I believe deeply in Torah U’Madda. I believe that God wants us to know not only His Torah, but His world, and that through its intensive study we come to know Him.
I grew up in a home and a community that advocated Torah U’Madda. Moriah, Frisch, Gush, Penn, two Lakewood kollelim, Harvard and YU: the education with which I was blessed reads like a Torah U’Madda manual. My role models were beacons of Torah U’Madda and they represented everything I wanted to be. I emerged from graduate school and then semicha bent on becoming an educator who would bring that vision of Torah U’Madda to the next generation of Modern Orthodox youth.
A few years later I became the head of a yeshiva day school and everything changed.
It’s not that I stopped believing in the profundity of Torah U’Madda or in its ability to create a uniquely holistic and sophisticated connection to the Creator of the World. It’s that I looked at the students in my K-12 school—all of them incredible kids with boundless potential—and wondered how many of them, under the very best of circumstances, would ever truly experience that connection. Perhaps more daunting still, I wondered how many, under the very best of circumstances, I could inspire to even try.
That’s when I began to wonder whether our community, our schools, and our children were missing what Jim Collins, the best-selling business author, called a Hedgehog Concept. Borrowing from Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Collins argues that the difference between companies and social service organizations that are good and those that make the leap to being great is that the latter have at their core a belief that there is something that they do better than anyone else in the world and they align their “resource engines” in unified pursuit of that one thing.
As I looked around the Orthodox world, I noticed that most of the sub-denominations that made up the frum world also had a version of the Hedgehog Concept at their core. That is, there was an authentic Torah value or mitzvah that they justifiably believed they did better than anyone else in the world. That is not to say, of course, that they neglected the other 612, but only to say that there was one mitzvah that was pre-eminent in their worldview and that so much of their community’s infrastructure was aimed at supporting it. The Yeshiva world had talmud Torah. Chabad had kiruv. The Dati Le’umi world had yishuv Eretz Yisrael. What, though, did the Modern Orthodox community have? If it was Torah U’Madda, it wasn’t enough. First, important as Torah U’Madda is, it isn’t quite one of the 613. Second, and more importantly, the intellectual synthesis of Torah culture and Western high culture is simply beyond the reach of the vast majority of Modern Orthodox Jews. As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein so aptly put it two decades ago, in the real-world experience of most of my fairly typical American Modern Orthodox students, “the Rambam frequently does not so much compete with Michelangelo as with Michael Jordan, or even, lamentably, Michael Jackson.”1
In the second of a two-part essay published earlier this week on thelehrhaus.com, I try to make the case that Modern Orthodoxy may in fact find a more accessible Hedgehog in the form of the Divine mandate to be an ohr amim, a light of the nations. Different than the common conception of ohr la-goyim in that it seeks to converse with the world rather than to convert it, “ohr amim” is God’s call to share the beauty of His Torah with the world at large. It’s something that on the one hand requires deep knowledge—either from books or from experience—of the Torah way of life but, on the other hand, can be carried out just as successfully by the plumber who explains to his client why he can’t make a house call on Shabbos, as by the professor who explains to her students the religious significance of quantum mechanics. Or amim, by impressing upon a Jew that our Torah and our mesorah has something of value to add to the marketplace of ideas, can shape the investment strategy of a hedge fund, the marketing strategy of a startup, and the media strategy of a political campaign. Perhaps most importantly, it can only truly be done by those who are firmly planted both in the world of Torah learning and living, and in the world of society at large. It is an authentic Torah value that the Modern Orthodox community can own.
Some may argue that we don’t need it. If our kids get excited about Torah learning, or making aliyah, or inspiring other Jews, then that ought to be enough. Why, they might say, do we even need something called Modern Orthodoxy at all? Let our kids be just Orthodox. Or perhaps even just Jews.
They may be right. But I have seen the way a kid’s eyes light up when he makes birchot ha-Torah in the morning, knowing that his father personifies one who is “osek bi-divrei Torah” (consumed with the words of Torah). I have seen the pride of a newly bar-mitzvahed boy who wraps his tefillin on his arm while aspiring to one day soon wrap them on the arm of an unaffiliated Jew he only just met. I know the power of saying “ve-liYerushalyim ircha bi-rachamim tashuv” while gazing at the walls of a rebuilt Yerushalayim. And I want the same for our kids. I want them to feel a sense of purpose and mission and to believe that there is a piece of Torah that they can call their own. I want them to begin Pesukei D’zimra every morning saying:
“Hodu la-Hashem, kir’u bi-shemo, hodi’u ba-amim alilotav… sapru ba-goyim kevodo bi-chol ha’amim nifla’otav
Praise Hashem, call out in His name, proclaim His deeds amongst the nations…tell of His glory amongst the people, His wonders amongst all nations” and think to themselves, “that’s speaking directly to me…that’s what I can do…that’s who I want to be.”
If we can begin reorienting our communal resource engines—the curriculum we choose to emphasize in our schools and the derashot we choose to give our in our shuls; where we seek our professional ambitions and how we spend our leisure time—toward this goal of sharing with others the gift we have been given, we might find the ability to inspire the next generation in ways that we simply couldn’t before.
Gil Perl is the head of school at Kohelet Yeshiva in Merion Station, PA.
1 Lichtenstein, Aharon. Leaves of Faith, The World of Jewish Learning, vol. II (New York: Ktav Publishing, 2004), 324.