My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:
A popular California rabbi’s forecast seems gloomy until you think about it. Then you realize it’s absolutely catastrophic. He says that Judaism is:
“… a platform [that] rests on a mountain of dynamite. It is about to explode.”1
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink makes that prediction on his blog “Fink or Swim.” He’s talking about Modern Orthodoxy, but whether or not he realizes it, his warning applies to all branches of Judaism. He explains:
“Every real argument I have seen against Open Orthodoxy is an appeal to authority … Opponents claim that Open Orthodox rabbis and teachers lack authority … Proponents of Open Orthodoxy [rebut] these claims by invoking other commonly accepted authorities who do support them. ‘Round and around it goes.”2
Rabbi Fink believes the arguments are irrelevant because younger Jews are Millennials, for whom appeals to authority carry no weight:
”Today, Google allows us to fact-check from our phones before the authority finishes [his or her] sentence. Now, authority must be based on sound reasoning and meaningful arguments, not fear or shame … Appeal to authority with Millennials at your peril. The gods of man-made authority are dead to them.”3
In one sense, none of it is new. He has joined an argument that is indeed “millennial,” in the sense that it has been raging for over a thousand years. Saadia Gaon had his say in the 10th century CE, Maimonides in the 12th, and Spinoza in the 17th, when he wrote that religious authorities:
”… will put forward human beliefs and fabrications as God’s teaching and thereby abuse the authority of the Bible.”4
“I am utterly amazed that men should want to subject reason to ancient words that might well have been adulterated with malicious intent … They consider it pious not to trust their own reason and their own judgment and consider it impious to have doubts concerning the reliability of those who have handed down the sacred books to us.”5
Then in the 18th century, Moses Mendelssohn put in his two shekels’ worth:
”Convictions, by their very nature, permit no coercion or bribery … Hence, neither church nor state has a right to subject men’s principles to any coercion whatsoever. Neither church nor state is authorized to connect privileges and rights, claims on persons and titles to things, with principles and convictions, and to weaken through outside interference the influence of the power of truth on the cognitive faculty.”6
In another sense, however, our own era really is different. The Internet, the 24/7 cable news cycle, and mobile phones bombard us with opinions, information, and falsehoods from every imaginable direction. This incessant stream of “facts” both challenges our settled beliefs and urges us to follow different beliefs.
That can be a good thing if our beliefs are terribly wrong. But human communities — not just religious denominations — often depend on shared beliefs and shared respect for elders who are regarded as authorities. We have communities in the first place because they satisfy some of our deepest biological and spiritual needs: to be safe, to be liked or loved, and to be understood.
Thus, I think that Rabbi Fink is right about the danger but wrong about the reason. Millennials are no more open-minded than any other generation,7 but they look to different authorities: to the Internet, to rappers and pop singers, and to whatever current political crusade makes the most noise or offers the most pitiable tale of victimhood.
That Millennials do it is unsurprising for a couple of reasons.
First, they must. In their psychological development, children rebel against their parents in order to define their own separate identities. Likewise, in its social development, each generation rebels against the previous one in order to define its own sense of generational identity.
”But behold! The prophet of the new message came into their midst with the cry of ‘religion allied to progress’; he filled the blank, pacified their conscience, and wiped out their shame. With this magic word he turned irreligion into Godliness, apostasy into priesthood, sin into merit, frivolity into virtue, weakness into strength, thoughtlessness into profundity.”8
What made Spinoza a Jewish philosopher is not that he held traditional Jewish beliefs — he didn’t. But he took Judaism, its sacred writings, and its tradition as his starting point, his authorities, even if only to reject them. He argued with other Jewish thinkers. Whether he liked it or not, he was part of the conversation.
The current Zeitgeist tells us that God doesn’t care what we do even if He exists. It says that the only important thing is for us to have pleasure and, presumably the result, be happy. It says that we have no obligations to our faith, our people, or our communities. It says that our only duty is to our own whims and entertainments. Of course such a message appeals to people who feel unjustly deprived by out-of-date moral and religious ideas. “Do what thou wilt” is hard to beat as a sales pitch. That’s what the culture offers Millennials in place of our historic faith.
Authority is not going away, for three reasons.
- First, the nature of humanity: Like other primates, human beings live in hierarchical societies, with authority figures at the top.
- Second, the nature of knowledge: You can’t think or learn based on nothing. You have to start somewhere. Your starting point is the authority you accept, whether it’s the Jewish tradition, the scientific method, or the latest dicta from the Internet.
- Third, the nature of society: Social division of labor means that different people do different jobs. Some people build airplanes, some grow food, and some think about religion and morality. The people who think about religion and morality, whoever they are, are authorities in that field. To pay attention to their advice in their areas of expertise is not blind submission to authority, but a sensible way to live our lives.
The question is not: “Will people look to authorities for advice on what to think and how to live?” They will. That’s a given.
Instead, the question is: “Will the authorities be helpful or harmful — morally, socially, spiritually, and psychologically?”
Our challenge is to give Millennials and others a way to rebel against earlier generations without “going rogue” by rejecting the moral and spiritual heritage that is their birthright.
Our response to that challenge will determine the future not only of Judaism, but of our civilization itself.
Frank, D. et al, editors (2000), The Jewish Philosophy Reader. Routledge, London.
Gottlieb, M. (2011), Moses Mendelssohn: Writings on Judaism, Christianity, and the Bible. Brandeis University Press, Waltham, MA.
Israel, J. (2007), Benedict de Spinoza: Theological-Political Treatise. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
- Fink, E., “Why the War of Words About Open Orthodoxy Won’t Matter,” February 10, 2016. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Israel,J. (2007), p. 178. ↩
- Ibid, p. 186. ↩
- Gottlieb, M. (2011), p. 72. ↩
- The inflexible dogmatism of political correctness is an example. Articulated by those whom Millennials see as authority figures, it embodies a view of the world that they feel must not be doubted or disobeyed. ↩
- Frank, D. et al (2000), p. 391. ↩