Sunday, August 04, 2019

On Rav Herzog's Encyclopedic Knowledge, Cultural Influence and Jews as Parasites

 Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog

       This morning in shul, the person sitting next to me was deeply engrossed in a volume of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog's magnum opus, The Main Institutions of Jewish Law. Excitedly, he pointed out to me a few examples of the author's exquisite English style (and it is, indeed, exquisite). 

       After a few minutes, he called my attention to a passage where Rav Herzog expresses exasperation with another scholar. The latter had claimed that a certain law in the Mishnah was wholly derived from Roman Law. Rav Herzog reacted with, albeit polite, indignance. He asserted that he did not know whence this writer had the temerity to make such a claim. Indeed, he declared, no such law appears anywhere in Roman Legal Literature! The ruling in the Mishnah, then, was uniquely Jewish and bore no debt to the outside world. I smiled in appreciation.

         My friend, who know a thing or two about science, research and data bases was deeply impressed at Rav Herzog's ability to make such a declaration. Obviously, in an age before Data Bases and scanned books, search engines and keywords, Rav Herzog carefully, methodically and judiciously mastered the entire Roman Legal corpus. Otherwise, he would not have been able to make such an authoritative and definitive assertion. I responded that we have paid a very high price for relying overly on databases and search engines, instead of systematically engaging and studying various works. One misses nuance, not to mention a certain intuition that comes from immersing oneself in the works of other writers.

           Suddenly, I thought about Rav Herzog's rejection of the idea that some rule in the Mishnah was Roman in origin. Why, I wondered, was he so indignant? Why did he feel the need to triumphantly declare that there was no way the law in question emanated from outside of the Jewish orbit? And, more to the point, why was I warmed by his actions?

           The question of the impact of outside cultures on Judaism has always both fascinated and frustrated me. On the one hand, good Jewish patriot that I am, I would like to naively think that everything in our received heritage developed imminently from within. After all, we experience Torah as a totality, and naturally tend to weigh and interpret its various elements in light of the totality of its parts. On the other hand, such a sentiment is patently wrong, even absurd. Jewish civilization has interacted with countless other cultures over the millennia, and has been greatly enriched by that interaction. We are inevitably influenced by the material and cultural surroundings wherein we find ourselves. The real questions are how that influence occurs and in what it results?     

           Contrary to the prevailing trends in the contemporary academy, I am something of an essentialist (or, better, neo-Essentialist to use Andrew Sayer's phrase). I am convinced (independent of my religious belief) that Rabbinic Judaism has a basic integrity that remained consistent throughout the centuries. Hence, when it encountered multiple cultures it interacted with them. It did not mindlessly, uncritically and mechanically embrace outside ideas and practices (by perhaps tossing thereupon some Jewish decoration). Judaism interacted with the outside world. That which it chose it accept was accepted critically and adapted to the core values and spiritual vision that was uniquely Jewish. There was, I think, even discrimination as to what was adopted. 

            This position was best expressed by the distinguished scholar of Islam, H. A. R. Gibb, in his article, 'The Influence of Islamic Culture in Medieval Europe.' Two citations from that study will suffice to make the point at bar.


           I fully subscribe to both of these sentiments. I would add that even when reality forced itself upon Jewish culture (as, for example, certain aspects of Christian penitence that impacted upon German Pietism, aka Hassidut Ashkenaz), the forces that imposed themselves were still refracted through a Jewish prism (a point I made in a lecture that I offered some years ago at Yeshiva College.) 

          As a result, I confess that I bristle when I encounter the wholesale reductionist stance that characterizes the work of so many Jewish academicians. Whenever there is any parallel between a Jewish source and a non-Jewish source, the automatic reaction is: Aha! The Jews took it from there!!! The idea that Jews might have originated something out of their own religious or cultural nexus isn't taken seriously. Neither is the possibility that similar phenomena might emerge from similar circumstances. (Never mind the consideration that even if there was influence the significant questions are: What? How? To what Extent? and not just establishing that there was influence.) Indeed, sometimes, when I read or hear colleagues presenting this kind of argument, there's something triumphalist, celebratory in their words. But why? Sometimes I think it's an expression of a deep seated need to belong to the outside world. Other times, it seems that Jewish otherness bothers them, or that they are burdened by a serious cultural inferiority complex. 

          Whatever the motivation for this non-nuanced understanding of cultural interaction, one thing struck me as I was talking to my friend. The obverse of the compulsive search for outside influences upon Judaism and Jewish culture is that Jews are incapable of being original on their own terms. If so, they must be deemed cultural parasites. Hence, on some level there is a similarity between this operating assumption and the Antisemitic (and deeply Marxist) trope that Jews are not productive economically but merely parasites on the body politic of Europe. That image of the Jew, in turn, is rooted in the notorious blood libels of the Medieval and Modern Worlds.  

          When that insight hit me this morning, I fully understood Rav Herzog's indignation.

           And my delight in his reply.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

בעקבות פרשת יובל דיין

פרשת יובל דיין נגעה בי (כמו לרבים, כנראה) בעצב רגיש. אלה מתגוננים ואלה צוהלים. אלה מזדהים ואלה דואבים. מכיוון שאינני מכיר את דיין, לא ראוי שאתייחס לסאגה האישית שלו. ברצוני רק לשתף אתכם בהגיגיי האישיים והקצרים...אותם עצבים אישיים/רגישים שבהם הפוסט נגע.

הקשר ביני לבין קוני, אותו אני זוכר מאודי והרבה לפני שרשמית נהייתי שומר תורה ומצוות במובן המקובל של המילה, הוא יסוד הוויתי. הוא ממלא (כפי שפעם העיר הגרא"ל זצ"ל) את קודש הקדשים של נשמתי.
כתוצאה, אינני מחזיק אמונות-- אני מרגיש את עצמי מוחזק ע"י אמונתי.

התוצאה היא שקיום המצוות, ותלמוד תורה לפניו, הם זכוות הניתנת לי למלא את רצונו. ברור, שבמובנים רבים אני מרוויח הרבה מהם, מקריב הרבה בגינם, וחושש מתוצאות מעידותיי. אולם, העיקר נשאר אותו קשר.

כל זה איננו שולל את העובדה שבן תמותה אנכי, מוגבל בשכלי ובהבנתי. לכן, הספק (ליתר דיוק, הספקות) המקנן בי הוא חלק מובנה מההואי הדתי. יותר מזה, הספק (וההתמודדות עם הספק) הוא קטגוריה דתית לגמרי ליגיטימית. אפשר בהחלט לאשר ספק, וגם להמשיך להאמין; לשוחח ולשאול לבורא עולם שאלות נוקבות. מאידך, ההכרה המתמדת במגבלות תבונתי והשגתי (עיין רמב"ם, הל' יסודי התורה פ"ב ה"א-ה"ב) מחזקת אותי ומאפשרת את ההתמודדות עם הספק והתהייה.

משימה לא פשוטה הטיל הקב"ה על עם ישראל. לא פשוט בכלל לקיים מצוות ולשמור על מודעות רוחנית בריאה הממלאת את המצוות. קל מאד לזייף ולעוות, להשתמש בכתר בצורות לא נאותות. אני מבין את אלה שמאבדים את עולמם בגלל שרואים דברים קשים ביותר המבוצעים ע"י אלה שרוממות התורה בגרונם ומשפילים אותה במו ידיהם; אלה שמפטירים עליהם: 'ראית פלוני שלמד תורה כמה דבריו מקולקלין, ומתוך כך התורה מתחללת' (פסיקתא זוטרתא, רות פ"א).

אולם, אין בזה כל חדש. מאז משה רבינו ועבור לנביאים, מחז"ל ועד גדולי המוסר ניטש מאבק להשגת חיים מלאים בפנים ובחוץ, בבית ובציבור. מערכת העונשים של התורה עצמה מעידה על כך כמאה עדים. הדרך קשה מאד, אין ספק ושומה על כל יהודי להיאבק עם עצמו ועם הציבור לתיקון המעוות, להשרשת תודעת בורא העולם, להפצת, הנגשת והנעמת התורה.

דווקא בעבודה זאת יש תפקיד ייחודי לבעלי תשובה (כמו לגרים). אלה שבאו לחסות תחת כנפי השכינה ביצעו מעשה גבורה שלא ישוער. וככל שרב המרחק אותו צעדו, גדולה יותר גבורתם. הם בעלי פרספקטיבה המיועדת להעשיר את עולם התורה (וגם להתמודד מול אתגרי עולם החוץ). זה שאלה שזכו להיוולד בתוך חזה האמונה לא משכילים להפנים אמת פשוטה זו היא טרגדיה וגם טפשות אכזרית ומשוועת. מרבי עקיבא עד ריש לקיש, משלמה מולכו ועד אחרון החוזרים ותרים אחרי אור ד' בימינו, תורת ד' נהייתה עשירה פי מליון בגין קיומם.

בואו נהיה כנים, התעלמות מעובדה זו, ליקוי מוסרי זה, קיים לא רק בציבור החרדי. הוא מושרש עמוק עמוק בתוך העולם הדתי לאומי ומשם יש לשרשו.

מאידך, כפי שציין ידידי הרב אביה הכהן לגבי ממד אחר של הפרשה הנוכחית, למי שגידל אחרים יש אחריות הורית. יותר ממה שכואבות לי תהפוכות נפשו של יובל דיין, כואב לי סבלם של אלה שתלו בו את יהבם. אני מתפלל שד' ית' יאיר את דרכם להישאר באורו.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Fighting the Hydra: On the Return of Anti-Semitism

         On Shabbat, Bet Chabad in Poway California was attacked by a White Supremacist, leaving one dead and a number wounded. The attack came six months after an even deadlier assault in Pittsburgh. Yesterday, the New York Times, published a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon that invoked the medieval image of the Jewish dog, the Satanic Judas and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Jews, together with people of good will, are justifiably horrified and grieve the senseless deaths, the desecration of holy ground. They are outraged at the explicit dehumanization of the Jew in terms more fitting of Der Stürmer and Völkischer Beobachter, than of the ‘Paper of Record.’
           They should not, however, be surprised.
           Since the end of World War II, most of us have been under the illusion that Jew hatred has been in recession; relegated to the fringes of society, there to wither and die. That belief has proven to be wrong. Hatred of the Jew, whose roots reach back to Greece and Rome merely went underground. It did not wither. It lay dormant. Now, as a result of multiple forces, Anti-Semitism/Anti-Judaism has reemerged in Europe, in North America, and in Arabia..
           The trouble is that we have become used to a world wherein Jew hatred was absent. Hence, its return elicits turmoil and pain. Part of the turmoil is because, in contrast to our forebears, we have lost our ‘sea-legs.’ We don’t know what to make of Antisemitism. We are constantly shocked to encounter it. So, we struggle to understand. We blame Anti-Zionism. We blame White Supremacists. We viciously blame each other, in the somewhat naïve belief that if Jews would only behave properly (each from his own point of view), Jew hatred could be defeated.
           Yet, even if we grant that Jews are obligated to constantly improve their behavior, we will still miss the point. Anti-Semitism is an historical phenomenon that transcends all explanations. It defies reason and rejects logic (despite the best efforts of historians, philosophers and psychologists to explain it). How else can we understand that the Jew is dangerous because he is both Right and Left, Capitalist and Socialist? How else can we explain that Antisemitic images and prejudices pass easily from the Atheist Left to the White Supremacist Right to Jihadi Muslims? Antisemitism possesses one common denominator, the abiding hatred of the Jew and of Judaism.
           So, what are we to do?
           First, we must acknowledge that we are under attack from multiple directions. Making excuses for one side’s Jew-hatred encourages all. We must unhesitatingly acknowledge the fact that Jew hatred comes from different directions (even those with which we identify on other issues). Jews and all people of good will, uncompromisingly fight every manifestation of Antisemitism: Right or Left, Progressive or Conservative, Muslim or Christian.
           Second, in order to fight one needs that for which to fight. I learned how from a beloved teacher. His name was Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth. In the mid-1930’s he was rabbi of the German town of Kitzingen. He fondly recalled those years as a ‘Golden Age’ for German Jewry. Why? Because the Jews responded to their dire situation by deepening their Jewishness. They studied their heritage, and sought out each other in communal solidarity. In brief, they answered their adversaries and became meaningfully steadfast by becoming better Jews.
           In this old/new situation, if we do not come to understand that for which we exist as Jews, the consequences will be nothing if not fraught. Fatigue, despair, or even self-identification with our adversaries could result (as they have over the centuries). Engaging the hydra of Antisemitism together, based upon profound Jewish knowledge and identification (which, of course are best achieved in the Jewish Homeland), is a proven path to its subjugation (even if not its slaying).
Over my desk, hangs a cartoon. In it, a Professor tells his student: ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.’ In these few lines, I have tried to share what I’ve learned from Jewish History. Let us learn its lessons, and not repeat them.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

A Refreshing, Wider View of Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל

 I have long maintained that studies of Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל have long suffered from serious imbalance. Extensive attention has been afforded his writings in English and Hebrew, while his shiurim and Hiddushim in Talmud and his essays in Yiddish have been largely ignored. I assume that this is a result of the fact that most academics are proficient in neither. This is unfortunate, in extremis , because one cannot take the full measure of any writer without acquaintance (if not mastery) of their total oeuvre. This is especially the case with someone like Rav Soloveitchik who was, in line with Jewish literature for over two and a half millennia, highly inter-textual. Like Maimonides, before him, his full persona only emerges when he is taken in light of his total output.  [This includes recordings of of his shiurim, which often provide critical supplementary insights into his overall thought. Indeed, sometimes, the latter contain discussion that are often noted as lacking. For example, the Rav is reputed to have never addressed the question of the interaction between Judaism and General culture head on (w/ the possible exception of an essay called 'רמתיים צופים.') However, it emerges that he did address the a talk on Parshat Ki Tetzeh, which was delivered in Yiddish at the Moriah Synagogue.] In addition, the use of his Yiddish writings takes on added importance in light of Prof. Haym Soloveitchik's observation that anyone 'who didn't really know him in Yiddish, didn't really know him.'

I was, therefore, very excited and please to see that Prof. Ariel Evan Mayse has published a studious and perceptive study of one of the Rav's neglected Yiddish essays, 'יחיד וציבור.' The author deftly summarizes and characterizes Rav Soloveitchik's argument, translates the relevant passages, and places them in the context of many of his better known essays. In the process he discovers one of the rare cases wherein the Rav strives to harmonize the antinonies with which he works, rather than leaving them to remain in ongoing dialectical tension. The result is a tour de force that enriches our understanding of the Rav and the development of his thought, while implicitly and explicitly pointing out new directions for further study.

Withal, I did encounter a few points which I feel require attention, sharpening or correction. In the interest of convenience, I've followed the printed text.

1) Note 18: Many more recordings of the Rav's Yiddish talks are found at the Bergen County Bet Midrash ( ).

2) Ibid. The Rav only shifted from Yiddish to English in the 1960's, not the mid 1950's as stated.

3)  S.v. The formulation- The Rav's use of shitah is more emphatic and precise than 'meaning' or 'opinion.' In Talmudic discourse, a shitah is a well-founded legal position that that transcends individual context and reflects the understanding of a Talmud-wide principle.

4) Note 27 - R. Naphtali Zvi Yehudah Berlin was Rav Soloveitchik's great-great grandfather. Not only is there no doubt that he was familiar with Haameq Davar, a review of Rav Soloveitchik's Humash lectures shows the former's deep and abiding influence upon him.

5) Note 59- The author should, by rights, have referred to 'From There you shall Seek' (ובקשתם משם), a homily organized around the Song of Song and fraught through with echoes of Divine Love.

6) Note 68 - The use of poetic imagery, and of natural descriptions is not only not rare in Rav Soloveitchik's is very common. See, again, the opening to 'From THere you shall seek'. In addition, dozens of recorded lectures contain digressions like the one noted.

7) S.v. When comparing -  the author's psychologizing is unconvincing. Halakhic Man  was properly published in one of the few Hebrew journals that were appropriate at the time. The journal, Talpiot, was published by Yeshiva University and the essays came out just as the Rav's standing at YU was beginning to firm up. The choice of venue was both wise and justified. Given Haym Soloveitchik's comment above, I think the author is reading too much into the difference in language.

8) S.v. Thinking Beyond - I am surprised that the author did not connect the Rav's critique of Yeshiva education with the more extensive discussion in 'Al Ahavat Ha-Torah u-Ge'ulat Nefesh Ha-Dor' which was published less than a decade later.

9) S.v. But I suspect- William Kolbrenner's reading of Rav Soloveitchik is fetching and adds new dimensions to our appreciation of him. Again, though, especially in light of the intensely confessional aspect of his thought, one cannot ignore the fact that the Rav went through two serious personal crises that reoriented him both personally and ontically. First, there was his own bout with cancer in 1959/60. Then, and likely more seriously, the illness and passing of his wife (1964-1967), which devastated him. Indeed, it has more than once been noted that 'The Lonely Man of Faith' is something of a eulogy (certainly a testimonial) to his wife. (Even as Halakhic Man is a eulogy to his father and the world that he represented.)
This is not to say that he did not feel a sense of failure. He did, insofar as the impact he thought his thought was having. As it turned out, he was much ahead of his time in many ways (despite his heavy reliance on philosophic trends from the 20's and 30's of the last century).

10) All biographical and textual evidence shows that Rav Soloveitchik never hoped to be an ivory towered intellectual. His drive to teach is evidenced from his late twenties on. This is born out, in spades, in Seth Farber's biographical study of his early career in Boston.     

Sunday, December 30, 2018

בעקבות המפץ הפוליטי: איפה אנו עומדים?

במידה מסוימת, טלטלות הן טובות מכיוון שגורמות להערכת מצב מחדש. כשסוקרים את השטח, ושומעים את הדיונים בתקשורת, בכל זאת עולות לא מעט מסקנות חיוביות. האוכלוסייה היהודית בארץ יותר יהודית, יותר לאומית ויותר אתנית מאז שנים רבות. העובדה שמפלגות 'מרכז' חשות צורך שלא להיתפס שמאל/אנטי-יהדות (לא חשוב כרגע אם זהו פרצופן האמיתי) מלמדת המון על ציבור הבוחרים. זוהי תמורה מאד מבורכת (במיוחד עבור אלה ממנו הזוכרים את מערכת הבחירות ב-96 וב-99). לדעתי, יש אפילו להציע תיקון למסקנות שאותן העלו שמורל רוזנר וקמיל פוקס בספרם החדש (שהוא חובה לכל אזרח יהודי). הם מציינים מה שנראה להם כחילון משמעותי בחברה הישראלית (וברור לא הדתה, למרות קריאותיהם ההיסטריות של הפורום החילוני). ממצאיהם נראים נכונים, אולם משמעותן לא מוצתה. הרצף הדתי-לאומי בציבור היהודי שהם גילו מגשר (לפחות בפוטנציה) ומלכד את הציבור יותר מבעבר. העובדה ששיעורי היהודים בארץ המאמינים בקב"ה והרואים בתורה ובמצוותיה את הכילה הקדושה (Sacred Canopy) שבתוכה חיים (אפילו אם לא יקיימו קלה כחמורה) מהווה נשורה משמחת לקיימותה של הישות היהודית בארץ ישראל. מנעד או רצף עובר מצד לצד בקלות ובצורה בריאה. המגמה היא בסך הכל חיובית וב"ה על זה.
כרב, והאמת עמדתי מושפעת ממצאיי כהיסטוריון, אני מאמין שהתורה תעשה את שלה והזיקה למוסורת תתחזק.
המנעד הזה מאפיין את הציבור הדתי לאומי גם, ולכן זה לא מפתיע שהמגזר שלנו מפוצל (אם כי, יותר--- הרבה יותר סביב נושאיים דתיים/תרבותיים מאשר פולוטיים). אולי טוב שכך. מצד שני, מפחידה אותי השתלטותה הצפויה של החרד"לים על הבית היהודי והפיכת אינשיה לשופרה של הציונות הדתית. לרבים מבין האנשים האלה אין שמץ של מושג איך לתרגם את התורה לשפה המובנת ע"י היהודי המצוי ודבריהם מנכרים את הציבור המסורתי דווקא כשהוא מחפש תורה (עיין רמב"ם, מבוא לפרק חלק).
אולם, יש הבט יותר חמור, השתעבדותם של החרד"לים למונופול של הרבה"ר הרת אסון. הרבה"ר מזמן איננו מוסד ציוני, ממלכתי שאכפת לו מכל יהודי א"י (ומישהו חייב להזכיר לחרד"לים שהרב קוק זצ"ל נפטר לפני 83 שנים, ושלא הוא ולא מישהו נאמן למורשתו שולט שם). הרקורד האיום שלו בכשרות, בסרבני גט ובגיור הוא רק קצה הקרחון. [הייתי יכול כבר היום לצאת לפנסיה אם היה לי שקל עבור כל אימת שסטודנט חילוני אמר לי שהוא מכבד ואוהב את התורה, מאמין בקב"ה וסולד מהרבנות.]
אני מתרכז בנקודה זו, בגלל שהמרקם היהודי המחזק, התודעה והקיימות היהודיות המתעצמות חייבים להיות מבוססים על הסכמות בנושאים עקרוניים כמו יחסי דת וציבוריות וגם על הסדרת מעמדם של הלא יהודים מזרע ישראל (שמתווספים להם כל שנה אלפים נוספים בזכות הסוכנות היהודית). היכולת הבסיסית להתחתן אחד עם השני ולהכיר אחד בשני כיהודים היא חיונית לקיימותנו ומהווה שיקול בטחוני מובהק. ההיסטוריה מלמדת שפילוג פוקד את עמנו רק על רקע נושא זה. ודווקא כאן, נכנעו החרד"לים לחרדים (שממלכתיות איננה הקלף החזק שלהם) ותמכו בקיפאון הגיור והכרזת מלחמה נגד גדולי תורה המגיירים ע"פ דין (ע' שו"ת אחיעזר ח"ג סי' כ"ג). כדרכם בבלימת הגיור, כן דרכם נגד הרחבת הכשרות וטהרת הקדושה (דוגמת מיזם הכשרות של צוה"ר בראשות יד"נ הרב אורן דובדבני).
תו הנוגה המתנגן במפה הפוליטית מעלה את השאלה: מי יעמוד בפרץ? מי ייצג ציונות דתית שבצורה אחראית (כולל קווים אדומים ברורים נגד מגמות בציבור) יילחם בכנסת עבור אותה יהדות שתחשל את הציבור ותזכה את כולנו בברכת ד'?
האיחוד הלאומי? ממנו והלאה.
הימין החדש? לא נראה לי.
הליכוד? לא על סדר יומו (עם תלותו בחרדים)
זה מה שמדיר את עיניי משינה בלילות.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Modern Orthodox Imbalance

In preparing for last week's talk, Redefining Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, I had occasion to revisit Prof. Jack Wertheimer's essay, 'Can Modern Orthodoxy Survive?' and the responses too. [Full disclosure, I am a long time fan of Professor Wertheimer's writings. His latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today, is a stunning tour de force...if very sobering.] The original article, and all of the responses save one, provided trenchant and fascinating food for thought about the present and future of the Modern Orthodox experiment. Somehow, reading Wertheimer's summation helped me to crystallize some of my ideas on the subject (and some of the points I presented to the Maccabean Society last week.)

In summarizing the responses to his essay, Wertheimer noted three primary concerns that were expressed. Primary among these was the explicit sense that Modern Orthodoxy is threatened by Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi Judaism (and not so implicitly by the latter's influence upon putative Modern Orthodox institutions, such as Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union).

This is a remarkable, and extremely problematic (if not dangerous), situation for any wing of a community that defines itself as Orthodox. 

To begin with, we must parse the nature of the Haredi 'threat.' If this is represented by moves to erase women from the media and the community; by the ceding of authority in critical areas (e.g. Divorce, Recalcitrants, Conversion etc) to Haredi rabbis then the concern is real and must be addressed. The Modern Orthodox Community must stand up for the advancement of women within and without its ranks (to the degree the Torah credibly allows, see below). The unparalleled and unjustified extremes to which the Laws of Modesty have gone must be rejected. The inequalities and perversions of justice that occur in the realm of divorce must be ameliorated. A credible model for conversion (which is more an Israeli than a Diaspora issue) must be adopted, and so on.

However, all too often 'Haredization' (aka 'Sliding to the Right') is identified with intensification of piety, increased Torah Study, along with greater precision and punctiliousness in the observance of God's commandments. Here, no community that strives to uphold Orthodox Tradition (i.e. the iteration of authentic Rabbinic Jewish Tradition of the past millennia) can but endorse such developments (never mind distance itself therefrom). The fact that ritual and moral piety were not always the hallmarks of the Modern Community (as embodied in the US by the so-called 'Young Israel type,' which parallels the Israel Mizrhnik) is not an excuse. Indeed, this type of spiritually shallow and ritually deficient type of behavior were precisely the reason that Rav Soloveitchik זצ"ל never self-identified as a Modern Orthodox Jew (while his son in law, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein זצ"ל adopted the Centrist moniker). I understand that the increase in observance, which often calls into question the integrity of previous generations, is uncomfortable and people like to do what they like to do. In addition, Freedom of Will is certainly given to all. However, to bemoan such trends officially is indefensible. 

On the other hand, it was still stunning (though not all that surprising) to read Wertheimer's observation that 'All but one seem to regard the haredim as the “other” with whom Modern Orthodoxy must contend; by contrast, the more liberal Jewish denominations barely register in these responses.' 

In my experience, there are two reasons for this. To start with, Orthodoxy has defied all of the predictions of its demise. Few can believe today that only fifty years ago, Marshall Sklare, the preeminent sociologist of American Jewry dismissed Orthodoxy as a fossil. Or that when Charles Liebman published his prescient study of Orthodoxy and its future resurgence, his colleagues thought his predictions risible. Today, the non-Orthodox denominations are at a serious cross road, as they try to survive in the wake of the trends unveiled by the PEW Report of 2013. So, from a formal, institutional vantage point, Non-Orthodox denominations do not really constitute a threat to Orthodox continuity.

However, it really is striking, that none of the respondents questioned (or even expressed some measure of discomfort) at the challenge posed to Orthodox Judaism by the (Post)Modern World with which Modern Orthodoxy purports to interact. This omission, which Prof. Wertheimer does not note in his summary, is fraught with serious consequences. Contemporary Western Culture, which denies Absolute Truth and advocates values and actions that cannot be squared with any form of credible Orthodoxy, does threaten Modern Orthodoxy with corrosion from within. This, however, depends upon the model on cultural interaction that one chooses.

If one assumes that (Post)Modernity must be coterminous with Judaism, along the lines that Medieval Jewish Philosophers posited (v. R. Sa'adiah's Introduction to the Emunot ve-De'ot or Guide to the Perplexed I, 71), then one eventually subjugates Judaism to the former and one often finds oneself using various tools, disciplines and arguments to accommodate the Torah to (Post)Modernity which is all too often uncritically embraced.

The result of such an orientation, is very problematic. As I wrote a number of years ago:

Making Judaism dependent upon external systems of thought and values, denies its integrity and, effectively, eviscerates it. The Torah, at this point, becomes a mere function of transient intellectual and cultural fashion; nothing more than a Jewish decoration (as it were) upon another culture. Anything that was originally part of Judaism that does not align itself with current norms will simply be dispensed with. Ultimately, the Torah itself is easily dispensed with. After all, if one’s central values lie outside of Judaism, why make the effort to maintain it, since sentiment alone is hardly strong enough to withstand the pull of a larger culture? The inevitable result, then, is assimilation, which is simply the exchange of one identity and value system for another.

In many cases, and I one can detect some of this among the responses to Wertheimer (along with some of the positions presented at the recent Progressive (sic!) Halakhah Conference at Harvard), this is precisely the model that is advocated. This model of Orthodoxy is deeply out of balance, tilting away from itself. Here, the example of the Non-Orthodox denominations does represent a plausible foil. For it was precisely this epistemological model that underlay Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionism. So, while the other movements might not pose an institutional challenge, their example should be a warning to those who wish to march Orthodoxy down that path (and they represent a not insignificant number).  

The healthier, and more responsible approach to cultural interaction assumes a judicial encounter of Judaism, possessed of its own integrity, with outside culture. Ideas and challenges, insights and questions, models and possibilities posed by the later can and should be explored and judged as to their appropriateness and possible adaptability to Torah and the worship of God. However, God and the words of the Torah have the final say and that say may well be 'No' or 'Partially Yes.'

As I noted in the above essay, which addressed the issue from the point of view of Rav Soloveitchik's epistemology:

At the same time, he definitely did not advocate a blind, ‘know nothing’ or fundamentalist stance toward the outside world and its culture, and their relationship to Torah. His epistemological model, which was beautifully mapped out by my teacher, Prof. Yitzhak Twersky z’l, assumed that one should courageously enlist the full panoply of Western culture for the explication and enhancement of Judaism. Judaism, in the Rav’s model, creatively engages and interacts with other systems of thought and value. It is enriched and our appreciation of it deepened by that interaction. It does not, however, subordinate itself to them, or makes its validity contingent thereupon.The core values and institutions of Judaism, rooted in the Talmud and its literature, control and balance the manner in which outside forces and ideas impact upon (and stimulate) it.  

Of course, this approach will likely be seen to be an anathema to many who are immersed of Western Thought today as it presumes Faith in God, Deference to His Will as expressed in the Written and Oral Law (although subject to a fair degree of responsible interpretation), Belief in Absolute Truth and a degree of Essentialism (which is, by the way, making a comeback of late.) In addition, it jibes better with the way that great sages and halakhists, leaders and thinkers have comported themselves in the past (though, Orthodox Judaism does not require the imprimatur of the academic). 

The future Modern Orthodoxy in the Exile (even as we, in Israel, strive to create a native Israeli version thereof) will be determined by the choice of model of interaction that its people choose.  


Monday, April 02, 2018

Mori ve-Rabbi, Rav Yosef Dov Ha-Levi Soloveitchik זצ"ל: A Personal Reflections on his Twenty-Fifth Yahrzeit

It was a call that I was theoretically expecting and for which I was still totally unprepared. It was Thursday evening, April 8, 1993, the eighteenth of Nisan 5753 and I was sitting at my desk still trying to fathom the passing of one of my mentors, Ludwig Jesselson, the previous Shabbat. The phone rang. At the other end was Prof. Henry Lisman ז"ל, a dear friend and the Rav's brother-in law. His voice was soft and solemn. 'That which we most feared has finally happened,' he said. I knew immediately what he meant. The funeral would be Sunday, the eve of the last days of Pesach, in order to allow the members of the Lichtenstein family to arrive in the United States. We agreed that I would drive him and Mrs. Lisman (who was Rebbetzin Dr. Tonya Lewitt Soloveitchik ז"ל's sister) to Boston, along with one of the Rav's earliest star students, Rabbi Prof. Chaim Danishevsky זצ"ל and one other person. I hung up the receiver, and sat in stunned silence. 

Hazal, in describing the initial stage of mourning, speak of שעת חימום, a moment of intense, heated angst and pain (Moed Qatan 24a). It is that moment, according to Halakhah that generates the obligation/impulse to tear one's clothes. Strangely, I did not experience that moment of stabbing shock. I felt a deep, chilling and paralyzing ache that left me stunned and numb. I felt as if the Rav's departure from the world had torn a gaping hole in the fabric of my universe (even though he had been ill and withdrawn for over seven years, and the last time we had really talked was in February, 1985). Oddly enough, that yawning chasm remains with me to this day, twenty-five years later. 

This state of mind is very hard to explain to anyone who has not had the privilege of being the disciple of a great religious personality (the Rav's reminiscences of Rav Kook come to mind). Encountering such a personality is a transformative experience, especially when that personality instills in you a combination of Reverance and Deference to God and Torah, while pushing you to grow into an independent and courageous Servus Dei. Being the disciple of the Rav ushered us into a realm of existence wherein, as Rav Prof. Haym Soloveitchik put it in his unforgettable eulogy of his father, everything outside the Rav's Shiur (especially in Talmud, but also in Humash or Jewish Thought) was not only unimportant, it was insignificant. In those moments, we experienced a timeless passing on of Torah and Tradition, which was marked by Love and intense spiritual yearning and intellectual aspiration; and by the awareness, again formulated exquisitely by Prof. Soloveitchik, that the Rav and his disciples were bound to one another by the common shared awareness that without him, as our Rebbe, we were incapable of being what we were (or aspired to be), and that (as incredible as it still sounds to me) without us as talmidim, he could not have been who he was.

That sense of bonding remains very real for me, a quarter of a century later (and unites Talmidim who span the generations, when they meet and share ideas, interpretations and memories.) On the one hand, personally, I know that I have striven to develop into an independent person, and forge my way in the world of Avodat HaShem, of Talmud Torah and Shemirat Mitzvot.  My goal, sadly only partially realized, was to seek to realize the mandate/blessing he gave me the day before my wedding; viz. to become 'a lamdan in the widest sense of the term.' Certainly, there are positions and decisions I took with which he would have disagreed (though, I hope he would have respected them). Still, even when I reached such decisions, it was the Rav's teachings and method, and personal example that really grounded and oriented me throughout. In that, very deep and profound sense, I feel a contradictory reaction to his passing. On the one hand, I miss his availability. There is not a day that goes by that I do not wish I could write or speak with him to help me make sense of an increasingly neurotic. On the other hand, by studying and engaging his teachings I feel like my discipleship has never ended. [Indeed, it was my beloved, lamented friend, R. Dr. David Applebaum הי"ד who described the experience, after the passing of his Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik זצ"ל in 2001.]   

So, perhaps, that is why I felt no שעת חימום a quarter of a century ago. As Prof Soloveitchik said as he concluded his eulogy: 

 'And so, they bonded and have remained so even now that נפשו צרורה בצרור החיים.'