Second thoughts

Second thoughts

At my first book launch program I was in conversation with Seymour Adler, a good friend since we both moved to Teaneck about 40 years ago. Seymour’s skillful questioning — unsurprising, since he was the recipient of the 2019 Distinguished Professional Contributions Award from the Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, recognizing his career-long impact on his field — was critical to the success of the program. And one of his questions spurred this column.

(Before I continue, a few self-indulgent, self-promotional comments. The book, “A Passionate Writing Life,” received its first book review recently in the Jewish Press, with another review scheduled for Lehrhaus later this month. I also will be speaking about the book at a Shalosh Se’udot program at Manhattan’s Jewish Center on March 9. The book is available at Teaneck’s Judaica House.)

Seymour asked whether I had any regrets about the book, concerning either the substance of any articles or any material I had included or excluded. As to substance, I pointed out that the book itself notes a few second thoughts about what I wrote decades ago. Those are, however, the exceptions. As I reflect in the book’s conclusion: “As is probably true of most writers, while rereading my own work I find much I would like to change: a word, a phrase, a metaphor, an analogy, a position, an argument, an idea. We all grow in time, and with growth inevitably comes change. [Nonetheless], the work I committed to paper over these many years still resonates with me in the main; it rather accurately expresses my thoughts and beliefs today and still speaks to my soul.”

The same is true about the included, and excluded, material. Other than a cut-off date for Jewish Standard material of my 100th column, I had no hard and fast criteria. It was mostly based on my gut; did the material still speak to me in some way — its subject, my writing, or, perhaps, the stories I told? My guess is that if I were sitting down today, rather than two years ago, with the same corpus of material in front of me, the book would look amazingly similar.

Here too, though, there are exceptions, and I regret not having included a discussion of two items in the new material I wrote specifically for the book.

The first is factual in nature; I somehow neglected to mention a significant law journal article that I wrote for the Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, which subsequently was republished in the New York Law Journal and Studies in Jewish Jurisprudence, Vol. II. The article, “Rabbinical Courts: Modern Day Solomons,” which has been cited in numerous scholarly books and articles as well as court opinions, was the first time I combined in writing my interests in Judaism and the law. So I I’m trying to rectify that omission and mitigate my regret here.

The second was a story that relates to a column I wrote about the first shiur that Rav Herschel Schachter, the renowned talmid chacham and Modern Orthodox and YU leader, teacher, and posek, taught in RIETS (Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary) (“Last and First Gemarah Shiurim”). That column told the tale of the role I played — or, as it notes, perhaps didn’t play — in Rav Schachter being appointed to teach a high-level senior college shiur as a new 26-year-old teacher. But I should have fleshed out that tale by including, as a postscript to the column, an interchange that took place between him and several students one day during class.

Some time in the mid to late 1960s, RIETS decided that once a year, each Talmud class would have a Yom Iyun — a day that the rebbe would devote to discussing Jewish thought, philosophy, or ideas, rather than presenting a traditional Talmud shiur. And while I don’t remember the overall topic of Rav Schachter’s 1968 Yom Iyun discussion, I vividly recall one comment he made and some follow-up student questions. (All material in quotes is based on my more than 55-year-old memory of the event. It may not be exact, but I’m confident it’s very close. Moreover, in a WhatsApp telephone call to Israel earlier this week with David Ribner, my YU chavruta — study partner— still dear friend, and a fellow member of Rav Schachter’s class, David confirmed my memory of the following story.)

Rav Schachter’s comment was that “the only value of secular education is in how it helps you learn Torah and earn a parnassah.” A living. As a senior in a school whose watchword on its seal was, and still is, “Torah Umadda,” I was a bit perplexed. The exact definition of Torah Umadda is complex, though maddah often is translated as science, worldly knowledge, or secular studies. Indeed, Torah Umadda became the subject of an eponymous project, instituted by Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm when he was president of YU, which ultimately included a campus lecture series, an annual journal, and a book by Rabbi Lamm titled “Torah Umadda: The Encounter of Religious Learning and Worldly Knowledge in the Jewish Tradition.”

In listening to Rav Schachter, it seemed to me that YU’s motto meant more than what my rebbe implied in his comment. And so, during the question-and-answer period, I asked: “Do you mean that there’s no inherent value to secular learning at all? That its only value is to help Torah learning and earning a living?” (Read my question with emphasis on “at all” and “only.”) Rav Schachter’s answer was direct: “Yes.”

I was clearly not the only student surprised by Rav Schachter’s proposition or his answer. “I was a student in Rav Lichtenstein’s shiur last year, and my understanding of the value he places on secular knowledge and study is different from yours,” a classmate followed up. “How do you explain that?” Here, the answer was a bit longer yet even more perplexing: “I guess we had different rebbe’im.” (For those not fluent in Modern Orthodox life, the reason this was puzzling was that not only were both Rav Schachter and Rav Lichtenstein major students of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, but Rav Lichtenstein also was the Rav’s son-in-law.)

As a footnote to this footnote, Rav Schachter clearly noted my confusion because several days later, when he encountered my brother Lawrence, whom he knew from the Rav’s shiur, he mentioned to him, with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, “I don’t think your brother was too happy with my Yom Iyun talk.”

All this was a long time ago, and, of course, I don’t know what Rav Schachter thinks about Torah Umadda five-and-a-half decades later. And even if his views haven’t changed, YU’s vision of Torah Umadda has probably moved, as demonstrated by its now flourishing undergraduate Sy Syms School of Business, “which is dedicated to creating . . . business leaders and innovators . . . [and providing] a business education that is distinct from other schools because of its unique mission and values, and its focus on practice.”

A great deal has been spoken and written about Torah Umadda over the years, and I’m sure its meaning will continue to be parsed as long as that logo appears on YU’s seal. I’ll leave that scholarly discussion to the scholars. But I did want to memorialize this early discussion of Torah Umadda by an important participant so it can, perhaps, be thrown into the mix as those scholars plumb the historical record.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a retired lawyer, longtime Teaneck resident, and regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.

read more: