Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Requiem for a Movement- A review of Torah and Western Thought, and thoughts on the demise of a movement

It is not often that I read a book which not only causes me to think deeply about the subject-matter, but also gets me to examine who I am as a Jew, as well as to question my sense of belonging to a community. Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity, which was recently published in a joint venture by Maggid Press and Yeshiva University Press, is one such book. As I read this fascinating work, I not only thought about the nine men and one women whose intellectual biographies make up this book, but I also thought about Modern-Orthodoxy as an intellectual movement, and to what degree it still exists. By the time I finished the last essay, I had, with some regret, reached the conclusion that, at least in America, Modern Orthodoxy as an intellectual movement has had its day. Thus, after briefly reviewing this book, I will continue with some thoughts about  a world that once existed, a world which I have found to be very nourishing, but has mostly passed from the scene. I hope to generate thoughtful discussion on this topic, as well as offer some thoughts about the future of Modern-Orthodoxy as a social and intellectual movement.

Torah and Western Thought, which is edited by  Rabbis Meir Soloveichik and Shlomo Zuckier, both of whom also wrote or co-authored essays in the book, as well Dr. Stuart Halpern, contains ten intellectual biographies of major leaders, thinkers, and teachers, who combined serious Torah, with involvement in at least some major aspect of Western thought. Some of the essays cover those who we might expect to be in such a work, such as Rav Yosef Ber Soloveichik, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, zt”l, and, yibadel bein hachayim v’hachayim, Rabbi Norman Lamm. Other essays cover individuals who are less well known, and/or whom we would not necessarily associate with this topic, such as Rav Yitzchak Herzog, Professor Nehama Leibowitz (as she is called in the book, and is this case with all honorifics used here)), and Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits zt”l.

Each essay is well-written and thought provoking, and even in the instances where I am fairly well read in the Torah of these giants of Torah, such as Rav Kook, Rav Aharon, and Rav Amital zt”l, I gained a great deal from the essay. I also learned about certain thinkers about whom I knew very little. Of particular interest, was the essay on Professor Isadore Twersky, whose combination of scholarship, piety, and avodas HaShem gave me much to think about.

Although I highly recommend this work to anyone who is moved by ideas, and/or interested in learning about these great thinkers, there are a few small critical points I would make. Although the title of the book gives a sense of the goal of the unified whole, the collection of individuals whose biographies are found in this book, do not really seem to be linked in any significant way. Additionally, while the essays on Professor Leibowitz, Rabbi Jacobovits, and Rav Herzog were very interesting, those individuals do  not seem to fit with the other thinkers, and thus, the overall theme. Finally, and it is here that I transition into my thoughts on the world of intellectual Modern Orthodoxy, nine of the ten people who are profiled are no longer alive, and the last, Rabbi Lamm is advanced in age, and fits well with the others, as a thinker whose main contributions were made in the 20th Century.

Although I believe it should already be clear, I am not suggesting that Modern Orthodoxy as a sociological movement is weak. There are many communities, shuls, schools and yeshivot who identify as Modern Orthodox. Their members believe in the importance of secular studies, are Zionistic, and have the other general traits which link together Modern Orthodox Jews. Rather, it is the intellectual philosophy which once was a major part of being Modern Orthodox, which has mostly disappeared in America.

Modern Orthodoxy is built on the shoulders of the aforementioned Rav Yosef Soloveichik, who offers a model which rarely, if ever, can be copied. As with the Rambam who is often suggested as an early model for Modern Orthodox thought, the reality of the superhuman approach of the Rav, as he is colloquially known, is one that is sui generis. He was a once in a generation (if not more) thinker, who combined the highest levels of Torah scholarship, punctilious halachic observance, and serious and profound involvement with the best ideas of the Western thought. To achieve one of those is highly admirable, while joining two of the three is no small feat. To suggest that others could achieve all three is beyond unreasonable. Communal aspirations can not be built on the basis of the approach of giants. Most of those who served as examples of a similar approach are no longer alive, while those who remain are advanced in age. If the same work was written in 30 years, it is hard to imagine who from the Modern orthodox world in America might be included. That is not to suggest that there are not individuals who strive to combine these aspects of service of God, but overall, our community's focus, as well as that of its leaders, seems to be elsewhere.

Perhaps it is by chance that the essay on Rav Aharon is at the end of the book, but in the section which is written by Rav Shalom Carmy, a complex and telling picture of Rav Aharon is drawn. Rav Carmy shows that despite the fact that Rav Aharon represented much, if not all, of what his illustrious father-in-law achieved, he was very realistic about the perils of trying to excel in all three of these areas. Furthermore, Rav Carmy shows that, given a choice between sacrificing one of these goals, it is excellence in Western thought that Rav Aharon would choose. Rav Aharon, who was deeply traditional, and, despite his creativity, quite conservative, made clear that Torah and avodas HaShem must be the main goal of any committed Jew. As opposed to Rabbi Lamm who speaks of synthesis, Rav Aharon did not use that phrase. He did not believe that secular knowledge somehow created a better Jew than Torah alone could produce. It is instructive that Rav Aharon would not be disappointed with a community that did not possess great knowledge of Western thought. He would, however, see a lacking in a community where serious Torah, tefillah, and creation of a deep inner-life was lacking.

So what now for the American Modern Orthodox community? Based on Rav Aharon, perhaps it is time for shuls and schools to put a greater emphasis on helping to produce bnei and bnot Torah, who take their avodas HaShem, including talmud Torah, and shmiras hamitzvos very seriously. Perhaps Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s kehillah (at least in its early iteration) can serve as a model. Rather than an emphasis on creating gedolei Torah, or even roshei yeshiva, his Frankfurt community strove to produce serious balebatim. If, as Rav Aharon suggests, we can’t have it all, we need to carefully focus on what is the ikkar, and not confuse it with the tafel. It is also good to remember that, even in YU under Rabbi Lamm’s leadership, far more students were interested in the Torah u’parnassa track, than were interested in Torah U’Mada. I suspect that this was true in earlier generations as well.

For those who strive to live a life that combines all of the ideals of classical Modern Orthodoxy, it is to be found, in a somewhat different form, in Israel. Rav Aharon and Rav Amital’s Gush, Bar-Ilan, as well as other yeshivas and institutions, offer an approach where both worlds can be lived, under the guidance, and through the example, of those who believe that Torah and Western thought can be part of one person’s worldview. It is in Israel where one can truly apply the Torah to building a just, moral, and holy society.

Finally, should we mourn the change in American Modern Orthodoxy? While there are some, myself included, who continue to be moved by ideas like Torah U’Mada (or whatever name you wish to use), a movement has no inherent right to exist. As always, communities evolve. Particularly as denominational and communal lines blur, it is unrealistic to expect that what worked to some degree in the 50s and 60s, will still be meaningful and successful today. To paraphrase what has been said (by whom is not clear), the philosophical graveyards are full of indispensable movements. I hope that whatever comes next will be nourishing to those who make up the Modern Orthodox community.

"It is not often that I read a book which not only causes me to think deeply about the subject-matter, but also gets me...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Wednesday, March 30, 2016

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