One of the most informative books I have ever read on the subject of early 20th century American Jewry was Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet’s biography of Bernard Revel, the 1st President of Yeshiva University.
The picture painted of American Jewry in the Revel bio matches that of Rabbi Rakeffet’s own autobiographical account of growing up in pre-war era New York. To put it simply – Orthodox Judaism as we know it today did not exist.
The fact is that Rabbi Rakeffet reported that some of the Rebbeim in his elementary religious day school were barely religious. Indeed, the general studies principal there, Harry Sherer (brother of Rabbi Moshe Sherer) ended up becoming a Reform Rabbi.
Virtually the same story was told by Rabbi Hirsch Diskind, son in law of one of my heroes, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. In an article published in Hamodia he said that in the early days of his own right wing Yeshiva, Chaim Berlin, the Rebbeim were barely Shomer Shabbos.
Another point Rabbi Diskind made was the following:
[T]heir hashkafos were not always in accordance with the Torah… For example, I remember how once [when I was in] in sixth grade, my rebbi entered the room crying bitterly. He had just heard the news that Chaim Nachman Bialik (pictured above), the father of modern Israeli poetry, had passed away, and this affected him deeply.
Life was indeed different then. But I must take strong issue with the way Rabbi Diskind framed the issue here. In the most subtle of ways he has condemned secular poetry as not in accordance with the Torah.
I received an e-mail from Rabbi Dr. Noam Weinberg. Rabbi Weinberg has Semicha from Yeshiva University and spent many years learning Torah. He has multiple degrees from top universities and is currently the Principal of Judaic Studies in North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck New York.
His e-mail included a letter he wrote to Hamodia in response to that article. Bearing in mind Rabbi Weinberg’s prestigious educational background in both Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol – here in part is what he wrote:
Let’s discuss now the Hashkafos which were not in accordance with the Torah.
Bialik was a Talmid of Volozhin and was always very fond of Jewish life and culture. Maybe the reason why the Rebbe was crying was because of the fact that he felt connected to another Jew who had a strong passion for his love for the Jewish people, maybe he was a relative of his, maybe he learned with him in Volozhin. Maybe he just liked Hebrew Poetry. Why does that mean that his Hashkafos were not in line with Torah? Did he stop being Shomer Torah U’Mitzvos? Did he do something Assur? Is it just that it is Assur to read Hebrew Poetry…
The hypocrisy is painful!!! Rav Hutner was a student of philosophy in the University of Berlin, who no doubt came across true Kefira in the things he read there, Rebbitzin Bruriah David, Rav Hutner’s daughter was allowed by her father to go to Columbia University where she got her PhD, and Rav Hunter who together with Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz wanted to start a fully accredited college and only because Rav Aharon Kotler said not to did he cancel those plans.
What kind of absurd double standard is it to to say that a Rebbe who cried because of Bialik’s death not knowing why he was crying is considered a person whose Hashkafos were not in line with Torah, whereas Rav Hutner who had a degree in Philosophy from the University of Berlin and read real Kefria is referred to as an individual who “understood each person intimately, better than he understood himself. His brilliance was overpowering, he was able to make everybody feel very close, and we all felt that he was interested in us and our growth.”
Rabbi Weinberg had other criticisms including being Dan L’Kaf Zechus to those ‘barely’ Shomer Shabbos Mechanchim instead of cavalierly dismissing them as barely religious. But the one reflected in the above excerpt is what resonated with me. I believe it is a profoundly important point.
Here is the problem. That a Rebbe in Rabbi Diskind’s era was strongly moved by the death of a Hebrew poet is characterized by him as reflecting a Hashkafa not in accordance with the Torah (emphasis mine) – is very troubling.Rabbi Weinberg’s indignation is well placed here. How ironic it is that it is Rav Yaakov’s son in law making this comment. R’ Yaakov famously quoted Shakespeare to his students. And he was surprised that they didn’t recognize that he was quoting Shakespeare.
The problem is not so much that there are people on the right who have this attitude. These are obviously people who condemn anyone who sees value in secular studies. For example. When Rav Aharon Lichtenstein famously said that his education in English literature helped him understand certain portions of Tanach better. He was disparaged by one particular Rosh Yeshiva in Israel. One who should have known better having been educated in an American Yeshiva where he no doubt studied Shakespeare.
What seems to be the case is that this attitude is now so heavily ingrained by the right that they take it for granted. They teach it to their children. They teach it to their students. There is no counter to it. No exposure to those who place value on the positive aspects of secular culture. I can’t imagine someone with this attitude ever quoting Shakespeare to his Shiur, let alone expressing surprise when his students didn’t recognize it.
Attitudes like this one expressed in media like Hamodia will no doubt go unchallenged unless they publish Rabbi Weinberg’s letter or one like it. This is the kind of subtle prejudice that is even more harmful than the overt prejudice you often hear in certain Yeshivishe circles.
Overt prejudice can easily be recognized and dealt with. But the kind of subtle prejudice expressed by Rabbi Diskind in that article becomes internalized by young students without them even being aware of it. It then becomes amorphously sourced “Daas Torah.” Especially if the person expressing those attitudes develops a close relationship with his Talmidim.
And this attitude gets regurgitated to the next generation by those Talmidim as they enter Chiunch themselves.
This kind of rhetoric – both overt and subtle – must stop. There is no excuse for denigrating secular studies which includes poetry by Bialik. I recall that Telshe Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Keller – a Kanoi in his own right – defended Limudei Chol in a Jewish Observer article a few years ago – saying that there is nothing wrong with it – in response to those who were putting it down.
In my view this phenomenon is nothing more than a continued “move to the right” which I believe is being fueled by the Israeli Charedi mindset. If this trend continues, the right will end up digging a hole so deep that they will never be able to climb out of it.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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