Jonathan Muskat

Torah U-madda and the Shift to the Right

I was recently reading in a local Five Towns newspaper how one of the most prominent Modern Orthodox shuls in the Five Towns has experienced a shift to the right. There is frequent talk in the American Modern Orthodox community in general about the shift to the right, about how many children who grow up in Modern Orthodox communities adopt a more yeshivish lifestyle as adults. There is also frequent talk about how rabbinic leadership has moved to the right. What is the reason for the shift to the right?

First, there is the brain drain of many spiritual leaders and passionately committed Jews in our community who have made aliyah. I might be upset that our communities are not as spiritually strong because of the many idealistic Jews from our community who have made aliyah which, in turn, may influence some who grew up in our communities to look elsewhere to live as adults. However, I certainly applaud anyone’s decision who wants to make aliyah as this is our real homeland: past, present and future. As such, I think we should continue to encourage aliyah and we in America must deal with the consequences of the observance of this wonderful mitzvah because the benefits for the Jewish nation as a whole outweigh the costs.

However, there’s another reason for the shift to the right and that is an application of Abaye’s comment in Masechet Brachot 35b to the philosophy of Torah U-madda. Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai debate whether a learner/earner lifestyle or a Kollel lifestyle is preferable. Rabbi Yishmael believes that we must earn a living in addition to learning Torah and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai believes that if we are on a high enough spiritual level then we can simply study Torah all day and God will provide us with our material needs. The old joke is that some people who adopt the full-time Torah study lifestyle think that God is actually their father-in-law. But this is a bona fide debate about two lifestyles between two Talmudic sages and both lifestyles seem to be authentic legitimate lifestyles on their face. However, Abaye makes an important point. He observed that “many did as Rav Yishmael and succeeded; [and many did] as Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and did not succeed.” Abaye observed that the Kollel lifestyle in the time of the Talmud was difficult for most people. Even though on its face, it may have been equally religiously authentic as or religiously preferable to an earner-learner lifestyle, in practice it didn’t work for most people because most people will not be able to handle excessive poverty and will turn away from God.

Now the Chafetz Chayim in the Biur Halacha (159:1) correctly points out that the precise implication of this gemara is that most people cannot handle the poverty of dedicating their entire lives to learning Torah, but a small minority of people can thrive while living this lifestyle. Some gedolim have asserted that in today’s spiritual climate it may be appropriate for more people to learn full-time rather than a select few. But the truth is, I’m not interested in that debate at this time.

When I taught my high school hashkafa class about the question of lifestyle between the learner-earner and the Kollel approach and the question of lifestyle between the Torah-only and Torah u-Madda approach, I explained that we should apply Abaye’s analysis in the first question to the second debate. Those who subscribe to a Torah-only lifestyle believe that any time we spend studying secular studies not for the purposes of earning a living constitutes bittul Torah. Those who subscribe to a Torah u-madda lifestyle believe that we are only technically required to set aside fixed times of Torah study during the day and night and the study of secular studies can aid us in Torah study and can help us develop a spiritual personality. Both approaches are legitimate on their face. For example, Rabbi Yishmael adopts a Torah-only approach (see, Menachot 99b), but the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De-ah, 246:1) rules like those who argue on Rabbi Yishmael. But how would we apply Abaye’s analysis? Which approach is more successful in practice? Could it be that in theory, a Torah u-madda approach in which we engage the entire world through the prism of Torah is optimal, but in practice it is challenging to succeed in this lifestyle. Do many people who grow up in Modern Orthodox communities believe in a Torah u-madda approach in theory but, using an Abaye-type analysis, reject it in practice? Are they attracted to a more yeshivish outlook because they sense that in practice it is too challenging to live an ideal Torah lifestyle that embraces all that the outside world has to offer?

How might we respond to this challenge? I think that our community needs to constantly reflect upon how to tweak our approach in ways that will keep more people who grow up in our community as part of our community as adults. What does this mean in practice?

Let me give you an example. Rabbi Yitzchak Blau wrote an article about a year ago critiquing how YU has become less of a Torah u-madda school insofar as more students are enrolling in Sy Syms business school as opposed to the liberal arts college and there are fewer liberal arts course requirements in the business school than previously. In response, Rabbi Ari Wasserman, brother of Sy Syms Dean Noam Wasserman, responded by writing an article highlighting the courses in Sy Syms that reflect YU’s ideals, such as courses about honesty and ethics in the workplace, community involvement, how to make a kiddush Hashem at work and how to balance work, religious and home life.

I think that this change at YU reflected a small shift from a broader liberal arts curriculum to how to fully engage and share Jewish values in the workplace and remain a committed Jew. Maybe that’s a shift that is viewed as necessary for Abaye’s test of a Modern Orthodox lifestyle. Equip YU students who want to enter the business world with the tools to thrive in that world as committed, authentic passionate Jews who take their halachic and ethical responsibilities very seriously. They may not have as broad exposure to literature or philosophy as, for example, Rav Lichtenstein would have liked, but, then again, most people are not like Rav Lichtenstein.

Just to be clear, I passionately hold dear many of the values of the Modern Orthodox community, such as high-level women’s Torah study, the value of general wisdom and religious Zionism. At the same time, our community must listen to the message of Abaye. We need to ensure that our lifestyle produces communities of fully halachic Jews that are spiritually growth oriented in Talmud Torah, in refinement of midot, in heartfelt tefilla and tefilla b’tzibbur, in chesed and in halachic commitment. It might require extra focus on instilling these values even if it comes at the expense of some “madda” values. If we are committed to our broad Torah u-madda hashkafa while keeping Abaye’s message in mind, we will be more successful in keeping our most religiously committed children in our communities when they become adults.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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