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.