‘What am I? A barbarian?’
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‘What am I? A barbarian?’

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn’s new book looks at the conflicts between tradition and ethics

Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn
Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn

There is a great divide in the American Jewish community, Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn said.

That alone is not news. There are great, gaping chasms in just about every American community right now; most likely each is both general and specific.

Dr. Korn’s new book, “To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values,” looks at the philosophical and theological divisions not prescriptively but descriptively, although he writes not as a dispassionate observer but as a passionate modern Orthodox Jew. He’ll talk about the divide at Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck on December 25. (See box.)

Dr. Korn, whose grandfather moved to Newark in 1905, grew up in Irvington. Nearly eight years ago, he and his wife, Lila Magnes Korn, made aliyah from Teaneck, where they’d lived for decades. He was ordained in Israel and earned a doctorate in moral philosophy from Columbia. He’s taught at Columbia, at Yeshiva University, and at Seton Hall; he’s been national director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League and the Judaic scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest. Throughout this time, he’s written books and essays about Jewish life and thought.

All this gives him both a lifelong, intimate, inside understanding of American Jewish culture and life and some distance from it. That’s the vantage point from which his book is written.

The divide, Dr. Korn said, is between “the traditionalists who take — or seem to take — ethnicity and Jewish law as the primary if not the exclusive basis of their Jewish identity, and the liberal community, for whom Jewish values are fundamental.”

That gaping divide makes itself clear in debates over such issues as the status of women and views toward Israel; those “fundamentally are divides over tradition and ethics,” Dr. Korn said. “That is a very worrisome phenomenon, and we should try to correct it.”

The divide is driven by “the great challenge modern values pose to the Jewish tradition,” he continued. “Values such as plurality, equality, and the use of power are challenges that Jewish tradition didn’t face until modernity, and some of them — particularly the use of power — Jewish tradition didn’t face until the establishment of the state of Israel.”

Now, though, Jews have to function as full players in the modern world, and a modern view of ethics must battle a traditional view of religious demands until the two come to some kind of equilibrium. They have not yet, and “this is a serious spiritual, moral, and national problem for us,” he said.

Although traditionalists far to his right might not agree, “as a modern Orthodox Jew, I see ethics as essential to the biblical and religious notion of holiness,” he said. “Hence the title of my book. We cannot fulfill our mission, our covenant, in the world without a deep commitment to ethics.

“That is not a concession to modern culture. It is deep within the Bible and the Talmud. If we lose our ethical bearings, we can never be seen as a holy people, no matter how kosher we eat or how long our tzitzit are. Holiness means ethics.

“That is biblical. It is talmudic. And it is what the great rabbis of our tradition have said. This book is an effort to show that we need a commitment to ethics, and to explain the difference between Jewish ethics and Jewish law.

“Many traditional Jews have the attitude that if we just follow Jewish law, it will be enough to make us good Jews, and it will ensure that we are doing whatever God wants us to do,” he elaborated. “That is a popular notion — but the talmudic rabbis never talk that way. They never believed that.

“I use a lot of sources and cases in rabbinic literature that show that sometimes you have to go beyond what halacha requires to do what is ethically right, beyond the strict letter of the law.” The biblical demand that we must “do what is good and what is right means going beyond what the law requires,” Dr. Korn said.

That’s not a modern concept, he stressed. “Simply believing that all you have to do is follow the strict letter of the law is not a true understanding of the rabbinic tradition,” he said. “That is not the law. That is not even tradition, even though it is a very popular idea among traditionalists.”

To make his point, Dr. Korn told the story of the talmudic figure Shimon ben Shatah, whose students bought a donkey for him from a non-Jewish merchant, hoping to ease his commute to work. “They find a precious jewel on the donkey’s back; they give the donkey to Reb Shimon and they say, ‘Look what we found! Now you won’t have to go back to work at all,’” Dr. Korn said.

“And he says, ‘Did the gentile know that there was a jewel on the donkey’s back?’ The students say no, he didn’t. ‘Then you have to return it.’

“‘But there’s no halachic requirement to return it!’ they protest. And their teacher’s response to them is, ‘What am I? A barbarian? You think that I wouldn’t do this basic ethical thing, even though the law doesn’t require me to do it?’

“This is a clear example of how following the law isn’t necessarily enough, if you don’t want to be a barbarian,” Dr. Korn continued. “There are numerous cases like this. The idea that all you have to do is follow the law is an ignorant position.

“The main challenge today for serious traditional Jews in terms of dealing with modern culture is that we have to expand our thinking — or rethink — how we relate to people who are marginalized in our tradition. That includes women, LGBT Jews, secular Jews — they all were on the margins in the rabbinic tradition. They had no voice. They weren’t considered to be part of the conversation. Talmudic and rabbinic literature, until very recently, basically was one man talking to another man about a woman That is no longer morally acceptable to us.”

It’s morally unacceptable, Dr. Korn continued, because “these marginalized groups also have been created in the image of God.

“We Americans would think it unjust — actually intolerable — if only Christians could become president, or if only men could sit on the Supreme Court.” And if that’s true in the civic world, certainly it’s at least equally true in the religious world. “It’s a huge problem, particularly in terms of women in the Orthodox community, which is struggling with what the status of women should be,” Dr. Korn said. “Can they be rabbis? Can they teach Torah? Can they be shul presidents? The liberal community has no problem with this, but the traditional community does, because we are committed to try to preserve tradition, and to do it in a way that is both moral and traditional. And that,” he understated, “is not easy.” But there are two traditional Jewish values — justice, and the need to treat other human beings as fully human, whose lives have supreme value — that demand such wrestling. “These values come from within the Jewish tradition, not from the outside,” Dr. Korn said.

Another challenge his book tackles is “the newfound use of power that Jews have in the state of Israel,” he continued. “We learned from the Shoah that not to have any power is evil, because that led to our extermination. So now we have power, and the real question is how we use it responsibly and morally.”

There’s the question of how Jews should act in battle. “There are moral responsibilities,” Dr. Korn said. “Can we just kill anyone we want to kill? Can we kill civilians in order to win a war? If we can, how many can we kill?” These pragmatic questions can and must be answered not only pragmatically, but also ethically and Jewishly. “I don’t know of any society that treats these issues as seriously as Israel does,” Dr. Korn said. “And that includes the U.S. If you look at the battlefield tactics of the American military, let’s say in Iraq, Israel looks very good in terms of how it fights a moral war.

“And what are our rules of engagement with the Palestinian people? Israel controls much of their daily lives. What rights and what powers should be given to the Palestinians? These are moral issues that Israel has to face every day. How on the one hand do we defend ourselves against terrorism, and on the other hand how do we grant the Palestinians the basic human rights that everyone deserves?

“That is the modern challenge that until now we never were in a position to have to confront.”

Much of this involves politics, but “there is a very fine line between politics and ethics and morality,” Dr. Korn said. “The question is how do you do moral politics?

“In ancient Greece, politicians were a very noble group. It was a noble profession, precisely because there was an assumption of integrity.” But times, needless to say, have changed.

Jews “live with other people,” Dr. Korn said. “A challenge of modernity for Jews is pluralism. When we lived in the ghetto, we dealt only with other traditional Jews, and there was a consensus about Jewish identity. But now we have an open society, and we interact with all other people.

“That presents a moral and ethical problem. How do you extend equality to women, to Gentiles, to, say, Buddhists, and still retain your Jewish identity?

“One solution is the one the ultra-Orthodox use. You withdraw from general society and create a voluntary ghetto. But this is not an option for 90 percent of the Jewish population, myself included.

“So you have to accept the notion of living in a pluralistic world and still holding onto our identity. This creates a severe moral dilemma, and how we will resolve it we will know only over time.”

So what do we do? “The book doesn’t offer simple solutions, but it does point in some directions,” Dr. Korn said. “How do we expand our concept of justice to include women and gender-fluid people and Jews of color and mamzerim — which is a deep problem in Israel because they can’t marry.” (People who were born to Jews but as a result of specifically defined kinds of adultery are defined as mamzerim, and they can never be fully Jewish, according to Jewish law. They cannot marry a Jew in a religious ceremony; because there is no civil marriage in Israel, that means that they must remain unmarried.) “There is a need to appreciate people’s humanity and treat them justly. How do we do that and stay faithful to our tradition?”

In his book, Dr. Korn tells a story that is both surprising and hopeful. “In 1917, there was a question in the small Jewish community in Palestine,” he said. “Could women vote for the new Jewish government?

“It turns out that suffrage was an issue around the world.” The 19th Amendment, enshrining women’s suffrage, was ratified in 1920. “The traditionalists said no. Women couldn’t vote or hold office. They weren’t able to in the Bible. But the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, Rav Ben Zion Uziel, asked if women weren’t created in the image of God? It took quite a few years — the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Abraham Isaac Kook, strongly opposed women’s suffrage, as did the Ashkenazi rabbis he led, and “so did everyone else in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin,” Dr. Korn said. Rabbi Uziel’s stand “was a moral and spiritual breakthrough,” he added.

“This is the direction in which Jewish ethics have to move,” he said.


Who: Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn

What: Will talk with Rabbi Chaim Strauchler about his new book, “To Be a Holy People: Jewish Tradition and Ethical Values”

Where: At Congregation Rinat Yisrael, 389 West Englewood Ave., Teaneck

When: December 25, Motzei Shabbat, at 8 p.m.

What else: There will be copies of the book for sale

For more information: Email adulted@rinat.org

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