Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I thought it might be interesting to review an article in the fourth volume of the Hakirah journal, which I was given an advance copy of. The article is called Are Our Children Too Worldly? by Aharon Hersh Fried. But first I want to say a few words about the journal itself.

Frankly--I think it's great; a great idea, great in execution, and getting better with each volume. It describes itself as 'The Flatbush Journal of Jewish Law and Thought,' and I must say, while Flatbush does not produce it, Flatbush can be proud that this work emanates from it. I don't think I'd be shocking anyone if I note that Flatbush does not enjoy the best reputation, whether there is some basis for it or not, not as a bastion of thought and not as a bastion of the thoughtful. But this journal is produced by thoughtful people, people who think, people of Flatbush.

Enough with the platitudes (which I hope were not condescending). The journal itself is unique in that, apparently, it is not bound by an ideology.* What do I mean by that? Well, there is ideology in the Torah U-Madda Journal, in Tradition, in Edah (newly reborn as Meorot), in the Jewish Observer, in Judaism--not that there is something wrong per se with some overall ideology. For example, why shouldn't the Jewish Observer basically advocate a yeshivish point of view? Why shouldn't TUM Journal publish articles strictly in a Torah U-Madda vein? We would expect a Zionist oriented journal to basically publish articles with a Zionist orientation; all these are fine. Furthermore, I realize that these journals aren't totally monochromatic. However, these journals suffer from a certain predictability that the ideological constraints impose upon it. Hakirah says that in looking for articles it wants "original, interesting, well-researched and well-organized" submissions "that provide new or more profound insights into areas of Jewish halakhah and hashkafah." Certainly all these other journals want that as well.

But in Hakirah we can expect articles that reflect a bit of variety. In one issue there might be an article about Metzitzah Be-feh, meant essentially to prove that it is not an essential component of bris milah. In the next issue there might be an article attempting to debunk academic (and Torah U-Maddish) efforts to portray the Chasam Sofer in a nuanced way as relating to modernity, Haskalah, Mendelssohn etc. (nuanced = 'inconsistent,' in the words of Nosson Dovid Rabinowich, present volume).**

In addition to the open-mindedness of the editors, a unique feature of this journal is designed to encourage a number of viewpoints: rather than asking contributors to adhere to one style of Hebrew transliteration, all it asks for is consistency. Thus writers who would typically write according to the rules set by the Encyclopedia Judaica (which is a fairly common requirement of Jewish journals) are free to do so; writers who prefer to write using an Ashkenazic dialect can do so as well. This might seem trivial, but I believe it is not. There are differences between people who would write "sepharad," "s'fard," or "seforad." All convey the same meaning, but all three represent different styles and possibly different types of people. People who feel comfortable writing about "hashkofo" may not be involved in a project in which they must write about "hashkafah." This is simply reality (okay; it's simply my impression).

I want to stress, however, that when I talk about them lacking ideology I don't mean to say that they are scattered or not coherent. No; I believe they genuinely are interested in truth-seeking, and that is the common denominator, and a powerful one. This is also not to say that ideological journals are not interested in searching for truth, only that ideology sometimes gets in truth's way, or at least stifles debate.

Random thought: I initially thought it was, well, dumb to name a journal something that requires an H with a dot under it. But after a couple years to mull it over I have reversed myself. It isn't dumb. The very name is a challenge. As I said, Hakirah does not ask its authors to bend their personality, only to be consistent. Thus, I would not be in the least shocked to find an author write "chakira" in an article itself, if he or she meant to use the word itself. But it puts 'hakirah' people together with "chakira" people and that's a good thing!

To the article: in general the article is a critical appraisal of the extreme insular approach to educating frum children. It is clear that the author is quite sympathetic to and shares the same goals as those who espouse the insular approach, but what the author objects to is that it is both ineffective in truly insulating people but also that some of the fruits borne of insularity are, well, rotten. The author says that the insular approach is only "half successful" and that we are "are reaping the wrong half." On history, neglect of, the author notes "when we take a totally ahistorical perspective..."

The article deplores the widespread lack of proficiency in the vernacular (which, by the way, I constantly note my own faults in this regard, including spelling. I do not assign blame, but I realize that in many respects my own problems in this area are partly due to receiving a similar education to the kind he asks for revision of). He notes an "anti-intellectual atmosphere," that children (who grow into adults) develop a monochromatic hashkafah, incapable of processing challenges to it from within the tradition; are served by teachers who discourage or disapprove of curious students.

I think this article is written by a "critic," in the words of Prof. B. Barry Levy (in Text and Context: Torah and Historical Truth in Edah Journal 2:1). In that article Levy defines three categories, believers, critics and heretics, and notes that sometimes believers write or say critical or heretical sounding things. Critics sometimes sound like believers and so forth. In this sense, it is clear that the author is a believer and a critic.

Interestingly enough, much of the article takes the tone of a classic Maskilic complaint about the state of Jewish education. The article even quotes an early-modern traditional Jewish source, Mor Uktzioh on SA OH 307:16, about concern for appearing boorish to goyim. I would not be surprised if the author would reject my analysis, perhaps arguing that the issues and battles of two-hundred years ago are different from today. That may be true, but nevertheless, the complaint and the method (ie, citing such a source) is simply classic. Furthermore, it is certainly possible that Avakesh's analysis, that there are many right-wing Maskilim among as is correct

"There are many frum Jews who are maskilim, in the sense that the values of Haskala are their values. We must remember that while Chareidi ideology barely survived, the Haskalah won. Haskalah had a right wing, fully Orthodox G-d fearing scholars who would never compromise one iota of religious observance. That is who we are now - right wing maskilim. We speak English, dress in the modern fashion and study secular subjects, at least through high school. The divide between the right wing of Haskala and its Chareidi detractors had never been bridged; it is just that the opponents of Haskala renamed the situations that they were willing to tolerate, so that they may survive."

Now, it is important to note a difference. The author bookends the article with the approach of R. Yaakov Kamenetzky to Jewish education (who, come to think of it, some would say inclined toward right-wing Haskalah). Obviously Reb Yaakov is very important to him. In general the maskilim did not try to root themselves in present and very recent authorities. Rather, they presented themselves as authorities in their own right, rooting their views in authorities of the distant and sometimes less distant past. I believe that citing R. Kamenetzky whom the author clearly sees as an authority, rather than a peg to hang his view onto, is behavior of a kind that is different from classic Haskalah. But I digress.

The author notes that our Sages say "chokhma ba-goyim ta'amin," ("if someone tells you the nations have 'wisdom, believe him.") but "Torah ba-goyim al ta'amin," ("if someone tells you the nations have torah, don't believe him.") Decrying the belief that there isn't 'wisdom' in the nations, he says that we must not delude ourselves, we must not allow children to delude themselves and go against common sense and divrei Chazal. At the same time, he writes, we must not believe "torah ba-goyim." In this vain, he explains 'wisdom' to mean 'facts' and 'torah' to mean 'theories' for life--which are to be rejected. If you think that the word 'theory' conjures up some things--you are correct. Read the article. Whether or not I think that it is possible to differentiate between "facts" and "theories" in this way is immaterial.

In any event, it is an interesting article which continues a consistent theme throughout the various volumes of Hakirah: the first issue featured an article by the aforementioned R. Rabinowich called "Are We Teaching Chumash Correctly to our Children?" which deplored the lack of interest and attention paid to matters like geography. The second, an analysis and critique of Daf Yomi by Heshey Zelcer called "Does Daf Yomi Exemplify Talmud Torah?" and the third, an article by R. Abe Kelman called "The Requirement of Peshat and the Challenge of Derash." (All of which can be downloaded at their web site)

Finally, and paranthetically, I must mention the amazing articles by Dan Rabinowitz of Seforim. In the second issue he wrote about the issue concerning the origin of the nekkudot, the challenge to tradition the debate provoked. In the present issue he writes about yarmulkes. I had seen an early version of the article awhile back, and I haven't seen the new article. But I think it is safe for me to quote from the early version now. Note that the article is not in any way a polemic against head covering--it is about the history of head covering:

"Those promoting the view that a head covering must be worn at all times have, in their erroneous depiction of history, inadvertently created situations that would, under the circumstances, cause the wearer of a head covering to be violating other halakhic requirements. The Mishna in Tractate Yoma records that a daily lottery took place in the Temple in Jerusalem. This lottery determined which priests would perform certain daily tasks. The priest in charge would choose a random number, and would keep that number secret. Each of the priests vying for a slot would then hold out their fingers. The priest in charge would start counting fingers; when he reached the predetermined number, that priest whose finger was counted would get a job. The priests stood in a circle, and in order to track where the counting started, the first counted priest would remove his hat. Thus, the first counted priest remained bareheaded while the counting continued. On this, Tosefot commented, "it is disgraceful to stand bareheaded in the courtyard of the Temple." Tosefot therefore concluded that the lottery took place outside of the courtyard. According to both a simple reading of the text and Tosefot, however, the priest remained bareheaded. "

"Publishers of a new illustrated Mishna ignored this understanding of the lottery. In the illustrated edition, the depiction of the lottery indeed showed the priest removing his hat. However, underneath the hat is a yarmulke. Thus the priest always had his head covered. Not only does this depiction run counter to Tosefot's understanding, it leads to a major halakhic transgression. The priest wearing the yarmulke underneath his hat is guilty of a capital crime: adding on to the priestly garments! Although being bareheaded did not pose a great problem for the Talmud or the major commentaries, it seems that for present-day audiences, the image of a bareheaded priest would be cause for concern."

Good luck to Hakirah, may it continue to illumine and enlighten and enrich.

* I wonder if there are any plans to include the word "Orthodox" somewhere, which is presently lacking.
** Currently I have only read the two page excerpt of this article posted at; it is not enough to truly discuss the article, but I believe it is enough for me to correctly characterize that article's intention.

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