Rabbi Gidon Rothstein posted a thoughtful if at times strident rejoinder on Torah Musings. He picks up the gauntlet and defends God‘s honor in the face of His presumed irrelevance posited by Jay Lefkowitz. R. Rothstein’s response included many excellent points. One point that particularly resonated with me: Lefkowitz’s situation is a certain type of reflection of the success of Modern Orthodoxy in America. The shul and community are so welcoming that so many different people who in the past may have felt shunned or at least unwelcome now feel comfortable. Perhaps a little too comfortable! It reminds me of a line I once heard Rav Lichtenstein quote which now thanks to Google I am able to attribute to Lord Acton quoting the Duc de Broglie : Beware of too much explaining, lest we end by too much excusing.
I’m not much interested in rebutting Lefkowitz. I am very interested though in thinking about how our yeshivot should be engaging our students so that they are more than just socially Orthodox but that they live lives that in addition to the beauty of shared halachic practice are also invested with a sense of the Divine, love of God, fear of God and pride in commitment to Him. Lefkowitz’s situation has to be viewed as at least partially a result of our reluctance to talk about God. We talk plenty about the Torah and Halacha. Sometimes we’ll refer to Hashem but it’s almost always not to talk about God but to introduce a mitzvah. I don’t really expect otherwise. We were never trained to talk about God or to think much about theology. Lefkowitz’s piece makes me think that we need to bring God back into the classroom. We need to train ourselves as teachers how to talk about God. Students develop a sophistication about all areas of knowledge including Chumash and Halacha as well as all areas of General Studies. And our teachers are well equipped to guide students in those journeys. We are not well equipped though to talk about God. Many of our students are content with an emuna peshuta and they are unbothered by questions. Others are bothered and want answers. We need to provide them with the tools to develop a “second naivete” in the words of Ricoeur and reclaim their emunah. Before we provide them with the tools we need to develop them ourselves.
You write that we were never trained to talk about God. To whom are you referring? Sefarim such as Nefesh Hachaim, Tanya, Derech Hashem and any number of works focus very much on Hashem. Every mechanech and mechanechet ought to have learned these sefarim as a prerequisite to becoming a teacher. Teaching the command without understanding the commander is irresponsible. Rav Moshe Weinberger created a revolution in Woodmere and is currently doing so in YU talking about Hashem which certainly highlights your point but I still must ask why wasn’t this the norm in the modern orthodox community. The more right wing community is much more familiar with these sefarim and while no community is without flaws it seems obvious to me that our engagement in modernity meant sacrificing God. After all, the Torah has had to fit in with science and our students believe that our great thinkers may be on par with the the great writers and philosophers of the world. Without God why would anyone be passionate about Judaism? Why weren’t we trained in these sefarim?
When learning in yeshiva in Israel, I spent some time on Nefesh Hachaim and Derech Hashem, but I never felt like it was an area of emphasis. I don’t think that I spent much time on these sefarim in YU- if anything I think I spent time only on Shaar 4 of Nefesh Hachaim since it discusses Talmud Torah! I don’t think that in more charedi litvishe yeshivas there is more emphasis on understanding God; in more chasidishe yeshivas there is. (I was once discussing the Judaic Studies curriculum with a non-Jewish English teacher who grew up attending Catholic schools. He was shocked to find out that we don’t talk much about God in our classes. He said “The only thing I ever remember talking about in our religious classes was God! What do you guys do all day if you’re not talking about God?!”) I agree that in our MO yeshiva high schools we should add these sefarim to the curriculum in some way. I also agree with you that without God, it’s hard to be passionate and completely committed. It’s probably important to make some small incremental changes even without drastically altering a curriculum. Perhaps instead of saying “The Torah says…” we should say “Hashem tells us in the Torah…” Perhaps instead of just learning the Chumash or the Gemara with our class we should explain to them why the learning makes us personally feel closer to Hashem and also ask students to reflect on that themselves.
I don’t think incremental changes will make the wholesale difference we are looking for. Incorporating Hashem into our language is a meaningful step but unless we literally start from the beginning, namely that religion in Latin means relationship, it will not help. How can we have a relationship with Hashem if we don’t learn about Him? His mitzvos are his desires but that doesn’t tell me enough about Him. Why did he create this world? How does He engage this world? What it’s the difference between a Jew and a gentile in His eyes? I’ve been teaching in Yeshiva for a while now and have been working on a curriculum based on these topics. Gemara is an intellectual pursuit without this knowledge.
I agree fully with you– much of my We’re Missing the Point was about trying to show how central God and God talk needs to be in our Jewish lives. I also think that if you track the mitsvot the Torah connects to Yetsiat Mitsrayim (aside from the obvious ones, like Shabbat, the holidays, and tefilling), you also see how that event is supposed to be more central to our lives than we notice (I’ve been working on that recently, and blog about it at Times of Israel). Much hatslacha in this– do you tweet when you put up new posts, or do I have to remember to come here periodically to see what’s doing in your world?