Thursday, May 19, 2005

Someone asked me what my deal is. Here is some of it.

I come from what can probably be described as a left-of-center black-hat background. My elementary school was similar, although perhaps more solidly black hat, but also kind of centrist until recent years. Now it seems like they're pretty much to the right (although according to the literature they always send me their secular ed at least aspires to be good. But the literature is filled with pictures of everyone prostrating themselves before visiting extremist gedolim too). They were always considered a feeder school for some excellent yeshivish mesivtas.

I went to a name brand mesivta that I decline to name. I suppose it is pretty centrist for a yeshivish yeshiva. Bachurim are allowed to go to college at night, much to the present roshei yeshivos' chagrin. Apparently the founding rosh yeshiva allowed it and there's just no way for them to stop it. But if you went, you definitely couldn't have been considered one of the top guys. And when I was in twelfth grade our mashgiach gave us a schmuess where he read from a famou letter by R. Baruch Ber (to the unnamed young R. Shimon Schwab) forbidding college, full stop. The implication was clear. But I did go to college anyway when I was at that yeshiva.

I was always interested in history and hashkafa. I read a lot. I would discover books in my parents house, things like 'Rejoice O Youth' by R. Avigdor Miller (a sort of modern day yeshivish Kuzari, if you haven't read it). 'This Is My God' by Herman Wouk, which I love. I also read books like 'The Indestructible Jews' by historian Max I. Diament, my first brush with an apikorshise view of Jewish history, so to speak. That confused me, but I could compartmentalize, the same way I could read about "millions of years ago" and evolution and dismiss it as obviously untrue yet read it as if it was. I would say that in high school I was a bit more clued in than the average bachur, but not substantially more so.

When I was in college I took a couple of Judaic studies classes. One was given by a fairly prominent Jewish academic. Needless to say it was pretty radical for me to be sitting in a college learning Rambam with girls (and the odd guy from Nigeria). The professor glibly asked once if we knew what the "theme" of a certain book in Nach was. If we knew what the difference between Yirmiyahu and Yeshayahu was. Don't make me laugh, you know? I knew a shev shmaytza, but Jeremiah? That realization bothered me. Why was I, nearly twenty and with a decade and a half of yeshiva education, so ignorant?

So I began to read more. I cultivated an interest in R. Aryeh Kaplan and his Torah u-madda without the name approach. I discovered R. Samson Rafael Hirsch. You mean there is a mainstream, unapologetic position that Torah and culture ought to proudly coexist? I actually read the Hertz Chumash (believe it or not, it wasn't until I heard Nosson Scherman describe it as "heroic" that I thought it might be worth looking at). I read R. Aryeh Kaplan's 'The Living Torah' translation and was absolutely floored by its bibliography, or the idea of it.

Basically I gradually came to hold a sort of Torah U'Madda view, without knowing it, and without having shaken of my prejudices against it. After leaving the yeshiva I learnt for several more years in a different yeshiva, more open in some ways because it had a more diverse student body. The mashgiach there gave a schmuess once about how Torah U'Madda is wrong since anything with "Torah AND" is krum. Kindly explain why "torah and" is worse than "torah with", I should have asked. But I didn't, since I kind of agreed with him then.

It took a while before I could realize that, you know, the fact that the Jastrow dictionary is in widespread use in yeshivos means something and was actually a victory of the haskalah, in fact. That all sorts of non-Jewish and non-frum sources are and were regularly used to illuminate Torah by all sorts of impeccable Torah personalities--these mean something. It means that there is value and truth apart from a very narrow, ideological confine.

I remember once telling a certain distinguished rosh yeshiva (a "godol" in the making, by any reckoning) what I thought was a nice peshat in the Akeda. It went something like this. Hashem commanded Avraham to sacrifice Yitzhak, but an angel had him desist. Who was the angel? None other than Avraham's yetzer ha-tov!

Who said this vort? Alan Dershowitz's nine-year old daughter, as recounted in his book 'The Genesis of Justice'. I also told this rosh yeshiva another vort that I read in that book. Why did Adam listen to Eve? True, Eve had a smoothe-tongued serpant seducing her. But Adam only had Eve. Why would he have listened to her and not God? Answered Dershowitz, Adam wasn't convinced by her. But he knew that she would be exiled from the gan, and he knew his place was with her, so he ate. Very romantic.

Well, this RY absolutely loved these two peshats. I didn't tell him where I got them from, I pretended to forget. That was a test I devised for myself, to see if the injunction to accept the truth from wherever it comes is true. Had I told him the source? Its possible he'd have done a 180. But to me it was a satisfactory proof that you can find a shtik Toyrah in surprising places.

It took a long time to shed earlier prejudices. I am almost scandalized now how I first felt when I discovered Nehama Leibowitz. I liked what I was reading but I felt a visceral reaction to it simply because she was a woman -- and I considered myself to be a feminist, at least in the sense that women should not have their opportunities hampered and should be paid equal wages and so forth. Yet, there I was not being able to digest Torah being taught by a woman. Even though I knew that women taught Torah to women and never would have thought that what they were teaching wasn't real. But the idea of a man learning Torah from a woman -- that just didn't make sense to me. My reaction was emotional and without any solid basis. There was a whole world I had no clue about.

I felt the same way when the whole Making of a Godol thing was brewing. Imagine my shock to learn that not only had R. Yaakov read Anna Karenina (as had I -- booooring) but he was apparently shocked that the bachurim in Torah V'Daas hadn't. And these are just two minor examples of many, many more shocks.

Frankly, when you open up your eyes and realize the edifice of ignorance that has been constructed you have no choice but to investigate further. And my experience has obviously not unique by any stretch.


  1. I'm glad you wrote this and gladder I read this.

  2. That is quite an introduction. Sure, beats the heck outta my two liner!

  3. This made for a very interesting read. Also, your last sentence makes no sense. Just thought you ought to know.

  4. That last sentence just needs a "been" in there somewhere. But it's a beautifully told narrative.
    You're a fine writer.

  5. Amazing writer.

  6. The thought that comes to mind as I read this: masorti can't exist without orthodox, and vice versa.

    I'm now 30 and feeling woefully undereducated compared to your "nearly twenty and with a decade and a half of yeshiva education" self.

    But at least this post is a good reading list.

  7. I'm not 20 anymore you know.

  8. You wouldn't happen to be from Baltimore would you? Our educational backgrounds are quite similar...

  9. your blog is a delight

  10. Just discovered your blog. Can't wait to keep reading. Thanks!

  11. RE: "letter...forbidding college"
    Well, if the Garden of Eden fable taught us anything, it would be that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing - one can only imagine how dangerous a lot of it might be.
    Good bio.
    Feel free to visit --

    pax vobiscum,

  12. S., if it isn't improper to ask - would that "centrist" yeshiva have been Ner Yisroel?

  13. It's not improper, although let me say at the outset that if it was I wouldn't say, at least not here. :-) However, what I will say is that there are only a handful of yeshivas which fit the description - Ner Yisrael obviously included. And people have asked me at various points if I went to all of them.

    1. The reason I ask is that the MO rabbi I sometimes mention on Failed Messiah went to Ner Yisroel, and he describes it as "the Left Wing of the Right Wing". He was one of their first students to go to college at night. I gather it's fairly commonplace there, now - there was actually an article about it in one of the major news magazines a few years ago - but I'd find it interesting to learn that it's actually discouraged. The way he represents them to me is different, but he tends to be an apologist for that world, tells me I have the wrong idea, etc.

    2. I know why you asked. :-) It's more complicated than that, because it doesn't take into account many changes in the yeshiva world over the past couple of decades, which has gotten more hostile to college (at least/ especially for college age boys). What I did (yeshiva + college) was in certain respects fairly normal in my time, although much less so than it was 20 years earlier. Now in certain respects it is pretty rare. Ner Yisrael is pretty much the left wing of the right wing, that is correct. One indicator of that is that it is the preferred destination of many who were on track for YU but got too frum for it and want to learn in a real yeshivish yeshiva. On the other hand, it is not quite the hospitable yeshiva + college environment that it was 20 years ago, following trends in the Orthodox world in general. The yeshiva I went to was, and certainly is, more right wing than they. But it's really kind of complex and sense can't be made out of it in just a few sentences.

  14. I understand. Interestingly, though, the article I mentioned said that NY has actually become more amenable to the idea of its students attending college, and has arrangements with all of the local colleges and universities, including Johns Hopkins (which is where my friend went). However, I think it was also stated (or at least implied) that the reason for their more lenient attitude has to do with the necessity of earning a living, and not because they've developed a respect for secular education.

    They allowed my friend to do it forty years ago because he was kind of the "head boy" in his day, and because he was willing to major in Math, which they viewed as value-neutral. He showed them, though; he ended up frei-ing out anyway, and absconded in the middle of the night! After a couple of years, he did go back to observance (meeting both Shlomo Carlebach and the woman who became his wife had a lot to do with it, as it always does), but he went on to get a PhD in Jewish Studies under Elie Wiesel and now teaches in the Rabbinical program of a small Jewish college (the only one we have here).

  15. My understanding is basically that the 'traditional' yeshiva opposition toward college (at least in America, post-war) was if it were pursued for knowledge for knowledge's sake, rather than for purely practical aims (=making a living). Secondly, the idea of a Yeshiva College ala YU was considered extremely religiously wrong. But going to college itself (usually in the evening) was considered fairly acceptable in all the major yeshivas; Torah V'Daas, Chaim Berlin, Telz (I think?), and of course Ner Israel. They had and I'm sure still have special arrangements with Hopkins. I've heard from people my own age (whatever that happens to be ;-) that in their time at Ner Israel the idea of them going to college was not frowned upon, but they were strongly discouraged from taking Jewish Studies (haskalah) classes. All those years when it was considered more or less acceptable it seems that there were nevertheless many rabbeim who would attempt to influence boys not to go, pointing out that when the young R. Shimon Schwab asked people like R. Boruch Ber Leibowitz, their response was emphatically against going to college. But of course it had to be so, otherwise how could it ever have become less acceptable?

    Nowadays things have changed in that going to college, at least while in yeshiva, is considered basically the wrong thing to do. In New York there is Touro College, which separates the sexes, and some consider that at least de facto okay. But the same yeshivas that used to sort of be fine with it are much less fine with it, sometimes only allowing it on a case by case basis. I will say that there is somewhat of a more open attitude of tolerance toward getting a degree once people are older, married and in their late 20s. You know, the optimal time to be getting a degree, when you've already got 2 or 3 kids and pressing bills. Such is life.

  16. You know, the optimal time to be getting a degree, when you've already got 2 or 3 kids and pressing bills. Such is life.

    That world is unsalvageable. They're shooting themselves in their collective foot, and unfortunately, as they now own the franchise, when they go, they'll be taking most of Orthodoxy with them.

    As I said on FM the other day, apart from the occasional fringe community (e.g., Avi Weiss'), there is no more Modern Orthodoxy. There is only Haredism and (various flavors of) Haredism lite.

  17. Hi, I've just come across your blog, I see you have some fascinating posts here. Looking forward to having a browse..



  18. Thanks for your kind words. I just saw your blog - actually I saw it a few days ago when someone sent me a link to your Darwin post - and it looks really fascinating!

  19. Finally read this, 7 years later. Great stuff.

  20. I've been occasionally dropping in, as well as noting your comments on other blogs. I know just enough to appreciate how much more you know. I understand your desire for anonymity on the internet, but I hope that in your "real life" you are known and don't hide yourself. The Jewish world needs role-models of widely-read, Orthodox intellectuals -- as opposed to those who are deficient in one or more of the three implied attributes.

  21. I found this blog while pursuing an interest in the circumcision debate that is raging at the moment in middle europe.
    I find it delightful, if a little quaint. A new world opened before my astonished eyes. A world where the world (the actual one) plays little part. No doubt there a important things to be learned there.
    Keep on the good work!

  22. I wish you would do a follow-up to this post, one in which you explain how you went from being a person who found "Rejoice O Youth" and "This Is My God" sophisticated and revelatory to someone who knows as much as you do about all aspects of Judaism. Are you an autodidact, and if so, how did you manage it?

  23. Thank you. A follow-up is a nice idea. The short answer is reading a lot, thinking a lot, and time. And, of course, blogging. If I may take a liberty, מכל מלמדי השכלתי.

  24. I just found your blog and read this introduction. Very interesting. I loved the vort about Eve, very romantic, indeed. I'm going to take note of it!

    I think yeshivish guys (and even MO guys) don't know much Tanach. It unfortunately is not focused on in their education. R' Hirsch and R' Kaplan were two of my favorites during high school (I obviously grew up MO). If you haven't read anything by Rav Soloveitchik (though I know this post is a few years "old"), I highly recommend "The Lonely Man of Faith."

  25. very interesting. Just thought i would note for you that Jastro was orthodox, just in case you didn't know.



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