Monday, July 06, 2009

I review "The Search Committee" by Rabbi Marc Angel

Having read R. Marc Angel's novel The Search Committee, I figured I'd review it.

The premise is as follows: the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Lita, a bastion of American yeshivishe Orthodoxy, has died. His son, Rav Shimshon Grossman, is the presumptive heir. After all, the yeshiva was founded by his grandfather 50 years earlier. His father succeeded him as rosh yeshiva, and under his leadership Rav Shimshon gave the highest shiur. Furthermore, we are informed, Rav Shimshon is widely regarded as . . . the godol hador! However, for some reason quite puzzling to Rav Shimshon the yeshiva's board does not rubber stamp his appointment, but has decided to review him as well as another candidate. The other candidate is Rav David Mercado, who somehow gives a shiur at Yeshivat Lita, despite being some kind of combination of Reuven Malter, Jeremy Wieder and, one presumes, Marc Angel himself.

Each of these candidates is quite different. Rav Shimshon is an archetypal exponent of yeshivishe Orthodoxy. His style of learning and teaching is lomdus. He embraces the principle of Daas Torah, and encourages conformity and submission of the individual to the group for the higher, greater good. He is undoubtedly brilliant, and a great scholar, but his approach is monochromatic, and looking backward rather than forward (of course). Rav David is quite different. He is certainly a talmid chochom as well, but he has a wider range of interests. He believes in incorporating the insights of a wide range of literature and disciplines to enhance Torah study. He eschews lomdus, and embraces textual research. He belongs to his local community board, and chairs a Jewish committee on medical ethics. He jogs three to five miles every morning. He encourages his talmidim to participate in their community and to learn from all people.

What on earth is he doing in Yeshivas Lita? A fair question. As it turns out, he was a kind of baal teshuva. Having been raised in a traditional Sephardic family of Turkish origin near Portland, Oregon, he graduated college with a wide ranging liberal education. However, he wanted more, and was eager to search for higher truth. It isn't entirely clear if David is observant, or how observant he is, but suffice it to say his knowledge of Jewish texts consists mainly in being able to read them in Hebrew, but without real comprehension. He happened to meet a rabbi who was traveling to raise funds for Yeshivas Lita. The rabbi recommended that he get in touch with Rav Yosef Grossman (Rav Shimshon's father). Rav Yosef expressed concern that he was far too behind in Jewish studies for an advanced yeshiva like Yeshivas Lita. However, if he spent a year in intense study with a mentor, then perhaps he could join the yeshiva and continue to grow there. David then spends the year in intense study with a Sephardic rabbi (of course). They commence with studying Hebrew and Aramaic grammar and language, and only then progress to texts. First Bible with commentaries, then Mishnah, and finally Talmud. Wessely would be proud! (So would the Maharal!) Thrilled with his studies, and feeling stimulated and alive as never before, he does enter Yeshivas Lita, where he buckles down, putting in tremendous effort. Rav Yosef takes a liking to him, and admires his diligence, decency, clear thinking and broad range of knowledge. He quickly advances to a point where he is comparable to other students, and advances through the shiurim. Rav Yosef finally places him in the highest shiur, his son Rav Shimshon's, promising him that after two years in this shiur he would be willing to hire him to give his own shiur. Rav Shimshon basically can't stand him. He considers him an eyesore on the yeshiva's landscape. Although he reveres his father, he thinks his father is simply mistaken about David. Not quite considering him a heretic, he does not trust him hashkafically. And he mistreats him in the shiur. Although David is unhappy about this, he generally takes it, and Rav Yosef assures him to hold steady and everything will be fine. On one occasion Rav Shimshon provokes him to the point where he finally responds, in a scene right out of The Chosen. In response, Rav Shimshon gives him the cold shoulder for six months. David can't take it, but under the guidance and assurance of Rav Yosef, he endures. Finally, after two years Rav Yosef gives him semicha and a shiur of his own. Rav Shimshon can't believe it, still thinks his father is mistaken, but has no say in the matter. His father compares Rav David to yeast, which causes bread to rise. Rav Shimshon counters that yeast is also chometz.

The years pass. Although the yeshiva is in every way a Modern Orthodox stereotyper's fantasy of a rigid yeshiva (this one is even worse in every way than basically any real one), somehow Rav David Mercado is there giving his shiur. He is jogging in the morning, he is bringing insights from psychology and critical texts. There is obviously a wing in the yeshiva that appreciates him, although it is unclear how. Let me just say that before reading it I found the premise to be highly implausible. While it is, I was gratified to see that R. Angel basically admits that it is, calling attention early on to that fact. It seems that Rav Yosef had a broadness to him and an appreciation for a talent like David Mercado. It is just that he himself, being of the old school, was unable to change and unwilling to effect change. It is his son, however, who not only can't and won't change, but also is incapable of appreciating anything different. I was surprised that there would be a "search committee," but so was Rav Shimshon, who says so right away.

The novel takes the format of statements made before the search committee. First Rav Shimshon has his say, then Rav David. Then Rav Shimshon's wife, and then Rav David's wife (more about her below). Then two rabbeim make statements. One staunchly supports Rav Shimshon, and the other is in favor of Rav David (which is . . . implausible). Then two bochurim give statements; each a student of one. Then two financial backers give statements, each favoring one for very different, and plausible reasons. Finally the head of the chair gives his statement. After the committee votes each candidate then gives a final statement.

Rav Shimshon begins, with a complaint. He doesn't understand why this basically illegitimate charade is taking place. Of course he will be the next rosh yeshiva. It's his right. Furthermore, how dare the committee of laymen presume to think it is their decision? This leads us to a major problem I have with the book. Rav Shimshon is, frankly, a jerk. Now, there are people in his situation who are jerks, but there are also people in his situation who are fine people. I am sure the reader has already figured out that the book is a metaphor not for the ascension of a particular rosh yeshiva in a particular yeshiva, but for the future direction of American Orthodox Judaism. After all, in reality there would not be nor could there be a Rav David Mercado in Yeshivas Lita. But there are and can be Rav David Mercados on the landscape of American Orthodoxy, just as there are and can be Rav Shimshon Grossmans. I feel it is a pity that R. Angel chose to make Rav Grossman a jerk, because his views and style can speak for itself without him personally being not a very nice person. He didn't need to persecute Mercado as a bochur. I suppose R. Angel feels that he offset this in the following ways: one, Rav Shimshon's father, a genuine Lithuanian godol was not a jerk at all. Two, Rav Mercado has supporters both from the student body and the faculty. Three, even Rav Shimshon's supporters who speak, the rebbe and the bochur, really come off quite well. It may be the wrong viewpoint, but they're basically quite decent about it. Fourth, R. Angel does put a disclaimer into Rav Shimshon's mouth that not only does he find the situation humiliating and pointless, but he also feels that they're forcing him to speak leshon ha-ra about Mercado, which he had no intention of doing. Given these factors, I think it's quite possible that R. Angel felt that he gave the yeshivishe point of view a very fair shake, but there is something unsettling about portraying the man widely considered to be "the godol hador" (Rav Shimshon acknowledges this about himself, not so reluctantly one senses) and the stand-in for all of yeshivishe Orthodoxy as not a nice man. Not that this isn't possible, but this is a work of fiction, so the personality of the characters are R. Angel's invention. Even with the realization that these are really stand-ins for types of Orthodoxy, and even if R. Angel simply believes that the type of Orthodoxy represented by Rav Shimshon is, well, jerky, it seems to me counter-productive to be blatant about it in this way. But I digress. Rav Shimshon continues his statement to the search committee, in the same vein. He doesn't see the point, feels that it shows a lack of respect to Torah, he deserves the position, and he will have the position. Not only that, but his rival Mercado is a nothing. He is not a talmid chochom, he doesn't belong in the yeshiva, and in fact his first act as rosh yeshiva will be to fire him. He urges the committee to move quickly, appoint him, and let this distraction pass.

The next day is Rav Mercado's turn. He relates his personal story, how profoundly grateful he is to the yeshiva from which he has gained so much, and to Rav Yosef who believed in him. Yet obviously he has criticisms of the yeshiva's ways, and is not content with his little corner and his small group of students. He feels that as rosh yeshiva he has the duty to not simply allow things to run as they've always been run, but to lead the yeshiva in a new, fresh direction. After all, if he is being considered then his way is a definite possibility for the future of Yeshivat Lita. His criticisms run the gamut from the predominant style of learning, to the conformity in dress and thought, to the lack of interests and exercise among the students. While he is generally positive, and respectful of differing viewpoints, not to mention that he has to be tolerant to have spent to many years in an environment which he basically felt is so in need of vast change, his vision for the yeshiva essentially calls for a total revision of its character. Again, as stand-ins for Orthodoxy it makes sense, but given the scenario of the novel, it seems to me that it isn't really so tolerant to change the character of a yeshiva completely, or to put it another way, it is surely understandable why those plans would be perceived as threatening -- they are! All in all, though, Rav Mercado is clearly not a jerk, a humble, thoughtful, learned and pious man. Sigh!

The next statements are delivered by their wives. Rav Shimshon's rebbetzin is perfectly suited for him. She is him, in a sheitel. She recounts the tree questions the search committee asked her to respond to; does she want her husband to be rosh yeshiva? What role should his wife play? And presumably so that R. Angel can also discuss another pet peeve about the yeshiva world, what does she think of the shidduch system prevailing among their students? She then not only affirms that her husband should be rosh yeshiva, but also that the yeshiva is actually a family business, "in a sense." She then affirms that both her husband and her are Torah royalty based on who they are as well as their distinguished lineage. She sees the role of the rosh yeshiva's wife to offer him full support, encouragement and help guide him. In addition, she should serve as a role model for the younger women in the community. Which leads to the next point, Rav David's wife. Not only is her name Sultana (!), she doesn't cover her hair, dresses stylishly, speaks as an equal among men, and writes poetry! (Just kidding, she doesn't denigrate her name, although more about the name will be explained shortly.) Most of this is due to the unfortunate fact that she went to college. Having absorbed foreign ideas, she once confronted her about her literary work. She told her that many of the women are upset by it (one senses that Rebbetzin Sultana's publisher isn't Artscroll). And she responded that she didn't care! Then Rav Shimshon's wife (Deena Leah is her name) hints to some dark allegations about Rav David's wife's background, but of course she won't gossip. Finally, she notes that she and her husband personally tried to convince her late father-in-law to banish them, because they're nothing but a bad influence, but sadly he wouldn't listen. As for shidduchim, well it's perfect! They take into consideration yichus, midos and gashmiyus, and of course there's nothing better than for a girl to marry a boy who learns Torah. Girls who went to college need not apply. And Sultana opposes the system! Tsk,tsk. She ends by noting that the yeshiva is a perfect, time-tested tradition and it needs her husband who will stay the course.

Next up is Rav David's wife Sultana. She gives her back story, which is that she is a convert to Judaism. First, the literary element (this is, after all, a novel). Sultana was the daughter of a Greek Orthodox Christian. That being the case, it is highly unusual that she should have the name Sultana, which was a name used by Muslim and Jewish, but not Christian women. How did she get her name? As it turns out, Rav David's grandmother was a Jewish girl named Sultana back in Turkey. As a young girl she fell in love with a Christian man. Both her parents and his parents opposed this relationship, and her father sent her to live with relatives in America to remove her from her boyfriend. Ultimately she moved on and married and had a family. However, Mikael, her boyfriend, did not. He pledged never to marry and never to forget her, although he too emigrated to the United States. As he got older he did feel lonely, and he married. He had a daughter, whom he named Sultana, after his long-lost love. And that is why this Greek Orthodox girl was named Sultana. Years passed, and Sultana the Jew's grandson David Mercado became a young man, and Sultana, Mikael's daughter, became a young women. Quite by chance Sultana the elder met Mikael at a Greek heritage festival in Oregon. Happy to see each other over so many years, they introduced each other's family. David and young Sultana hit it off. They kindled a relationship, but it disturbed David. He had already begun studying Torah, and was already in Yeshivas Lita, and he knew that he could never marry a Christian. She too felt that her father wouldn't approve (which is strange, given that in his own youth he had wanted nothing more than to marry a Jewish girl). Because they both know that the relationship wasn't headed anywhere, it cooled. Around this time she confided to her father how she felt about David, and he counseled her that she must find a way to marry him, to do what he and David's grandmother never could. She protested that she couldn't, as she wasn't Jewish. Mikael told her that she should become Jewish then, which greatly surprised her. Being that she was a student at college in New York, she found a rabbi who was serving the students of Barnard and Columbia. She began studying Judaism with him, and figured she would see if Judaism was for her. Meanwhile she wrote David a note, telling them that they should not see each other again. She felt that it wouldn't be fair to tell him what she was up to, and to raise his hopes. Furthermore, R. Angel critically notes, that she didn't want her conversion to be contingent on her relationship with him. After the passage of time, and more studying, and observance, and the realization that Judaism was for her, she converted. She chose to keep her name, Sultana, which she told the Beth Din was a name used by Turkish Jewish women. She tracked David down at Yeshivas Lita, asking him to meet her that night. He was surprised and confused, but agreed. That night she showed him her conversion certificate, pretending she couldn't read it because it was in Hebrew. Astonished that she had converted ke-halakhah, but happy as can be, they caught up, resumed their relationship, became engaged and then married. Not only is this quite a story, but those who have been following the news no doubt recognize an issue near to R. Angel's heart.

Getting back to the same three questions asked of Rebbetzin Deenah Leah, Sultana maintains that her role as rosh yeshiva's wife should simply be to continue to be a good wife to her husband, fully supportive, but she has her own interests and goals which will continue. Then follows a critique of yeshivishe notions of modesty ("dumpy hats and snoods"), and the fact that the men wind up seeing other women dressed and looking far more attractive than their own wives, causing their own wives to be less attractive to them. Then is a perfunctory reference to Litvishe roshei yeshivas whose wives and daughters had already ceased covering their hair in Europe, as had occurred in an even more traditional community, like Morocco. Then she critiques the shidduch system, or yeshivishe marriages mostly, which subordinates a woman's spirituality and goal's to her husbands, places and unbearable financial burden on the women, puts girls with disadvantages shidduch resumes in a bad position, etc. At the same time, it inculcates bad values in the men, who do not learn the value of eating bread they heave earned. The P word is mentioned ("cadre of parasites"), and the whole things is called psychologically unhealthy and morally repugnant. She doesn't think that Yeshivat Lita alone can change the entire yeshiva world, but it can make important strides.

The next testimony is offered by two rabbeim. The first one, in support of Rav Shimshon, strangely acknowledges that among the other rabbeim only Rav David poses any kind of realistic challenge to the post. He gives a discourse on the threats posed by Hellenism and the modern world, and the important role the yeshiva plays and has always played in standing firmly against these threats. He gives a defense of an isolating strategy as the only way to succeed in imparting a precious tradition. Then he gets to Rav David. He notes that he knows him well, and knows his strengths and weaknesses. He acknowledges that he "is an impressive Torah scholar" is "enthusiastic, charismatic and energetic," is "an inspiring and thoughtful teacher." He has "genuine virtues." But the bottom line is that he doesn't share the yeshiva's philosophy, is naively unaware of the dangers of American materialism and hedonism. What's more he is the exception to the rule. Maybe he somehow escaped the truly negative effects of college and American culture, but how can anyone expect the same of most bochurim in the yeshiva? Not only that, but he has students in the yeshiva, and one can see his influence on them. They are not heretics, of course, but they are also "no longer truly pious." Under him they become, in fact, "restless and questioning." In its earliest stage this "pseudo-intellectualism" is merely annoying to the other bochurim and rabbeim. But in the long run, it is a threat to how things are done, which is how things should be done. Thus, Rav David Mercado is part of the problem and not the solution. Next follows an interesting and thoughtful analysis of precisely why and how the deceased rosh yeshiva, Rav Yosef, believed in him. Yet this cannot be taken as evidence that he wanted him to succeed him. No doubt, he'd have wanted his son, his only worthy successor.

Next follows a rebbe who supports Rav David's appointment, although I am still unclear how this is possible, if the yeshiva is so monochromatic outside of Rav David's dales amos. He misattributes a midrash in support (see below), and asks a very pertinent question in need of affirmation or a serious response: "Can we imagine that God took the trouble to reveal His glory to us at Mount Sinai only so that we would later confine ourselves to our own neighborhoods and self-imposed ghettos?" Who is this masked rebbe?! He then criticizes the conformity of the yeshiva, typified by nearly identical dress. He ends off by predicting that appointing Rav Shimshon would lock the yeshiva into a stale pattern, but Rav David is a chance to really shape the yeshiva into a dynamic, and forward-looking entity. He ends by appealing to the committee itself to give themselves a voice, which they can only do if they appoint Rav David Mercado.

Finally follows the strongest chapters, two yeshiva bochurim themselves (yungerleit, actually) speak up. In my view R. Angel well nigh succeeds in capturing authentic, as opposed to practically caricatured, voices on these two divided positions. Neither offers any great insights, but the way they speak is worth reading. Each gives an impassioned and ennobling defense of the yeshiva as it is and the yeshiva as it could be. If penguin dress seems constricting, one should know that within the yeshiva there aren't an endless stream of blurry faces, but individuals with different strengths, weaknesses and temperaments. If this is discernible only to insiders, so what? It is true. The first paints a moving portrait of the electrifying effect the Beis Midrash has on those who frequent it. He mounts a defense of lomdus. He says that years ago he did spend a year in Rav David's class, and has this problem: it was too enjoyable. It didn't feel like work, and didn't require toil. He knows full well that Rav David is an authentic denizen of the Beis Midrash, and he really gets talmud Torah, but his classes were problematic. They were interesting, and covered diverse ideas. His style is humorous, non-authoritarian and a pashtan. But it just doesn't feel right, because it is less authentic! He even compares Rav Mercado's classes to diamonds, and that of other rabbeim to coal. But any way you slice it, Rav David is simply less authentic than Rav Shimshon. One is in a yeshiva to participate in an authentic, timeless tradition, not to have a great time. It is great to be a part of an authentic, timeless tradition, but it is not a great time. He ends by falsely assuming that Rav David is not a revolutionary and would not change the character of the yeshiva, but despite himself cracks would set in, and the structure would be harmed. However, the reader knows that Rav David actually does desire to change things, so . . . Rav Shimshon is Old Reliable, and he is therefore the only one for the job.

The second student is a devoted disciple of Rav David, having spent three years in his shiur. He recounts that he had a typical yeshiva upbringing, and spent three years in Yeshiva Lita, at the end of which he felt stuck in a rut, until he encountered Rav David. Another student recommended he join his shiur, which he decided to do for a year, and it wound up changing his life. He describes the electrifying effect that the sources Rav David brought to bear on the texts had on him. He found his character to be very noble, his teaching qualities to be sterling. He describes his principal teaching, which should have been self-evident, but was not. Rav David Mercado taught him that we are human beings! Then follows some discussion of Rav David's extra-curricular activities; community board, chairing a Jewish medical ethics committee, an area where he is a great expert. How does he sit with non-Orthodox members? He reasons that the board exists without him too, but his participation brings a true Torah viewpoint. Not only that, but his colleagues wound up respecting him and his views so much, that they nominated him chairman! Rav David jogs, in a jogging suit no less. He inspires the same from his talmidim, who are physically fit, who volunteer time to help others, including tutoring public school children. Then another issue, evidently of concern to R. Angel, pops up. The student notes how every Thanksgiving Rav David takes the entire shiur to daven at the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, founded in 1654, which has observed every Thanksgiving since 1789. There they participate in its prayer service, complete with a type of Hallel after davening. Rav David has taught them to appreciate the goodness and greatness of America and American society, and also to participate in it. Just as we can enjoy the benefits of living within it, so must we be not only takers, but contributors. Etc.

Finally, two supporters speak their piece. One is an old man born a Kalman, but Americanized to Clyde. He recalls an immigrant father who had a pushcart, which he kept open every shabbos, feeling he had no choice. And how he would cry over it! This made an impression on young Kalman, but raised with only slight Jewish education, he built his father's business into an empire, and never cried about keeping stores open on shabbos. Today it is a wildly successful chain of 91 stores. None of his kids married Jews, which bothered him tremendously, although he doesn't let them know, and he knows that given the way he raised them, he had no right to expect otherwise. He points out that the trouble is that even though he never cried for shabbos, he remembers a father who did. His kids don't even remember that. By chance he ended up pouring his heart out to Rav Yosef, who gently tried to prod him to teshuva. He realistically acknowledged that he would never stop eating treife and would never keep shabbos, and it pains him that he is the end of the line of Jews in his family. Rav Yosef suggests that at least he can have a share in the Jewish people by contributing financially. Clyde is careful to note that he never told him to give money to Yeshivas Lita, but that is what he decided to do, to the tune of $100,0000 a year. He acknowledges that for him it is guilt money, but he is happy to do it. He thinks it is of utmost importance that really authentic places like Yeshivas Lita continue in a traditional and eternal fashion. He knows Clyde is lost, but he wants the Jewish people to continue and for that he needs Yeshivas Lita to remain a bulwark, and therefore it needs Rav Shimshon.

Next is an elderly American-born yekke (German Jewish) woman. She, too, is a big supporter. Not only that, but her family are long-time pillars within the yeshiva itself. Beginning with her husband, a refugee from Germany, who studied at the yeshiva while her father supported him, to her many sons and grandsons. Her husband was only interested in learning, and was unable to succeed his father-in-law in his successful business, so she did. In time she raised a large, wealthy, and royal yeshivishe family. And yet, she always resented her husband's inability to leave the yeshiva and make a living. She recalls with particular distaste a time when her son asked his father not to use a kiddush cup that had belonged to his own grandfather, a distinguished German rav of the old school, on the grounds that the shiur was too small. About to comply, she insisted that he use it. Furthermore, knowing that her family had a distinguished and rich tradition of its own, she always resented the cultural imperialism imposed on her family by the yeshiva. She resented that her family learned to pronounce Hebrew the yeshivishe, and not German way. She even discussed this with both Rav Yosef and Rav Shimshon, both whom she liked very much. Yet they were firm: the yeshiva has its own minhagim, and the bochurim need to conform. In this issue in particular, she sees Rav David Mercado as being in full sympathy. He too comes from an alternative tradition with its own deep and valid roots. She has seen in practice how this issue is important to him, as it relates to students in Yeshivas Lita. She is, of course, fully committed to the yeshiva and its future despite her criticisms. Furthermore, she has never believed in throwing her weight around because of her donations. Yet, this is her opinion. She thinks Rav David is the right choice. By the way, she notes that her eldest son now uses his great-grandfather's kiddush cup!

Finally, the chairman of the committee gives a short, not particularly noteworthy address, impressing the point that their task is important.

I wish the book ended here, "Lady or the Tiger" style.

But it doesn't, probably because R. Angel had one more point to make. The novel concludes with final statements by both protagonists, and to do so, it must reveal who won!

Rav Shimshon Grossman addresses the committee, and notes that of course they appointed him rosh yeshiva. How could it have been in doubt? Not only that, but he fired Mercado, like he said he would. Furthermore, the committee must know that it was basically abominable what they did. How dare they act as if they had an opinion, or the power. As the yeshiva board, all they are there for is to raise money and ask him how to spend it. He threatens to fire them, the board, but benevolently notes that he believes in the Yissachar/ Zevulun relationship, which he defines as follows: you raise money so that we can learn Torah, but you can't have anything to say about it. However, since your domain (i.e., earning money) is encompassed by the Shulchan Aruch, of course there is much we have to say about it, and your duty is to listen. He then tells the committee that the chairman had asked him if there was the possibility of appointing Mercado assistant rosh yeshiva. After summarily dismissing that idea, and some more ridicule that they dare have opinions, he tells them that Mercado won't put up any resistance to his decision (to fire him), especially because he is prepared to discredit him, and especially his wife, should he go down that route. Finally, he makes the following demand: they must destroy the tape recordings of the statements, they must not write or keep private notes, and there must be no leaks. The whole process must be as if it never happened. Or else! Or else, how will your sons and daughters get shidduchim? How will your community continue to be friends and associate with you? All this is for the good and the prestige of the yeshiva, of course, but they had better listen. He finishes off, lecturing them that "You have no voice in the inner affairs of the yeshiva. You have no voice in all areas where Torah knowledge is required. You have no voice, no voice at all!"

While it pains me to say this, given my whole "Why is Rav Shimshon a jerk" spiel above, this attitude is not at all inauthentic.

Finally, Rav David adjusts his halo, tells the committee that he is obviously disappointed, but he is not a ba'al machlokes, and will move on, and he and his family will be fine. There will be no din Torah or any other kinds of fight. He thanks them for recommending that he be assistant rosh yeshiva. He tells them that he is saddened because he really thought this was a special moment for the yeshiva he loved. However, after a special vacation (relating to he and his wife's family history) they plan to reestablish themselves in Jerusalem, where he will teach Torah, and start a yeshiva, "a place of light and truth."

He knows that in a short time it will be like he was never at Yeshivas Lita at all . Surely Rav Shimshon will do all he can to bury his memory. Yet, his voice will be heard all the way from Jerusalem! Some day his students will reach this yeshiva, and others like it. His vision will become actualized! He then reminds them that they are not, in fact, without a voice and asks the search committee for one final request:

Save the tapes and publish the transcript.

Originally I had intended to give a synopsis and then some thoughts, but not only did I somehow practically rewrite the book, but I seem to have offered quite a lot of commentary. Thus, at this point I want to make a few points.

First, I wish that R. Angel had included references. I know this is a popular book, but it is pregnant with allusions that should be footnoted and discreetly cited at the end. For example, very early in the book (pg. 31) Mercado is discussing his tenure as Grossman's student. Reference is made to a famous 18th century case of a chicken that apparently had no heart. Mercado mentions that he didn't like one rabbi's explanation of the "phenomenon" and it must have shown, and this led to a real belittling by Grossman, who was in a rage. This is indeed a famous case, and I think it deserves at least some kind of citation (Shu"t Chacham Tzvi #74, for instance, or Kresi U-plesi on YD 40.4). There are several references to Gemaras, which might be footnoted. The rebbe who supports Mercado cites (pg. 84) a fake midrash about two brothers who loved one another and the spot chosen by God for the Beis Ha-mikdash. Of course, this shows that R. Angel doesn't read On the Main Line! Not that this is a huge deal, even R. Moshe Feinstein apparently could see a really nice statement as a ma'amar Chazal (see here) -- although there are other possibilities, which I'm sure we'll get to discuss in the comments. I would loved to have seen R. Angel footnote this fake midrash; it probably would have led him to try to locate it, and then it would not have appeared at all. While we're on the subject, in my opinion the fact that the midrash features two brothers might be a clue that it is not really a rabbinic teaching, vhmv"y.

In the same discussion of the unpleasant encounters in Grossman's class, Mercado notes that he made the mistake of trying to debunk a convoluted explanation of a stira in the Rambam by citing the text of "a Yemenite rabbi, a scholar of Maimonides." I know it, and you know it, but why not a footnote mentioning that R. Yosef Kafih is intended? (How do you think Rav Shimshon reacted?)

Finally, another footnote should be given to explain the kiddush cup allusion.

What of his writing style, and the back stories he injects to make it a novel? What of it's literary merit? It's really not bad. I think it is engaging enough. But it's clearly meant to be about content, not language and not story.

All in all, it was quite interesting, and probably said as much about R. Angel as it did about the yeshiva world, which is a good thing. Would that every rabbi write a novel or at least something that tells us who they are and what they think! People who have been J-blogging will find much of it to be old hat, but of course not everyone has nitpicked these very issues over and over and over again. I must say that despite some problematic portrayals and misperceptions of the yeshiva world, the book succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to do, which is to analyze a big divide in contemporary Orthodoxy, and to take a side.

Edit 7/16/09: It occurs to me that the name Yeshivas Lita might also be a play on R. Reines's Yeshivas Lida, which would seem to be a potential prototype for the kind of yeshiva Rav David Mercado would like Yeshivas Lita to become. Something to think about.

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