Interview with Charlie Buckholtz, co-author of new book with David Hartman

I met Charlie Buckholtz a few years ago at a Tu BeShevat Seder, where he was in front of the congregation playing the guitar and telling Hasidic tales. The seder was a joint project of three downtown Orthodox shuls and at the time he was rabbi of the Sixth Street Synagogue in NYC. Recently, I saw that he was co-author of the new book by David Hartman, The God who Hates Lies, so I asked him for an interview in my attempt to evaluate that book. The response was a very personal and introspective interview, in which he dealt with his own religious journey and questions.

From the interview I learned how much Rabbi Charlie was an actual co-author of this work. (Many of Hartman’s prior editors like Malcolm Lowe, were only editors.) The interview also help explain to me the attraction of the book for many and why I am having difficulty approaching it. From this collaboration, we receive a more emotional side of Hartman. Charlie helped Hartman speak from from his kishkes. Hartman is quite emotional in public but his books always took the intellectual route. Hence, the new book has fewer appeals, compared to prior works by Hartman, to Maimonidean rationalism or Leibowitz’s rejection of a this-worldly use of relgion. In this volume, Hartman appears less the intellectual and philosopher and more the pulpit rabbi speaking from his heart.

This is not my cup of tea. Yet, some of my readers may have a visceral reaction to this interview. Nevertheless, please formulate your response in a productive way. If we are fortunate, Charlie may answer some questions on his position. So keep the questions respectful.
This interview is part of a longer series on my trying to understand Hartman  Part I here and Part II here and Part III here.

Charlie Buckholtz attended Williams College and Yeshivat Hamivtar, received an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and rabbinical ordination from the Bat Ayin Yeshiva. He held a year-long fellowship as a rabbinical apprentice to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and served for three years as rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue in the East Village. He coauthored the punk-rock-murder-mystery, In Heaven Everything is Fine: The Unsolved Life of Peter Ivers and the Lost History of New Wave Theatre, and is currently Senior Editor at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

1] How did your very different life story resonate with that of Hartman’s?
He came from an urban ethnic background to Haredi and then to YU and finally Israel. You are a suburban kid who likes music and writing.

I think a big part of David Hartman’s success as a public intellectual, and community- and institution-builder over the last half-century is that his questions strike a chord with lots of people who resonate in different ways with the rich vitality of traditional life, but are not comfortable with the kinds of tradeoffs that modern traditionalist gatekeepers have concocted as the admission fee for ‘legitimacy,’ ‘authenticity,’ etc. As I understand him and his thinking, a central question at the heart of his work, addressed most explicitly in this recent book, is: “Does the tradition really desire, indeed require, that we check huge parts of ourselves at the door in order to engage with it in good standing?” This is a basic human spiritual question that clearly has implications across Judaism and beyond it.

Another part of my own resonance with Hartman is temperament–a healthy dose of skepticism towards authority along with a confidence in the sincerity and authenticity of one’s own religious quest.

Hartman knew himself well enough to know that there was no contradiction between his passion for gemara and his intellectual thirst to contextualize what he was learning historically and conceptualize it philosophically. How could this inner drive to understand the ‘story’ he was learning on deeper and deeper levels — to turn it and turn it — disqualify him from being a valid carrier of the story? So when he started getting that message at Lakewood, he left Lakewood, and when he started getting it from the broader modern Orthodox world in the U.S. and Israel, he built a community and started his own institute. He knew his path was fueled by a love for the tradition and that he thus had a place in it, notwithstanding the various self- and community-appointed gatekeepers telling him he didn’t.

I tend to be similarly inclined. I was a kind of ‘artsy’ or ‘alternative’ kid from the suburbs who became a ba’al teshuva while at Hebrew U. my junior year of college.I was deeply moved by the rhythms of life in Jerusalem and as a literary person, a reader and writer, I was drawn to the poetry, imagination, and wisdom of the tradition. While that resonance with the spirituality, authenticity, and heimishkeit of traditional life have remained constant, the overwhelming emphasis on rabbinic authority and social conformity — and subjugating one’s point of view to the traditional version of ‘reality’ — that tends to typify Orthodox culture has always nagged at me a distortion of some the Jewish values I’ve always valued most–empathy, imagination, and intellectual fearlessness.

2] How does your Bat Ayin spirituality relate to a very rational Hartman? Hartman is not exactly a Rav Nachman follower or guitar player.

He’s actually a pretty soulful guy who loves a lot of Hassidic music, and is passionate about the music of Shlomo Carlebach.

I would say his philosophical thinking is informed by American Pragmatism, particularly William James, who carves out a reasoned space for doubt, uncertainty, and spirituality. I would suggest he’s more of a ‘critical appropriator,’ finding different and diverse thinkers that strike different and diverse chords within his thinking and prompt evocative associations from within the tradition; then bringing the resonant strains of these multiple voices into his inner beit midrash and having fruitful conversations without attempting any systematic synthesis.

I suppose I have a similarly ‘postmodern’ orientation. For example, I consider Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to be my rebbe. My connection to him and his teachings is deep, longstanding, intimate, and authentic (whatever that means). At the same time, ‘my’ Rebbe Nachman is not the Rebbe Nachman of Mea Shearim or Borough Park, of academia or Renewal; though he is shaded by all of those influences. My Rebbe Nachman is the one who wants our personalities to emerge out of an intense, ongoing, personal conversation with God; who holds that desire is the most (if not only) important spiritual quality; who pranced like a madman through the streets of Istanbul; who wants us to be in Uman on Rosh Hashana, for our own good and for the souls of the martyrs who died there, who wrote truly strange, enigmatic stories based on universal folk tales and appropriated for them all the sacredness of the Torah itself.

Hartman hasn’t had much exposure to Breslov Hassidut, and is not mystically inclined, so there’s a gap there. But at the same time, and perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t claim to present an exhaustive approach to Jewish spirituality. To the contrary, he is a believer in the sacredness of partial perspectives who celebrates the diversity of Jewish spiritual traditions and personalities as constitutive of a partial, historical revelation and its natural outgrowth in the evolution of halakha.

Moreover, I find Davi Hartman’s pragmatic insistence on evaluating ideas against their empirical consequences to be a grounding force against some of the more apocalyptic tendencies (both individually and communally) that can result from adopting a mystical point of view.

3] Why do you feel so connected to the events from several decades ago that involved Rabbis Emmanuel Rackman, and Joseph D Soloveitchik?
The story about The Rav publicly denouncing Rabbi Rackman at the RCA convention feels extremely relevant to me. Personally, listening to the tape of Soloveitchik’s speech and discussing the incident with Hartman helped me to understand a lot of my own experiences and frustrations as I’ve travelled through the Modern Orthodox world, first in yeshiva and eventually as an Orthodox congregational rabbi. Soloveitchik’s version of halakhic theology set the template for American Modern Orthodoxy and continues to permeate and dominate its spiritual culture, as well as its attitude towards halakhic development.

It is, I feel, a shadow that continues to loom over this world, and the speech he gave at the RCA — enlisting all the weight of his persona and the authority of his stature to stigmatize and foreclose an empathic, intuitive human way of thinking about the Torah in favor of formalist abstraction and ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice — was, to me, a dark episode. Something about it helped me personally to understand the extent to which many of my own critiques and areas of resistance to various aspects of Modern Orthodox culture can be traced back to his legacy in particular.

For all his theological creativity and religious pathos, Rav Soloveitchik’s essential stance vis a vis tradition and modernity is both triumphalist and apologetic. He does not tend to adopt the posture of having struggled with, much less having had to rethink any of his assumptions or principles, in light of his encounter with Western ideas. His struggles, his pathos (at least, as he tends to characterize them), are all deeply internal to the tradition. When it comes to the encounter with external ideas, he’s read everything, thought it all out, squared all the circles. Torah stands as a wise critique/noble rebuke of some trends of Western thought and culture, and embodies the highest values of others. While often scintillating, illuminating, and deeply moving, the cumulative effect is one of reassurance.

And this, indeed, seems to have been a powerful motive of his teaching and writing–that contemporary Orthodox Jews should not feel “ashamed” (his word) in the face of the Western philosophical tradition. He did not allow for the possibility that Torah itself, and Torah communities, might have something new and important to learn from philosophy or psychology or history–or just daily life (what he pejoratively referred to as ‘the utilitarian marketplace’); he did not advocate a substantive, open-ended encounter.

The net result of this perspective, it seems to me, as it has filtered into MO groupthink, is a prominent strain of complacency, smugness, reflexive superiority, suspicion of subjectivity, anxious insecurity, and alarmist resistance to halakhic change. If the system is perfect — majestic — and has nothing to learn, any change could only be to its detriment, and anyone seeking change could only be misguided, uninformed, or sick, and therefore must be marginalized. Who am I to assert my puny subjectivity against the objective ontological perfection of the Torah? As he says elsewhere in the lecture, “It’s ridiculous to say, ‘I have discovered something which the Rashba didn’t know, and which the Ketzos didn’t know, and the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge. I have discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new!’ It’s ridiculous.”

The community chose the Rav as their paradigm for the encounter between tradition and modernity. I think a central purpose of the chapter about Soloveitchik and Rackman is to show that this was not a foregone conclusion, not the only authentic Orthodoxy available to American Jews.

To me Rackman’s embrace of historical context, subjectivity and self-awareness as legitimate and important factors in religious life and halakhic decision-making — neither contradicting, nor contradicted by, the tradition — could have opened new possibilities for halakhic development and Orthodox culture and led to a more sane, human, inclusive Orthodoxy. The fact that Soloveitchik saw this possibility as intolerable is, in my opinion, a failure of imagination, empathy, and communal leadership.

16 responses to “Interview with Charlie Buckholtz, co-author of new book with David Hartman

  1. R. Soloveitchik was able to dismiss the entire critical enterprise with a few short sentences in The Lonely Man of Faith. How’s THAT for critical engagement with modernity.

  2. I’m wondering about the role of R. Soloveichik in transforming Orthodoxy from a practice (shomer shabbos) into a denomination. Was it a Maimonidean impulse of articles of faith? Was it a Brisker impulse of reified categories? Or could it have been his immersion in German Protestant theology?

    • Orthodoxy as a denomination already existed in Europe, didn’t it? Wasn’t that what R.. Hirsch was all about?

      As for R. Soloveitchik, he, along with his son-in-law, seemed to want to construct an orthodox-intellectual elite and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

      • “…construct an orthodox-intellectual elite and leave the rest of us to fend for ourselves.”
        counterpoint: Maimonides school, and basically everything Rav S. did in Boston other than the YU summer kollel, i think.

      • More like, he wanted to construct an intellectual elite so that we’d HAVE an intellectual elite! Read Dr. Kaplan’s Modern Judaism piece about the Rav and R. Rackman. You’ll better appreciate what his goals were.

  3. I enjoyed the book, despite its weaknesses (including an unfortunate, in my view, title). I think it adds color and texture to a debate that has moved from the intellectual plane to Jews just getting on with their lives irrespective of the Orthodox Rabbinic establishment.

    At its heart the book is a cogent renunciation of the fetishization of halacha into the museum curated by some of R. Soloveitchik’s students who have become dominant in the (condescending) YU voice of Modern Orthodoxy.

    When sufficient time passes to meet the commercial requirements of producing a book, I think it would be helpful to pare the thesis down into an article that focuses on the core issues without getting tied down in the personal history of 20th century culture wars (to which many people have visceral reactions that are used to deny the debate within Orthodoxy).

  4. Not to pile on Rav Soloveitchik, but bringing to light the ways in which his monopoly on “authority” in American Modern Orthodoxy damaged the community is certainly one of the most interesting pieces posted here, and one that it’s time for us to finally explore.

  5. “He did not allow for the possibility that Torah itself, and Torah communities, might have something new and important to learn from philosophy or psychology or history–or just daily life (what he pejoratively referred to as ‘the utilitarian marketplace’); he did not advocate a substantive, open-ended encounter.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, Dr. B, but it seems this was more a front than anything else, no? It’s quite clear that, at the very least, the Rav learned plenty from philosophy (it’s also worth noting that math and science aren’t in this list), and would have acknowledged it if he weren’t trying to lead Orthodoxy into a more self-confident state of mind.

  6. “it’s also worth noting that math and science aren’t in this list”–not really true, considering the “hero” of halakhic mind is the quantum physicist

  7. For all his theological creativity and religious pathos, Rav Soloveitchik’s essential stance vis a vis tradition and modernity is both triumphalist and apologetic. He does not tend to adopt the posture of having struggled with, much less having had to rethink any of his assumptions or principles, in light of his encounter with Western ideas.

    In addition to Jon’s comment, which rings very true, I do wonder in general about the following. It seems that apologetics and triumphalism get a very bad rap. But when you think about it, given that Orthodoxy by definition works within the system of Torah, what is wrong with accepting its supremacy? Isn’t that rather obvious? What is wrong with apologetics and triumphalism (when expressed tastefully, i.e., bereft of gloating), insofar as they are honest attempts at hearing other people’s questions, and providing cogent answers or cogent ways to deal with issues?

    Would we not expect from people who accept Torah as the Word of G”d to accept its supremacy and reduce all other sources of insights to (a) how we emotionally deal with the questions raised by other thought traditions (a lot of the Rav’s existentialism can be categorized here), and (b) how what we discover elsewhere may give us tools to better understand what we already know to be true (Tora uMada’)?

    Is it not legitimate to feel really at home in Judaism and look from the inside out? Must we all become anthropologists?

    • Hi,
      There is a difference between treating the Torah as supreme and treating contemporary Orthodoxy in that way. The contemporary MO discourse being criticized in this interview, is an attitude that suggests that the current sociology, worldview, ethical sensitivity, halakhic practice etc. of the existing community is ideal and supreme and not subject to criticism. Sometimes a push from outside can let us see what the God intended all along. To take a non-controversial example: Rambam’s study of Aristotle lead him to realize that anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Torah were metaphors that couldn’t be understood literally. We can all think of controversial examples…

  8. Perhaps Brisk with it is emphasis on the ” correct conceptional truth ” allows little room for historical development and perhaps modern Orthodoxy would be better served with a more classical Askanazic approach which allows for historical change via Melamed Zechus .

  9. While not identical, I think Jacob Taubes’ critique of the Rav addresses some overlapping points:

    R. Soloveitchik’s use of the model of mathematics or mathematical physics for explaining how the halakhist understands halakhah is unacceptable. For the fundamental task of the halakhist is to read and interpret texts and there are no two greater opposites than the hermeneutic required for textual interpretation and the construction of mathematical systems.

    Unfortunately R. Soloveitchik when he studied in Berlin went “barking up the wrong tree”. He came under the dominant influence of Hermann Cohen when he should have followed the path of Heidegger and later on of Gadamer and Ricoeur. R. Soloveitchik’s philosophy of halakhah must, then, be pronounced a failure, albeit a magnificent failure.

    • You can call the Rav’s philosophy a failure, but that raises the question of what’s a success. Let’s assume that success is measured in the number of adherents over time. Under that definition, substitutionary atonement is quite a successful doctrine.

      I don’t think we have the perspective to say whether the Rav’s philosophy will last 2000 years, like subsitutionary atonement has. But the triumphalism the Rav offered les at the core of many successful religions. Few charismatic clergy preach to stadiums about doubt. As that attitude remains, and many people continue to quote the Rav, it’s hard to say he’s gone the way of the Hittites.

      It is not terribly unusual, either, that adherents to a triumphalist philosophy would consider their religion, and even themselves, above criticism (with obvious consequences).

  10. In the modern age, a time marked by the scientific understanding of knowledge as observation and the notion that knowledge is always provisional – every tradition must struggle with the solvents of erosion even as it must also welcome adaptation as renewal, if not growth. That Modern Orthodoxy – a culture within the Judaism’s already tiny world – sees itself, perhaps rightly, as an icecube in the melting pot is not surprising. How it will continue to manage to survive going forward is anyone’s guess, but it is a conversation that must go on continually.

    Thanks to this website for having such interesting guests and thanks also to Charlie Buckholtz, whose authentic engagement with the tradition provides it with nourishment, and his interlocutors with food for thought.

  11. “Many of Hartman’s prior editors like Malcolm Lowe, were only editors.” Quite wrong. Malcolm Lowe was also, in effect, a co-author.

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