A Response to My Critics

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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72 comments to A Response to My Critics

  • Jewish Observer

    “JO, what I meant was that one generally does not become a Talmid Chacham in elementary school”

    I hear. That said, I know from my own elementary school days that many of my classmates who went on to become torah stars already showed signs of being on that trajectory in elementary school.

  • Steve Brizel

    Former YU’s comments are well stated and indicative of a process of due diligence that I have been proposing since the publication of Noah Feldman’s article. However, one can and should distinguish between a course correction consisting of due diligence by educators, parents and students as to the proper venue for their higher education, regardless of where they attend yeshiva or seminary, and viewing MO educators and parents as invariably geared towards the “nachas” of Ivy acceptances with no appreciation for the value of Torah study or even attending YU or SCW.IMO, the discussions on Hirhurim and Lookjed are evidence that the concept of due diligence is alive and well among the parent body of these schools. However, I would agree that the larger issue is how parents and their children interact upon the return of a son or daughter who is more Mdadkek Bmitzvos than upon his or her departure and how both parents and their children handle the process that some call flipping out and others view as religious growth.

  • Jewish Observer

    “So, let’s do teshuva in Elul and disagree more agreeably.”

    Dear Rabbi Oberstein,

    Don’t you think your words could fairly be directed straight at JR who could have prevented the nastiness from starting by not making the shtoch in the first place? Further, don’t you think he could swiftly put it to a peaceful end by apologizing now?

    Love (and hugs) to all,

    Aaron

  • Chaim Wolfson

    Nachum: First, I apologize for misspelling your name; no insult intended. Second, sports stars coming off bad seasons sign megamillion dollar free agent contracts based on reputation. Ideas are judged by different criteria, or at least they seem to be on this blog.

  • Bob Miller

    Jonathan,

    In this discussion, you have been accused of naivete! (“I hope Mr. Rosenblum’s naivete is unintentional”)

    Don’t take this grave accusation lying down. Them’s fighting words.

  • Gil Student

    “Maimonides has a lower profile in the YU beis medrash, even when compared with Frisch, Haftr and certainly with the all boy schools”

    Could be. I don’t know. All I know is that the two guys my year who know the most Torah (and whom I know) — one went to Frisch and the other went to Maimonides.

  • Jewish Observer

    “the two guys my year who know the most Torah (and whom I know)—one went to Frisch and the other went to Maimonides.”

    - reminds of a story reputedly attributed to the Brisker Rav (or his son, not sure). a talmid sitting in a taxi with the BR pointed to a yid outside and said, “that person is known as the Chofetz CHaim of America”. So the Rav responded, “and I am the Rabbi Akiv Eiger of thi taxi”. it’s not a nice story, just a funny one. and I don’t mean anything bad about Maimo or Frisch. just imaging some what some people’s reactions to it might be.

  • lawrence kaplan

    I have been thinking about Jonathan Rosenblum’s original article. First, is is probably unfair to Maimonides School. But let us assume with the former YU blogger that Maimonides has a lower profile in the YU Beth midrash, KBY, Gush, Shalavim etc. than other MO high schools. As former YU himself says this is probably owing to the different parent bodies of the schools. But JR subtly (and not subtly in the Yated) attributes the supposedly poor record of Maimonides to Rabbi Lamm’s view of TUM. For him to then turn around and deny that his article was a critique of MO in general strikes me as unconvincing. And since Rabbi Lamm served as President of YU for some 25-30 years, Steve Brizel’s referring to YU was in place.

  • Jewish Observer

    “owing to the different parent bodies of the schools”

    a good and obviously correct point. Judging Maimonides success by how many gedolim it produced versus e.g. Chaim Berlin is like comparing how many Arachim shabbaton alumni are frum versus alumni of Agudah conventions.

    according to JR’s theory, american elementary yeshivos should be co-ed because of the disproportionate number (per my anecdotal estimation) of talmidei chachamim that came out of these schools verus regular heimishe schools

  • Loberstein

    I appreciate Jewish Observer’s comments on my comments. The problem as I understand it is that modern orthodox people don’t want to hear criticism from a chareidi. They will make the same critique among themselves but get defensive if an outsider says the exact same thing . Chareidi society is often worse. Every week in Yated, Hamodia, Mishpacha, someone writes ” How could a frum publication print”( an opinion that the writer feels is against his understanding of Torah Judaism). Mishpacha published a letter from a person who says that we live in the 21st century and we have to learn to live with the internet . In the next issue someone holier than he wrote that it is wrong that Mishpacha printed the first letter as it has been settled by the gewdolim that it is better to lose your parnasa than to let the internet into your home, case closed.
    I am of a different hashhafa, I just like being Jewish and like what comes along with it and really do love all Jews. That’s the chinuch I got in Alabama and all my years in the Torah world have not bleached it out of me. I am a Jew, period.

  • Shira Schmidt

    15 bELlul Some commentators asked to hear from Maimonides alumni. I received the following from Mrs. Ada Jacobowitz who was in one of the first graduating classes of Maimonides.

    In our class two of the boys went to YU. The third went to hachshara, made aliya, has earned awards from the State of Israel for his contributions to its safety, and learns regularly. The one girl in the class who went to an ‘Ivy’ married a man who recently retired as principal of a Bais Yaakov high school. The other two girls went to college and graduate school, married men who earned PhDs and live observant lives. For example, one of the men turned down an offer to play with the L.A. symphony because they wanted him to play Friday nights.

    The paradox of particular vs. universal was obvious and dealt with as part of life’s complexities. We learned to partake of the best in our secular surroundings, to join but not to merge.

    In response to comments as to which we were taught to value more — our religious or secular studies, I would respond that we were taught that it is our job as Jews to lead holy lives. If digging a ditch do it well, put up barriers etc. as the Torah teaches. If working in a lab be aware that we are learning about Hashem’s creation. Keep the work holy. If a doctor, remember that only with Hashem’s help can we help heal our fellow man who was created bitzelem (in His image); in business be aware of Hashem seeing us and conduct ourselves in a holy manner. Rabbi Soloveitchik said -as best I remember – that we worship Hashem in our kitchen, our bedroom , in the street, at our work — our whole life is to be in His service. In Judaism we find joy and beauty in the world.

    Once when Rabbi Soloveitchik took us to watch a restaurant kosher its kitchen for Pesah it was also the time of a lunar eclipse. After koshering the kitchen on the way home he explained the workings of Hashem’s world in relation to he eclipse. It was a seamless whole– from the exodus to the eclipse, both were part of Hashem’s world.

    In Maimonides I learned that we should learn from all and take the good. We could listen to the beauty of Mozart and Beethoven without adopting the belief system of the composers.

    I am very grateful for the training I got at Maimonides. An appreciative alumna of Maimonides. Ada Jacobowitz

  • Jewish Observer

    “I just like being Jewish and like what comes along with it and really do love all Jews. That’s the chinuch I got in Alabama”

    - I vote for Alabama chinuch!

  • dr. william gewirtz

    If one could have been dan lekav zechut and excuse those eight sentences as written in haste, that option is now moot. I find nothing in the clarification to address the precise language of those sentances or even admit to a (poor) choice of words that led this audience to badly misinterpret. Instead we are treated to a classic set of misdirection plays (perhaps another example of Yale JD training on the defense of guilty clients):
    1) focus on the critics and target any of their miscues,
    2) raise larger issues a) gedolim grown in the environment of Germany versus Lithuania, b) a gripe with the TUMJ and c) a critique of R. Lamm and
    3) preface all that with—-some of my best friends (poskim) are…

    An executive who I worked for many years ago was fond of saying: if you want to get out of a ditch, quit digging.

  • LAWRENCE KAPLAN

    Shira Schmidt: Thank you for providing us with the moving account of Ada Jakobovitz, and thank you Ada Jakobovitz for the account. Among other things, it reminded me once again of the greatness of my Rebbe.

  • Chaim Wolfson

    “I vote for Alabama chinuch!” (Comment by Jewish Observer — August 29, 2007 @ 7:38 pm)

    JO, over HANC?

  • Jewish Observer

    “dan lekav zechut”

    - kaf (as in modern Hebrew word for spoon) zechut refers to the side of the scale that holds zechut

  • Jewish Observer

    “JO, over HANC?”

    - maybe it’s a tie

  • Bob Miller

    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’”

  • Toby Katz

    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.

  • Yitzchok Adlerstein

    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.

  • Jewish Observer

    “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

  • Chaim Wolfson

    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.