Torah U’Madda at a Crossroads: A Response to My Critics

As someone who typically writes about literary or religious matters, my essay in the recent  Lehrhaus Torah U’Madda Symposium generated an unusually heated response.   After reviewing several hundred Facebook comments and responses, as well as private messages and emails, I believe that some kind of response is in order. While I am unable to respond to each and every critique, a few types of critiques emerged to which I’d like to respond. 

The first criticism I’d like to respond to is the simple shock and horror for some that I possess a certain, largely imaginary, set of beliefs. I was accused of being a Trumpist and of being ignorant of and indifferent to data surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic. One admittedly humorous turn of phrase called my vision of Torah U Madda, “Torah U MAGA.” Let me just be clear: I am not a Trumpist in the way these people mean. I do know some relatives and friends who probably fall into this category – who still invoke him frequently in nearly every political conversation and who seek to justify his every failing. I really like many of these people, but I don’t share their unyielding faith in President Trump. My own political philosophy is fairly cynical. I tend to distrust people in power, whether on the right or left. This also underlies my conservative outlook. I prefer that the government have less power rather than more power. That said, I think Trump was the most sympathetic American president to the plight of the Jewish people that I have seen in my lifetime. This demonstrated itself not primarily through his rhetoric but through concrete policy choices: moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel, the pursuit of an astounding successful peace initiative with various Arab countries, and the choice to surround himself with Israel advisers who were themselves proud, confident, unapologetically unassimilated Jews. Maybe Trump’s solidarity with Israel and the Jewish people was motivated by genuine conviction. Perhaps it was an effort to curry favor with the Christian Right as some commenters suggested. Maybe it was, as I am inclined to believe, the hand of God working in unexpected ways. Yet to me this is all largely a side point. It should not be considered morally suspect to state these basic facts and also express appreciation, even if one has other criticisms of his public persona or presidency. 

As for masking small children, I think there’s a difference between the question of whether or not this was a justifiable policy and whether or not Modern Orthodox schools had an obligation to follow the guidelines set forth by various government bodies. I have little sympathy for the non-scientific, non-evidence based suggestion that having such children wear cloth masks for most of the day, except when eating or napping, was ever going to make any material difference whatsoever in community infection rates. Even the few studies which suggest extremely mild benefits are problematic and have largely been discredited. There is no evidence that Haredi school communities, which wisely disregarded these rules, had any worse outcomes than any other school communities. In my mind, the most legitimate debate here is related to communal priorities and not health. Can we say that Modern Orthodox schools were justified in putting legal compliance ahead of the emotional and physical development of their youngest and most vulnerable members? Perhaps one could make such an argument. I strongly disagree. But those are the appropriate terms of debate. 

Another line of criticism I saw related not to the substance of my argument but rather to my mashing together of two seemingly disparate lines of thought. On the one hand I was making an abstract, philosophical argument based on a work of literature, not inherently political nor necessarily controversial as such. On the other hand I invoked a set of right-wing political talking points that don’t seem to organically emerge from the Isaac Bashevis Singer story, and as such seem somewhat contrived and suggest I need better editing. I always seek to grow as a writer and I accept much of this criticism. Yet what I saw in the story was an invitation to apply its messages to one’s own life. When Reb Nechemia perused the bookshops of Warsaw he came across the “hot topics” of his own day – atheism, communism and secular Zionism. His journey back to God involved investigating these idols and identifying them as such. Would the story have worked better if Reb Nechemia stayed in Bechev, held onto a consistent vocabulary, and not constantly zig-zagged between demons and Darwin, potato kugel and prostitutes, and all the disjunctive and incongruous elements that plagued him and caused his religious crisis in the first place? Generally, in our sad era of trite and predictable internet banalities, if we come across a piece of writing that surprises us, it may not be a bad thing. Was my short essay the perfect example of this fusion and transcendance of genres? Probably not. For better inspiration I’d suggest you go back to the original source itself (“Something is There,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, available in Volume II of the Library of America anthology of Singer’s work). 

The most personally compelling critiques I came across related not to the substance of the essay as much as its strategy. The argument is basically: why introduce potentially alienating concepts when your argument is otherwise one that a wide cross-section of people would benefit from hearing? I am grateful for this criticism as it presupposes other parts of the essay may be worthwhile. But what does it say about readers who cannot read any praise for Trump, or any disparagement of masks, to the point that they are unable to process any other part of the argument that they might otherwise appreciate? And what does it say particularly about the Modern Orthodox community, when our Israeli and modern Haredi brethren agree with one or both of these controversial claims as a matter of course? Beyond my own cranky laundry list, how many other topics within our community are we keeping quiet about, fearful of attracting derision from our Rabbis and teachers, or from the internet mob? Does a respectable forum within the Modern Orthodox community exist where we can explore marginal, seemingly unpopular, or even extremely popular but non-politically correct points of view in a way that can help us refine them? 

This gets me to the most common response I received, on social media but mostly in person or through private messages: that is one of agreement.  These include ordinary parents who have spent their adult lifetimes struggling and saving to finance their children’s Modern Orthodox education who experienced grave disappointment with the draconian actions of these schools during Covid. They are ashamed that their prized institutions lack the moral clarity possessed by far less “sophisticated” yeshivish institutions just down the road. One prominent Modern Orthodox yeshiva administrator wrote “for the first time in my life I have questioned sending my children, and educating them, in the MO environment.” For many reasons, not just the ones outlined in this piece, I believe we are entering an inflection point in the future of Modern Orthodoxy in America. It’s worthwhile to try to understand this trajectory from a variety of different angles. It is crucial that we maintain the ability to express our concerns and points of view without demonizing each other. For that reason I am grateful to The Lehrhaus for hosting this conversation.

Shababnikim Season Two: Welcome to Rehavia

“On a bright spring day in a swanky Tel Aviv neighborhood, a handsome man sporting a trim beard and a perfectly perched black yarmulke alights from an expensive SUV. He kisses his beautiful and modestly clad wife, as three smartly dressed yeshiva boys across the street watch, swoon, and dream of similar lives for themselves. “A yeshiva boy who married well?” one suggests. “No, no—he earned it for himself!” his friend explains: After being expelled from a prestigious yeshiva for owning a smartphone, he flew to Rome, camped out for a week on the doorstep of Borsalino headquarters, and earned the right to open the first official Israeli chain of stores for the high-end Italian hatmaker. Although he is too busy earning money to study in yeshiva full time, he still dedicates time every day to study Talmud. “The modern haredi,” the boys say, sighing. “He enjoys both worlds. He has this and yet he also has that!” As they wave to him crossing the street, a large truck comes out of nowhere and plows into him. And so the show’s question remains: Is it really possible to have both this and that?”

Please check out the absolutely wonderful latest issue of Jewish Review of Books for a review of the second season of Shababnikim, a fabulous Israel television series with much more depth than initially meets the eye.

One Life to Live: Torah U-Madda Today

In a new symposium at The Lehrhaus entitled “Reclaiming Torah u-Madda,” I was given the chance to reflect on the state of “Torah U-Madda” (the relationship between Torah and Western culture) in the Modern Orthodox community today. I sought to address this topic on a philosophical level, through an analysis of a wonderful story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, as well as through some “real-world” examples of how these ideas might play out in practice. My latter comments generated more controversy than I would have liked. I would like to emphasize that my account of what has challenged me personally about my native community is not meant to constitute a comprehensive indictment of all that is wrong with Modern Orthodoxy. My goal in the essay is to introduce a philosophical framework and then briefly suggest how this framework might cohere in real-life scenarios. I don’t mind disagreement about the relevance of these scenarios but I am even more interested in discussing the worldview that underlies them.

Please see here for the full article. And I recommend perusing all of the terrific contributions to this forum.

Living Antiquities: Ozick, Great Books & Judaism

A recent conversation over at Tradition Magazine discusses the potential relationship (or lack thereof) between “Great Books” and Judaism. I weighed in with the help of one particularly great book, Antiquities by Cynthia Ozick. Please read the full essay here.

An excerpt: “There are many wonderful cases to be made for the contributions of great books to our culture, our civilization, and to ourselves. But on a common-sense level, Menand is right. While people who love literature (myself included) can make a compelling case for why these texts enrich our lives, we cannot generalize that those who read great literature are on the whole better people than those who are interested in other matters. Countless well-known authors and literature scholars have been involved in every kind of sordid affair imaginable. Indeed, whenever a new anti-Semitic tinged crusade against the Jewish State pops up, literature departments are inevitably leading the charge. Menand writes that “knowledge is a tool, not a state of being.” To me there is no doubt that the experience of reading Cervantes or Jane Austen can generate profound insights into the complexity of human experience, and morally sensitive writers like George Eliot or Leo Tolstoy create a powerful case for virtue. Yet clearly something else is necessary in order to lay the foundations of a moral life in practice.”

For more on that “something else,” see my latest in Tradition.

Tom Stoppard and Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem

This past February 14th marked the 116th anniversary of the publication of Theodor Herzl’s manifesto The Jewish State, which lay the groundwork for the modern Zionist movement and the state of Israel. That same evening a special event took place in the Jerusalem Theater: a performance of Herzl’s play The New Ghetto, written in 1894, just a few short weeks before he began composing The Jewish State. It is commonly understood that the turning point for Herzl—the moment he realized there was no escaping from anti-Semitism even in enlightened Western Europe—was the Dreyfus Affair that began in the fall of 1894. Yet The New Ghetto, written shortly beforehand, is proof that, as some scholars have argued, a proto-Zionist sensibility had already been roiling in Herzl’s mind.

Last month’s production was a historic privilege for those who attended it: it was the first time the play has ever been performed in Israel. 

For more about this wonderful performance, as well as an intriguing parallel with Tom Stoppard’s newest play Leopoldstadt, please see my new essay in Mosaic Magazine.

Holy Folly: Using Humor to Reach for God

In his 1905 philosophical analysis of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud cites a classic Jewish joke: “Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?’”

On the surface, the joke is a self-deprecating jab at the Jewish tendency to overthink things. But on a deeper level (and for Freud of course there is always a deeper level) the joke comments on the difficulty of discerning truth. He asks, “is it the truth if we describe things as they are without troubling to consider how our hearer will understand what we say?” Freud proposes that jokes like the one above “attack not a person or an institution but the certainty of our knowledge itself.” He is struck by how many jokes of this nature are Jewish ones.

For the full article please see the wonderful Summer edition of Lubavitch International Magazine.

What Does the Future Hold for Modern Orthodox Judaism?

From Mosaic Magazine

This week we published an essay by our new columnist Eli Spitzer about the direction of the Modern Orthodox movement and why it finds itself caught up in so many controversies. Eli’s article has attracted significant attention and comment, and so we thought we’d further the conversation, and also introduce him to you properly, by inviting Eli to discuss the ideas in his essay live next week. He’ll be chatting with another Mosaic writer, Sarah Rindner, who has plenty of ideas about Modern Orthodoxy herself. And they’ll both be answering questions from you, our readers and friends in the Mosaic community.

Join us on Tuesday, August 10, at 1:00 pm Eastern time for this private, live-streamed discussion on one of the most important topics facing Jewish observance today.

How to Join

This event is available to Mosaic subscribers. A subscription costs just $30, will get you access to this discussion, all of the essays—like Eli’s—that we publish, along with access to other events like this.

If you’re not yet a subscriber, you can sign up and ensure your access to this discussion right here.

Of Synagogues and Seinfeld: “ANU,” The New Museum of the Jewish People

In March, the Tel Aviv Jewish museum formerly known as the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora(or Beit Hatfutsot) reopened after a ten-year, $100 million renovation. Now called ANU—Museum of the Jewish People, it offers a cheery, inclusive vision of Jewish peoplehood.

For the full review see here, in the wonderful new Summer issue of the Jewish Review of Books.

Jewish Continuity and Jewish Destiny: It’s Not Just About You

A Response to Is Jewish Continuity Sexist? by Mijal Bitton (Sources: A Journal of Jewish Ideas, Spring 2021)

“In delineating the various people and parties who could conceivably be offended by a Jewish continuity agenda, Bitton leaves out the most important population of all: the future humans upon whom the entirety of civilization rests. It’s true that having children is physically and emotionally taxing, and undoubtedly the burdens are unequally distributed between genders, at least for discrete periods in a child’s life. Some of these challenges can certainly be remedied; others are on a certain level inherent. Eve is told “in pain you shall bear your children,” and Adam too, is destined to work hard for all the days of life. Yet any account of these difficulties needs to be contextualized with at least a passing mention of the vast potential that accompanies bringing forth new life into the world.”

Please see here for the full response, thank you to Sources and to Mijal Bitton for the opportunity to reflect.

Frissons of Geulah

Thank you to Lubavitch International Magazine for the opportunity to consider what my own personal redemption might look like at this time. Please read the full article for wonderful contributions by the poets Yehoshua November, Eve Grubin and David Caplan.

Artwork by Sarah Kranz for Lubavitch International Magazine

This Is How It Begins . . . 


Two summers ago, while my family finalized our aliyah to Israel from the New Jersey suburbs, a few favorite songs found themselves repeating on our Spotify playlist. One was a catchy song by Israeli singer Udi Davidi called “See My Light,” which is in fact filled with rabbinic teachings about redemption. The refrain is a quote from Rabbi Hiyya’s statement in the Yerushalmi Talmud (Berachot 4:2): “This is how Israel’s redemption begins, little by little, everywhere it goes, it goes and multiplies.”  

The song gave me a little comfort as I spent the weeks packing up our life in the USA. When we first landed in Israel, and in the ensuing months, I certainly did not hear the bells of redemption ringing. Yet now, more accustomed to daily life and perhaps more sensitive to the spiritual nuances of the atmosphere here, not a few days pass by before I sense a little spark, a frisson, of redemption, geulah. These moments happen when I am out in nature, exploring the historically overloaded landscape of Israel. Vistas which appear in the Bible, were won and lost by numerous civilizations, and still remain a pleasant option for a Jewish family outing.

I feel redemption when my otherwise fully American children recite a verse from the Torah by heart like it is second nature, their natural sweetness blending with the sweetness of our tradition in a way that can’t be separated. Even as shops and businesses are shuttered because of the government’s response to the coronavirus, what should be a glum public mood is elevated by the goodness of the people of Israel. A young, secular smoothie-stand owner brought to his knees in debt still gives a free daily shake to every beggar who approaches his shop. Witnessing such an act of kindness, I looked at him with surprise and he pointed upward, “None of this is from us, you know?” I think I do know, little by little.