Thursday, April 07, 2005

Oh Columbia

I hope (but doubt) that I will be forgiven for not being too sympathetic with Jewish students at Columbia who have complained about verbal abuse by Arabists in the Department of Middle East and Asian Language and Cultures. It's not that their claims are unfounded or that the department is free of bias in the teaching of Middle East history and events. Although the Columbia committee examining the complaints essentially downplayed them, there is plenty of evidence that Jewish students were subjected to verbal abuse by pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel faculty. As happens often in academia and elsewhere, ideology displaced scholarship.

Yet, the students are misguided, as are their allies who brought in video equipment, but not because of the much-traveled principle of academic freedom which is a vital consideration even when professors cross a line and say things that they should not say. Like the rest of us, academics have opinions, especially about the subjects they teach and specialize in. Where there is controversy, it is inevitable that bias - perhaps masquerading as scholarship - will intrude into the classroom. I imagine that strongly pro-Israel faculty (admittedly they aren't as many as the antis) also color what they teach.

What is troubling about the student complaints is that inadvertently they trivialize the problem at Columbia by focusing on what this or that professor said to this or that student, ignoring thereby the more legitimate issue of a great university allowing a key department to shortchange students and scholarship by promoting a monolithic outlook in a field where there is a great deal of diversity.

By focusing on what were verbal exchanges between faculty and students, the complainants exhibit much naivete about what transpires in academia and, for that matter, in nearly all social relationships. People communicate through written and spoken words. Whether the relationship is spousal, between parents and children, among friends, in a classroom or office or other settings, angry and even nasty language is utilized from time to time and while this is not a circumstance to be celebrated, it is important to maintain perspective. When the relationship is hierarchical, as in families, classrooms and between employers and employees, there is apt to be on occasion the added element of intimidation. Faculty handbooks, as the one in force at Columbia, may require tolerance and civility, yet it is inevitable that even without ideological or sharp differences of opinion, nasty words will be used on occasion by faculty. That's life. Interestingly, the Talmud contains numerous extremely sharp exchanges between teachers and students and between colleagues.

It is not that insulting or intimidating language is justified. It is inevitable. Unless there is a constant pattern of abuse and/or the student or employee is treated unfairly in grades or salary or other working conditions, this is not something worth making a federal case over. Whether in a university or yeshiva, those who teach should be given some slack and this must include the recognition that incautious language may be utilized. To insist on any other standard is to turn education into a war zone.

An additional reason for discomfort about the Columbia situation is that there was the unauthorized filming of what went on in classrooms and the collateral role played by outsiders. Snooping, including for righteous causes, is rarely proper. As television and movie programs that filmed family experiences have demonstrated, such exercises tend to distort.

There are exceptions to the civil libertarian notion that the best way to combat bad speech is more speech. What transpires on campus is not an exception to this principle. The antidote to Columbia allowing its Middle East Department to become a center of scholarly bias is to insist that the university include faculty who are representative of the diversity of scholarship in the field. Columbia's primary sin is that it has tolerated the near stranglehold on Middle East teaching that is the legacy of Edward Said, the pro-Palestinian, rock-throwing prevaricator. Yes, he was also quite charming.

Columbia is not the only university that has for too long tolerated one-sidedness in teaching and research about the Middle East. It may have a greater obligation to be fair because it has a great many Jewish students, most of whom I believe would be turned off if the faculty were one-sided in support of Israel. This is what we should be kvetching about. In fairness, the mandate of the "Ad Hoc Grievance Committee" that reported last week did not include investigating any departments or curricula.

There is an additional flaw in the approach taken by Columbia students. Wherever Jews turn, there are irksome issues. The world is a complicated place, more so because we now live in a global community. We Jews have, so to speak, many issues on our plate. Prudence, if not also wisdom, suggests that we pick our issues, our fights. This is true also in families and in all other relationships where prudent people ignore much of what they might rightfully complain about. The alternative is to be in a state of permanent agitation, a world in which without respite we do battle against real and imagined enemies.

For too many good reasons we have developed sensitive antennae that detect even slight slights and wrongs against Jews. We see enemies nearly everywhere and we constantly perceive danger. We do have enemies and there are dangers, which is all the more reason why we should distinguish between what is consequential and what is trivial, between the wrongs that do not merit bringing in the full artillery and those that do.

A year ago we crusaded against Mel Gibson's "Passion," surely an exercise in anti-Semitism. But was the battle worth fighting? Is the Columbia crusade worth the effort, a question that gains in urgency because our primary concern on campus is to convince Jews to remain Jewish. Unless I am deaf and blind to what is happening among Jews on college campuses, I sense that the Columbia battle is alienating Jewish students and faculty.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Lead Us By Teaching

The following column appears in this week's Jewish Press.

Religious Jews are obligated to be obedient, an obligation that was embedded in our essence as a sanctified people at Sinai. Obedience means that we accept what we do not understand and practice what we prefer not to do. Being obedient is emphatically not an exercise in following what we agree with. While there are occasions when we may unfortunately stray from what the Torah requires of us, which is why tshuva is also an aspect of our being a sanctified people, it can be said that religious Jews are obedient to Torah authority.

Whether in the home or in governmental actions or ordinary social relationships, obedience can be achieved through teaching or example. It can also be achieved through one or another form of coercion - through the use of physical force or the threat to use such force or through other kinds of threats. It should be obvious that it is far more effective when obedience is brought about through teaching and example, when those who are obedient come to understand and accept that what is wanted of them is something that they truly want to do. This, too, was imparted to us at Sinai. Although we understandably regard religious obligations as being distinct from other arrangements where authority is accepted, the principle that teaching and example are preferable to coercion pertains as well to our religious life.

There has been in the recent period a flurry of charged issues affecting the Torah community that raises the fundamental question of whether the path taken to lead us achieves the most desirable results. We have been occupied with new prohibitions, milah procedures and whether certain books by religious authors are appropriate. There are bans against computers and we are witness to what seems to be an endless stream of prohibitory pronouncements, at times expressed in exceptionally sharp language. We are ordered not to read this or that and not to do this or that. We seem to be caught up in a process that we cannot escape, a process which guarantees that more of the same awaits religious Jews.

I do not have a shred of competency to discuss halachic matters and I do not have the spiritual stature to discuss those that are hashkafic. For this reason alone and emphatically also because we are obligated to be obedient, I cannot and will not challenge what we have been told. Ever since I first sat at the feet of the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood more than fifty years ago in the last decade of his exalted life, I have endeavored to be obedient.

I am competent to feel the pulse of the community, to sense what is being said and felt. What I and I believe others sense is disquieting and I have decided to write in the hope that our Torah authorities will pay heed. Whenever there is a new ban, there is a cascade of jokes and ridicule among religious Jews, as if humor might serve as a surrogate for how many feel but are wary to put into words. L'tzanis -idle talk and jokes - is, of course, base behavior, yet it is there in our community and we ought not avert our eyes from this reality.

Perhaps worse, there is the element of lashon hora, a practice that we are constantly enjoined to avoid. An entire religious Jewish industry has been created to expel lashon hora from our homes, conversations, messages. Yet, in a regrettable but remarkable way, bans provide substantial grist for the lashon hora mill. There is much talk about intra-Rabbinical conflict, about this Rabbi being left out or angry or doing or saying something that is critical of other Rabbis. Like tsetse flies carrying disease, prohibitions beget the disease of lashon hora, as bits and pieces of gossip are transported from person to person and from place to place.

These factors do not lessen our obligation to be obedient. They should be taken into account by those who are ready to lead us via the route of prohibitions.

It wasn't always this way, certainly not in this country in the post-Holocaust years of decisive Orthodox development. The great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood came here in 1941 and he passed away twenty-one years later. He was the unquestioned leader of the Torah world, a man of towering intellect and achievement, of great humility and determination. He was a strong, fearless and passionate leader in a period when we were blessed in this country with Torah leaders of unchallenged eminence. In the yeshiva world alone we had Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, Rav Yaakov Ruderman and other Torah leaders of true stature.

In this formative period of American Orthodoxy, we were led by teaching and by example, by outstanding Rabbis inspiring us by how they lived their lives and by teaching us that abiding by Torah standards is life-giving. We did not have a string of prohibitions, although there was certainly much that was deserving of prohibition, nor were we treated to a parade of heated statements signed by yeshiva deans and rabbis. There were, to be sure, issues that by today's standards could have generated bans. There were books whose contents were questionable and there were practices that were questionable. This was the period when modernity was bursting out all over with its toxic impact on the general society and on too many Jews. This was the period when popular culture began its long and continuing descent into putridness. My recollection may be faulty, yet I cannot think of a single statement emanating from the yeshiva world condemning television, although Torah leaders without exception clearly disapproved of television.

They saved their main fire, as it were, for great issues, as when under the firm guidance of the Great Rosh Yeshiva they issued their historic prohibition against membership in rabbinical and congregational organizations together with the Conservative and the Reform. Although some Modern Orthodox did not immediately follow the ban, within the yeshiva world there was total acceptance and ultimately the teaching that was conveyed to us had full effect, for the Synagogue Council is no more.

Another historic example arose in 1953 when the entire charedi or fervently Orthodox world - a small fraction in numbers compared to today - united in a great demonstration outside of the Israeli Consulate in New York to protest against the draft of young women into the Israeli Army. This was an epic event, the one pristine illustration in my lifetime of na-aseh v'nishmah.

There were significant issues - for example, coeducation in our high schools - where our Torah leaders discouraged practices that they regarded as antithetical to Torah standards, yet they did so without resorting to public statements denouncing such practices. They recognized that there were many parents striving to grow in yiddishkeit whose children were attending coeducational high schools and that it would be far more effective to lead by teaching. The fruit of this example are evident in many of our homes and many of our schools.

The present period presents a contrast. If a book offends, it and its author must be denounced, at times in language that is shockingly unrestrained. It apparently is not sufficient to say that the author is in error, that what he has written is inappropriate. In the current issue of how to draw blood during a bris, it is not sufficient to say that our tradition is metzitza b'peh and this is the strongly preferred procedure. Rather, an alternative method that has been used in thousands of brisim among the very Orthodox - one reliable estimate is half of all brisim in the yeshiva world - must be attacked in the harshest language, this despite the preference by some eminent Torah authorities for the alternate method and despite legitimate medical questions about drawing blood directly with the mouth.

There is no one explanation as to why leadership by prohibition has replaced leadership by teaching and example. To examine the causes would deflect from the principal point that I am trying to make and it might also undermine the principle that irrespective of what we may think about any ban, we are obliged to be obedient. One factor deserves to be mentioned. In the same way that advances in technology and communication have broken down national barriers, they have created a heightened prospect that every halachic or hashkafic issue affecting the American Orthodox may result in the fervid intervention by Israeli Torah authorities. This is a new development and it was not planned and perhaps could not be anticipated. At the least, this development inadvertently undermines Torah leadership in this country.

There is a dynamic at work and it is hard to imagine that there will be a reversal in the short-term of leadership by prohibition. In any case, we need to be obedient and we also need to reflect on what has been wrought.