Earlier this year, the Catholic Church proclaimed John Henry Newman, one of Victorian England’s foremost religious thinkers, a saint. Newman, after a long and prestigious career in the Anglican church, embraced Roman Catholicism and was eventually given the rank of cardinal. To Shalom Carmy, Jews—and Orthodox Jews in particular—have much to learn from this extraordinary figure:
Newman argued that knowing what to think and how to think contributed to being a better person in the same way that being physically healthy is better than not being healthy. He understood that a university education that excluded the most important truth—that about God—was not a satisfactory education. Therefore to compromise by compartmentalizing religious doctrine from the rest of our education is a dangerous falsification.
More importantly, Newman regarded the university as a place of education, independent of its practical technical utility. In our culture, education usually means training that will enable one to get a job doing something that benefits society or at least earn a salary. In Newman’s day as in our own, secular pundits and political spokesmen held that exposure to popular science and literature could supply modern people, especially the lower orders who did not get a liberal-arts curriculum, with the sense of meaning that had previously been fostered by religious education and, in a different way, by humanistic study. Newman saw clearly that such “neutral” information could not take the place of wisdom, let alone revelation. An unwillingness to take these matters seriously is responsible, to some degree, for the indifferent state of Orthodox [Jews’] intellectual life.
Another area where Newman’s preoccupations overlap with Jewish concerns is the question of development and tradition in religious doctrine. . . . Newman’s stress on the propagation of doctrine through the church runs counter to a prevalent modern tendency to treat belief as the product of individual reflection, what Newman calls “private judgment.” . . . Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Judaism does not have a centralized authority like the papacy. . . . Nonetheless, one cannot adhere to Judaism either in action or in thought without some robust sense that our connection to God is formed by the collective experience of the Jewish people mediated through cumulative rabbinic interpretation.