American Orthodoxy

The Dark Side of Torah u-Madda: Chaim Potok and Core-to-Core Cultural Confrontation

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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

My whole world has been an effort to utilize the sophisticated learning at the [Jewish Theological] seminary for fiction, the very sophisticated learning at the University of Pennsylvania, where I got my doctorate in secular philosophy, very deliberately chosen to see what the center of the Western World was really like… All that for the purpose of seeing whether somehow those aspects could be fused… to see in an honest way what aspects of the two cultures really could not be fused, were absolutely impossible in terms of blending.[1]

– Chaim Potok

Rabbi Dr. Chaim Potok is known to the American Jewish community for his novel The Chosen.[2] As a JTS-ordained rabbi turned scholar turned novelist, his writings—scholarly, theological, and literary—are not frequently read in the Modern Orthodox community.[3] Yet, Potok attended Yeshiva College, graduating in 1950 with a major in English literature, and he was a contemporary of Rabbis Norman Lamm[4] and Aharon Lichtenstein. Consequently, his childhood[5] in the center of Modern Orthodoxy and Torah u-Madda is not merely a historical coincidence; Potok’s exposure to the ideas and culture of Torah u-Madda[6] facilitated his trailblazing literary creativity and scholarly output. In this essay, I argue that Potok offers a useful conceptual framework for Torah u-Madda as well as a uniquely relevant literary genre for Modern Orthodox Jews.[7]

For many in the Modern Orthodox community, the only association with Potok is The Chosen, which teachers often assign as middle-school reading, likely because of the storyline of two Jewish American teenage boys navigating a newfound Jewish experience in America. Unfortunately, Potok’s literary project, I believe, is lost on young children. Throughout his prodigious literary output—which includes novels, non-fiction, short stories, plays, and children’s books—Potok attempts to capture the cultural conflict at the heart of Judaism’s encounter with modernity. When two cultures clash, Potok argues, creativity blossoms; moreover, the fusion enhances the individual’s worldview. In his words:

[The] tension between small and particular worlds of value on the one hand and an individual suddenly looking for a new way to perceive the world on the other hand–this polarization constitutes one of the great themes in modern literature…probably the profoundest theme.[8]

In the wake of modernity, Potok argues, nations, cultures, communities, and groups that ordinarily would not encounter other ways of life are exposed to new ones. The encounter that occupies Potok’s attention is what he calls a “core-to-core” cultural confrontation.[9] Such encounters pin the fundamental or substantive elements of one culture against another. Core cultural elements pervade and characterize the attitudes, beliefs, norms, behaviors, institutions, modes of thought, and ways of living; they generally dominate the cultural narrative and intellectual discourse. A new experience occurs when “an individual raised in the very heart of one particular culture encounter[s] an element, or elements, from another culture – right from the heart of that other culture . . . when cores of culture have met in confrontation, out of the ensuing tension has come creativity that enriches us all and each time just takes us that much farther away from the dark magic of our beginnings.”[10]

In contrast to core-to-core encounters, Potok avers, are “peripheral” encounters between secondary or superficial elements of two cultures.[11]

There are many ways in which we encounter other cultures. We can encounter the periphery of another culture—its noise, its passing fads, its pop culture, superstitious elements, and so on. Those are—without sounding too elitist—more or less peripheral elements of a culture in the sense that they are the easiest elements of a culture to acquire. They demand the least of the person acquiring them. They are interchangeable elements which come and go. They don’t effect the essential direction of a culture in any profound way. All cultures have these elements. And yes, it is an elitist view of culture.[12]

The majority of Potok’s novels explore core-to-core confrontations between Judaism and various elements of Western civilization: integration and rejection of American culture (The Chosen), Judaism and psychoanalysis (The Promise), traditional Talmudic methods and Source Criticism (The Promise), the Jewish mystical tradition and Eastern religions (The Book of Lights), Divine Election and monism and religions/cultures without contact with nor influenced by Judaism (The Book of Lights), Jewish tradition versus aesthetics and art (My Name is Asher Lev), patriarchal religious authority and feminism (Davita’s Harp). One could easily imagine a Potok novel written for today’s questions—navigating, for example, Judaism and gender and sexual diversity or Jewish tradition and Postmodernism.

Applying Potok’s Framework

Potok’s conceptual model offers a helpful vocabulary for Torah u-Madda as a project of fusing, or exploring the interaction between, Torah and general culture. For Potok, core-to-core confrontations are attempts to synthesize the richest possible cultural fusion; peripheral confrontations, by contrast, yield less meaningful gains. When Torah and madda clash, what is the nature of the relationship? Is it core-to-core (primary elements or core values from Torah with secular disciplines), peripheral-to-peripheral, or core-to-peripheral? This question is not merely a mathematical formula for a Torah u-Madda equation, but it presupposes that the interaction of Torah and madda has better and worse forms and that we should strive for the best combination.

For example, someone engaged in the study or practice of mussar might reflect on the work ethic of Michael Jordan and consider how his herculean strides can inform our life as hard-working ovdei Hashem. While this is a nice idea, one could make the same argument about many cultural phenomena, human activities, and even microbiological organisms. This peripheral cultural encounter (mussar and sports) does not offer a rich understanding of human nature or enhance our understanding of Torah. By contrast, I previously argued that a ripe case of core-to-core confrontation is synthesizing the halakhic category of me’abeid atzmo le-da’at (death by suicide) with contemporary research on suicidality. Rabbi Yechiel Michael Epstein in his Arukh ha-Shulhan devotes five sections to the halakhic dimensions of death by suicide. He argues that poskim must attempt to attribute death by suicide to other reasons (e.g., mental illness) because people, under ordinary human pressures, are so highly unlikely to choose death by suicide. Our study of Halakhah and understanding of human nature is further enhanced when we bring it into conversation with modern psychology’s research on suicidality. We can more accurately understand, for example, the etiology of suicide. Dr. Thomas Joiner’s research demonstrates that perceived burdensomeness, social alienation, and acquired ability to enact lethal self injury are the three key etiological factors. This core-to-core encounter produces a rich heftza shel Torah u-Madda, one that understands Halakhah and human nature more deeply.

Within the realm of Judaism and psychology, there has been an explosion of writings in recent years. Yet, many books explore the periphery of both Torah and psychology. They might cite, for example, psychological studies and a comment of Netziv or Rav Hirsch to share a nice vort, but they avoid dealing with core human and psychological questions. By contrast, Rabbi Dr. Reuven Bulka in his Jewish Marriage: A Halakhic Ethic explores the central tasks and challenges in marriage through the dialogue between halakhic texts about marriage, intimacy, and sexuality and clinical research and theory on couples and marriage.[13]

Another shortcoming in this literature relates to halakhic dimensions of psychotherapy. A recent work dedicated to the halakhot of psychotherapy lacks a holistic approach or wide-sweeping framework for Halakhah’s encounter with psychotherapy. Instead of engaging the core goal and purpose[14] of psychotherapy, this work examines individual techniques or aspects of psychotherapy (which one might refer to as the periphery). To truly grapple with the halakhic challenges posed by psychotherapy, one must understand its fundamental objective. However, the core understanding of psychotherapy is not enough; one must offer a compelling vision for Judaism’s conception of behavior and the psyche. Professor Moshe Halevi Spero’s work,[15] to my mind, is the only scholarship produced by a Jewish thinker who substantively blends Jewish texts, psychoanalytic theory, and philosophy to arrive at the rich core-to-core encounter between Torah and psychology.[16] Spero serves as an excellent example of applying Potok’s model for a deep and profound encounter between Judaism and general culture.

Torah u-Madda as Literary Genre

In addition to using Potok’s core-to-core paradigm for furthering human understanding and Torah, Potok’s novels also form a distinct literary genre that embodies the Torah u-Madda experience. Potok is different from rabbinic ideologues and theologians such as Rabbis Norman Lamm and Aharon Lichtenstein who wrote treatises and monographs about the philosophical and theological conflicts between Judaism and modernity (with the goal of discovering synthesis, harmony, and integration). While for R. Lamm Torah u-Madda manifests in the dialogue between Freud, Menninger, Rambam, and Radbaz about self-incrimination,[17] and for R. Lichtenstein in using Milton’s sonnets to understand the experience of blindness,[18] Potok’s books contain the experience of traditional Jews struggling with their encounter with modernity.[19]

For Asher Lev, it is the tension that emerges between his Hasidic upbringing and his passion for art; for Reuven Malter it is the acceptance of academic methods for Talmudic study in light of his rabbis’ disapproval and disdain for modern innovation; for Gershon Loran, it is a devout Eastern spirituality challenging his particularist, exclusivist religious tradition. Each of Potok’s protagonists are tasked with navigating a religious tradition and culture that they cannot leave and a new system or culture with antithetical, yet meaningful, values.

Potok’s novels contain the pulsating excitement of Jewish life and tradition. In The Promise, for example, Potok recreates the frenetic animation of studying a sugya and the intensity of serious Talmudic “hasmadah.” Potok’s novels embody Torah u-Madda by expressing a religious phenomenology through the literary form. Put differently, by capturing the rich experience of Jewish living and Jewish texts, Potok engenders a form of literature that presents Torah (broadly conceived) through the form of madda. In addition to experience, Potok’s books contain ideas and texts from Tanakh, Gemara, Kabbalah, and more. Potok is not alone in this genre—S.Y. Agnon, and more recently, Rabbi Haim Sabbato, have written novels that incorporate quotes, phrases, and allusions from biblical and rabbinic texts into the textual fabric of the novel. Their books not only capture Jewish life but express a textless representation of talmud Torah.

Lastly, Potok’s characters don’t always arrive at satisfying religious conclusions—from the perspective of halakhic commitment. Many accept the non-Jewish cultural enterprise, compromising on their absolute religious commitment, and start a hybrid life transformed by the cultural encounter. This proverbial dark side to Potok’s novels allows the reader to experience a compromised life born out of cultural confrontation. In a sense, Potok allows us to live a vicarious existence in a world deeply informed by, but not limited to or bound by, religious tradition. As Modern Orthodox readers, we can explore the “what if” of complete cultural immersion without the concern of violating halakhic norms.

This essay has argued that Potok’s thought and works offer a valuable lens and language for thinking about Torah u-Madda; its expectations are high but its vision grand. Some may object to it as an elitist and inaccessible model. Yet, even if the intellectual model is not democratic, Potok’s novels are available for all to experience the vibrancy and dynamism of Jewish life and Torah. Although Chaim Potok left the world of Orthodoxy, his contribution to Torah u-Madda remains.

[1] Conversations with Chaim Potok, ed. Daniel Walden (Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2001), 31-32 (henceforth: Conversations).
[2] This essay could not have been written without the support of my friend and colleague, Rabbi Dovi Nadel. Dovi encouraged me to read The Promise in the summer of 2018, reintroducing me to Potok as an adult. I hope this essay expresses my appreciation.
[3] Potok’s spiritual home was the Conservative movement. He served as camp director at Camp Ramah (Ojai) from 1957-1959, managing editor of Conservative Judaism from 1964-1975, and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Publication Society from 1965-1974. He also took on several rabbinic/pulpit roles throughout his career, which includes his chaplaincy in the US Army during the Korean War (likely the inspiration for his Book of Lights).
[4] For more comparisons between Potok and Lamm, see my Twitter thread.
[5] In truth, Potok’s family’s rigid and closed orientation led him to abandon Orthodoxy and join the Conservative movement. See Conversations, 113, 158-159.
[6] Here I don’t use the phrase “Torah u-Madda”’ in the ideological sense, but to refer to the broad interaction of Torah, culture, and religious personalities that a student of Yeshiva College would have experienced in the forties. For example, Potok’s The Promise takes place at the fictitious Samson Rafael Hirsch college (likely based on Yeshiva College), but Dr. Samuel Belkin’s “synthesis” and “harmony” model of Torah u-Madda is nowhere to be found. However, the entire story is saturated by the cultural conflict of Torah and general culture.
[7] Potok himself viewed his literary project as universal—he was merely using his particular upbringing (and cultural encounter) as a way to express the universal. He frequently quoted James Joyce’s explanation for why he wrote about Dublin: “For myself I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal” (Conversations, 127). Yet, I will argue below that Potok’s unique cultural encounter can be particularly powerful for Modern Orthodox Jews.
[8] This quote is from Potok’s 1989 lecture entitled “Literature and Religious Authority: the Writer Against the World,” which took place at The John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.
[9] Conversations, 55-57.
[10] Potok, “Literature and Religious Authority.”
[11] Potok differentiates himself (See Conversations, 5, 9, 43) from Jewish-American authors like Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow, for example, as Roth and Bellow engage in more peripheral encounters, whereas Potok writes about core-to-core confrontations. Readers familiar with Roth and Bellow can consider the veracity of Potok’s claim.
[12] Conversations, 125, emphasis mine.
[13] For the interested reader, see chapters 10 (“Conjugality: The Concept”) and 11 (“Conjugality: The Practice”), in which Bulka demonstrates immense creativity in synthesizing halakhic texts on sexuality and secular research/theory.
[14] In the words of Dr. Jonathan Shedler, a leading thinker in psychodynamic psychotherapy, “The goal of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is to loosen the bonds of past experience to create new life possibilities.” In other words, the goal of psychotherapy is to free the individual from harmful patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (often outside their conscious awareness) preventing them from living a life aligned with their values and beliefs, yearnings and aspirations.
[15] For example, Judaism and Psychology: Halakhic Perspectives (New York: Ktav, 1980), Handbook of Psychotherapy and Jewish Ethics (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1980), Religious Objects as Psychological Structures: A Critical Integration of Object Relations Theory, Psychotherapy, and Judaism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
[16] See Halevi’s chapters “Psychology as Halakhah: Toward a Halakhic Metapsychology” in Judaism and Psychology: Halakhic Perspectives (New York: Ktav, 1980), 11-30, and “Modern Psychotherapy and Halakhic Ethics: Approaching Consensus in Values and Practice” in Handbook of Psychotherapy and Jewish Ethics (Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1980), 1-31, in which Halevi proposes a general theory for conceptualizing psychotherapy in Halakhah and breaks down the core assumptions and beliefs of psychotherapy and proposes an integrative halakhic approach.
[17] Norman Lamm, “Self-Incrimination in Law and Psychology: The Fifth Amendment and the Halakhah” in Faith and Doubt (Jersey City: KTAV, 2006), 266-284.
[18] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, ed. Jacob J. Schacter (Northvale: Aronson, 1997), 254-255.
[19] “What I’m really writing about is the feelings of people involved in those confrontations because a novel is not only time and character, but is also feelings” (Conversations, 33).

To see the rest of the symposium, click here.

Noah Marlowe is a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School and rabbinic intern at YIOZ of North Riverdale and Yonkers.