Sunday, February 11, 2018

Learning from Heterodox Jews

Postmodernist, Jacques Derrida

My friend David is one of the humblest, kindest most ethical people I know. He is also very liberal politically. Mention the name Trump and he goes near ballistic. I can understand his attitude. I had pretty much the same attitude about him because of his behavior. Which was unbecoming of a Presidential candidate, let alone the sitting President of the United States. 

But David is also upset by Trump’s politics. Which have mostly resulted in politically conservative policies. As someone that leans toward the political right, I obviously do not agree with my friend David.

My friend Barry is also one of the humblest, kindest, and most ethical people I know. He is very conservative and an early enthusiastic supporter of Trump. And since Trump has been in office he has sing his praises constantly. Mention any criticism of Trump and he will almost take it personally. He will respond that Trump’s behavior isn’t important. What counts is his policies. And in every instance Trump can do no wrong. Whether it is Israel, the economy, or immigration reform.

I’m pretty lucky. I am actually good friends with both Barry and David even though I disagree with both of them politically in many ways.

But I wonder if these two good friends of mine (who don’t know each other) could ever be friends? . The answer seems to increasingly be no. Where once upon a time people with polar opposite political views could still be friends on a human level, it seems that a hard core conservative and a hard core liberal  can only be bitter enemies now, each thinking that the other’s views are so destructive that they couldn’t possibly be friends.

How have we gotten to this point?

Jonathan Rosenblum does a good job explaining that in Mishpacha Magazine (available on line here) a couple of weeks ago.  An article where he extols the virtues of heterodoxy.

Heterodoxy is a word that has been used a lot in the current lexicon among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis. With respect to Judaism - Heterodoxy refers movements that are at variance with the strict doctrines of Orthodoxy. Does Jonathan now support these Heterodox movements? Hardly. But he does believe that even these movements may have something to teach us. And that we can learn form them just as they can learn from us. More about that later.

Heterodoxy need not only refer to religious doctrines. There are many political and other ideologies that have rigid doctrines (Orthodoxy) Those that vary from that rigidity are heterodox ideologies.

In supporting heterodoxy he is merely saying that in all cases, we can learn from each other, no matter how rigid or fluid our beliefs are. He made note of the fact that friendships between opposing political ideologies used to be quite common. But today they are so rare, that when they happen, it makes news.  He pointed to a eulogy of a Tea Party activist in Mother Jones, a decidedly liberal magazine 

Jonathan sees the postmodernism of  French intellectual Jacques Derrida as the source of the current lack of collegiality or friendship between people from different camps. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a philosophy based on ‘broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power.’

The original postmodernists were all Marxist. But as Jonathan notes, by the 70s postmodernists had to acknowledge that all Marxist regimes were all ‘evil empires’.  So they have redivided humanity. Instead identifying them by class, humanity is now divided into identity groups: 
Based on the assumption that all social phenomenon are "constructed" to gain power, there is no point in engaging in dialogue. Once human beings are reduced to "identities," the possibility of discovering a common humanity is denied, since all relationships across "identity" lines involve some inequality of power. To even engage in dialogue with the "oppressors" is to validate their power and privilege. 
Postmodernism  has taken over campuses all over academia. (It is why there is so much Israel bashing there.)

Whereas once there could be discussion about the value of diverse ideologies, that is no longer the case. Ideologies are used only  in pursuit of power say postmodernists. That makes it impossible to see another point of view – since that is only their excuse for seeking and achieving the power to subjugate others. Says Jonathan: 
The perennials of Western philosophy — What is the good life? How should one live it? — are no longer topics of discussion. 
Too many of today’s radical university professors speak in terms of suspicion between groups. Instead of teaching students to find common ground between diverse groups - they speak of warfare. They speak of an America dominated by white males as an agent of oppression against the underclass that should be fought. Dialogue? Of what value is that to a postmodernist?

These attitudes have taken hold beyond the ‘hallowed halls’ of academia. Seeing the humanity in those with whom we disagree - has all but disappeared in today’s polarized world.

This applies not only to politics but religion as well. Heterodoxy is so rejected by Orthodoxy that it is nearly impossible in most cases to see value in any part of it. That, says Jonathan is a mistake. Heterodox Jews may have something to teach Orthodox Jews too. Say’s Jonathan: 
I have witnessed personally how much more powerful meetings with nonobservant Jews are when we start with the assumption that they too possess something about them from which we can learn. 
This of coursed does not mean we have to recognize non Orthodox movements as legitimate. As a religious principle it would be impossible for Orthodoxy to do that. But it does mean that there are things we can learn from them… or even from non Jews. It would be a far better world if we all understood that. 

I have some great friendships with people who disagree with me politically, ideologically, and even religiously. And not surprisingly there have great friendships between some Gedolim of the past and non Orthodox ideologues.They were smart enough to know ‘MiKol Melamdei Hischalti’ - seeking wisdom from all.