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Merging the Orthodox Streams


Broadly respected gadol hador, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986).

Broadly respected gadol hador, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986).

As ridiculous as it may seem, one of the things that I wish would happen is a merger between Beth Medrash Gavoha (Lakewood) and Yeshiva University (YU). Although I can hear the howls of laughter and screams of protestation on both sides of the Hashkafic aisle, I really think this would solve a lot of the problems we have today in Orthodoxy.

The truth is that this is not as far fetched as one might imagine. At least from a purely Hashkafic perspective. If one looks back to the early days of American Chinuch post Holocaust, one would see exactly this kind of institution existing at the grass roots level.

Outside of New York – elementary schools catered to all kinds of students from all kinds of homes. My classmates came from Yeshivishe homes, Chasidic homes, Modern Orthodox homes, Lubavitch homes, and even non observant homes. Our teachers respected those differences and taught us accordingly. Learning Torah came first, but secular studies were considered very important and treated seriously. Even among those on the right. The idea of attending college was a given then in almost all circles. Parnassa, was the number one concern in those days.

How important was college to the right wing in those days? If one looks at Yeshivos like Chaim Berlin and Torah VoDaath, the vast majority of their students attended college while in the Yeshiva – usually at night. They got degrees in fields like accounting or went on to professional schools to become doctors, lawyers, dentists, engineers… what have you! All while maintaining Yiras Shomayim and a strong commitment to Torah and Mitzvos.

The idea of learning full time for long periods of time well into marriage was an ideal reserved for very few people. Only the most elite and most motivated people would even consider doing that.

But somewhere along the line the paradigm started changing. As the religious communities grew new schools were created to cater to specific Hashkafos.

On the surface that might seem like a good idea. But that was the beginning of the divide that ‘keeps on giving’. We are moving further and further apart. As the community grows, there are new schools with even more fine tuned Hashkafos being formed – adding to the division. I believe that all this fine tuning is one of the most divisive forces in Orthodoxy.

There are now schools on the right that consider secular studies a waste of time at best. Secular studies are belittled! There are schools on the left that are pushing the envelope of ordaining women and allowing them to act as Chazanot in certain parts of Tefilah. Some may see these divisions as a plus. But I don’t.

I prefer an Orthodoxy that has a broad Hashkafic spectrum under one roof. While we may (and I emphasize the word “may”) lose some on the fringes of the right and left, the vast majority of Orthodox Jewry would experience a far greater sense of Achdus. We had a hint of that at the last DafYomi Siyum. Although it was sponsored by Agudah it was attended by almost the entire spectrum of Orthodox Jewry. And it was a positive experience for the vast majority of them – over 90% were inspired by it according to one poll (mine).

So in theory I think it is possible to create this hybrid. The practical benefits of such a merger would transcend even the sense of Achdus that it would generate.

Each Hashkafa has a weakness that is hurting it. On the right, the disdain for a decent secular education pushes their masses into a life of poverty. On the left the weakness is in the inability to produce enough great rabbinic leaders. While there are exceptions in both communities, I think that this is basically the rule.

On the right – the aggrandizement of full time Torah study for everyone and the default second class status of the working man has resulted in 1000s of families who are unable to make a decent living. Unless they have some family connection or have the courage and determination to do the unthinkable and go to college late in their lives, most of these people are qualified to do little else than go into Chinuch. And most of those are not properly trained to do so.

Enrollment in Yeshivos like Lakewood that currently number over 6000 and increasing annually means that over the course of generation there could be tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews that re unqualified to do anything other than teach Limudei Kodesh. Teaching I a noble profession. But how many teachers do we need? Even now there are far more applicants for teaching positions than there are available positions.

On the plus side, the concentration on learning full time has produced a tremendous number of Talmidei Chachamim who have the potential for becoming great rabbinic leaders. Without getting into a discussion about what constitutes a Gadol in terms of being more than a Talmid Chacham, it is undeniable that the majority of Talmidei Chachamim are being produced by the right wing.

On the left (Centrist) side of the Orthodox aisle, there is a conundrum that prevents it from producing large numbers of Talmidei Chachamim. While it is true there are great rabbinic leaders like Rav Hershel Shachter and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Yeshivos like YU produce far more Baalei Batim.

The reason for that should be obvious. YU does not denigrate secular studies. It places a high value on them. While Torah study is considered the greater of the two values of Torah U’Mada, giving students these choices enables them to choose careers that best suit their needs and talents. So a great number of them become professionals – even among those on the right wing of modern Orthodoxy. That means that there are far fewer that will choose learning Torah as a career, as did Rav Shachter and Rav Lichtenstein.

While this is good for Orthodoxy as a whole it must be admitted that not producing large numbers of Talmiedei Chachamim is a built in shortcoming of the Torah U’mada philosophy – at least in practice if not in theory.

A merger of the two philosophies would go a long way to solving those problems. The intense focus of learning full time would be tempered by the availability of a college on premises for those who want to pursue a career at some point. And it would encourage more people with the talent for doing so to consider a career in Torah study.

The Lakewood community needs a way to alleviate the poverty. The YU community needs to be able to produce more rabbinic leaders. A merger would create the environment for that. And it would minimize if not entirely eliminate the extremes.

I realize that the two Hashkafos are not entirely compatible. But why not allow students the opportunity to be educated in both? Why not allow them to have Rebbeim and Mechanchim on both sides of the Orthodox aisle? Let them hear both perspectives without one side disparaging the other. Why not allow our students make choices based on knowledge instead of ignorance? Wouldn’t that make them better Jews? And wouldn’t that make a far more balanced and unified Orthodoxy than the divisive one that exists now?

Imagine a Moetzes that included a broader spectrum of rabbinic leaders. And a population of educated Jews that can make a decent living in all fields – including the field of Torah study… Alas this is just an unrealistic pipe dream, I suppose. But I can dream, can’t I?

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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2 Responses to “Merging the Orthodox Streams”

  1. This writer refuses to accept that both sides are serious in their beliefs. Lakewood really believes that long-term study is the moet important ideal. YU really believes in Torah umada. How can we make one method of education that teaches both; Torah Umada is acceptable and totally wrong and long-term learning is ideal and also wrong!

  2. Rafi Hecht says:

    The truth is, until situations change, everyone is “on the same page.” For example, Avraham Avinu had in his household Yitzchak a forefather of Am Yisrael, Yishmael, the forefather of Arabs/Muslims, and Lot, the grandfather of the nation of Moav.

    Once time passes people and groups branch off in different directions based on their beliefs. It’s completely natural.

    That said, YU and BMG shared common beliefs when a) times were simpler, b) Many Jews had to go to work or starve to death, and c) just being Shomer Shabbos was a miracle. Today, none of that applies so the situation has changed. Now both Yeshivos focus on different strains. YU still emphasizes too much on Madda and less on Torah, and BMG sees the “frummization” of Americal Jewish society as an opportunity to “amp up” the learning.

    Just my thoughts.

Comments are closed.

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