Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Contemporary Scholarship

A Rabbi from Dallas gave the following speech in front of some Israeli Knesset memebers and his congregation  around Yom Ha-atzmaut lamenting how American Jewry is disconnected from Israeli intellectual currents. Here is part of the speech/article with my comments at the end.

The first major way in which we are unaligned is that American Orthodox Jews are often unaware of the cultural and religious lives of our Israeli brethren. We inhabit a different cultural space with disparate influences; we read different books, listen to different music, and have different public intellectuals, authors, and poets. Moreover and more importantly, American Jews are often unaware of the impressive variety and creativity of Israel’s religious leaders and thinkers. We tend to hear about the religio-political controversies—the Temple Mount, women’s services and mixed services at the Kotel, questions of “Who is a Jew?” and other areas of intersection and overlap between religion and politics.

But some of the most exciting developments in Jewish thought, law, and scholarship are taking place in Israel, and we have no idea what they are and who is driving them. Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun is the father of an exciting stream of text-based Tanakh study, whose popularity is widespread in Israel, but is not particularly well known outside of Israel; Profs. Yair Zakovitch and Avigdor Shinan, the leading “secular” Tanakh commentators, are even more obscure outside of Israel.

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (“Rav Shagar”) is virtually unknown in America outside the readership of Lehrhaus, Prof. Alan Brill’s blog, and another rarefied corner or two. Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes is a pioneering figure in the realm of Talmud study and teaching: his work is premised on the idea that the division of the Talmud into legal and nonlegal elements is an artificial one, he integrates academic methods into his close Talmudic readings, and his highly-developed pedagogical method is now being used to train a generation of Talmud teachers at the Herzog College, where he serves as the academic head. And yet, most Diaspora Jews have never heard of him or read any of his writings.

Rabbi Chaim Navon and Dr. Tomer Persico draw thousands of readers to their thoughtful, learned Facebook posts (where they often respond to one another) on religion, economics, politics, and everything in between, but they are inaccessible to those who are not fluent in Hebrew. Sivan Rahav-Meir, a haredi woman and media personality, draws huge crowds from across Israel’s political and religious spectrum for her lecture on the weekly Torah portion. Former MK Dr. Ruth Calderon’s inaugural Knesset speech went viral, but it was a flash in the pan, and her readings of Talmudic narratives remain under-explored.

In the realm of Jewish law and religious scholarship, only recently have Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva in Har Bracha, who is revolutionizing the religious Zionist halakhic world with his eminently reasonable and balanced halakhic approach, and the brilliantly creative Rabbi Osher Weiss, gained currency outside Israel.

In the academy, one need only peruse the table of contents of the recently-published Ha-gedolim to get a sense of some of the new directions in Jewish scholarship. Each chapter profiles a different rabbi who influenced the formation of Israel’s haredi community, but the chapters themselves are distillations of master’s and doctoral theses on these seminal figures. The fascinating thing is not only that the scholarship is being produced, but also that it is being read by laypersons and sold in popular bookstores. It is not uncommon to see someone reading Prof. Benny Brown’s monumental work on Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (the “Hazon Ish”) or Dr. Maoz Kahana’s dazzling study of the way Rabbi Yehezkel Landau (“Noda Bi-Yehuda”) and Rabbi Moshe Sofer (“Hatam Sofer”) each responded to the currents of their times.

While American Orthodox Jews debate the roles, function, and titles of women in communal leadership, Rabbaniyot Michal Tikochinsky, Esti Rosenberg, Tova Ganzel, and Malka Puterkovsky, to name some of the most prominent, have created institutes for advanced Torah study for women, integrating their graduates into communal frameworks with minimal comment and controversy. Prof. Vered Noam, in addition to being a Talmudist and talmidat hakhamim of the first rank, has penned several searing articles on women and Orthodoxy in mainstream, widely-read publications. Yet many of us have never heard of any of these women. The late Chana Safrai, in addition to being a pioneer of Jewish women’s study, began a project with her father and brother to produce a commentary on the entire Mishnah that would bring history, botany, archaeology, and other academic disciplines to bear on the text. The result is over a dozen full-color volumes of the Safrai Mishnah have been published, but rare is the American Jew who has heard of them.

The truth is that even if we did know who Israel’s most exciting thought leaders are, their writings would be all but inaccessible to too many American Jews, as only a small fraction of this output has been translated into English. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos tells us (2:1), “Be as scrupulous about a light mitzvah as about a severe one.” What is a “light mitzvah?” Rambam explains that this refers to mitzvot like making a festival pilgrimage to Jerusalem or teaching Hebrew. Rambam listed this as a prime example of a mitzvah that really ought to be taken far more seriously than it is.

The great American intellectual Leon Wieseltier recently published a magisterial working paper titled “Language, Identity, and the Scandal of American Jewry,” in which he bemoaned this lack of Hebrew proficiency of American Jewry:

The American Jewish community is the first great community in the history of our people that believes that it can receive, develop, and perpetuate the Jewish tradition not in a Jewish language. By an overwhelming majority, American Jews cannot read or speak or write Hebrew, or Yiddish. This is genuinely shocking. American Jewry is quite literally unlettered.

The assumption of American Jewry that it can do without a Jewish language is an arrogance without precedent in Jewish history. And this illiteracy, I suggest, will leave American Judaism and American Jewishness forever crippled and scandalously thin.

What this means is that American Jews—even those who have benefitted from extensive Jewish educations—are often at a loss when encountering foundational Jewish texts, such that, as Wieseltier put it, “We are a community whose books and whose treasures–our books are our treasures–are accessible almost entirely in translation.” And we know that something is lost in every translation (if you don’t believe me, try reading Harry Potter in Hebrew). Regardless of one’s political affiliations, Americans who are limited in their Hebrew knowledge aren’t exposed to the nuanced political writing that appears in Israeli papers, only to the juiciest (and often mistranslated) bits that filter into the English media. As a result, we are woefully ignorant of what Israelis are really thinking, saying, and doing.


This is weird. Some of the names of the people he mentioned are deniers of G-d and Torah. Why should we be interested in what they have to say?? Especially given the fact that it is forbidden to read their writings [See Yad Hachazaka Avoda Zara 2/2]. Others are people on the left end of Orthodoxy.

Current scholarship? What about reading the books of Rav Mordechai Carlebach on the parsha called Chavatzeles Hasharon. He is a far bigger talmid chochom than anybody on the list above. Gemara? How about the shiurim of Rav Berel Povarsky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Ponivitch. He learns faaaaaar better than anybody mentioned above. Philosophy? The sefarim of the Maharal with the commentary of Rav Hartman are off the charts. Nothing anybody mentioned wrote comes close to it. Halacha? The tshuvos of Rav Ovadiah can keep one busy for many years to come. [I am certain that Professor Vered would agree that she doesn't hold a candle to Chacham Ovadiah.] 

Come to think of it - why does one need to be aware of contemporary authors? Start with the classics!!! Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch Rambam, Ramban, Kuzari, Maharal, Ramchal, etc. etc.  Dr. Maoz Kahana might be a nice guy but what about going through the tshuvos of the Noda Be-yehuda instead of reading stories about him??? 

We need להחזיר עטרה ליושנה - to return the lost glory to so much of our literature that is not learned enough. We don't need to seek intellectual fulfillment in the writings of people who reject parts or all of our tradition.