TRADITION’s recent symposium on “Jewish Thought in the Contemporary World: Educational Challenges and Goals” (Fall 2020) provided an enlightening read. Having taught Jewish thought in various institutions and locations for close to twenty-five years I appreciated learning about the positions of thoughtful colleagues in the field, and I am hopeful that my response will contribute to the conversation.
My background deviates from that of many of the contributors. My parents raised me in a non-mitzva observant home. However, the sense of connection to Judaism was steadfast and theologically traditional. My fidelity to a belief in the divine origins of Jewish tradition at times conflicted with the Conservative Synagogue we attended. Our congregational rabbi received semikha from the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School and was relatively traditional. I clearly remember attending confirmation class, in the eleventh grade, where he led the class in a program on Jewish values. During one session, he asked students to list the qualities necessary to “be a good Jew.” As I recall, belief in God ranked very low. The assumption seemed to be that faith was an unnecessary component to lead a meaningful Jewish life. Hoping to find a more robust and committed faith, I attended the joint undergraduate program with Columbia University and the List College of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Taking the required course in philosophy with a well-known Conservative movement leader, my acceptance that belief played a role in Jewish practice was challenged. I often felt that the goal of the course was to disabuse us of childish, simple faith. I believe this was the “hidden curriculum” in the theology and biblical studies as well.
Ultimately, I felt a need to explore my convictions through study in yeshivot. However, upon arriving in a traditional beit midrash, my true thirst was for Talmud and halakha. Theology and Jewish Thought by this time seemed like stepchildren to the fundamentals of Gemara, Rashi, and Tosafot. Not until much later did I discover that my natural inclination was for what Rav Hayyim of Volozhin considered the essential “diet” of Jewish life. At the time, wrangling over theological truths seemed to be unnecessary at best and, given my past experience, potentially dangerous.
For some reason I cannot explain, I decided to pursue graduate studies at Harvard with Professor Isadore Twersky. My goal had been to understand medieval Jewish history; instead, I discovered medieval Jewish thought. In a course dedicated to defining the Jewish curriculum, we studied Rabbenu Bahya Ibn Pakuda’s Hovot HaLevavot. His introduction challenges the Gemara, Rashi, Tosafot triumvirate. He argues that studying issues of the heart, which seems to include theology and the range of Jewish thought, is not only obligatory but more important than esoteric Talmudic sugyot. For Rabbenu Bahya, issues of faith are paramount. Even in Rav Hayyim’s more narrow curricular vision, the need to study “sifrei yira” or works of theology and ethics plays an important religious role.
The guidance I received during my first serious teaching experience impacted the future goals I set for dealing with Jewish thought. I taught a course during Elul on the book of Jonah. My preparation consisted in reviewing a panoply of classic and modern commentaries. My instruction was dry and analytical. A mentor gently chastised me. He pointed out that while the focus needs to be an accurate understanding of the text, “prophetic works are supposed to inspire.” From that point forward, I tried to constantly question the spiritual impact of what I teach. Choosing a career of teaching in parochial and religious contexts, as opposed to the academy, focused my direction.
In his contribution to the symposium, David Shatz recounts that a professor of Jewish studies was criticized for suggesting that in such a field academics should “aim to inspire students to become more Jewish.” While some of her university colleagues disagreed with that approach, in yeshiva this serves as our central goal. Part IV of Nefesh HaHayyim, at the beginning of the presentation on Torah lishmah, spells out Rav Hayyim’s understanding of Jewish intellectual history. To be sure, for him, the highest goal of Torah study is “le-hosif lekach f-filpul” or in other words, to increase knowledge, primarily through the study of Talmud and its commentaries. However, he also understands that leaders in every generation need to evaluate the educational needs of the moment. There were those in the past who thought that unbridled Talmud study actually hampered religious growth and therefore those writers focused on works of “piety to straighten the hearts of the nation.” The genre of Jewish religious thought, at least from the perspective of Rav Hayyim Volozhiner, was an outgrowth of a need for greater inspiration and theological profundity.
In this regard I take issue with Yoel Finkelman’s presentation. He suggests that “this [trust in students’ seriousness] translates into a kind of surface indifference, on my part, to how this knowledge and often new ways of thinking influence them religiously and spiritually.” Knowing Dr. Finkleman well, and admitting that he and I share a lot in common, this sentence gave me pause. I believe traditionally-minded teachers of Jewish thought need to be invested in our impact. I imagine what Finkelman is trying to say is that we don’t have a stake in who wins the debate over the role of sacrifices, for example, in our students’ minds – be it Rambam or Ramban. I of course agree: – who am I to decide a disagreement between the greatest of our Sages? Nonetheless, we dare not sit idly by as a generation becomes less inspired by Jewish life. When I teach Rav Saadia or Rambam or Tanya, the critical question remains whether or not I am impacting my students’ spiritual lives. Our Sages wrote theology intending to bring themselves and others closer to God. We must teach with that as our animating purpose.
For the above reason I appreciate Mali Brofsky’s formulation of the central axes being “meaning and complexity.” Imparting a sense that Torah can frame lives full of meaning with respect for the complexity of modernity seems to me the rationale for studying Jewish theological and ethical works. As a jumping-off point both for myself and for my students, I often return to the classic essay by Eliezer Berkovits, first published in TRADITION (Spring 1961), “What is Jewish Philosophy.” In a profound work plumbing the definition, goals, and methods of Jewish philosophic writing, Berkovits asks many of the critical questions the authors of the essays in this symposium are grappling with. How do we read the Guide of the Perplexed or why do we read it when Maimonides’s understanding of the world was far from that of our own? The scientific revolution and enlightenment rejected many of Maimonides’ axioms. Berkovits writes,
We are faced here with a paradoxical situation. The very ambition of the thinker to provide a true and convincing philosophy of Judaism makes his work always relative, i.e. temporal, and, therefore of only passing validity. Notwithstanding Hegel, there is no final and eternal philosophy. Every thinker in the history of Jewish philosophy interpreted Judaism in the categories of thought of his own generation. All Jewish philosophies are subjective. They make sense in a certain time, in a certain situation, for certain people. They are always the words of men, not the word of God (119).
So, why bother? Why should we teach Jewish thought and how can a relative theology influence our students and ourselves today? If, as Berkovits continues, “all the philosophies of Judaism are essentially subjective and, therefore, of only passing validity, if all of them eventually become antiquated, what is their value as interpretations of Judaism?” In a lengthy discourse, Berkovits argues that in every generation, we are called upon to use the tools at hand to craft a relative understanding of the Divine. Past thinkers such as Halevi, Maimonides, Ramban, or Maharal can inspire as models of thinkers trying to shine eternal truths through a contemporary prism. The efforts of past generations can inspire our students to make Judaism and Torah their own by using modern tools.
With the popularity of post-modernism or something akin to it taking hold, contemporary thinkers such as Rav Shagar offer students a recent model of what Berkovits’ use of tools of the time to convey timeless wisdom. I think, and here I agree with Finkelman, that philosophical issues are not the most dangerous temptations drawing our students away from Judaism. Clearly, an array of social factors play a much greater role. However, seeing profound Jewish thinkers grappling with these issues and remaining committed Jewish thought leaders serves as models for people with questions and doubts.
I often encounter students who lament that they “want to want to be” believing, engaged Jews. I think for those of us swimming in the seas of Torah and modernity, the works of R. Jonathan Sacks, R. Aharon Lichtenstein, the Rav, Rav Shagar, hasidut, and even the classic thinkers mentioned above, can serve as role models who validate a spiritually engaged life.
As religious teachers, rabbis, and lifelong learners, our goal has to be to inspire towards Avodat Hashem. To do so in the most profound way means understanding the thought of previous generations, reading theological texts carefully, and understanding the context of past Jewish thinkers. The ultimate aim of this encounter with Jewish Thought is to inspire a life of Torah and mitzvot.
Rabbi Todd Berman is the Associate Director at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi and has held numerous educational posts, including founding the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) at Brandeis University, where he served as the rabbinic advisory to the Orthodox community for several years.