Prof Isaac Chavel responds to Rabbi Jack Bieler

Most of the responses to my blog post on Rabbi Jack Bieler’s new book on Facebook postulated the historical and sociological shifts in society as the cause moving the community away from ethics, Torah uMadda, and a humanistic Torah towards our current climate where they do not matter, as if morals and humanism are just passing fads of the 1950’s to 1970’s.

In addition, I received the following response by email from Prof Isaac Chavel who is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics and member of the Doctoral Faculty in mathematics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He received his Ph.D. in Mathematics at the Belfer Graduate School of Science, Yeshiva University and S’micha form Rabbi Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman zt”l, Ramailis Yeshiva Netzach Israel, Brooklyn, NY (which moved to Jerusalem).


Dear Prof Brill,

I have read with great interest your interview with Rabbi Jack Bieler, as well as his 2008 article from which you extracted a number of key statements of principles. My view on these educational issues is that of a client, namely, through the years I have been a student in a Hebrew Day School, and a parent and grandparent (I still have three grandchildren in K–12) of children in Modern Orthodox schools.

There is hardly a sentiment expressed by Rabbi Bieler with which I disagree. In fact, they are all extremely admirable. But I would like to comment on their contending with the realities on the ground.

On Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about guarding against isolationist tendencies: If a couple invests economically (that includes real estate, food, schooling), socially, and emotionally to live the Modern Orthodox life we live, it is hard to realistically expect that a sense of uniqueness and, hopefully, excellence will not emerge from such a family life. With nothing intended, such a singular life-style produces a certain exclusivity by the very excellence it aspires to and achieves. Decency, respect, and compassion, for others are sure to be taught in the home and the school, but do not be surprised – especially, if everyone with whom children interact are from our own Modern Orthodox society – if we get unexpected results when our students emerge from our cocoon. To illustrate at a small-scale anecdotal level: I recall that in my day, nearly all our general studies teachers were non-Orthodox, Jew or Gentile; so we had to learn at a very early stage to interact properly with people who were not our own. When I met such people later on, outside my own environment, there was no break with my previous experience. So maybe the current emphasis on general studies teachers who are Orthodox, and thereby can serve as “role models,” comes with an unintended price

Why did Torah im Derekh Eretz, fail? The original ideology presupposed a broad society of educated and cultured people in European civilization. That has been gone for quite awhile, now. For one thing, the kind of education envisioned in the ideology of Torah im Derekh Eretz required mastery of foreign languages. Those university departments, along with classical civilization departments, have been dwindling – if not closing – throughout the United States for four decades. For another, history and literature departments have been politicized by the progressive polemic against the white, male, Eurocentric culture. (That includes, of course, the Founding Fathers of the United States.) My guess is that, today, any university professor casually referring to a classical text, or to Milton, Locke, and James, would be met with blank stares unless in an advanced literature class – the same as students’ blank stares, years ago, when Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l mentioned such authors. As to music, to take a another example, symphonies and operas across the country are under the same pressures as traditional humanities departments. The popular music culture of the past fifty years is not the high culture imagined by Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch in his time, nor by the remaining Torah im Derekh Eretz advocates of our time.

Our current university students are caught in an almost intolerable situation. The humanities and the sciences – beyond medicine and technological uses of the computer sciences and engineering – that were broadly attractive to my generation and the one following, are no longer attractive. So the choice is either the multicultural polemic against the West that has overtaken the universities, or the retreat to professional-prep curricula. Is it small wonder that Torah im Derekh Eretz has failed, and students “have taken a rightward turn?”

Why did Torah u’Madda fail to carry the day? Most people do not live philosophically driven lives. Orthodox Jews are, first and foremost, traditional. When I grew up, Orthodoxy was neither a philosophy nor an ideology. It basically meant being observant of the mitzvot, in contrast to the Conservative and Reform. What has morphed into Modern Orthodoxy today was, back then, ba’ale-batish–no ideological/philosophical pretenses attached. Modern Orthodox ideology currently focuses on the legal (halakhic), historical, and philosophical/spiritual aspects of Judaism to provide an answer to the contemporary situation. But current discussions studiously ignore the anthropology, the mythic structure of the personality – imbedded in one’s DNA from birth, as it were – bequeathed by a tradition of about 3500 years starting with Avraham Avinu, and by the founding myth of peoplehood some 210 years later, the Exodus from Egypt.

Modern life, indeed, challenges the traditional one as it emphasizes among other matters the individual at the expense of, in our case, the covenantal community. But, unless educational and developmental emphases strengthen the traditional life at the anthropological level, the tradition will devolve willy-nilly to a cultural option, to a lifestyle choice, parallel to the spirit of Rabbi Bieler’s remarks about Rabbi Shagar’s post-modernism.

Moreover, contemporary economic pressures mitigate against the luxury of a philosophically driven life. Just do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the cost of 14 years of K–13 (13 represents the year in Israel) of instruction, along with summer camps, elevated cost-of-living with regard to food and real estate. After that, it cannot be realistically expected that many parents have the time and energy to articulate a philosophy of life for themselves and to their children.

Also, traditional Torah study of the halakhah, that kind of limud haTorah b’omekin which Rav Soloveitchik zt”l found religious inspiration, is not part of the Modern Orthodox religious ethos – even if contending with the data of the halakhah is integral to its social program. So Rabbi Bieler’s disappointment, with  those in Yeshiva University’s cultural orbit who did not respond to the Rov’s philosophical endeavors, has its mirror-image disappointment on the other side of the cultural divide in Modern Orthodoxy.

Lip-service is definitely given in Modern Orthodoxy to mastery of texts, and no small amount of effort goes into them. But there is no question that students emerge from a K–13 education without fluent mastery of the two languages of the tradition – Hebrew and Aramaic. One can take a course in a foreign language at a university, and at 3 hrs/week and 15 weeks/semester, for 4 semesters, and command the language up to, say, some elementary poetry in those two years. But how many students emerge from 14 years of  Modern Orthodox education able to study a masekhta, with gemara and Rashi, on their own or with chevrusa without an English translation with commentary? How many students are comfortable studying Chumash with the classical commentaries? Let’s make it easier. How many students interested in TaNaKH will read the Israeli hesder books, for example, those written in accessible Hebrew by Rabbis Yoel Bin-Nun, Yuval Cherlow, and Elchanan Samet, rather than wait for the English translations to appear? One must ask, in addition, as to how much higher the percentage among those who attended Yeshiva University after high school. Walk into a Modern Orthodox synagogue Shabbat morning, and survey people’s reading material a.k.a.“survival kits” (that in itself is for another discussion). How much will be in Hebrew and how much in English?

In the discussion of philosophical commitment to Modern Orthodoxy, you excerpted from Rabbi Bieler’s article the following assumption:

The awareness that participation within general human society will entail encountering manifold situations that are not clearly delineated within the Codes of Jewish law and other primary texts of our tradition. Therefore in order for the Modern Orthodox Jew to act consistently in accordance with Jewish values and tradition in situations that are either unprecedented or where he does not have the time to be able to direct inquiries to halakhic authorities, he will have to possess a sense of not only how to carry out individual Commandments, but also the overall philosophy, theology and worldview that underlie these Commandments, which in turn will develop within him an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available to him.

In all candor, the current skill set in the foundational texts among current students – not just the data, but the process and intuition as well – is insufficient for any significant percentage to have developed beyond their formal instruction to achieve “an almost instinctual awareness as to how to act Jewishly a times when no authoritative religious guidance is available.” Rabbi Bieler has set a very high bar, and it is most important that he articulated it; but is it extremely difficult to imagine its realization beyond few exceptional adult individuals in our current religious culture.

Our educators, even with the very best of intentions, especially if they take to heart Rabbi Bieler’s shopping list, are simply overwhelmed by what they aim to accomplish. But for decades, now, Modern Orthodox education has devolved to prep-education for admission to the best universities, with the Jewish studies dedicated to giving students the wherewithal to remain loyal to the tradition upon entry to the wider world. This is not an indictment; it is what I see “on the ground.” When successful, this is no small achievement, and our educators can take genuine pride and satisfaction in their work. But the intellectual and spiritual creativity of the moment seem to be in society at large, and Modern Orthodox education is responding in the best way it can. Cherry-picking the sources of the TaNaKH, ChaZaL, and the rest of the literature that speak to the current situation is just that – current, at best. My sense is that there is a loss of  faith in the capacity of the classical texts of the tradition – the “sophisticated” as well as the “unsophisticated” sources – to inspire; that until such faith returns with the wherewithal to indeed inspire, Modern Orthodoxy will not be able to produce an ethic and ethos from within that genuinely produces the integration of particularist and universalist sensibilities to which it aspires.


Comments are closed.