In lieu of my post on Rav Steinzaltz who aimed at challenging his students’ religious convictions to strengthen them, here is an eloquent argument by Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopez Cardozo making the same plea (h/t: Shades of Grey, regular commenter over at Hirhurim). Here’s the critical excerpt:
While it is most important that we give our children and ourselves the best Jewish education possible, we will succeed in creating strong religious personalities only when we ensure that they are confronted with strong ideological opposition. Instead of creating a Jewish educational system that is self-contained and ideologically self-supporting, we should build yeshivot and high schools in which students are constantly challenged in their beliefs and commitment, in order to give Jewish religious tools to explain and defend these beliefs. In fact, they should learn how to challenge the very teachings that oppose Jewish tradition. To make this happen, Jewish teachers should bring to the attention of their students critiques against the Jewish tradition and show them how these criticisms could be answered through the world of Jewish wisdom as found in the Talmud, Midrash and writings of Jewish philosophers.
A reading of Spinoza’s Tractatus and Nietzsche’s critique of religion would do wonders in the Beth Midrash. John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration” should be studied and debated along with the tractate of Sanhedrin. The teachings of Sartre should be challenged by Chassidic texts such as those of the Kotzker Rebbe and the Mei Hashiloach. This would sharpen the minds of students and show them the profundity of the Jewish tradition. They would learn how to challenge these non-Jewish works or in fact, through them, deepen some of the most important Jewish teachings. It would generate a new appreciation of what Judaism is all about; make it much more relevant and vital.
Once in a while, a yeshiva should invite an apikores (heretic) and make him challenge the students’ beliefs. The debate that would follow would spark a whole new way of seeing what Judaism really has to offer. Instead of shunning such a proposal, it should be encouraged. Sure, this can only be done with mature and serious students and it needs to be carefully guided, but it would create strong religious Jews who know what they stand for, enjoy the challenge and move Judaism forward.
Judaism was born out of opposition, rebellion and protest. It overthrew and outlived mighty empires and gave the world a radically new understanding of itself. Judaism has nothing to fear. It has prevailed over all those who critiqued it but it has also learned much about itself by listening to opposing voices. Through these voices, it has been able to sharpen its own claims and if necessary change its mind when the inadequacy of these claims has become clear. Only in this way will it continue to play a central role in the future of mankind.
We need new religious leaders, but they will only emerge when those we have today stop fearing any and every challenge to Judaism. It is easy to be brave from a safe distance but that does not create great leaders. Judaism was built with courage. Let us overcome fear and behold its wonder. Let Judaism be challenged; it will only improve.
As C.S. Lewis once said, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.”