Student Leaders, Faculty, and Administrators Discuss Relevance of Torah Umadda to Our Generation
On Wednesday, April 6, the newly formed Torah Umadda Club held its first blockbuster event of the year: a panel of faculty, administrators, and student leaders to discuss the implications, meanings, and challenges of living a life of Torah Umadda.
"Time and again I have heard people conjecture about the term Torah Umadda, often coming to different conclusions regarding its nature," said Jina Davidovich, who organized the event, along with Miriam Apter and Zahava Singer of the Torah Umadda board and the various members of the TAC board. "I wanted to provide a range of different speakers, each involved in varying aspects of the Jewish community, to address concerns many students have raised about Torah Umadda's relationship to Yeshiva University, and to the Modern Orthodox community as a whole."
The event was divided into three panels that answered questions posed by Davidovich, the moderator, and then turned to the audience for further questions.
The first panel, of Rabbis Saul Berman (Associate Professor of Jewish Studies), Yosef Blau (MashgiachRuchani), and Yona Reiss (Dean of RIETS), and Drs. Daniel Rynhold (Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Philosophy at Revel), and Shira Weiss (Instructor in Jewish Philosophy), focused on the ideology of TorahUmadda itself and how it fits into the modern world. Davidovich first asked panelists to define the very nature of the concept according to their understandings.
"Torah is a musical instrument," said Rabbi Berman. "If you know how to play it, it produces beautiful sounds – but if not, it just makes noise. Madda improves our knowledge of Hashem and helps us learn to use the Torah."
"Torah Umadda discourages a fear of knowledge," said Rabbi Reiss. "It provides an imperative to explore the world as a realization of religious freedom. It's the understanding that discovering and exploring will make you a stronger oved Hashem, as long as it is done through the prism of yirat shamayim."
Dr. Weiss described the evolution of her view of Torah Umadda and explained how she advanced from a compartmentalized understanding of the term, in which each side was valuable but independent, to a holistic view, in which each side improved the other.
"We need to start with the assumption that this world is a valuable place," said Rabbi Blau, "and that Hashem put us here to explore it and improve it." He continued about the importance of discovery: "Our goal is to strive for truth in every way, no matter what the source of that truth is," he said. "There is truth of the world in science and math, and truth of the human being in literature."
Dr. Rynhold concluded the answers by explaining his own difficulty in defining the term: "Augustine once asked, ‘What is time? If no one asks me then I know well enough what it is, but as soon as someone asks me to define it I'm baffled,'" he said. "Torah Umadda is the same thing – I know what it is, but I can't define it. It's simply how I live my life."
The panelists were next asked if Madda has been viewed as a religious pursuit, either in Jewish History or in their personal thought. Dr. Weiss explained that she incorporated various aspects of secular education, particularly the humanities, into her own religious personality.
Rabbi Blau agreed with Dr. Weiss, affirming the importance of Madda to developing a religious personality, although he added that the importance of a study like Jewish history still does not qualify it for birchot hatorah [blessings on learning Torah].
Rabbi Reiss quoted the Meiri, who compared the seven branches of the menorah in the Temple to the seven branches of wisdom that exist in the world. "The central branch must always be Torah," he said, "and, just as in the beis hamikdash, the others must lean in towards it." The centrality of Torah, he concluded, "enables us to fully grasp and appreciate Madda. Without Torah, you will miss the spiritual fulfillment that is possible in every avenue of knowledge."
Rabbi Berman quoted Rav Saadia Gaon, who differentiated between the concepts of truth-of-revelation (Torah) and truth-of-reason (Madda). "If there is ever a contradiction between the two," said Rabbi Berman quoting Rav Saadia, "Then you must follow Torah, but understand that there was an error in your calculations, for there is only one truth that both revelation and reason must adhere to."
Dr. Rynhold concluded the question by pointing out that sometimes pursuit of areas other than Torah were necessary simply for people's own mental well-being. "Sometimes at the end of a day I'll sit down and enjoy a game of football," he said. "Torah is the guiding framework of my life, but not every bit of what I do directly relates to it."
These panelists were also asked about increased women's roles in the Jewish community, the study of secular Jewish scholarship and Biblical Criticism, and the concept of Da'at Torah.
The second section of the event, which featured President of Yeshiva University Richard Joel and Dean of Stern College for Women Karen Bacon, specifically explored Torah Umadda as it relates to Yeshiva University. "What exactly do we mean when we say Yeshiva University is based on Torah Umadda?" asked Davidovich.
"It's the very way that we live," said President Joel. "It's the sacred partnership we promote between kleikodesh and lay kodesh."
"Some of our classes are Torah, and some are Madda," said Dean Bacon. "But all have respect for both."
The panelists also answered whether they would encourage a prospective student only interested in one of the two to attend Yeshiva University. "People change," said Dean Bacon. "Growth in interest is a mark of growing maturity. No one should ever hope to stay static." "We're not an exclusive club," agreed President Joel. "We all grow, and we try to look at what students can do and where they can go. If someone is open to growth, we have enough confidence in what we offer to think it's worth it.
"But," he added, "if someone doesn't have the slightest interest in one or the other, then this might not be the place for them."
Davidovich concluded the section by asking the panelists what they thought the greatest struggle facing Modern Orthodoxy today was. "We've fallen into the trap of valuing money over values," said Dean Bacon. "Too many of our people are short-sighted with their money instead of investing in Torah and Torah education.
"Once people stop knowing our story, it's over," said President Joel. "We need more students to become a part of our community.
"Cynicism," he added, "is rampant and terrible today. We sink into it too easily, complaining instead of acting."
President Joel concluded with a note on the scope of Modern Orthodoxy's ambitions: "We can't pretend that the rest of Am Yisrael isn't our responsibility," he said, "but we also can't believe our responsibility is to make them like us."
The final section of the event consisted of a panel of student leaders, including Shlomo Zuckier (Editor, KolHamevaser), Channah Yudkowsky (Treasurer, TAC ‘09-'10), Sarit Bendavid (Editor, Kol Hamevaser), Simeon Botwinick (Editor, The Commentator), Shosh Balk (President, TAC), Simon Goldberg (President, SHEM), and Alana Himber (President, SCWSC). Davidovich asked these students how they personally related to TorahUmadda, whether they thought YU had provided a thorough lens of Torah Umadda for them, and what challenges they saw to Modern Orthodoxy as a whole.
Zuckier opened the section by describing how Torah Umadda leads to a greater understanding and appreciation of others. "What Torah Umadda means is that study of ideas from other cultures is worthwhile, and maybe even crucial," said Zuckier. "It promotes and encourages concern for people who are different from us."
He finished by describing what he saw as a serious issue in the Modern Orthodox world. "Our greatest issue used to be apathy," he said. "But today we face a different issue. We live in a generation where religion isn't imposed. People want to be involved in religious life and are looking for meaning." Although this enthusiasm is commendable, Zuckier explained the danger latent when someone discovers that Western and Jewish ideals, such as views on egalitarianism, don't perfectly align. "When people see Orthodoxy incompatible with ideas they believe in," he said, "they often turn to other paths. The challenge will be to formulate a response to egalitarianism that is halakhic but that will also resonate in contemporary society."
Yudkowsky spoke about the particular importance of Torah Umadda for students. "Everyone who just spoke to us has been talking about this for the past decade," she said, "but none of us have any idea what we're talking about. Just like you, we're thinking about what Torah Umadda means to our generation. Think about what you would answer if you were asked these questions." She added that her wish was that "everything in my life could be Torah," and described the joy of moments when bits of Torah came up in secular classes. "That's when Madda becomes Torah," she said, "and you see God's hand in the world."
Bendavid spoke next about the interplay between Torah and Madda. "Torah should be the center of our lives," she said, "but Madda should become a part of our Torah, not secondary to it. The two should be in conversation with each other – Torah helps us understand the world, and understanding the world helps us see Torah in a new light."
Botwinick described the role of Torah Umadda as a guiding mission statement for The Commentator that defined the scope of the paper's reach. "We write, not just about campus events, but about issues that relate to the Torah Umadda community," he said, "which is why, for example, earlier this year we decided to cover the Statement of Principles on the Role of Homosexuals in the Orthodox Community."
Botwinick also presented Torah Umadda as a greater justification, and even imperative, for the production and consumption of newspapers. "Torah Umadda is a belief that God created the entire world," he said. "Just as God crafts and cares about the world of Torah, He also crafts and cares about the world of human events. Studying and learning more about this world means immersing ourselves in His work."
Balk applauded the unique opportunities for the synthesis of Torah Umadda that YU provides – "in no other place would Rashi be quoted in a science class," she said – but then described the difficult balance she has faced between promoting the values of Torah Umadda through events and letting students decide on their own what events to run. "Is my mission to turn out students like me?" she wondered. "There's a very broad range of students and activities they want to bring to this university."
Goldberg explained that he identified most with Torah Umadda as a lifestyle rooted in Torah, but directed with the ideal of tikkun olam. "If we are to be Majestic Men," he said, quoting an idealized version of humanity presented by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, "that necessitates that we attend to the plight of others. When we help others, we not only do other people a service, but help ourselves as well."
Himber concluded the student leader section by imploring students to realize that they, thorough their actions, would ultimately decide what defined Torah Umadda. "Instead of looking to our university to present what Torah Umadda means," she said, "maybe we should be shifting the focus to our own actions and decisions. Ultimately, it's our choices that determine what Torah Umadda means, and not the university's policies."
The event, although attended by only about eighty students, has received positive reviews, with many especially commending the final section.
"I found the student leader segment to be the most inspirational part of the event," said Davidovich afterwards. "Hearing my peers share their hopes and concerns regarding the community in which we take so much pride made me feel secure in knowing that the future of this community is in the hands of people who care."