The BEST: Retrospective
In a recent dvar Torah, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb compared Dostoevsky to Balaam. After noting his disillusionment upon learning of Dostoevsky’s Antisemitism, he reflects:
One lesson to learn from Balaam and his encounter with the Jewish people is: A man can be a universally acclaimed spiritual leader, and a gifted poet and orator with prophetic powers almost identical to those of Moses, and simultaneously be a vile anti-Semite, capable of genocidal schemes.
Contrast this assessment with a quote from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein regarding Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson:
There are people, non-Jews, whose mission in the world is one of creativity, whether it is literary creativity or moral creativity. People in whom you see greatness, spiritual and moral greatness. How can you not be astounded by Samuel Johnson, a man who … attained a level of charity that I wish I could attain. Because he is a non-Jew should I ignore it? (Mevakshi Fanekha, p. 73).
R. Weinreb remains one of the Orthodox community’s most eloquent ambassadors for the usefulness of the best that has been thought and spoken in a life of Torah and mitzvot. Yet, his cogent critique of literature’s Balaams remains for the ben and bat Torah a retort to R. Lichtenstein’s defense of Johnson. Granted we should not ignore the Johnsons, but can we give any credence to the Balaams? In as much as they often swim together in the same cultural streams, is it worth wading in?
In witnessing the prolonged decline of the liberal arts both in the university and in their formerly preeminent position within society, we see the long eclipse of Johnson and all that he stood for. In his place, we witness the rise of many a Balaam.
TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” series marks its first anniversary this week. We have published 40 items from 24 reviewers. We plan to publish more. We have tried to defend literature’s Johnsons utilizing Matthew Arnold’s antidote to the anarchy of materialism, industrialism and individualistic self-interest. Attempting to follow R. Lichtenstein’s model, we have argued with specific examples for the usefulness to a ben or bat Torah of the best that has been thought and spoken. The year that accompanied the launch of this project has seen much anarchy. The ongoing wreckage begs for an antidote.
We asked those who participate in this project to consider what things “out there” make them think and feel. What elements in our culture still inspire us to live better? We can discern much from the choices of our writers. Alex Israel and Nati Helfgot offered movies; Yakov Beasley and Elie Weisman put forward music; Shira Hecht Koller art; Aryeh Klapper a TV show; and Marc Gottlieb and Sarah Ridner C.S. Lewis’ fantasy. Tradition’s Editor Jeffrey Saks and I also chose popular items (Twilight Zone, baseball), in addition to more “serious” art and literature. Our community – as reflected by these writers – finds antidote beyond what was once termed high culture.
However, the project teaches us more than the authors’ choices of what is best. It offers illuminating insights into the place of “the best” in our lives. An educator asks, if given the choice, would he employ Dead Poet Society’s John Keating on his yeshiva faculty. A community rabbi speaks of how Robert Caro’s Power Broker instructs him that we are each morally accountable to even the unintended victims of our most noble dreams. A parent chases her boys through Lewitt’s Walls at Mass MoCA and reflects on being invited to be part of the art of talmud Torah.
Sanhedrin 106a tells the following narrative:
Three were associates in that counsel, and they are: Balaam, Job, and Yitro. Balaam, who advised to drown the newborn males, was killed. Job, who was silent and was reluctant to express his opinion, was sentenced to suffer afflictions. And Yitro, who fled after he disagreed with that counsel and Pharaoh sought to kill him, his descendants were privileged to sit as scribes in session with the Sanhedrin.
What Balaam thought and spoke that day before Pharaoh were not the end of the story. Our tradition paints a larger canvas. We see Balaam; we see Job; we see Yitro. We have always looked beyond our walls for wisdom. We have recognized the complexity of this endeavor. Yitro, Job, and Balaam once sat together. Yet, we still pay close attention to the Yitros. We heed their advice and enjoy the antidote that they proffer.
Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.
[Published July 9, 2020]