Monday, June 28, 2021

Impressions of Lakewood

R' Chaim Soloveitchik
It was quite a weekend. Having returned from my grandson's wedding in Lakewood early last night, I have had a chance to reflect a bit on what I experienced there. 

First I want to express my Hakoras Hatov - gratitude – to God, who through His agents here on earth: the medical establishment that developed the COVID vaccines; the Trump administration for cutting red-tape and fast-tracking its development; and to the Biden administration for expediting its distribution to the masses.  

My appreciation was in fact much enhanced after having missed the wedding of my first two grandchildren pre-vaccine at the height of the pandemic. 

It was exhilarating. There is nothing like seeing a grandchild get married. What made my weekend particularly enjoyable is the people I encountered there. Not only the relatives and guests of the wedding and the 3 Sheva Brachos - but by virtually every single person I met over the entire weekend.  

The people there could not be accommodating enough. Even the grocery store clerks - who practically anticipated our needs and went out of our way to help us. 2 total strangers. 

Although I saw a number of churches there, Lakewood is indeed – not only a Jewish town it is a town filled mostly with Charedim. It seemed like almost every store and business of any kind was owned, operated, and staffed by religious Jews. As were the store clerks that were so kind to us. I never experienced anything like it except in Israel. Particularly in Ramat Bet Shemesh whose population is 98% Orthodox.   

I am not surprised by any of this. Lakewood is known for its hospitality. And its charity despite the fact the median income there is probably below the national average. (Although Lakewood surely has its share of wealthy and upper middle income families.) 

As great as was my experience there, it does not take away from my criticism of a lifestyle that increasingly devalues secular studies. At least for men. It is no secret that some of the most sought after high schools there have eliminated secular studies from their curriculum. That is still a troubling development for me - for reasons I have stated in the past which are beyond the scope of this post. 

But all is not lost. I had an opportunity to address the many guests that attended the Shabbos morning Sheva Brachos. Of all the speakers I was the only one that brought up secular studies in any fashion. It was in the context of describing the Rebbetzin Bruria David, head of BJJ - the seminary that the Kalla attended. 

BJJ is the most prestigious seminary in the Charedi world. You need to be very bright to get in. However, it isn’t only intelligence and level of observance. It isn’t only the Torah knowledge they have studied. BJJ seeks students that are also well rounded.  (I believe they even look at SAT scores.) 

A lot of very bright girls don’t get in. To explain their admittance policy, suggested what i know to some facts I know about Rebbetzin David. She has a PhD from Columbia University. She is also the daughter of R’ Yitchok Hutner, ZTL who used to advise the students in his Yeshiva, Chaim Berlin, which elective college course to take that would enhance their career choices. 

I could not believe the positive reaction I got. People came over and told me how much they appreciated what I said. I got a sense that a lot of people there are not all that happy with the anti secular studies direction their community is going. They seemed thrilled by the fact that I gave a positive spin on secular studies in the context of one of the truly great Torah leaders of the 20th century and his illustrious daughter.  One Rav in Lakewood actually invited me to speak in his Shul! (I declined.) 

I will conclude with what another Lakewood Rav told me. He confided that he was a devoted student of Rav Soloveitchik, having studied with him for many years. (Although you’d never know it looking at him. He looked very Charedi.) He told me that he once asked the Rav why he attended the University of Berlin. The Rav was taken aback and thought about it for a couple of minutes. 

He then replied with 3 reasons. 

One was something along the lines of being able to discuss philosophy with people that might ask him about its intersection with Jewish thought. Philosophy was in bloom in that era. 

(I don’t recall his second reason). 

His 3rd reason was striking - probably shocking to the Charedi mind as well as to his many students that knew of his awe for his grandfather. He said that through his study of philosophy he believed that he had surpassed his grandfather, R’ Chaim, in logic. 

I don’t think there is any better endorsement in the Yeshiva world for the study of secular subjects than that. R' Chaim's methodology relies heavily on the use of logic and his method is the most widely used method of Torah study in the world. Nuff said.