As you may know, Beyond BT contributor William Kolbrener earned an MA from Oxford and PhD from Columbia University and is currently a professor in the Department of English at Bar Ilan University in Israel. William is an internationally renowned authority on Renaissance poetry and philosophy, with books on John Milton and the proto-feminist Mary Astell. He has recently written a book Open Minded Torah: Of Irony, Fundamentalism and Love.
In a recent interview with Jeffery Goldberg (JG) of the Atlantic, William (WK) discusses his approach to becoming observant.
JG: Here’s a kind of rude question: Do you know what you’re missing? And the natural follow-up — do you think I know what I’m missing, by not embracing the lifestyle that you have embraced?
WK: When I was a graduate student in the English Department at Columbia, after not showing up one Friday at the West End Bar, and soon after being seen in the corridors of Philosophy Hall with a kippa, I heard whispers, suggestions that somehow overnight, I had turned into a fundamentalist or fanatic. Not just that, I was taking on unimaginable and unnecessary restraints, avoiding the more urgent demands of the creative, autonomous and independent self. Friends who wondered at my sudden absence from Friday night rounds and subsequent refusals of invitations for sushi (back in the eighties kosher sushi was scarce) might have quoted Freud: ‘Religion is the obsessional neurosis of humanity.’ The Jews, for Freud, who in this regard were worst of all, act out their own dramas of self-deprivation through ever more ‘strict observance,’ and avoidance of pleasure. My friends certainly thought – as many others after him – that I was ‘missing out,’ and not only on sushi or beers on Friday night.
But while some contemporary Jews look at the strictures of Jewish tradition as limiting, Open Minded Torah is about finding pleasure in relationships, and different, authentic and creative voices in the framework of both age-old traditions and contemporary communities. In the Western philosophical traditions that I teach, starting with Plato, objectivity and distance are often celebrated. In the Jewish tradition, it’s not disengaged neutrality (vulgarized distilled today in a culture of ‘whatever’), but relationship which is central. A teacher in the Talmud is not one who stands outside, like a contemporary academic in an Ivory Tower, but one who literally connects, not only people to God, but communities, people to people. So what from one perspective may look like constraint or restriction, from another is engaged connectedness, with the risks and opportunities it affords. The Jewish tradition says that for every Jew there is a corresponding letter in the Torah. Open Minded Torah shows how connecting to one’s letter and what a psychologist calls the ‘True Self’ are – even for us in the twenty-first century – related, both of them acts of love, offering different kinds of pleasure.
JG: And the follow-up — do you think I know what I’m missing?
WK: My book is not about advocating a lifestyle, but cultivating a voice (my own), and in the process perhaps helping others to cultivate their own. Judaism, like psychoanalysis, emphasizes the primacy of the psyche, self, or soul. I cannot — no one honestly can — speculate on what others are ‘missing’: to dwell on that question is a sign of avoiding the one more urgent to me: what am I missing? Those who do not ask that question – whether they are wearing red bandannas or large black skull-caps – and frantically asserting that they have already reached their goals, provide, with their ‘certainty,’ a cover story for self-doubts about facing the demands of an unknown future.
When an old high school friend heard of my new Jewish observance, he commented that I was taking the easy way out, relying upon the ‘crutch’ of religion. But for me the Jewish tradition does not provide answers, but unexpected resources to help refine the questions I ask. The sages of the Talmud assert, the premature proclamation of having arrived at a truth is a form of stagnation or death. Only acknowledging lack and imperfection – again what I am missing – permits the possibility of further discovery. In my book, the Jewish tradition provides a framework for such discovery, an impetus for striving, the means through which deepening connections to the past possibilities for new futures emerge.