Wednesday, August 06, 2008

An Argument Ad Naseum
(No longer for the Sake of Heaven?...)

I have thought much of William Kolbrener, based on insightful pieces he'd written such as a review of "One People, Two Worlds" and a piece or two scattered elsewhere. I was pleased to see he'd started a blog, where I then read a response to R. A. Lichtenstein on Torah u'Maddah. It was again insightful - and revealing and very depressing. Previously, I'd assumed he was a MO FFB - he's a total BT (nice big black hat is fine in certain settings, as long as we acknowledge that it is a clear proclamation of a certain hashkafa - but wearing it in every picture on the blog?....).
Any criticism I have is not for him as a critic of "Torah u'Maddah" - I accept the greater part of them as they're applied to examples he gives - with the caveat that he leaves out entirely all the virtual and Distance-learning based means to the highest of higher education, methods that radically mitigate many of the perceived problems of setting in pursuing Higher Education (however, they're not infrequently advertised for in Jewish Action...). Granted, the problems are about content as well, and that is too variable to discuss here as they depend on personal choice in academic pursuits as well as personal hashkafa.
While he does address Religious higher education environments, it seems incidental, anecdotal personal bits about the affects of specific approaches in those environments - "academic" study of Torah on students. Even then, some have suggested (and I'm sure if queried would offer evidence), that certain 'textual' approaches to Talmud Torah have aided students emunah. Hyper-critical thinking and 'authority-challenging' inclinations can be confronted, engaged and rendered fruitful - not merely decried by teachers or repressed by students.
Though both Kolbrener as a current academic, and R. Lichtenstein a former academic who left it in 1962, do explore changes in the academic climate - neither of them address what has happened in the Torah world over the same span of time - the present day back to 1962, the year when R. Lichtenstein, an unrelenting current advocate of Torah u'Maddah - left academia. Much has been written on this blog and elsewhere on just the very transformations in the Torah realms, I would like to add links here later, but for now; academic treatments, see Gershon Bacon, Menahem Friedman, Jacob Katz, et al (some have material online). I also wonder about the locus of concerns for observant Jews in Higher Education; would education settings require the haskamahs of hashkafahs such that questionable stuff like Intelligent Design should be used to 'innoculate' students, etc? maybe a later post.

In his criticism of R. Lichtenstein, Kolbrener suggests that R. Lichtenstein's manner is obscurantist to a fault - it too often is. In R. Lichtenstein's response itself, R. Lichtenstein is revealed to be quite removed from the realia of not only the Ivory Tower of academia, but of virtually every other english speaking human being. His loshon is habitually obscurantist. This is no small thing. It may be endearing, it may be "a lesson in how we 'should' speak..." (as I recall someone saying)...but as a defender of the relevance and currency of Torah in the world, as a vanguardist in proclaiming the compatibility of "the best" of the modern [western...] world to the world of said Torah, it is highly destructive to speak in a way that utterly alienates the vast majority in both the 'religious' and 'modern' worlds. I have met very highly educated people in matters Kodesh and Kol. I have heard people say that a conversation with R. Lichtenstein turn the tide for them, etc. Yet no one else seems to go out of their way, publicly, to specifically use incredibly esoteric terminology to describe things publically experienced! The learned, educated use of language is about communicability, whether in Torah or Kol (I faulter in both, so I don't claim any standing). This is serious. Certain Modern Orthodox People literally say "we" need to find "our" Gedolim - likely meaning the term as Charedim do (a predilection to which I'm moved to respond "What do you mean 'We', White Man?"...) - and they seek one in R. Lichtenstein; it's very nice that he has no peers; it's a siman that he could be a Gadol by Charedi standards...(though I've never heard someone explain how someone among the Gedolim can have no peers). Another siman is that his peerlessness confirms what many charedim believe;

"Even pursuing some 'balance' between Torah and Maddah has always been reserved for the select few - and 'b'zman ha zeh - this is an ever-shrinking few...he's just the Gadol for you ever-shrinking modern [somewhat] Orthodox!"...

In it's habitual "Gedolim"-izing reactions to Charedi expectations in rabbinic authority, Modern Orthodoxy may again be confirming it is indeed neither. Nor can it be either, and Charedi.


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