To Sharpen Understanding

Dr. Kolbrener’s critique of my essay is unquestionably framed within the language and context of what Coventry Patmore denominated “the traditions of civility.” It is learned, urbane, deferential, cogently argued and suffused with sensitivity, intelligence and commitment. If I must tilt swords with an ideological adversary, may it be with the likes of this ben Torah ensconced in the halls of academia.

But, must we, and do we, indeed tilt? Dr. Kolbrener appears to have combed my essay quite thoroughly, as he quotes chapter and verse from it, frequently and precisely. For some reason, however, its introductory paragraphs appear to have escaped his scrutiny. Inasmuch, however, as I regard their content as essential to an evaluation of Dr. Kolbrener’s rejoinder—which, in principle, they anticipated—I take the liberty of citing them here:

The question of Torah and general culture bears a dual aspect. Its core is clearly ideological. The relation, respectively, of reason and revelation, the optional and the normative, the temporal and the transcendental, secularity and sacrality, diversity and uniformity, and, above all, of man and his Creator—these are obviously the primary components. Philosophy and theology aside, however, we are confronted by a second, no less important, element—practical, and particularly educational, in nature. How well, if at all, can Torah and secular wisdom meld within a single personality or institution; the promise and risks—the cost-benefit ratio, if you will—of any projected synthesis; determination of priorities and the appointment of energies; the psychological and sociological impact of differing relations to ambient general culture—these are all issues which need to be candidly confronted by the philosophic devotees of symbiotic integration no less than by its detractors.

These two aspects are clearly related and yet, they are both conceptually distinct and operationally divisible. One may regard the integration of Torah and wisdom as not only legitimate but optimal, and yet hold that, within the context of an overwhelmingly secular modern culture, it is generally best foregone. Contrarily, one may subscribe to the purist ideal of comprehensive singleminded devotion to talmud Torah and yet favor an integrated curriculum as an accommodating concession to the Zeitgeist. What is certain is that Torah educationists ignore either aspect at their—and, more importantly, their students’—peril. We must approach the topic rooted in ideology and yet not be entrapped by it; informed and energized by our Weltanschauung without being fossilized by it. Whatever our orientation, we can hardly afford Procrustean disdain for pragmatic realities. We are charged to confront the issues responsibly, courageously, and sensitively and, if necessary, differentially.

…humanistic culture can be of value in molding spiritual personality and moral identity.

I believe the gist of this passage cuts to the core of Dr. Kolbrener’s critique of myself—although, possibly, not to that of his own, more general, dilemma. It will be noted that Dr. Kolbrener—himself, as his published writings clearly attest, well-versed in general literature and philosophy—does not reject the view, long cherished as a linchpin of Western educational theory and practice, that humanistic culture can be of value in molding spiritual personality and moral identity. He does not even contend that, whatever may have been the case prior to Matan Torah, revelation has rendered the study of ma’assei yadav shel bassar vedam irrelevant. He simply argues, in Hamlet’s phrase, that “the times are out of joint.” Modes of contemporary criticism, currently in cultural and political vogue, have debased and defiled the sancto sanctorum, “the holy of holies,” of the humanities, eviscerating them of spiritual content and exposing their students to deleterious and dangerous intellectual habits and attitudes. Rather than drawing inspiration and guidance from what Arnold defined as “the best that has been thought and said in the world;” rather than discovering meaning in the Ciceronian tradition of recta ratio, the “right reason,” conceived by Richard Hooker, probably the greatest of Elizabethan Anglican divines, as “the general and universal consent of men,” they are trained to debunk and contemn, to trivialize and relativize. Moreover, he charges that young minds, thus habituated and contaminated, may, concurrently, lose their sense of the objective truth and significance, of the majesty and grandeur, of Torah. Finally, he contends that whatever sustenance I may have derived from graduate study at Harvard half a century ago is of no import to the present generation, inasmuch as the madda they confront today, as well as the university settings within which they imbibe it, are, in effect, of a wholly different vintage.

These contentions may very well be accurate, in whole or in part; but what have they to do with our presumed logomachy? We agree upon the benefit of reading Thucydides and Milton. We agree that aspects of general culture can serve as a valuable complement to our primary, central and overriding engagement with talmud Torah, to which alone we are committed as chayyenu veorech yameinu. Further, we jointly subscribe to the proposition that the value is not only instrumentally pragmatic but, rather, when culture is properly taught and interpreted, inherently and substantively, spiritual, as well. For my part, in the spirit of Carlyle, I emphatically hold that the secondary or tertiary power of carping criticism is far from the optimal mode for confronting greatness—of personages, of literary classics, or, a fortiori, of chachmei hamesorah. I encourage no one to study literature seriously if that entails emulating Lytton Strachey.

Dr. Kolbrener’s point, however, is that, in his judgment and on the basis of his experience, at UCLA, Columbia, or even Bar-Ilan, general culture is currently not being taught and interpreted properly. I freely concede that, given his age, range, and habitat, he is probably better qualified than myself to pass such judgment. My own exposure to the schools of thought we find objectionable—relativistic multiculturalism, postmodernism, the “hermeneutics of suspicion”—is admittedly limited, as is my knowledge of what transpires in manifestly politicized English departments. Hence, it perhaps behooves me—at least, for the sake of argument—to suspend categorical evaluations on this point.

Does Dr. Kolbrener’s claim in any way conflict logically, however, with the position I sought to develop? I return to my introductory distinction.

…aspects of general culture can serve as a valuable complement to our primary, central and overriding engagement with talmud Torah.

One may regard the integration of Torah and wisdom as not only legitimate but optimal, and yet hold that, within the context of an overwhelmingly secular modern culture, it is generally best foregone. Contrarily, one may subscribe to the purist ideal of comprehensive singleminded devotion to talmud Torah and yet favor an integrated curriculum as an accommodating concession to the Zeitgeist. What is certain is that Torah educationists ignore either aspect at their—and, more importantly, their students’—peril. We must approach the topic rooted in ideology and yet not be entrapped by it; informed and energized by our Weltanschauung without being fossilized by it.

Unquestionably, at the level of practical implementation, articulation of a position must be twinned to an assessment of the context to which and within which it is to be applied.

Does this concession relegate my argument to the dustbin of anachronism? I trust not. First and foremost, pragmatic though we be, ideology remains powerfully relevant. Hashkafically, it makes an enormous difference whether a prospective student shies away from classical culture out of admiration tempered by apprehension or out of contemptuous disdain.

Secondly, my position remains meaningful at the practical plane as well. Throughout, I sought to emphasize the need for differential resolution and selective application, always with an eye on the unum necessarium, yirat Hashem he ozaro. Given Dr. Kolbrener’s contentions, that need becomes even more paramount. Nevertheless, the option is not obviated. I remain convinced that the prospect of genuine spiritual benefit is real; and, inter alia, I look to members of my immediate family as exemplars. Any sensitive reader of our Rav Mosheh’s Zir v’Zon can see for himself how his foray into literature has equipped him to understand better the saga of dor hamidbar and its crises of leadership. Dr. Kolbrener may have tightened the noose but he has not asphyxiated the patient.

Thirdly, even advocates of Dr. Kolbrener’s position can acknowledge the need to keep the home fires burning in hope for better times. My great humanist mentor, Douglas Bush, once jestfully surmised that the whale in Moby Dick signified “the spirit of literature tearing and rending Symbolist critics.” Perhaps today he stuffs his ravenous maw with the acolytes of suspicion. We, in the interim can, minimally, “only stand and wait,” yearning for a fresh dawn. Even if winter’s here, might we not, with inspired vision and informed counsel, anticipate the spring?

That hope does not absolve us of present responsibility for prudence and selectivity; and we are admittedly left, in conclusion, with a nagging and even cruel concern: fear lest, in some cases, exposure to general culture and its pursuit may lead, beyond adulteration of Torah commitment, to its abandonment. As I noted toward the conclusion of my essay, given the possibility that, at times, secular learning may lead to skepticism (as opposed to the reverse), it is surely arguable that no level of the qualitative improvement of cultural life may justify coming to terms with such a dire prospect. In light of the assertion of C.S. Lewis, hardly an obscurantist, that the saving of a single soul is of greater importance than the writing of all the epics in the world, and on the basis of cumulative experience, a strong case may certainly be made for cultural insulation.

It makes an enormous difference whether a prospective student shies away from classical culture out of admiration tempered by apprehension or out of contemptuous disdain.

Yet, before we rush to judgment, we should bear in mind a crucial variable. In assessing benefits and risks, we routinely differentiate between focused dangers and statistical projections. If an armed kidnapper would threaten the definitive execution of a specified abductee unless all tiyulim were banned from the Judean desert for a year, we would feel halachically and morally bound to capitulate—barring, possibly, concern about encouraging future dangerous abductions. However, no such ban is even considered in the face of grim statistics concerning the number of annual fatalities. The principle is analogously operative within the spiritual realm. It is palpably clear that many souls could be saved if kollelim were shut down en masse and their members sent out to engage in kiruv. Nevertheless, no such course is ever contemplated. Indeed, Rav Dessler explicitly rejects a much milder suggestion. Recognizing that teacher training courses by bnei yeshivah would enhance their ability to disseminate devar Hashem and would bring more people into the world of Torah and mitzvot—and despite his concern with kiruv, as evidenced by his support of P’eylim—he nevertheless opposed their participation in such courses as he feared the impact upon the quality of their own learning could be negative.

I do not, of course, equate the dilution of talmud Torah with the constriction of literary or philosophic horizons. And perhaps one might challenge any comparison between the danger of loss of the committed with forgoing possible gains among the currently uncommitted. Nevertheless, the example is instructive by way of illustrating a readiness to distinguish between focused threat and statistical projection, and of noting the relevance of this distinction to our discussion. Obviously, this factor in no way minimizes the pain when and where tragedy strikes, nor is it intended to relax spiritual vigilance. Moreover, it should be self-evident that its acknowledgment in no way militates for the adoption of a given course. That must await contextual assessment of risks and benefits within these parameters. Nevertheless, at the plane of the options for principled public policy, the point is material.

As to the assessment proper, Dr. Kolbrener and I might conceivably differ, either out of divergent factual perception or because the standards vary. Despite our common theoretical ground, the tone and thrust of my essay is indeed different from that of his response. That in no way obviates, however, the element of principled consensus. Hence, I trust that to the extent that it has focused on both similarity and disparity, this exchange may hopefully serve to sharpen understanding of both the broader and the narrower issues.

This article was originally published in the spring 2004 issue of Jewish Action.

Rav Lichtenstein zt”l was rosh hayeshivah of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel.

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