Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Rav Malkiel Kotler's Condemnations

Rav Malkiel Kotler is the Rosh HaYeshiva of the premier right wing Yeshiva in the United States – Beis Medrash Gavoha (BMG) popularly known as Lakewood. It is recognized worldwide as the Harvard of Yeshivos. Indeed I have recently been told about their ambitious plans to double their numbers from the current 5000 students to 10,000.

When one considers its modest beginnings 70 years ago, the current enrollment is near miraculous. The founding father, Rav Aharon Kotler, dreamed about transplanting to America the European type elitist Yeshiva where the best and brightest students would be attracted to learn Torah exclusively on the highest possible level. He started out with a modest 13 students and by the time of his death he could boast about 300 students.

I tend to believe that Rav Kotler did not necessarily intend his Yeshiva to be open to the masses. I believe that he intended it to be a high level institution for the elite – just as this type of Yeshiva was in Europe. I somehow tend to doubt that he intended every single Jew on the planet to go this route. Numbers as large as they have now tend to dilute the high levels of learning Rav Kotler envisioned for his Yeshiva. So the 300 or so students that BMG had upon his Petria (death) seems like an optimum number. The rest I would think should continue to learn but also prepare for a livelihood – and become supporters of the Yeshiva.

This is not necessarily only a modern Orthodox idea.

There was an attempt back in the forties to create The American Hebrew Theological University. BMG type Yeshiva students would continue their intense Torah study there while at the same time be educated in Mada. Two of the biggest Gedolim of that era - Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz and Rav Yitzchak Hutner were heavily involved in that project. The college was to offer basic subjects in liberal arts - and contain schools for theology; social studies; and administration. The college actually got as far as being granted a provisional charter by the New York Board of regents. But it never opened.

Rav Aharon Kotler strongly opposed it. The two Charedi Gedolim backed off and that ended it. The point however is that the idea of studying Mada was not monolithicly rejected even by greatest of Charedi Gedloim.

I’m not sure exactly why Rav Kotler opposed it. No one was suggesting implementing these subjects into BMG. I suspect it had more to do with his desire to protect the progress he had made in his Yeshiva. He probably feared that this new college would draw people away from Lakewood and possibly even destroy it. He was trying to change the Orthodox Jewish paradigm of that era which was to go to college after high school. Rav Kotler probably saw this new college as an obstacle to that goal. I do not believe that he was opposed to studying Mada at all in theory - having famously read secular literature himself.

The problem was that his goal was not only achieved but surpassed beyond his wildest imagination.

Why is that a problem? Because it meant sacrificing a community structure that would have enabled it to be more self sufficient. This includes the fact that the vast majority of students who learn in Lakewood are completely unprepared for life in the outside world. They are purposely sheltered from it from growing up and continue to shun it as adults. This means many of them simply do not understand the ethics of the workplace and would feel very uncomfortable in it. More importantly they have little to no formal training in any job skills. If and when they do want to ‘get up’ from learning to find a job – it becomes twice as hard to find one.

Fast forward to 1971. That’s the year Dr. Bernard Lander opened up Touro College. Dr. Lander was a visionary religious Jew who valued the opinion of the Gedolei Yisroel and sought their support for his school. They apparently rejected it. I’m not sure why they did. Perhaps they saw as precedent Rav Aharon Kotler’s rejection of the idea back in the forties.

Dr. Lander must have been disappointed that his idea was not endorsed by the Gedolim of that day, but he went ahead with it anyway. He saw a need and he filled it.

One may ask, why did he simply not rely on Yeshiva University to fill that need? After all he was on their faculty? The answer is that he knew that Charedi students would never attend YU. It was simply not acceptable for them Hashkaficly. Realizing this he opened a university that would appeal to those students. For example some of the classes for women are separate from men.

Finally! …a solution to the Parnassa problem facing the Yeshiva world. He created a school that offered courses that would lead to good careers. Dr. Lander started out with one school and 35 students. By the time of his death it had grown to be the largest Jewish educational institution outside of Israel in the world boasting more than 17,500 students on 29 campuses internationally! Charedim were now joining their modern Orthodox counterparts in professional careers. All while maintaining their core Charedi values.

One would think that this achievement would vindicate Dr. Lander and garner universal praise among all Charedim even though he acted without the approval of the Gedolim of his day.

One would think that. But one would be wrong. Yesterday Matzav.com published an unbelievable article. Here in part is what it said:

Rav Malkiel Kotler, the rosh yeshiva of Beth Medrash Govoah of Lakewood, issued strong words of condemnation last night directed at a Jewish publication.

Rav Kotler quoted the posuk in Tehillim of “Toras Hashem temimah meshivas nofesh,” and related an explanation from one of the talmidei haGra in understanding the meaning of ”temimus,” completeness, of Torah. Torah, he said, must be exclusive in the life of a Yid.

Rav Kotler then referred to a publication “brought into Jewish homes” (Hamodai) that recently published a memorial insert about a person whose endeavors “were not temimah and not meshivas nofesh,” said Rav Kotler.

If Rav Malkiel considers anyone who does anything outside of Torah to not be Temimusdik - what would he say about his own illustrious grandfather, Rav Aharon Kotler, who read Tolstoy?

In my view it is entirely possible that Rav Malkiel is not following in the footsteps of his illustrious grandfather. To condemn an achievement of immeasurable proportion and benefit to the very community to which he belongs is not only mind boggling and counterproductive - it condemns many members of his own community.

Rav Malkiel said that Torah is the exclusive life of a Yid. Going to Touro does not contradict that. It enhances it. Leading a completely Torah based lifestyle does not mean that one cannot participate in the real world. It does not mean one cannot prepare for a job. It doesn’t even mean that one cannot enjoy those elements of secular culture that do not contradict the Torah. But this isn’t even about that. It is about condemning not only Dr. Lander but a very Charedi newspaper, Hamodia, that praised him.

This is a new low even for the extreme right wing of Orthodoxy of which Rav Malkiel Kotler seems to be an adherent. Even if he believes that the Gedolim of the past would still not approve of Dr. Lander’s achievements, how can he now condemn so many of his own people that learned in his own Yeshiva - and who have taken advantage of Dr. Lander’s great accomplishments? Does he not value their ability to provide for their families because of Dr. Lander? Without a school like Touro - where will the Zevuluns of the future come from who will help support his Yissachars?

I wonder if it occurred to him that the very Gedolim who were opposed to Dr. Lander’s enterprise would now have changed their minds and have lauded his achievements the same way Hamodia did.