Rabbis and Rubble: Talmudic Responses to Sept. 11

Rabbis and Rubble: Talmudic Responses to Sept. 11

Like most of you, I’ve been overwhelmed with 9/11 coverage the last few days. But I couldn’t resist posting this sharp review of a recent book of Orthodox rabbinical responses to the tragedy. Based on the reviews, it gives a revealing look at how Orthodox Jews, from haredim to Modern’s, have addressed both the deeper theological meanings of the attacks, as well as practical halakhic concerns.

I’m not religious, but I approach any attempt of observant Jews to grapple with contemporary problems and fit them within a religious framework as something admirable, and often fascinating. According to Allan Nadler’s review, several Orthodox rabbis included in the book give a humane and indeed liberal take on their response.

"Muslims can do a great deal in their camp, and Jews can do a great deal in ours…to diminish the hatred," one rabbi writes, and advises Jews "to examine ourselves and take care that our fervor not overpower our conscience."

But Nadler also has good fun exposing the obtuseness, anachronism, and sheer stupidity of many of these so-called sages. Some rabbis included in the collection marvel at the wonders of modern day life, which, to one, includes "steam boats, and railroad tracks, and telegraphs, and a post office in every town."

To which Nadler replies acerbicly: "his apparent oblivion to the retirements or achievements of Bill Gates and now Steve Jobs, is deeply depressing."

Then there are rabbis whose logic is so knotty, their conclusions so vague, that they seem to belie the project’s main purpose: to bring new problems into the fold of traditional Jewish learning. Sept. 11 created several new dilemmas, like whether a Jewish widow could remarry if there was no hard evidence that her husband actually dead in the attacks. According to rabbinic law, a rabbi must confirm that a spouse died in order to grant the right to remarry.

The less intelligent rabbis were so beholden to showing of their awareness of arcane, often irrelevant rabbinic law, that, writes Nadler, "I could identify powerfully with the disgust felt by the maskilim toward rabbinical obscurantism in the early days of the Jewish enlightenment."

There is a deeper issue tied up with this kind of stupidity: when someone you expect to provide moral clarity on complex issues comes up with no clear answer, and worse, hides their ignorance behind a gossamer of intelligence, he himself is doing something immoral. In other words, if you don’t have an answer, say so.

Thankfully, there are many rabbis in this world, and certainly more than few would agree with that.

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