Friday, February 23, 2007

The Challenge of Constructive Criticism

An article in last week's Yated entitled "Yeshivat Chovevei Torah: Is It Orthodox? " is being discussed on the blogoshere. I would like to move away from the question of whether specific statements and actions, made or done by some affiliated with the yeshivah are or are not beyond the pale of Orthodoxy. Instead, I wish to focus on the purpose and goal in writing the article in question.

The article's purpose is mentioned in the last section:

In a way, YCT is acting in the tradition of the Maskilim of a previous era. Although they are not experiencing the success that the Maskilim had with the masses on an individual level, on a communal level, their efforts to conquer pulpits in communities across the United States and Canada is something that should concern every Jew who values kvod shomayim.

It was with great reservation and heartache that we undertook to expose to our readers to the terribly destructive conduct of YCT. It is a responsibility that we undertook with great trepidation. As a Torah newspaper we hesitate to expose and pain our readership by enumerating the terribly distressing things contained within this article.

Nevertheless, after watching YCT develop and spread with barely a peep of public outcry from the Modern / Centrist Orthodox establishment we felt compelled by the injunction of our sages, that state, “Bemakom she’ein ish, hishtadel lihiyos ish: In a place where there are no leaders; strive to be a leader (Avos 2-6).”

The wider community must be made aware of this growing threat, this growing attack on the very foundations of our faith that is gathering strength. We hope that this small sampling of items will travel well beyond the natural constituency of Yated readers and serve as a point of discussion and most importantly a wake up call for all Jews, Right, Left or Center, who truly care about kvod shomyaim and the integrity of the Halachic system.

Jewish leadership involves walking a tightrope called s'mol docheh v'ymin mekareves. On the one hand, if one is afraid to speak out when appropriate, then a person will never be able to criticize anyone for fear of alienating them. This is an abdication of leadership. On the other hand, one must be very careful lest one push people away; erring on the side of s'mol docheh, is not an option, and it is counterproductive to one's cause.

Edah and Chovevie Torah were founded because there were those that felt that Modern Orthodoxy had shifted rightward. As Rabbi Saul Berman wrote in the Jewish Press("The Emergence, Role, and Closing of Edah"):

By 1995, Modern Orthodoxy was in crisis. The lead American institutions of Modern Orthodoxy had been reoriented toward the separatist, haredi ideology. For many who resisted the separatist shift, being Modern Orthodox had come simply to mean not being as frum. Modern Orthodox Jews were feeling isolated and besieged. Modern Orthodoxy seemed to have lost both its identity and its way.

We founded Edah in 1997 as a think tank to restore the essential elements of Modern Orthodox ideology. Edah was not formed as a critique of haredi Orthodoxy but as a critique of the Modern Orthodox neglect of its own distinctive ideological positions.

YCT was founded for a similar reason, as mentioned by Rabbis Dov Linzer and Avi Weiss in an article in Sh'ma ( "Creating an Open Orthodox Rabbinate"):

Orthodox Judaism is currently at a crossroads. In the post-Holocaust generation, Ortho-doxy has shown new life, attracting and maintaining adherents and cultivating an increasing commitment to scrupulous observance and regular Torah study. The choice that Orthodoxy faces today is whether to focus on the needs of its own community or on the needs of the larger Jewish community, expanding outward, nondogmatically and cooperatively. Believing in an Orthodoxy that is open intellectually and expansive and inclusive in practice, we need a new breed of rabbis. To this end, three years ago, we created Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.

To it's credit, Open Orthodoxy's leaders speak about their Orthodoxy and commitment to Halacha. However, by its own defintions, this school of thought pushes the limits of Orthodoxy leftward. Certainly, there have been statements made by its graduates which those to its right find seriously objectionable, and there is concern that the rest of the Orthodox world could be influenced in that direction. Yet, the people who affiliate in different ways with the school are Torah observant, and they should not be pushed towards institutions which are not part of Orthodoxy. The challenge for the Orthodox world to the right of YCT is to find a constructive way in which to respond.

I felt that there was much merit in an article by Rabbi Amos Bunim which the Yated had previously published, and which was also printed in the Five Towns Jewish Times:

The lay leadership of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah expressed their feelings that Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), an affiliate of Yeshiva University, has leanings that are more to the right and that it was necessary to organize Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as a Modern Orthodox yeshiva that would have leanings more to the left.

Edah and Chovevei Torah are creating a movement that will encompass those who identify themselves as part of the Orthodox left. The leaders of these organizations, however, should be prepared to face the fact that such a step involves enormous challenges to the very fabric of our religious beliefs. Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its leaders should therefore redouble their efforts to remain true to the tenets of Torah and Yiddishkeit...

Rabbis Berman and Weiss ought to look into some of the positions and philosophies espoused by some musmachim of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. These positions need to be corrected in order to ensure that critical errors not be made.

What needs to be done now is to reevaluate many of the positions and philosophies that have developed within this new movement, with an eye toward reestablishing the primacy of Toras emes. My wish for them is, “chazak ve’ematz” in Torah values.

It is important to note that despite the strong concern that Judaism in America would not thrive unless altered, the camp of b’nei Torah is flourishing and blossoming. The underlying reason for the burgeoning of the b’nei Torah camp cannot be dismissed: it represents true, unadulterated Toras emes. Refusing to compromise in dikduk ha’mitzvos and Torah-true values is the secret behind the success of the b’nei Torah movement.

I was most impressed with the ymin m'kareves element implicit in "my wish for them is, “chazak ve’ematz” in Torah values " and in "Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and its leaders should therefore redouble their efforts to remain true to the tenets of Torah and Yiddishkeit".

Certainly, people have a right, and from their perspective a duty, to be concerned about the direction of YCT, and to engage in necessary criticism. But we should also be very careful of responses which are merely cathartic, and which do not clearly reflect a concern on the part of the critic for those being critiqued. While I am not judging whether the Yated article fufilled this aspect or not, the broader point is that we need to ensure that any future criticism will be interpreted as reflecting both a firmness in resolve, but also a true caring and genuine concern for our bretheren in the Open Orthodoxy camp.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Don't be Frum

No, this is not pre-Adar humor; I mean the post's title seriously.

Readers must be thinking, it finally has happened: Mishmar has flipped. The decline began by discussing the Indiana Colts, then Tertullian, and finally this...Must have something to do with Bari's departure.

Well, actually not. I am referring to one connotation of the word "Frumkeit", which refers to a superficial, and instinctive religiosity, that doesn't stand up to reason and Torah principles. Rav Wolbe ztl(Alie Shur Vol II) discusses this issue, and actually has a section called "Frumkiet", in which he considers such behavior the antithesis of mussar. He defines it as an instinctive form of religiosity, which is subconsciously done to satisfy one's ego. This is a totally normal drive, but mussar's goal is to be aware of the subconscious motives in behavior, and to refine the lishmah(correct intention) content of action.

In the most recent Hakirah issue, there is an article by Dr. Aaron Hersh Fried titled, "Are Our Children Too Wordly". Dr. Fried tries to strike a balance between isolation and awareness of the world, which will work for the chareidi community. I found his approach refreshing. He also has a few fascinating anecdotes, including conversations with Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky and with the Klausenberger Rebbe, zichronom livracha.

The conversation with R. Yaakov relates to my previous point about frumkiet:

You know, when I was a boy growing up, I had a friend He was always a little more than I was, and did more than I did. He was a year older: I was 10 and he was 11. He wore long payos, I didn’t. He wore a gartel, and I didn’t.

Last summer when I was in Eretz Yisrael, I met him again. He was living in K’far Saba and I paid him a visit. While talking to him I found out that things had changed and that, unfortunately, he was now turning on the lights on Shabbos.

He turned to me and he asked, ‘Yankel, what’s happened to us? “Ich bin doch altz geven frummer” (Wasn’t I always frumer than you??!!), to which I replied [and here Reb Yaakov smiled and there was a glint in his eyes], “Ye, ye du bist takke allz geven frummer, ich bin obber alz geven kluger.” “Yes, yes you were always frummer but I was always kluger (wiser).”

Also notworthy is the advice of the Klausenberger Rebbe concerning how CHUSH(Jewish Center for Special Education) should educate its students:

“...You and your teachers spend most of your time thinking about how to teach a child to read one more letter, one more line in the siddur, prayer book. You want him to learn one more verse in Chumash, or one more segment of Gemara. All this is very good. But, unless you make a conscious effort, you may be missing the point. Your children may grow up and never learn what it means to be a Jew, what a Jew believes, or what he prays and hopes for. I think you should teach these children the 13 Ikrim—Principles of Faith—of the Rambam. I would furthermore put up a big sign in the school reading: Da es Elokei avicha v’avdeihu!”

I was puzzled. “But they don’t even teach that in the regular Yeshivos?!” “You’re perfectly right,” the Rebbe answered. “However, the regular yeshivah bachur, as he grows older, will learn in the bais hamidrash, study hall. One day he will go to the bookshelf to get a Rambam on Hilchos G’zelah V’aveidah so as to better understand a piece of Gemara he is learning.
The Ribbono shel Olam, the Master of the universe, will help him and by mistake he will pick up the wrong volume of the Rambam. Back at his seat he will discover that he has
the first volume in his hand, the Sefer Hamada.

Being a little lazy to immediately get up and return to the bookshelf to look for the volume he originally sought, he will stay in his seat and begin to browse through the volume in front of him. Turning the pages he will find it interesting, spend some time reading it and thus gain at least a passing acquaintance with the foundations of our faith (Yesodos HaEmunah). The regular yeshivos can rely on this error occurring. Your children may never be zocheh to make this error (they may never learn independently in a Bais Hamidrash); thus you must take responsibility for teaching them what it means to be a Jew.”


Thursday, February 08, 2007

Meditations on the Kuzari

Further to my previous post, I post below some discussions on the oft-quoted statement from the Kuzari in 1:67 and 1:89. I do not claim to have the final word on the balance of rationality and faith in Judaism, and I invite your comments.

Two additional notes on my previous post:

1) "Credo quia absurdum", is actually not a Christian concept either. Even fedeism( defined as a "system of philosophy or an attitude of mind, which, denying the power of unaided human reason to reach certitude, affirms that the fundamental act of human knowledge consists in an act of faith, and the supreme criterion of certitude is authority"), has been rejected in its extreme degree by some sources in the Catholic Church.

2) I was most impressed by Roberts comment on "Mystical Paths", and on "A Simple Jew", on the thread I linked previously:

OK, I am not a philosopher by any means. Nor am I a ba'al bitachon. I definately go for the Emunah/Chassidishe camp, and nevertheless have a lot of respect for the Chakira/Maimonidean Jews.I talked to my Rabbi about this, and he said that each soul has it's tendency to favour a certain derech. He says that both paths are valid. He also said that we have to follow the Chachamim in Halacha. Just as each of the 13 sh'vattim were different with different ways of serving Hashem, Judaism is rich and replete with different ways of interpreting the Torah.Both Chakira and Emunah have their plusses, and their risks. However this world is not 100% safe anyway.Looks like this is yet another reason to find yourself a Rabbi who will understand your derech and guide you in the way Hashem wants you to go!

The following are some online discussions of the Kuzari:

From Ohr Somayach’s Ask the Rabbi:

Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi, in his famous work the Kuzari (1:67), writes that "Heaven forbid that there should be anything in the Torah to contradict that which is manifest or proved." Likewise, Heaven forbid that there should be anything manifest or proved which would contradict anything in the Torah. If one is convinced that G-d wrote the Torah and created the world, then one should fear no scientific discovery. Conversely, if one is afraid of what the scientists will discover, then one is clearly not fully aware that everything discoverable was created by G-d.

As mentioned, this assumes that “one is convinced that G-d wrote the Torah and created the world”. If one is wrestling with this idea, there is a choice-- to believe, disbelieve, or remain with questions. Another option is to concentrate on the experiential aspects of Judaism as well.

There is good discussion of the Kuzari in the Summer 2005 Jewish Action in Counterpoint: Kabbalah, Science, and Creation(link is towards the bottom of the OU page ).

Howard Shapiro:

Wisdom” never really contradicts Torah. Since both spring from the same Source—God, Who gave us Torah and the world—there can be no true conflict between them. As Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi exclaims, “God forbid that any matter of Torah contradict the testimony of direct observation or that which has been proven by logic!” (Kuzari 1:67). And “God forbid that we believe in that which is impossible or that which the intellect rejects and regards as impossible!” (ibid., 1:89). A conflict between the Torah we study and the world we observe would necessitate viewing the Torah as divorced from our sense of reality—a totally unacceptable conclusion for Judaism. Contradictions are possible (perhaps even inevitable) only when wisdom or Torah or both are misconstrued. For example, when logic is spuriously applied to intrinsically non-rational issues, or when scientific models are manipulated as the putative basis of moral values (or their negation), wisdom has overstepped its bounds. Similarly—as affirmed by such recent authorities as Rabbi Hirsch, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz and Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler—when our terrestrial Torah is purported to be readable as a blueprint for (or refutation of ) current scientific hypotheses, Torah has been perverted.

Professor Aviezer:

As one who has extensive experience in this field, let me assure the reader that for the Jew whose spirit is deeply troubled by these many seeming contradictions between Torah and science, it is insufficient to simply say, as Mr. Shapiro suggests, “Don’t worry, there is no true conflict.” When these challenges to Torah are hurled daily by peers whom the Jew admires and respects, and no satisfactory rational answers are forthcoming, doubt sets in and emunah(faith) begins to crumble. The troubled Jew has the right to receive rational explanations to his questions and not be put off by philosophical assurances that everything is really all right. Ignoring these cries for help from the anguished Jewish soul is indeed “a course fraught with danger.


Credo quia absurdum is Not a Jewish Idea

In Latin, the above phrase means "I believe because it is absurd". While I am not an expert in the field of comparative religion , my understanding is that fideism as well, was rejected by some teachings in the Christian world(the quote , incidentally, is based on a misstatement of another one).

I trust readers realize that this idea is not a part of Yahadus either, l'havdil. As the Kuzari states, "Heaven forbid that there should be anything in the Torah to contradict that which is manifest or proved".

There is an interesting discussion going on concerning the nature of emunah on A Simple Jew. It is certainly not the first discussion of such a nature on the Jblogs, but in any event, it is an important topic which we care about as believing Jews. Please direct your comments on the subject to his blog in order to consolidate conversation into one internet location.