What Are We So Afraid Of?: The Challenge of Torah U’Madda for Our Time

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“Caesar had his Brutus; Charles the First his Cromwell; and George the Third—”

[Cries of “Treason! Treason!”]

“George the Third may profit by their example. If this be treason, make the most of it.”

–Patrick Henry, speech to Virginia House of Burgesses, May 29, 1765

Among the many things that characterize modern Orthodox Jews: religious Zionism; engaging with the secular world; commitment to expanding religious opportunities for women within the context of halakha; perhaps the most-defining is our embrace of the Talmudic maxim hokhma bagoyim ta’amin: if someone tells you that there is knowledge and wisdom among the nations, believe them.  We seek to encounter the wisdom of the broader world, with the conviction that our Torah learning and lives as Jews will be strengthened, rather than threatened, thereby.  And yet, right now, a great deal of the nominally Modern Orthodox community, its laity and its leadership, is afraid of, and threatened by, this encounter. Not of addressing Torah and science: we’re perfectly to happy to talk about stem cell research, or cloning, or brain death, and its implications for halakha and Jewish ethics. But when it comes to the insights and approaches that have been at the heart of the academic enterprise in the social sciences and humanities for the last generation–approaches which question the unitary and ascertainable nature of the truth and challenge claims of authority and objectivity–sometimes loosely (and not entirely accurately)  grouped under the heading of postmodernism, we lose our nerve.  This fear extends beyond the Orthodox world–it is certainly apparent in the broader communal conversation about Israel, particularly on college campuses–but it strikes at the ideological heart of Modern Orthodoxy.

Torah U’Madda is the label later attached to the early-twentieth-century attempt to craft a meaningful American Orthodoxy that could interact with the the broader world while still maintaining its fealty to Torah learning, observance, and values. In an American context and at a time when the choices seemed to be Eastern-European-style scrupulous observance and concomitant separation from broader American society; or the acculturation and assimilation of earlier waves of Jewish immigrants; Torah U’Madda offered an alternative, a way to engage with and participate in the world while maintaining one’s steadfast Orthodoxy. Yeshiva University was founded during this period, seeking to avoid the alternatives of both poles and shape an integrated, committed, observant Judaism in a modern American setting.

This stance, adopted from whatever combination of principle and necessity, was bolstered by the arrival at Yeshiva University of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who assumed his role as Rosh Yeshiva in 1941. Rabbi Soloveitchik came to teach Talmud, bringing with him a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Berlin (Friedrich Wilhelm University).   In his person, he embodied the synthesis of Torah U’Madda, combining as he did the rigorous Talmudic education in the Brisker method and the upbringing of his parental home with the modern secular education he had received in university. The Rav, as he became known, was the paradigm of Torah U’Madda for generations of students, who became the rabbis and lay and communal leaders for American Modern Orthodoxy. His student and future son-in-law, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, who earned a doctorate in English literature from Harvard, continued to model the synthesis of modern scholarship with Torah study at the highest level and deep commitment to Torah values.

There is no one with a comparable background inhabiting a comparable role today.  Instead of a deep, if sometimes skeptical, appreciation of the Madda of the day, the rhetoric we often hear about the intellectual currents in today’s academy is that they pose a threat to our deepest-held beliefs and values.  In the religious discourse of our community, the intellectual synthesis of Torah study and the approaches of contemporary scholarship is a dead letter. In that sense, today’s Torah U’Madda is something of a zombie, its body lurching about in search of brains.

As I struggled to commit the inchoate thoughts that would become this essay to paper, I received as a gift Steven Shapin’s Never Pure: Historical Studies of Science as if It Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority–and I realized that not only did I know what I wanted to say, but that my whole graduate education had been a training to say it.

My professional training was as an historian of science.  And as I read Shapin’s subtitle, I was struck (pretty astonishingly, for the first time) by the parallels between the discipline in which I was trained and the argument that I was struggling to formulate.  Science is a discipline that is invested with great authority in our contemporary culture, whose practitioners claim and are accorded great deference, and who are widely acknowledged to be getting at and speaking a greater Truth.  History of science, as a professionalized discipline, began with George Sarton at Harvard University in the early twentieth century studying the great men of science and understanding what they had thought and accomplished.  He saw his role as celebrating those individuals who, through great intellectual achievement, had advanced the cause of Truth and of understanding the world.  “Above all,” Sarton wrote, “we must celebrate heroism wherever we come across it.  The heroic scientist adds to the grandeur and beauty of every man’s existence.”

And when the collective fields of science studies–history of science, sociology of science, anthropology of science, etc.–began to tell a different story, one in which as Shapin says scientists were embodied beings, situated in particular cultural contexts, whose experiences shaped the work they did, whose worldview shaped how they understood it, and whose often-pettiness, national pride, agendas, and bureaucracy shaped how it was received by others, the response from many scientific practitioners was furious.  The so-called Science Wars that raged on university campuses in the 1990s, in which science-studiers raised and discussed these questions and scientists vociferously defended both the integrity and authority of the scientists and the truth claims of science, were an outgrowth of that new approach to science studies.  

What did this “tone-lowering,” as Shapin terms it, consist of, and what did it attempt to introduce to the conversation about the study of science?  I reproduce much of page 5 from Shapin’s book to give you a sense of some of the new ways of studying science occasioned by these new approaches:

  • You could say that science happens within, not outside of, historical time, that it has a deep historicity, and that whatever transcendence it possesses it itself a historical accomplishment

  • You could say that science similarly belongs to place, that it bears the marks of the places where it is produced and through which it is transmitted….

  • You could go further and say that there is no single, coherent, and effective Scientific Method that does the work that genius was once supposed to do, even that there are no supposedly special cognitive capacities found in science that are not found in other technical practices or in the routines of everyday life.

  • You could say that Truth (in any precise philosophical sense) is not a product of science, or that it is not a unique product.  Or you could say that the historian is not properly concerned with Truth but with credibility, with whatever it is that counts as Truth in a range of historical settings

  • You could say that science is not pure thought but that it is practice, that the hand is as important as the head, or even that the head follows the hand.

  • You could say that making and warranting of scientific knowledge are performances, that those producing scientific knowledge can and do use a full range of cultural resources to produce these performances, and that these include displaying the marks of integrity and entitlement: expertise to be sure, but also signs of dedication and selflessness.  The very idea of disembodied knowledge thus becomes a bodily performance.

There isn’t a word of this that couldn’t be fruitfully applied to thinking about the halakhic tradition, halakhic decisions, halakhic decision-makers.  For Orthodox Jews, who ascribe authoritativeness to rabbinic Judaism as it has developed over the last two thousand or so years, taking these ideas seriously, however, immediately poses tremendous religious and philosophical quandaries.  Read, in contrast to Shapin,  Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on hakhmei hamesora, the Sages responsible for the transmission of the tradition of Torah from generation to generation. I quote at length because this is both so fundamental, and so widely cited:

The truth is attained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed on from generation to generation.  The truth can be discovered only by joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah….One must join the ranks of the chachmei hamesorahchazal, rishonim, gedolei achronim — and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei hatorah and must not judge the chukei mishpatim in terms of the secular system of things.  Such an attempt, be it historicism, be it psychologism, be it utilitarianism, undermines the very foundations of torah umesorah, and it leads eventually to the most tragic consequences of assimilationism and nihilism, no matter how good the original intentions.  

Second, we must not yield — I mean emotionally, it is very important — we must not feel inferior, experience or develop an inferiority complex, and because of that complex yield to the charm — usually it is a transient and passing charm — of modern political and ideological sevoros (logic)….In my opinion, yehadus (Judaism) does not have to apologize either to the modern woman or to the modern representatives of religious subjectivism…. And of course, certainly it goes without saying one must not try to compromise with these cultural trends, and one must not try to gear the halachic norm to the transient ways of a neurotic society, which is what our society is.

…But moreover, even those who admit the truthfulness of the torah she b’al peh but who are critical of chachmei chazal as personalities, who find fault with chachmei chazal, fault in their character, their behavior, or their conduct, who say that chachmei chazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the halachah;  nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer.  V’chen hakofer b’perusha v’hu torah she b’al peh v’hamach’chish magideha; he who denies the perfection and the truthfulness of chachmei chazal — not of the Torah, but of the chachmei chazal as personalities,…as far as their character, their philosophy, or their outlook on the world is concerned — is a kofer…..

You cannot psychologize halachah, historicize halachah, or rationalize halachah, because this is something foreign, something extraneous.  As a matter of fact, not only halachah — can you psychologize mathematics? …. I cannot give many psychological reasons why Euclid said two parallels do not cross, or why the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  If I were a psychologist I could not interpret it in psychological terms.  Would it change the postulate, the mathematical postulate?  And when it comes to Torah, which is Hakadosh Baruch Hu, all the instruments of psychology and history, utilitarian morality, are being used to undermine the very authority of the halachah. (emphasis added; all transliterations sic)

The Rav’s words have been traditionally understood as an affirmation of the world-view of Brisk in which he was educated.  But they are also of a piece with Sarton’s early-twentieth-century approach to studying great men and their intellectual achievements.   That is, they are equally an affirmation of the milieu in which Rabbi Soloveitchik received his academic training. That everything of interest–everything worth understanding–about a great man and his great intellectual achievement took place within his cranium was indeed the assumption that underlay much of intellectual history a hundred years ago, but it is no longer.  And that everything there is to know about the halakhic process and its development can be understood from within it is a claim that is untenable in light of the last thirty or forty years’ of knowledge production in the academy.  (This is recursive or second-order makhish magideha: historicizing the very claim that halakha cannot be historicized.)

Torah is not science.  Orthodox Judaism begins with the assumption of the Divine Revelation at Sinai, and the transmission of a Divinely-authored text.  But that all of the tools of science studies may not be apposite does not mean that none of them is.  Even as it begins with a Divine text, the explication of that text and the transmission and development of the corpus of the Oral Law are human activities.  Indeed, the Talmud makes this precise point in an oft-cited  and  powerful story:  Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages found themselves arguing about the ritual status of the oven of Akhnai.  Rabbi Eliezer performed numerous miracles to buttress his position, which the stone-cold Sages dismissed: “We do not decide halakha from leaping trees.  We do not decide halakha from reversing streams.”  Finally, Rabbi Eliezer summoned a Divine voice to declare that the halakha should follow his interpretation, and the voice obliged.  Rabbi Yehoshua, siding with the Sages, was unmoved by this as well: “The Torah is not in Heaven.  You gave it to us on earth, and You instructed us to decide following the majority.”  To this, a Heavenly voice was heard to reply, “My sons have defeated me, my sons have defeated me.” Human agency and choice, rather than an ultimately-ascertainable Divine Truth, are dispositive in determining the halakha.

The haredi world, while acknowledging the literal humanness of the hakhmei hamesora of every generation, would nevertheless reject this analysis out-of-hand.  The traditional approach to thinking of the Sages of preceding generations, and the more modern development of the idea of da’at Torah–that the study of Torah so refines a man’s intellect and character that he loses his individual partiality, prejudice, and preconception and remains only a vehicle for channeling the Divine Will and the Divine Word–are completely incompatible with this thinking.   In their view, through their study of Torah, hakhmei hamesora precisely transcend their bodies, culture,  space, and time.  But that world does not claim to value secular knowledge for its own sake, nor to think that it can shed light on the study of Torah.  The world that does make those claims needs to figure out how to realize them.

The analogy between the technical disciplines and the study of Torah, in this regard, is not only mine: Rabbi Soloveitchik, in the final paragraph cited, invokes Euclid and his geometry as a way of challenging the whole idea of situating intellectual history in a cultural context.  And yet now we have entire academic disciplines that do just that. His refutation is become a confirmation. (Or, if your preference runs more to the beis medrash and less to the academy, his upshlug is become a raya.)

Twentieth-century scholars talked about what Einstein knew, what he read, what he had thought about when he came up with the Theory of Special Relativity, first published in 1905. Was it the Michelson-Morley experiment?  Thought experiments about the speed of light?  It wasn’t until the twenty-first century that Peter Galison asked us what Einstein was spending all of his days working on (reviewing patent applications in the Bern patent office, that’s what), and asked us to think about how looking at numerous patents directed towards coordinating timekeeping on the railroads, so that distant trains could be sure that they were leaving and arriving in stations on the same schedule, might have affected the ways he thought about questions of simultaneity, distance, and speed so implicated in the theory.  The purely theoretical achievement of Special Relativity turns out to have a very practical and concrete grounding.  That does not change the theory, the equations, their implications–but it does force us to rethink both what science is and who are the people who do it.

We cannot have this conversation without raising yet another issue that Rabbi Soloveitchik also raises and dismisses, one which is implicated in all of these debates today, and which our superannuated understanding of Torah U’Madda does not at all prepare rabbis to address: the questions of authority and her sister concept, objectivity.  The scientist claims for himself objectivity–he is purely engaged in the pursuit of truth, unaffected by his body, his upbringing, his cultural context–and because he is objective, he has a claim to authority.  But in fields that extend far beyond science studies, academics have questioned those claims to objectivity, demonstrating that objectivity itself as a desideratum is a cultural construct, and that claims to authority on the basis of disinterested pursuit of truth have long been wielded as a weapon to reinforce the power of white Western men at the expense of others.

(This does not mean that there is no expertise, or no authority.  When I dropped a knife while washing dishes and severed a tendon in my foot, I consulted with an orthopedic surgeon as to how to proceed.  But at the same time, I am aware that my orthopedic surgeon has been educated in a system, professionally trained to certain practices, and views the world in certain ways.  That I know this does not strip him of all authority and make him no more qualified to opine about my foot than my optician, or my automobile mechanic, but it does mean that I will not view his opinion as the absolute, unquestionable truth about my condition and the best possible path of treatment–hence the second opinion [and, increasingly, consultation with Dr. Google.]  That I understand that the Theory of Universal Gravitation was the product of a specific man [Isaac Newton] situated in a particular cultural context, who was involved in some rather nasty fights about credit, priority, attribution, and authority–none of that means that I will jump out of my third-floor kitchen window because gravity is not “real” or not “true.”  The choice is not that either our scholars are pure, abstracted intellect or they have nothing to say that we must take seriously.)

To say these things is to immediately be guilty, in the Rav’s eyes, of being makhish magideha.  The charge of heresy, made so explicitly and definitively, has served to shut down conversation on these topics in the circles where they are most needed. And indeed, for both religious and sociological reasons, it is hard to advance these claims. The decades that have passed since the Rav’s death have not displaced him from his status as a final word on halakhic and communal questions.  I readily acknowledge my inadequacy to the task–and yet we, as a community, must collectively figure out how to do just that. If this be treason, let us make the most of it. It is impossible to credit the claim that it doesn’t matter at all to the content of the halakhic system that those admitted into the tent of Torah, those with a seat at the table, those with a voice in the conversation, have been exclusively male.  What does it mean that endless deliberations about women’s bodies, their processes, their effluvia have only and ever been engaged in by men who never inhabited those bodies, never experienced those processes, never checked those effluvia and brought their questions to a Rabbi?  What does it mean, more, that those deliberations were engaged in by men who didn’t see women as intellectual peers; equal inheritors of, deliberators about, or transmitters of the tradition? (This is not the only question of authority that is implicated here, but it is, I think, the biggest, the one most central to the debates within Orthodoxy today, and the most personal.)

Saying that these things matter, posing these questions, does not presuppose a particular set of answers or a particular set of halakhic outcomes. Orthodox Jewish thinkers have wrestled over the generations with many questions about Judaism and modernity, and have come up with a range of answers that balance fealty to faith and practice with intellectual rigor and honesty.  But we have to engage with these questions, not avoid them out of fear of where thinking about them might lead us. We should have more confidence in the Torah’s ability to meet the challenge of modernity than that.

And here we arrive at what is to me the void at the core of Modern Orthodoxy.  Others will tell me that I am naive, that the problem with American Modern Orthodoxy is not intellectual and academic but practical, pragmatic: a lack of meaningful engagement on the part of the laity, too many kids falling away, the materialism and shallowness of the community, the college experience as an alienator of Jewish souls.  All of those things are doubtless true, and as a high school educator in the community of more than a decade’s standing I have a front-row seat to all of them.  But nevertheless, they do not challenge the underpinnings of the whole enterprise.  And I cannot help but feel that our collective inability or unwillingness to engage with the twenty-first century questions about how to think about the body of halakha as if it Was Produced by People with Bodies, Situated in Time, Space, Culture, and Society, and Struggling for Credibility and Authority does.

We can–many do–dismiss the very asking of these questions as heresy, which certainly obviates the need to answer them.  But Torah U’Madda, if it stands for anything, stands not for the ability to go to an excellent university, get a prestigious law degree, and make a wonderful living for a family in Teaneck, Woodmere, or New Rochelle.  Torah U’Madda should mean that we believe that there is hokhma bagoyim, and that the study thereof can enrich and deepen our understanding of Torah.  Does everything worth knowing emerge from within Torah, or are there things worth knowing that emerge from the broader world and are brought into–indeed, enhance–our study and understanding of Torah?  The difference as to how one answers those questions should be one of the markers of Modern Orthodoxy.

Which brings us, inevitably, to Yeshiva University as an institution.  Whenever it is mentioned, the words “flagship” and “Modern Orthodoxy” come trailing in its wake.  Yeshiva University faces many challenges, some reflective of broader societal trends and some of its own making.  But at an intellectual level, the religious leadership of an institution whose motto is “Torah U’Madda” has frozen its conception of religiously permissible Madda at that with which the Rav engaged at the University of Berlin in the 1920s (or, perhaps, with that with which Rav Aharon Lichtenstein engaged at the Harvard of the 1950s.)  In this, it is reminiscent of an aging Albert Einstein, whose comfort with modern physics ended with his Theory of General Relativity but never extended to the indeterminism and seeming senselessness of quantum theory.  (Einstein’s famous remark that “God does not play dice with the universe” was not an affirmation of his belief in providence, but a statement of his [incorrect] rejection of quantum theory.)  We see this often in individuals–it is related to the theory of paradigm shifts advanced by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions–but it is deeply problematic in institutions.  The developments in academia of recent decades–in science studies, of course, and also in legal theory,  postcolonialist history, feminist studies, and a whole host of other fields and disciplines that question established hierarchies, assertion of merit, authority, and objectivity–have not only not penetrated into the thinking about halakha or the training of rabbis in any serious way; they are regularly dismissed with the epithet “postmodernism” as inimical to authentic Torah study and Torah values.  That posture–that the ideas current in the world out there are treif (even if at some time in the past they were not), that they should be steered-clear-of and not studied and applied to our own learning–is certainly a position, one that prevails in the haredi world in which I was educated.  And it is tenable, as long as one stays within that world.  But we in the Centrist and Modern Orthodox worlds are raising our children and educating our students towards intellectual and practical integration into the broader world, and at the same time the institution that educates most of our rabbis dismisses as “postmodernism” anything that asks these questions.  If this persists, we are in for a world of hurt.

In my first semester of graduate school, I took a seminar called History 500, a requirement for all beginning graduate students in history.  At the time, I was, however awkwardly, ensconced in the haredi world.  That was my education and background, that was the world in which I was shidduch-dating (another story for another time.)  I would never have termed myself Modern Orthodox.  But in History 500, I read a paper about Spain during the Christian Reconquest.  The paper dealt with the priests’ exhortations from the pulpit to the people to practice a pure Catholicism, and the people’s syncretism as they mixed official Church practice and doctrine with earlier and alternate religious practices.  I read that paper, and thought, “This could be describing the Brooklyn in which I grew up as well as it describes Catholic Spain centuries ago.”  From an education in which I had always been taught that the Jewish people, and by extension Jewish history, was sui generis, that the rules and patterns of history that apply to everyone else don’t apply to the Jews, it was a dislocating and discomfiting thought.  Ultimately, a strong humanities education made me Modern Orthodox. (Mommas, don’t let your Bais Yaakov girls grow up to be academics!)

Today’s Centrist Orthodox world–the world of Yeshiva University, the world that produces the overwhelming majority of the Modern Orthodox world’s rabbis and Torah teachers–would generally be comfortable with an academic approach to Jewish history.  Normative Orthodoxy would reject historicizing the text of the Torah itself.  And in between we have the hakhmei hamesora and the halakhic process.  How we think about them, in what context we situate them, and whether we allow ourselves to think critically about them using the tools of modern scholarship is the unavoidable intellectual challenge for Torah U’Madda for the twenty-first century.  We need people who are sufficiently well-versed in and committed to Torah to speak credibly in that realm, and sufficiently familiar with the current academic landscape to meaningfully bring those insights to bear. We need to believe that Torah U’Madda was not a limited-time offer that expired sometime in the last century, but that our understanding and appreciation of Torah can still be enhanced by bringing Madda to bear. And we need to not be afraid.


21 thoughts on “What Are We So Afraid Of?: The Challenge of Torah U’Madda for Our Time

  1. I very much appreciate the piece, both for what it says and for how it reflects the ways in which you yourself have clearly wrestled with these questions. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but my impression from when you were completing your PhD was of someone who was far more compartmentalized intellectually and religiously (despite your open love of baseball). In any case, I hope it is a prolegomenon for a much longer discussion that needs to continue about modern Orthodoxy, its intellectual and ideological commitments and the future of YU. Let us not forget though that many have made overlapping arguments (Yoel Finkelman and Yehudah Mirsky come to mind as more recent contributors, but Tamar Ross needs to be given much credit for inviting hostility from some of the people mentioned above in your article).

    I have much to say on these topics but this isn’t the place. I would briefly like to suggest first that ‘Torah Umadda has become such a moribund concept that It needs to be dropped and we need to move on from it. To my mind it hearkens back to the essentially defunct Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists (now a venue for doctors and dentists to get cme credits-how many YU grads are even going into the sciences these days?). It does not seem a slogan/motto capable bearing the weight of what you suggest (whether the term modern/centrist ‘orthodox’ really can either is another question).

    Second, your article points to an already emerging split within modern orthodoxy between those committed to the humanities and social sciences as pursued in the contemporary university and those who couldn’t care less or think it’s BS. Walk into any self-consciously progressive orthodox minyan, and certainly partnership style minyan, and you find an extreme over-representation of academics and with them the strands of liberalism and postmodern epistemology that contemporary academia fosters. This suggests to me that the void you describe at the center of modern orthodoxy is not going to be filled. What had been the center was an engagement with modernity’s claims to universal values and truths- be they scientific or ethical. With that gone, the center does not hold, and we find ourselves spiraling in an ever widening gyre in which we are no longer speaking the same language. Some are flung into a new iteration of orthodoxy, some leave it altogether, and many become fundamentalist. Modern/centrist Orthodoxy then persists as the mostly hollowed out pursuit of upper middle class American suburban life. (Many of us who find this all so depressing move to Israel.)

    One final thought (continuing with a bit of an STS approach to these issues) is that scientists can reconcile themselves to the claims of STS to an extent because at the heart of science (even if not the individual scientists) is the desire or expectation, to paraphrase François Jacob, to have the present understanding of the world revised and even upended. Normal science can give way to abnormal science and paradigms can change because science has an underlying ideology that supports this. Without a corresponding theology at the heart of modern orthodoxy, we can’t talk about halakhah in the terms that you suggest without it quickly becoming self undermining for the whole enterprise. Unfortunately modern Orthodox theological discourse is almost nonexistent. We love talking about halakha, not about God (this too is something of a legacy from the Rav).


  2. A community where an elite engages in such discussions while its BA’s c commitment is that of a milevwide and an inch deep is engaging in a luxury when in fact far too many educated in the MO world simply haven’t opened a classical text since high school.


  3. Brilliant. You go girl!
    Somewhere in my files I have a copy of a draft I wrote some 20 years ago, have come to similar conclusions in the Princeton comp. Lit. Department. It was called “Torah u deconstruction!?: Towards a Post modern Orthodoxy” unfortunately for various reasons, in never went forward with the draft and it was only circulated among the other “Alter s” at Gush. Ironically I argued there that the Rav specific ly LMF laid the groundwork for confront ing contemporary challenge s and that of we did not do we were in danger of becoming “chareidim who read Kant”

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  4. The Rav’s hesped for the Tolner Rebbetzin in fact assigns gender and situation to Jewish knowledge and praxis. His position moved over time from the extreme rigid phenomenology of his early days. At any rate, wonderful essay, and as one who has been working at postmodern readings of traditional texts for quite some time (see linked website), I’m grateful to have read this essay.


  5. The problem with this argument is that is assumes that we need to engage in contemporary academic culture b/c that culture produces “knowledge,” i.e., that we need to engage in post-modernist analysis of Judaism b/c post-modern theories are true. But they’re not; they are a passing academic fad, and it’s not just “haredim” who think so. Post-modernism has and has had for a long time, plenty of secular critics. And we, as both citizens of the contemporary world and Orthodox Jews should not uncritically assume the truth of what is popular in academic culture. In fact, a lot of its is wrong. Social science is in the midst of a crisis, as even its practitioners acknowledge that it suffers from confirmation bias, publication bias, and corrupt peer review system, not to mention political bias as well. in fact, many classic social science theories have been shown to be based on experiments that can’t be reproduced. Even the hard sciences have some of the same problems. Once we get to post-modern cultural studies, which arose out of Marist literary theory, any pretense of academic rigor is gone and we’re into self-parody, a world where we’re told that gender is a “bodily performance,” to use a phrase also in the book cited above. Again, that may be a popular post-modern theory, but it flies in the face of human and other animal biology. We should have discussions about the roles of men and women in Orthodoxy, but we don’t need to accept the concept of the “cis-normative hetero-partiarchy” to do so.


  6. Dr Schwartz,
    A wonderful quote from Avi Ravitzky that epitomizes the issue for me:
    “We have learned a great deal from R. Soloveitchik, and there has not yet risen another like him. But it is precisely for this reason that when we learn from him an orientation towards modernity, we are his students; however, when we learn from him what modernity means, we are not students, but hasidim – and he never wanted hasidim.”
    On another note, I think Soloveitchik’s views on this are actually not so clear cut, and that his views of scientific method are actually closer to the views of those philosophers of science who question the very idea of scientific method (such as Michael Polanyi, Paul Feyerabend), but that’s a far longer discussion for another forum.


  7. Your comparison between the work of hachmei mesorah and science appears to lack an understanding of how these things are similar and how they are different. HH produce halakha and other literature that may be classified as genres in the humanities. Accordingly, Soloveitchik is partially right that the work of HH stands on their own, and should be judged on their own, like any work of literature, irrespective of the social milieu of the author. However, even that comparison is inadequate, since no one looks at you funny if you read about the life of Oscar Wild and conclude he was less than an honorable person. Also, an educated reader is free to read Faulkner, a giant in the field by any measure, and conclude that he never wants to read anything by Faulkner again, but no HH can do that with Rashi or the Rambam.
    In particular, Hachmei hamesorah and their work should not be compared too readily with scientists and their work because:
    (1) Scientists conduct experiments and observations that are published in peer-reviewed journals. Their findings can support their initial hypothesis or not, their theories can be rejected by further scientific evidence, even many years later. This is not the case with the work conducted by hachmei hamesorah. There is no empirical verification of any rigor. The acceptance of production by HH is nearly entirely authority-driven and community driven. While there is some of that in science, too, any 24 year old graduate school math or physics student can find something new and publish it and overturn the field.
    (2) No scientist would ever (think to) write, as Rabbi Soloveitchik did with respect to HH, that anyone who finds fault in the personality of a scientist is a kofer, or that such finding fault is a dangerous or wicked thing to do. Scientists are unafraid of science being undermined by such fault finding. The reputations of HH must be sheltered because their work and the system as a whole rests entirely on their authority and reputation. Just imagine for a moment the earthquake that would result if someone discovered clear and unimpeachable evidence that one of the great rishonim, say Rashi or the Rambam, was gay for most of his life. Chapters of their works would be purged. Now imagine if similar evidence were unearthed showing that say, Isaac Newton was gay. It would make for an interesting article in the Atlantic or a PBS special, but it would have no bearing on his theory of gravity or the formulas that put satellites in space.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Within the Torah testimony and YeC timeline is the mantle of science.
    It has stood the test of time and is the most credible testimony.
    Deep-time doctrine at best is weak science as premised on premise and assumptions that preclude the highest probable scientific actuality thus has built in confirmation bias and is a form of religious dogmatism.
    reference RCCF = The Recent Complex Creation Framework for understanding science in maximum available context.


  9. It is interesting to see this discussion resurface periodically. I had thought it had been put to rest in the great “blog wars” that broke out after the Natan Slifkin Affair, which were in themselves reminiscent of Wesely’s Divrei Shalom Ve’emes, and his excommunication during the actual enlightenment, and the publications that followed it.

    I have to ask, why this cannot simply be viewed from the standpoint of pragmatism. Orthodox Judaism can bend but in certain areas it is inflexible, and can therefore not susbsume or incorporate a modern philosophical system that does not have such boundaries.


  10. This piece seems to be arguing that, while it is perfectly consistent for the Charedi world to reject developments in academia that reject the position that reason can arrive at objective truth, Modern Orthodoxy, because of its commitment to academic inquiry, must absorb these developments to avoid being inconsistent. In other words, Dr. Schwartz seems to conceive of commitment to scholarship in the academy as a zero-sum game. Such a conception of commitment to scholarship was perfectly justified back in the days when academia still fundamentally believed in ideals of truth, objectivity, reason and disinterested inquiry, because commitment to those ideals naturally led to loyalty to the community of those who, however imperfectly, carried them out, i.e. the academic community. Now that the academic community has largely given up on those ideals, however, Torah U’Madda no longer requires one to follow the direction that the humanities have gone in recently, at least if “Madda” is interpreted to mean, not whatever happens to be happening in academic institutions at any given time, but rather rational inquiry itself, regardless of whether academic institutions embody it at any given time. If interpreted that way, Torah U’Madda not only does not require one to accept postmodern ideas, but in fact requires one to reject them because they undermine objective rationality, which is what Madda is. Therefore, an institution committed to Torah U’Madda would do well to consider postmodernism as inimical to its mission.


  11. I really enjoyed your wonderful essay, “What Are We So Afraid Of?: The Challenge of Torah U’Madda for Our Time.” Just marvelous, both substance and style. I look forward to seeing more from you. What I think many people fail to understand is that it is not about a commitment or loyalty to social sciences or to humanities or to postmodernism. It’s about a commitment to truth (but not to Truth). I.e., it’s about an authentic, acknowledgement of what beliefs is the most reasonable and accurate understanding of something, and a reasonable and authentic appraisal of the basis for our understanding. You explain this so well. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you for a thoughtful (as well as correct) article. I hope you will expand on your thoughts with clarity (clearer definition of terms) and focus on what’s next – where do we go from here. What questions specifically come from using the modern academic toolbox that didn’t appear before (or are the previous answers no longer relevant) and are there limits to its use? When you say “In between we have the hakhmei hamesora and the halakhic process” I am confused of what you mean. I do not think anyone (MO world) would object to using these tools in “analyzing” Jewish history, history of Halakha and hakhmei hamesora (a problematic term of recent vintage), or even the halakhic process (how the sausage is made?- is there a difference with the history of). The issue is determining halakha and internal system used (the Rav’s philosophy of a priori halakha) and whether there can be or has been outside influences (a topic of academic literature). To avoid confusion a clarification is necessary. Your insight from the history and field of science overlaid on halakha, process and history yields promising results. What doesn’t change is the science or mathematics itself and perhaps so to with Halakha. But one can argue that science which describes the world as is – is discovered and perhaps Halakha is created at a certain time and place in history – maybe this is part of the discussion.


  13. Some comments and references  on this thoughtful article:

    1) R. Solevitchik reflects the traditional approach of relating to the transcendent status of Chazal  which  yeshivos are based on,  as R.  Akivah Eiger would say,   “I did not merit to understand; may Hashem enlighten me”.

    2) What would R. Solevitchik hold of “Mar Shmuel: A Portrait of the Life of a Talmud Scholar” of R.  Dovid Zvi Hoffman, an  original member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah,  which R. Samson Raphael Hirsch. privately criticized for interpreting halochos propounded by its subject as an “outgrowth of his  great love of mankind”(Artscroll biography of R. Hirsch , p. 263).  Would  R. Solevitchik  consider this a lesser issue?

    3) There are sources which discuss psychological  biases, including shochad, bribery, in relationship to Torah scholars. Chazon Ish(Emunah Ubitachon(3, 30)writes that we assume that Torah scholars are free of psychological biases, and shochad  of the Torah is instead,  a “chok” with mystical power(Rav Dessler, MME 1, pg 55 does use the example of Chazal fearing  shochad in subtle cases to derive that lesser people might have psychological biases not to observe Torah, and  I wonder if it  shows a different understanding of shochad). 

    Very interestingly, the Alter of Kelm(Ohr Rashaz,Parshas Terumah, #299), writes that human Torah scholars, as compared to angels,  could sometimes have a small amount of psychological bias which could affect their Torah rulings, such as on account of imperfect middos. Regarding such small biases he writes that we  say ” a judge only has  that which his eyes sees”. However, he does not discuss Chazal specifically, and might very well stress elsewhere the assumption of Chazal being free of psychological influence, in line with “rishonim k’malochim” mentioned by the Gemorah.


  14. I am not really sure how Post-Modernism is consistent with the notion of any field’s orthodoxy, including Orthodox Judaism. Once you replace the search for an Objective Truth with that for a personal truth (his truth or her truth), can the resulting epistemic system be made consistent with Torah? Rav Shagar defined such a system, I just don’t “get it”.

    But I am more concerned about something else. YU has RIETS, where men are trained to be rabbis, and that is where the Rav’s Brisker orientation shines. (Although there were exceptions like my own rebbe’s, Rav Dovid Lifshitz’s, shiur room, but that’s a different topic.) But it also has Revel graduate school, which does have a history of halakhah program.

    So what is the objection here — that YU’s philosophy major and Revel’s students aren’t integrating Post-Modernism with their Orthodoxy? Or that that message isn’t reaching the masses?

    Second, I believe you conflate two things when you write about R JB Soloveitchik’s objection to the historicization or psychologization of halakhah.

    One is the divide between Brisk and other traditional approaches — Brisk places halakhah front and center to the extent that it crowds out the rest of Torah. As someone who chose R’ Dovid Lifshitz’s shiur when I was in RIETS in part because I was more interested in the Telzer approach and its focus on “Why?” rather than the Rav’s shiur, Brisk, and the focus on “What?”, I get that. It would be nice to relate to halakhah by acknowledging that the halachic act is intended to have impact on the performer, and then analyze what that impact might be.

    The other, is the historical and psychological study of those who made the halakhah, and understanding the law in that light. To quote (EMPHASIS mine):
    “Normative Orthodoxy would reject historicizing the text of the Torah itself. And in between we have the hakhmei hamesora and the HALAKHIC PROCESS. How we think about them, in what context we situate them, and whether we allow ourselves to think critically about them using the tools of modern scholarship is the unavoidable intellectual challenge for Torah U’Madda for the twenty-first century. ”

    Which unfortunately sounds to me to be a call to embrace Historical School Judaism. And we know from experience that the Historical School is unlikely to support a traditional halakhic process. Telling us that this law or that is due to some historical pressure or a given rabbi’s psychological makeup gives too much license to today’s rabbi to do the same, or to repeal. I would therefore posit that there are bigger reasons for our not heading in this direction than tunnel-vision focus on the Rav’s thought. Chassidic rabbis, far from the Brisker end of the spectrum on the first kind of psychologization, would be no more satisfied with this historicization of the voices of tradition.

    Third, what we have from your metaphors of Einstein’s discovery of Relativity or Newton’s of Universal Gravitation is
    that you don’t need to know the history to assess the truth of either theory. History may be of interest to explain the discovery, but they do not touch the accuracy or applicability of the theory. As metaphors, they would argue for leaving such historicization in Revel, and the belief that while history could be interesting and enlightening, it doesn’t impact the content or meaning of the religion itself. These metaphors betray the goal of a Post-Modern Orthodoxy.


  15. According to R. Aaron Rakeffet’s  understanding  of R. Soloveitchik, “makchish maggideha” would not refer to this level of contextualizing Chazal’s scientific knowledge :

      “I never spoke with the Rav about Torah and science, but  based on all I know of his worldview I find it highly unlikely that he would consider someone makchish maggideha for believing that some factual statements by Chazal relied on their contemporary science.”(quoted in  “New Science, Same Torah”, Jewish Action, Winter, 2014).


      1. You are right that it’s  an entirely different issue.

        However, the Rav stresses “finding fault” with Chazal’s “personalities, character,  behavior,  conduct…were prejudiced… denies the perfection and the truthfulness…as personalities, as real persona as far as their character, their philosophy, or their outlook on the world is concerned”.  He was also responding to the proposal  that a chazakah of the Gemarah was based on the   “social and political status of women in antiquity…inferior political or social status of the woman”, ie, antiquated views of  women, and also mentions not to “apologize…to the modern woman”.

        By contrast, I wonder if saying that gender somehow could affect a scientific-related halachic ruling,  just as in the history of science saying that gender might affect a scientist, might be a step above what the Rav discussed of “finding fault”  and closer to the question of the source, or infallibility, of Chazal’s scientific knowledge discussed by R. Rakeffet. The Rav does talk about “historicism”, but so is what R. Rakeffet discusses, albeit in a possibly lesser way.


  16. when i was an undergrad, struggling with the idea of having to choose between an identity as modern orthodox or charedi (even baalebatish), the head of my sem (a direct descendant of RYDS, FWIW) was one of the few who understood my dilemma. she explained that her brother went to YU and became charedi when he found that “torah umadda” really meant “torah and fun” and he found the “fun” essentially treif and unnecessary. madda isn’t about actual knowledge or pursuit of intellect[ual integrity] for probably >99% of the self-identifying “modern orthodox” population. it’s just an easier and more immediately fun way of life, with a handy label. i spent my coming-of-age in the YU ivory tower, and am finding my current way of life in charedi israel to be much more pleasant, especially with regard to human interaction and raising my children. so much less angst. much better middos overall. do the current gedolim/poskim ever disagree with each other? all the time. does it make a huge difference? not usually.


  17. “but this is an entirely different issue/set of issues than the one I address.”

    You are right that it’s  an entirely different issue.

    However, the Rav stresses “finding fault” with Chazal’s “personalities, character,  behavior,  conduct…were prejudiced… denies the perfection and the truthfulness…as personalities, as real persona as far as their character, their philosophy, or their outlook on the world is concerned”.  He was also responding to the proposal  that a chazakah of the Gemarah was based on the   “social and political status of women in antiquity…inferior political or social status of the woman”, ie, antiquated views of  women, and not to  “apologize…to the modern woman”.

    By contrast, I wonder if saying that gender somehow might affect a scientific-related halachic ruling,  just as in the history of science saying that  gender might affect a scientist , might be a step above what the Rav discussed of “finding fault”  and closer to the question of the source or infallibility  of Chazal’s scientific knowledge discussed by R. Rakeffet.  The Rav does talk about “historicism”, but so is what R. Rakeffet discusses, albeit in a different way.


  18. Postmodernism inherently undercuts and contradicts itself, and therefore, ends up being without value.

    When you say that all truth is relative, that implies that what you have said is relative, and thus, may freely be rejected by anyone else. In your specific case: History of science, as you presented it, claims that scientists make subjective claims that have no necessary relation to the truth. This is how the humanities work, and it’s no surprise that a master (mistress?) of the humanities like yourself should see science that way. But there’s no logical reason for anyone else to see it that way, by your own postulates.

    Most any thoughtful Orthodox Jew will admit that Jewish thought includes subjective elements. Whether it is the willingness to use minority positions to free agunot, or the linkage between the unique philosophy of Rambam and or a kabbalist and his psak. The investigation and characterization of subjective elements in Jewish thought is a very important task. But postmodernist thought, being self-contradictory, is not a good starting point for it.


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