Open Minded Torah: A Conversation With William Kolbrener

By Jeffrey Goldberg

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?

WK: When I was a graduate student in the English Department at Columbia, after not showing up one Friday at the West End Bar, and soon after being seen in the corridors of Philosophy Hall with a kippa, I heard whispers, suggestions that somehow overnight, I had turned into a fundamentalist or fanatic.  Not just that, I was taking on unimaginable and unnecessary restraints, avoiding the more urgent demands of the creative, autonomous and independent self.  Friends who wondered at my sudden absence from Friday night rounds and subsequent refusals of invitations for sushi (back in the eighties kosher sushi was scarce) might have quoted Freud: 'Religion is the obsessional neurosis of humanity.' The Jews, for Freud, who in this regard were worst of all, act out their own dramas of self-deprivation through ever more 'strict observance,' and avoidance of pleasure.  My friends certainly thought - as many others after him - that I was 'missing out,' and not only on sushi or beers on Friday night.

But while some contemporary Jews look at the strictures of Jewish tradition as limiting, Open Minded Torah is about finding pleasure in relationships, and different, authentic and creative voices in the framework of both age-old traditions and contemporary communities. In the Western philosophical traditions that I teach, starting with Plato, objectivity and distance are often celebrated. In the Jewish tradition, it's not disengaged neutrality (vulgarized distilled today in a culture of 'whatever'), but relationship which is central. A teacher in the Talmud is not one who stands outside, like a contemporary academic in an Ivory Tower, but one who literally connects, not only people to God, but communities, people to people. So what from one perspective may look like constraint or restriction, from another is engaged connectedness, with the risks and opportunities it affords. The Jewish tradition says that for every Jew there is a corresponding letter in the Torah.  Open Minded Torah shows how connecting to one's letter and what a psychologist calls the 'True Self' are - even for us in the twenty-first century - related, both of them acts of love, offering different kinds of pleasure.

JG: And the follow-up -- do you think I know what I'm missing?

WK: My book is not about advocating a lifestyle, but cultivating a voice (my own), and in the process perhaps helping others to cultivate their own. Judaism, like psychoanalysis, emphasizes the primacy of the psyche, self, or soul. I cannot -- no one honestly can -- speculate on what others are 'missing': to dwell on that question is a sign of avoiding the one more urgent to me: what am I missing?  Those who do not ask that question - whether they are wearing red bandannas or large black skull-caps - and frantically asserting that they have already reached their goals, provide, with their 'certainty,' a cover story for self-doubts about facing the demands of an unknown future.

When an old high school friend heard of my new Jewish observance, he commented that I was taking the easy way out, relying upon the 'crutch' of religion. But for me the Jewish tradition does not provide answers, but unexpected resources to help refine the questions I ask. The sages of the Talmud assert, the premature proclamation of having arrived at a truth is a form of stagnation or death.  Only acknowledging lack and imperfection - again what I am missing - permits the possibility of further discovery. In my book, the Jewish tradition provides a framework for such discovery, an impetus for striving, the means through which deepening connections to the past possibilities for new futures emerge.

JG: Could you discuss the downside of certainty? There are many days during which I wish I wouldn't be plagued by doubts about the faith to which I belong, and the God to whom I pray (infrequently, and imperfectly, mind you). But then I look at, say, the religious-nationalists of the West Bank settlements and think to myself, "If that's where certainty takes you, it's not for me." Talk about the role of certainty in your life.

WK: Teaching Oedipus Rex to undergraduates, I ask them to imagine aspects of the Greek tragedy in an Israeli setting. When the city of Thebes is befallen by plague, Oedipus stands up and proclaims: 'I will grant your prayers - for I am Apollo's champion.' As if to say: 'I know what the gods want, and I will be the one to perform their will.'  'Oedipus in a kippa,' the title of one of the essays in my book, meditates on different kinds of Israeli fundamentalists, including the religious-nationalist ideologue, believing that he knows, with certainty, what God wants -- the settling of 'Greater Israel' -- and further that he will be the one to make it happen. To claim to be the agent of God's will is an act -- just ask Oedipus -- of enormous hubris.  The Israeli version of the Oedipal assertion - 'I must rule' - ends in either total disillusion as in some cases on the Israeli left, or, on the right, the ever more desperate clinging to an ideology of arrogant triumphalism.

'Remember you were slaves in Egypt,' God tells the Jews at the beginning of their history, for only by acknowledging past vulnerability can you be receptive and open to others. Jewish nationhood also means recognizing that no single perspective offers certainty: 'A person,' the sages of the Talmud say, 'does not receive the Torah when alone.'  Learning with a study-partner enacts a non-Oedipal kind of knowledge: where even as I know and gain understanding, I realize my understanding is partial, incomplete. For no one lives in the mind of God; to believe so, as in the case of Oedipus, ends only in tragedy. In a generation where fundamentalist certainty or relativist despair, vitriolic nationalism or indifference to nationhood sometime seem to be the only options, Open Minded Torah nurtures conviction while trying to remain attuned to other perspectives, other voices.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/open-minded-torah-a-conversation-with-william-kolbrener/237158/