Beyond Partisan Infighting: An Interview with Lehrhaus’ Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier
Though it launched just two years ago, The Lehrhaus has quickly become a popular and prestigious online forum for serious and respectful Orthodox Jewish commentary and conversation about divisive issues of the day. It filled a niche in the often unsavory world of online discourse, and has unsurprisingly become very popular, now attracting 30,000 unique visitors per month. I had the pleasure to sit down with one of the Lehrhaus’s founders, Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier, and talk about how this distinctive online platform emerged and where it’s headed next. The following is a condensed version of our conversation.
Bio: Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier is a Ph.D. candidate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University, a member of Yeshiva University’s Kollel Elyon and is a Lecturer at YU's Isaac Breuer College (IBC). Previously he served as Director of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at Yale University. Shlomo is an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshiva University (BA, MA, Semicha), as well as of the Wexner, Tikvah and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellowships. He has lectured and taught widely across North America, and is excited to share Torah and Jewish scholarship on a broad range of issues. Shlomo serves on the Editorial Committee of Tradition, is co-editor of “Torah and Western Thought: Intellectual Portraits of Orthodoxy and Modernity” and is editing the forthcoming “Contemporary Forms and Uses of Hasidut.”
Michael Weiner: What’s your educational and religious background?
Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier: I attended MTA, Yeshiva College and RIETS, and also spent 3.5 years in Yeshivat Har Etzion. I am currently completing a doctorate in Ancient Judaism at Yale University, and also serving as a Fellow in the Kollel Elyon.
MW: Did you have any particular opportunities or experiences at YU that contributed to your founding of the Lehrhaus?
RSZ: I was very involved with Kol Hamevaser as an undergrad, serving as Editor-in-Chief in 2010-2011. Back then, it published seven issues a year and featured a diverse range of perspectives among those on campus, from the left to the right. Among the professors who shaped my theological and intellectual interests was Rabbi Shalom Carmy, who, aside from teaching Tanach and Jewish philosophy, was the editor of Tradition. Building on that relationship, I became the Editorial Assistant for Tradition (from 2011 to 2016) and currently serve on its editorial committee. Both of these experiences gave me a strong foundation for the work I now do with The Lehrhaus.
MW: How did the idea for The Lehrhaus originate and develop?
RSZ: The Lehrhaus evolved out of conversations I had with two good friends, Zev Eleff and Ari Lamm — who incidentally had also been involved in Kol Hamevaser when they were in YC, and who are emerging as leading rabbinic-academic powerhouses. Back in 2015, we put our heads together about how we might help shape the sorts of conversations taking place online in Jewish and Orthodox circles. We thought that there was room for an online platform that was committed to providing sophisticated analysis of Jewish sources and perspectives on current issues, with a focus on creativity, scholarship and timely matters. Among the partisan sites and those focusing on personal narrative, there seemed to be a vacuum online for our vision of how to conduct online conversation. We decided to select and join together with six other thinkers, writers and editors who shared our vision. We started working on our project in 2016, and went live in October just over two years ago. After we launched, we were pleasantly surprised by the very positive reception. A few of our early articles went viral, and we knew that The Lehrhaus was truly filling a need for communal discourse online.
MW: What were the core goals of the Lehrhaus at its inception?
RSZ: The goal was to publish a variety of perspectives on issues both timely and timeless. These would include reflective pieces on current controversies, textual analyses on traditional Jewish texts, thoughtful explications on the parsha and other genres like halakhah articles and poetry.
In some ways, The Lehrhaus is carrying out online the kind of innovative venture that journals of Jewish thought like Tradition did in print over a half-century ago. However, there are some differences. Our publication is younger, befitting the standard audience online, with a younger readership and editors largely in their 20s and 30s. Given that we publish at least twice a week, we can afford to have a diverse range of views and topics. Being online also makes it easier to present a range of formats, from academic articles to poems. That said, the internet is less ideal for long-form writing than print, and so our articles tend to be somewhat shorter, for better or for worse.
MW: Who is your intended audience?
RSZ: Our intended audience is those who have some familiarity with Jewish texts and communal life. In our writing, we take certain basic Jewish concepts for granted, such as not translating the words “Ashkenazi” or “Sefardi.” That said, sophisticated articles about Jewish texts or Jewish history or communal issues facing Judaism and Orthodoxy are of interest to lots of people beyond the Orthodox community.
MW: Has the current vision of The Lehrhaus changed since its beginning two years ago?
RSZ: Since May, our editorial team has been undergoing a transition, as some editors have left following their two-year term and some new voices have joined. That said, we maintain the same vision and are still the place for Orthodox Jews to engage in important, substantive conversations online.
MW: How did you quickly build up your reputation such that prominent and influential people in the Orthodox world now choose to publish in your pages?
RSZ: We launched the site with a handful of well-written, insightful articles right before Yom Kippur in 2016, which made a splash. That was followed in quick order by Chaim Saiman’s outstanding article “The Market For Gedolim,” to which we published multiple responses from a wide range of Jewish thinkers. These broad-based, high-quality pieces set our reputation, and since then we have retained that sense of quality and our reputation.
MW: How do you decide and delineate the set of opinions and content that you want to publish? What’s the process like for deciding what topics to cover and what articles to publish?
SZ: Some of our content is solicited by our editors, because we think that certain topics are timely, interesting or things people should know about. However, much of our content is unsolicited. Keeping a balanced portfolio between those poles, as well as between high-quality articles and popular pieces, helps keep our material high-grade and our readers engaged.
MW: How do you avoid the “clickbait temptation,” and give people what they want vs. what they need?
RSZ: This is something we think about a lot. Clicks give feedback with regard to what people are interested in, which is very helpful for us when considering what to publish.
However, we also want to produce quality content, like poetry or a nitty-gritty analysis of a specific halakhic topic. Some content goes viral, and some doesn’t. But we will publish material we think is high-quality, even if we know it won’t be as popular.
MW: Lehrhaus’s mission statement says that it strives to be “a beit midrash, a place where scholars and writers can help create and shape communal conversations.” What does that goal mean to you?
RSZ: The original “Lehrhaus,” which can be translated as “study hall” or “beit midrash” from the German, was founded by Franz Rosenzweig as a center for Jewish adult education in 1920. He wanted to create a space where people could study traditional Jewish texts and Judaism using a broader scope, with an eye to their meaning and application in the outside world. Most yeshivot and batei midrash have a robust culture of learning and conversation, but are less focused on dialogue with those outside its walls.
At our Lehrhaus, we build on these multiple traditions. We share Rosenzweig’s goal, and publish articles not only on Chumash and halakhah but also on history, philosophy and contemporary issues. At the same time, we do publish divrei Torah and essays on halakhic or talmudic topics, and aim to be a valuable web platform for traditional halakhic Jews who have spent time in the beit midrash. We are committed to a collegial and growth-oriented discourse and to using these pursuits to build an optimal community.
MW: What concrete feedback have you received about how The Lehrhaus has impacted current conversations in the frum community?
RSZ: Most notably, following the release of the OU rabbinic panel’s teshuvah and OU statement on women serving as clergy, The Lehrhaus ran a wide-ranging symposium of responses across the scope of Orthodoxy, taking a variety of perspectives on the issue. Allen Fagin, Executive Vice President of the OU, reflecting on this, wrote in Jewish Action that The Lehrhaus’s treatment of this issue was a model for how to conduct honest, respectful discourse. Even though a number of the articles in that symposium diverged from the OU’s position on this issue, they were all respectful and charitable, as all candid discourse should be.
MW: What’s a topic that you hope to receive or solicit more articles about?
RSZ: We’ve published about this before, but it would be wonderful to expose our American readers to the interesting theological conversations taking place in Israel. We saw this with a variety of pieces on Rav Shagar last year, and are already lining up pieces on other leading Israel thinkers who deserve greater exposure here.
Photo Caption The Lehrhaus
Photo Credit: Matters of Interest