Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: A National Religious Torah Scholar
Rav Soloveitchik and Social Issues: A National Religious Torah Scholar

Introduction -The place of the Torah scholar in the national religious community

At the recent Jerusalem Conference, Rav Yitzhak Neriah criticized his national religious community for not significantly valuing and supporting Torah scholarship, in contrast to the support that Torah scholarship receives in the hareidi community. Many prominent national religious rabbis did not accept this criticism, and pointed with pride to the tremendous growth and breadth of Torah study in our community over the last thirty years.

So who is right? This article will humbly argue that both sides are right, and both sides are wrong, in their perspectives. The real question confronting us is not how many Torah scholars our community supports to learn in the beit midrash, but what is the nature and purpose of their learning.

Referring (at the end) to the teachings of Rav Soloveitchik, the article will argue that the nationalreligious Torah scholarship must be different from that of the hareidi community. We need a core of scholars ‘who never leave beit ha midrash’, but  the majority of our Torah scholars should sit and learn thirty hours a week, in order that they then  can,  for twenty hours, actively teach us how to integrate our Torah and professional lives.

Our Torah scholars must take upon themselves the task of teaching us how to be Torah-oriented doctors, psychologists, army officers, youth leaders, and film makers.

The debate on the role and scope of national religious Torah scholarship

Rav Neriah cited that we have only 1,700 men, over the age of 22, studying Torah full time. This insufficient number, he argued, indicates that our community of almost 700.000 Jews does not sufficiently value Torah scholarship, and that our community and philanthropists do not give a high enough priority to supporting Torah scholarship.

Rabbi Chaim Druckman and other prominent rabbis responded by citing the renaissance of Torah learning over the last thirty years: we have now over 70 yeshivot chesder, close to 20 pre military academies (machinot), urban Torah settlements (garinim toraniyim), high quality programs for preparing religious court judges, and many weekly Torah classes (daf yomi, tzurbah derabanan) in synagogues.

Rabbi Chaim Navon cites that our percentage of Torah scholars is greater than that in pre Holocaust Europe, when there were only 4000 yeshivah Torah scholars out of a Jewish population of 10 million Jews.

Reframing the questions of the debate

Both sides are right, and both sides are mistaken. I believe in the correctness of Rav Neriah’s arguments that full time Torah scholars need and deserve a place of higher priority in our community. Our rabbis who describe a flourishing of Torah scholarship over the last 30 years are also correct in portraying an encouraging reality. However, they are both ‘wrong’ in the sense that they ignore the more basic questions: 

What should our full time Torah scholars be studying?

What questions should they be pursuing? What answers should they be providing, and for whom?

Torah scholarship in the hareidi community

The hareid community sees it main purpose as supporting Torah scholarship for the sake of the mitzvah itself, and not because of the pragmatic benefit of Torah scholarship. The Jewish people and the world will be more quickly redeemed to the extent that there is more full time Torah scholarship. Those who can, should study, and those who cannot, should support those who can study.

This, I believe, is the official social ideology of the hareidi community. For this reason, we find that there are virtually no hareidi doctors, psychologists, army officers, historians, scientists and artists who grew up in the Israeli hareidi school system and identify themselves as hareidi Jews. Nearly all hareidi professionals are baalei teshuva, or imports from the American/French hareidi communities, or turned hareidi after studying in the national religious educational systems.

Torah scholarship in the national religious community

In contrast, the national religious community sees full time Torah study as a venerable, highly worthy professional career, one among others. We feel that G-d miraculously gave us our own Jewish state, and thus we feel commanded to be active in all sectors of Israeli society, and feel responsible for the sector’s flourishing and Jewish nature.

We see Torah study as being an important, critical part of our home, synagogue and communal life. However, we do not yet sufficiently understand how to integrate Torah study into our workday professional lives. My research indicates that very few of our leading rabbis have given thought to how to integrate, on a practical, daily basis, rabbinic wisdom and Torah into our practice of law, medicine, social work, or the arts. (Exceptions are the halakhic and spiritual aspects of army service and in addition, Emunah College of Technology in Jerusalem, where each major has a mandatory course in the halakhot affecting that field of endeavor.)

In this sense, we are still in exile: We still make the diaspora distinction that in the home and community we act as Torah Jews, and in our professions we act as ‘neutral-neuter-secular Israelis’. In an independent Jewish state this distinction must be seen as a false anachronism. In order to truly hasten our Redemption, our Torah scholars must produce and actively teach a body of Torah literature shows us how to integrate Torah wisdom into our professional lives.

The vision: ‘Torah think tanks’, applied rabbinic and social research centers, such as Machon Puah

Given G-d’s gift of a sovereign Jewish state, and the tremendous responsibility that it imposes on us, the national religious community must take the lead in developing ‘Torah think tanks’ in specific areas of societal concerns. We must develop properly funded, long term, highly professional, applied research centers whose purpose is to integrate full time beit midrash rabbinic literature research with advanced academic research in the medical, social and liberal sciences.

Fortunately, we have the already existing prototype of such a ‘Torah think tank’, Machon Puah.  Machon Puah combines ongoing, expert rabbinic research, and advanced medical knowledge, in the field of marriage and family intimacy. It  provides rabbinically supervised counseling and outreach to over 10,000 individuals a year, and worldwide in-service training of medical professionals, halakhic counselors and family therapists.

Another example are our kollelim for training rabbinic court judges which have already succeeded in filling a third of the nation’s rabbinic court positions. With proper long term funding, they can develop and incorporate academics with expertise in civil and mishpat ivri  in order to  become applied research centers that teach and counsel laymen lawyers in the Torah perspective on legal issues.

In brief, the example of Machon Puah should be applied to areas of mental health, social service delivery, the fine arts, economic activity and the military. The key for the development of these ‘Torah think tanks’ (applied research centers) is that 

1)our leading rabbis understand, and encourage, the principle of integrating advanced rabbinic literature and academic research; and

2)private and public long term funding which will allow young Torah scholars to commit themselves to a career of applied Torah-academic research.

In the natural sciences, there are theoretical scientists who do research for the sake of research, and applied scientists who take the former’s findings and use them to improve human welfare. Similarly today with regard to Torah study, twenty percent of our national religious Torah scholars should be ‘theoretical’ (learning for the sake of the mitzvah), and eighty percent should be ‘applied’ Torah scholars. All should have adequate financial support.      

Rabbi Soloveitchik’s (presumed) sympathetic support of the proposal –a historical perspective

Rabbi Soloveitchik did not directly address these issues in his lifetime. He was a Torah leader of the American, modern orthodox community. His laymen, professional Orthodox Jews, were employed by non-Jewish employers, and served a non-Jewish population, and thus they were not free to openly integrate rabbinic wisdom and secular, professional practice.

Second, the Rav had a very conflicted view of the historical role of the Israeli state (that during most of his lifetime was dominated by atheistic, democratic socialists -such as Ben Gurion- and sectorial based religious parties). On one hand, the Rav saw G-d’s hand in the establishment of the Jewish state. On the other hand, he understood and evaluated the Torah-Jewish character of the state in strictly traditional, halakhic terms, and was very pained by the state’s failing when so judged.

The Rav’s (presumed) reservations concerning our proposal-the infinite worth of Torah study for itself

Given this background perspective, I strongly believe that the Rav would be sympathetic to vision proposed here, with certain reservations. He would have strong reservations because the Rav strongly held that Torah study-by its G-d given, inherent nature- can not be appreciated and measured by its utilitarian benefit.

He fervently taught that just as G-d created the physical and natural laws of the cosmos/Creation, he similarly created the Torah as the moral-ethical-social laws of his Creation. And just as the natural laws (truths) revealed by the physicist and chemist have infinite worth regardless of their utilitarian meaning, similarly the moral-social truths (laws) of the Torah, revealed by the Torah scholar, also possess infinite worth regardless of their pragmatic usefulness. The Rav believed and taught that the Torah scholar who sincerely learned all his life in his attic - and never taught in the community - contributed to human welfare as much as the doctor or psychologist.

The Rav’s (presumed) sympathetic understanding of our proposal-man as co-creator with G-d

Yet I believe that Rav Soloveitchik would be considerably sympathetic to the project of integrating Torah rabbinic wisdom into the ‘secular’ professional and workplace in an independent Jewish state. He constantly taught that the scientist , doctor, teacher, and social worker are co-creators with G-d. G-d left a part of his Creation unfinished-in an anarchic state- so that man would imitate his Maker and also become a partner and creator (the Rav’s terms) together with G-d in creating a more just, moral, G-d recognizing-worshipping society.

He taught this with regard to the professional contributions of Jews in non-Jewish countries. How much the more so would he value the work of Jewish professionals working to create a more just and moral society in the Jewish state, and  doing so by pragmatically applying the eternal, social-moral truths of the Torah.  For these reasons I think that we can safely say that the Rav would have much ‘nachas-satisfaction’ from the development of ‘Torah think tanks’ in Israel.

Summary-Hastening the Redemption

The national religious community needs to develop and support Torah scholars who dedicate their life to learning and teaching. But the vast majority of such lifelong scholars should learn and research the Torah with the goal of teaching professionals how to integrate Torah wisdom into their workplace/professional practice. This is the truest mission of our community. When G-d gave us a state, he gave us the redemptive opportunity to abolish the diaspora distinction of being a Torah Jew in the home and synagogue, and a secular professional during the work day. When G-d gave us a state he bestowed upon us the mission and opportunity to truly sanctify our work place and professional life with Torah content, and thus seriously hasten our Redemption.