

Solomon Schechter. (Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

Living as a Jew means carrying a burden of fear. Not one fear, but many: will the next generation choose our traditions in this free country; when we are threatened, will others come to our aid; who will be the next prominent figure to spout anti-Semitic conspiracy theories; which synagogue will be the next target of lethal violence? From the outside, this can look like paranoia because it is hard, perhaps impossible, to share the wisdom derived from centuries of scars. Even Salo Baron, the greatest 20th-century Jewish historian, decried “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history” – but he formulated his happier narrative in the optimistic glow of 1928. More recently a corrective anti-anti-lachrymose school of historiography has emerged, corresponding to these darker times.

This possibility of loss is different from the certainty of doom that Simon Rawidowicz traced in his achingly beautiful “Israel: The Ever-Dying People.” Perhaps the key distinction is that nothing can be done in the face of certain demise, therefore nothing must be decided. But when loss is merely possible, we are forced to make choices with imperfect information, based on a history whose lessons are muddled and contested. 

It is one thing to harbor a mistrust of the world, another to place one’s fellow Jews under suspicion of abetting the downfall of Judaism, consciously or not. The attraction and danger of a fear that knows no borders are on full display in Numbers 32. The Israelites are perched on the eastern bank of the Jordan river, having just conquered a vast territory from the kings Og and Sichon. And there, the tribes of Ruben and Gad decide to conclude their wandering and settle, rather than cross the river into the promised land. These tribes’ leaders deferentially convey their innovative – and perhaps heretical – request to Moses, explaining their attachment to this particular parcel of earth in a kind of proto-diasporism:

The land that the Lord has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to usif this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.

Moses explodes, launching into the longest speech of his career (Deuteronomy excepted) replete with mistrust and recriminations:

Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the Lord has given them? That is what your fathers did when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to survey the land. After going up to the wadi Eshcol and surveying the land, they turned the minds of the Israelites from invading the land that the Lord had given them. Thereupon the Lord was incensed and He swore, ‘None of the men from twenty years up who came out of Egypt shall see the land that I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for they did not remain loyal to Me— none except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they remained loyal to the Lord.’ The Lord was incensed at Israel, and for forty years He made them wander in the wilderness, until the whole generation that had provoked the Lord’s displeasure was gone. And now you, a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers, to add still further to the Lord’s wrath against Israel. If you turn away from Him and He abandons them once more in the wilderness, you will bring calamity upon all this people.

Moses sees Ruben and Gad as dangerous traitors, living reincarnations of those whose faithlessness brought calamity on the Jewish people just a generation ago. It is hard not to sympathize with Moses here. He has learned history’s hard-won lessons: the consequences of the Jews’ lack of resolve to settle the land are nothing short of catastrophic.

But, strangely, Moses is wrong. (It is a remarkable feature of Judaism’s theological flexibility that one can say such a thing.). Ruben and Gad perform an act of dialogical alchemy, transforming Moses’s tirade into a set of reasonable demands, to which they accede:

Then they stepped up to him and said, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children. And we will hasten as shock-troops in the van of the Israelites until we have established them in their home, while our children stay in the fortified towns because of the inhabitants of the land. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelites is in possession of his portion. But we will not have a share with them in the territory beyond the Jordan, for we have received our share on the east side of the Jordan.”

Those whom Moses saw as selfish cowards turn out to be mature interlocutors capable of negotiation and compromise. Moses now answers them in turn, accepting their offer with only slight modifications. 

Moses is a study in quick, generous humility: recognizing that his picture of the Other was in fact a caricature, and an ugly one at that. In Solomon Schechter, the Hungarian-born, Oxford-educated founder of the Jewish Theological Seminary, we find something else: a principled cultivation of dissent. On November 20, 1902, Schechter delivered his inaugural address as JTS’s chancellor. Touching on what we might anachronistically call viewpoint diversity and cancel culture, Schechter’s words speak with at least as much force today as they did just over a century ago:

You must not think that our intention is to convert this school of learning into a drill ground where young men will be forced into a certain groove of thinking, or, rather, not thinking; and after being equipped with a few devotional texts, and supplied with certain catchwords, will be let loose upon an unsuspecting public to proclaim their own virtues and the infallibility of their masters. Nothing is further from our thoughts. I once heard a friend of mine exclaim angrily to a pupil: “Sir, how dare you always agree with me?” I do not even profess to agree with myself always, and I would consider my work, to which, with the help of God, I am going to devote the rest of my life, a complete failure if this institution would not in the future produce such extremes as on the one side a raving mystic who would denounce me as a sober Philistine; on the other side, an advanced critic, who would rail at me as a narrow-minded fanatic, while a third devotee of strict orthodoxy would raise protest against any critical views I may entertain.

Schechter does not see the diverse and raucous discourse of his students as a concession to American individualism or a tactic to maintain a diverse coalition. Rather, the full and dissenting speech of his unruly students is intrinsically valuable and essential to the flourishing of the institution he envisions. His stance becomes yet more compelling when we realize that the ‘critical views’ Schechter entertained were not mere opinions, but the impetus to his greatest scholarly achievement: fifteen years earlier he had produced history’s first critical edition of a rabbinic text; his printing of Avot de-Rabbi Natan remains the standard one to this day. And against his groundbreaking work he invites, nay – demands – protest.

What makes Schechter a truly great figure is his embrace of intellectual debate despite a deep suspicion that the intellectual trends of his day were infected by anti-Semitism. Specifically, Schechter (correctly) saw 19th-century Biblical criticism as animated by anti-Semitism, sometimes overt but more often covert, and referred to what was then called ‘higher criticism’ (the historical- and source-stratification of the Biblical text) as ‘higher anti-Semitism.’ Because of this, Schechter refused to allow the teaching of Biblical criticism during his 14-year tenure as chancellor of the Seminary. But – and this is the critical point – he did not allow his awareness of the threat of anti-Semitism to become the primary lense through which he interpreted his students’ and colleagues’ criticisms of him or his ideas. The great scholar was alive to the fear that Jews must carry, and yet unwilling to allow fear to corrupt his institution of learning: in the kaleidoscopic diversity and conflict of his students’ honest, unyielding positions he sees not a threat, but the voice of revelation. 

We have the opportunity, and the obligation, to become disciples of Schechter and, harder yet, of Moses. May we, like Schechter, muster the curiosity and tenacity to not merely tolerate, but delight, in those who criticize us out of deep and honest conviction – drawing them in and raising them up. And, like Moses, may we reappraise those we have written off and rejected, reopening our ears and our hearts to the very real possibility that what we heard was not their voice, but the echo of our fears, projected and reflected. Perhaps those of us blessed and charged with leading Jewish communities should take this as an opportunity to exercise the most traditional mode of Jewish prayer, offering another’s words as our own: I would consider my work, to which, with the help of God, I am going to devote the rest of my life, a complete failure if this institution would not encourage each and every Jewish student to carry Judaism into the future with brilliance, independence, and friendship – their best preparation and protection in facing the dangers of tomorrow, together.

About the Author
Jason Rubenstein is the second Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale and the senior rabbi of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. All opinions are his own.
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