Open Minded Torah: A Conversation With William Kolbrener

William Kolbrener, an Orthodox Jewish Milton scholar (not a huge special-interest group) from Jerusalem, though originally, like Goldblog, from Long Island, has written a beautiful book called "Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love."

 "Beautiful" is Jonathan Rosen's word (but also mine). Rosen calls the book "an exhilarating hybrid, steeped in traditional learning but at home in the modern world, centered on universal questions and yet deeply personal." Rosen goes on for a while with enthusiasm, as he should: Kolbrener is a deep-dish scholar. But he is also wonderfully engaging. He engages his readers, and he engages with the Torah, and one of the great values of this book is that he introduces his readers to the Torah in unexpected ways. The Torah is not a closed book for Kolbrener. I'm always looking for writers who will help me gain wisdom about my tradition, and of course I'm always looking for writers who tell interesting stories, and Kolbrenner does: About Shakespeare and baseball and raising a son with Down Syndrome.

I recently had an e-mail exchange with Kolbrener about his book, about Orthodox Judaism and its relationship to modernity, and a whole bunch of other things. I hope we continue this dialogue. Here's some of our back-and-forth:

Jeffrey Goldberg: The first question is about you, and the book: "Open Minded Torah" obviously sounds like an oxymoron to many secular, or secularish Jews. My impression is that the Orthodox world has suffered some sort of epistemic closure of the type that makes anyone with any sort of non-Torah interests flee for their lives. Yet you are a scholar of Milton, among other things. The question is incredibly simple: Who can you even talk to about your interests in the universe in which you have placed yourself?

William Kolbrener: I was one of those Jews 'fleeing for their lives': I avoided Jewish organizations at Columbia and dismissed the aggressive posturing of proselytizers outside the 116th Street subway station.  But, following a professor downtown one Saturday morning -  I heard he had a secret life, a contemporary 'Marrano' -  I ended up in a synagogue, discovering, beyond the fundamentalist performances of certainty I had seen on the street, a Jewish tradition based on debate and conversation.

My orthodox neighbors, it turns out, are more multi-dimensional than newspapers editors on the left and fanatical religious sects on the right represent them. They may not have read  Paradise Lost, but their conversations about community, identity and beginnings can be as intense as any I had around seminar tables in graduate school.  But more than that, Open Minded Torah acknowledges that our voices are hybrid, and that we often need more than one framework to sustain us (even Miltonists get boring after a while).  So my book, reflecting my life - and travels from suburban Long Island to the Upper West Side to Oxford and Timbuktu and now Jerusalem - includes many different conversations. My book reclaims the epistemic openness of Judaism, to elicit connections, often unexpected, between conversations about literature, film, psychoanalysis, philosophy and ancient Jewish traditions. I am always looking for more people to talk to; but I suspect I am not the only one.

 JG: Many non-Orthodox Jews look at the Orthodox and see sterile adherence to God's laws, and something less than faithful adherence to man's laws. This is a nice way of asking, Why does it seem as if so many Orthodox Jews break the law, particularly when it comes to financial crimes, when compared to non-Orthodox Jews? Is it just the disproportionate interest of the media that creates this impression? Or is there something in the way some Orthodox men interpret Judaism that leads them astray?

WK: The media does relish the spectacle of arrogance revealed, religious posturing unmasked.  But there are other faces to orthodoxy.  Recently, in my small synagogue in Jerusalem, right before the most solemn moment in the morning service, a beggar came into the shul: the predictable rhythm of prayer halted as people rummaged through pockets, pressing coins and notes into the old man's hand.  God's presence dwells in Judaism, not through mystical union with the divine, but through acts of care for others.  These are the unseen orthodox, often unpretentious and unassuming, made invisible by those - who with the media's help -- turn themselves into orthodoxy's representatives.

For Jews who exchange their long black frocks for orange prison jump-suits, Judaism has become a mere public performance. The skeleton of their sterile rituals, and the pronouncements of their own holiness and prescriptions for others, serve to mask a spiritual void. Shakespeare's Thersites would say of those disengaged from the world, detached from themselves and others: 'O putrified cores,' righteous appearing, corrupt within.  When the animating forces of observance - connection to God and other people - give way to monastic piety and close-minded rejection of the world, then only cynicism and self-interest remain.

But the media fascination may serve one of our needs as well: to displace a sense of personal responsibility onto the faults and weaknesses of others. In this way, those who flaunt the law (as well as the Law) do a double disservice: not only in their own crimes, but in licensing our cynicism, making it easier for us to forsake a genuine connection to a Jewish tradition that we might claim for ourselves.

JG: Here's a kind of rude question: Do you know what you're missing? And the natural follow-up -- do you think I know what I'm missing, by not embracing the lifestyle that you have embraced?

Presented by

Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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