Beneath the Apple Tree: A Romance Between Torah and English Literature- Expanded!

Issue 5, Torah U’Madda, featured an abridged article from Jaimie Fogel entitled “Between the Apple Tree: A Romance between Torah and English Literature.  This is the complete article…

People think they’re asking a polite question when they ask me about my major. It’s one of those questions frequently discussed within the first three minutes of meeting any college student and viewed by most as an easy way to gain insight into the personal interests of the stranger they have just met. But every time I am forced to repeat this small piece of personal information, I am thrown into a world of confusion; into a world of undefined phrases, unclear boundaries, and a choice fraught with guilt. I feel that I am at once in an intimate relationship with Judaic Studies and simultaneously on a self-explorative journey into the world of creative writing. This sometimes leaves me feeling as if I am involved in an illicit affair; cheating on one partner to find favor in the eyes of another.

I am far from the first individual to raise this issue and to try and grapple with the synthesis of Judaic and secular studies. Although I have found it puzzling that, while the phrase Torah U-Madda is a familiar and often clichéd one in the Yeshiva University student’s vocabulary, it is a concept which is rarely discussed or delineated for the contemporary student. It seems to be taken for granted that the average student on campus understands this notion and most certainly agrees with it, since that student has chosen to spend three or four years studying here. But upon asking students about the definition of Torah U-Madda, I think one might find that most students would not be able to answer anything deeper about the nuances of that ideology than “it values an integration of secular studies with the religious.” Dr Norman Lamm stressed this point in his address to the Yeshiva University alumni at the university’s 50th anniversary dinner. On May 20, 1979, he observed that, “ …we as an institution have to do more direction-giving. We must give our students more effective guidance, so that this confrontation between the Jewish and the general world will take place for them in a more well defined way1.”

But this insufficient understanding of the nuances of Torah U-Madda, which for a long time was the only one I possessed, does not help address the questions that thinking students ought to be plagued by during their educational experience here. For example, in my course of studying creative writing, I have been required to take seven literature courses and four creative writing seminars. For most of my semesters on campus, including the present one, my daily schedule has been split between my Judaic and Literature classes and the resulting division of time forces me to ask critical questions about my daily studies. Firstly, for all those moments I spend reading about the early American puritan struggles and analyzing Modernist poetry, I wonder if that time could be better spent delving into sections of Navi that I have barely touched in my past studies, or into sugyot of gemarah to which I have only recently begun to expose myself. The list of untouched materials is endless, but in truth, the real fear is that one day I might pick up that literature text and there will be no small voice at the back of my mind chiding me for not opening up Sefer Yirmiyahu, wondering if I have made the right choice. I fear that there will come a point that I will have become so desensitized that this question of time well spent will no longer be a burning question and a difficult assessment. Therefore, the second necessary question I ask myself is: have these materials I have chosen to read dulled my sensitivities and begun to exercise dominance over my Torah views and perspectives? People should not fool themselves into thinking that what they imbibe from reading does not effect the way they think. The words of non-fiction, fiction and poetry penetrate the appreciative soul to a point that it sometimes becomes difficult to decipher what was once the author’s thought from what has now become the reader’s own. Because of Literature’s powerful and influential effects, these questions become acutely critical for the safeguarding of traditional Torah values.

As mentioned previously, I am not the first one to pose these challenges to Torah U-Madda’s incorporation of liberal arts study into a Torah lifestyle. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein offers a three-pronged response to these questions in his article, “A Consideration of Synthesis from a Torah Perspective.2” He maintains that there are three main dictums necessary to successfully integrate the secular world into our religious life. First, one must understand that Torah as a way of life, is the first and foremost goal—the only goal if you will. Spiritual growth and developing a connection with God is the force behind every action and so too must it be at the basis of any encounter with secular knowledge. The second principle is that the success of a Torah life is dependent on Torah study, both because it gives us insight into the will of God and because it “affects our total spiritual personality”3. If these first two conditions of understanding are met, then the third condition—how one approaches general studies—can be made on firm ground. Secular knowledge is obviously important for vocational training. But, Rav Lichtenstein claims that secular knowledge is less obviously and more importantly necessary if we have any intention of combating it and its negative influences on our society’s standards of morality and religious observance. He also emphasizes the need to be able to combat the questioning forces within ourselves. These doubts and curiosities are expected and normal and we need to be equipped with the knowledge to answer them adequately. Rav Lichtenstein classifies secular knowledge at the very least as hekhsher talmud Torah. Secular knowledge gives access to much of Torah itself, using astronomy for example to help elucidate legal matters relating to declaring the new moon and physiology as an aid to hilkhot Niddah. Secular knowledge, Rav Lichtenstein maintains, also helps develop the “spiritual personality”4. Through learning history, one sees the hand of God in politics, and literature helps us gain insight into human nature and personality. Secular knowledge, at its very least, enables the observant Jew to stretch his appreciation of God to encompass every realm of the world, not just that of traditional Torah sources.

My own personal struggles are rooted in Rav Lichtenstein’s second dictum which demands that Torah study must be the foundation upon which secular knowledge can peacefully rest. I do not feel that I have spent enough time in my years before college learning Torah. In fact, it is specifically in these college years that I have engaged in my most rigorous Torah study, which makes excelling in a dual curriculum all the more challenging. By the time I reached twelfth grade I could easily write a paper on thematic motifs in The Scarlet Letter, while I had never yet written an equally rigorous work on themes present in sefer Shmuel. I have slowly come to realize that this flaw in my early education is the very key cause of these guilt pangs I feel when reading from my American literature anthology. Perhaps I would feel better equipped to handle Yeshiva University’s curriculum if the dual curriculum of my childhood and adolescence had awarded more time and emphasis to Torah study.

In fact, Rav Lichtenstein, and many other prominent names in the Torah U-Madda community suggest stretching out the college years so as not to cheat one’s Torah learning. Richard Joel is not the first to suggest the “fifth year” option! Rav Lichtenstein and Rabbi Lamm among many others scholars of this community suggest it as a way to make sure that the student can engage in intensive Torah study and also take secular courses. Isn’t it ironic that despite these urgings, Yeshiva University students are the ones in the quickest rush to leave their college years behind? I can only speak for the women when I say that it is quite common to find students here only taking one Judaic course a semester after they’ve completed their core requirements. Students take up to six secular courses and one Judaic course in order to complete their degree in three years and very often, that class is a Hebrew language and not even an intensive Judaic one. Those who are most serious about their Torah learning and who also identify with the university’s ideology should be in no rush to leave the YU campuses. There is no rule that one has to graduate in three years and overburden themselves with an inordinate amount of credits each semester. However, there is embedded in our university’s ideology a strong understanding that Torah study should be primary and demand the quantitative majority of our time and not relegated to second-class citizenship behind philosophy and sociology. If identifying with this ideology demands more time spent in college, than perhaps this option should be seriously considered.

I will just briefly address the difficult question of bitul Torah, which is another fundamental halakhic challenge facing the thoughtful student. Rav Lichtenstein maintains that this is a tricky issue that does not have one single answer. Consider for a moment that if the notion of bitul Torah was carried out to its complete end that it would be relegated to mathematics as well. Should the elementary school curriculum only teach simple, pragmatic arithmetic and stop there? Are square roots pushing the envelope in the battle against bitul Torah? The point is that each person or institution needs to assess for themselves at what point “the loss due to time spent on secular studies exceeds their contribution to the cause of Torah”5. Not everyone is equipped to handle a dual curriculum and each person needs to be familiar enough with his or her own capabilities to make that choice honestly and carefully. Although this thought from Rav Lichtenstein seems well formulated and logical, this area of bitul Torah is still one which can cause much distress. It is very difficult to make these kinds of calculations and feel completely confident in one’s analysis. But as made clear by many writers on the topic, the Torah U-Madda model was not created for those looking for spiritual bliss. As the Rav writes, “Religion enriches life, gives it depth and multi-dimensional visions, but does not always grant man the comfort and complacency that nearly always spell superficiality and shallow-mindedness”6. The difficulty of assessing the way we spend our time is not easy and when our judgment is mistaken, we feel guilty and uncomfortable. But when we take this responsibility upon ourselves to assess time division, then as the Rav writes, our Judaism will be rich and fulfilling because we will have struggled, trying to do what is ideal for our relationship with God.

This tension and guilt resulting from the uncertainty of my assessment of time division, found one source of respite in my educational career at Stern. In my junior year, I was privileged to take two English literature courses with a professor whom I can honestly say changed my entire outlook on literature and its ability to harmonize with a Torah observant lifestyle.

This professor was the most rigorous grader I had yet encountered at Stern. My first paper was returned with the lowest grade I had received since my tenth-grade Chemistry Regents exam. Thankfully we were encouraged to revise our papers for completely new grades. The only problem was that I didn’t really understand what we were trying to accomplish. The professor called it “close reading” and it is this well-known literary analytical methodology that I only later in the semester realized was what I called parshanut. I’m not sure why it took me until age twenty to see the blatant parallels between intensive Tanakh study and literature analysis (perhaps it was because my prior Tanakh education was not very good). But this professor, who was a deeply spiritual Jew, although not Orthodox, gently prodded this discovery. Besides for her strict demand that we “close read” the texts—analyzing every word, tone, gesture, theme, and punctuation, to name a few—she would read us her poetry, often created by rearranging words from passages in Tanakh, creating her own original thoughts which still retained the prophetic taste of the original text. There were few classes in which she did not reference some biblical story or example that paralleled our own topic of discussion. In that classroom, Torah was not something that could find room in its worldview for literature. Torah was something that gently held hands with Literature; something that strolled romantically down an apple orchard’s aisle, deep in probing discussion and debate with literature. In that classroom I experienced the fusion of the two areas of study. I was not sure how to identify its source, or derekh ha-limmud if you will, but I knew that there was a way for the two worlds to fit together because I had experienced it in that room, twice a week for an entire year.

Only after the course was I able to identify a Jewish thinker with the religious phenomenon that many of us students experienced with this professor. Rav Kook and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, both of whom are figures associated with forward thinking in regards to the study of secular subjects, present two versions of the synthesis between Torah study and secular knowledge. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm in his “Two Versions of Synthesis7,” articulately delineates the fundamental differences between these two thinkers’ inclusion of secular studies into the realm of permissible study. To state Rabbi Dr. Lamm’s insightful point in a few sentences hardly does justice to the monumental conclusions he draws in the article, but it will have to suffice for the sake of this one.

Dr. Lamm explains that Rav Hirsch envisioned a somewhat inactive relationship between the two. Hirsch believed that secular studies and Torah were simultaneously introduced and now, merely appear in different forms. So there is no conflict between the two because Torah and Wisdom have always existed without being enemies of each other. But because of this cooperative relationship, Dr Lamm claims that there also can’t be “any meaningful dialogue between them. They can cooperate, even as the limbs of the body cooperate and coordinate, but they cannot interact and speak to each other”8. Dr. Lamm claims that Hirsch’s ideology, often associated with the slogan Torah im Derekh Eretz would be more accurately described as Torah “and” Derekh Eretz. The former suggests that the two areas butt heads and rigorously debate with one another, while the edited latter version emphasizes Hirsch’s view more accurately—that the two areas do not become intimate and intertwined in their relationship but merely exists side by side without ever touching.

Rav Kook’s model, on the other hand, is much more daring and discusses the issue in the realm of the metaphysical—in terms of kodesh and hol. He maintains that there needs to be an interaction between the two realms because the hol is waiting to be acted upon and sanctified by the kodesh. The kodesh is sterile if not used to transform the hol because the entire purpose of the hol is to be made sacred. In other words, for Rav Kook, there is only the sacred and the not-yet sacred. Therefore, the interaction between the two worlds for Rav Kook is necessary for the completion of each. In contrast, for Hirsch, secular studies are used to assist Torah and to establish it on firm scientific ground, like using physiology to understand and apply hilkhot niddah.

In the lessons of this English professor, I saw Rav Kook’s model come to life. The somewhat gloomy fact that much of my analytical Tanakh skills were drawn from my original training in literary analysis did not change. I still saw that enhancement of the kodesh occurring in my Judaic studies, where for example, I would sometimes draw on analytical experiences in my poetry class when studying Shir ha-Shirim. The hidush laid in the fact that I found myself writing poems for her poetry class surrounding Biblical themes; poems plucking language from Megillat Ester and Eikha, creating new themes and rhythms relating to my contemporary life. Most discussions about literature and poetry triggered some Torah thought, sometimes when the text was religious in nature and often when it was not. The division between secular and Torah became blurred, something that at the time made me uncomfortable, but which I now realize was the exact synthesis Rav Kook was discussing. This was the educational experience I had always been waiting for. Amidst the sea of somewhat disconnected Hirschian relationships, where the literature seemed only to serve a purpose if it supported a specific Torah thought, this relationship was vibrant and dynamic, transforming each partner as it developed.

This synthesis is not one that is easily accomplished and has yet to be so masterfully done in any of my other studies. It is up to me to create this transformative relationship between my writing, a world I cannot imagine feeling creatively fulfilled without, and my world of intensive Torah study, one I cannot breathe without. The constant question of bitul Torah is always, and needs to always occupy a prominent place in any student’s consciousness. There is no rest for the thoughtful student of a Torah U-Madda mindset. Tension that couples constant assessment is our fate, but it is that same tension which makes the resulting synthesis rewarding and spiritually engaging and makes our studies enter into the realm of extraordinary.

Jaimie Fogel is a senior at SCW, majoring in Judaic Studies and Creative Writing