“Books of the People”: On Modern Orthodoxy’s Reading Habits

Is there a Modern Orthodox philosophical canon, a list of books that comprehensively represents Modern Orthodoxy’s philosophical outlook? This is presumably a question that occupied Dr. Stuart Halpern while organizing, assembling, and editing “Books of the People” (BP), a collection of essays discussing twelve important philosophical books or authors from the Jewish tradition. In the preface he writes: “While the list of books discussed in this work is not exhaustive, nor does it represent a formal canon in any way, it reflects the changing priorities and religious sensibilities of readers and students, whether in the academy or among the general population” (BP, x). If there is such a canon, Halpern says, this book is not it. It is, however, something not altogether different. If a canon determines which books are should or should not read (for whatever purposes), then BP does the opposite; it is a list of books based on what the community is already reading. As such, examining it can perhaps tell us a good deal about this community, namely, Modern Orthodoxy. Given the incredible degree of variation in the forms and styles of the various essays, I want to use this review to look at some recurring themes and what Modern Orthodoxy’s reading habits have to say about the community writ large, rather than focusing on individual essays.

The first thing that is worth noting is the titles of the authors listed in the table of contents. Of the twelve authors listed there (thirteen if you count Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks who contributed a riveting foreword), only two lack a formal academic credential. This is in contrast to the five who lack formal rabbinic titles (one of the five is a woman, and her lack of a rabbinic title might be attributed to current Modern Orthodox controversies over rabbinic ordination for women; that said, the inclusion of a woman in the list of authors at all is worth noting). While strictly speaking this does not necessarily reflect the reading habits of the Modern Orthodox community, it does speak to a certain Modern Orthodox sensibility. Modern Orthodox rabbis and educators are often expected to have at least a master’s degree. Yeshiva University, popularly thought of as Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, pushes many of its rabbinical students to study in parallel for a master’s degree (others study traditional Jewish thought or in kollel). Academic Jewish studies are valued at least as much as classical torah study, and academics are invited as scholars-in-residence alongside rabbis. The community, taken as a whole, puts a serious emphasis on academic prowess, and this extends even into the realm of traditional Jewish texts.

A second theme worth noting is the Modern Orthodox community’s complex relationship with mysticism. A sentence from Dr. Daniel Rynhold’s essay on Rav Kook’s Orot HaTeshuva to conveys this complexity: “Rav Kook is probably one [of] the most mystically inclined modern Jewish Thinkers to be taken seriously by those with little sympathy for mysticism” (BP, 249). Though the Modern Orthodox community may take certain mystical thinkers, this is often against the background of a basic antipathy to mysticism. Moreover, the essay on the writings of the Maharal, by Rabbi Shalom Carmy, is explicitly subtitled “A Non-Mystical Approach,” and focuses on the non-mystical teachings that can be gleaned from this otherwise fairly mystical thinker. This matches the general discomfort with mysticism that is common in much of the Modern Orthodox community. On the other hand, mysticism has had something of a revival in recent years, as Halpern notes in his preface: “today there is a much great emphasis on mysticism and Hasidism” (BP, x). Such an emphasis comes to the fore in the essays on the stories of Rebbe Nahman and on the Tanya, though the latter takes pains to explain the value of the Tanya’s mysticism to the contemporary reader. In addition to, and in tension with, its rationalistic tendencies, the Modern Orthodox community has seen a flood of mystical theology and practices arise in recent years, popularly associated with the term ‘Neo-Hasidut.’ As the various essays in this book show, however, this mystical turn is far from simple or all-encompassing.

A third theme in BP reflects the Modern Orthodox community’s struggles with particularism and universalism. Traditional interpretations of Jewish texts, going back to Bereshit 12, have often placed an emphasis on the Jewish people at the expense of the all other peoples. This causes great stress for many members of the Modern Orthodox community as it clashes with the universalistic, pluralistic, and globalistic tendencies in vogue throughout American culture, and a few of the essays in BP navigate this tension in various ways. Rabbi Dr. Ariel Mayse, in his essay on the Tanya, sees its “strong anti-gentile sentiments, which drift very close to xenophobia and perhaps even outright racism” (BP, 149), as one of the primary obstacles between the contemporary reader and all that there is to value in the book, and he suggests some ways for overcoming this obstacle. Taking an even more direct approach, Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik’s essay on the Kuzari, entitled “Jews, Japan, and Chosenness: The Extraordinary Universalism of Rabbi Judah Halevi’s Kuzari,” is an attempt to argue that this famously particularistic text should actually be seen as universalistic. I have to say that this was the only essay in the book that left me soundly disappointed. Soloveichik gives nothing but a brief gesture of historical contextualization to Halevi’s claim that the difference between Jew and non-Jew is like that between human and animal, before moving on to argue for an implicit universal horizon for Halevi’s explicit particularism. While I did not personally find his arguments compelling, I do think they demonstrate the uncomfortable place of many Modern Orthodox Jews in today’s American culture, where a more particularistic tradition can feel out of place (admittedly, rising nationalist trends in the US and elsewhere in the West may make this analysis somewhat dated, but I think it is relevant enough for my purposes here).

A final theme that I would like to look at is how the book portrays Modern Orthodoxy’s relationship with Jewry to its left and right. While some of this could perhaps be chalked up to practical concerns of book-length, it is striking that BP contains no essays on modern Jewish thinkers to the left of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Not only Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, and AJ Heschel are ignored, but also thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz, Walter Wurzburger, and Yitz Greenberg. This on its own does not unavoidably indicate a turn away from the left side of the spectrum (particularly in light of potential practical concerns), but it is striking in contrast to BP’s inclusion of essays on books or figures from Modern Orthodoxy’s right. Not only is the Maharal (at least in a more mystical mode) commonly associated with yeshivish and Haredi branches of Orthodoxy, but Rabbi Dr. Gil S. Perl’s essay on the Netziv and Dr. Yaakov Elman’s essay on Rav Yitzchak Hutner both focus on figures to Modern Orthodoxy’s right as well. The Netziv, as Perl points out (BP, 222 n.27), is the source of the Haredi ideology that Torah study can replace the military as a means of protection from physical harm. In an article that was excellent but for its too-exacting translations, Dr. Elman frequently shows that much of what made Rav Hutner so remarkable is that he was ostensibly Haredi (BP, 305). The inclusion of these texts indicates that Modern Orthodoxy reads to its right, as it were, as opposed to the texts from more left thinkers that were not included. This shying away from the left while turning towards the right would seem to be true even beyond the books the Modern Orthodox chooses to read, and is likely a function of the strong emphasis put on dividing between Orthodox and Non-Orthodox, regardless of whether or not there might be larger practical divides between Ultra- and Modern Orthodox.

Books of the People, then, gives us a list of some of the philosophical texts that the Modern Orthodox community is reading. This list in turn tells about the community itself. BP shows us a community that values academia even in Torah, that has a complex and multifaceted relationship with mysticism, that struggles with the particularistic aspects of its tradition, and that is more interested in Judaism to its right than to its left. Even more than the generally interesting and informative individual essays, Books of the People as a whole gives a strong sense of where the Modern Orthodox community is at on a variety of issues.

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