Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
Torah u'Madda - The Wrong Term?
Here is a letter that I received from a colleague regarding my "In Defense Of My Opponents: Postscript":
I was just catching up a little on what's been going on on the internet in the past several months. I read your truly excellent postscript, and I have an opinion to offer. Do not use the term Torah Umadda.
Torah Umadda (TU) is a loaded term. Many people who identify as being to the right of Yeshiva University but who have no problem with your ideas would viscerally, and sometimes not just viscerally, react negatively to the term TU, which they would not construe to mean whatever exactly you mean by it. Furthermore, and no less significantly, to many Y.U. undergraduates, semicha students, alumni and rashei yeshiva, TU connotes an ideology and/or an ideological and sociological subgroup to which they are opposed more or less definitely. Many, many people who are or have been affiliated with Y.U. get wary and uncomfortable when the term TU is thrown about. It comes with all sorts of baggage.
Part of the problem is that it's ambiguous. I have never read Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm's book entitled TU, but apparently he presents numerous different possible meanings of it. My perception is that many people who claim to espouse the ideology don't really have a clear idea of what they're espousing. They're passionately supportive of TU because they perceive it to be an ideology that encompasses (and, hence, justifies) their own personal and independently held beliefs; not because they can articulate what the ideology actually is and adhere to the ideology. The ideology, rather, adheres to them.
To many, TU suggests the view that study of Torah and of secular wisdom are both so essential to the religious life of the modern Jew that there is some ambiguity as to whether one is more highly valued than the other. I doubt you intend anything like that when you use the term, but rest assured, some will so construe it.
I believe that perhaps the most crucial flashpoint with regard to TU is that many who espouse it believe, consciously or unwittingly, not only that both Torah study and study of secular wisdom are important to pursue, and that both ought to inform our understanding of the world, but that Torah, on the one hand, and secular wisdom (and, often, "modernity"), on the other, are sources of values. These values can come into conflict, and if they do, it is not always obvious that the values dictated by Torah trump those dictated by Madda. This is not a position I hold; I think it is fundamentally incompatible with Judaism. I think there are many people at Y.U. who share both this understanding of TU and my objection to it. All of those people will be more or less alienated by your use of it. It goes without saying that those to the right of Y.U. will feel disenfranchised.
An additional reason not to use the term, in my view, is that it is most definitely associated with an institution. TU is Y.U.'s motto. It is on their logo, their stationery, their publicity and press releases, and at their events. Y.U. is a fine institution, but it's quite limiting, indeed pigeon-holing, to present the ideological gulf in Judaism today as existing between Chareidi society and Yeshiva University, which is, effectively, what many people will understand if you use the term TU.
Those are my thoughts. And, by the way, I agree very much with your analysis of the ideological state of today's orthodox Jewish world. I find the word "epistemology" (Oxford: the theory of knowledge, esp. with regard to its methods and validation) very useful in discussing it. I think much of the intellectual disparity between the different camps boils down to differences in epistemology: different groups start off with different fundamental axioms from which they derive the rest of their knowledge. If you start from the axiomatic premise that everything in Tanach and the Talmud must be true, you will arrive at one set of conclusions. If you start instead with the base axiom that human reason is the path to knowledge, some of your conclusions will differ from those in the first set. (This does not preclude your believing Tanach and/or the Talmud to be invariably or almost invariably reliable sources of information.) I find it useful on occasion to engage in discussion -- or debate -- with someone whose epistemology differs from my own, not because I think I can convince him to arrive at my conclusions using his epistemology, but to demonstrate to him either (a) that his epistemology is inconsistent or otherwise flawed, or (b) that I believe what I believe not because I am incorrectly applying the axioms he has assumed everyone applies, but because I have, in fact, a different set of axioms -- which he must persuade me to abandon if he wishes to convince me of his position. It is usually illuminating for someone to identify the fundamental source of his disagreement with another, and, as you say, it can often ease tension and increase understanding, if not consensus.