Where is that Jewish genius? (The Times of Israel)

I learned the truth at seventeen. Until then, assimilated ignoramus of all things Jewish that I was, my assumption had always been that the black-suited young men inhabiting the dilapidated old building abutting Philadelphia’s magnificent Catholic seminary – where the be-collared neophytes also wore black – were just a poorer class of priests-in-training. When it was revealed to me at the beginning of the twelfth grade that these earnest looking adolescents were in fact active members of the same tribe with which I was so passively affiliated, and that they spent their days in prayer and especially in the parsing of ancient Hebrew and Aramaic books, my curiosity was piqued. I put on my best pair of ripped jeans, donned my favorite grateful dead T-shirt, walked the ten blocks from my house to what I had newly discovered was called a yeshiva, and burst rudely into the Beis Medrash (Hall of Study).

The first thing to impress me was the din. I had expected a refined, subdued atmosphere akin to that of a library, where sequestered scholars pored over dusty tomes in genteel silence. What rushed upon me instead when I opened the double doors of the Beis Medrash was nothing short of window-rattling pandemonium. Three hundred teenagers cavorting with lecterns, swaying and ducking and rolling and gesticulating, pounding their palms on the pages of their Talmuds and execrating the obtuseness of their un-bowed interlocutors, dashing to bookcases to prove their positions, howling with exhilaration at a well argued point, shaking their fists at heaven and then bringing them down upon their own heads – or upon the heads of fellow students – when frustrated by a recondite rabbinic passage. The scene bore a closer resemblance to a bar-room brawl than a high-school classroom. I liked it.

Illustrative photo: Torat Emet Yeshivah, Jerusalem, February 4, 2014 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I asked for and was assigned a study partner or “ hevruta” of my own, who had time for me only on Thursdays at midnight. During our third such nocturnal rendezvous an incident occurred that I will never forget. Meir and I were sitting in the Beis Medrash, struggling to decipher what was for me – even after translation into English – an incorrigibly difficult bit of Talmudic ratiocination. Several minutes into our session, I noticed from the corner of my eye the doors of the giant hall slowly opening: two diminutive, rosy-cheeked faces peeked in and surveyed the lay of the land. Convinced that the coast was clear, the owners of the faces – a couple of boys no older than ten or eleven toting tomes almost as large as themselves – darted into the room, made a beeline for a remote corner partially concealed by a bookcase, sat down, opened their texts, and began rocking, swaying and studying together in eager whispers.

A few more minutes passed by, and again the doors of the room swung open, this time to reveal an older student, a bokhur, who cupped his hands to his mouth and called out in anxious admonition: “ Mashgiach! Mashgiach!” The mashgiach was a rabbi who oversaw student behavior, and the moment the kids in the corner heard that, a look of sheer terror crossed their faces. They slammed their volumes shut, stood up and tore out the back door as fast as their spritely little legs could carry them.

Then the second story wooden floor began to shake. An increasingly deafening thud drew nearer and nearer, like the bloodcurdling approach of Tyrannosaurus Rex in “Jurassic Park.” At length, through the doors of the Beis Medrash exploded one “Rabbi Gobrovnik,” a man of gargantuan, ogre-like proportions both in height and in breadth, the upper half of whose torso was completely concealed, Hagrid-of-Harry-Potter-style, by a forest of beard. Sweating, wheezing, beet-red and shaking his melon-size fists, he roared out: “ Vi zeinen di kleyne sheydim?!” (“Where are those little demons?!”), and lurched with thunderous steps across the hall and out the back door in hot pursuit.

The students in the Beis Medrash returned to their Talmuds – most had barely raised their eyes from the page – but I was curious, so I queried my study partner: “What the hell was that ?” He explained to me nonchalantly that “lights out” for the younger students is at 11:00 pm sharp, and that the yeshiva directors, following the lead of concerned parents, take this curfew restriction very seriously and mete out dire punishments to anyone found violating it.

“So, what – did those kids have to cram for an exam or something?” I ventured.

“There’s no school tomorrow,” Meir pointed out, “and besides, we don’t have exams here. They just wanted to finish the sugya, the passage they were studying. It happens all the time.”

All the time?

“Wait a minute,” I interrogated my unimpressed hevruta. “Let me get this straight: these little pishers snuck out of their beds after midnight, got dressed again in their shirts, pants, shoes and jackets, defied the authority of their teachers and their parents and risked incurring severe retribution, all in order to continue wrestling with an intellectual problem – because it interested them? They hadn’t finished figuring out some logical-legal conundrum in the tractate they were studying earlier this evening, and this fact drove the sleep from their eyes? Is that what you are trying to tell me, Meir?!”

“Uh-huh,” answered Meir, visibly bored and itching to get back to our own sugya. “We did the same thing when we were their age.”

Wow. This I had never encountered. I remember that at that moment I turned and prayed fervently to a God I did not believe in that someday my own children would rebel against my authority… like that.

The thirst for knowledge, the passion for puzzle-solving, the burning inquisitiveness, the fierce love of learning: these proclivities have ever been the Jewish People’s hallmark, and have served as our nation’s shield and buckler since the time of Rabbi Akiba, who scorned the Roman ban on Torah study and was tortured and executed for his recalcitrance. The People of Israel has survived and flourished throughout the lengthy ages of an incomparably hostile history more than anything as a result of its profound devotion to books (not for nothing are we the only people anywhere that actually dances with a book). We have made it this far despite the tidal waves of adversity, primarily because of our commitment to the life of the mind, because of our penchant for pilpul, because of our love of contemplation, interpretation, analysis, deliberation, controversy, argumentation, imagination. These are the ingredients that fused together to engender the proverbial yiddische kop, our dearest treasure, our secret weapon, the rudder that has steered us through the stormiest seas. Only such a kop could have performed the incredibly complex operation of substituting national law and lore for a forfeited national life at the beginning of our exile, and only such a kop, two thousand arduous and tumultuous years later, could still have been keen enough to plan and execute the most audacious experiment in the political history of humankind: the resurrection of a dead nation, the reinvention of its ancient language, the revival of its fighting spirit, and the massive relocation of its far flung exiles in the land of their ancestors.

* * * *

But yeshiva students didn’t found the Zionist movement; college students did. Specifically, some fifteen college students at the University of Kharkov in 1881, who gathered together in the apartment of one of their number, Israel Belkind, and refused to leave until they had hammered out a plan for the settlement of Palestine. They were the BILU, an acronym standing for bayt ya’akov lekhu ve-nelkha, “House of Jacob, come, let us go!” and while they unquestionably inherited the mantle of study, rumination, dialectic and disputation passed down by the yeshivas, there was one trait these college kids had that the yeshiva bokhrim did not have, indeed, could never have: the arrogant conceit that the salvation of their people depended upon them alone, and the impudence to believe that they were fully capable of conceiving and bringing into being a whole new order of things so as to procure that salvation.

Israel Belkind (Wikipedia)

If there is one factor that distinguishes the pre-modern from the modern period in human history, it is this: that during the former era, thinking people sought to understand the world that God had made, whereas during the latter era thinking people sought to reshape the world that God had not made. Put another way, members of the modern intelligentsia tacked on to their predecessors’ time honored drive for comprehension of the cosmos a new and bolder ambition: to take over the job vacated by a God they no longer believed in and to create – create new things under the sun . This unprecedented latter-day amalgamation of hutzpah and creativity, when superimposed upon Judaism’s venerable heritage of erudition and deliberation, gave birth to what the world has celebrated for over a century-and-a-half as “the Jewish genius,” that inclination-to-lucubrate-cum-impulse-to-innovate that – among its many other achievements – led the college-bred pioneers of the BILU and their later Zionist successors down a path no yeshiva student had ever dared tread.

* * * *

Revolutionaries are by nature hypocrites: they wish no-one to do again what they have just spent so much time and energy doing. The Zionists who applied their highly trained Jewish brains to the presumptuous task of building a national state from scratch paradoxically urged the inhabitants of that up-and-coming polity to exchange their brains for brawn. The founders of Israel, it is true, had good reason for advocating this “normalization” of the nation they sought to revive: bookworms would not readily drive the ploughshare, and eggheads would not skillfully wield the sword. But in their zeal to forge the “New Jew” on the model of “all the other nations,” the pioneers or halutzim ignored one of the central facts of Jewish history: that we are, as the Bible already confirmed some three thousand years ago, “the smallest of all the peoples” (Deut. 7: 7).

Sure, it’s important for the small to stay in physical shape and hone their martial skills, but in the long run not muscle but intellect, not force but ingenuity, will enable the exiguous to vanquish the prodigious. Today more than ever, Israel is a dwarf surrounded by virulently bellicose giants actively seeking her destruction: over a billion-and-a-half potential enemies versus a measly six million potential defenders, with an international political constellation in full tilt against the Israeli underdog. Only one force has a chance of beating such impossible odds: the renowned Jewish genius.

But where is that genius today? One searches long and hard for it in the Jewish state. The citizens of Israel have indeed been successfully “normalized,” which means that they are deteriorating intellectually like everybody else: they read less and less (in the army the present writer was known as “the professor,” not because my comrades-in-arms knew that that was in fact my occupation, but because I was the only soldier in a division of hundreds who brought a book to reserve duty); they emphatically eschew abstract thinking in favor of the most mundane and pragmatic subject matter (even professors in Israel spend most of their social time talking about salaries and academic politics); as students, they are utterly baffled by the notion of an “original thesis” and – never having been asked to write a genuine term paper throughout their entire educational careers – cannot come up with such a thesis to save their lives (and even if they could, undergraduates and even graduates at Israeli universities are regularly reined in by their instructors with the well known mantra: ain lakhem adayin et ha-kelim lekhadesh – “You do not yet have the skills to make an original contribution!”); they pursue tunnel vision degrees, rarely venturing outside the four walls of their chosen professional focus, and leave the campus upon graduation without having had the benefit of even the most fleeting engagement with the larger questions that should concern citizens of Israel and of the world; they have failed as a society to fill their authentic (Jewish national) culture with up-to-date content of any kind, and instead stuff the resultant void with the lowest quality imported material (“ non-stope keeller ekshen!” as Israeli TV’s elegant “Hebrew” phrase has it); and they have been told by teachers and commanders what to think for so long that the notion of coming up with a novel idea on their own sends them scurrying for cover.

Israeli students during a lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus, first day of the academic year, November 02, 2008 (Michal Fattal/Flash90)

Even the streak of inventive thinking in the realm of technology that has recently made of Israel the so-called “Start-Up Nation” will taper off quickly – is in fact already tapering off – as its roots in our long tradition of reflection and cogitation are severed, and as the country’s education system plummets to new depths (Israeli students regularly score lower than almost every other developed country in surveys of math, science and reading comprehension skills). The People of the Book is fast becoming illiterate.

We cannot afford this state of affairs. All good historians know – indeed, anyone who has watched the nightly news over the last decade or two knows – that political entities rise, and political entities fall. States far larger, older, richer and stronger than Israel have disappeared virtually overnight within recent memory, whether as a result of conquest (e.g. Tibet, South Vietnam) or as a result of loss of raison d’etre (e.g. Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union). Israel, lacking in many areas even a fraction of the resources of those deceased polities, is threatened by both of these menacing eventualities: dozens of powerfully armed states and organizations surrounding her on all sides are itching to overrun the narrow sliver of a Jewish state, while on the domestic level the Israeli population has utterly failed to educate its younger generation about why we built this anomaly of a country in the first place in the midst of the most turbulent region in the world, and why it is essential that we preserve and continue to build it. This combination of exponentially increasing external pressure and rapidly diminishing internal spirit will bring about nothing less than the downfall of the State of Israel within our lifetime. Just that simple: the dream will die.

* * * *

How to extricate ourselves from this paralyzing predicament? This, as we said, is a job for Jewish genius: the genius that sustained us in life for millennia while nations, empires and civilizations crumbled to dust one after another, the genius that forged our modern homeland in the kiln of the crematoria and raised us out of the ashes of helplessness and death into the light of strength and sovereignty. How shall we reclaim that genius, how can we re-kindle the fiery intellectual spirit that burned in the old yeshivas and the intense creative urge that egged on the early Zionists?

There is no instant, magical method. There are no shortcuts toward the goal of nurturing a dedicated, enthusiastic, reading, debating, imaginative, activist and proud generation of young Israelis (well, there is one short-cut: throw away all the “smart-phones”). New educational institutions must be established in the State of Israel, and old ones reformed, before anything on the tertiary level (so that the hardy remnant of young people that survived this country’s tired and imagination-less primary and secondary school system with their intellects intact can be given the tools with which to turn around and remold Israel’s educational culture from the ground up). These advanced institutions must focus first and foremost on reviving the miserably neglected humanities – that academic faculty that in Hebrew is dubbed, problematically but also promisingly, “the sciences of the spirit” ( mada’ei ha-ru’akh). Frameworks of higher learning must be founded, and lagging ones reinvigorated: frameworks that stimulate independent thought; that encourage a spirit of inquisitiveness and inventiveness; that identify, tease out and cultivate the unique talents and special passions of each individual student; that ignite the atmosphere with the incomparable excitement of intellectual discovery; and that bring their pupils to the edge of the vast and fathomless ocean of Jewish tradition and classical and modern literature, throw them in and teach them to swim.

Universities and colleges must become places where students burn the midnight oil not because they have an examination the following day, but because they are too engrossed and fascinated in the material they are studying to go to sleep; where classrooms are mere launchpads for discussions and arguments that spill out noisily into the halls and onto the fields of the campus and reverberate without cease from morning to evening and on into the wee hours; where upper-classmen take initiative and form societies for the composition of poetry, for the renovation of poor neighborhoods, for the reinvigoration of Jewish culture, or for the reform of national politics; where professors and freshmen spend hours of informal time hanging out together and talking about life and death, Plato and Jeremiah, physics and theology, nationalism and universalism; where students are preoccupied not just by grades and the need to eke out a livelihood, but by the larger issues of the day affecting the society and world that they live in; where the choice of a major is combined with continued exposure to a broad variety of enriching subjects in order to fashion well-rounded graduates who can cross-fertilize their knowledge and who enjoy the status that was once known as “cultured”; where future leaders are formed not by imbibing the dirty tricks of the political trade so they can climb over equally slippery and ignorant rivals on their way to the top, but by providing those who possess the drive to steer the ship – the ship of state, the ship of business, the ship of the military, the ship of the arts – with the historical perspective, philosophical wisdom, moral compass and romantic vision to steer that ship in a fruitful direction.

When we adopt these principles and strive to implement them, our new and revamped institutions of higher education will become magnets for exceptional young people who ache to fan their God-given spark of curiosity and creativity into a flame of intellectual achievement and societal transformation. They will become hot houses for thinkers and doers, a place where their natural propensity for reflection and enterprise will be encouraged and facilitated, not repressed and tamped down. They will draw on ancient and modern methods of learning and on Jewish and non-Jewish sources of wisdom in order to provide young Israelis with the inspiration to act, and with the skills and perspective to act effectively. They will combine the intellectual hunger of the Beis Medrash with the bold creativity of the generation of the halutzim, and garnish these main courses with the fascination of Greek and Western philosophy, with the beauty of the arts and the thrill of the sciences, with Islamic history and Christian theology, with economics, languages, history, archeology, politics, and more.

Fine, flowery words, eh? Easy to write; a lot harder to realize. If I had a dime for every pundit who wrote a verbose river explaining what “should” and “must” be done. But there is one crucial difference here, and it is this: I know a bunch of truly impressive people who are busy realizing this particular set of “shoulds” and “musts” right now, as I write and you read. They are laying the foundations for a revolution in Israeli higher education – in the direction of the humanities, in the direction of limmud lishma, “study for its own sake” – and the country’s universities have already stood up and taken notice, adjusting their own overall programs in a similar direction as part of an auspicious free market competition for the privilege of teaching Israel’s best young minds. Things, in short, are starting to change.

With God’s help, the graduates of such newly erected or creatively reformed institutions will constitute an elite breed. They will be steeped in the wisdom of the past, and driven to influence the present and future. They will be “idea people,” bringing to whatever profession they choose to undertake the brashness of original thinking married to the solidity of accumulated human experience. They will be confident enough to take initiative, inventive enough to think outside of the box, and dedicated enough to throw themselves into the daunting tasks at hand. They will be insatiable readers, provocative writers, captivating teachers and people of action ( non-stope keeler ekshen). They will be erudite like their yeshiva forbears, arrogant like their Zionist precursors, and endowed with a profound moral sense and a fierce yearning to build. They will be the avant garde fueled by the Jewish Genius that we so desperately need. They will be Jewish renaissance men and Jewish renaissance women: at home in the world, devoted to their country, and qualified to spearhead Israel’s – and the Jewish People’s – ongoing struggle to exist and to matter.

And they will be very, very tired.