Friday, September 21, 2007

A Creative and Original Thinker

Back when I was in elementary school, there were two really good students in our class, and two really really even better ones. Of the first two, one grew up to become a doctor but was killed in a traffic accident, and no-one has ever heard of the second since he went off to do a PhD in mathematics somewhere in the US in the early 1980s. Of the two real stars, one became a hydrologist at the Weizman Institute; since Israel is not blessed with anywhere near as much water as, say, Canada, hydrologists are important people.

The most brilliant kid in the class told me once, when we were about 11, that when he grew up he was going to be a rabbi, but an unusual one. How unusual? Well, for a start, he was going to be a rabbi on a kibbutz, and would wear short pants.

Sure enough, he became a rabbi. Not on a kibbutz, and I doubt he wears short pants in public. But yes, he's unusual.

For quite some years already he has been the head of a yeshiva, which is admittedly a sign of unusual seriousness but is after all what important rabbis kind of expect to do. In recent years I've been hearing rumours about him, but I haven't spoken to him for well over 20 years - no falling out, simply separate tracks of life. A few evenings ago he was to participate in the launch of his new book in a synagogue near us, so I cleared the evening and went to see for myself.

It was a very strange evening. Most of the audience were either his students or his graduates; there were a smattering of the intellectually curious. It was immediately obvious that his people have their own vocabulary, and that they indeed are not your usual run-of-the-mill yeshiva students (whatever those would look like). There was a lot of talk about mysticism, for example, but also about post-modernism, Hegel and Descartes got mentioned, and lots of talk about God and his presence in the world - which, you'll have to take my word on this one - is far from obvious with yeshiva students, strange as it may seem. (Or not: go read my Daf Yomi thread to get an idea). One of the speakers was a prominent professor of Jewish philosophy; he had read the new book and could talk about it. One of the other speakers was a well-known local rabbi: he had read the book but admited that he didn't understand what it was about. A third speaker was a rabbi I'd never heard of; if anyone understood what he was talking about, they didn't let on.

Finally, the Rav Re'em Hacohen himself got up to speak.

He was electrifying. Charismatic, compelling - and indeed, just as he promised me all those years ago, unusual. I think what he's doing contains some of the following componants. One, he doesn't buy into any of the shallow slogans common in many orthodox and ultraorthodox circles these days who insist on a rigid reading of the traditional texts - what would perhaps be called fundamental if they were American Protestants (Or not: what do I know about them?). He was decisive and outspoken in his rejection of that. He wasn't using post-modern terminology nor embracing it, but I could see why other speakers had brought it up. He's willing to take things from them.

The professor had made the distinction between the strand of religious thought that focuses on the infinite distance between man and God, and a second strand that focuses on the intimacy - he thought that Hacohen was trying to fuse the two. Re'em Hacohen himself spoke more about his life-long attempt to see God's "Shefa" (wealth? hardly) in the world, and told that his teaching is an attempt to show it, but that his teaching keeps changing because the Shefa is so great and unencompassible. Judaism contains three levels of learning the biblical texts - pshat, drash and sod (very roughly: what's in the literal text, what's the meaning of it, and what's hidden in it). Hacohen was moving effortlessly between all three.

Did I understand what he was talking about? Nope. But I came away with the conviction that he is charting his new waters in a creative and original way.

Although you'll never guess this from reading Haaretz, these are times of great vitality and growth in the Jewish world - very unusually so.

1 comment:

Lydia McGrew said...

Well, I'll tell you what the sympathizers with post-modernism are up to w.r.t. American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, in case that is relevant.

I should say, full disclosure, that I'm an analytic philosopher and think post-modernism silly and pernicious drivel. It would be funny if it hadn't messed so many people up.

Now, in the U.S., there is something of a movement to effect a rapprochement between evangelicalism and postmodernism. Its two chief effects, which I believe are also goals of those pushing it, are a) a downplaying of any sort of clear creedal aspect to religion and b) the movement of evangelical churches to the left on political and moral issues.

Whether you think these things good or bad depends on...well, what you think of them.

How similar the effect would be in Israeli Judaism I have an extremely difficult time saying. But just remember: Two inches of muddy water looks as deep as the ocean. :-)