American Orthodoxy

Letters to the Editor: The Boundaries of Torah u-Madda

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The notion of Torah u-Madda—that Torah and secular studies can enrich each other—has been a byword in the Modern Orthodox community for decades. Yet some have claimed it is in decline. Lehrhaus is proud to present a symposium grappling with Torah u-Madda: how we got here, the challenges that have arisen, and how its meaning continues to evolve over time.

Symposium Contributions: Editors’ Introduction, Elana Stein Hain, Stuart Halpern, Yisroel Ben-Porat, Sarah Rindner, Erica Brown, Shalom Carmy, Leah Sarna, Tzvi Sinensky, Yaakov Bieler, Moshe Kurtz, Elinatan Kupferberg, Olivia Friedman, Margueya Poupko, Noah Marlowe; Letters to the Editor: 1 | 2

Living Torah u-Madda in the Real World

In her contribution to the Lehrhaus’ Torah u-Madda Symposium, Dr. Erica Brown wrote that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt”l’s living and modeling an integrated life of Torah and Madda was “more worthy of emulation than whatever he wrote to [try to] convince us” to live such a life ourselves. This is a point that cannot be understated, and it points toward a general weakness I’ve noticed throughout the symposium.

It’s wonderful to talk about the value of embracing a Torah u-Madda perspective, but I’m not entirely sure how much it accomplishes in actuality. A life of Torah u-Madda involves living said life in addition to (or maybe even in contrast to) pontificating about its underlying philosophy. It doesn’t matter what someone’s politics are, what university they attended, which yeshivot or seminaries they learned at, or what subjects they prefer to study in their spare time. What matters more than anything else is that they all strive to live lives that integrate religious and secular aspects in productive ways.

When I was an undergraduate at Rutgers University, I wrote an article in which I lamented the fact that people spend so much time saying “I’m Orthodox, BUT I do x, y, or z” and then extending so much effort trying to justify the perceived contradiction. I instead suggested that people should strive to be “Orthodox, AND x, y, or z.” In other words, one should seek to live a life of integration rather than contradiction. Integrated lives don’t always require an integrated philosophy, though. It’s much more important to develop an integrated personality. The need to constantly justify the apparent contradictions of Torah u-Madda by spending so much time and effort writing about its philosophical ins and outs seems to reveal the underlying “Orthodox, but,” which comes with a lack of confidence in Torah u-Madda to compellingly address today’s questions.

This thought occurred to me again when I read R. Shalom Carmy’s contribution to the symposium. Two of his points particularly struck me. The first was R. Carmy’s example of “a sincere, intelligent young man, not blessed with stellar yeshiva training,” whose academic and professional background led him to want to carefully and respectfully analyze Torah subjects. His sincere questions, however, were met with the “fanfaronade of cheerleading for Torah, varied with lame, half-hearted attempts at real discussion that veer off into self-celebratory proclamations about the superiority of the yeshivish lifestyle” so common in kiruv spaces. While such a man will not necessarily go “off the derekh,” his appetite for Torah will undoubtedly be blunted by this experience. R. Carmy concluded his point by noting that in Torah study “it is increasingly important for us to work with all the intellectual aptitude and integrity we can achieve. At the same time, it is disturbing to realize the danger of Babel invading our forums of Torah as well.”

This is very much on point. I vividly remember feeling patronized in many kiruv spaces when I first began learning Jewish religious texts in a serious way. Had I not ultimately found the path of Torah u-Madda, I would easily have assumed that Judaism, Orthodox or otherwise, lacked the intellectual sophistication I was becoming so enamored with in university.

R. Carmy’s sentence about the “danger of Babel invading our forums of Torah” as an unfortunate side effect of academically-minded, but not yet religious, people embracing Torah u-Madda Orthodoxy feeds naturally into his second point made to which I want to respond. In his brief discussion of academic Jewish Studies, R. Carmy wrote that:

insofar as the Torah is sui generis, different in kind from other disciplines, we cannot uncritically treat the Torah as we would any other ancient document…The threat of adapting and assimilating what should be overriding convictions in order to blend into the professional landscape is especially acute in Jewish studies, precisely because they overlap with the subject matter of Torah, our beliefs about Torah… and the reverence that should go with them.

I feel strongly about this as someone who majored in Jewish Studies because of, rather than despite, my embrace of Torah u-Madda. On the one hand, it’s self-evident that the Torah should be held in an exalted place as a manifestation of the Divine Will. Therefore, it would be at best reductive and at worst blasphemous to examine it the same way one would other Ancient Near Eastern texts.

On the other hand, the Torah’s divinity is no longer an assumption that Orthodox Jews can or should continue to take for granted in the face of contemporary scholarship. This does not mean that the Torah doesn’t represent the words of Hashem (has ve-shalom), but it does mean that Orthodox Jews in today’s era must be able to demonstrate in an academically rigorous manner why the Torah should be excluded from the same methodologies that are applied to other ancient texts. As Dr. Marc Shapiro noted, “a basic assumption of Modern Orthodoxy has been that traditional Judaism has nothing to fear from the conclusions of science and scholarship. The one divergence from this approach in the past century and a half has been the resistance to any challenge to the dogma of Mosaic authorship.”

Why should the scholarly consensus on this matter feel so threatening to Modern Orthodoxy? Why exactly should the academic techniques used to glean information on Enumah Elish, the Gilgamesh Epic, Hammurabi’s Code, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Christian Bible, or the Quran not also be applied to the Torah? If it’s because our text is the one true word of God while the others are not, Modern Orthodox academics must be capable of and prepared to advocate for that position in compelling language that their secular colleagues can understand. Using internal discussions to pat ourselves on the back and strengthen our own convictions certainly achieves the goal of allowing Orthodox Jews to continue viewing our holy texts as unique even in an academic context while viewing ourselves as embracing the best of both worlds. However, such internal discourse does little to solve the actual methodological contradiction that Torah u-Madda necessitates in this case and beyond. As such, I can’t help but worry that such an approach is hard to sustain when moved from the four walls of Modern Orthodox batei midrash to secular academic settings.

That may be alright for one who wants to study Torah and Madda individually, but should give pause to those who wish to live lives of Torah u-Madda. Are we really as confident in our hashkafah as our writing implies?

Steve Gotlib

Torah u-Madda: A Sephardic Perspective

I read the symposium about Torah u-Madda with interest. I want to share my personal story, with the hope of bringing a different perspective.

I am from Argentina and I was educated in a traditional Sephardic environment (Syrian community, more specifically). Growing up, I naturally read literature, philosophy, and science. When I was a teenager, there wasn’t any kind of ideology behind that impulse: it was simply and purely out of curiosity. While many of my friends were more interested in business or soccer than philosophy, I don’t think they had a religious objection to reading a Nobel Prize-winning book or a good book of science.

I think my first encounter with Torah u-Madda ideology was from the Jewish blogosphere. I didn’t know about MO, OO, RWMO, LWMO and all the labels you can think of. In fact, these labels are absolutely irrelevant to my Argentinian Syrian community. We are observant and traditional, and that’s it. We are isolated in terms of matrimony and social relationships but fully integrated in terms of pop culture.

When I was 15 or 16 years old, I bought a used copy of The Lonely Man of Faith by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (in an old Spanish translation). I literally encountered the book by chance in a used bookstore. I wasn’t prepared for what happened. I took a bus and started reading the book. I was absolutely delighted. I believe I finished the book that very same day. Until that moment, I didn’t know that kind of Torah. I was particularly taken by something that sounds almost comical: this was a well-written book! And the author used words like kerygma, behaviorist, deus revelatus, and deus absconditus! I know: it’s ludicrous, but as a teenager I encountered for the very first time a Rabbi who was prepared to use philosophical terminology to explain Torah concepts. And it worked! This was a really good book, a Torah book that wasn’t underestimating the reader. A book that speaks to me in a very intimate way. That is for me the climax of Torah u-Madda. A transformative experience, not only in intellectual terms but also in a very personal one.

Ezequiel Antebi Sacca
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Jewish Attitudes toward Christianity beyond the Rishonim

Yisroel Ben-Porat’s “The ‘Judeo-Christian’ Tradition at Yeshiva” is praiseworthy, but unfortunately it is also misleading. While it is true that the majority of Rishonim considered Christianity to be avodah zarah (I assume that is what Ben-Porat meant by “paganism”), we cannot stop at these medieval rabbis. It is critical to add that the majority of rabbinic authorities throughout Ashkenaz after the sixteenth century (Aharonim) ruled that Christianity is not avodah zarah―not classical idolatry (at least not for non-Jews) and certainly not “paganism.” These included Rabbis Moshe Isserles (Rema), Shabbetai Ha-Kohen (Shakh), Moshe Rivkis (Be’er Ha-Golah), Yaakov Emden (Ya’avetz), Yehezkel Landau (Noda Be-Yehudah), Avraham Borenstein (Avnei Nezer), Samson Raphael Hirsch, David Zvi Hoffman, and Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (Seridei Eish), to name but some. (For a fuller list, see my article, “Rethinking Christianity: Rabbinic Positions and Possibilities,” in Jewish Theology and World Religions, eds. Alon Goshen-Gottstein and Eugene Korn [London: Littman Library, 2012], 189-216.) In addition, a number of these rabbis such as Rivkis, Emden, and Hirsch wrote that Christianity is a positive theological and moral step forward for humanity.

Stopping at the Rishonim, as the article does, fosters the incorrect impression that halakhic Jews must consider Christianity to be idolatry, which is both incorrect and would create impossible situations for any modern Jew in the West or even Israel.  The determination of whether Christianity is considered avodah zarah today has widespread halakhic, behavioral, and moral consequences for halakhic Jews, particularly American Jews who learn from and live, work, and socialize with Christians. Finally, Rambam’s position, which the article highlights, is completely infeasible today. Rambam ruled that it is prohibited for Jews to live and even traverse a city that contains a church, a position that no Jew today, however halakhically careful, follows (Rambam on Mishnah Avodah Zarah 1:1-3). Rambam also ruled that Jews are allowed to―or possibly should―kill gentiles who do not accept the seven Noahide commandments, which included Christians for Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and their Wars 8:10). A fair description of the halakhic position on Christianity should include these points.

These latter rabbinic authorities understood that Christians can be theologically sophisticated and ethically sensitive people. They were also practical in their formulation of Halakhah regarding Christianity, which enabled Jews to coexist, interact with, and appreciate Christians and their faith. Modern Orthodox Jews should follow their wisdom and rulings.

Eugene Korn
Jerusalem, Israel

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.