Only Zaddikim can Save us

I just read an article about Catholicism that with only a few changes could apply to Judaism. Everyday we read about people disillusioned with the financial, moral, and political scandals in the community. There are not many great rabbis that are not involved in scandals. Almost (not all) any Orthodox rabbi of authority has web pages dedicated to his scandals. Even though the defenders will argue otherwise, the rabbinate is more associated with misuse of power than role models of Torah lives. Many have been turned off by fundamentalist interpretations of the Torah. Yet, greater cultural engagement – history, philosophy, social science- wont bring people back. Vague mottos for modern Orthodoxy that do not require actual aspiration will not help. We need a real sense of before and after. We are proud of the materialism and careerism of Centrism without discussing the cultural trade offs. At best, there is moralism about a specific fetishized practices, but no core drive for values. This article thinks that only a new set of saints will help. New zaddikim are needed to enliven people and to show value. People I know have wanted a new mussar movement for a long time- maybe that can help. But real mussar is foreign. The early Hasidic Rebbes helped revive Ukrainian Jewry from its community decadence only to have their grandchildren be caught themselves in the morase. Telling Hasidic Torah wearing a bekeshe wont save us from moral decadence and misuse of funds, power, and authority.
What would a Jewish saint of the 21st century look like? What moral problems would be addressed? What virtues would be preached? What sort of saint could, or would, be followed in suburbia?

Only the Saints Can Save Us– J. Peter Nixon is an award-winning Catholic writer whose work has appeared in America, Commonweal, U.S. Catholic, and elsewhere

As Ross Douthat noted in a recent essay in the Atlantic, this was the year when the clerical sexual abuse crisis truly became global, reaching even into the Vatican itself. Douthat observed that “for millions in Europe and America, Catholicism is probably permanently associated with sexual scandal, rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Most of the solutions offered are unlikely to have much of an impact. The liberal path of greater rapprochement between Church and culture has not proven successful for those denominations that have tried it. But an embittered and joyless defense of orthodoxy — the kind on display in far too many quarters of the Catholic internet — repels far more people than it attracts.

Our children and grandchildren are abandoning the faith because they perceive — rightly — that its demands are at fundamental variance with the lives we have prepared them to lead. We have raised them to seek lives characterized by material comfort, sexual fulfillment, and freedom from any obligations that they have not personally chosen. Should it surprise us that they fail to take seriously our claims to follow one who embraced poverty, chastity, and obedience to the will of God?

A revival of the Church in our time will require believers who are willing to take risks on behalf of the Gospel. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if Cardinal Law, rather than retiring to his sinecure in Rome, had instead made a penitential journey to Haiti and lived out his days in a hospital cleaning toilets and picking maggots from the wounds of street people. Some might have seen such a penance as inadequate to the offense, but it could not have been dismissed as an empty gesture.

The future of the Church is not in the hands of its leaders, whose exhortations seem increasingly to fall on deaf ears… In the end, it is only the saints who can save us.

22 responses to “Only Zaddikim can Save us

  1. The Haredim have their gedolim which they would argue are precisely the “saints” that Judaism need. As with the Catholic Church part of the problem here is that we are dealing with individuals, who might be very saintly as individuals, but are de facto tainted precisely from being associated with a “super friends” organization like the Moetzes.

  2. The potential saints seem to be attracted to zionist or hareidi fundamentalism.

    I have friends who live in relative poverty for the sake of values that they feel are important, whether it is living in Israel or learning or both. But the level of risk (and this is what the author associates with sainthood) that they assume is ultimately rather minimal because no matter what happens they have parents who can help out and the modern welfare state.

    Also notice that Catholic saints are generally married only to the Lord. I have serious ethical reservations about a person with a martyr complex who risks it all for religion when it is their spouse and children who get dragged along for the ride willy-nilly.

    Most of us seem perfectly happy to live in a risk-averse society with various safety nets at the expense of various freedoms. Breaking away from that requires more than rejecting bourgeois consumerism.

  3. Kevin Rothman

    no, the gedolim and the rebbes are not the answer, they are part of the problem. There was an important Habad rabbi writing during the early part of the 20th century named Avraham Chein. He was a pacifist and possibly a moderate anarchist …. in any event, he referred to the anarchist writer Peter Kropotkin (less of a pure anarchist and more of a activist for anocracy… see buber “paths in utopia” ch. on kropotkin) as the “new kind of tzadik”. I think that what he was getting at is that the model of communal leadership we have been working with for a long time is terribly out of date and provides the basis for all sorts of degenerations (moral, religious, creative…). We become members of institutions and follow leaders and all the while lose what is most important. Liberal Judaism is losing its Jews because its institutions become lifeless as Jewish institutions in their universality. Orthodox Judaism loses its moral compass because its institutions are exclusively intent on the preservation of ritual life. The problem is that institutions and individual leaders are instruments far too blunt, brushes far too thick to create a nuanced, and therefore sustainable and meaningful, image of Judaism. the new tzadik is not a tzadik, it is the refusal of the tzadik, the shul, the insititution, and the taking on of responsibility deferred.

  4. I think that suburbia is not ready, nor am I sure it ever will be, for a “Jewish Saint.” Financially, would the suburbs be willing to support another figure, especially one who spends the time in non-materialistic ways? The saint is different from the rabbi for the rabbi is the institutional head and as such is an employee of the community. For the Jewish saint to work, the person would need to not be encumbered by the challenges of living in the Orthodox community and for that matter would need to be free to act and teach without worrying about offending his/her patron of the arts.

    A second problem that I see is that many people say they wish they had a charismatic leader who was able to guide them through the spiritual travails of living in today’s world. Yet, I would venture if part of the moral challenges included giving up aspects of their materialistic lifestyles, the tune my quickly change. It could be the virtues will have to be more about slowing down our lives and shutting of the cell phone for an hour a day as part of a spiritual practice. When suburban Jewry hear rabbis decry internet, cell phones, etc., most think that the Rabbis are crazy or just don’t understand. Few hear the deeper message. As a personal example, I was reading R. Morgenstern’s weekly dvar Torah this week, parashat Vaetchanan, and part of spiritual message was the need to remove the computer from our homes. As I read this, I first thought, “this doesn’t resonate with me.” While I still accept that his exhortation is not something that I can impliment, I realize that perhaps for suburbia, the message becomes, slow down, walk away from the computer for a while every day. Make a solid commitment to shutting off the internet for a little while, whatever it might be and find something meaningful and productive to do with the time found. But would those messages really be more than lipservice, even if coming from a charismatic leader who personally did practice what is preached?

  5. You ask “what sort of saint could or would be followed in suburbia?” Why suburbia? Think of the city, life in a metropolis. How does a Jew, Orthodox or not, fully engage the cultural and social life of the contemporary city? Theater, opera, movies, music, night life, sports, exercise, lifetime learning ; and multi-ethnic neighbors, blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Asian, charedim. We certainly don’t need more Judaism, we are saturated with Judaism- Jew- Jewish, and preachers advocating even more Judaism- Jew- Jewish. We need some distance, we need to mix it up outside the ghetto, we need to aspire to play on a bigger chess board, we need to become assimilated in a more sophisticated way. In short, we need to become more cosmopolitan. Every major problem facing Orthodoxy, e.g. authoritarianism and latent fascism, peace with the Palestinians and Arabs, anti Semitism, other denominations and the fate of the Diaspora, patriarchy and the subjugation of women, treatment of the other, (non-Jews, homosexuals gerim) honesty and civic virtues…all go easier with less Judaism rather than more.

    If moralizing/musar would work we wouldn’t have this constant decay from within. Asking Orthodoxy to become liberal-radical is hopeless. Fortunately, cosmopolitan attitudes are not identical with liberal attitudes. They require something less than universalism. They require a more aesthetic attitude towards tradition and our mesorah, less of “Is it true?” or “What does the Torah-God-Halacha really want?” and more “How do I integrate this into a cosmopolitan high/non bourgeois life.”An aesthetic vision and ideal, is a branch of Platonism similar to the Platonism inherent in much of our tradition, with the advantage that it does not require a return to the 13th century as does serious kabbalah. Since we already have plenty of decadence, we could think of this ideal as Late-Romantic- Orthodoxy or Fin di siècle Judaism. If we had a little more Hellenism, and the imperial world a little more Hebraism, we would both be better off.

  6. In short, we need to become more cosmopolitan.

    How would you change the schools? How would you change the residence patterns? How would you even begin to overcome the provincialism and parochialism. I am up for ideas.

    The Romanticism approach did not hold. Any attempt in the last 130 years at humanism drifted back to orthodoxy and liberalism.
    Do you have any role models to suggest?

  7. Happy you asked.LOL. We should differentiate between high, middle and low aestheticism. High is romanticism becoming in time the fin de siècle themes of degeneration and decadence and then variations on early modernism. The story has been told many times, each genre and country being a little different. Call it the Wilde- James- Proust derech. It was dominant until 1914, and in the movies through WW2. An example in the painting and tchatchkes category, nusach Vienna, is Ronald Lauder’s Neue Gallery. It is Platonist because it identifies the good with the beautiful and the pure and perfect form. We know of this in many ways. The Ungarisher woman who tells you how her bubby had her clothes made in Budapest, the Paris of the East. We see glimpses in the Rogatchover and Jewish Studies. It is the background rhetoric of RSRH. It aestheticizes religion. Think Brideshead Revisited, Agnon and Celan. Two relevant wonderful movies are “Herb and Dorothy”, and the very not heimish, not chassidish documentary, Valentino:The Last Emperor.

    Middle aestheticism is what we called in my youth, pardon the Middle English, the uber pish style, torah ugedula bemakom aechad. How to keep one foot in Orthodoxy, preferably black hat, and one foot as far as it can go? Glatt at Le Cirque, Shabbus at Claridges, Harvard lawyer. There are no handbooks how to live in a grand style, but it is not something that is absent from Orthodoxy. Middle has a very bad and imho unfair reputation, associated with nouveau riche fat Hungarians, big SUV’s and cruises for Pesach.

    The low version is baalabatish country and is found everywhere. Hidur mitzvah, many books in the library, yichus, upscale shiduchim, being seen by others as X (fill in the blank.) But it also could be a cultural and intellectual openness to the world, a modern version of bildung, the full development of an inner spirituality through an immersion in the best the world has to offer. Bildung is open to everyone, rich and poor, irrespective of social status. Many children of refugees were smitten with this ideal, a desire to read and see everything.

  8. Kevin Rothman

    why bother aesthetically integrating something that is but yet has no meaning except for the fact that it can be integrated? at least by promoting radicalism the question of meaning is averted, judaism does not have to mean any “thing” in particular, is not a given body of knowledge but an ongoing putting in question or reappraisal, a method rather than a message. At least then it is not an illusion. True, most orthodox jews are not going to become anarchists (they should!), but they also are not particularly romantic or aesthetically inclined either. Once we are speaking of ideals to be striven towards, why not pick a more ambitious one?

  9. Kevin Rothman

    and, beyond that, it seems to me that the aesthetic ideal you argue for is fundamentally indulgent. You mentioned RSRH, what is the end of his 19 letters, which is the most romantic of his works? Benjamin marries and lives happily ever after. All the discussion, all the rhetoric leads nowhere other than to the huppah. Was that what it was all for in the end? I think if we want to claim Judaism has a place in modern society then it will have to lead farther than that…. through the huppah, yes, but if only there, then why even there?

  10. Radical politics forever is Trotskeyism and Anarchism, both of which down before they could get started. In some sense charedim and settlers are anarchists and that is the problem. So are lehavdil, crooks and swindlers, child molesters and wife beaters, shirkers and free riders, and all those others who think we are entitled to be the exception forever. Practical anarchism is going to get us one day in big trouble, so I fail to see the need for more.
    I would agree aestheticism being fundamentally indulgent and I would add meditation and the many ways of achieving higher levels of spirituality. The existence of an ostensible (self) object like the shechina, does not change the picture; and if it does, so does beauty in all its immanentist instantiations in material objects. (See Wolfson’s book on the relation between a davar gashmi and a gilui of spirituality in messianic times.)
    My idea rests on the thought that our problems and our strengths, once you get past the bravado, is based on an intense and sometimes defensive and damaged narcissism. Aestheticism is one of many possible sublimations of narcissism, with the advantage that it does not require immoral behavior. Speaking schematically I would argue it a lot easier and safer to turn the ocean liner called Judaism towards an aesthetic sublimation than in a left radical direction. Judith Butler might be a secular Jewish saint, but she is bad news for Jews and Israel. I realize aestheticism took on a fascist orientation in Italy and elsewhere. But we are from having that problem.

  11. I’ll place myself in the camp of your friends who have some hope for a new Musar movement of one sort or another. I think that efforts to nurture a counter-cultural Musar movement, a movement which encourages substantial individual efforts to cultivate a wide range of virtues, can improve our chances of creating more-saintly behavior and a greater ability to recognize saints among us. Aspects of the nineteenth-century Musar movement are, as you note, entirely foreign to contemporary America, but the focus on cultivating virtues does have some significant resonance, at least counter-culturally, as I tried to lay out in a recent article at (Pardon the errant colon in the article title there, which will hopefully be gone within another day.) There, I focused on efforts to revive aspects of the Musar movement’s legacy among non-Orthodox Jews, and found myself somewhat encouraged by those ongoing efforts. The dynamic within American Orthodoxy is different, and Orthodoxy offers its own challenges, especially with its (increasing?) valorization of the teleological suspension of the ethical (as you mentioned in the name of R. Ethan Tucker in your most recent post). But the general story in Orthodoxy is the same: efforts at promoting serious Musar practice within Orthodoxy are also largely counter-cultural, though part of their attraction is because of culturally-mainstream American values like the drive for “sincerity” (as Adam Seligman et al. put it) which have certainly permeated Orthodoxy as well.

    Musar practice won’t capture the suburban—or urban!—masses, whether in Orthodoxy or beyond it, even in its fairly-Americanized (less-foreign). But I think that it offers some hope for shaping people to be somewhat more like tzaddikim, or at least orienting us towards serious visions of what tzaddikim might look like.

  12. EJ-
    I fail to see where your low-brow mix would create any ethical concern. We are actually heading to that sort of mix and it is getting worse. We also had that sort of mix in pre WWII Poland – the mix of all sorts of things like Gerrer sports caster – and it was a as decadent as it came. See Pikarz and others.
    It may have been fun but it was not ethical in any way. On top of it, Polish urban life remained parochial even as they had all sorts of modern polish culture.

  13. I think there is a difference between lawlessness and anarchism. The former stands in opposition to the law and defies it for personal gain, the latter maintains the anethical foundation of any sort of coersion and works for the other man. I also do not think that Butler is the only example of the radical left one could or should draw on, you are taking an extreme example to make a point. While levinas, for example, ultimately acknowledges a system of third parties, his views are essentially anarchic (and even the justice embodied in the third party system is one grounded in the anarchy of “I-other”). Is he also “bad for the Jews and Israel”?

    If, in citing wolfson you are referring to his work on the lubavitcher rebbe (and even if you are not, this work is relevent) the notion of messianism and the davar gashmi there is precisely anarchic. the spirituality of the davar gashmi is so and radically so by virtue of the fact that matter unto itself is contentless and, therefore, correlates to the essential contentlessness of the essence of God that is the advent of the messianic in the lubavitcher rebbe’s eschatology. This contentlessness erases the division between man and man and man and God whereby law is stripped of its legal format… becomes uncommanded in its commandedness or, in other words, becomes self-ordained. I do not necessarily ascribe to this sense of the anarchic (i prefer levinas), because it has deeply hegelian, and, therefore, (paradoxically) totalitatian, undertones, but anarchic it is nonetheless.

    aesthetic sublimation may be an easier way to turn the ocean liner from gross narcissism, but it is a way that does not reach shore… and I am not even certain it really even turns away from gross narcissism if it is, in the end, self-directed. i think that today spirituality must be a spiritual for the other man if it is to have any worth at all. polishing narcissism just isnt enough… and if that is all we can offer then I think we would be selling an inferior product. greater demands must be made.

  14. Kevin Rothman

    a quote (often cited during Habad gatherings) from mendle futerfas, a prominent habad mashpia from the previous generation, comes to mind: “the other man’s gashmiyut is my ruchniyut”

  15. There is indeed a big difference between anarchism and lawlessness, and my point as it stands is incorrect. At this point I am becoming confused by your use of the term anarchic as in the eschatology of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. If it isn’t antinomian, is it the abolishing of all authority and concentrations of power? The dismantling of concentrations of capital must be worldwide, since one country at a time would be a disaster for the country. It seems to me to be an impossible quixotic goal. I do not understand this anarchic ideal.
    As for ‘polishing narcissism is not enough’, I disagree. Many of the problems Judaism faces comes on my view from narcissistic deficits, and anything that would help heal these wounds is worthwhile. As an example, the disappearance of American non-Orthodox Jewish life is a result of the young thinking it’s more stylish, cooler, to walk away than to stay. In communities like the Persian or Syrian Jews where there is a much greater ‘stulzkeit’, a much greater sense of being part of something fabulous, intermarriage is not a serious problem. In my opinion being told that tachlis haadam is the American Jewish World Service will not make religious life more attractive. Tikun haolam is basically a variant of utilitarianism, and is more compatible with a secularized Christianity. If you are thinking about sensitivity to others on a personal level, there is nothing on the left to compare to the Protestant novel.
    You are also right about what Wolfson is saying. I deliberately misread Wolfson, because unless I can find concrete empirical examples I become very confused. For me so far, seeing the cosmos as in The Purloined Letter gives me a headache; to wit that what is revealed is betzem a secret and vice versa. Similarly I would explain the idea that the spiritual will be revealed through its opposite in terms of the new idea that consciousness is an epiphenomena. I acknowledge that the way you put it is closer to the text.

    I wish this was a venue where we could elaborate on these ideas in a slow and more systemic way. Hopefully more some other time

  16. Perhaps the closest Judaism has to Cath. saints, who were similarly often either distant or apart from their faith to one degree or another in one aspect or another – is BTs. But Catholicism and Judaism are distinct in ways that escape many people; you are mikvah-ed into Catholicism, where Judaism is vastly born Jews. A BT is not ‘baptised’ – they are affirming a fundamental aspect of themself already there – the Ger/convert/the baptisted – are rejecting one, if not many aspects of their being.

    Also BTs often admit to having been “sold” the Judaism they are measured by; saints in hagiographies of ancient and recent vintage, not the case. Many of Judaism most recent martyrs were so often for ‘simply’ being Jews tragically murdered – were a certain of them were martyred in acting their faith or asserting principles of it in sacrifice. Judaism for various reasons (that I do not judge), has a virtue, doctrine and achievement in simply existing as a Jew.

    Not so many inside the hierarchies of either have been deemed ‘saints’; but Judaism has a way of making as many of them as possible to be saints, not as the catholic celebration of lives transformed (think R. Wolbe and his BT/not-BT status..), but as simple motivation and source of inspiration of the Artscroll variety. Most saints come from outside either Establishment – and it’s hardly as if every pope has earned the status, even as far as the church is concerned.

  17. Kevin Rothman

    the distinction i make is between the levinasian sort of anarchism and that of the lubavitcher rebbe. in the rebbe’s writings (and here I am thinking more of his work from 1990 forward. I have written on this subject if you would like to read it.) there is a hasidic reworking of hegel’s “identity of identity and non-identity” theory. I do not know if this was intended or if it just emerged naturally from the directionality of kabbalistic thought in Habad, it is, however (in my opinion) distinct. while hegel points towards a totality and a totalitarianism of the absolute (following Rosenzweig here), in the sublimation of the particular in the universal there must be (if the equation he employs in “the difference btwn fitche’s and schelling’s philosophy” is actually an equation) a reciprocal denigration of the absolute to the particular. Taking both of these in hand, one is left with a dissolution of heirarchy and, in this sense, an anarchy. However, this is an anarchic that immolates the individuality of either side of the equation. It is, in this sense, an anethical anarchy. Yet, it is this very blur that marks, for the rebbe, the manifestation of atsmut elokut, or, in hegelian terms, the absolute. (i could say a lot more on this but I will refrain…. this is also where i totally disagree with wolfson regarding his reference to buddhist sources to explain the rebbe)

    the levinasian anarchic is an absolute ethical responsibility for the other that predates my freedom. it is an anarchic of transcendence whereby no logic in the sense of hegel’s equation can subsist between two entities such that no law can carry both. he mitigates this somewhat in the notion of justice, but it is nonetheless the foundation of his system.

    I agree that a large scale revolution would be disasterous (and when was any revolution successful anyway?). but I am not talking about that, I am talking about a dissolution of the institutionality of modern Judaism and returning it to a mode of questioning rather than a mode of answering.

    i also hear you on the coolness factor; however, I question whether the sort of elevated sense of importance the syrian or any other of our more insular communities have of themselves is ultimately a good. I think that while it serves an ethnically useful purpose, it is an open gate for self-justifying moral degeneration. coolness itself is ultimately, in my opinion, rather empty, ultimately self defeating, and undermines itself in its being sought (trying to be cool is the least cool thing there is, one must simply be cool)…and, in my opinion, this comes from the cessation of seeming and the commencement of being. this being is a renouncement of labels, of ways of being. for judaism, this would mean setting aside the institutions and denominations we are defined in and by and simply letting the analysis of texts, traditions, and concepts speak for itself… instead of the selective reading that all present denominations are guilty of.

  18. avraham rosenblum

    Not a counter culture musar movement–rather a movement based on the great books of torah–i.e. Torah, Talmud (with Tosphot) Rambam. Musar sefaim are not on that level of greatness or depth–but they are important.
    (I would add to the great sefarim list the arizal and rebbi nachmans’s books).
    I think there should be a clear distinction between great and suburban, Let’s face the fact that most kabala books are quite good in promoting insanity and seem to have the same effect on people as a good night in a bar or at an ecstasy party

  19. Kevin Rothman

    but how is that any different from what is already going on and is failing? talmud, rambam, etc. are taught in most yeshivot and the problems we are discussing still exist. I think there has to be more than a simple return to the sources. it must be a critical return, one willing to draw blood and have blood drawn. there must be risk, otherwise it is altogether too complacent and suspect from the start

  20. avraham rosenblum

    I am working on it. I am trying to figure out what made the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn thirty years ago special. The closest idea i have been able to figure out is the devotion to a great book –the Gemara Babli with a little Musar thrown in. Perhaps there is something intangible in great books that produces quality people?

  21. Know where we need saddiqim? – in the skhunot – and not just in Israel, but here too. There is massive misery in Israel (1/3 of Israeli children suffer from hunger) and here too. I am tired of hearing that working class and poor Jews don’t exist, which is what I heard in the 1988 Tikkun Conference at the Penta Hotel. That kind of stereotyping feeds right into the ‘rich Jews’ myth and is also running rampant yet again. You know who was a saddiq? Michael Gold, at least when he wrote that book _Jews without Money_ in the 1930s, but the Communists and Communism are passé, for better or worse. And with the destruction of the social safety net all we are left with are the religious institutions, like in the 19th century. For years the only shuls that didn’t constantly ask people for money but gave out saddaqah in abundance was Chabad. And like it or not, and personally I don’t like their politics, but Chabad shuls are more diverse in terms of socioeconomic class and often in terms of bringing Sephardim and Mizrahim and Ashkenazim together, despite the historical cultural running over of Mizrahi and Sephardi culture by Ashkenazi hassidut. Where I live the Sephardim and Mizrahim mostly attend the Chabad shuls. And the only shul I know of doing saddaqah in Skhunat Ha-Tikva is an off-shoot of Chabad. This is why their numbers of increasing so much and will continue to do so unless everyone else makes gemilut hasadim their number one priority, especially in these times. Gemilut hasidim also applies to the larger community and not just to Jews, but given the stereotypes about Jews and money even Jewish organizations and leaders often forget to ‘take care of their own’ – which is kind of hard to do when you don’t think they exist.

  22. Kevin Rothman

    word. I hear you on that

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