Monday, March 29, 2010

The Yeshiva World on Trial: Some Thoughts on the Search Committee

I just finished reading Rabbi Marc Angel’s short novel, the Search Committee, which Chaviva was kind enough to send to me. This was certainly not a great novel, though it was entertaining and I think it could serve as a good conversation starter. I, therefore, recommend it and wish to say a few things about it. This is a rare creation, a Modern Orthodox novel. (Naomi Ragen and Michael Schweitzer would be other examples of this genre.) One of the weaknesses of the Modern Orthodox world is that it has not been diligent in putting out Modern Orthodox books, whether fiction or non-fiction. Forget about the secular world, this puts us at a disadvantage when it comes to Haredim, who have not held back from putting out works pushing for their brand of Judaism.

The premise of the Search Committee is a board of trustees looking to appoint the next Rosh Yeshiva (head) of the aptly named Yeshivas Lita. Lita is the colloquial term for Lithuania and this yeshiva is meant as a representative of the Ashkenazi Lithuanian Yeshiva tradition transplanted onto American soil. The two candidates are Rav Shimshon Grossman and Rav David Mercado. The two represent different ideological and sociological sides. Rav Grossman is the son of the previous Rosh Yeshiva, he was born into the Lithuanian system, believes the job is his almost by divine right and is a staunch conservative, rejecting all innovations. Rav Mercado is the outsider; he comes from a traditional background but did not start learning Talmud until he was in college. Furthermore, he is not Ashkenazi at all but descended from Turkish Sephardim. While he is also a product of the Yeshivas Lita and has great respect for the previous Rosh Yeshiva, he sees weaknesses in the system and the need for certain changes, particularly in terms of openness to the outside world and secular subjects. (He reminded me of Michael Makovi minus the radical politics.)

In truth, the book, despite its heading, is less a novel than a philosophical dialogue in the tradition of Judah ha-Levi’s Kuzari. In this case, though, Rabbi Angel has the characters speak, not to each other, but to the silent members of the board, presumably the reader. The book offers a lineup of pairs of speakers in favor of the two candidates. First, there are the candidates themselves, followed by their wives, two rabbis in the yeshiva, two students and finally two donors. As with most philosophical dialogues, the author’s position is never in doubt. This is Rabbi Angel’s polemic, not only against Haredim but also, as a Sephardi, against the Ashkenazi culture that has come to dominate Orthodox Judaism. I am, of course, in complete sympathy with Rabbi Angel’s position. Even if my family are Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary and Lithuania, my sympathies are with Sephardim. I even have a good excuse for this. The person I am named after, my great-great-grandfather Reb Benzion Shapiro, was an Ashkenazi who joined up with the Sephardi community in Jerusalem in the early twentieth century and served as a translator and reader for one of the leading Sephardi kabbalists.

The speeches of Rav Grossman and his wife are complete satire. They are entertaining to read, but I hold out the probably naïve belief that no Haredi rabbi would come out and speak to a board the way that they do. Of course, following the Poe Law, one can never satirize religious fundamentalists since there is going to be someone in a position of power and influence who actually fits the joke. Whether or not there are some Haredi rabbis who secretly would love the chance to do what Rav Grossman does is a separate issue. The one empathetic pro-Rav Grossman character is the donor, Clyde Robinson, who speaks powerfully about his father’s guilt over having his store open on the Sabbath. This, though, is once again an opportunity for Rabbi Angel to stick it to the Haredi world as, ironically, Mr. Robinson is not observant and all of his children are intermarried. He simply funds the yeshiva as a means of assuaging his own guilt as to not leading an observant life.

In contrast, the Mercado side gives Rabbi Angel the chance to preach his own worldview and he gives his speeches to characters that are all eminently likable. Rav Mercado is followed by his wife, who is a Greek Orthodox convert to Judaism, with a sappy but cute family story. There is also the speech by their donor, Esther Neuhaus, a diamond dealer from a German Jewish background, the one branch of Ashkenazic Jewry that Rabbi Angel admires. She challenges the yeshiva with the economic facts on the ground as to how they intend to continue to support themselves, particularly if follow Rav Grossman’s lead.

Unlike most dialogues, Rabbi Angel allows the opposition to win and has the board appoint Rav Grossman. This allows Rabbi Angel to have more fun with his character as Rav Grossman proceeds to fire not only Rav Mercado, but the entire board as well for daring to think they had any role to play in the selection at all. Rav Mercado gets to kindly tell the board that they made their bed and are free to lie in it and that in the meantime he and his wife are taking their kids to Turkey to see the island where their ancestors lived and that he was planning on moving to Jerusalem to start his own yeshiva.

I think this book would make a very good Jewish day school assembly project. We could have the students in the audience as the teachers, playing the various roles, come up and present their pieces. Each presenter would end by taking questions from the audience. At the end, the students would get to play the role of the search committee and cast their vote. For this to work in any meaningful way, though, we would need to make the Grossman side at least vaguely plausible.


Miss S. said...

Wow, I have this book but I never read it. Interesting.

Mikewind Dale (Michael Makovi) said...

I like your idea of making this book into a play.

I never heard of Poe's Law, so I got to look it up and laugh.

As for my sounding like Rabbi Mercado: thank you!!! Of course, that's why I've gravitated to Rabbi Angel the way I have!!!

Larry Lennhoff said...

I have seen portions of The Search Committee peformed, as a one man play with Rabbi Angel playing all the roles. Perhaps your school can sponsor a performance?

Baruch said...

Izgad, all your online friends -- including me -- have decided to rip off your blog and discuss your post at Michael Makovi's link to it on facebook :P