What a pleasure it was to read Rabbi Jen Krause’s new book The Answer. Make no doubt about it this is not your regular self-help book. “The Answer” is more about realizing that ultimately life’s greatest challenge is coming to terms with the fact that sometimes we are so quick to find the answer that we forget what it is we are looking for and why it is we are looking so hard.
I agree with Rabbi Jen’s natural inclination towards embracing non-Jewish wisdom and culture. Her words remind me of a famous speech given by the late chancellor of JTS, Gerson Cohen, entitled the “Blessing of Assimilation” (the title says it all). Yet I think we all need to remember that contrary to popular opinion, people today can live healthy, wealthy, very enjoyable lives in cultural ghettos where they need not ever seriously come into contact with the rest of the world. Two weeks ago Zev Chefetz published a very interesting (albeit slightly biased) piece in the New York Times Magazine on the Syrian Jewish community and its ban against converts and intermarriage.
There is more than something disgusting and anti-Jewish about the Syrian Jewish community’s ban against converts (no other Jewish community promotes such a position). The amount of unnecessary and halakhically unacceptable pain this ban has brought on numerous Syrian families is unconscionable. Yet, in an era of apathy, ignorance, and mass acculturation, the Jewish retention rate and engagement on the part of the Syrian community is remarkable. How can’t one help and dare I say have even slight feelings of jealously for, the strong communal ties fostered by the success of the Syrian communities insularity?
Haftez describes a community where familial care and love trump educational accomplishment and enlightenment. Yet, this lack of intellectualism has in no way hindered the community’s economic growth. Rather, according to the New York Times, it is one of the wealthiest and most charitable communities in New York City.
Rabbi Jen might be right that many in the rabbinic tradition did promote an open posture to culture, science, philosophy, and most things “other” (I certainly put myself in that camp). But you know what? Who is to say they had all the answers?