Change is necessary
One of the very serious questions that faces every posek is what degree of flexibility does he have in determining his decisions, whether in the direction of stringency or that of leniency. Is he inexorably bound by the rulings of the Shulhan Arukh, for example? Or may he take a position which is more stringent than that of the Mehaber ? (It is generally agreed that he may add stringencies to his own private practices.) Conversely, can he take a position of leniency, which would seem to contradict the standard rulings?
It is axiomatic that Modern Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodox Jews value the academic field of Jewish Studies, which functions as the bridge between the Bet Midrash and the academy, both locations in which we seek to situate ourselves. In articulating the value of such study, proponents often highlight the insights it affords in the realm of Talmud Torah.
We are confronted on a daily basis with choices that require us to consult others before making a decision. We may call a lawyer for advice on a legal issue or an accountant for advice on our taxes. We do this because although we may be very good at what we do, no one person knows everything-and it is helpful to be guided by a professional who deals with the issue at hand on a regular basis. If one has a sink that is leaking or an electrical outlet that is malfunctioning, one might ask an electrician or plumber for advice, and will likely follow the advice if it sounds reasonable.
In recent years, there has been an attempt in some circles to introduce various aspects of academic Talmud study into the world of the traditional study of Gemara. Not surprisingly, there has been at times vociferous opposition to the introduction of this material. It is worth briefly reviewing some of the academic methodologies and their potential positive contribution to the denizens of the traditional Bet Midrash. We will also consider some of the objections to the introduction of such methodologies, as well as possible responses to those objections.
Three things might commonly differentiate the study of Gemara in the Bet Midrash and the study of Talmud in the academy:
1) The goal of study
2) The attitude toward the authority of the text and the Sages therein
One of the great problems any religious person must struggle with is whether or not it is actually possible to be religious. What, after all, is the essence of genuine religiosity? It is no doubt the cognizance that one lives in the presence of God and feels and acts accordingly. To do so, however, is nearly impossible. Avraham Joshua Heschel once made the profound observation: “Religion depends upon what man does with his ultimate embarrassment” (1).
While we may not agree with Heschel that embarrassment lies at the root of religion, we agree it is unpretentiousness combined with deep humility that moves genuine religion.
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It was only a short while ago in America that there were those predicting the death of Orthodox Judaism in this country. A large segment of Orthodoxy included the generation of survivors ravaged by the trauma of a Holocaust they had barely survived. They were learning to adapt to a new society, a new language, and a new culture. The children of those survivors, Baby Boomers of today, were opting out of Orthodox Judaism in droves to join the fast-growing Conservative and Reform movements. The more liberal movements offered much to attract first-generation native-born Jews: services in regal and refined English, a rabbi whose only accent inflecting his sermons was a
For the achievement of a moderate and observant next Jewish generation, there will need to be a synthesis of all the best qualities and approaches of like-minded approaches, from Modern Orthodox to Sephardic and beyond, creating a Jewish lifestyle that is neither extremely stringent or oppressive nor exceedingly indifferent to religious observance. I hope our religious leaders are up to the task.