The Greening Of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s by Benny Kraut

I first heard about this new book in an exciting review by Lawrence Grossman:

Orthodoxy is the only form of Judaism that is exuding self-confidence, that holds its own demographically, and whose children, for the most part, are steeped in Jewish knowledge, unambiguously identified with the Jewish collective enterprise, and devoted to the state of Israel.

No less striking, these signs of health and renewal appear even as, internally, the Orthodox world has become increasingly polarized. Many participate fully in the mainstream of American life, occupying positions that range from Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 2000 to college professors, hedge-fund managers, prominent lawyers, and everything in between; at the same time, the lives of others are marked by zealous religious observance, cultural isolation, and reluctance to associate with non-Orthodox Jews.

These realities are well documented. Largely unaddressed by historians is the process by which American Orthodoxy moved in the course of a half-century from a place on the endangered-species list to becoming the Jewish denomination most likely to succeed, even though beset by real difficulties of its own. That lacuna has now become much smaller thanks to the late Benny Kraut.

In an erudite and exciting book, Kraut, who served as chairman of the Judaic Studies department at Queens College in New York, traces the fortunes of a single organized group of Orthodox college activists from its formation in 1960 until its collapse twenty years later. In Kraut’s capable hands, the challenges, internal conflicts, successes, and failures of this group, known as Yavneh, become a microcosm of the broader community, mirroring the transformation of American Orthodoxy itself.

So I was all fired up to read this book only to find it a plodding disappointment. The author, Benny Kraut, has a style that will put most people to sleep.

As a modern Orthodox Jew, Kraut describes “modern Orthodoxy” as “non-insular” despite its complete failure to wrestle with, let alone answer, the single greatest problem that keeps Jews from taking Orthodox Judaism seriously — biblical criticism. Modern Orthodoxy also has produced no answers to the scholarly consensus that the Exodus from Egypt did not happen as the Bible described it.

So when it comes to intellectual challenges, modern Orthodoxy is as insular as traditional Orthodoxy and offers as many solutions (none) to scholarship. And as far as practice goes, the modern Orthodox Jew who abides by Jewish law is about as insulated from the wider world as the traditional Jew (an observant Jew can not eat food prepared by a non-Jew or a non-observant Jew, that law alone largely cuts out meaningful social interaction with the world).

As JTS professor Alan Mittleman wrote in First Things in October of 2003:

As Modern Orthodoxy took root in theology-averse America, it became a style rather than a coherent intellectual vision. Orthodox Jews built institutions, entered the professions, and established themselves solidly in the ranks of the middle- and upper-middle classes. As barriers against Jewish enrollment in the Ivy League fell, Orthodox Jews followed their coreligionists into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, et al. By the mid-1990s there was already a backlash. A group of five Orthodox students at Yale sought an exemption from the university’s residence policy, claiming that compulsory residence in the dorms would expose them to promiscuity. They filed suit against the university, essentially bringing Yale up on a morals charge.

The present pamphlet focuses little on moral-sexual matters. Rather, its concerns go to the heart of Hirsch’s synthesis itself. On its view, the intellectual values of liberal education as such are invidious to Orthodoxy. Take Jewish Studies, for example. Orthodox students might be drawn to such classes in order to “validate the beliefs with which they were raised or ‘to get credit for learning Torah.’” What they find, however, is a “majority of professors [who] are Jews themselves but may have unorthodox views on the nature of the Torah and the Jewish people.” Given the fact that only about seven percent of the Jewish community is Orthodox, it is not a surprise that the majority of Jewish professors are non-Orthodox. What is surprising, however, is the liberal anti-Orthodoxy of their views. Jewish Studies, far from being a safe intellectual haven from the wild seas of secular education, turns out itself to be a storm center. The authors refer to the most popular course at Harvard University in 1999, Professor James Kugel’s class on the Bible, which enjoys an enrollment of nine hundred students. (The authors refrain from mentioning Kugel, an impeccable scholar and traditional Jew, by name.) The professor, wearing a “large, black kippah,” nonetheless went on to relay the current theories of biblical criticism on the human authorship of the Torah. The combination of apparent piety and troubling heterodoxy “only served to confuse Orthodox students even further.”

How should Orthodox parents and students cope with these alarming temptations? The authors do not rise to a Hirschian solution for their Hirschian problem. Their first line of defense is sociological rather than theological. Throughout the pamphlet they advocate more intensive socialization, partial isolation, and increased distance. “Our first step in preparing our students to successfully meet these challenges must be to redouble our efforts to produce stronger yeshiva high school kids whose eyes have been opened to the beauty of yiddishkeit and who have both an intellectual and a deep emotional attachment to it.” Parents must not take their children’s commitment to a “halakhic lifestyle” for granted; they must deepen the child’s emotional attachment to traditional Jewish life.

Similarly, parents must not view the existence of Hillel houses, even those with provision of kosher food or traditional worship, as a panacea. Where is the kosher food served? Is it close to where students live? If not, they might be tempted to attend the nearest cafeteria when in a hurry. Indeed, the premium that Hillel puts on inclusiveness and the acceptance of all Jewish choices relativizes Orthodoxy, degrading it to just another lifestyle option. The authors relate an anecdote about an observant girl who was active in the Orthodox minyan when she entered college, but graduated “as a Reform Jew and president of Hillel’s JbaGel (Jewish Bisexual Gay and Lesbians) group.” Hillel, in their view, counts this as a “success story.” The organization thus may be bad for an observant Jewish student’s spiritual health.

At the same time, the pamphlet’s authors warn Orthodox students not to go on the offensive and seek to convert other Jewish students to the “beauty of a halakhic lifestyle.” The active recruitment of non-Orthodox Jews (known as kiruv, literally “bringing near”) has “on numerous occasions resulted in disaster.” In an effort to show nonobservant students that Orthodox Jews can be just as fun-loving and “normal” as they, the Orthodox students frequently bend their halakhic practice or introduce illicit innovations, such as mixed seating sections in their prayer groups. Kiruv work may be too dangerous for the average Orthodox student who, lacking answers for his curious interlocutor’s questions, comes to question the adequacy of his own faith. It seems, then, that the Orthodox student should withdraw and leave such efforts to the “trained kiruv professionals.”

A mood of fretfulness thus pervades the pamphlet. The tactics it advocates—emotionalism and disengagement—attest to a failure of intellectual nerve. There is a theological vacuum behind the anxiety. Although the authors gingerly suggest that the yeshiva high schools expose their students to “potentially troubling theories such as evolution and the Documentary Hypothesis,” they also recognize that the high schools might “lack the resources to successfully implement this proposition.” Better, then, for it to be dealt with by the intellectual and spiritual leaders of Modern Orthodoxy. They are the ones who ought to “articulate sophisticated responses to the complex questions” raised by contemporary Bible scholarship, Jewish Studies, and so forth. But who are these leaders today? Modern Orthodoxy has no one approaching the stature of its late leader, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. And does the posture of waiting for authorities to work out strategies really befit people who are products of the modern university? Should they not have learned to think for themselves, especially in an area touching intimately on the quality of their own faith?

There is a cautionary tale here about the neglect of theology. Modern Orthodoxy for too long has relied on sociology—familism, solidarity, youth groups, institutional loyalties—instead of intellectually sophisticated apologetics.

Benny Kraut writes on pg. 3 that modern Orthodoxy “could point to Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“the Rav”) as its spiritual luminary and guide for negotiating between Orthodoxy and contemporary culture.”

That’s ridiculous. The Rav said nothing important about Biblical criticism. He made a point of ignoring it. He also said nothing helpful about the challenges to the truth of the Torah raised by archaeology and history.

One thing this book is great about are footnotes. They are abundant. So if a particular event or idea strikes your fancy, there’s abundant direction provided to research it further.

Yavneh: The National Jewish Religious Students Association was a bottom up movement. It was a student movement. It kept its independence for its 20 years of existence but was always fighting to keep its chin above water.

Student-led movement are hard to sustain because students grow up and graduate and move on with their lives. It’s hard to maintain continuity and therefore it’s hard to fundraise.

That Yavnet got going and survived so long is a testament to Jewish energy and self-confidence. Jews want to change the world because their religion, unlike every other religion, tells them to focus on this world.

As I read this book for a second time, I’m finding it more interesting.

In a 1968 essay, Irving Greenberg wrote: “By and large, college is a disaster area for Judaism, Jewish loyalty, and Jewish identity.”

Not much has changed.

Yavneh wanted to have an intellectual dialogue between Judaism and Western Civilization. The interest in this today in Orthodox life is apparently about one-tenth what it was 50 years ago. It is rare today to find an Orthodox pulpit rabbi sprinkling his sermons with quotes from Shakespeare and other non-Jewish thinkers.

Yavneh’s national board had a policy that no purely social events were allowed. Instead, they were to revolve around learning.

Many of the Yavneh instructors married their students. As one student said to another after the announcement of an engagement between teacher Moshe Adler and Ruth Rubin, “This is one of the reasons we don’t have to pay our Yavneh instructors.”

Scores, if not hundreds, of marriages were made through Yavneh programs. “Yavneh is a place where Brooklyn girls can meet Harvard guys,” said one student.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
This entry was posted in Modern Orthodox, Orthodoxy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.