Fight or Flight: the confrontation of Orthodoxy and modernity

(h/t The Book of Doctrines and Opinions and A Message from the Rosh HaYeshiva)

R. Dov Linzer, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), in his speech at this year’s YCT semicha graduation, shared an idea related to last week’s Torah portion about the need to confront challenge head on instead of running away from it. I was directed to this speech through a post on Dr. Alan Brill’s blog (see here and the comments, which seem to be a sharp critique of the need for response and engagement). I have been turning over this speech in my head to see what is relevant and what is missing the boat. As such, let me share some points, both in response to R. Linzer as well as in response to some of the questions posed by Dr. Brill.

To begin, I find that R. Linzer is presenting a critique of the Orthodoxy of the centrist Orthodox/YU world, from which I myself was graduated (I realize that am lumping several smaller subgroups into this heading, but I am driving at certain points). As I read his words, the challenge he is placing before his rabbinic graduating class is how to find a balance between being innovative/creative and being pastoral. The balance I refer to is how to bring the Torah out of the desert without compromising on one’s role as a spiritual leader caring for others. How this is translated into reality is a different question.  When I was beginning semicha at YU, we first year students had a dinner with R. Norman Lamm, who harped on the need for Rabbis to keep a structured learning seder every day, as well as the need to read multiple newspapers.  While most of us can get our news from the internet in greater doses than a couple of papers, the other part, about a set learning schedule, is not nearly as simple.  And it is this that R. Linzer is perhaps referring to.  The rabbi must be a pastoral presence, but must also grapple with personal growth, both spiritually and intellectually.  As an aside, this is a big challenge of chaplaincy, which some YCT’s graduates and students find themselves working in as well. Can one’s intellectual study find a place in one’s pastoral work? Is it even supposed to?

Now I will address some of the questions Dr. Brill presents:

According to the speech, there is a need to deal with Biblical criticism and the Holocaust. For the latter, you can tell everyone to read Kol Dodi Dofek, Yitz Greenberg, and Eliezer Berkovits but what are they expecting for Biblical criticism? Are they telling graduates to embrace it or just to spend an afternoon reading Mordechai Breuer? And if the goal is to open afresh: Why be Jewish? What answers do they expect?
He said “did we once again say that halakha will answer all religious questions?” Where are the new answers going to come from? How are they expecting the young graduates to grapple with these topics? Read Newsweek and blogs? Are these the topics that they should bring up with their congregations?

In terms of the issue of the relevance of grappling with the Holocaust, Zionism, biblical criticism, etc. I disagree with the idea that we no longer have to confront them, as many of the comments on Dr. Brill’s post want to argue for. I find that these topics have not become passe, as one can see in the blog world and within various Orthodox communities.   In the community I live, a group got together about five years ago and established a lecture series under the title, The Orthodox Forum.  What I find fascinating is that while much of the rhetoric is outdated or doesn’t respond to the challenges presented, there are many speakers on the circuit who feel that they can engage the topics with sophistication.  As such, even for those of us who find the debates to be besides the point or irrelevant, people are interested and will always remain so.  Just look at the titles of lectures being offered around the country, or the journals being published by Marc Angel’s Jewish Ideas and Ideals.  Granted, it might be easy to argue that the topics this journal is covering are also in the category of irrelevant, but my point is that this is what people want, for otherwise the enterprise would not be as broad.

Personally, while I often struggle with the confluence of modernity and Judaism, I do believe that there are greater issues facing the Jewish community than Israel, the divinity of the Torah, etc., such as tuition, cost of living, economic and social change.  We do have a responsibility to the world.  I should clarify that I define this responsibility different from many.  Nevertheless, to simply shrug off the grand questions as pointless is arbitrary and becomes a personal vendetta.

From a rabbinic standpoint, one must realize that when crisis hits, then of course, the questions and struggles disappear.  And this is where the rabbi trained in pastoral care will thrive and potentially make a greater impact.  Yet, in order to be effective at supporting people in crisis, one must first grapple with how crisis affects one’s own thought and life.  Confronting ourselves in all our struggles will be the impetus to allow us to fight, to lead and to be confident in our authenticity.

I applaud R. Linzer’s effort to encompass the rabbinate in the metaphor of bringing the Torah out of the desert.  It is a compelling way to look at life in the working world of the rabbinate.