The philosopher Carlos Fraenkel has a beautiful piece in the Jewish Review of Books about his experience teaching an “underground seminar” on philosophy to Hasidic Jews. Although most were active businessmen with large families and heavy religious obligations, Fraenkel’s students sat up nights reading and discussing Spinoza, Maimonides, and Nietzsche. In addition to the demands on their time, these amateur philosophers faced a serious risk of ostracism from the ultra-Orthodox world that circumscribes their lives. “From the point of view of our community,” one explains, “studying these books is much worse than having an extramarital affair or going to a prostitute. That’s weakness of the flesh, but here our souls are on the line-apikorsus (heresy) means losing our spot in olam ha-ba (the world to come).”
It’s easy to ridicule the limits on intellectual freedom imposed by ultra-Orthodox Judaism. But they may be partly redeemed by their consequence: an overriding sense of the importance of thought, study, and right conduct. For Fraenkel, the emphasis on things of the soul over things of the body that traditional Judaism shares with philosophy is the core of Hasidim’s paradoxical appeal. Asked why he is interested in the ultra-Orthodox community, Fraenkel explains that “while I am not attracted to its content, I am intrigued by its form—a world that revolves around wisdom and God, rather than wealth, sex, power, and entertainment. [The students] are surprised when I say that from Plato to Spinoza most philosophers endorsed this ranking, if not the same accounts of wisdom and God. And they are stunned to learn that I would be very disappointed if my 2-year-old daughter grew up to value lipstick, handbags, and boys in sports cars more than education and ethics.”
But it often takes an outsider to envy the members of a closed community. Where Fraenkel sees an authentic thirst for wisdom in his rebellious students, they speak first hand of the superstition, prejudice, and conformity against which they struggle day after day. Fraenkel would rather see his daughter follow the Satmar Rebbe than Kim Kardashian. But some of his students have stopped having children to avoid enlarging their sects.
Many academic philosophers bristle when their work is associated with broad claims about the “meaning of life”. Fraenkel and his students provide a vivid reminder that, while philosophy is more than a dorm-room bull session or self-help mantra, its significance is based on reflection on the purposes of human existence rather than feats of technical sophistication or analytic ingenuity. As a college teacher, I wish that I could impart to my bright, hard-working, well-credentialed students even a small portion of the seriousness and maturity that Fraenkel’s black-hatted friends brought to their reading and discussion. Although not scholars, the members of the underground seminar seem to be philosophers in the original and highest sense: lovers of wisdom.