By: Noam Beltran | Opinions  | 

Torah Umadda — Let’s Define Torah First

Yeshiva University describes itself as an educational and spiritual epicenter that focuses on bettering the Jewish community and broader society in the service of G-d. This approach encapsulates Yeshiva’s championed adage, Torah Umadda. The Torah aspect reflects YU’s desire to be “rooted in Jewish thought and tradition,” while the madda represents its goal to be an institution for higher learning engaged with secular academia and culture.

This dichotomy, however, has always been difficult to navigate for Yeshiva’s Modern Orthodox students. YU teeters the tightrope of Jewish culture: a foot in the Yeshiva world, with towering Torah giants absorbed in classical Yeshiva texts, and another foot, perhaps, a smaller one, in the realm of secular culture, education and academia that challenges even the best of worldly scholarship. The question in this article is where an academic, secular approach to classical Torah literature rests in the Torah Umadda equation, if at all.

Proponents of a primarily academic approach to Torah Judaism consider the notion that there is one, linear, unfolding tradition of halakhah and Torah Judaism to be a myth. Furthermore, the idea that the methodology used for learning today has been passed down in exact form is inconsistent with the narrative of history. Proponents argue that Orthodoxy incorrectly approaches the Torah as meta-historical, namely, that it transcends history and is not subject to the external and internal forces that shape a tradition. In this traditional approach, the Orthodox world rejects the modern tools (known in the academic world as the “historical-critical approach”) that were unavailable in the pre-modern period.

Proponents suggest that the advantage of an academic approach is that it unveils a more dynamic manifestation of the Torah. Here are some examples from the past that demonstrate a model for this dynamic Torah study: in the Middle Ages there existed a contentious debate whether the Talmud should be the core of a Jewish education. In the 16th century, the Maharal of Prague advocated analysis of the Bible in Hebrew as the primary focus of study. Examples such as these allow the student of Judaism to consider alternative perspectives of learning and thus, enrich one’s understanding of his own history, culture and tradition. Advocates argue that the way to attain the richest Torah learning experience is to combine the yeshivish and historical-critical approaches. They accuse the yeshivish world of ignoring the academic approach because of its fear that it may taint the Jewish youth’s love and centrality of halakhic Torah and tradition.

However legitimate the academic, or “modernist” approach to Judaism may be, it necessarily misses something central and precious to being Jewish: what Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik called “experiential Judaism,” which is borne through the experience of learning in the beit midrash. The Rav posits that there are both intellectual and experiential aspects of the Jewish experience. The experiential aspect theorizes that Judaism is, in part, an experiential tradition that must be communicated through experience. These events are transmitted through tradition in an emotive and mimetic fashion. An academic approach may provide enlightening analysis, sharpening intellectual Judaism in the classroom, but does it generate the experiential Judaism or “lived Judaism” developed in the beit midrash (David Shatz, “The Rav and Torah u-Madda”)?

My contention is that the academic approach diminishes the experiential aspect of Judaism, especially when it is the Jewish student’s primary exposure to Torah. The effects of the solely academic approach are compounded by the ever-growing dichotomy between the emotional and logical self that challenges Jewish youth in the modern milieu. The academic approach certainly doesn’t offer the “lived” tradition of Judaism. This is not to say that every Jew who engages Torah with modern tools of analysis will temper his yiddishkeit, however, Talmud Torah is designed to be a deeply religious experience that necessitates a strong sense of tradition and thus has a significant emotional component. This approach is what Yeshiva University’s great leader, Rav Soloveitchik meant when he said: “When I enter the Yeshiva … I am at home because I am grounded in the world of eternity.”

Additionally, the mandate of Yeshiva University’s more global fundamental principles must be considered. In 1940, after the death of Dr. Bernard Revel, Yeshiva College’s first President, The Commentator echoed YU’s goal: “An organic unity of our Jewish religious heritage with modern secular culture.” I assume the modern secular culture described here encapsulates secular academics, but Jewish religious heritage is left undefined and is far more difficult to infer from this mission statement.

The Torah u-Madda Journal, described on as “an annual publication on issues of the intersection of Torah and modernity,” defines YU’s academic goal as the exploration of “the complex relationship between Torah, the humanities, and the natural and social sciences.” Once again, the encapsulation of Torah is not well defined. Does this “complex relationship” simply amount to a universal understanding of Imitation Dei, which demands that man master the earth through creative expression, revealing the divine in all branches of human culture, and thus, improving G-d’s world?

The question still remains: what role does an academic approach to Judaism play in establishing a “lived Jewish” experience and is that approach essential in fulfilling Dr. Revel’s mission for YU? The unique mandate of Yeshiva University is that the Torah, in the classical sense, encapsulates all elements of the madda. It should not be that the madda, the “science [and] worldly knowledge,” as described by former YU president Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, (1976-2003), pervades the Torah.

At what point does the Jewish student pursuing a Ph.D. in Talmud at Yeshiva University become indistinguishable from the non-Jewish student pursuing the same area of study at say, Princeton University? Is the intellectual engagement with Torah the same as the engagement with French literature? My claim is that the student who “lives” Judaism both intellectually and emotionally is different than the one who studies the Talmud through the historical-critical prism. The intellectual misses out on the experiential, almost timeless lived Judaism present in both Yeshivas Knesses Yisrael (Slabodka Yeshiva) in the late 19th century and Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in the 21st century. Yes, Judaism has a real history, but does Rav Soloveitchik’s experiential Judaism transcend the academic, or is the academic narrative part of experiential Judaism? This is the question for the Modern Orthodox student.

If the academic approach is important, in what capacity does it need to be infused with the classical Yeshivish approach? Does it infiltrate the Torah element in Torah Umadda or does it find its place as an ancillary role in the madda — a synergy that allows for a complex understanding of the traditional Torah weltanschauung?

This question has no simple answer, but I challenge every YU student to consider this dilemma. The role given to the academic approach may turn out to be an individual decision. Rabbi Lamm noted that Torah Umadda does not imply coequality: “Torah remains the unchallenged and preeminent center." He posited further, “Torah Umadda could only be viable if it imposes strict limits on freedom of thought in areas that may challenge fundamental Jewish beliefs." Thus, the quandary ensues: can we establish a resilient commitment to Torah so that madda is not seen as a threat, or are these two pursuits mutually exclusive?

Photo Caption: Students experience Torah in the beit midrash

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University