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.

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.