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Saying It Like It Is

We seem to have lost the art of constructive confrontation on the plane of ideas


Many years ago, a relative gave me a gift of several hundred issues of Agudath Israel of America’s erstwhile monthly magazine, the Jewish Observer (JO). Since then, these issues have sat in a box in a basement closet, largely unread. But from time to time over the years, I’ve taken a few of them out to enjoy.

I recently had occasion to do so again, and was struck, as I am each time I read one of those back issues, by just how much things have changed in the frum community over the many decades since the JO began publication in the 1960s. I’m certain that an enterprising sociology major has enough material in the JO oeuvre for a fine doctoral thesis on the topic.

This much is clear from even a casual perusal: We’re a lot more frum than we once were. Pictures of a beis medrash scene in a yeshivah gedolah from those days feature a look that has disappeared in the current iteration of those very same institutions, with some boys sporting colored shirts and funny-looking hats and somewhat longer hair. And it’s not that the rebbeim were different looking, too; they looked quite the same then as they do now.

Then there are the occasional pictures of women, and the article titles and cultural references that are now not deemed “frum enough” to mention.

But here’s what’s strange: Moving beyond the externals, the articles themselves often featured unabashed presentations of a Torah view on issues of the day that minced no words, in a way that has fallen out of favor nowadays. Ideologues — baalei hashkafah — took on movements, trends, books, even personalities in the broader Orthodox world and beyond, and explained without ad hominem and vitriol but without euphemism and defensiveness either, why they were wrong and we were right. And the world didn’t fall apart.

The recently deceased Telshe-Chicago Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Chaim Dov Keller, was a master of the genre whose work often appeared in the JO, but I can’t imagine the kinds of pieces he wrote appearing in our publications today. Were the folks back then, when we were led by giants for whom we still pine, less sensitive to machlokes or ahavas Yisrael?

Back then, it seems, everyone knew where they stood: The reader came away with a clarity of understanding about the Torah community’s position on a given issue, and those whose views were being critiqued were put on notice that they were being disagreed with, sometimes very deeply.

And wonder of wonders, the JO welcomed those being critiqued into its pages, and, surprisingly, they agreed to appear therein. When, 32 years ago, Professor Aaron Twerski wrote an article in the JO criticizing elements of a speech by the late president of Yeshiva University, Dr. Norman Lamm, the latter wrote “An Open Reply to Professor Aaron Twerski,” which was followed by Professor Twerski’s reply.

Both were strongly worded and openly, but respectfully, stated, and all involved lived to tell the tale. I believe that the fact that the exchange was featured in the JO, far from signaling some sort of concession to Dr. Lamm’s views, gave readers a clarity and a confidence in the case Professor Twerski had made on behalf of the worldview espoused by the JO.

Another such exchange appeared two years later between Rabbi Joseph Elias and Rabbi Mattis Greenblatt over the writings of the recently deceased Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, following a piece by Rabbi Elias that had taken very sharp issue with Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Talmud translation. It was not a fluff piece of polemical generalities, but a searching discussion of fundamental issues in the hashkafah and history of Torah shebe’al peh.

I don’t believe such an exchange would appear in our publications today, although I’m not entirely sure why not. I don’t think the chareidi and Modern Orthodox sectors were any less polarized then than they are now. But we seem to have lost the art of constructive confrontation on the plane of ideas, without papering over real differences or worse, invoking “achdus over all.”

Perhaps it’s that ideas don’t play as large a role for us anymore. A few years back, a major figure in Jewish publishing told me that a book of thoughtful essays was not a promising candidate for a best seller, because what sells now are stories and cookbooks. Inspiration is in; hashkafah (at least of the sort these articles addressed), not so much.

So, way back then, they wore colored shirts and gray hats in yeshivos (I know I did), and did lots of things we wouldn’t think of doing now, but they also eagerly awaited the next issue of the JO, where they’d find a clear, unapologetic Torah hashkafah and a delineation of where their community stood.

Like I said, we’re a lot frummer now than we once were. Or are we?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 827. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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Comments (5)

  1. Avatar

    While reading some recent articles in Mishpacha, I noticed what I would consider to be a common thread: differences between today and years past; an ability to love unconditionally.

    Rabbi Eytan Kobre wrote about the way past generations had the courage and clarity to see and discuss their differences in opinion, and not focus on externals, while retaining their respect, as noted in articles and letters penned in the Jewish Observer. The detailed article about Rabbi Trenk and the cover story about Rabbi Gissinger, both laud their courage and clarity in loving their talmidim, and really everyone, no matter where they were holding, and Rabbi Bensoussan consistently reiterates and portrays this sentiment.

    I beg, I implore the mechanchim — the rebbeim, the menahalim, the roshei yeshivah — of our generation; please don’t pass over these articles, skim through them, shake your heads in wonder and say “that was a different world.” It is true; we are living in a different world. A world where our children are more confused and are weaker, and need more understanding and more love; less discerning and focusing on the small details, until they are strengthened. They need true unconditional love above all else.

    We are losing far too many precious neshamos. And far too many Yiddishe mothers are crying. I am pleading with you to take the words and messages of those who are not with us anymore to heart. You hold an awesome privilege and responsibility. Have the courage to love your talmidim. Even when it isn’t easy. Even when there are differences. Children see and feel the truth, and they respond to true love.

  2. Avatar
    Yitzchak Braun

    I enjoyed Eytan Kobre’s column on the respectful dialogue in the Jewish Observer. It’s definitely true that back in those days the yeshivah world was less frightened to provide a print platform to people who didn’t agree with our hashkafos. And it’s probably true that people back then had firmer backbones when it came to frumkeit.

    But there are some other realities to take into account.

    The first is the implications of giving someone a print platform. For better or for worse, it is currently considered problematic to allow people with different hashkafos access to a platform. Readers assume that their frum reading material is a sort of “safe space” where they are guaranteed insulation from views outside the mainstream yeshivah approach. The way these readers see things, if a person or hashkafah appears in a frum publication, the assumption is that they’re kosher. The very act of giving them space is seen as tacit approval for their views.

    The other changed reality is that today, the conversation itself is seen as a problem. We no longer have the moral clarity or confidence in our views to have a dialogue with someone who feels differently. We don’t want to weaken our confidence in our own hashkafos by reading an articulate presentation of a different approach.

    It’s easy to shake our heads and say “what a weak generation this is,” but really, what do you gain from exposing yourself to very articulate, convincing columns urging you to reexamine the Torah hashkafa that you learned from your family, yeshivah, and rebbeim? Isn’t it smarter and safer not to have the conversation at all?

    1. Avatar
      Name Withheld

      I am sure I am not the only reader who felt compelled to reply to the question at the end of the inbox letter, “Keep it Safe.” The letter writer asked: “What do you gain from exposing yourself to very articulate, convincing columns… Isn’t it smarter and safer not to have the conversation?”

      While I do not think the answer is a resounding “No,” it most certainly is not a definite “Yes” either.

      In a world where conflicting views circulate constantly, we cannot fool ourselves into thinking that this will be someone’s first introduction to foreign ideas (unless you are a Yerushlami family living in Meah Shearim who does not buy Mishpacha magazine.) Having open conversations in a frum publication where there can be valid responses, and a filtering process to exclude articles which would be seriously anti-Torah, could be very beneficial.

      What do you gain?

      Rather than challenging our views, discussions with people of different hashkafos can help us define our own views in a more solid way, so that when faced with adversity in the “real world,” we know what to answer. Da ma le’hashiv. The point that “we no longer have the moral clarity or confidence in our views to have dialogue with someone who feels differently” is not something we should readily accept.

      When I was in seminary, we had a powerful and thought-provoking class with a prominent chinuch personality, who showed us how to analyze articles written across the hashkafic spectrum. We read them on our own, discussed them in class, and were taught to rethink our assumptions both of the writer and of our own principles. Never once do I recall that our teacher gave us his own opinion on anything, and yet, because we had firm hashkafos already rooted in us from other classes and experiences, we did not come out confused. We came out more confident in our views, and more knowledgeable of why those views were correct. And no, this was not 30 years ago. Maybe we can give our current students and children a little more credit to have these conversations?

      “Readers assume that their frum reading material is a sort of safe place where they are guaranteed insulation.” This may be their assumption, but it’s not the truth — and we can’t bring up this generation to believe this is the case. Our hashkafos come from classic seforim, rebbeim, and parents, not from journals and magazines. Not from the articles, the ads, nor the letters to the editor.

      Yes, we can play it safe. But having such conversations — ones which help us better understand our views in a society which will constantly challenge them — is at least something to consider.

    2. Avatar
      Shoshi Lewin

      I am writing in response to the letter by Reb Yitzchok Braun related to how the Jewish Observer provided a platform to address people with various hashkafos and respond to them from the Torah view. His letter asked the readers multiple questions, including “what do you gain from exposing yourself to very articulate, convincing columns urging you to reexamine the Torah hashkafah you learned from your family, yeshivah, and rebbeim? Isn’t it smarter and safer not to have the conversation at all?”

      I would like to respond to his powerful questions. I think that having this kind of opportunity to reevaluate your hashkafos builds them up. Seeing and listening to daas Torah respond in an articulate and powerful way to questions that you might not have thought of, or questions that you might have lingering in your kishkes, builds you up. It helps you develop a better understanding of why you think the way you do, why you act the way you do, why you believe the way you do. It gives you the peace of mind to know that you are doing something because you have understanding that there is a G-d who runs the world, and there are people who have such a deep understanding of His Torah that they can answer whatever questions are thrown at them.

      I am not afraid of reexamining; I am afraid of the consequences of people telling Torah Jews that we need to pretend that we need to act on blind faith. That is not the Torah way, as far as I have learned. I am concerned that as a result we would be chas v’shalom alienating our own brethren, rather than normalizing trying to understand things better — because we have answers.

      As an aside, I have noted that even among non-religious Jews, there is a great interest in participating in “Question and Answer Sessions with the Rabbi.” It is a popular topic. We are as a group a deeply thinking people, and this type of forum is often used in kiruv. As there is a current trend towards “kiruv kerovim,” we should appreciate how essential this approach can be.

  3. Avatar
    Sarah Spero

    Eytan Kobre’s column about the Jewish Observer really did “say it like it was.” Did someone drop all our old Jewish Observers at his house when we moved from Cleveland to Baltimore?
    I certainly do remember — very vividly — reading some of them and cringing… but read them, I did. And I couldn’t wait for the responses that inevitably followed the next month.
    They, in a pioneering spirit and with much courage, did indeed address issues that others would not acknowledge, and, like Mishpacha itself, did so in fairness and with clarity… except they did it before it was acceptable to do so.
    No one can forget their handling of “Kids at Risk.” It was groundbreaking.
    That’s not to say I always liked or agreed with everything that was printed. But I respected the author’s right to “write,” and I appreciated the platform provided for the responses to be heard.
    Today we choose our reading material by the criteria of “all the news you want to read,” without acknowledging the importance of respecting a different opinion.
    Oh! — the blindness of it all! What are we so afraid of? Will not truth prevail?