Conversation with Professor Yehuda Gellman, Winter 2011
The David Cardozo Academy Think Tank had the pleasure of hosting Professor Yehuda Gellman in one of its “Bonus Monday” sessions. Before Professor Gellman arrived, Think Tank members discussed his article on different approaches to the question of scientific knowledge which seems to contradict the Torah, and they deliberated on the following question which Professor Gellman posed to the group:
To what is one’s most fundamental commitment: to a tradition or to God? To what extent can these two be separated from one another and to what extent can the distinction serve as a guide in a religious crisis?
Rabbi Cardozo pointed out that a very important question to ask when considering the above is: What happens when you live a halachic life and God is no longer part of it? The fact that the point of Halacha is to know how to exist in the presence of God is lost on many who keep the Halacha.
Professor Gellman spoke about the problem with “skin deep” religious education which does not foster in students a strong connection to God, even though this connection should be the ultimate goal. This kind of education trains a person to follow the rituals and precepts of the religion and to see the religion as an entity in and of itself rather than seeing the religion as a vehicle to a relationship with God. As a result, the moment someone has a doubt or recognizes an inconsistency within the religion, s/he has no commitment and love for God to “fall back on” and s/he may quickly conclude that, “religion is not for me.”
Professor Gellman did not see this problem as more endemic to Hareidi life than to any other stream of Judaism, as one member of the think tank suggested. He put it as follows: “If I keep Torah and mitzvot because I am an Orthodox Jew, then ‘religion is for me.’” In other words, such a person keeps the Torah because that is how s/he has learned to define her/himself, rather than because s/he is strengthening a committed relationship with God.
Professor Gellman views as most problematic the phenomenon of religious seekers, or questioning people, who keep the Torah and mitzvot without making sure that these are their tools for building a relationship with God. Questioning people – “Yehidei Segula,” as Professor Gellman put it, have the responsibility to be internally transformed by their observance. They must be affected by the mitzvot they keep, and if they aren’t – if they follow religion because “that’s what I do” then for them, this is a form of idol worship. Nevertheless, people who are Yehidei Segula are not permitted to separate themselves from the community in order to follow their own, disconnected, path to self transformation. They still have an obligation to be part of the community, to go to synagogue, etc.
Professor Gellman emphasized that he believes that it is very good for people to have an authority over them. He sees Torah and mitzvot as a way of opening our hearts, as in the verse ptah libi beToratekha - open my heart by way of your Torah. Whereas he advocated the use of our “sekhel” or common sense when approaching Halakha, he claims that sekhel may not always have the final say. There is a point where we have to realize that to impose our own sekhel can be an act of egotism and there are things we must do which are beyond our understanding.
Professor Gellman spoke of seeing the whole corpus of Jewish writing as God’s way of speaking to the individual in a grand sense. This applies even when individual laws may not appeal to our common sense. He claims that what we do for the sake of others, even when the act may not conform to what we believe to be true, can be part of an authentic life.