Generous Orthodoxy  




Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Judeo-Christian tradition: still the best

For many years I have been testing my belief that the Judeo-Christian heritage is the strongest of all the world’s traditions, and I have not found any evidence to make me change my mind. The superiority of the Jewish and Christian faiths, tied ineluctably together as they are, is certainly not dependent on superior moral performance, however. It can be persuasively argued that no faith is superior to any other in the arena of actual human behavior. There are atrocities and horrors enough to go around (who knew, until the book Zen at War was published in 1997, that Zen Buddhism was profoundly complicit in the whole Japanese military effort before and during World War II—with an added overtone of anti-Semitism?). The Church has acknowledged its manifold sins repeatedly and still continues to make amends. The factor that makes our tradition unique is its self-correcting core. I do not see this deeply rooted value in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Chinese philosophy.

Take for example an article on today’s New York Times front page, “Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva University Adds a Lesson.” The point of the article is that the arch-schemer is Jewish, and the Orthodox university is searching its soul. It is an arresting example of the way that Judaism questions itself from within. I argue that this capacity is built into the Biblical faith and derives from its ever-renewing Source. Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) differently from Christians, because they read it through the lenses of the Talmud and the Mishnah, but there can be no mistaking the emphasis on self-criticism in light of the values derived from the story of the Hebrew God.

Here are some excerpts from the news article (my links are not working well at the moment, but Javier C. Hernandez wrote it):

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One by one, the students in Rabbi Norman Linzer’s class last week wrestled with the headlines and their emotions. Some said Mr. Madoff’s religious affiliation was irrelevant; others worried that his Judaism might tarnish their own…

Yeshiva, a campus of about 7,000 students in Upper Manhattan, is grappling with a sense of personal betrayal that extends beyond the $110 million it says it lost in investments with Mr. Madoff, who had been on the board of trustees since 1996. There is resentment; fear of the revival of ugly, old stereotypes; and, after the fall of a favorite son, uncertainty about how Jewish institutions like theirs should choose role models.

At a school that aims to inculcate ethics and interpersonal morals in its students along with academics — to train future doctors, lawyers, educators and financiers to not just be good at their jobs but to perform them in accordance with traditional Jewish ideals — the story of Mr. Madoff has turned into the consummate teaching moment...

In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success. “This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings”…

Rabbi Blech, who teaches the philosophy of law course, said he… worried that community expectations had steered students away from public-service professions like teaching and toward more lucrative jobs. “In elevating to a level of demi-worship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring”…

“What does it say when this fraud is so intertwined with the Jewish community?” asked [Edward] Farbenblum, 26, who is Orthodox and attended Yeshiva as an undergraduate. “One of our religious imperatives is to be morally upstanding, to be the exemplar of what it is to be a moral citizen, and this is a very public case of a failure of that religious ideal”…

Rabbi Blech, for his part, turned to the Ten Commandments, noting that some focus on a person’s relationship with God, others on relationships with fellow human beings. He said that “both tablets are equally important. Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good,” he explained. “If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew.”