Monday, November 21, 2016
Back in college, my friends and I would often debate whether Modern Orthodoxy or the yeshivish world was where real Judaism was to be found. With all of the certainty and over-confidence of 20-year-olds, we talked about things like mesorah, seriousness in mitzvohs, and which approach would lead our future children to be more religiously loyal. Some us saw YU as, at best, a compromise, and thought that, for the most part the real gedolim were to be found in the orbit of the Agudah.
Each year, a few of my friends would attend some of the sessions at the Agudah convention, which usually took place during Thanksgiving weekend. Even if we were not ready to embrace all parts of the yeshivah world, we recognized that there were serious thinkers who would be speaking at the convention, and that important ideas would be discussed. We made sure to read the Jewish Observer, which was the magazine where thoughtful Agudist ideas could be found. Even as I ultimately chose a different path, I think back to the Agudah gedolim of those days with great respect.
I thought back to those recently when I saw the schedule for this year’s Agudah which took place this past weekend. When I first saw schedule, I was curious which speakers would be speaking about important issues. I was disappointed, if not fully surprised to discover that none of the topics grabbed me. Even more, thinking back to the conventions that I recalled, none of the gedolim who spoke have the broad intellectual background that gedolim of the past possessed. Although Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky ZT”L passed away a little before I started thinking about these ideas, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, Rav Gifter, ZT”Land other Roshei Yeshiva, as well community rabbonim like Rav Shimon Schwab were still going strong. They followed in the footsteps of Rav Hutner and others who gave you a sense that the Agudah had serious and important things to say.
Although perhaps not fully by design, the Agudah world no longer has gedolim who have one foot in the world of modern ideas. The Jewish Observer is no longer published, having been replaced by various less sophisticated periodicals. It is hard to imagine we will see a sefer like Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s Emes L’Yaakov being written anytime soon, nor should we expect a serious analysis of the Yud Gimmel Ikarim as written by Rav Weinberg. With few exceptions, the charedi yeshivahs of today are educating towards little but gemara and halacha, and few rabbonim from that world can thoughtfully address issues of philosophy with any degree of sophistication. The few who do (Rav Shalom Kaminetzky, Rav Triebitz, and Rav Lopiansky come to mind) seem to rarely publicly address the serious theological and philosophical questions which trouble some of the more intellectual balebatim in the world of the Agudah. I sometimes wonder whether the atmosphere of groupthink which exists makes it too dangerous to put serious ideas out into the public square, especially in writing..
I don’t pretend that most people want the Agudah to focus on these type of ideas. I suppose that Agudah gives their balebatim what they want. Still, I believe that in abandoning discussions of these topics, yeshivahs and the Agudah give a very harmful message about the possibility of being intellectual and frum. Of course, lo alman Yisrael, as there are many thinkers outside of the Agudah world who address these topics. Still, I yearn for the days when young adults who were passionate about searching for truth, could experience the tug that came from looking for it in different worlds.