The Two Paths of Traditional Jewish Learning in America

At a 1968 conference of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, a largely secular institution, Aharon Lichtenstein—widely regarded as one of the greatest Orthodox rabbis of the late 20th century—gave a lecture titled “A Century of Jewish Higher Learning in America.” This lecture, recently rendered into English by Shaul Seidler-Feller, discussed the attempts to transplant European-style yeshivas to the U.S., and the various approaches taken by these institutions. The most important distinction among them, Lichtenstein argued, lay in their respective attitudes toward the non-Jewish culture. (A recording of the lecture, in Yiddish, can be found at the link below.)

[H]ow can one best prepare the yeshiva student—after he has, so to speak, already been molded—to influence the broader world, which is, to use a turn of phrase, “beyond the river” [1Kings 14:15], on the other side of the study-hall walls? To what extent does a young scholar or a Torah institution feel a responsibility to accomplish this task? And how can the yeshiva most effectively train its students to do so? . . .

Some believe that one need not do so, that it is actually wasted effort. Others feel that one should, but what can you do? There is no common language between the Torah and secular worlds, so any attempt to bridge them is doomed. And still others—in particular, this is the attitude of [Yeshiva University] and of Chicago’s Hebrew Theological College—believe the opposite: that the responsibility is great, and that in order to fulfill this responsibility one must be careful to see to it that a student well understands the modern, secular world.

Certainly, one need not plunge and delve deeply into that world . . . but one must have some handle on the secular world in order to begin to understand it. This is, perhaps, the main division that exists today within the yeshiva world. There is much, I believe, that we can learn from the scholarly world without abandoning our focus. I hope there is also much that the scholarly world can learn from us.

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More about: Aharon Lichtenstein, American Judaism, Religion & Holidays, Yeshiva, Yeshiva University

 

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays