Reflections on Torah Min Hashamayim and its Place in Jewish Thought and Life, from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School

July 24, 2013

As a Modern and Open Orthodox Yeshiva, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah embraces the classical view of Torah MiSinai and Torah Min Hashamayim in the way the multitude of accepted commentaries and thinkers of our Mesoret have passed down to us through the ages. We also teach our Torah in a way which allows our talmidim to speak freely and openly, without fear, as they seek to grasp in their own ways the very basic theological foundations of Judaism.

In the article below, written by our esteemed Ram and head of the Talmud department, Rav Ysoscher Katz, the Yeshiva presents a glimpse into the way we teach our holy and divine Torah – in a way designed to continue the passing of the Mesorah – and second, a view of how our talmidim are thriving in our open, non-judgmental approach, to be the future rabbonim who will carry on our tradition.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin
President

Rabbi Dov Linzer
Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean

 

Guest post by Rabbi Ysoscher Katz: ואהבת את ה’ אלהיך: שיהא שם שמים מתאהב על ידיך

It happened again. For several years now the Chareidi newspaper Yated Ne’eman has attacked our Yeshivah, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, on average once every couple of months.  This time the attack came from another quarter.  R. Avrohom Gordimer, identifying himself as a member of the executive committee of the RCA, in a recent CrossCurrents posting, wrote a scathing critique of one of our graduates, R.  Zev Farber. The common denominator in these attacks is the shared format: after a brief, often skewed review of some recent activity by one of our Rebbeim or graduates, we are inevitably tagged with some synonym for apikores: heretics, Reformers, neo-Reformers, etc.

Like R. Akiva in the story told in Makot (24B), I find myself reacting differently than my colleagues and students. While many of them are disturbed and hurt by these critiques, I find myself smiling and feeling reassured. If we are being critiqued so harshly and so often it is a sign that we are doing something important and having an impact.

In the yeshivot I studied in my youth I was repeatedly told that R. Kook Z”l was an apikores. I, of course, was horrified at the time. Only later did I realize that, frequently, calling someone a heretic is an easy way to avoid confronting the serious issues they are raising. (It is hard not to make a comparison with what is currently happening in the elections for the Israeli Rabbinate where some of the participants refuse to engage the opposition on the issues and instead simply label their opponents Rasha or Amalek).

We are engaged in a serious debate about the future of klal Yisrael.  As in the times of Rav Kook, we too are at a crucial juncture. Our students, congregants, and followers are turning to us less for help in halakhic matters. Increasingly they look to us for guidance on questions of faith, ethics and social mores.  They are struggling with doubt and confusion that is an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world. The experience at the shul where I daven is pretty typical. Inevitably, at least once a month, and often more, a fellow congregant pulls me aside to share with me his or her doubts about the efficacy of prayer, accepting the traditional view of Torah min ha’shemayim, or conventional approaches to theodicy.

Doubts about the fundamental tenets of our Tradition however are not unique to the Modern Orthodox community. I cannot speak for the specifics of R. Gordimer’s community, but I do have first-hand experience with the average Yated reader. (I grew up in Williamsburg and studied in Satmar and Brisk Yeshivot.) Their community, in Israel and abroad, is having serious difficulties, trying to stem the high level of attrition they are currently experiencing. A significant number of those who leave that community do so because they are confronted with serious questions and debilitating doubts about Judaism. Ideological confusion is a universal-across the denominations-crisis.

Let it be clear.  YCT believes in Torah miSinai as it has been traditionally understood.  At the same time, we see that it is our responsibility to graduate rabbis who can engage our community’s doubts, and to do so by opening up, rather than closing down, conversation.

As a member of the YCT admissions committee I meet each and every student before they are accepted to the Yeshivah.  While אהבת תורה and יראת שמים are prerequisites for someone to be accepted to our semicha program, we also have an additional requirement, one of equal importance. A Chovevei student needs to be someone who is willing to grapple with the fundamental challenges modernity presents to the contemporary Jewish believer.

Grappling is the key point.  There is a segment in the observant community for whom אמונה פשוטה, simple faith, works. They are, however, not the majority.  Large numbers of our community struggle with questions of faith, belief, authority, autonomy, ethics, morality and the like. The old methods of response are insufficient; they do not provide the solutions contemporary men and women are looking for. Often times they are counter-productive, feeling trite and superficial. They end up turning people away from our tradition, exacerbating the situation. A successful rabbinic leader is one who is able to honor the struggle and engage these questions seriously. Along with his piety and commitment to the teachings of the Sages, he also must have the courage and intellectual ability to be innovative and creative in these matters.

Creatively addressing these difficult questions takes time, energy and deliberation. We at YCT are committed to helping guide our audience through these murky waters.  In this endeavor, we recognize the possibility that, on occasion, a graduate might entertain a non-conventional answer, not in keeping with our shared Orthodox beliefs. We believe that ultimately they will end up in the right place, embracing a modernity that is deeply steeped in the Tradition. Our confidence is based on the fact that each and every one of our graduates leaves the Yeshivah after four years infused with Yirat shamayim, ahavat Torah, emunat chachamim, and a deep-seated commitment to avodat Ha’shem.

YCT is a yeshivah like any other yeshivah. Like any other serious semicha programs, we too teach punctiliousness in Jewish law, optimal observance of Mitzvot, and a commitment to learning Torah. There is one key difference though.  Training towards expertise in Psak halakhah, built on a foundation of punctilious observance, is not the only thing we teach our graduates. We expect them to grow in areas of Jewish thought as well.

There are spiritual risks in such an approach, but given the challenges our generation faces, we do not have an alternative. We owe it to klal Yisrael to guide them in these precarious religious times. (As does Yated and R. Gordimer owe it to their respective communities. It is just a matter of time before they will no longer be able to avoid this reality in their own backyard).

To properly serve our generation, today’s rabbis need to be able to model how an observant Jew wrestles with doubt and uncertainty. That is what we try to do at our yeshivah. In that sense, our critics are right; we indeed expose our student to a cacophony of voices. We want them to hear them, engage with them, and, most importantly struggle with them-regardless of how extreme those views are. Our belief is this: If the general community is exposed to those opinions in university, in the larger society, then our graduates need to be exposed to them as well. This will enable them to engage those questions in an honest and sophisticated way. Exposing our students to the larger world of ideas, no matter how extreme they are, is the modern manifestation of David Ha’melech’s adage: ידי מלוכלכת בדם שפיר ושליא כדי להתיר אשה לבעלה (Berachot 4A).

The Gemara says (Niddah 73A) הליכות עולם לו, אל תיקרי הליכות אלא הלכות. By conflating Halakhah (observance) with halicha, (walking) the Rabbis convey an important lesson. Observance is a journey. We strive to grow and ultimately arrive at an ideal set of behaviors and beliefs. Nevertheless, the divine encounter that halakhah tries to mediate happens during the journey as well, not just after one has arrived at one’s ultimate destination.

When blessing the new month, we implore God to give us a life of אהבת תורה ויראת שמים. We do not, however, ask for ideological certainty. That is a goal but its attainability is incredibly difficult.  R. Chaim Brisker famously explained that faith begins where logic ends. If a set of beliefs makes sense, it is no longer a belief, it is a conviction. Faith requires one to transcend logic and accept dogma. Such a requirement is a hard-sell for our generation. We try to prepare our YCT graduates to confront that challenge. And we are aware that in the process they are likely to experience their own periods of uncertainty as they continue to sort out the content of their own beliefs.

Our willingness to grapple and confront the challenges faced by the majority of klal Yisrael has clearly rattled some in the Orthodox world. They, in turn, have critiqued us, oftentimes harshly and unfairly.  We pray that we, nevertheless, listen to those critiques and when appropriate acknowledge our mistakes. We are traversing a less travelled path; there will inevitably be bumps in the road. While we strive to improve, we intend, however, to stay the course. We will continue to graduate students who make us proud in their mesiras nefesh for klal Yisrael and in their willingness to model genuine, modest, and honest grappling in the attempt to serve Ha’shem.

Religious wrestling is in our DNA. That is what our forbearer Yakov did (Genesis 32) and we carry on that torch. Yakov was scarred by his encounter with the angel and we sometimes get scarred as well. We will not, however, let these scars prevent us from responding to our calling to serve God and His people.   Ultimately our goal is to reach the day when ומלאה הארץ דעה את ה’ כמים לים מכסים (Isaiah 11:9; Maimonides Kings 12).

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz is Chair, Department of Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School