Monday, July 12, 2010

From Yeshivah to Academia

Growing up, it was a given that I would go to university. My father, zichrono livrachah, was a lifetime academic with two doctorates and over two hundred papers published, many of which appeared in such prestigious journals as Nature and Science. I certainly did not intend to follow in his footsteps and take up a career in the academic world, but my family and I assumed that, after spending three years in yeshivah gedolah (the norm in our circles in England), I would study something in the sciences and then enter the workforce.

But just two years into yeshivah, I had already "flipped out" and decided against going to university. At the time, my parents were horrified (although I'm not sure why they expected differently, considering that I attended black-hat yeshivos). This led to some friction, but eventually I won them over; being a published author helped considerably. On the shelf of my books that my mother displays in her hallway, she framed a cartoon that she cut out from a magazine; it depicts a book signing in a store, where next to the "Meet the Author" table is another table: "Meet the Author's Mother."

Meanwhile, however, I was "flipping back." Even before the ban on my books, I was becoming disenchanted with the charedi world in general and its approach to Torah in particular, and the ban served to accelerate my departure. I was no longer ideologically opposed to university. However, it seemed to have become largely irrelevant, since I already had established my career as a rabbi, teaching and publishing. It did not seem to make any difference that I lacked any formal secular education since A-levels (the British final exams in high school). I read widely, and in any case most people assumed that I had attended college.

Nevertheless, over the last few years, a number of factors led me to realize that I would benefit from having a college degree. Furthermore, my research and writing was taking me ever more into Jewish academic studies. Now, all my life, I had thought of university as a place where one studies science; not the arts, and certainly not Jewish studies. Torah is to be learned in a yeshivah, not a university! The idea of someone studying Torah subjects in a university had always been alien, distasteful, unimaginable.

But now my own studies were taking me in that direction. I was extremely dissatisfied with the limited nature of the curriculum for Torah scholars in the yeshivah world. In addition, the prevalence of intellectual dishonesty was extremely disturbing; the views of Rishonim were usually explored with a view to reconciling them with a pre-existing hashkafic worldview rather than a sincere attempt to understand what they were actually saying. Furthermore, when I was looking to understand Rambam's approach to various issues, I discovered that the people who had really studied his writings were to be found in academia, not yeshivah.

A combination of all these factors, as well as others, led me to finally take the plunge two years ago. I submitted a set of my books, letters of recommendation from various academics who were familiar with my work, as well as a copy of the cherem on my books, to Machon Lander in Jerusalem (not to be confused with Lander College). These enabled me to be accepted directly to the Master's program in Jewish Studies, with the proviso that I had to complete a number of additional courses to make up for lacking a BA. I majored in Torah SheBa'Al Peh and Hagut, and this month I completed the program and received my final grades. Next year, b'ezrat Hashem, I plan to begin a PhD in Jewish History (focusing on intellectual history) at Bar-Ilan.

Rav Hirsch writes that one of the reasons why the Torah disapproves of nedarim is that a person should never make absolute decisions about their future plans; life is a process of growth, and plans change as a result. Never, neither as a teenager in high-school nor as a yeshivah student, did I dream for a moment that I would be studying Torah in an academic setting. The contrast between yeshivah learning and academic learning fascinates me, probably because to a large extent it explains the nature of my books and the resultant ban. I have written on this topic before (see here and here), and I plan to further address other aspects of it.


  1. A sincere wish of 'Hatzlacha' on your endeavors!

  2. I was extremely dissatisfied with the limited nature of the curriculum for Torah scholars in the yeshivah world. In addition, the prevalence of intellectual dishonesty was extremely disturbing; the views of Rishonim were usually explored with a view to reconciling them with a pre-existing hashkafic worldview rather than a sincere attempt to understand what they were actually saying.
    Don't you know it doesn't matter what they were saying, only what the later authorities understood them to mean. You are sounding quite modernish and the academic study of torah will iiuc be taken more seriously than the 6000 year deal. Best of luck in finding that elusive truth that all truthseekers seek.
    Joel Rich

  3. Good for you R' Natan. I looked up your late father's work and he seems to have been quite a productive bio-physical chemist back in the era when this field was just getting its start.

  4. May HKB"H grant you hatzlachah.

  5. Mazal Tov on your Masters Degree!

    I think those of us who come from the Chareidi world can very much relate to your journey and some of your experiences (even while none of us have ever experienced being banned by the Chareidi Rabbinate…).

    It would be interesting to hear more of your insights into the contrast between yeshivah learning and academic learning.

    We - your supporters, fans, and co-rationalists - are looking forward to your academic success! (Not to mention being able to refer to you as "Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin"!)

    Wishing you abundant hatzlachah in the PhD program.

    Surely your father, zichrono livracha, would be proud.

  6. Back around the end of high school, in a previous life as a church organist, I was getting ready to go off to music school to be trained as an organist, and perhaps music teacher. I recall sitting in my older friend's hot tub (he was about 35), and his telling me, "Hey, who knows, maybe ten years from now you'll be a cabaret singer." I chuckled and looked at him kind of funny, amused by the absurdity - after all, of course I was going to be an organist. Who knew.

    I can certainly relate to your shifting; when I first came to klal Yisrael I figured I'd do best going with what seemed the most undiluted brand of Yiddishkeit (i.e. what was known to me as "yeshivish"), and work things out from there. R' SR Hirsch eventually became my main moreh derech. I went to learn for a year in Bnei Brak, the year following my discovery of RSRH; I could tell that it wasn't for me, but I kept drifting around the fringes of charedi society, even through your ban, until RSRH was finally given his own beis midrash.

    Whom have you found in the last few years to guide or mentor you? We unfortunately lost R' Carmell; did you perhaps find people in academic circles whom you could look up to and hope to emulate, in middos as well as scholarship? That I have yet to find, although in the last year, I was delighted to find a Jewish-thought chabura led by a person I would consider a very bright, enthusiastic academically-oriented person.

  7. How does Academic learning increase your understanding of Ketzos, Nesivos and Reb Akiva Eiger?

  8. I must confess to being somewhat uncomfortable with the path that is being pursued by the blog owner. While he is certainly not an impressionable youth, his demonstrated ability to change his views when confronted by evidence is both an admirable trait and a potential point of weakness. Let me cite one example of someone whose knowledge has led him, apparently, to repudiate once cherished beliefs:

    I had met a younger guy in a Zeirei Agudat Yisroel shul who impressed me with his religious sincerity. Among other things, I noted that he was the only mitpallel there who stood during kriat hatorah. I asked him why and he replied with a torah verse, "ki shem Hashem ekrah, havu godel leilo_einu". He stood to show respect for GOD's words being read. I assimilated that lesson and have stood for kriah ever since [There is also a verse in Nehemiah where the people stood as the torah (Devarim) was read]. In a later discussion, he said he was planning to start graduate work in Jewish studies. I told him that such studies (in those days, at least) carried some danger to his religious feelings. In the last subsequent conversation we held, he said, "Do you realize that Targum Yonathan could not possibly be the work of that early Tanna since the language is of a later Aramaic dialect?". I was not shocked, having heard such intimations before, nor was I concerned about the antiquity of that Targum. He was, however. I lost track of him subsequently until I recently saw his name on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in J'lem where he is an expert on the targumim.

  9. Y aharon - are you quoting someone about the fellow from zeirei ai? who? or are you recounting your own experience?

  10. (continued)

    At the same time, the best people in the yeshivah world are those who modestly strive for truth, who acknowledge the value of academic work in furthering their quest for amitah shel Torah, and respect those who pursue it for their achievements.

    These people do exist on both sides. Intellectual modesty and honesty are simply aspects of humanity, of mentschlichtkeit. They must always come before Torah. There are more good people than you might expect who fit the bill, even if they are not the ones who make the headlines, and even though they are not always the ones who are well-known popularly or called "gedolim."

    The longer I lived in both these worlds, the less conflict I found between trying to live as a God-fearing Jew and pursuing academic Jewish studies.

    I found positive role-models to be especially important. In my case these were outstanding academics at Yeshiva University who were also extraordinary talmidei chakhamim. They lived their lives fully in both worlds. Most were students of the Rav zt"l. Each found his own way to navigate between the yeshiva and the academy, and even to have them complement each other.

    I quickly learned that those of the Rav's students who became academics or pursued other fields were not "less" his students than those who became rashei yeshiva at YU. In some cases the very opposite was true.

    You will find that such role-models are thankfully plentiful in Israel today. Find them and be a friend to them. I hope you will become one yourself.

  11. Thanks for this post. We seem to have a lot in common, though our stories are not identical.

    Unlike you I have never been the target of a sensational ban. But I have had the dubious honor to be banned on a local community level in Israel. Not by the charedi world, which I left long ago, but davka by the charedi wing of the Religious Zionist camp, which despises academia and mandates its own "party line" no less than the followers of Rav Elyashiv.

    As a youngster at the age of 18 doing my "year in Israel" I decided to leave Yiddishkeit. Why? Because all the yeshivot I had attended thus far, both the charedi ones and the Zionist one in Israel, invalidated any approach to Torah that didn't exactly agree with their own "hashkofoh" or "kav." The intensity of delegitimization seemed to make the entire Torah world into a world of lies. So I decided to leave.

    You see, I came from an assimilated family in which "Torah" didn't mean anything, but one that was very open and loving and honest. But in the world that was deeply committed to Torah I never found any of that openness or honesty. That is why I decided to leave.

    In the end I didn't leave. Because in the end, still in Israel, I finally chanced upon a world of Torah that at the very same time was amazingly open and honest and welcoming. I have a debt of gratitude to certain Torah scholars from the Religious Kibbutz movement who opened up a whole new way of looking at things for me. And later I found more such fantastic people at Yeshiva University.

    Accept the truth regardless of its source. You will find that the best people in academic Jewish studies have real respect for serious Torah scholarship of the "yeshiva" variety (I mean what is truly serious, not what is often touted as "great" in any particular yeshiva) and try to learn from those parts of it that seem valuable and true.

  12. Hassidei HaAdmor MeSlifkaJuly 13, 2010 at 11:38 AM

    We are proud of our Admor!

    We are pleased that our Admor will soon have a a PhD!

  13. Wow, talk about coincidences- just this morning I mentioned your last post (re: R' Meiselman's PhD) to a neighbor, and he said, "True. But remember that Slifkin has no degree at all." I defended you the same you did- you rely on other scientists- and he agreed.

    Now I see you're getting degrees yourself, right and left! (By the way, Machon Lander and Lander College are both part of the same school.) Kol HaKavod, and Hatzlacha! I find your choice of field intriguing as well- I hope you learn much, and eventually contribute much!

  14. R Slifkin, best of luck in your endeavors. Sometimes going back to academia at a more mature stage in life can be more meaningful and enriching than in youth.
    I can relate-- I am a practicing physician, 50 years old, and plan on going "back to school" this fall to get a masters degree in public health. I am really looking forward!

    But be forwarned-- if you go into this world with a truly open mind-- it may challenge some of your core beliefs.

  15. Welcome, my new colleague in the world of Jewish Studies PhDs! I'm in New York City for another year, but should be in Israel by some time around mid-2011, and we can shmooze then.

  16. >While he is certainly not an impressionable youth, his demonstrated ability to change his views when confronted by evidence is both an admirable trait and a potential point of weakness.

    Would you say the same to potential Baalei Tshuva?

  17. Y. A.

    I don't understand the point of your story. as far as i am concerned, if aspects of Judaism cannot stand up to reasonable scrutiny then they must become candidates for discarding.

    how can one claim we seek emet, if when every time that anything appears evidentially emet is rejected if it contradicts a "fictitious aspect" of the so-called mesorah.

  18. How has your changing sense of your own place in the world interacted with your family life? I have this retrospective dilemma where, on the one hand, I would like to have staked out a better place for myself before looking for a mate (I'm married B"H), and on the other, it would have been that much less pleasant without being married, and I might not have felt grounded enough to be however bold as I have.

    I wouldn't say that my wife shares my intellectual restlessness with the yeshiva world, but at least she is thankfully supportive and not particularly perturbed by my less-traditional pursuits.

  19. I note that my little tale (it really happened, albeit nearly 50 years ago) was puzzling to some readers. Ah, well, it was really intended for the blog owner. I should add that I am all for changing one's view in the face of truly convincing evidence. I have changed my own approach towards the biblical creation and flood stories precisely because of such evidence. My concern, however, is the danger of discarding a host of cherished beliefs because some have not withstood the test of time and knowledge.

    In any case, I would be remiss in not wishing R' Natan mazal tov on his Master's degree and success in his forthcoming doctoral work.

  20. Mazel Tov on your degree! May you have great success in your next endeavor! I earned my PhD at age 37and my wife her MD at age 40. The great American comedian and actor Bill Cosby earned a masters and doctoral degree without a bachelor's degree so you will be in very good company!

    And may I take this opportunity to thank you for the contribution your writings have made to my own spiritual journey. After reading them I had a MORE favorable impression of the great rabbis of the past than I had had before, and was 100% clear that there was no conflict between science and Torah, only lack of understanding of either or both.

  21. R' Slifkin,

    Kol HaKavod on your entire intellectual journey. It truly is inspiring.

    Thank you for being a role model to the rest of us who strive for amitah shel torah.

  22. Mazal Rav Slifkin.

    Does this mean you plan on writing books from a purely academic background from now on? Are you going to focus less on science and more on literature type topics?

    Or are you doing this so you can become a principal/dean at a MO high school in America? (This one is said in Jest)

    Good luck with all your endeavors.

  23. Lawrence Kaplan

    Great News. In what area will you be specializing? I look forward to reading your thesis when completed.
    BTW, I am sure that one day you and the controversy around you will be the subject of a thesis.

  24. Terrible news. I mean good for you an all, but now the fundamentalists will say, "See, we always knew he was a kofer."

  25. FTR, the controversy surrounding R' Slifkin has already been explored as part of an interesting MA thesis:

    Nehemia Stern, "Post Orthodoxy:" An Anthropological Analysis of the Theological and Socio-Cultural Boundaries of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism (master's dissertation, SUNY at Binghamton, 2006)

  26. I suppose you can either use your academic knowledge to further expose weaknesses in yeshivah knowledge, or to help strengthen it.
    The choice is up to you.
    Hatzlacha rabba in your new studies.

  27. Mazal tov on your move to academia. I hope you find it satisfying and and have hatzlacha with it. That was a great post to read - thank you for sharing that with us!

    I am sure you know that you are fortunate for this opportunity. There are so many of us who, after "flipping out" and then landing back on planet Earth, are now stuck without the college degrees and higher educational training which would have made us more employable in the "real world". Myself, my little brother, and countless others included. It is great that you are doing this!!

    I'm looking forward to the fruits of your labors which will surely result in more great writing :)

  28. R. Slifkin,
    Mazal tov and welcome to the world of academic Jewish studies!

    Baruch P.,
    What is the meaning of Post-Orthodoxy in that thesis?

  29. Lawrence Kaplan

    Baruch: I meant a doctoral thesis!

  30. I wish you well but for secular knowledge it might be better to sit and learn on your own. I think in Gemara or science everything depends on the right teacher and chavruta. Will you really find that in collage? Maybe if you need to hear lectures you might try the Indian University (NTPEL) that has many hard core subjects on the internet in lecture form. I mean rabbis with university degrees always came off to me seeming very superficial in Torah and in Mada.

    At any rate your attempt to walk in the path of the Rambam I find attempt to be admirable.

  31. >FTR, the controversy surrounding R' Slifkin has already been explored as part of an interesting MA thesis:

    >Nehemia Stern, "Post Orthodoxy:" An Anthropological Analysis of the Theological and Socio-Cultural Boundaries of Contemporary Orthodox Judaism (master's dissertation, SUNY at Binghamton, 2006)

    A rather . . . superficial one.

  32. "FTR, the controversy surrounding R' Slifkin has already been explored as part of an interesting MA thesis"

    Well, then, perhaps R. Slifkin can bring the study to a new level by using the topic for his doctoral dissertation :)

    (Perhaps, this can also be a collaborative effort with bloggers and commentators emailing material for use in the thesis, which will hopefully be properly attributed)

  33. Very interesting, mazel tov, and good luck. I also started changing many of my view toward charedi-Judaism starting in my late teenage years, but I can't trace precisely how that came about (which makes convincing others regarding this topic a bit harder).

    In any event, mazel tov again.

    To all those who are making it sound like getting a PhD is entering a whole different world -- a world of irrelevancy, heresy etc.: It need not be. One can have an academic background and training, and still write about very relevant and important topics in an engaging manner.

    Rabbi Slifkin's essay on the size of a kezayis is a great example. (I believe the writings of Yitzchok Blau are another.)

  34. It's great you ended quoting Rav Hirsch. He began studying in university but didn't finish. You'll finish but you sort of skipped the first part.

  35. "I discovered that the people who had really studied his (Rambam's) writings were to be found in academia, not yeshivah."

    May I assume you're speaking in generalities, and came name some counter-examples?

  36. Teshuous chen chen.

    Mazal Tov. I'm proud of you!

    Ari Enkin


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