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 email@example.com
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