By: Doron Levine  | 

Regarding the Building of Bridges

Peace is unsettling; quiet is disquieting. We students are so comfortable, so at ease in our environment, that we yearn for discontent, for something to mutter about. Towards the end of last year, a group of student leaders took it upon themselves to compose and publicize a student petition in response to frightful injustices visited by the administration upon the helpless student body. The petition was essentially a call for transparency – the writers demanded that the administration heed the students’ collective voice when making changes to the curriculum. The petitioners were successful, not necessarily in influencing administrative decisions, but in creating the impression that student government at least pretends to be responsive to its constituency.

Towards the end of the petition was a request that the university preserve its Jewish studies requirements. To justify this request, the petition stated: “For an institution built on the values of Torah u-madda, academic Jewish studies serve as the bridge between our Torah study and our analytic methodologies of scholarship.” I myself have a tendency to assume that claims which involve architectural analogies and spiffy phrases such as “Torah u-madda” and “analytic methodologies of scholarship” are true, but when I inspected this one I was surprised to discover that it was false.

If there really is a separation between our morning Torah studies and our afternoon secular classes, academic Jewish studies are certainly not the bridge linking the two. Academic Jewish studies conducted in our university classes often operate under secular assumptions that are flatly rejected by our institution’s yeshiva component. And even when religious assumptions are put into play in the classroom, they are defended with wimpy apologetics rather than the bold assertions of a proud ideology.

Illustrations of this sad phenomenon in the bible department have been presented before, perhaps most strongly by a fellow who published an article in Kol Hamevaser two years ago entitled “Shut Down the Bible Department.” I will argue neither for nor against the specific details of his assertion to eliminate the bible department, but his basic observation has merit. Most Bible teachers at Yeshiva University do not publicly reject divine authorship of the Torah, especially in the context of an undergraduate class, but neither do they take a seriously strong stance for the biblical account.

Students are well aware of this reality. In one bible class that I took, any allusion to the issue of authorship elicited a collective nervous chuckle from the students as if to say that we knowingly avoid this forbidden yet alluring topic – we pay lip service to the doctrine of divine authorship but we all know that this belief, when subjected to rigorous scholarly analysis, does not hold water. What our community lacks is a strong defense of divine authorship. Instead of proudly defending authentic Jewish principles, our academics and students are nervous to take a bold stance on this issue because they fear being sidelined by the larger academic community.

The phenomenon is not limited to Bible classes. In a Jewish history class of mine, the professor flatly rejected the traditional Jewish presentation of history. The Talmud and other classical sources clearly state that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Torah, was translated by a group of great rabbis commissioned by King Ptolemy. Each rabbi was placed in a separate room, but God miraculously aligned their translations, with the stunning result that each rabbi composed the exact same translation. This story has traditionally been taken as an example of God’s providence for the Jewish people and his habit of interfering on their behalf when necessary. But apparently more comfortable with the modern scholarly consensus than with the traditional account of God’s miraculous providence, my professor adopted the apparently more prevalent view that this translation was simply authored by a community whose members had become more proficient in Greek and therefore sponsored a translation for the masses. No miracle, no providence.

This rejection of the Talmudic account caused me to scratch my head rather vigorously. I wondered, where does this impulse to deny miracles come from? The Bible is full of stories describing God’s hand in history. Is the countervailing evidence really strong enough to convince us that the seemingly historical account in the Talmud is a concocted tale? But regardless of which account is correct, and even if modern methods of analytic scholarship demonstrate that the Talmudic account cannot reflect accurate history, the fact remains that academic Jewish studies have not bridged the chasm between the Yeshiva and the University. The student is left with a stark choice between tradition and modernity – his rebbeim would no doubt urge him to believe the words of our sages, but his academic history professor encourages him not to. Neither side offers a way to harmonize the two.

When my professors mention the traditional Jewish view of history, they do just that – they mention the traditional view instead of adopting it. They describe the traditional view from an objective third-person perspective, not from the perspective of an insider. It is as if this approach is strange and foreign to us. In some Jewish history classes, professors spend large chunks of class time trying to demonstrate that ancient texts which adopt the traditional view are biased and therefore deserve to be approached with the hermeneutics of suspicion. As far as I am aware, our Jewish history professors never interpret calamitous events as divine retribution and they do not present history as a linear progression towards the ultimate redemption. Even as I string together these words, I’m sure that many of my readers will bristle at the suggestion that history should be viewed this way. But why? Christian historians such as Christopher Dawson have developed serious historical narratives that are consistent with and deeply informed by church doctrine. Are we modern orthodox Jews too modern for the biblical view of history? Perhaps, but it is not my goal here to argue for the traditional view. My much more modest point is simply that a major rift separates our traditional Torah studies in the morning from our secular studies requirements in the afternoon. If there is any traversable ridge over this chasm, the student has not been shown it.

I don’t fault our scholars for this approach to Jewish studies. In the contemporary world of Jewish scholarship, as in most areas of modern scholarship, secular winds prevail. Mainstream modern scholars do not approach the analysis of Jewish texts and Jewish history based on orthodox Jewish principles. So this leaves orthodox Jews who wish to enter academia with a quandary. They must either jettison their orthodox assumptions when they enter the academy, or, if they wish to practice scholarship through the lens of orthodoxy, they must risk the opprobrium of others in their field. Whether consciously or otherwise, most understandably choose acceptance over exclusion.

The state of our academic Jewish studies is a symptom of a larger problem with modern orthodoxy. Our movement is not starved for intellectuals. We produce great Talmudists, the brightest of which go on the become Roshei Yeshiva and pulpit rabbis. And we produce academics in other areas as well, in academic Jewish studies, math, physics, and the liberal arts. We have legalists, mathematicians, and historians. But where are the theologians? Where are the people who, like the Rambam, explicate our core beliefs and defend them against objections? Where are the people who are clearly and proudly defending our way of life? We seem unable to produce the type of intellectual who would teach Jewish studies from a genuine Jewish perspective. The responsibility of developing a rich and systematic ideology should fall equally on our Talmudists, historians, philosophers, and bible professors, but unfortunately, with very few exceptions, our academics rarely bother to develop Judaism from within.

It is almost as if ideology doesn’t matter much. I have heard people claim that Judaism does not require its adherents to believe in any specific doctrines or creeds. I have heard defendants of this claim point out that medieval rabbis sometimes strongly disagreed about which principles should be considered core beliefs of Judaism. Setting aside the clear fallaciousness of this argument (in fact, a precondition for this type of dispute to arise is belief on both sides in the importance of doctrine), the example itself demonstrates the difference between our mindset and the medieval mindset. Our leaders rarely put forth proudly systematic defenses and explications of our core beliefs. A few centuries later, in the mid-17th century, Baruch Spinoza was expelled from his community of Amsterdam for espousing heresy. Would anyone in our community even care enough about doctrine to be a heretic? And would our community care enough to expel him?

Instead, we seem to always take the defensive. We look to the right and see communities that shy away from the larger world but generate exponentially more Torah study than ours. Then we look to the left and we see people who, to varying degrees, embrace secular egalitarianism and thereby purchase membership in the academy and broader culture. But what do we believe? How do we modern orthodox Jews justify our way of life?

A defense is sorely needed, especially in areas where our practice starkly differs from what modern society considers acceptable. YU has come to be defined, in contradistinction to the open orthodox community, as clinging to traditional approaches to gender in Judaism. What justifies our condemnation of homosexual activity? What justifies our loyalty to sexist principles that clash with modern egalitarianism? Now that YU is commencing a search for a new President, I’m sure many have considered the fact that the search committee will almost certainly not consider a woman for the role. Is this the result of our leaders clinging to old-fashioned principles that the new generation will eventually rightfully reject, or can we actually offer a systematic defense of the way that our community discriminates between men and women? We can either stick to some form of empty legal formalism, or we can offer a real defense of our practice, but either way an explanation is in order. We need bridge builders, people who will reconcile and integrate our practices with our beliefs.

Do we have any bridges? Our philosophy department, with its deeply religious faculty and students, is a powerful paradigm of a rigorous set of courses where religious assumptions are highly respected. In fact, my philosophy classes are connected to my religious studies by more than a bridge – they are framed and intellectually enriched by our institution’s religious nature.

Where does this talk of “bridges” come from? I cannot pinpoint the origins of the specific imagery, but it is enlightening to notice how YU frames its mission of Torah U’madda. The “About” page on YU’s website states, “Since its inception the University has been dedicated to melding the ancient traditions of Jewish law and life with the heritage of Western civilization.” YU sees the two areas of study as independent fields that can be brought together.

Now contrast this with the mission statements of some serious Christian universities. Franciscan University of Steubenville, a Catholic university in Ohio, says that the university “embrace[s] the teachings of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium with a spirit of Christian humanism that relates all learning to Jesus Christ…every honest pursuit of truth will begin with what God has revealed…and be consonant with what his Church teaches.” The mission statement of Biola University, an evangelical Christian university, says, “the mission of Biola University is biblically centered education, scholarship and service.” Grove City College in Pennsylvania promises that “the ethical absolutes of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s moral teachings guide the effort to develop intellect and character in the classroom.”

Religious differences aside, this kind of talk is totally foreign to YU. We talk about bringing together Judaism and western civilization, about unifying Athens and Jerusalem, but these other religious institutions don’t see any separation or deep tension – they directly apply their religious assumptions to their academic disciplines. Their Christianity dictates their intellectual life, delimiting and enriching all of their studies. I have no evidence on the matter, but I doubt that professors at these institutions hesitate to affirm the historical occurrence of miracles or shy away from viewing history as leading towards an ultimate redemption.

A more comprehensive comparison between YU and other faith-based universities is in order, but for now we must content ourselves with introspection. Whether we have dug a chasm or it exists naturally, many YU students seem to feel a disconnect between the Yeshiva and the University. And whether our academic Jewish studies faculty members are trying to build some sort of bridge or not, they clearly have not succeeded in integrating our institution’s two distinct halves in any meaningful way. Academic Jewish studies professors may analyze the same texts that the rabbis in the morning programs study, but this proximity just highlights their many fundamental divergences in methodology and conclusions. The deep chasm remains. And whether it is the fault of the administration, the faculty, or our lousy engineering program, we have yet to build a bridge.