Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Encounters, Challenges, Reb Chaim and Einstein

Is it better to remain insulated from avoidable faith challenges or preferable to confront them and grow from them? In an autobiographical article, David Klinghoffer argues that facing challenges causes you to grow and, significantly, helps you avoid the problem of a sleeping soul, i.e. thoughtless and emotionless religion (link). I'm not particularly convinced. I don't have hard data but I strongly suspect that the majority of Orthodox college students suffer religiously from the challenges rather than growing from them. Encounters with challenges are good for growth but only when done properly and when approached from a solid foundation of Torah belief.*

Regarding the value of challenges, here is an interesting anecdote that emphasizes both the greatness of a Torah giant and the importance of encountering the outside world for contrast and stimulation.

Click here to read moreR. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, abraham's Journey, pp. 120-121:

In Berlin, I spoke with Yaakov Gromer, an associate of Albert Einstein. He was also once a talmid of my grandfather, Rav Hayyim Brisker. But he left Brisk and went on to become a great mathematician. He was not observant, but many a time you used to find him with a Gemara. He had an excellent head and could "learn." He told me, "When I left Brisk, I found many faults with Rav Hayyim, but when I came to Berlin I realized that Rav Hayyim was a saint. They told me Einstein was considered a moral person, and he was indeed a moral person. But Rav Hayyim had more kindness" -- he used the word hesed -- "in his little finger than Einstein had in all his heart and brain." One cannot understand the beauty of Judaism without encountering people of another culture. That is why Abraham had to go to Egypt -- to see what Egypt was. It was fascinating at that time, and very attractive. Perhaps Abraham sometimes wondered whether life wasn't better in this wonderful, powerful, respected, rich state. Nevertheless, he came out of Egypt not only retaining his identity, but also spiritually more powerful. He grew to great heights. Adversity and opposition made him appreciate his own worldview all the more. But Lot succumbed.
In my reading, R. Soloveitchik does not specify whether this encounter is appropriate for just a confirmed, profound believer or for even a beginning student. So this passage is not a proof either way.
* Friends of mine were once involved in an outreach program as (black hat) yeshiva-student mentors. They were told by the rabbi running the program that if one of the mentees asked a philosophical question then the yeshiva student must answer "I don't know. Let's ask the rabbi." One of the yeshiva students asked that won't this give the impression that after over a decade of yeshiva study they don't know anything. The rabbi responded that this impression is correct!

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