Something New for Bein Hazmanim
I've just returned to Israel from a stimulating week on Long Island as a staff member at the second Tikvah Fund institute for yeshivaleit. The Tikvah Fund's mission, as outlined by its director Eric Cohen in his recent essay "The Spirit of Jewish Conservatism" in Mosaic, consists of advancing three ideas among world Jewry: (1) defense of the traditional family; (2) stress on national sovereignty and a strong national defense, as opposed to contemporary internationalism; and (3) a decided bias in favor of free markets.
I would add to the list, based on the three Tikvah institutes I've attended, the defense of religious liberty and celebration of the American constitutional faith based on the Founders' vision of limited government. These core ideas, Cohen argues, are "rooted in the traditions and experiences of the Jewish people" and will serve to strengthen Jewish resolve against both internal weakness and zealous external enemies.
The Tikvah Fund has identified the yeshiva community as the fastest growing segment of world Jewry and one which is taking an increasingly active public role. Thus the Tikvah institutes for yeshivaleit. (A parallel Tikvah institute for women led by frequent Mishpacha contributor Miriam Kosman takes place this week at Tikvah's Manhattan offices.)
Tikvah pulled out all the stops for the program: a generous stipend for attendees, with wives and children invited to join for Shabbos; a beautiful setting; and access to some of the finest contemporary conservative minds. This year's institute featured Professor James Ceasar of the University of Virginia leading a three-day symposium on different strands of conservative thought – e.g., Burkean, libertarian, and neo-conservative. Roger Scruton, Great Britain's leading conservative public intellectual and the author of over forty books, expounded on the secularization of Western culture and its baleful consequences.
In addition, participants joined in separate discussions with William Kristol, founder and editor the Weekly Standard and the son of the late Irving Kristol, who famously defined a neo-conservative as a "liberal mugged by reality," and Professor Robert George, who from his perch at Princeton University has proven the most successful conservative institution builder in American academia, creating the James Madison Program in American Ideas and Institutions at Princeton.
Finally, the institute was rich in Torah content. Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, author of two major works on Torah hashkafa, The Jewish Self and The Choice to Be, gave a series of classes on the Maharal's vision of the Four Galuyos and their purpose in the realization of the Jewish mission in history. Rabbi Ahron Lopiansky, Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Greater Washington, examined over two days a variety of Torah sources on economic life. Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz, one of the most illustrious products of Ner Israel and a former professor of law and communal rav, who joined the group for Shabbos, surveyed various Rishonim and Achronim on the seven Noahide laws and the implications of those disputes for Jews and discussed some of the halachic issues raised by Israel as a majority Jewish state.
I CANNOT GIVE A DEFINITIVE ANSWER to what the sixteen participants were seeking from the program. All have learned for many years at beis medrash level, and a large majority are married. The largest contingent came from Lakewood, with a smaller group from Ner Israel, and three from Israel. Only a handful have any formal post-secondary academic training, though several others are published authors. And only three that I can remember expressed any concrete plans for careers other than full-time learning or rabbonus.
My guess is that besides intellectual stimulation during bein hazmanim, most of the participants were seeking a better understanding of the broader culture in which they live, including its intellectual foundations, both in order to better defend against its most pernicious influences and to better be able to advocate on behalf of the Torah community and Torah values.
Already a number of years ago, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom pointed out in his keynote speech at Agudath Israel's annual convention that in the years to come yeshiva-trained Jews will of necessity have to assume an ever larger role in American Jewish communal life. And similarly, the rapidly growing chareidi population in Israel guarantees a growing role for the chareidi community in national governance. Given the greater emerging role for chareidim in the larger society, it behooves us to become better informed about the general requirements of yishuvo shel olam, including wealth production and the smooth-functioning of society.
The name Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch was frequently invoked by the rabbinical staff. And by their attendance the participants showed at least a dollop of the Hirschian optimism that the opening of the ghetto walls presented an opportunity to spread Torah values and not just a threat to yiras Shomayim.
Spreading Torah values to an outside world that knows them not necessitates a form of translation. And that translation, in turn, requires familiarity with a certain language and particular ideas not learned in the beis medrash. That is likely why so many of the most influential Torah works in the vernacular in recent years have been written by ba'alei teshuva. Rabbi Hirsch, though not a ba'al teshuva, has been compared to Goethe as a German stylist and had a wide familiarity with contemporary German thought.
The most moving aspect of the week was the presence of Rabbis Lopiansky and Breitowitz. Both possess encyclopedic Torah knowledge. Rabbi Lopiansky's two-volume Yesodei HaTorah is a comprehensive compilation of the major Rishonim, arranged according to the parashah, on ikrei emunah (the fundamentals of faith). And both men have the ability to convey the deepest Torah ideas in ways applicable to our lives and a generosity of spirit that makes us eager to do so.
The two rabbis did not advocate an expansive vision of Torah spreading outward from a mastery of the canonical texts; they embodied it.
WHAT OF THE TIKVAH AGENDA ITSELF? I'm broadly sympathetic to "Jewish Conservatism" enunciated in Eric Cohen's essay. And it is demonstrable that the conflation of Judaism and liberalism has brought the non-Orthodox segment of American Jewry to the brink of demographic demise.
Conservatism's emphasis on national identity might have delayed that demise by creating a less hostile environment for the core Torah concept of chosenness – invariably dismissed as racist by non-Orthodox Jews – but I doubt it would have averted it indefinitely.
It is dangerous to conflate any political ideology or political party with the Torah or to imagine that one and only one political stance can be derived from the Torah. Any attempt to equate any political ideology and Torah will only end with the political ideology becoming the main source of identity, and thus the primary desideratum in choosing marriage partners. That is what happened to the followers of Moses Mendelssohn: They extracted the "ideas" of ethical monotheism from the Torah and carried them all the way to the baptismal font.
Nevertheless, let me suggest just a few ways that the study of the ideas presented in the morning seminars can be valuable.
A short excerpt from the Marquis de Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, written by the great mathematician as he hid from the tribunes of French Revolution, which he had so enthusiastically championed and in whose jail he would soon thereafter die, captures the Englightenment faith in unaided human reason. His work, writes Condorcet, "will . . . show by appeal to reason and fact that nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectability of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectability . . . has no other limits that the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us."
In his The Old Regime and the Terror (another of the readings for the institute), Alexis de Tocqueville observed the outsized role played by men of letters, like Condorcet, in French political discourse prior to the French Revolution. As described by de Tocqueville, they had a decided premise preference for "general and abstract theories of government" and a tendency "to trust in them blindly" since no worldly "experience tempered the ardors of their natures [or] warned them of the obstacles that existing facts might place before them." With the passage of time, "they . . . became much bolder in their innovations, fonder of general ideas and systems, more contemptuous of old wisdom, and still more confident of their individual reason." De Tocqueville's sharp critique of those enchanted with intellectual extractions and visions of men as they would like them to be (even if it takes a little coercion to reach the ideal), and not as they are, captures much of what is repugnant about contemporary progressivism.
It is impossible to reconcile the diverse strands of conservatism that we studied. Edmund Burke's defense of social bonds and political institutions developed organically over centuries shares little with Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman's celebration of capitalism's dynamism and creative destruction. The neo-conservatives who migrated from the Left did not so much reject large government programs such as Head Start in theory as prove that they do not work in practice. But what all the various strands of conservatism share in common, and with religious thought, is a deep skepticism about the limits of unaided human reason and therefore of large-scale central planning (which inevitably commends itself to intellectuals as so much more rational.)
Last summer Ryan Anderson, who has emerged as the leading intellectual advocate for traditional marriage in America, spent several days at the Tikvah institute developing the "natural law" defense of marriage as only possible between a man and a woman.
Presumably a Torah Jew needs to know nothing more than the Torah's strict prohibition of any other form of relationship. But I'm hearing from many Torah educators that for a large number of their students "the Torah says so" is not a final or even compelling answer. And that is even more so the case for potential ba'alei teshuva. For these groups offering "ta'amei hamitzvos" may be crucial.
The Institute exposed participants to the thinking of great minds on the proper social, economic, and political arrangements for human society, and thereby forced them to ask themselves what light Torah casts on these subjects. The answers are neither easy nor uniform. The Torah, for instance, was given for a Jewish community or state; the American Founders were concerned with the preservation of religious liberty and the avoidance of Europe's religious strife in a country comprised of people of many religions. By forcing participants to search the Torah for insights on new subjects, in the presence of rabbinic figures eminently qualified to provide guidance, the Institute encourages them to broaden their Torah knowledge and expand the areas to which it applies.