Review of Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration? Edited by Rabbi J. J. Schacter
Ask just about any student of Yeshiva University, or more generally, anyone who considers themselves to belong to “Modern Orthodoxy,” what distinguishes it from other strands of Judaism, and you are likely to be told that Modern Orthodoxy is particular in its double commitment to Torah and the general surrounding culture. No question could be more central, then, to the ideology of Modern Orthodoxy than the subject of the recently reprinted volume which centers on that very issue, Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures: Rejection or Integration?, (Maggid Books, 2017), edited by Rabbi J.J. Schacter. Since its first appearance in 1997, this volume (and particularly its final essay chapter) has become somewhat of the defining ideological statement of the “Torah U-Madda” hashkafah, even more so than the essay of Rabbi Norman Lamm of that name. Comprised of four essay-chapters, the collection takes a form which is as crucial as it is ambitious, by first providing a highly detailed picture of how this question was approached throughout Jewish history (starting from the Mishnah), culminating in a highly practical assessment by Rav Ahron Lichtenstein, who is for many the greatest talmid hakham to be firmly entrenched in the world of Modern Orthodoxy since Rabbis Joseph Ber and Aaron Soloveitchik. The book’s medium is very much its message: the collection is structured as a presentation of four historical studies, indicating the importance of such studies for contextualizing this pressing halakhic-hashkafic issue
For determining the Orthodox Jewish perspective towards (what is referred to by the title as) “culture,” the choice of authors is essentially unsurpassable. Professor Blidstein and Rav Lichtenstein, the two Israeli writers, have both received the Israel Prize, the country’s highest award for academic or Torah scholarship, and the American authors and editor are the titans of Yeshiva University’s Judaic studies—Professor David Berger is the dean of Bernard Revel graduate school, and Professor Shnayer Leiman is known in Yeshiva University circles as its resident historical polymath. All of these authors are also firmly entrenched in the Orthodox Jewish community, their children (and grandchildren) having attended Torah day schools, and so they can reliably speak to an audience who themselves are looking to inform a Torah-based perspective on where general studies and a commitment to Judaism meet. Tackling each of their respective fields of expertise, the three historians provide a rich and detailed picture of how rabbinic Judaism approached their intellectual cultural environments throughout the ages.
The first essay, written by Professor Gerald Blidstein, is entitled, “Rabbinic Judaism and General Culture: Normative Discussion and Attitudes.” As the byline suggests, Blidstein is interested in exploring explicit discussions of “general culture” as a subject of rabbinic normative statements, i.e. what the rabbis themselves had to say about the integration of general culture. The author admits at the outset that this might appear to stray far from the intended mark: if we want to know to what extent the ancient rabbis were influenced by their surrounding culture, would it not make more sense to conduct a historical study “observing the data of this interaction themselves,”[i] instead of looking to the sparse explicit remarks by the sages on the subject? The implicit answer provided by the author (and the editors of the volume, who could have included a very different kind of essay) is that while such a historical discussion may indeed be useful if the intended “mark” is a question of factual determination, the question that faces “the traditionalist,” as Blidstein calls him, is a normative one: how should the allegiant of rabbinic Judaism look to rabbinic literature to determine the acceptability of outside cultures? On the other hand, “The historian’s agenda may yet be relevant even from a normative point of view,”[ii] as historical behaviors of the Sages themselves indicate, by implication, the types of conduct that they deemed acceptable. Despite his opening reservations, therefore, Blidstein quotes liberally from historians of rabbinic literature in assessing their reliance on Hellenic and Roman culture.
All in all, Blidstein concludes that the Sages condemned gentile culture when it smacked of idolatry or immorality, but otherwise assimilated (or were largely disinterested in) those elements which they considered benign. After reading through the chapter, however, it is clear that this conclusion is at least as dependent upon studies of the Sages’ historical milieu as it is on the reading of specific rabbinic passages, most of which have a decidedly more repudiatory flavor. This study then presents a significant potential problem: if we want to use the Sages’ behavior to serve as a normative example, it may be important to determine whether these cases of clear outside influence are merely a feature of osmotic, unconscious diffusion, or if the sages were decisively comfortable with integrating aspects of the general culture into their world. If their accepting of outside influences was not meant as an explicit seal of approval, but merely “a recognition that the rabbis are part of a sphere of culture whose materials pass with considerable freedom between all its members,”[iii] then their example can provide little instruction for those of us who may be interested in intentionally engaging in the outside culture beyond what we may already have inculcated unthinkingly or unavoidably.
As Blidstein purported to limit himself to explicit rabbinic statements, David Berger, author of the second essay in this collection, also limits his purview of cultural influence upon Medieval Jewry, writing that he will “concentrate [only] on high culture, on disciplines which many medieval and early modern Jews regarded as central to their intellectual profile and which they often saw as crucial or problematic (and sometimes both) for the understanding of Judaism itself.”[iv] The bulk of his essay is thus concerned with the study of philosophy and its reception among the rabbis, including the important Maimonidean controversies, spanning from rabbis of the Geonic era to R. Jacob Emden. Berger’s sweeping discussion leaves almost no stone unturned, and although referring to dozens of rabbinic figures and their works (some well-known and some much less well-known)[v] necessitates that each individual account be brief, his examples nonetheless includes some fascinating insights. In considering Judah Halevi, for example, Berger sees a deep connection between his disdain for philosophy and the uniqueness of the Jewish people as a race-nation; “Judaism rests on a unique revelation, not a common philosophic consensus; Jews are set apart and above, their status ingrained and unapproachable even through conversion.”[vi] At the same time however, “Halevi could no more rid himself of the [concept of the] active intellect than a contemporary religious critic of evolution could deny the existence of atoms or DNA.”[vii]
Exploring so much of the relevant literature can easily cause one to lose the forest in so many trees, but here it might be more accurate to say that there is no coherent forest at all; this study clearly shows that there was no singular attitude towards philosophical inquiry and cultural wisdom which all the medieval rabbis shared. Throughout the essay though, Berger helps the reader make sense of these sources by discussing historical-geographical trends and pointing out each one’s salient features. Drawing upon much of his own scholarship, Berger carefully considers the controversies surrounding Maimonides and the reception of his philosophical works as a lens through which one can understand how the communities of Spain and Provence viewed general studies. Besides for the views of the rabbinic leadership, Berger also notes that the desire of many communities to hear sermons incorporating philosophical ideas proved that “there is strong reason to believe that a majority of the Jews in Montpellier sided with the rationalists.”[viii] The rabbis of Ashkenaz were generally more reticent to engage in philosophical study, although their interactions with Christian and scholastic culture likely had effects on biblical studies and perhaps even the dialectical methods of the Tosafists. Additionally, “It is overwhelmingly likely that the influence of the Christian environment was decisive” in the Ashkenazi pietistic movement, as “Ashkenazi pietists set out to demonstrate that they would not be put to shame by Christian zeal in the service of God.”[ix] Regarding Italy, “The evidence for Renaissance Jewry’s immersion in the surrounding culture becomes overwhelming,”[x] but debates continued regarding the acceptability of philosophical (and later, in the example of R. Azariah de Rossi, of historical) speculation. Even when philosophical literature was studied, this was more often “for religious reasons, as part of a spiritual quest, totally separate from external contacts and influences,”[xi] as Isadore Twersky wrote of R. Yair Bachrach, and is not indicative of a positive reception of general culture.
Moving on to the era of modernity, Prof. Shnayer Leiman takes a different approach. Instead of attempting the impossible task of surveying all of the Jewish literature of the period, Leiman discusses in detail the development of the concept, “Torah im Derekh Erets,” which he does by tracing its history from R. David Friesenhausen and showing how such an ideology was viewed and practiced by four of its greatest rabbis: Isaac Bernays, Jacob Ettlinger, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Azriel Hildesheimer. Leiman’s presentation of German Orthodoxy is rich in detail, including such fascinating points as the fact that almost none of R. Isaac Bernay’s lay audience understood or were even interested in hearing his weekly Shabbat sermons (despite his preaching in the vernacular German) and the remarks made by one of R. Hirsch’s contemporaries that “he did not freely make friends and even his friends he kept at a distance… His intercourse with other scholars was scanty. He did not need them.”[xii] While including copious references to Mordechai Brauer and similar historians of the period, Leiman’s chapter also includes many excerpts from the writings of these sages (some translated into English for the first time) so that these leaders can “speak for themselves.” Lieman also makes note of the rabbinic controversies that often surrounded these figures and their institutions, though some readers may find that in doing so he assumes that his audience has more background knowledge that they might actually have.[xiii] Because of the great depth involved in painting these intellectual portraits, there is unfortunately no room in the chapter to compare and contrast the different approaches taken by these great Orthodox leaders, but a helpful citation is provided where available for the reader interested in such studies.
The volume’s crowning jewel, its final chapter, is Rav Ahron Lichtenstein’s impassioned but equally nuanced defense of the value of a modern liberal arts education for today’s benei Torah. Many reviewers have looked to this essay as Rav Lichtenstein’s definitive formulation of his version of the “Torah U-Madda,” or “Centrist Orthodox” (as Rav Lichtenstein and Rabbi Lamm often preferred) hashkafa.[xiv] The extensiveness of Rav Lichtenstein’s own educational background, evident by his drawing upon dozens of literary authors, is matched by the depth of the essay’s spiritual sensitivity. Rav Lichtenstein insists upon the importance of the study of the sciences, including economics and sociology, writing that, for example, “One cannot translate ordinances concerning neighborly relations into contemporary terms without some knowledge of both the classical and modern socio-economic scene.” If, as Maimonides famously touted, one comes to appreciate God by studying His handiwork, this is all the more true through the study of the humanities, which, as its name suggests, is the study of the human experience, “His wondrous creation at its apex.”[xv] Despite being fully forthcoming about the religious risks and potential halakhic problems inherent in such studies, Rav Lichtenstein argues that general knowledge is essential for a full spiritually enriching education, as even if it may be true that “everything is in it [the Torah],”[xvi] we should not be so haughty as to believe that we can derive “all we need within our own tradition.”
There is almost no argument one can make against Rav Lichtenstein’s position that he has not already anticipated in this remarkable essay, and while this helps gives his positions the crucial authority of considered balance, such a presentation is likely not going to convince any reader already inclined to disagree with his stance on the value of general studies. Although this is of course always true to a large extent,[xvii] here Rav Lichtenstein accedes to the severe spiritual dangers posited by serious study of the humanities, yet insists that “the advocacy of Torah u-Madda can very well still be sustained, depending, of course, on the overall balance of benefit and loss.”[xviii] Presented with all of Rav Lichtenstein’s evidence, however, a reader can just as easily come to the opposite conclusion, even if he recognizes that “we also ignore hokhmah at some cost,” for who is to say which path is filled with more spiritual dangers? In an exchange published in the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine,[xix] Dr. William Kolbrener wrote that he believes the modern university would invariably fail a student attempting to put Rav Lichtenstein’s ideal into action, and his proposed path has, in his experience, sometimes led to tragic spiritual consequences. On the next page, Rav Lichtenstein concedes that perhaps there may be more significant dangers inherent in his program, especially in a university, but his essential argument remains unchanged: he believes that the benefits of such an education outweigh their costs.
Although each of the volume’s historical essays are very thorough, it is unfortunate that the new republishing has not inspired any updating, as certain lacunas may appear to today’s readers who are exposed to the scholarship of the past two decades. Starting with the first essay, for example, the vast majority of Blidstein’s attention is paid to pre-Talmudic rabbinic literature and Roman influence, which was indeed the focus of academic studies of rabbinics for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but he makes no mention of more recent scholarship on the Babylonian Talmud and its significant borrowing of literary structures, themes, and concepts from Persian culture.[xx] In discussing some obvious legal loan-words that made it into the halakha, Blidstein mentions the prozbul and dyothiki, but not the foreign word that would be more familiar to any practicing Jew, “afikoman,” which would have been a good segue to mention the Passover Seder’s relationship to the Greek Symposium (more recently the subject of an excellent study by David Henshke).[xxi] In the penultimate section of the essay, Blidstein suggests that the “distinction between facts and values (wooly as it may be) is perhaps at the heart of the rabbinic assertion that the nations of the world do not possess Torah, but they do possess wisdom,”[xxii] believing that the Sages were willing to unquestioningly adopt scientific knowledge as superior to their own if it can be shown to be correct. In actually, this assertion is not as simple as Blidstein would like it to be, as he himself notes that the Sages will almost never accept a logical-scientific argument without being able to provide a scriptural source for the same conclusion. As readers are probably aware, the question of where the rabbis’ scientific assumptions are sourced is (and to a large extent, has been for centuries) the subject of significant controversy among rabbinic thinkers.[xxiii]
Despite the very detailed account of medieval Jewry provided by Berger, it too could potentially have been updated thanks to some more recent studies, particularly with regard to his treatment of Ashkenazic attitudes towards general learning. Referring to the peshat focus of Rashbam’s commentary to the Torah, for example, Berger writes that “it surely cannot be ruled out—indeed, it seems overwhelmingly likely—that some taste of the exciting new approaches was transmitted,” from Christian exegetes to Jewish commentators. Thanks to the work of Eliezer Touito,[xxiv] this can now be stated with much greater confidence. In his belief that the sages of medieval Ashkenaz likely had an “intense curiosity about the natural and mechanical phenomena that surrounded them,” which likely extended to at least moderate study of natural philosophy, Berger can only cite in his footnote “a conversation with Ta-Shema,” but today the reader could be directed to a full monograph on the subject by David I. Shyovitz.[xxv] The Jewish reception and involvement in the Copernican Revolution and the new science of experimentation, for which Berger provides a quick overview, is also now the subject of an entire book.[xxvi] Recent publications could even be cited to supplement Prof. Leiman’s extraordinarily well-sourced essay, such as Adam Ferzinger’s study of German Orthodoxy’s relationship with the non-Orthodox community,[xxvii]—but this would scarcely have changed the content of Leiman’s essay substantially, if at all.
Updating aside, a more significant limitation of this collection is that although its title concerns the “encounter” of Judaism and “other cultures,” all of these essays are almost exclusively interested in what is sometimes called “high culture,” the intellectual products of non-Jewish nations—there is almost no talk of everything else we would today associate with culture: food, dress, language, entertainment, and on and on and on.[xxviii] In one sense this complaint is nothing more than a pedantic quibble about a word in the title,[xxix] but there is another sense in which this indicates a major shortcoming regarding the audience of this collection. While it may be true that any Yeshiva University student will likely say that Modern Orthodoxy is distinguished by its approach to general culture, he or she will understand the word “culture” to refer to something very different that the subject of this book. Beyond Blidstein’s overview of the prohibition to imitate the gentiles, there is little that speaks to the aspects of general culture that are much more pressing for the vast majority of the Modern Orthodox readership. As Kolbrenner quoted from a student, “It’s not so much that we are interested in Torah Umadda, what we are really interested in is Torah and entertainment.”[xxx]
Those who consider themselves to be Modern Orthodox in this sense would likely consider how the medieval rabbis understood the prohibition of imitating gentile dress and similar cultural practices[xxxi] to be more relevant than their embrace of Aristotelianism, and would be more interested in the fact that R. Azriel Hildesheimer loved to sing German leider to his daughters[xxxii] than in his mastery of Greek. That being said, no community can be expected to live up to its ideals perfectly, and one only hopes that the shining example and educational program formulated here by Rav Lichtenstein can be an inspiration to future students looking to have their approach to culture be shaped by the Torah and its values.
[i] Gerald Blidstein, “Rabbinic Judaism and General Culture: Normative Discussions and Attitudes,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, ed. by J.J. Schacter (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2017), 2.
[ii] Ibid, 7.
[iii] Ibid, 49.
[iv] David Berger, “Judaism and General Culture in Medieval and Early Modern Times,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, 72.
[v] Although Berger deserves credit for discussing many of Jewish philosophical scholars or writers who are likely to be unknown to readers with only a Yeshiva or day school education, he sometimes neglects to mention figures who may be more familiar (and whose opinions are therefore of greater interest) to residents of the traditional beit midrash, so to speak, such as R. Nissim of Gerona or R. Simon b. Zemah Duran (author of “Tashbetz”).
[vi][vi] Judaism’s Encounter with other Cultures, 95.
[vii] Ibid, 93.
[viii] Ibid, 133; Although Dr. Berger does mention some members of the more radical rationalist movement, including Samuel ibn Tibbon, Moses Narboni, Joseph ibn Kaspi, Gersonides and Isaac Albalag, I believe that he intentionally left out any mention of those thinkers who he thinks moved beyond the limits of what was acceptable in their Jewish communities, such as Levi ben Abraham or Nissim of Mersailles, (but it is hard to know how this cut off was made).
[ix] Ibid, 151.
[x] Ibid, 158.
[xi] Ibid, 172.
[xii] Shnayer Leiman, “Rabbinic Openness to General Culture in the Early Modern Period in Western and Central Europe,” in Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, 224.
[xiii] For example, see ibid., 228-229, 257.
[xiv] Alan Jotkowitz, “Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein: Torah Umadda Man,” Modern Judaism 35:3 (2015); Shalom Carmy, “Music of the Left Hand,” Tradition 47:4 (2015), 226.
[xv] Aharon Lichtenstein, “Torah and General Culture: Confluence and Conflict,” in Judaism’s Encounter, 310.
[xvi] Avot 5:22.
[xvii] See the influential study by C. G. Lord, Ross, and Lepper, “Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37:11 (1979). These findings have been largely upheld in the past few decades; see the updated and refined article by C.S. Taber and M. Lodge, “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science, 50 (2016).
[xviii] Lichtenstein in Judaism’s Encounter, 366.
[xix] William Kolbrener, “Torah UMadda: A Voice from the Academy,” and Aharon Lichtenstein, “To Sharpen Understanding,” Jewish Action 64:3 (Spring 2004).
[xx] Much of this work, such as Shai Secunda, The Iranian Talmud came later, but Zoroastrian influence on the Babylonian Talmud was already discussed by figures such as R. Isaac Hirsch Weiss in his Dor Dor ve-Dorshav.
[xxi] David Henshke, ‘Mah Nishtannah’: The Passover Night in the Sages’ Discourse [Hebrew].
[xxii] Judaism’s Encounter with Other Cultures, 47
[xxiii] See Rabbi Moshe Meiselman, Torah, Chazal and Science (Israel: Israel Bookshop Publications, 2013), Rabbi J.D. Bleich, Contemporary Halakhic Problems, Vol. VII (New Milford, CT: Maggid Books, 2017), and various responses by Natan Slifkin (available at rationaljudaism.com).
[xxiv] Eleazar Touitou, Exegesis in Perpetual Motion [Hebrew] (Jerusalem, 2003).
[xxv] David I. Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017).
[xxvi] Jeremy Brown, New Heavens and a New Earth: The Jewish Reception of Copernican Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). Brown often discusses our issue of Judaism’s response to its surrounding intellectual culture so explicitly as to sometimes border on the polemical.
[xxvii] Adam Ferzinger, Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2005). See also Matthias Morgenstern, From Frankfurt to Jerusalem: Isaac Breuer and the History of the Secession Dispute in Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (Lieden: Brill, 2002).
[xxviii] A similar criticism of this volume was made by Alan Brill, “Judaism in Culture: Beyond the Bifurcation of Torah and Madda,” The Edah Journal 4:1 (2004), cf. Yitzchak Blau, “Contemporary Fads and Torah uMadda: A Response to Alan Brill,” The Edah Journal 4:2 (2004). Brill’s main point, however, that the presented dichotomy between Judaism and culture is a false one, is not one shared by this reviewer.
[xxix] It is of course no accident that Rav Lichtenstein chooses to define culture in accordance with Matthew Arnold (“the best that has been thought and said in the world”) instead of deferring to anthropologists or social critics such as John Bodley, Clifford Geertz, and Raymond Williams, but it is their definition which is closer to the colloquial.
[xxx] Kolbrenner, “Torah Umadda”
[xxxi] See Tzvi Teichman, “The Jew in a Gentile Society: Chukat Ha’Akum” RJJ Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 3 (1981):64-85.
[xxxii] David Ellenson, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer and the Creation of a Modern Jewish Orthodoxy (University of Alabama Press: Alabama, 2003), 24.