Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Search

R. Marc Angel's recent book, The Search Committee, is an interesting attempt to portray the divisions within contemporary Orthodox Judaism through a fictional story. The story revolves around the largest yeshiva in America, Yeshivas Lita. Its rosh yeshiva has passed away and the board appointed a search committee to find a replacement. The entire book consists of interviews -- with the candidates, their spouses, their colleagues and a few others.

The search committee narrowed their options to two candidates -- the former rosh yeshiva's son and a brilliant, charismatic instructor in the yeshiva. R. Angel uses these two candidates to show the growing split within Orthodoxy. The rosh yeshiva's son, Rav Shimshon Grossman, represents isolationist Yeshiva Orthodoxy and the instructor, Rav David Mercado, represents the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy.

Click here to read moreRav Shimshon believes in lifelong, fulltime study of Torah only, with full faith in every utterance of every sage and as little exposure to the gentile and non-religious world as possible. He wants his students to follow the tradition he knows in all aspects of life, whether in terms of study or finding a mate.

Rav David is a ba'al teshuvah married to a convert (long, moving story). He is open-minded to secular knowledge and modern approaches to Jewish texts, greater roles for women in Judaism, and engagement with the gentile and non-religious world.

In this book, you will find articulate arguments for both sides. The book is essentially a passionate debate between Yeshiva Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. For many readers of this blog, most of these issues are old hat. But for the majority of the Jewish community, who only know their own ideologies and are not familiar with the rationales for other approaches, this book might be very eye-opening. It just might convince a Modern Orthodox reader of the correctness of Yeshiva Orthodoxy and vice versa.

However, it probably will not. That is because the author made the characters too stereotypical. Rav Shimshon is an arrogant bully and Rav David is a humble idealist. The truth is, and I write this from personal experience, that these types of personalities exist on both sides of the divide. This unfortunate portrayal of the personalities involved is, I think, a significant negative in the book.

I think some reviewers will lament the entire concept of the book and wish that we would spend our time emphasizing points of agreement rather than disagreement. I don't subscribe to that point of view. I fully agree that we all have to remember that, in the big scheme of things, we are all Orthodox Jews and therefore agree on most issues of spiritual importance. However, in order to cultivate full religious personalities we have to respectfully acknowledge where we disagree. How else are we going to teach our children what we believe? For that, I think this book is helpful in articulating the points of divergence within Orthodoxy.

I found the literary concept, writing style, and overall plot in this quick read to be very interesting. While the real world is more complicated, this book shows -- in an entertaining way -- some of the major ideological differences within today's Orthodox community.

[I saw in the book an interpretation of the Baraisa (Avos 6:9) about only living in a place of Torah, that this is a wrong approach that was rejected. I tried but could not find any such interpretation in the classical commentaries. Does anyone know of such an interpretation or is this R. Angel's unique contribution?]

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