Some years ago, I asked the head of a well-known yeshiva for ba'alei teshuva (the newly observant) why the yeshiva insists on immersing new students in intense Talmud study immediately.
A student who dropped in off the street and stayed for a month or so, I pointed out, might have little more to show for his six hours of daily Talmud study than a page or so, on which every word would be laboriously translated from Aramaic to English, dealing with what happens when a bull gores a cow and a newborn calf is found dead by the cow's side. One page out of the more than 5,000 that comprise the Babylonian Talmud.
His reply was an eye-opener: We start with Talmud, he said, to teach the new student that you cannot say whatever you want. Without shaking the newcomer to yeshiva out of the prevailing belief that everything is a matter of opinion and all opinions are equally valid, he realized, there is no possibility of proceeding to discuss the truth of the Torah, or any other form of truth with a capital T.
Studying Talmud is the antidote to a careless assumption that all opinions are equally valid. In talmudic learning some opinions are demonstrably false by virtue of their failure to account for all the evidence. Though commentators may reach different conclusions in the interpretation of a particular topic, each of those interpretations must be capable of accounting for all the relevant statements of the Tannaim and Amoraim throughout the entirety of the Talmud. Not for naught did the late Harvard medievalist Harry Wolfson compare talmudic study to the testing of hypotheses in science.
The yeshiva head correctly perceived how deeply engrained in the typical college student is a lazy cultural relativism. As Allan Bloom writes in his devastating critique of American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, 'There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: They will be uncomprehending.'
According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, between 10 percent and 20% of college students cannot even bring themselves to condemn the Nazis as morally wrong, as opposed to aesthetically distasteful. 'Of course I dislike the Nazis,' began a typical student response, 'but who is to say they are morally wrong."
Cultural relativism is assumed to be the height of intellectual sophistication. It is just the opposite. In its wake follow intellectual sloth and the death of intellectual curiosity.
TODAY'S students have no motivation to examine the values upon which they live their lives, since they are convinced that both their values and any opposing ones are culturally determined. That is why, Bloom points out, one encounters today so few students infused with any longing to know all about another culture.
Relativism has convinced the modern student that those cultures contain no information that would help in his search for the good life, or indeed that there is any such thing. Rather than testing his assumptions from another vantage point, he allows inertia to guide him. So much for the unexamined life.
Civilizations have believed many things, the critic Joseph Wood Krutch once wrote, but none has ever believed that all values are relative and survived.
Our prevailing cultural trends, which elevate tolerance to the supreme, if not only, value thus fly in the face of the entire tradition of Western thought. That tradition was based on the assumption that there is a Good, and that it is our obligation and purpose in life to use all the resources at our command to identify that Good and to live in accord with its dictates.
Even when today's students speak the language of truth, their conception of truth is so attenuated as to be unrecognizable by the ancients. For them, Truth implies no obligations. 'The Torah may be true,' I have been told, 'but I'm too young and have too much fun ahead of me to become a Torah observant Jew. Maybe in a few years.'
The Alter of Novordhok once met an enlightened Jew (maskil) at an inn and engaged him in conversation. In the course of the conversation, the maskil's servant entered the room, and the maskil told him to bridle his horses. The Alter immediately halted the conversation, and refused to continue despite the maskil's protestation that he was enjoying it very much.
'I do not discuss things for the sake of intellectual amusement,' the Alter explained, 'but for the purpose of discovering the truth and acting upon it. For you, however, this is only an academic exercise. Otherwise you would have waited until we were done to see whether I would convince you to follow my path before ordering the horses prepared.'
That same lack of intellectual honesty - the refusal to scrutinize the assumptions of one's life and to consider the possibility of reordering one's way of life - remains the greatest barrier to the consideration of Torah by secular Jews.