‘The Jewish Intellectual Tradition’
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‘The Jewish Intellectual Tradition’

Two Touro-Teaneck intellectuals write about the Jewish approach to thought through history

A 19th-century painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim shows a meeting, set a about a century earlier, at the Berlin home of Moses Mendelssohn; the three men are Mendelsson, Johan Kasper Lavater, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the playwright who wrote “Nathan the Wise.” (Courtesy Academic Studies Press)
A 19th-century painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim shows a meeting, set a about a century earlier, at the Berlin home of Moses Mendelssohn; the three men are Mendelsson, Johan Kasper Lavater, and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the playwright who wrote “Nathan the Wise.” (Courtesy Academic Studies Press)

Receive my greeting, O ancient tomes! Accept my kisses, ye shriveled parchments!”

Those lines come from Hayyim Nachman Bialik’s poem “Facing the Bookshelf.”

Not only those lines but even the poem’s title encapsulate part of the argument of “The Jewish Intellectual Tradition: A History of Learning and Achievement,” which quotes them.

The book, a collaboration between Alan Kadish and Michael Shmidman, both of Teaneck and Touro College, traces, as its title makes clear, the Jewish intellectual tradition — a tradition that could lead to scientific discoveries, to an ode to libraries and the books they hold, perhaps even enshrine, and even to a more purposeful, even a happier life.

Studying that history is a task that’s been left surprisingly untouched until now, Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman say.

Dr. Kadish, a cardiologist, also is the president of Touro College and University Systems. Rabbi Shmidman is the dean of Touro College, where he teaches history and oversees its publishing house. The two men have combined their different but overlapping areas of expertise; in an interview, they seamlessly hand off questions to each other. (They’ve also worked with a third contributor, Simcha Fishbane.)

Rabbi Michael Shmidman, left, and Dr. Alan Kadish

The Jewish intellectual tradition is extraordinary in that it has lasted as long as the Jews themselves, Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman said. It’s fluid and adaptable to the future; it’s also solidly based in the past. But they go beyond such easy, even lazy catchphrases in defining, exploring, and elucidating it.

“The core principles of the Jewish intellectual tradition are respect for prior precedent and authority, combined with creativity, innovation, and even disruptive thinking, which takes you in new directions but is anchored in knowledge and learning,” Rabbi Shmidman said.

“The Jewish intellectual tradition goes back to antiquity, to biblical and talmudic times. We find that there is an emphasis on certain core values, which we try to trace through history, and through diverse genres — literature, law, philosophy, mysticism, creative writing, science, biblical exegesis.” But it’s not only about Jews, and it’s not in any way a suggestion that Jews are better, smarter, more inherently intellectually equipped to face a changing world. “We have a chapter about how these core values may be applied today not just in the Jewish community but universally, for better productivity and more happiness and the advancement of society.”

The core values that fuel Jewish intellectual history include a respect for tradition and the tendency to disruptive thinking that often accompanies that respect and learns to live in tension with it; a precise, specific, and at times idiosyncratic system of logical thought; universal education (depending, it’s true, on how “universal” is defined across history); and the yearning for a purposeful life. All of this is propelled by the pursuit of truth.

Universal education — not an ideal for all cultures at all times but for Jews throughout the ages — comes from the biblical mandate that parents teach their children (although until recently the universe was defined as including only men). In practical terms, that meant, throughout history, that “literacy was much higher than in other communities.

The system also included respect for mentors — something not unique to Jews but extremely important to the Jewish understanding of education — and the chavruta system, which pairs students in an intellectually and emotionally intense way that at its best fosters intellectual curiosity, discovery, and creativity.

This is one page from the huge trove of documents found in the Cairo genizah.

And then it goes even beyond that, to the goal of a “purposeful life, which is the idea that neither life nor intellectual activity are to be viewed in isolation,” Rabbi Shmidman said. “Rather, they’re part of a far larger, overarching goal. We talk about how until the Haskalah” — the Enlightenment, which reformed European Jewish thought in more or less the 19th century — “that was defined as service to God and the tradition, but more or less morphed into including the idea that the purpose of life is doing good.

“Living a purposeful life, a life of adherence toward a goal, helps encourage intellectual activity.

“One of the points we make is that if you look at other intellectual traditions, you usually find that great advances tend to happen at times of great economic prosperity and economic power — for example, the Greek or Roman empires, or the Italian Renaissance. Those were all times of great power, and it led to the idea that a class of people could be freed up to produce intellectually because of the wealth and success of the society around them. But in Jewish society, because the impetus to intellectual activity is on moral and biblical grounds, it leads to bursts of intellectual activity even during times of persecution.

“We postulate that adherence to continued intellectual productivity is because of the strong understanding in the tradition that the need to produce worship of God and the health of society” — goals produced by learning — “keeps intellectual activity productive even in challenging times.”

Part of the book traces the Jewish intellectual tradition and the history happening around it. Rabbi Shmidman and Dr. Kadish focus on the libraries of six Jewish intellectuals, each one entirely different from the others, each an extraordinary but still logical product of both his time (they’re all men) and the Jewish world around him. They look at specific historical figures — Rabbi Samuel Ha-Nagid, who lived in 11th-century Spain; Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, perhaps better known as Nachmanides or the Ramban, in 13th-century Spain; Leon Modena, in late 16th- to early 17th-century Italy; the just-about-modern 19th-century German figure Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch; and Professor Harry Austryn Wolfson of Harvard, whose life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries — he died in 1974 — and whose work took Rabbi Shmidman and Dr. Kadish into the Holocaust and then the post-Holocaust eras of modern Jewish thought. Some of those men interacted with the outside world more than others; some therefore were more influenced by that world than others were. But no matter how much the world intruded, “we saw a little immunity to the vicissitudes of history, some insulation from outside events, because the impetus for productivity is so engrained in the tradition,” Dr. Kadish said.

“We try to concretize that point with individual examples of intellectual productivity in the face of adverse conditions,” Rabbi Shmidman added. “We mention not only Maimonides and Abarbanel” — both of whom lived through war, exile, and faced both great personal and communal danger — “but also Rabbi Abraham Saba” — a Spanish Jew, exiled to Portugal, who lived from 1440 to 1508 — who escaped with Hebrew books, which were illegal. “He buried his manuscripts under the roots of an olive tree,” Rabbi Shmidman said. “He was imprisoned in Lisbon and managed to flee to Morocco, and tried to rewrite all of his work from memory. We are told that he did so, despite all the adversity, so you see how determination defeated despair and disruption.”

Bishop Vidal de Canellas gives James I of Aragon the compilation of the Fueros de Aragón as other ecclesiastical magnates look on, c. 1247. Nahmanides defended Judaism in a debate with James.

Some of these men engaged deeply in the culture around them. Others lived in cultures that did not allow for such engagement. That did not seem to affect their intellectual determination or success, in either case.

Much of the intellectual tradition is propelled by the idea of study for its own sake — leshem shamayim, in the name of heaven — that leads to the joy of allowing intellectual discovery to happen, for ideas to form, for the creation that comes from thought to happen, Dr. Kadish said. Practical good also can come from that abstract good.

Rabbi Shmidman and Dr. Kadish also point out that many of the men they study were accomplished in a great many fields unrelated to Jewish tradition but doubtless influenced by the habits of mind they’d acquired. Maimonides famously was a physician, and Samuel Ha-Nagid was a warrior.

After they look at some of the great Jewish intellectuals, seen through the contents of their libraries, Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman look at how the values of the Jewish intellectual tradition intersect with modern American life, and how modern Americans could benefit from those values.

Another focus of the book is the search for truth, and the importance of intellectual honesty to that search. “Thus, we talk about the nature of talmudic logic, and the insistence on the indispensability of logical thinking, of asking questions, and of debating those questions carefully,” Rabbi Shmidman said.

“The talmudic system of logic is unique,” Dr. Kadish said. He talked about the 13 principles of Rabbi Yishmael. “Some of them might be samples of traditional logic, and others are unique or particular to the received Jewish tradition.” The idea of kal va-homer — going from the less difficult to the more rigorous — is logical and therefore easy to explain; the idea of gezerah shavah — comparing similar expressions — is more idiosyncratic and therefore less explicable and less universal. “On the one hand, you have the principle of the scientific method, but you also have received hermeneutical principles that to some extent are particular to the Jewish tradition.

“Once you have these systems, however, they are to be applied with rigor,” he said.

This building in Belarus housed the Volozhin Yeshiva.

“You have a combination of these two types of principles, but once you understand it and immerse yourself in it, you see that it is very precise and very rigorous and always has the goal of finding the truth.

“One of the interesting things that we point out about this system of logic is that it really does encourage an unusual type of disruptive thinking. Often the Mishna will say something and the Gemara analyzes the Mishna, and you end up with an entirely apparently unconnected explanation for what the Mishna really is referring to. So rather than ending up with a simple, straightforward explanation for the words you’ve read, you come to understand that it is talking about a very special case that you never would have thought about.

“We argue the idea that you have to be able to look at things in a completely different way to find the truth and create logical consistency. It encourages people to say, when they look at something, is there a creative way that I can approach this problem? Because the more simple, straightforward way doesn’t necessarily lead to the truth.

“In terms of science, it may help you solve the problem that you really need solved.”

What that teaches, Rabbi Shmidman said, is “a principle that might be applied universally. When the straightforward approach doesn’t yield what you need, you have to find a creative way to get there.”

That’s the first part of the book, the two authors said.

“In Part 2, the more speculative part of the book, we also tried to draw some lines — sometimes straight, sometimes a bit curved — between some of the figures of the religious tradition, and some figures today, who may or may not be secular but who are coming from the same tradition.

This is a page from an illuminated manuscript of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, made in Spain in 1348.

“We talked about Maimonides’ commitment to intellectual honesty,” about how it is important not to simply accept received wisdom just because it’s in a book — an insight constantly and importantly in tension with the need to revere handed-down wisdom and the sages from whom it comes. “We found a direct reflection of those words in Norbert Wiener, the famous mathematician. He didn’t know he was Jewish, his parents hid that from him, but later he embraced it and saw himself as part of an intellectual tradition.” Wiener, who lived from 1894 to 1964, was said to be a descendant of Maimonides — that’s an unprovable claim in either direction —but his parents did not value their Jewish heritage, and “The Jewish Intellectual Tradition” tells us that his mother taught him actively to disdain Jews. But later Wiener, the great scientist and mathematician whose academic home was MIT, came to value his heritage, and the intellectual honesty it championed.

“Sometimes we speculate about figures like Einstein and Freud and Durkheim and Sagan and Schoenberg and Alan Bloom and others. To what extent were they reflecting some of those core values in their work? Sometimes you know that they’re doing it quite consciously, and at other times you speculate that even though it’s not conscious, they indeed are products of the tradition.”

Because the tradition balances tradition and disruption, it creates not only logicians — mathematicians, scientist, lawyers, doctors, philosophers — but also artists, writers, musicians, and others who recreate the world around them, using the tension between what is and what should or could be. All this springs from the Jewish intellectual tradition and its pursuit of truth and purpose.

Those lessons are useful for everyone, Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman said.

“We expect that most of the readers of our book will be from the Jewish world,” Dr. Kadish said. “Much of it is a broad survey. One of the things we struggled with was how to make it accessible, but also rich enough to get big ideas across. We want to direct it primarily at the Jewish community, but we also tried to make it accessible to people outside the community.”

“And it’s aimed primarily not at scholars but at educated laypeople,” Rabbi Shmidman said.

The Alhambra Palace in Granada. Some historians have suggested that the palace was built by Samuel Ha-Nagid’s son, Yehosef.

The two men talked about where the idea for the book began.

“The backstory for me actually starts more years ago than I care to count,” Dr. Kadish said. “When I started my undergraduate education at Columbia, with what is not really called the Great Books program but everyone thinks that it’s called that” — actually it’s Columbia College’s core curriculum, a set of foundational books that all its students read and is at the heart of the school’s education — “I found that there was no real context. We read Plato, and Socrates, and Machiavelli, but there was no historical context.”

That was a problem that he later found with the study of Jewish intellectual history. People read the classics from that tradition, but did not know how they connected to each other or the world around them.

“There really never has been a real intellectual history of Jewish thought,” Dr. Kadish said. “There obviously have been a ton of Jewish histories, and histories of different components of Jewish thought, but we thought that there was room for an intellectual history.”

“We not only wanted to do a survey of the Jewish intellectual tradition, but also to put it in context, to extract the major characteristics, and beyond that to try to illustrate how it could be of practical application, universally, today.” Its core values could help thinking people navigate modern life.

“I think it’s a highly ambitious undertaking, and we hope that a number of different audiences might benefit from it.”

Dr. Shmidman talked about how his skills and knowledge and Dr. Kadish’s supported their joint project. “Alan had identified the salient characteristics of the tradition, and he was lecturing about them, usually under Touro auspices,” he said. “I heard a lecture, we got together and discussed it, and then I offered to help flesh out the vision of examining the salient traits of the Jewish intellectual tradition and how they could be of immediate beneficial application today. So then we joined forces.”

“Michael did most of the actual historical work,” Dr. Kadish added. “He’s a historian. I am not. We would talk about something together — and Dr. Fishbane helped us — and then we would ask ourselves ‘Does this seem to make sense? Is there evidence to support this?’”

The paucity of women in the book is a historical reality — most but not all women were outside the Jewish intellectual tradition not all but most of the time — but it’s not necessary anymore and it is changing, Rabbi Shmidman and Dr. Kadish said.

The book includes references “to female scholars and writers in more contemporary times, like Nechama Leibowitz, Cynthia Ozick, Naomi Ragen, and Allegra Goodman,” Rabbi Shmidman said; also the authors mention such “prominent intellectuals” as “Rosalyn Sussman-Yalow, Leah Garrett, Dara Horn, Risa Miller, and Adina Hoffman, we also cite at least three dozen women academicians in the endnotes. Additionally, in Chapter Six, we discuss the increasing role of women in serious critical study of Tanakh, the success of Torah institutes for women like Drisha (where, by the way, I once was associate director) and the possibility that the growing participation of more diverse segments of the community will generate new and stimulating methodological approaches to study of Talmud.”

The book also talks about happiness. “Immersing oneself in the pursuit of truth and service leads to happiness,” Dr. Kadish said. That’s very American sounding, and that’s fine. “In the Jewish intellectual tradition, there is happiness, on the micro scale, but on the global scale happiness is a very welcome byproduct rather than a goal.

“The idea of happiness didn’t start with the American dream,” Rabbi Shmidman said, but the definition of happiness does not stay still. He quotes a 13th-century writer who “talks about the happiness coming from the desire to fulfill the will of one’s creator. So happiness takes on different forms in different cultures.”

Even in America, the vision of happiness has changed, he added; “until about 1960, I would argue, and maybe happiness wasn’t exactly the right word for it, but there was fulfillment through the Protestant work ethic,” Dr. Kadish said. “Since 1960, there have been a lot of different ideas of what produces happiness. The American tradition is no longer monolithic in that way.

At the end of their book, Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman offer modern American examples of the core principles of the Jewish intellectual tradition at work. In showing how reverence for the past, in tension with disruptive thought, can produce great creativity, they talk about Bob Dylan, whose groundbreaking music — for which, they point out, he won a Nobel prize — is based on his deep understanding of the American musical tradition, and his evident love for it. He has a vast collection of music from the Great American Songbook, but none of his work, when it was new, would have been likely to have been heard on Broadway or at a cabaret.

When they talk about training with a master, they mention the groundbreaking musician Arnold Schoenberg’s devotion to his mentor, Gustav Mahler.

Dr. Kadish and Rabbi Shmidman hope that their book about the Jewish intellectual tradition will become another part of that tradition, as it reaches back into the past and looks to the future.

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