One interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is that it is representative of a fundamental conflict between liberal and Orthodox Calvinists.
Liberal Calvinists believed there was a mutual contract of responsibility between God and man: God protects man from harm and misfortune and, in turn, man does what God says. However, when the contract is broken, as in the case of Captain Ahab, who loses his leg to the whale Moby-Dick, all bets are off.
Man can rebel against God and be justified in doing so, as Ahab does in his pursuit of the great white whale to the ends of the earth in order to kill it.
Orthodox Calvinists, on the other hand, do not question God or His decisions. They recognize that human beings are subject to the will of the Creator and that human beings are limited in their understanding of God’s actions. Starbuck, the first mate, represents Orthodox Calvinism in that he berates Ahab for his “blasphemous” pursuit of a “dumb brute” by attributing malicious intent to it. Ahab responds that he would “strike the sun itself if it insulted” him.
After reading Rabbi Zelizer’s article “The High Holy Days for liberal Jews, literally” (Sept. 20), I am struck by the similarity between the conflict between liberal and Orthodox Calvinists and liberal and Orthodox Jews. Like the Orthodox Calvinists, Orthodox Jews believe we cannot question God’s will, nor can we question our responsibility to our Creator in following His word, which we believe was revealed to us through the Torah.
Like liberal Calvinists, liberal Jews view the Torah as a creation of man, not God, albeit divinely inspired, and our relationship with God is one we have as much control over as we want. Man’s responses to God’s revelation at Sinai are what are sacred to liberal Jews, rather than God’s word itself, which is what is sacred to Orthodox Jews. Liberal Jews point to man’s choices and man’s sovereignty over his own life, whereas Orthodox Jews are content to follow the dictates of the Torah, sometimes even literally, because we believe that God gave us the Torah as a gift of divine insight — that He shared His wisdom and advice with us lowly human beings, and if we want to make the most out of our lives, we should follow the rules of the One Who created us.
Ultimately, I think the conflict between liberal and Orthodox Jews is over authority. Do we want to acknowledge that human beings are not the be-all and end-all of the universe, and that we owe our existence and our lives to One greater than the world in which we live and than ourselves, or do we propose that people are unlimited in their power to learn and know the world? Do we wish to accept God’s authority over us and His omniscience, or do we wish to live in a human-centric world of our own creation, in which no one has authority over us except us, ourselves?
On the High Holy Days, we are exhorted to self-evaluate and do some soul-searching, regardless of whether one is a liberal or an Orthodox Jew. Moreover, we must acknowledge that we are not perfect, and it seems to me that this fact is much more difficult to swallow for liberal than for Orthodox Jews. Nevertheless, all Jews must begin the new year with the intent of uniting with our Jewish brethren in love and commonality, rather than in conflict and intolerance, so that we all merit a shana tova u’metuka (a good, sweet year).