Monday, September 3, 2012

In Search of Serious Modern Orthodox Biblical Scholarship

One of the things that I find fascinating about the present day Haredi world is that, despite its claims as to the brilliance of its leadership, with the exception of the Sefardi R. Ovadiah Yosef, I cannot think of a single Haredi leader today who gained his post by virtue of his published scholarly work. Instead we have Hasidic rebbes, who inherited their posts, and Litvish Rosh Yeshivas, who gained their post through teaching and administrative work. This is particularly odd from an academic point of view, because in academia publishing is everything. For example, I am in middle of writing my history dissertation, which is now at over 500 pages. When I finish writing, defending and finally publish it, I will become a credible historian, whose opinions should be taken seriously. Until then I am absolutely nobody, just a graduate student with a blog, and intelligent people have every right to simply dismiss me before I even open my mouth. The lesson I take from this is that the entire system of Haredi gedolim is a fraud populated by senior citizen celebrities and those who control them. This belief has only been strengthened by years of hearing preposterous statements made in their name regarding science, politics and society. (If any Haredi reader believes that their particular gadol should be viewed as an exception, they should point me to a book of theirs so I may read it and decide for myself.)

This failure on the part of Haredim offers an opportunity for Modern Orthodoxy to step into the breach with its own scholarship and gain the respect of both secular academia and the Haredi world. (Scholars like Haym Soloveitchik and Shalom Carmy are certainly a good start.) Unfortunately, Modern Orthodoxy in practice has proven so far unable to produce much in the way of a written culture, whether at a popular or scholarly level.

I was recently reading Torah MiEtzion: New Readings in Tanach – Devarim, a collection of short essays on different topics in the book of Deuteronomy produced by the esteemed Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Har Etzion. These essays were written by various people associated with the school as an attempt to offer a tangible demonstration of the quality of its scholarship. The intent may demonstrate the awareness of the need for a written culture of scholarship. The fact that this book recognizes the need for serious scholarship in fields other than Talmud is another plus. The way it has been carried through, though, demonstrates a failure to truly comprehend what is required. These essays are essentially summaries of select rabbinic commentaries such as Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, Nachmonides and Isaac Abarbanel. Nothing wrong with that and this book may prove useful as a basic introduction to the sources regarding the various topics in question. That being said the book fails to offer any larger arguments regarding the topics in question. Such arguments could become the basis for a larger view of the Bible and eventually even a Jewish theology.

A good example of this is Mordechai Sabato’s essay “The Female Captive – What is the Torah Teaching Us?” on the laws regarding the Yifat Toar, a captive gentile woman whom the Israelite soldier can take as long as certain restrictions are adhered to. It summarizes different opinions on the matter from the Talmud, Midrash, and medieval commentators on the precise rules regarding the treatment of this woman. The only time Sabato’s voice as a reader of the Bible comes to the fore is his conclusion where he states:

In effect, two ideals clash in the parasha; one is the moral concern for the woman captive; the other is the aversion to marriage to a non-Jewish woman which may, as we know, lead to moral decay. Halakha comes to establish the proper balance between these two ideals. (pg. 252)

One gets the sense that the author understands that in the twenty-first century educated readers are likely to object to the legalized rape of women even in times of war. That being said, this is not something that particularly affects the writer beyond making the nod so that people will think he cares, allowing him to prove his "modernity." Thus, he never bothers to actually develop a theory as to how precisely the Bible protects women. He does not struggle with the fact that the Bible is willing to allow something so morally wrong. Furthermore, he is able to so casually place this issue as something to be balanced against an opposition to intermarriage.

I would love to read some sophisticated commentary on the Bible that takes modern ethics seriously if only Yeshivat Har Etzion could offer it. I am certainly not waiting on the Haredim to provide it.                      


Anonymous said...

R. Wosner: שבט הלוי
R. Steinman: אילת השחר
R. Nissim Karelitz: חוט השני
R. Chaim Kanievsky: דרך אמונה, שיח השדה, ועוד ועוד
& these are just some from Bnei Brak

Izgad said...

Keep in mind the issue here is not just writing, but writing well and building a position of authority based on these books. Have you read the books you listed? What thesis do they advance? What do you think is brilliant about them that other people should read them?

S. said...

I am lost by this. While I agree that publishing may be *proof* of scholarship, it is hardly the same thing. The Vilna Gaon and Krochmal were legends without publishing anything, or much.

Izgad said...

Both the Vilna Gaon and Krochmal did write. When I say these were both great Jewish thinkers, I can point to those books.

Adam Zur said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Zur said...

Ayelet HaShachar has a great reputation. [This is a book written by a so called gadol in israel] I have a feeling that it is not so great. Like you said in Israel what makes a person a gadol has little to do with scholarship. I should mention that Brooklyn yeshivot seemed to me to be different. I heard shiurim from R shmuel berennaum and I was a friend with Shelomo Haliua who gives the fourth year shiur in Chaim Berlin.

Both of these people seemed to me to represent a high degree of scholarship.

S. said...

>Both the Vilna Gaon and Krochmal did write. When I say these were both great Jewish thinkers, I can point to those books.

But almost no one knew their teachings from their writings when they were alive! Their fame and authority was almost entirely by reputation. Sure, both would have faded into obscurity had their writings never came to light. But we can explain their great fame and reputation as stemming from personal encounters, as well as rumor, rather than publishing, while they were alive.

(BTW, these captchas are extremely difficult to get right.)

Pink Carnation Maryann said...

Their reputations may have been based on rumor, but the fact that we take them seriously today is because of what they wrote.

Aba said...

I would love to read some sophisticated commentary on the Bible that takes modern ethics seriously

If your "modern ethics" come from Nietzsche or Foucault, then yifat toar shouldn't bother you much.