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Torah u-Madda and the Academic Study of Judaism

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When I was a student in Yeshiva College during the Middle Bronze Age, the university’s watchword Torah u-Madda was generally understood as the study of both traditional Torah and secular disciplines with the overarching goal of establishing a “synthesis” between the two.

In the hard sciences this objective had both narrow and broad dimensions. A narrow application might have been the utilization of scientific knowledge to produce more informed psak halacha; a broader one might have been the effort to understand how evolutionary theory could be harmonized with divine oversight of all aspects of biological creation and development.

In the social sciences and humanities, synthesis meant the utilization in religious contexts of insights into the human psyche that could be nurtured by literature and the arts, and illuminated through the prism of psychology, sociology, and related disciplines. Beyond this, it also meant a direct confrontation with the challenges and opportunities presented by the multiple expressions of the philosophical enterprise, whether ethics or metaphysics or the philosophy of religion.

In this ideological structure, the academic study of Judaism played an elusive role. On the one hand, such study was required of all students: eight semesters of Bible (now reduced to four, with an option of one course in Jewish Philosophy), two years of Hebrew (now reduced to one), and two semesters of Jewish History. At the same time, perhaps because it was seen as an integral part of the Jewish dimension of a YU education, the rhetoric of synthesis or Torah u-Madda did not focus on the Jewish Studies courses offered in the college.

The basic point in these paragraphs was first made by David Shatz in a characteristically insightful article that noted and analyzed a major shift that has taken place in the last generation. Now, academic Jewish Studies are seen as the quintessential expression of Torah u-Madda. Without undermining or even compromising the larger understanding of this ideal, and without addressing, as Prof. Shatz does, the sociological and historical reasons for the transformation to which he pointed, I believe that there are compelling substantive reasons to endorse this new emphasis.

Professor Shatz quotes a formulation of mine appearing on the Yeshiva College website, which reads as follows: “The minimal understanding of the ideal of Torah u-Madda is the pursuit of the study of Torah along with secular disciplines, but the highest form of this ideal is a level of integration in which each pursuit enriches the other. Such enrichment can take place with respect to virtually all fields, but there is no area where the interaction is as intimate and potentially rewarding as in the use of the tools of the academy to enhance one’s understanding of the Jewish heritage itself.

Jewish Studies at Yeshiva College are taught with a reverence for tradition combined with the rigorous application of the methodology of the relevant academic disciplines. In short, academic Jewish Studies lie at the heart of YU’s mission.”

To illustrate this point, it is worth noting just a few random examples of issues of the first importance that are often addressed in an academic context and very rarely in shiurim characteristic of a yeshiva environment pure and simple: literary methodologies that can illuminate the meaning of the Bible; differing approaches of major biblical commentators; views of leading rabbis and thinkers regarding the authority and interpretation of aggadah; the role of mysticism; disputes regarding the legitimacy of a broad curriculum and its parameters; debates and interaction with other religions; the impact of the larger society on developments within the Jewish community; the philosophical component of Rambam’s legacy; the reaction of traditional Jews to new religious movements.

At the highest level, the pursuit of academic Jewish learning in a setting exemplifying the ideal of Torah u-Madda can be found in a single institution: YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, where I am privileged to serve as dean. This article, which I hope bears some intrinsic value, is intended to reinforce the advertisement for Revel that appears in this issue of the Link, though it should also remind readers of one of the many reasons why Modern Orthodox Jews should in most cases not even dream of going to any college other than Yeshiva or Stern.

It is evident that the study of Jewish history, Jewish thought, and the sacred and classical texts of Judaism in an academic mode can present intellectual and religious challenges. Avoiding exposure to those challenges in a digital age is becoming increasingly difficult, and confronting them affords the opportunity to achieve a richer and more sophisticated understanding of Judaism and the Jewish experience. For traditional Jews, that confrontation should take place in an environment suffused with a commitment to the authentic letter and spirit of historic Judaism. While Revel is a genuinely non-denominational school, it nonetheless provides precisely such an environment.

David Berger is Ruth and I. Lewis Gordon Professor of Jewish History and Dean at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University.

By David Berger

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