Monday, August 15, 2011

Torah and Mada - A Forbidden Mixture?

If there is anyone who is responsible for divisiveness in Klal Yisroel it is people like Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum whose article indicating this appeared recently in the Yated Ne’eman.

Rabbi Birnbaum asks whether Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s teachings are relevant today in the context of a new translation of Rav Hirsch’s classic work, The Nineteen Letters. He interviews Rabbi Joseph Elias who did his own translation many years ago and contributed a comprehensive commentary to the new translation.

I don’t think there is any question about the relevance of Rav Hirsch’s work today. His Hashkafa of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) is certainly relevant - perhaps now more than ever. Whether one is an adherent of this Hashkafa or not, I think most Orthodox Jews would agree with this.

But that is not the subject of this post. It is the last segment of Rabbi Birnbaum’s article with which I take issue and strongly protest.

Instead of ending his essay with the deserved accolades he gives to Rav Hirsch’s Hashkafa, he decided to end it by bashing modern Orthodoxy. What was his complaint? That Modern Orthodox Jews have the Chutzpah to claim Rav Hirsch is their progenitor. He calls it historical revisionism and hogwash! He says that foolish and underhanded for anyone from Modern Orthodoxy to try and ‘box’ Rav Hirsch into their viewpoint.

And then to top things off he calls the Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada (TUM) Kilayim. Kilayim are mixtures that are forbidden by the Torah – like weaving linen together with wool or working two different species of animal harnessed together.

Hogwash? Underhanded? Kilayim? You would think he was talking about heretics! Not Frum Jews.

I don’t know Rabbi Birnbaum. But I do know where this kind of thinking comes from. It comes from hating his fellow Jews. Sinas Chinam. Right after Tisha B’Av where we still suffer the consequences of a day that came about because of it - comes an article that just had to include bashing fellow observant Jews. It wasn’t enough to say he disagreed or even that Modern Orthodoxy is mistaken. He had to call them foolish and underhanded - and their Hashkafos a forbidden mixture!

First of all, he is completely mistaken about Modern Orthodxy (MO). MO - as I have written about many times - is not a Hashkafa but a sociological category. And it applies broadly to a group of observant Jews with widely varying Hashkafos, from right wing to left wing. MO does not equal TuM.

To be MO is to be Torah observant and to appreciate and embrace secular studies and secular culture. Certainly TIDE qualifies on both counts. This is not to say that TIDE and TuM are the same thing. They are not and I don’t know anybody who claims that they are. But both Hashkafos can find a home in Modern Orthodoxy. And certainly one’s appreciation of secular studies and culture can point to Rav Hirsch’s own appreciation of those things. For example we know Rav Hirsch admired the great German poet, historian and philosopher Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller. And he made a point of using his secular name Samson (Shamshon in the German vernacular) rather than his Jewish Name Shimshon - seeing nothing wrong with that. As does Avrohom Birnbaum apparently. Fortunately my elementary school principal, Rabbi Joseph Elias for whom he has justifiably effusive praise doesn’t see anything wrong with using one’s secular name either. Nor do I.

His reasons for appreciating things secular were different from the reasons of those who believe in TuM. But the bottom line is that there were (and are) many PhDs in Rav Hirsch’s Germany who are strict followers of TIDE. Just as there are PhDs among those who believe in TuM.

I don’t think anyone in Modern Orthodoxy claims that Rav Hirsch was thinking of Modern Orthodoxy when he developed TIDE. But that doesn’t mean that Modern Orthodoxy can’t think of Rav Hirsch as a progenitor of sorts.

As for calling TuM Kilayim, that is beyond insulting. First of all TuM is not a monolithic Hashkafa with specific parameters. The Hashkafa is not limted to one definition. Depending on who one talks to, it has many definitions.

Rav Ahron Soloveichik has two chapters in his book ‘Logic of the Heart Logic of the Mind’ on Torah U’Mada. Is Rabbi Birmbaum accusing Rav Ahron of promoting Kilayim? Rav Ahron sees TuM in much the same way that Rav Hirsch sees TIDE. Even Dr. Lamm who tries to explain TuM from many perspectives sees TIDE as one such perspective. Rabbi Birnbaum doesn’t have to agree with TuM. But to call it Kilayim is insulting in the extreme.

I am disgusted by his attitude. I wish I could say that he is a Daas Yachid – someone whose views are outside the mainstream of Charedi thinking. Unfortunatley I think this is exactly how far too many mainstream Charedim think. They see only the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy or those who are very light in their observance and conclude that this is what defines us. Yes they are a part of us, but they do not define us anymore than Chasidim define the Charedism of the Yeshiva world

There is a large segment of Modern Orthodoxy that are in its right wing that are virtually indistinguishable from the vast majority of Charedim - those I call moderate Charedim. And Charedi Jewry certainly has its own share of light observers. I know plenty of MO Jews who are adherents of TIDE.

Is TIDE limited to MO? No. I know some Chasidic and Yeshivishe Jews who are adherents of it too. But it is certainly fair to say that TIDE has just as much of a home in Modern Orthodoxy as it does in Charedi Orthodoxy and certainly MO can claim Rav Hirsch as a progenitor of sorts.

Modern Orthodox Jewry deserves an apology from Rabbi Birnbaum. As do adherents of TuM.

At the beginning of Sefer Devarim (1:5)the Torah says: Ho’il Moshe Bier Es HaTorah HaZos. Rashi cites Chazal who tell us that this Pasuk means to say that when Moshe started explaining the words of the Torah to the people of Israel he did so in the 70 known languages of the world.

But there is another interpretation mentioned by Rav Yaakov Tzvi Meklenburg in his Sefer HaKsav V’Hakbala. What – he asks - was the point of telling them the same thing in 70 different languages? Instead he interprets the word of Chazal to mean Shivim Panim – the seventy facets or perspectives of the Torah.

Until the Charedi world understands this there will never be Achdus. They must understand that there are Shivim Panim LaTorah and only one of them is Charedi.

Achdus does not mean abdicating one’s Hashkafos. But it does mean respecting that there are other Hashkfos that are legitimate too. And one of them might just be TuM.