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Saturday, November 12, 2005

Looking for academic reverence

Gil posted a link to a couple of posts (I, II) Joe Schick wrote about the cultural divide between the MO and UO communities. I would like to comment of one aspect of this divide that I believe is also the most significant one.

As is obvious from the content of this blog, I am what some might call a chassid of Rav Kook Zt"l. I feel that Rav Kook's writings saved me spiritually and my soul is bound with both the style and content of his writings. To truly appreciate Rav Kook, you must read his writings in the original Hebrew. It’s not that the ideas themselves can not be communicated in English, but rather that the text speaks on two different levels, the idea and the spirit of the idea. The first is fully translatable; the second requires the rhythm and poetry of the Hebrew to touch the cords of your soul and is simply not adaptable to English.

A few years back I came upon a series of books that translate Rav Kook's work into English. The translator was Rav Bezalel Naor who has dedicated much time to exposing the English speaking world to the work of Rav Kook (see his site here). I was at first somewhat offended by the translation. It was not that I believed the author misrepresented the thought of Rav Kook, he was mostly right on. It was the style. I felt the style of the English was academic and irreverent. On some subconscious level, I felt that Rav Kook's work deserves to be written about with awe and trepidation. The English, however, was cold, academic, and objective.

I want to be clear that I am not here to criticize Rav Naor, C”V. On the contrary, I highly recommend all of Rav Naor's books to anyone who wants an intro to the thought of Rav Kook but has a hard time with the Hebrew text. It occurs to me, however, that what I felt in this particular case is what UO Jews usually feel when they are exposed to academic scholarship. Even if a particular article has nothing that is objectionable, the style is often offensive to one's religious sensitivities.

The religious world values the Holy and the profound. The academic world, however, values objectivity and rationalism. These values are not mutually exclusive but nonetheless are rarely found together in the same place. I believe that this is also the basic dividing line between the MO and the UO.

The MO often poke fun at the reverence shown to Rabbanim in the UO world. Such formalisms as putting Shlit"a or Zt"l after the name of a great Tzaddik are not greatly valued. The halachas to Kibbud talmidei chachamim are often ignored. Standing up when a Rav walks within 6 feet is rarely done. These are all acts of reverence that try to imbue in the community a certain sensitivity for the Holy in life.

In the UO world, attempts at detached or academic reasoning are often frowned upon. The very act of removing one's mind from the context of the Holy is seen as, at best, a dangerous endeavor. Objective analysis that does not serve the spiritual goals the community has set for itself is seen as pointless. This is perceived by the MO as hiding from difficult truths and or as willful ignorance.

I do not know how we can bridge this gap but it is pretty clear to me that we must. Academic tools can greatly increase the kavod HaTorah in this world. At the same time, MO communities need the instinctive appreciation of the Holy that the UO can impart.