Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The ‘Emes Ve-Emunah’ Seminar

Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921)
Torah Musings, Gil Student’s  e-magazine, features an article today by Shmuel Winearz. It describes and analyzes a recent seminar whose agenda I think reflected much of the subject matter often discussed here. In fact I could almost call it the Emes Ve-Emunah seminar.  

Here is how Rabbi Winearz described it: 
17 promising young men (average age in the late twenties) who spent significant time in yeshivos such as Ner Israel, Mir & Shaar Hatorah (and one person who took an uncommon path from Bais Hatalmud to Bar-Ilan) to spend a week immersed in non-standard Torah study, engaging with the contemporary internal and external issues that face our Torah communities. Led by R. Yitzchak Adlerstein, R. Mark Gottlieb and R. Jonathan Rosenblum, the program began each day with a presentation on the weltanschaung of various Torah thinkers, some of whom are often neglected during the standard yeshiva zman, including R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Yisrael Salanter, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook… 
Issues including rational versus mystical approaches to Judaism, the proper role of academic Jewish studies (such as the traditionalist Wissenschaft of R’ David Zvi Hoffman) and how to relate to the non-Orthodox and gentile worlds were raised and a genuine milchamtah shel torah (Torah battles for the sake of Heaven) echoed through the Glen Cove Mansion in Long Island where the seminar was held. 
As if this were not enough, there were presentations made by non Jewish experts in various secular fields and therefore had no particular Jewish agenda. So that there expertise was not filtered through the prism of Torah per se, but absorbed by the minds of the participants who were indeed infused with Torah. This is the way it should be done.  It is the Torah U’Mada way. And it is the way that Yeshiva University runs it’s academic side. When Dr. Bernard Revel founded Yeshiva College (Yeshiva University’s progenitor) he insisted that the university be on par with the best of the secular universities. When challenged about how he could allow subjects to be taught that contained within them possible heresy, he answered that the Torah truths they learned in the morning enabled them to counter any possible heresies that might be taught in the afternoon.

Imagine for a moment what it must be like for traditional Yeshiva students to study someone Like R’ David Zvi Hoffman.  R’ Hoffman studied philosophy, history, and oriental languages and received his doctorate from a university in Pressburg.  He is also known for his attempts to refute Wellhausen’s Documentary Hypothesis. Documentary Hypothesis posits that it ‘was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors)’.

Lest anyone think that R’ Hoffman was some kind of heretic or near heretic, he was actually one of the biggest rabbinic personalities of his time - known for his great piety and moral conduct.  And as if that weren’t enough he was also an original member of the Agudah Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah!  And yet by delving into subjects like bible criticism he was criticized by contemporaries like R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch – considering his work to contain heresies.

My guess is that most (if not all) of the 17 participants in this symposium never heard of R’ David Zvi Hoffman.

This is a very positive development and my hat is off to the sponsors, organizers, and participants of this event. I wish I could have been there. We need to broaden the horizons of the greater Orthodox world beyond the parameters of Modern Orthodoxy. This event seems to have been geared towards that end. And for good reason. As the author notes we live in an era where information on any subject is available at your fingertips in a matter of seconds.

The current response to this among some on the right is to try and force their constituents to collectively bury their heads in the sand. That clearly will not… and is not working. Symposia like this counters that notion and develop minds to encounter and properly deal with ‘what’s out there’. And maybe eventually bring it into the Yeshiva classroom.

Or will they? I can’t help but feeling that this kind of symposium will be looked down upon by Charedi leaders. They may very well feel that the true believers will ignore all the stuff that’s ‘out there’ and focus purely on the Torah they learn. If one  goes into any Right wing Yeshiva like Mir or Lakewood, one would be hard pressed to find anyone there who would be interested in pursuing this kind of thought.

They very well may think that such studies are a waste of time… that the future of Judaism lies with them and their own children that will never be exposed to ‘what’s out there’ and focus purely on Torah the way they do. They will assume that the Yeshivos they send their children to will ‘do their job’ and teach their children to ignore the outside world, just like thy do.

But I think the reality is that many of their children will be exposed one way or another. The ‘head in the sand’ approach may work for some of them. But it won’t work for most of them. They should follow the example of those 17 young men and promote this idea rather than discounting it, or worse, condemning it.

How will their hearts and minds be changed? I don’t know. But it would be nice to see the organizers convince the Roshei Yeshiva of the great right wing Yeshivos like Lakewood and Mir to publicly support such symposia and even participate in them. If that happens, we will have a far better future for Orthodox Judaism. A Judaism which will in the end be far more inclusive and appealing to much wider range of Jews than is currently the case.