Faculty Spotlight: An Interview with Dr. Neil Rogachevsky
As the Associate Director of the Straus Center for Torah & Western Thought at Yeshiva University, Dr. Neil Rogachevsky has a mission. As he explained an interview with The Commentator this past week, the goal of the Straus Center is to create a “cadre of leaders” who can combine their study of Judaism in the beit midrash with “deep engagement” in the Western philosophical tradition in order to meet the political and moral challenges of our time.
Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Rogachevsky inherited his love of literature from his mother, who was a librarian. Additionally, in attending Bialik Hebrew Day School, a Labor Zionist institution, he received an “intense education” in Israeli history and culture, where his lifelong passion for Israeli affairs began. While grateful for this experience, he now regrets the “perfunctory” nature of his traditional Torah education, recalling that upon graduation, he could “barely read Rashi.”
As he got older, Rogachevsky gravitated towards Russian literature and French philosophy but wasn’t particularly politically active. Reflecting on that period, Rogachevsky recalled that he gave a comical speech as a 12th grader “advocating a politics of world government,” based on reggae music. As a college student at McGill University, he experienced a “political awakening” following 9/11 and the Second Intifada, which drew “vicious anti-Israel protests” from fellow students. In response to that, Rogachevsky delved deeper into his political and philosophical studies, and also started a political literary journal — Entrepot — that quickly became a “Canada-wide” student publication. In contrast to the culture of American universities, Rogachevsky noted that the academic environment at McGill was less competitive and ambitious, but rather fostered free intellectual inquiry for its own sake.
After finishing his undergraduate studies, Rogachevsky completed a one year master’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto, where he studied with Clifford Orwin, a prominent political philosopher, before moving on to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which he considers to be the most “decisive intellectual experience” of his life. While there, he lived a “quasi-yeshivish/monkish” lifestyle, intensively studying ancient Greek, German and Hebrew, and reading Spinoza’s philosophy in a seminar with Professor Warren Zev Harvey. Though offered the option to learn ancient Greek in his native English, Rogachevsky opted to study in the Israeli program. While it was a “killer experience” for the first semester, the knowledge he gained there prepared him well for his doctoral studies at Cambridge. Under the supervision of Robert Tombs, a noted historian of France and England, he wrote a thesis on the bureaucratic despotism of Napoleon III’s regime.
Rogachevsky considered a career in journalism and has consistently written articles and reportage to complement his academic research. While in Israel, he made a few contributions to The Jerusalem Post. He also worked on the editorial staff of Mosaic Magazine and has written for The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard and The American Interest, among other publications.
Soon after concluding his doctoral studies, Rogachevsky chose to conduct his postdoctoral research at Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah & Western Thought, where he also taught classes in political philosophy. Rogachevsky stressed his “tremendous admiration” for Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center, who he has worked with closely for the past four years. At YU, Rogachevsky guides his students through the “great works” of Western political theory — Aristotle, Plato and Machiavelli, inter alia — and attempts to convey their relevance for thinking through contemporary political problems. His hope is that students learn to go beyond the latest political trends and ideologies and ask the “deeper theoretical questions” about the proper uses and limits of politics.
In addition, he continues to focus on his own research, where he explores questions like the character of the modern Israeli regime and its meaning in “the sweep of Jewish history.” Rogachevsky points out that while there is a vast literature on the origins and nature of the American political system, far less such scholarship exists about Israel — a lacuna that he has tried to fill in his various publications over the years, including a forthcoming book on the founding of Israel.
Discussing his personal perspective on Zionist thought, Rogachevsky shared that though he marvels at the achievements of the Labor founders of Israel — like David Ben Gurion, Chaim Weitzmann and Abba Eban — he believes that their ideology had certain intellectual limitations. In particular, he is skeptical of their strongly-held view that all “moral and spiritual significance” comes from working the land of Israel. Instead, Rogachevsky asserted that “my kind of Zionism is a Zionism that I hope will be elevated by Chazal and by political philosophy.”
For students interested in pursuing political theory more seriously, Rogachevsky advises that they study an additional language, read “everything” while they still have the time — “whether it be Thucydides, Plato, Machiavelli, Locke, Hobbes or Nietzche” — and spend a summer working in D.C. or local government to get an insider’s perspective on the political world.
While Rogachevsky doesn’t think everyone should study political philosophy, he thinks that those who do must read great works of literature and wrestle with the most difficult questions of what it means to be human and how to construct a political order that can enable human flourishing. Only with this background is one well equipped to “face the den of sharks that is life in America.”
Photo Caption: Straus Center students with Dr. Rogachevsky overlooking the Western Wall
Photo Credit: Neil Rogachevsky