The Two Paths of Traditional Jewish Learning in America

December 8, 2017 | Aharon Lichtenstein, Shaul Seidler-Feller

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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