A Response to My Critics

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My post on Noah Feldman’s recent essay in the New York Times provoked an unusually large number of responses — most critical of my post and many unflattering on a personal level. I was travelling in the United States during most of this flurry of responses, and only had a chance to read them in dribs and drabs. A fuller reading, however, only confirmed my initial impression: I did not recognize myself or anything I wrote in most of the comments, which were mainly of a tone that has made this an increasingly unsatisfying forum in which to participate. That I may not have perceived all my many failings is itself not so surprising — no one recognizes his own blemishes — but, in truth, I did not recognize them even after having them pointed out to me in such detail.

(1) My friend Steve Brizel regularly lectures me on the large number of fine young talmidei chachamim produced by YU for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, since, as far as I know, I have never denied that fact or written otherwise. Indeed it would be odd if I had since the rav to whom I bring most of my shaylos, Rabbi Dovid Miller, is a product of YU and head of its Gruss Kollel in Jerusalem.

Nor do I recall mentioning YU in my piece. Indeed I would have thought that YU is somewhat irrelevant to the discussion, since my impression is that a YU education is hardly the educational dream of most Maimonides parents. Am I wrong in thinking that far more Maimonides graduates attend Ivy League schools than YU? In the context of American Modern Orthodoxy, those for whom a YU education is the first-choice are at the right-wing of the spectrum.

Steve also lectures me that secular studies need not conflict with yiras Shomayim or Torah learning. But again I don’t recall denying that. Not only do I possess a fairly decent secular education myself including, like Feldman, a J.D. from Yale, but I would venture that I spend as much time every day reading non-Torah texts as any of the participants in this blog (with the possible exception of the various professors), and I have not generally tried to hide that fact.

My own leanings are towards TIDE, and if I had been free to design my own sons’ curriculum would probably have added a far larger component of secular studies. (Having chosen to identify with the chareidi community in Israel — why and to what extent being beyond the scope of this post — that wasn’t possible. Most of life involves choices between less than ideal alternatives; indeed it is impossible to maximize all one’s values at the same time. Choosing a community is largely a function of which values one chooses to maximize.) Still, I would not gainsay Rav Dessler’s claim that post-Hirschian Germany produced few Torah scholars of note compared to the Lithuanian yeshivos or the Chassidic strongholds of Eastern Europe, though it did produce many Jews of firm yiras Shomayim.

(2) Mycroft proves that Maimonides has produced serious Torah scholars by citing two grandsons and the son of Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, all of whom learned privately with him for hours every week. What they prove about Maimonides and the passion for Torah learning instilled there is beyond me.

(3) Thanks to Professor Kaplan and others for pointing out the correct source for the adage “Be a Jew at home and a man abroad,” which I gather from him I was not the first to associate with Moses Mendelssohn.

As for his snide remark “talk about the need for fact-checkers,” I would not that other than a rather large difference between the budgetary resources available to my office and those of the New York Times for fact-checking, there is one other crucial difference. Feldman’s article was in the various stages of the editorial process at the NYT for weeks, and probably months. Op-ed writers operate on a rather different time frame. Those differences, however, are only mitigating not exculpatory. And if Professor Kaplan wishes to contribute to my office for a fact-checker or volunteer himself, I will happily take him up on the offer.

(4) Now to the crux of the issue. The vast majority of correspondents seem to have read the eight sentences in my piece that relate to Modern Orthodoxy as if I had written a full-blown critique of Modern Orthodoxy and/or attempted to prove its utter bankruptcy from the example of one bad apple – i.e., Noah Feldman. I am variously accused of having taken “potshots” at Modern Orthodoxy, of being “flippant” and “gratuitous.”

I never dreamed that those eight sentences would be construed as a systematic critique. Nor was I attempting to prove anything. For me, it is axiomatic that there is a tension between the goal of being at once the finest of New England prep schools and Volozhin Yeshiva. Time is finite, and it is obvious that the two goals will be at the expense of one another. Nor do I think it requires any “proof” that there is a tension between a secular studies curriculum taught by those who go on to become leading queer poets and limudei kodesh. Finally, I did not attempt to make a case for the bankruptcy of MO education based on the fact that one of the products of its educational system intermarried. Had I done the latter, I would truly be an idiot and fully deserving of all those who wrote to point out that not every product of chareidi education is an exemplar of Torah values — nananana.

My point had little to do with Feldman’s intermarriage and much to do with the way he perceived, or claims to have perceived, the educational message of his schooling. In those perceptions, I do believe there is a cautionary tale. The bifurcation inherent in the goal of Maimonides (in Feldman’s telling) to be at once St. Paul’s and Volozhin is echoed in a number of Feldman’s dichotomies – e.g., between being a Jew at home and a man abroad, between private loyalty to the tradition and public engagement and scholarship. That manner of viewing life in terms of dichotomies, I believe, also resonates with some of the more extreme formulations of Rabbi Norman Lamm in his Torah U’Madda about Torah and Madda being complementary sources of Truth, each in need of completion by the other.

I do not claim that Feldman is an infallible witness as to the educational goals of Maimonides or even to how those goals are communicated to students. I specifically noted that I consider him to be dishonest in his whining about the failure of Maimonides to accept his intermarriage in light of its educational message. But I do not dismiss his every perception of the educational messages he received in school out of hand. Nor, as one trained in intellectual history, do I take the Maimonides school handbook as the last word or only word on how students perceive the educational message of the school.

Remember that the issue I was raising was one of student perception. (Thanks to Chaim Wolfson for being the only one who seems to have grasped that point.) Though Y.L. Gordon’s dictum might be at variance with the way any proponent of MO would describe its philosophy, it is at the very least interesting that Feldman could with a straight face describe the message of Maimonides in terms of Gordon’s injunction to be a Jew at home and a man abroad. Thus the remark is both telling and wrong, as I wrote. .

Would anyone deny that Gordon’s formulation leads to a bifurcated life? And truthfully, who do the readers think the average Maimonides student would have been more likely have held up to as a role model, the Feldman’s of the world, with their Harvard and Yale degrees and Harvard professorships (without the intermarriage, of course), or a Maimonides graduate who went to study with Rav Aharon Kotler in Lakewood? Which one do they think would have been likelier to receive a letter from Rabbi Lamm “shepping nachas”?

If proponents of MO find nothing even cautionary in Feldman’s description of his education or are confident that there exists no tension, at either the practical or theoretical level, between the aspiration to be at once St. Paul’s and Volozhin, I doubt there is anything further I can do to convince them. But I hardly think that makes what I wrote a potshot, gratuitous or flippant.

(5) To those who asked whether I also view the rock-throwers in Ramat Beit Shemesh, for instance, as an indictment of the chareidi educational system, the answer is: of course, they are an indictment of those who educated them. And I have written to that effect on more than one occasion, most recently in “The Choice is Ours.” But not all educational failures are the same, and that particular educational failure was not the subject of this piece.

(6) Finally, I am accused of having published a “bowdlerized” version of my piece in Yated on Feldman. What I actually did was publish my piece from the Jerusalem Post, which was my second stab at the subject, and, I thought, clearer, better-written, and shorter (the Jerusalem Post being much stricter about word limits than Yated.) It is also true that the references to Rabbi Lamm’s theory of “complementarity” between Torah and Madda were far more explicit in the Yated piece, and only alluded to the Jerusalem Post. (The heated response to the Jerusalem Post piece only proves the wisdom of not having posted the Yated piece.)

But my views on Rabbi Lamm’s theories of Torah U’Madda are a matter of public record. In the March 1992 issue of Jewish Observer, I reviewed Rabbi Lamm’s Torah U’Madda, in what was at the time likely the longest article the JO had ever published. Three years later Rabbi Mayer Schiller published a rebuttal in the Torah U’Madda Journal. I spent a full month of my life writing a lengthy (over thirty-pages, if I recall) rejoinder to Rabbi Schiller, and dealing, inter alia, with Rabbi Lamm’s concept of Madda as “textless Torah.” The then editor of the Torah U’Madda Journal professed himself thrilled that his publication would be the forum for such a spirited debate, which would surely draw attention to the Journal. But he was ultimately ordered not to publish my piece. (That decision may well have been a wise one, as the particular issue of the Torah U’Madda Journal in which my rejoinder would have appeared was slated to given to incoming freshmen during orientation week, and was critical of the then president of YU.)

In truth, I found Rabbi Lamm’s treatment of the halachos of rescuing a gentile on Shabbos, in terms of our developing moral sensibility, in his open letter to Feldman to be as shocking as anything written in Torah U’Madda. But I’ll leave that discussion to someone else.

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Chaim Wolfson
7 years 11 months ago

Re: Toby Katz’s comments (#4,68). The Maimonides student body does, in fact, contain a large percentage of students from secular homes (at least it did in my days in Boston, though it may be different now), and I believe that has an impact on its curriculum and school policy. But that doesn’t make the school a failure. Any student from a secular background who becomes Shomer Shabbos as a result of attending Maimonides (and there are many who have) is an unqualified success. Rav Soloveitchik is reported to have said that Maiminides is his ticket to “Gan Eden” (I cannot verify this, but I heard it from a friend of mine who went to Maimonides). I believe that he was referring to the many students who came closer to Yiddishkeit as a result of their Maimonides education. Maimonides may not be for everyone (my parents would have home-schooled me rather than send me to Maimonides, where my mother was a teacher for several years), but it has its fair share of successes, and we should all recognize that.

Jewish Observer
7 years 11 months ago

“I wonder if he truly meant what he clearly implied: that Maimonides is not a Torah-true mosad.”

– I meant that was the implication of the maligners

7 years 11 months ago

In defending decision not to censor my remarks, R’ Adlerstein wrote, “This one I would defend.”

What I said was that I would defend the decision to publish it, betting (successfully, it turned out) that the charge would be challenged by other readers. I did not say that I agreed with the assessment of Maimonides.

I said that CC editors would not allow similar comments directed against individuals, even if they would also be likely to be refuted. The difference is that people’s feelings are hurt first and mollified later; the same is not true of institutions.

Toby Katz
7 years 11 months ago

I was the one who wrote “As for Maimonides, there is no question that the school has been on the whole a great failure, EVEN from a Torah uMada perspective, possibly for reasons having to do with a pretty secular Boston parent body.”

Apparently having read only the first half of that sentence, R’ Gil Student accused me of maligning all the rebbeim and mechanchim ever associated with the Maimonides school. Had he just gotten to the end of my sentence — “a pretty secular Boston parent body” — he could have saved all of us a lot of unnecessary angst.

In defending decision not to censor my remarks, R’ Adlerstein wrote, “This one I would defend.” And Jewish Observer responded:

“I think the point was rhetorical; that this level of shtoch would normally not be tolerated if directed at Torah-true mosdot.”

I wonder if he truly meant what he clearly implied: that Maimonides is not a Torah-true mosad.

Bob Miller
8 years 1 day ago

Have we absorbed some wrong attitudes from our host society?

This is from “Be True to Your School” (Beach Boys):

“When some loud braggart tries to put me down
And says his school is great
I tell him right away
‘Now what’s the matter buddy
Ain’t you heard of my school
Its number one in the state'”