Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity
Edited by Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Dr. Stuart W. Halpern, and Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier
New York, 2016 • 346 pages
Reviewed by Gil S. Perl
Though insightful, enlightening and at times inspiring, the recently published volume from Maggid Books and Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought isn’t quite what it’s billed to be. From the title one might expect a sustained look at the explicit or implicit conversation between Torah texts on the one hand, and their corollaries in the great books of the West on the other, as mediated by luminaries of twentieth-century Orthodoxy. While each of the ten chronologically ordered “intellectual portraits of Orthodoxy and modernity” does indeed profile a significant Torah thinker who in some way straddled the worlds of Orthodoxy and modernity, some of the portraits present very little of the subject’s Torah and—with the exception of the pieces on Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein—there is scant focus on what is commonly referred to as Western thought.
The real value of this volume, though, lies not in any individual essay, but in the subtle message delivered by the collection as a whole. Though the editors seem bent on avoiding the term “Modern Orthodoxy” either in the title or anywhere else in the front matter, that is precisely what this book is about. And, as such, it makes a compelling case for the notion that Modern Orthodoxy ought not to be about people—people who live in a certain place, dress a certain way, affiliate with certain institutions—but about a set of ideas that animate the way in which a segment of the Jewish community view their relationship with God, His Torah and His creations.
That message is driven home by the fact that, with the exception perhaps of Rabbi Norman Lamm and Rabbi Lichtenstein,1 none of the thinkers profiled in this volume would have identified themselves as Modern Orthodox. Yet, what emerges from these essays amounts to an ambitious and robust platform for Modern Orthodoxy. It is a set of ideas that has the power to advance the communal conversation well beyond the notions of “synthesis” and “Torah U’Madda” that have defined Modern Orthodoxy since the middle of the twentieth century, and toward a broader program of sophisticated, sensitive and engaged Modern Orthodoxy for the twenty-first century and beyond.
Central to this program is the development of a Torah perspective on “otherness.” For contemporary Modern Orthodoxy there is perhaps no greater challenge, and no greater opportunity, than navigating the relationship between Jew and “other.” Located as it is in the nexus between the worlds of tradition and contemporary society, Modern Orthodoxy is often distinguished by its openness to engaging with those outside of their proverbial four cubits. Doing so in a way that is restrained yet respectful, open-minded yet unwaveringly faithful, is no easy feat. It is not surprising, therefore, that the single most salient theme running through the essays in this volume is the relationship between Orthodox Jews and the “other”—be they secular Jews, adherents of other faiths, or society as a whole.
In the volume’s first essay, Dr. Daniel Rynhold, who teaches Jewish philosophy at Yeshiva University (YU), focuses on the limits of human knowledge as expressed in the work of Rav Kook. From this deeply rooted mystical conviction emerges both a critical lesson in intellectual humility as well as a concomitant approach toward those with whom we disagree. Dr. Rynhold describes Rav Kook’s position as follows:
Our understanding will always remain partial. As such, even when we are convinced by the truth of our particular perspective, we still need to respect other views—not merely for the pragmatic reason that we are currently powerless to do otherwise, but because there is an extent to which they are similarly expressions of an underlying divine reality. There is truth contained within the opposing views, and it is imperative that we engage with them in order to uncover that truth and improve our grasp on our own truths (pp. 33-34).
The most significant “other” in the writings of Rav Kook were secular Jews living in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Dr. Itamar Warhaftig, professor of Jewish law at Bar-Ilan University, notes that navigating this tenuous relationship between the Orthodox rabbinate and the secular inhabitants of the nascent State of Israel was central to the halachic writings of Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog as well. Prior to assuming the mantle of Israel’s Ashkenazic chief rabbi from Rav Kook in 1936, Rabbi Herzog, who grew up in England and was educated at the Sorbonne and the University of London, served as chief rabbi of Ireland for fourteen years. He was therefore acutely aware of the need for contemporary Orthodoxy to articulate sensitive positions vis-a-vis the non-Jewish “other” as well.
In an essay treating both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and his brother Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik points out that this need was similarly felt by these two giants of American Orthodoxy. Thus, while the Rav’s contribution to Modern Orthodoxy is well documented, in this volume Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, rabbi at Congregation Shearith Israel in New York and director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western thought at YU, highlights the Rav’s somewhat more neglected guidance regarding interfaith engagement and the idea of religious liberty.
For the author of “Confrontation,” traditional Jews and Christians have deep disagreements, but they agree on their disagreement, and in this they find their ultimate commonality. To put it in another way, even as Jews and Christians are divided as to what exactly is the religious truth, it is their old-fashioned belief in the very notion of truth that unites them (p. 94).
Much as the Rav’s work outlines a framework for intellectual engagement with the non-Jewish world, the lesser-known work of Rabbi Ahron Soloveichik articulates an ethical and halachic framework for practical engagement with adherents of other faiths. In doing so, Rav Ahron is unequivocal in asserting a radically expansive view of the obligations of a Jew toward a non-Jew, while simultaneously accounting for the qualitatively different nature of the obligations of Jews toward each other:
Jewish ethics encompasses two complementary sources of obligation: specific laws and general virtues. The former, such as hashavat aveda, are limited to Jews, whereas all humanity is included in the more universal moral virtues that lie at the core of the Torah . . . . The laws obligating Jews toward one another serve not to exclude ethical obligations to gentiles; on the contrary, they build upon ethical obligations by adding laws that establish all Jews as covenantal brothers and sisters (pp. 101, 103).
The treatment of the “other” returns once more in Rabbi Shalom Carmy and Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier’s rather dense treatment of Rabbi Lichtenstein’s view of religious humanism. Though first and foremost an exercise in self-actualization and growth, Rabbi Carmy, who teaches Jewish philosophy and Bible at YU and Rabbi Zuckier, co-director of OU-JLIC on the Yale University campus, note that Rabbi Lichtenstein’s approach has important implications for a Jew’s interpersonal relationships as well:
Religious humanism is about the appreciation and cherishing of the human being. Our current educational challenge is not solely the blight of intellectual narrowness and the ensuing deficiency in our understanding of ourselves and others. We are also called upon to counter the tendency to derogate a human being, and within Orthodox society, the tendency to deprecate outsiders, non-Jews, or hilonim (secular Jews), to make light of their contributions and dignity, and to disparage those aspects of human nature and destiny that we share volens nolens with the outside world (p. 310).
Whereas Rabbi Lichtenstein’s view of religious humanism seeks to elevate rather than deprecate the intrinsic value of the individual human “other,” Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits’s view of universally relevant ethical Judaism seeks to elevate humanity as a whole. Following in the footsteps of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch before him, and laying the groundwork for Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who succeeded him as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Jakobovits, who served in that position from 1966 until 1991, sees post-Enlightenment, post-Emancipation Western society as providing an unprecedented opportunity for Jews to realize their call to be a “light unto the nations.” Physician and ethicist Dr. Alan Jotkowitz notes that much of Rabbi Jakobovits’s literary output focuses on the area of Jewish medical ethics. This is part of a much larger project to demonstrate both to the Jewish community and to the non-Jewish community that Jewish texts and traditions have something highly valuable to contribute to “others” in the arena of values and moral sensibility:
From the beginning of his illustrious career, he passionately argued for the universality of Jewish morality. Jewish ethics based on the revealed work of God as expressed in the halakhah should guide not only Jews, but all of humanity as it faces such difficult modern moral quandaries as the permissibility of abortion, euthanasia, and artificial reproduction (p. 146).
Seeing Torah as a gift intended to be shared with the wider world also figures into Rabbi Dr. David Shatz’s treatment of Rabbi Lamm’s nuanced understanding of the role of Torah in the concept of “Torah U’Madda.” Thus Dr. Shatz, who teaches philosophy at YU, writes that “Torah” does not only reflect an inward-facing pursuit but “also has something to say to the world, and one of the principal benefits of a secular education is the acquisition of a language that can articulate this message” (p. 225).
In addition to relating to the “other,” the volume’s second leitmotif is the broadening of classical definitions of talmud Torah. Central to that project for Modern Orthodoxy is the encouragement of women to seek out opportunities for advancement in the world of learning and teaching Torah. Though Professor Nechama Leibowitz was undoubtedly an unassuming pioneer in this regard, her contribution to Modern Orthodoxy extends well beyond issues of gender. Her influence was instrumental in the re-emergence of Tanach as an area worthy of sophisticated study by Torah-loving Jews of both genders—an agenda that has been taken up with particular gusto in the Modern Orthodox and Dati Leumi communities. Perhaps even more importantly, Professor Leibowitz’s example demonstrates that serious engagement with the intellectual currents of contemporary society need not result in wholesale accommodation or assimilation. Rather, the perspectives and positions of those outside our tradition can be used as the impetus necessary to advance and enhance a traditional understanding as well. As Yael Unterman, author of Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar, writes:
Prof. Leibowitz’s revolution reintroduced the old, so to speak, while simultaneously updating it. Her action was somewhat akin, if we may draw an analogy, to restoring an old photograph or transferring a filing system from paper to a computer. She went much further than simply defending the Tanakh from Bible critics. She rehabilitated it from its neglected status, analyzed it methodically, pinpointed gems of commentary, and explained and reworded them (p. 121).
While Professor Leibowitz helped revitalize the study of Tanach, Rabbi Dr. Carmi Horowitz, professor of Jewish thought and intellectual history at Michlalah Yerushalayim, notes that the Harvard scholar Professor Isadore Twersky advocated broadening the canon of Torah study even further:
Professor Twersky held a very broad view of Judaism with a profound understanding of the importance not only of halakhah (in all of its various literary forms: talmudic texts, codes of law, responsa, and halakhic essays), but of all other aspects of Jewish cultural creativity including philosophy, Kabbala, biblical and aggadic exegesis, sermons, ethical works, poetry, linguistics, interreligious polemics and travelogues (p. 266).
In fact, for Professor Twersky, talmud Torah not only encompassed the study of a wide variety of texts, but had room for multiple methodologies as well—even those that were not necessarily indigenous to the beit midrash. Thus Dr. Horowitz writes, “there was a seamless connection in his eyes between his scholarly endeavors and the religious obligation to study Torah” (p. 259).
In the thought of Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the late rosh yeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion, this call for diversification and personalization in the study of Torah reaches a crescendo. As described by Rabbi Reuven Ziegler, director of research and archives at the Toras HoRav Foundation and Dr. Yehudah Mirsky, who teaches Judaic studies at Brandeis University, Rabbi Amital was known for his insatiable appetite for life and his unshakeable resolve to experience it all through the lens of Torah:
Torah, he insisted, is not meant to cut one off from life and desensitize a person to his historical and social surroundings, but rather to guide him in engaging his milieu and uplifting it. It can be said that not only did he advocate “hesder lekhatehilla”—the union of army and yeshiva study not as a concession, but as the preferable option from the start—he also advocated “life lekhatehilla” and engagement of the world by the student of the Torah (p. 189).
This more expansive view of engagement with the world also means that the options for contemporary Orthodox Jews to find their own personal points of connection ought to be more numerous and more varied:
Rav Amital made clear to his students that he was there to challenge and be challenged, that he expected his students to forge their own religious paths, and that he had no intention of creating “little Amitals.” He invited discussion, dissent, and independent thought decrying the frequently authoritarian spirituality of the yeshiva world and declaring to his students that he was “not a hasidic rebbe” [who] would make their decisions for them (p. 190).
Seen holistically, a profound program begins to unfold from the pages of this volume. It calls for a Modern Orthodoxy that celebrates its unique aptitude for honest, dignified and mutually enriching engagement of the “other.” It calls for a Modern Orthodoxy fed by a wellspring of sophisticated talmud Torah in which a gender-blind community of teachers and learners immerse themselves in a wide variety of texts and a range of methodologies, both for the purpose of blazing new paths and for the purposes of creating personal space. And it calls for a Modern Orthodoxy that actively seeks opportunities to share the gift of authentic Torah learning and authentic Torah living for the betterment of society and for the elevation of humanity at large.
1. Rabbis Carmy and Zuckier note that “unlike the Rav,” Rabbi Lichtenstein “has, at times, accepted the [Modern Orthodox] label” (p. 302).
Rabbi Gil S. Perl is the head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station, Pennsylvania and chief academic officer of the Kohelet Foundation.