Modern Orthodox Text Study

Lasting Jewish achievement is reached only through the serious study of text. Jewish history has witnessed the advent and decline of many schools, philosophies, and sects. All are grounded in particular readings of Jewish text: the Sadducees in a literalist reading of the Torah, the Tosafists in a harmonized reading of the Talmud, and Maimonides in an Aristotelian reading of the bible, to name a few. Thus, if Modern Orthodoxy is unable to produce its own unique brand of Jewish text study, it will not merit particular note within the Jewish tradition. Thankfully, Modern Orthodoxy’s most impressive production in its relatively short existence thus far has been three distinct and novel approaches to text study. What most inspires me about Modern Orthodoxy, both in the sense of sparking my own religious thought and in exciting me for what the future of Modern Orthodoxy holds, is Modern Orthodox text analysis. In this essay, I will examine each of the three modes of Modern Orthodox text study, and illustrate how each approach to text enriches Jewish life.

The first variety of Modern Orthodox text study involves transplanting otherwise foreign modes of textual analysis to the discipline of religious Jewish text- study. I say “religious Jewish text-study” because while some of these modes of text analysis may have been practiced before the advent of Modern Orthodoxy, they were done so solely in an academic context with the goal of studying Judaism scientifically, and without any intent of religious or spiritual advancement. Today, modes of text study like academic Talmud analysis or literary Bible study have been appropriated by the Modern Orthodox community, and are used as tools of spiritual life. This approach to Jewish text is conservative in that it retains Jewish text as the locus of study, and requires no introduction of outside sources to complement the traditional ones. It is radical, though, in that this mode of analysis often bears no similarity to the traditional commentaries on the text, which are so deeply ingrained – or even canonized – within the textual tradition that any comment bearing no reference to them may seem abrasive.

This Modern Orthodox approach to text enriches Jewish life simply by furthering our grasp of Jewish text. The primacy of text in Jewish life having been demonstrated above, it is safe to say that any advancement of comprehension of Jewish text is a valuable development of Jewish life.

The second distinctly Modern Orthodox approach to text study involves the comparative study of Jewish text to other religious or secular texts. This approach also includes modes of analysis that were practiced in academia prior to Modern Orthodoxy’s emergence, and were subsequently appropriated by Modern Orthodoxy. Broadly sketched, this approach includes comparative study of the Bible to ancient Near Eastern texts, discussion of the influence of Catholic canon law on medieval halakhic codification, and examination of the influence of Scheler’s phenomenology on Rabbi Soloveitchik’s thought. Like the previous approach, this mode of text study retains normative Jewish text as the locus of study. Texts from other traditions are called upon to enhance one’s understanding of Jewish text. Sometimes, non-Jewish texts might even render understandable an otherwise inscrutable Jewish text.

This is best illustrated with an example. Medieval commentators struggle with the meaning of the prohibition (Deut. 20:19) to cut down fruit trees when besieging a city. The verse indicates, according to some, that this is forbidden because humans bear some sort of similarity to fruit trees, and to cut the trees is to degrade humanity. Alternatively, some commentators suggest that it is the dissimilarity between man and trees that forbids cutting the tree. That is, in war bloodshed may be authorized, but it is only humans, not trees, which may be “cut down.” In Homer’s Iliad, the most frequently employed metaphor in the entire text is one that compares warriors slain in battle to fallen trees. Time after time, Homer memorializes the heroes of the Greeks and Trojans by depicting their falls as those of majestic trees brutally hacked by violent iron. This metaphor can, perhaps, shed light on our difficult verse in Deuteronomy. If men are comparable to trees in wartime, then perhaps it is to increase sensitivity between warring humans that the Torah mandates increased care for trees. If apt memorialization for humans presents itself in the image of a tree, then trees should be treated respectfully as symbols of life. Like the first approach, this mode of Modern Orthodox text study enriches Jewish life by deepening our understanding of Jewish text.

The third mode of Modern Orthodox text study involves studying texts that have no relation to Jewish tradition while deriving spiritual meaning from them. In this approach, a poem by Whitman, a novel by C.S. Lewis, or an Augustinian treatise are all mined for religious meaning and spiritual growth. Of course, this approach is most radical in that it widens the canon of religious text. This audacious expansion of the spiritual playing field is tamed somewhat, though, when one considers that normative Jewish texts are not nudged from their canonic positions, nor necessarily reread or reevaluated.

The challenge of this mode of text study is determining which texts are acceptable and which unfit for religious reading. This struggle is best illustrated with the following anecdote: Upon entering the staff lounge one night and briefly noticing the movie being screened, the camp director of a Modern Orthodox day camp expressed his disapproval with the film selection that the counselors had made. In his judgment, the movie was not befitting of young Modern Orthodox bnei and bnot Torah. One offended counselor responded with righteous indignation: “Well, what do you think the ‘Modern’ is for in ‘Modern Orthodox?’” Though comical, this story speaks to the need for cautious source selection. If texts and other cultural media from the non-Jewish world are to be incorporated into our spiritual lives, then there must be a screening process. When done correctly, this filtering results in our reception of a treasure trove of novels, poems, and meditations from other religious traditions that so enrich our own.

This third mode of Modern Orthodox text study thus differs sharply from the first two in that it does not deepen our understanding of Jewish text, but diversifies our understanding of what it means to be religious. It is with this approach to text that “Modern” becomes the object of the qualifier “Orthodox,” while the opposite is true of the first two approaches.

For me, the first two approaches of Modern Orthodox text study are both more intellectually edifying and, frankly, more Jewish than the third. If text study is the focal point of Jewish religious life, it follows that Jewish texts and study of them should occupy the spotlight more than the study of non-Jewish texts. However, finding religious meaning in a variety of sources means engaging a variety of people – perhaps even those people who remain unengaged by Jewish text. Perhaps even the right selection of a movie could inspire otherwise grudgingly spiritual teens. Thus, the enterprise of Modern Orthodox text study not only adds layers of understanding to Jewish text, but embraces other meaningful texts, and in doing so embraces other Jews.

This essay was the winner of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s writing contest about Modern Orthodoxy.