Thursday, June 01, 2006

Matan Torah, Talmud Torah and Professor Schorsch

This year I’ve been invited (with the family) to spend Shavuot/Shabbat as the visiting scholar/maggid shiur at Yeshivat ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati at Ma’aleh Gilboa. (Rashe Yeshiva Rabbis David Bigman, Shmuel Reiner, Yehuda Gilad and Yosef Slotnick). Tonight’s shiur will focus on the necessary, dialectical tension that obtains between Law and Spirituality, as expressed in the contrast between the overwhelming experience of Matan Torah and Talmud Torah. As Professor Twersky ז"ל used to note (following the Rov זצ"ל’s cue), without experiencing (and submitting to) God’s presence, the study of Torah becomes a mechanical, fossilized effort. Without the study of Torah and the forms provided by mitzvot, spirituality becomes anarchic, self-serving and eventually evaporates.

I thought of this this morning, upon reading the
commencement speech of outgoing JTS Chancellor, Prof. Ismar Schorsch. He bemoans the collapse of adherence to Halakha (as he defines it), the spiritually vacuous character of the movement, and the wholesale adoption of contemporary mores and values by the leadership and the laity. The audience, by and large, was incensed by his remarks and, more generally, didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

I noted my feelings about the Conservative movement in an earlier posting. I can’t, therefore, say that I’m surprised either by Schorsch’s remarks or the response thereto. The success of Conservative Judaism in the mid-twentieth century was based upon a profound loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish People that the members and clergy had inherited from their traditional or traditionally oriented parents. That did not last beyond the 1960’s. In its place came the full force of contemporary culture, to which Jewish practice was adapted (or compelled to adapt). The result is the dialogue des sourdes that started with Prof. Weiss-Halivni’s walkout in the 1980’s and reached its crescendo with Prof. Schorsch’s speech.

Study is not enough. It must be accompanied by the experience of Matan Torah, the acknowledgement that with all of the power given us in Talmud Torah (“לא בשמים היא”), we must use that authority with a heightened awareness of our own limitation, with
intellectual modesty. That is not a recipe for halakhic sloth, but for measured responsibility, as the distant vistas of Talmud Torah are explored and experienced. [See my remarks, here.]


Moshe Rosenberg said...

Beautifully said! Funny that the experience vs. the intellectual content was the theme for my drasha for the first day of Yom Tov. I suggested that the "illogical" minhag of Tikkun Leil Shavuot, in which the sum total of hours learned never equals what you'd accomplish over Yom Tov with a good night's sleep, reflects the choice of minhag Yisrael to go for the experience this one time, over the total informational content. On this Yom Tov, I felt the Tanya's description of Talmud Torah (uniting with the hokhma of Hashem, etc) should hold sway.

Ben Bayit said...

The conservative movement and the "wholesale adoption of contemporary mores and values by the leadership..." has planted very strong seeds within the left-wing of Orthodoxy. Seeds that have already taken hold and are starting to sprout.

E.g. this from the principal of one of the largest religious zionist high schools in Jerusalem and a musmach of a leading hesder yeshiva

Jeffrey said...

The issue here is more complex. The Conservative movement 'sold out' to the Modern/Post-Modern World. Does that mean that everything in the outside world is illegitimate. Do yo mean to say that we can't control ourselves and be judicious and selective?

Ben Bayit said...

No that's not what I mean. I agree with you.

But an intellectually honest modern orthodox Jew - especially an educator (and principal to boot) will:
1) ackowledge the fact that even Chazal were critical of the idea that ben sorer u'morer never existed with the reason for this criticsim given as being "uprooting something from the Torah"
2) ackowledge that it is intellectually dishonest to educate HS kids to believe that "gedolei hador" will decide that mitzvat mechiyat amalek will no longer exist for reasons of "morality" when the "gedolei hador" can't even decide what legume based oils are forbidden on Pesach - let alone explain how there are signs hanging in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem stating that "timche et zecher amalek" applies to the tziyonim who are fellow Jews. To suggest that "gedolei hador" can uproot a torah commandment you need to first define who the gedolei hador are and then convince the kids that they really are the gedolei hador. I think that even the mid-range of kids at Himmlefarb are intelligent enough to realize that the gedolei hador extend beyond the roshei yeshiva at Har Etzion or the supporters of neemanei torah v'avoda and edah. I have my doubts as to the ability of R. Stavisky to convince his HS kids that the "gedolei hador" beyond those groups share his views on mitzvat mechiyat amalek.

So I have no problem with the other responses suggested by R. Stavisky and which he rejects - which also allow us to be judicious and selective, without resorting to "oker davar min hatorah". Taking the sum total of the piece - coupled with other writings of this rabbi as well as "similar" rabbis - leads me to conclude that it represents a larger problem within left-wing modern orthodoxy. It has taken me over 15 years to come to understand what it was that drove many of my classmates at YU into the Charedi world which I had then just left. I'm beginning to understand them more and more as each day passes.

aj said...

How was Maale Gilboa? Did they find your shiur interesting? Did you speak for the Kibbutz too?

I am an alumni of the American program at YMG, so I'm just curious how your shiur(im?) went...