Yeshiva Attack

Jeff’s reaction to Orthodox Paradox? Noah Feldman had been too easy on the yeshivas of his youth.

I can’t help but look back on the bulk of my yeshiva education with bitterness. My teachers smoothed over all the tensions that animate contemporary Judaism, petrifying the faith they were trying to preserve. I’m not sure why they did this, why they hid away so much of Judaism’s complexity. Perhaps they weren’t attuned to this complexity themselves. Perhaps they thought we couldn’t handle the doubt complexity entails.

In college doubt set in any way. I ran away from Judaism then because, among other things, it seemed provincial compared to the high points of Western culture. There was nothing in yiddishkeit that could inspire me to the extent the classics did, nothing intellectually transcendent about the culture I had been told to worship. Nevertheless, I had been raised in this culture, so I figured I owed it another chance. When I attended The Pardes Institute I realized that it was my yeshiva education that had been provincial. The Pardes education was about exploring the nuances and contradictions my yeshivas had disavowed.

Examples of this abound. In the earlier grades Chumash was seen almost exclusively through the eyes of Rashi. The great biblical narratives were reduced to morality plays. Jacob was all good; Esau was all bad. By the time we got around to taking the text more seriously these sorts of assumptions were ingrained. In yeshiva, the Binding of Isaac was a test Abraham passed, one that only confirmed his unwavering commitment to God.

Pardes is an institute of Jewish learning open to post-college men and women. It was founded in 1972 and is located in Talpiot, Jerusalem.

In Pardes, it wasn’t so clear. Abraham responds to both the call of his son and the call of his God with the same word: “hineini”— dramatizing the extent to which he is torn between two imperatives (JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh, Gen. 22.7-11). [1] He cannot, in this moment, fulfill both the moral obligation he has to his son and the religious obligation he has to his Creator. He must choose. But does he choose rightly?

Isaac’s sudden disappearance from the story leaves room for doubt. Having sacrificed a ram in his son’s place, Abraham descends Mount Moriah and travels to Be’er Sheva. But what has become of Isaac? On this the text is silent. It’s as if Isaac remains on the mountain, forever abandoned. And indeed there is no record of any subsequent interaction between Abraham and his son. Nor is there any record of interaction between Abraham and his wife. In fact, Sarah dies in the very next chapter.

The Binding of Isaac need not be read as Abraham’s downfall, but ignoring the extent to which it can be deprives the text of much of its power. In Pardes we embraced those aspects of the story that complicate one’s esteem for Abraham, confronting the moral ambiguity that any suspension of the ethical entails.

My yeshivas also taught Bible without any mention of biblical criticism. Issues like how Moses recorded the passage that describes his death were waved away with a handy reference to the Midrash. The important discussion of revelation that should have then ensued was sidestepped.

In Pardes, when we came across challenges to Mosaic authorship we welcomed the opportunity to consider the origins of the text before us. Encountering the phrase “and the Canaanites were then in the land” made us wonder whether this was a post-Mosaic insertion, and whether the medieval exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra can be considered a Biblical critic for suggesting as much (Gen. 12.6). [2] We devoted an entire unit to biblical criticism in the aftermath.

We also read the work of several Jewish thinkers responding to the discipline and its challenge to revelation. Norman Lamm regarded biblical criticism as “a nuisance but not a threat to the enlightened believer,” while Ira Eisenstein was convinced it had laid revelation to rest. [3]  For Mordechai Breuer, the contradiction and incongruity critics pointed to in the Bible could be ascribed to its divine author, He whose “unity is disclosed through the encompassing of opposing aspects.” [4]

All this reading increased our appreciation for an issue over which so many great minds had evidently disagreed. The wealth of thought and scholarship generated by this one issue—whether God had ever made himself known to man—dazzled me. The depth and difficulty of the question was more inspiring than the pat, yeshivish answer had ever been.

The attempts my day schools did make to tackle the burning biblical issues of the day were always apologetic. If Genesis said the world was created in a week it must have meant a week for God, which was of course equivalent to whatever age science had ascribed to the universe. Again an opportunity lost, not to undermine students’ faith, but to generate a serious discussion about how modern Jews ought to regard their tradition in light of the difficulties it now posed.

In Pardes, our reading of Genesis’ first chapter provoked just this sort of discussion. If we couldn’t, in good faith, read contemporary cosmology into the story of Creation, was it no longer a story worth telling? Maimonides saw many episodes in the Bible as allegories for metaphysical truth. And as unlikely as his theory seemed to many of us, methodologically it resonated. Whether or not the world had come to be in a week’s time was perhaps less important than whether the Torah had something profound to say about the nature of existence.

Traditional Jewish theology, though it informed everything we were taught in yeshiva, was seldom treated as a subject in its own right. Thus, without any extensive examination of Jewish beliefs and their ramifications, we were only dimly aware of the difficulties they posed. In Pardes, when I was given the time to reflect on the tenets of classical Judaism, these difficulties rushed to the fore. What did Jewish Chosenness, for instance, mean for the status of all other nations? Was Kaplan right in thinking it entailed something of a racial hierarchy? It was only in Pardes that I began to realize how difficult it was to develop a compelling, cohesive theology of one’s own.

Yeshiva taught me a lot about the hows of Halacha but very little about the whys. Like the Bible, we were expected to believe God had handed over a final draft at Sinai. And since God was the sole author of, and ultimate ground for, all Jewish laws, explaining them to the satisfaction of obstinate adolescents seemed somewhat beside the point. God could vouch for his laws; all we had to do was commit them to memory. Thus, the explanations that were offered were only ever offered in passing, an indulgence for the apikorsim among us.

It was only in Pardes that I began to appreciate how well Halacha holds up on its own—without God’s help. Shabbat can be viewed as the day man rests in imitation of his Creator. But it can also be viewed as the day man gives off to his servant. Halacha can be viewed as a numinous system handed down from on high. But it can also be viewed as a pragmatic one in which man concretizes ethical values through law. The latter perspective, the one to which Pardes introduced me, did not disguise the human element in Halacha. Instead it demanded of Halacha a human intelligibility, one that oriented Jewish law toward the intellectual impulses I had been encouraged to suppress.

Pardes was not about received wisdom; it was about evaluating the claim this wisdom still had upon us. It was about the “emergence from…self-imposed immaturity,” where “immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another.”  The phrase is Kant’s, from his essay “What is Enlightenment?”—but the sentiment, as I discovered, applied to Judaism when one bothered to take it seriously. Pardes accomplished in one year what my yeshivas failed to accomplish in over a decade. It introduced me to a culture of depth, one that didn’t demand a medieval sort of obscurantism or the suspension of one’s critical faculties. It taught me to do what my yeshivas made me think was impossible but what Pardes made me realize was imperative. It taught me to love Judaism with the mind.

– D. Schwartz


[1] “Hineini” is translated as “here I am” and usually indicates a character’s readiness to do his bidder’s bidding.

Sulomm Stein, David E., and Adrianne O. Dudden, eds. [Tanakh] = JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh : The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation–second Edition. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999. Print.

[2] Then as opposed to the author’s now. But of course, Moses the author died before such a statement could have been made.

[3] Lamm, Norman. “The Condition of Jewish Belief.” Commentary 42.2 (1966): 124+. Print.

[4] Breuer, Mordechai. “The Study of Bible and the Primacy of the Fear of Heaven; Compatibility or Contradiction.” Modern Scholarship in the Study of Torah: Contributions and Limitations. By Shalom Carmy. Northvale, NJ: J. Aronson, 1996. 159+. Print.

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3 thoughts on “Yeshiva Attack

  1. What a thoughtful and wonderful essay.

  2. Pingback: [Alumni Post] Yeshiva Attack | These and Those

  3. Pingback: Weekly Links April 13th-19th 2012 « WhatIBelieveIn

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