Monday, January 20, 2014

Did You Hear the one about 12 Cardinals and a Bunch a Rabbis walking into a Beit Midrash...?
That, and my First Day of School

So I walk into school this morning and as I'm waiting for the elevator, a bus load of very frum looking people walk in the door. They were all wearing ones. And by the looks of the big crosses hanging 'round their necks, I figured they weren't new students trying to find out where registration was.

Like any nosy Jew, I start trying to find out what's going on. Anytime you see a lot of cardinals in one place, you think they're coming to elect a new pope. Perhaps Rabbi Lamm? Pope Norman I?

Seeing as Rabbi Lamm probably wouldn't look that great in a white robe (the whole Jesus thing might've been a little problematic, too), I guess they decided they wanted to see what Jewish learning was all about. So around 10:30 this morning, Rabbi Lamm and Rabbi Charlop walked into the main Beit Midrash along with the cardinals and their entourage. Most of the guys learning looked a little confused, but the majority went on learning. The galachim all seemed to be very impressed. Apparently, they found it very inspiring that young people in the modern world, living in one of the most decadent, materialistic cities, would spend their morning poring over ancient religious texts. It's funny how we take that for granted often. Some times you need someone from the outside to remind you just how incredible you are. Rabbi Blau even mentioned how one of the cardinals said to him, "if our students only learned like yours, we wouldn't have as many problems as we do."

I even got to shmooze with one the cardinals and a Parisian priest. We talked a little bit about the difficulties of communicating across cultural gaps, and I mentioned how yeshiva students are often capable of speaking the languages of many different worlds. We also talked about how there are things that we can talk about, but that there are also topics we have to agree not to talk about at the outset (a la the Rav's approach to communication in "Confrontation"). It was interesting that the cardinal echoed what I said, and that he seemed to implicitly understand what I was talking about. One of the difficulties I've found with Habermas and some other liberal thinkers is that they don't seem to recognize that their are limitations in communication across a cultural gap. You can learn a lot from dialogue and learning from different communities, but you also have to understand clearly what the fundamental differences are between the different cultures and which gaps can and can't be bridged.

With the Parisian priest I talked a little bit about differences between Jewish and Christian approaches to marriage and divorce. Actually, he started talking about the topic when I asked him what were the biggest difficulties his parishioners had with religion. Were they intellectual issues, like belief and faith in doctrine? He said the biggest difficulties he had were more practical and had to do with cases where people got divorced and then remarried and felt that they needed to leave the Church and had difficulty confronting their priest because of feelings of guilt and what not. I didn't say this at the time, but I thought it was very interesting how we have the notion that even if someone transgresses a prohibition, they're still a part of the community and that there is always room for tshuvah. Yes, Halakhah is meant to be kept but,כי אדם, אין צדיק בארץ--אשר יעשה-טוב, ולא יחטא (Eccles. 7:20). And on Yom Kippur, the first thing we say is "אנו מתירים להתפלל עם העבריינים."

So that was my morning. Shiur was pretty good. We started a new perek. Unfortunately, my chavruta is sick, so I would like to wish him a refuah shlemah.

In my college classes, I had back-to-back Wyschogrods. I really liked them and am looking forward to the semester. With Dr. Edith, we did a introduction to Phenomenology, giving a brief overview of Husserl, Heidegger and Levinas (we sort of skipped Sartre). I was really impressed by how clear she was at presenting their general approaches to studying consciousness. She also really knows her stuff, which is very cool.

Her husband, Dr. Michael, who is teaching Philosophy of Religion, was also very good, though a little slower. He gave a good introduction discussing the differences between the ways analytic and continental philosophers approach the study of religion. We also got off on to a whole tangent concerning Natural Theology.

I also mentioned to both of them that I'm doing a thesis comparing Rav Soloveitchik's and Emanuel Levinas' contributions to social and religious philosophy, and they both seemed interested and willing to offer their advice, which is really good. I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts on the topic, so feel free to comment; of course I will cite anyone who helps as a reference in the final draft. I'm also interested in trying to apply Levinas and the Rav to the whole communitarian critique of John Rawls. One of the problems I find with Rawls is that he doesn't giving compelling reasons (in my mind) as to why people should feel any responsibility to one another or morally bound by any form of social contract. I feel Levinas is very good at filling in this gap. Also, I'm interested in how Halakhah (or the "philosophy of Halakhah" to use the Rav's term) balances the relative relationship between the individual and the community, especially in economic matters. Prof. Aaron Levine has written somewhat on this topic; Prof. Twersky also wrote an interesting article on Jewish attitudes toward the welfare state. Another interesting article I found recently was one by Suzanne Stone in Harvard Law Review on the emergence of Halakhah in postmodernist legal theory (an interesting topic in and of itself).

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