Monday, January 06, 2003

If Ideas Mattered

Thanks to Henry Kohn, a prominent lawyer with a lifetime of devoted Jewish communal service, I have just read the inaugural Henry Kohn lecture given by Jacob Neusner more than two years ago at Yale that gives this column its title. “If Ideas Mattered” is an important document that needs to be read. Professor Neusner discusses the devaluation of ideas in contemporary Jewish life, a subject that is not discussed very much precisely because ideas have been devalued. I believe that copies of the lecture are still available from the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall Street, New Haven, CT 06511.

Jacob Neusner is probably not as well known as he ought to be in view of his awesome scholarly production, a circumstance that provides another measure of support for the argument advanced in the lecture. He is also a terrific writer who on occasion yields to bitterness and this quality came through in the lecture.

His argument is that “the intellectual crisis of American Judaism is precipitated by the demise of intellect.” Accordingly, “ideas no longer matter, emotions do, sentiment does, money matters a whole lot – ideas, not at all.” While “philanthropists spend money on the delivery of ideas,” they spend “nothing on the formation of them.” Professor Neusner insists that “mindless money” does not make miracles and he refuses to “concede that the right organization and techniques of delivering ideas, the mechanical manipulation of public opinion in the end – a sufficiency of indoctrination – decide much.”

In short, “despite our possessing the most intellectual of all religions…we have managed to lose all contact with the life of the intellect of Judaism, even access to the sources that sustain that life.”

This is strong stuff. Is it on target? Is our intellectual life now found in graveyards or in books, old and new, that are scarcely read?

The issue is complicated because in certain zones of Jewish life there is substantial intellectual activity. I will limit myself to the secular world, to the world of major universities and quite a few institutions of higher education that are not major but have Jewish studies departments and endowed chairs in Judaics. There are scholarly conferences and scholarly journals and university presses are probably producing more serious works in Jewish history and contemporary life than ever before. Unfortunately, nearly all of this activity takes place in academic circles, away from our congregations and educational institutions, specifically including those that prepare teachers for our schools. Jewish scholarship, such as it is today, is disembodied or not connected to the instrumentalities that reach our masses, a situation that is central to Neusner’s powerful thesis.

Organized Jewry has installed demographers as its intellectual giants. Along the way, we have virtually abandoned the field of Jewish sociology, a field that once had much intellectual depth and influence. Instead, we have one group of population experts telling us that there are this many Jews while another gives us a different number and from a third we get still another set of statistics. There is little intellectual meat in their findings, which helps to explain why demographers are now routinely highlighted at major Jewish gatherings.

We need to respect scholarship and bring it back into the Jewish mainstream, which is a difficult task because, as Neusner writes, “American Jews have lost access to the Judaism that is embodied in our holy books. Few can read them.” It should not be surprising that philanthropists who cannot read a text can appreciate the value of putting a name on a building.

It is telling – in a way remarkable – that in an important sense The New Republic may be the most significant and certainly the most widely read publication in the U.S. on Jewish history and thought. We obviously do not have a journal that is as timely and chock full of ideas as First Things, the spunky Christian monthly edited by Richard Neuhaus.

As Neusner underscores, we need to have more debate about ideas and not just about transient public policies. We have to grapple with how to apply the doctrine of church-state separation to new issues and new times and what it means to be a tiny minority in American society. There are issues relating to Israel that need to be reconsidered and we have to define the role of religion in Jewish life. Nowadays, the tendency is to articulate our positions via a “Polly wants a cracker” approach, parroting the positions that we have already taken, scarcely changing even a minor detail. When a new issue arises, political correctness is our usual guide.

Because we are not isolated from the world around us and because it’s an old story that Jews always borrow heavily from the host culture, the downgrading of ideas within our community is substantially an echo of what is occurring generally in American life. News consists of people in the news and ever-contracting sound-bites, the apparent implication being that the attention span of the typical American is no longer than ten seconds. Newspapers aren’t much better as they seek to survive in a market place dominated not by ideas but by diversions. The Times has just upped its daily price by a third to a buck, claiming that it needs the additional income not to satisfy any Sulzberger greed but to pay for the extra sections that are provided to readers. These include one called “Escapes,”and it speaks importantly both to the new journalism and to the devaluation of intellectual life.

But while ideas are now largely alien to the contemporary American ethos, it remains that we Jews cannot place the blame on others. We have an exalted scholarly and intellectual tradition and great books that can provide spiritual and intellectual sustenance. What we do not have is the willingness to showcase our intellectual talent.