Friday, January 21, 2011

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm and Torah U’Madda

One of the most maligned figures in the Torah world is Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. And that is a travesty. But it is understandable if one realizes that much of the criticism is based on a comeplete misunderstanding of his views.

Dr. Lamm is one of the most important figures in modern Orthodxy. He is a brilliant Talmid Chacham and a brilliant Baal Machshava. Having attended Torah VoDaath and then Yeshiva University, studying under the Rav, receiving Semicha, receiving his PhD in philosophy, and ultimately becoming president of of his Yeshiva - he is in a unique position to offer insights in both Torah and Mada and formulating a Torah Hashklafa that combines the two disciplines. He is one of the few people alive qualified to do that. I can think of few others that can. In fact only two other people come to mind: Chief Rabbi of England Jonathan Sacks and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein.

It is in part because of Dr. Lamm’s bold advocacy of Torah U’Madda as a philosophy of Judaism as outlined in his classic work of the same name that he has received much of his criticism. It is a criticism that is undeserved. It is criticism that is based on a misunderstanding of his views.

For example he has often been accused of equating Torah with Mada which is completely false since he clearly says that Torah knowledge is of superior value. That he places a very high value on the independent study of Mada does not mean he equates it with Torah. Only that he considers it an important – if lesser discipline.

Nor does he precisely define Torah U’Madda. He only opens up the discussion by describing why he feels that studying Mada independently is of paramount importance. He suggests various models based on existing frameworks such as Chasidus or Torah Im Derech Eretz, and such great historical figure as The Gra and Rav Kook. He mentions his own preference (Chasidus) but leaves it open for discussion.

And yet for this he has been vilified. There have been other criticisms of him which are also unfair. But this in my view is the most significant as it attacks an entire Hashkafa. It isn’t that one cannot disagree with him. That is perfectly legitimate. One can reject all of his models and even the very philosophy itself. But it is completely unfair to malign him for proposing the idea as legitimate – especially if one doesn’t even bother to understand it or reflect accurately its contents.

In my view trashing Dr. Lamm’s Hashkafos by de-legitimizing them and thereby Dr. Lamm himself does a disservice to one’s own Hashkafos as it does not allow for the concept of Shivim Panim LaTorah – that there are 70 different ways to understand the Torah. This is a clear and undebated Hashkafic principle of the Gemarah. But then again even Rav Hirsch’s classic version of Torah Im Derech Eretz is seen by the right as only B’dieved at best.

It is this rigid and rejectionist view of Torah Judaism that is so troubling for me. Why must they deligitimize everything but their own views? Whatever happened to Elu V’Elu? But I digress.

If one reads my bio at the top of this blog, one will see the importance I place on Dr. Lamm’s Hashkafos as outlined in his seminal work. It had a profound influence on how I view God’s word and God’s world. I think it is Emes. But I do not deny that other Hashkafos are just as legitimate. That’s because I realize that I do not have all the answers. Just a lot of questions. Questions that Dr. Lamm helped answer.

Rabbi Gil Student has reviewed the 20th anniversary edition of Torah U’Mada and his take on this great work and the man who authored it is exactly on target. It is a short essay but it says a lot. It is entirely worth reading.