Of all the regrettable cultural forces that Darwinism helped unleash, perhaps the most surprising and seemingly unlikely is its role in sparking the creation of modern occultism. Charles Darwin himself could not have been less interested in the topic. But no attempt to assess the scope of his legacy can properly leave out the muse-like role his theory played in the thinking of Madame H.P. Blavatsky
(1831-1891), who in turn was largely responsible for setting the agenda for modern occult interests, including the cult of Aryanism which bore its own poisonous fruit in Nazi Germany.
Readers of this blog will know well by now my view that Darwin’s materialist account of life’s history stands radically opposed to the worldview of the Hebrew Bible. Yet it always has to be repeated at the beginning of a discussion like this that the purpose is not to blame Darwin but merely to explore the largely unintended consequences of his idea. The disclaimer having been made, meet Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a rotund Russian fabulist of noble birth who later became an American citizen and, after years in India, died in London. Her books, Isis Unveiled and The Secret Doctrine, were tremendously influential and, if less well known today, continue to influence ideas beyond the far edge of respectability — ideas that, however, are no less popular for being weird.
The incredibly popular late-night radio show Coast to Coast AM
had on Blavatsky expert Michael Gomes
last summer. He clarified the genealogy of some of the rather interesting ideas that preoccupy the show’s 3 million plus listeners. Things like the sunken continents of Lemuria and Atlantis, lost civilizations seeded by wandering white-skinned wise men of old, the “sixth sense” — such themes of contemporary esotericism go back to Blavatsky’s popularizing treatment of them. Not that she invented Atlantis, for example, but the modern esoteric fascination with such matters can be traced back to her influence. She claimed to have learned secret wisdom on a visit to the mountain kingdom of Tibet that she likely never, in fact, took, in a lamasery from the Great White Brotherhood of Masters, or Mahatmas.
What’s interesting about her writing is that she was obsessed with Darwin and mentions him by name frequently — sometimes to argue against him, just as often to claim that evolution was well known long ago to bearers of her secret knowledge. Much of The Secret Doctrine (1888), for example, is given over to her retelling of evolution but as if reflected in a funhouse mirror. So instead of people descending from ape-like creatures, apes descend from people. Evolutionary forces governed a competition among ancient now lost peoples, with Aryans having emerged as the current favored race.
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I have sympathy for religious mavericks like Rabbi Avi Weiss of New York, who for ordaining a woman as a rabbi, or “rabba” as he calls her, is under fire from Orthodox rabbinic colleagues on the Rabbinical Council of America. To be Avi Weiss takes guts. Unfortunately for him, as the New York Jewish Week‘s Jonathan Mark is anticipating, his gutsiness could result in Rabbi Weiss’s expulsion from the RCA.
There’s a simple reason why ordaining women as Orthodox rabbis will never catch on. Religions are like species of animals. Just as a particular species has its own integrity, coded in its genome, that makes it one kind of creature instead of another — a dog instead of a cat — so too with faiths. Orthodox Judaism has a spiritual genetic code that has insured its survival for millennia. That record of survival, as in the circular if nevertheless undeniable logic of Darwinism, attests to its survival fitness.
Whether you think women rabbis are a commendable idea or not, the notion if put into practice would represent a violation of the spiritual DNA of traditional Judaism. In an animal, mutations tend overwhelmingly to be either without effect or deleterious. As my friend and colleague Jonathan Wells observes, it’s pretty much a rule of thumb that a mutation in a mouse results either in another identical mouse, a sick mouse, or a dead mouse.
To adopt the metaphor, Rabbi Weiss seeks to mutate Orthodox Judaism in a radical fashion. But Judaism has survived precisely by resisting major change. Sure, Orthodoxy has experienced a certain kind of slow genetic drift over thousands of years, but nothing like the kind of instantaneous refashioning that Rabbi Weiss envisions. When radicals have sought to reform Judaism in the past, what you ended up with has always been either failure, or the splitting away of new religions. Judaism, for better or worse, is not subject to revolutions — at least, not successful revolutions.
You can only wish Rabbi Weiss well, but his cause is doomed.
My Forward op-ed is out now seeking the meaning behind the scandals that have plagued my religious community, Orthodox Judaism, with increasing intensity of late. The first comment over at the Forward website illustrates the extent to which many of us Orthodox Jews don’t seem to get what the problem is. A “Rabbi Dr. Rosenberg” complains, “There are good, bad and ugly among all peoples. Do not pick on Orthodoxy alone.”
But the whole point here is that if Torah is true, and I stake my life on its being so, then why do we not stand out from other people, as an illuminating presence in the world? Anyway, here’s what I said. It was painful to write. Please let me know what you think.
For all its outward vigor, the Orthodox community, which is my own, appears to harbor a sickness. You don’t have to be an ideological critic of traditional Judaism to wonder if the cause should be sought in Orthodoxy itself.
The past year has brought what seems like a never-ending stream of financial or sexual scandals. Prominent rabbis have been charged with money-laundering. The scandal unleashed by accounts of mistreatment of workers and animals in a kosher meat facility continues to reverberate. An influential rabbi specializing in conversions allegedly conducted a squalid relationship with a woman wishing to convert. There have been repulsive accounts of molestation of boys in yeshivas. Most recently, a prominent rabbi and communal powerbroker was charged with trying to extort money from a hedge fund.
Of course, not every allegation turns out to be true (and you certainly cannot believe everything you read, especially on the Internet with its bias in favor of grudges and witch-hunts). Yet the pattern of accusations can’t be coincidental.
For a convert or a baal teshuvah, like me, the greatest stumbling block to faith may indeed be the Orthodox community itself. If Torah is true, why do Torah Jews not stand out as particularly impressive? Deuteronomy says of our Torah observance: “It is your wisdom and discernment in the eyes of the peoples, who shall hear all these decrees and who shall say, ‘Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation'” (4:6). No one would say such a thing of us today. How can this be?
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I’d never heard these two wonderful anecdotes, reported in a review by Michael Weingrad in the brand new (and quite impressive) Jewish Review of Books:
Although it might seem unlikely that anyone would wonder whether the author of The Lord of the Rings was Jewish, the Nazis took no chances. When the publishing firm of Ruetten & Loening was negotiating with J. R. R. Tolkien over a German translation of The Hobbit in 1938, they demanded that Tolkien provide written assurance that he was an Aryan. Tolkien chastised the publishers for “impertinent and irrelevant inquiries,” and–ever the professor of philology– lectured them on the proper meaning of the term: “As far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects.” As to being Jewish, Tolkien regretted that “I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”
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