As The BEST column heads off for a hiatus, the columns’ editor reflects on what we have been doing in 150 installments and what we hope you’ve gained from the effort. Read about the founding rationale of the project and peruse the index of all entries until now.
TraditionOnline will be putting its “The BEST” project on “pause” to pursue a new project: “Tradition Questions.” This new weekly feature will present short essays on contemporary trends within our community and within general society that affect our community. Each essay will contain three sections:
This project seeks to spark conversations among our readers and within our communities about failures and successes, risks and opportunities. We hope that thoughtful reflection on things like the shrinking size of modern Torah scrolls, the ever-increasing volume at Jewish weddings, and the communal effects of Orthodox influencers can help us see our community and our lives more honestly.
But before we start something new, we must reflect upon the old. Having published about 150 entries, the upcoming hiatus is a good opportunity to take stock of “The BEST.” In initiating this project back in 2019, I wrote of its goals:
In Culture and Anarchy (1869), Matthew Arnold argues for the role of reading “the best that has been thought and said” as an antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest… In this regular feature of TraditionOnline.org we will seek to gather and share droplets [of Arnold’s antidote]. We ask those who participate in this project to consider what things “out there” make you think and feel. What elements in our culture still inspire us to live better? We seek to share what we find that might still be described as “the best that has been thought and said.”
In effect, we have been doing “retail” Torah U’Madda. In our shop’s virtual windows, we display content from general culture that can help us live as better bnei Torah and yirei shamayim. We succeeded admirably in this task: collecting scores of “stock keeping units” and listening carefully to their finders’ joy in the discovery.
Yet, we must ask if these specimens are having any real effect on the lives of our community. Is our “retail” store in the grand mall of the American Jewish Dream actually improving the lives of our customers – or are we just a modest cover for a dominant culture which is having a deleterious effect on the bnei Torah and yirei shamayim that we (sometimes presumptuously) believe ourselves to be?
We would do well to consider another word from Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy.” That word is “machinery.” Arnold writes:
For a long time, as I have said, the strong feudal habits of subordination and deference continued to tell upon the working-class. The modern spirit has now almost entirely dissolved those habits, and the anarchical tendency of our worship of freedom in and for itself, of our superstitious faith, as I say, in machinery, is becoming very manifest. More and more, because of this our blind faith in machinery, because of our want of light to enable us to look beyond machinery to the end for which machinery is valuable, this and that man, and this and that body of men, all over the country, are beginning to assert and put in practice an Englishman’s right to do what he likes.
Writing back in 1869, “machinery” took on for Arnold a symbolic meaning that has been appropriated by the word “technology” today. Whatever we call it, Arnold bemoans our preoccupation with a shiny material world that prevents us from appreciating the ultimate purpose that it serves. The machinery has only grown more powerful in guiding our attention towards the places that we (Englishmen and otherwise) “like” – when often it is not to our ultimate liking. For our community, the “strong feudal habits of subordination and deference” are less feudal than halakhic, but they too are facing a degree of dissolution in the worship of freedom.
In drawing a possible escape from this machinery, Arnold introduces another “best,” not the “best that has been thought and said” but our best self: “In each class there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery; for the pursuit, in a word, of perfection.”
For Arnold, this perfection holds much meaning.
The idea of perfection as an inward condition of the mind and spirit is at variance with the mechanical and material civilisation in esteem with us.… The idea of perfection as a general expansion of the human family is at variance with our strong individualism, our hatred of all limits to the unrestrained swing of the individual’s personality, our maxim of “every man for himself.” The idea of perfection as an harmonious expansion of human nature is at variance with our want of flexibility, with our inaptitude for seeing more than one side of a thing, with our intense energetic absorption in the particular pursuit we happen to be following…
We would do well to recognize “the harmonious expansion of human nature” of which Arnold writes as a corollary to the idea of teshuva as understood by Rav Kook: “This is the character of the Jews: deeply influenced by the concept of teshuva, yearning for the most exalted realities. Our surroundings and conditions may not be in concert with that. Nevertheless, our powerful yearning is the power that turns the universe and gives forth the most perfect wealth that may be found within life” (Orot HaKodesh II, p. 567).
We would do well to recognize the ultimate wholesale objective of a “best self” in taking in whatever of the BEST that we might consume. May our appreciating The BEST of culture bring us to our best selves – as our powerful yearning brings us to an ever more full realization of teshuva.
Chaim Strauchler is the rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, and is an associate editor at TRADITION, where he has shepherded The Best column, and has provided us all with so much thoughtful and thought-provoking content.