Up Front May 25: Secular Yeshiva: Jewish or humanist?

The creation of a secular yeshiva is a wonderful thing. Regrettably, Jewish youth in Israel know far less about Jewish sources than their contemporaries in the Diaspora.

letters 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
letters 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Secular Yeshiva: Jewish or humanist? Sir, - While Erica Chernofsky's "Not in Search of God" (May 18) was fascinating, I found the sub-title - "The founders of Tel Aviv's Secular Yeshiva envision Judaism as a culture and not a religion" - rather disturbing, reminiscent of the thesis of the late Mordecai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist movement. One cannot eliminate culture, history, language and religion from Judaism. They must be included in any serious academic approach, without necessarily demanding agreement or loyalty from those who study it. I cannot agree with Tal Shaked that "You can be a Jew without doing mitzvot." Without a modicum of religious observance one can be a good humanist, but not necessarily a good Jew. The creation of a secular yeshiva is a wonderful thing. Regrettably, Jewish youth in Israel know far less about Jewish sources than their contemporaries in the Diaspora. Sharing Jewish religious and historical texts with them may bring some students closer to the fulfillment of mitzvot - or at least some minimal observance such as Shabbat Eve candle-lighting, kiddush and motzi. Many of my university students practice traditional or Orthodox Judaism. Several males wear kippot and tzitzit. Many young ladies dress modestly. And they study biblical literature and history with me, a practicing but non-Orthodox Jew. We share different points of view, but exhibit respect and tolerance for others' ideas. Many years ago, the chairman of my department requested that I teach a semester of New Testament and Apocryphal Literature, so I studied Koine Greek to read the New Testament in its original language. The study of Greek did not make me a Greek. Nor did the study of Christian origins convert me to Christianity. It is possible both to teach and to study ideas which differ from one's personal practices and beliefs without fear of being brainwashed or converted. I am encouraged that secular Israeli students are returning to the textual sources of our faith. I would suggest only one change: Rather than refer to this institution as a secular yeshiva, it would be less complicated and more inclusive to name it the Tel Aviv Academy of Secular Jewish Studies. DR. ESOR BEN-SOREK City University New York/Rishon Lezion Sir, - I was horrified to read that God has no place in this school (not yeshiva), whose purpose is to show that Judaism is a culture and not a religion. One of the most important elements of Judaism is based upon the verse from the Torah "I am the Lord your God," - there is one God, Who gave the Torah to Moses at Sinai. If a person or institution chooses not to accept this, he is, in effect, rejecting everything Judaism stands for. You cannot remove God from Judaism, and you most certainly cannot not turn Judaism into something from which you can pick and choose. To treat the Gemara and a piece of poetry as meriting the same respect is not only wrong, it is degrading to Judaism as a whole. I support the idea that all Jews can learn the Tanach and other religious texts, regardless of whether or not they are observant Jews; but if you are going to choose to keep Shabbat, it should be because God commanded us to observe it, and not because it is a cool thing to do. The writer ends by saying, "One thing that all sides can agree on is that the Secular Yeshiva has the ability to mend the rapidly expanding rift between the secular and the religious." This is not correct. How can an institution which does not believe in God, which treats Judaism as a culture and not a religion, hope to improve relations with the religious community? This is not an institution worthy of government funding. JEREMY WEISS Tel Aviv Sir, - The Secular Yeshiva idea finds support in the Talmud. Commenting on the prophetic passage: "They left Me and did not observe My Torah," the rabbis comment: "Would that they left Me, but observed My Torah." Does "observe" mean fulfilling the mitzvot? Perhaps it means studying Torah, either because that will lead back to God, or perhaps stimulate values that God cherishes, even when He is denied as the Author of those values. The Gemara also relates that Rabbi Meir accepted the Torah learning of the arch-heretic Elisha ben Abuya because "he ate the core and threw away the rind." In any event, the concept of a secular yeshiva has more in favor of it than against it in our tradition. RABBI JACOB CHINITZ Jerusalem Sir, - Learning Torah without God is having a body without a soul. Tal Shaked says: "There are three commandments to love in the Torah. To love God, to love your neighbor and to love the convert." Are the Secular Yeshiva students planning to ignore the God part in their Shavuot learning? Apparently not. In Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Meir says, "Everyone who is occupied with the Torah for its own sake is called friend, beloved, one who loves the All-Present, a lover of mankind." The late Rabbi Shlomo P. Toperoff comments on this: "Judaism cannot envisage one without the other; they are interdependent. 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself' is immediately followed and qualified by 'I am the Lord' (Lev. 19:18). If love of man is divorced from love of God, or vice versa, we do justice neither to man nor to God." Dov Elboim says: "I would be disappointed if the students became religious." I pray he will be disappointed time and time again. PESACH ROGOWAY Petah Tikva Combating idiocies Sir, - Naomi Chazan remains fixated on the superiority of talk over action, in spite of Sderot, weapons-smuggling tunnels, etc. Nonetheless, she has finally put paid to the absurd claim that success will come if we "fight terror as if there is no peace, and pursue peace as if there is no terror." For that alone we can say, Kol hakavod! ("War and peace don't go together," May 18.) The next idiocy in line to zap: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." MIRIAM L. GAVARIN Jerusalem Thank God for Murdoch Sir, - In "Pox populi" (May 18), Samuel G. Freedman rips apart Rupert Murdoch's style of right-wing, advocacy journalism. I say: Thank God for Murdoch as he is a sorely needed counterweight to the left-wing advocacy of the mainstream media. For years I have had to listen to news reports demonizing Israel, often blaming the "occupation" as a facile way to excuse terrorism. At long last, a major media force is countering the prevailing ignorance. Fox News is pro-Israel, has the guts to talk about "Islamo-fascists," reports honestly about criminal, illegal aliens, exposes pervert-coddling judges and understands that free enterprise is a good thing. Contrast that with The New York Times's recent Pulitzer-winning puff-piece on a pro-Hamas imam in Brooklyn, and it's easy to see why ordinary people with solid values appreciate Rupert Murdoch. DAVID KATCOFF Jericho, Vermont Credit where it's due Sir, - Re the new book by Aharon Appelfeld, All Whom I Have Loved, reviewed by Ben Naparstek in "Finding the right words" (May 11): Mr. Appelfeld writes in Hebrew, and the question of how the book came to be rendered into English should occupy us. Speaking as one of the grateful English reading public, I feel it should be a policy to at least name the translator. For the few hours Mr. Naparstek put into the article he receives credit. For the year and a half of painstaking work Aloma Halter put into getting the flow, feel and diction of the work, while remaining true to the original, doesn't she receive a mention? AVRAHAM MOSKOWITZ Jerusalem Newies and oldies Sir, - Thanks for "The Midas touch," another chapter in the ongoing saga of veterans and newcomers to this challenging, amazing country. Wouldn't it be great if all those who have appeared in these columns met? Both groups would have much to learn and teach. B. COHEN Rishon Lezion