Williamsburg Fringe Applauds Religious Dialectician
Last Thursday Williamsburg played host to an unusual guest: a religious Jew who specializes in debating people of a different persuasion. He engages in what Williamsburg folks call haqirah — “examination” of the theological and philosophical pillars of he Jewish faith, a pursuit widely shunned by traditionalists for its contravention of emunah peshutah, simple faith — the kind that has so successfully preserved the timeless character of the fundamentalist Judaism practiced in Williamsburg.
The guest lecturer in question was Rabbi Yossi Mizrahi, an Israeli emigre’ of Sephardic heritage. After being raised in the typical Sephardic Israeli fashion of the 70′s and 80′s he hopped on the immensely popular bandwagon of sephardic Haredi-ism that reached unprecedented levels in the 90′s (as manifested by the popularity of the shas party). In 1994 he resolved to dedicate his life to proving the veracity of Judaism through dialectic argumentation, holding lectures and seminars across the globe to an eager and captive audience.
But this method of outreach is alien to indigenous Williamsburgers who rely on faith to guide their way. Any philosophical debate is inherently a hazard to faith — it’s tempting the devil: what if one is interrupted after, or gets fixated on a critical question regarding the Jewish faith and it then festers in the victim’s mind and refuses to go away? What if the listener accepts the heretical view as orthodox? One of the commandments in the Torah is not to tempt/test God!
On a popular Yiddish forum where a vigorous debate on the merits of R. Mizrahi’s lecture raged, one participant mused that “nobody requires any elucidation to prove that a glass of milk did not give birth to a tablecloth; whoever does, needs either a doctor or ‘reverence of God’; ponder this for I have been very succinct!”.
Yet, here is one institution in Williamsburg that had the audacity to host him: Kolel Williamsburg. A kolel is typically an advanced Talmudic institution for married men who engage in all-day study with partners with little guidance from Rabbis as is common in Yeshiva. But the Kolel Williamsburg, which is situated on the outskirts of the Hasidic enclave near Brooklyn Broadway on Rodney Street, is specifically geared for the folks who have been spit out from the regular educational system. They do not have the sitz fleish (=patience) to pinch the bench all day in Talmudic and Law Code perusal, or have committed other infractions which makes them ineligible to enroll in the mainstream courses of study. Special programs have been devised for those “modern” boys, many of whom have shed their payos and/or beard, who are seeking a more grounded and inclusive experience. Parents support the institution despite its degraded reputation, out of the sober realization that their kids would otherwise likely be on the streets and may rebel against the established society altogether.
It is into this Kolel that Rabbi Mizrahi was invited to lecture on the topic of proving that the Torah is divine, after which he took questions from the audience. On Saturday evening he visited the synagogue of Lipa Schmeltzer, whose music was at one point banned from Williamsburg due to racy lyrics, and presented a lecture there. He related there that the Thursday night Williamsburg audience had told him that they found his lecture to be supportive and reaffirming to their faith, not the other way around as some have expressed concern.
This sort of foray into philosophical questions about Judaism is definitely new to the Hasidic world of Borough Park and Williamsburg, where religious study is defined by legalistic casuistry and Talmudic sophistry; not by theoretical speculation a la Maimonides. It remains to be seen how this avant garde event will exert its influence on the hitherto ingenuous community, going forward.