On one level, one could not help but be impressed by the intensity and earnestness at Aish Hatorah, circa 1983, of young people devoting themselves to the mission of revitalizing their own spiritual lives and attempting to persuade others to do the same. A spirit of idealism and camaraderie pervaded the walls. Yet at the very same time, I found myself deeply troubled by the messages I was hearing, and the understanding of truth being purveyed was very different from the way I understood the term and continue to understand it. Although I met many fine individuals there and was thrilled about my immersion in Jewish texts, I also became increasingly perturbed by the way Judaism was being presented. It was all black and white dichotomies; an antipathy to any kind of synthesis of Judaism with many other disciplines or, when such disciplines— philosophy, psychology, literature—were brought into the discussion, it was usually to subtly or overtly denigrate them and show the superiority of Torah and the Sages. For all of the yeshiva’s slickness in appealing to educated Western students, I realized in retrospect that on almost every major issue, the hashkafa was a staunch right-wing perspective, an arch-traditional view of halacha: the status of women in Judaism, secular study, Zionism, philosophical thought, pluralism, and religious diversity, to name just a few flash points. The only exceptions I could see to this were certain heterim linked to kiruv situations, such as relating to one’s secular parents.
There is, of course, nothing wrong in presenting standard Haredi positions. What I objected to, first in the form of inchoate feelings of internal discomfort, and later in more overt rejections of what I had been taught as I moved more into other orbits, was the notion that this was the only viable presentation of Judaism, and the consequent suppression of Judaism as a broad, sophisticated and nuanced system with many radically opposing viewpoints on many issues. In addition, complex and difficult questions were reduced to certain formulae: classes proving that God exists; why suffering occurs; Biblical codes; the purpose of gentiles; the inherent nature of women; the value of science; and so on.
One example should suffice to illustrate this mindset. One day, shortly after I moved to Jerusalem for the year and began attending classes at the yeshiva, I was seated in the packed Beth Midrash. An illustrious, world-renowned rabbi had come to address the question of how God could have allowed the Holocaust to happen. Some time into his lecture, the rabbi pointed out that all that God does is for the good, and that therefore the Holocaust must have been a form of punishment for the sins of the Jewish people. This idea--known as retribution theory, or punishment for sin--has quite a number of possible Jewish source texts. But in modernity, even traditional Jews do not really articulate this argument very often. As if to signal the intolerableness of this view, an elderly gentleman, who (as it turned out) was a Holocaust survivor, interjected and protested, with an anger propelled by feelings of betrayal, that it was a moral obscenity to suggest that the deaths of six million people were somehow justifiable and in fact caused by their alleged sins. It was, needless to say, a very tense scene. A few days later, in conversation with someone whom we shall call Chaim, I asked what he thought of what had occurred at the lecture. He paused, and said, "Well, of course it was very unfortunate what happened. But the Rabbi is right. This is what the Torah teaches us. It's just that he didn't know that there was a survivor in the room; otherwise he never would have said it." Chaim was a ba'al teshuvah and had been learning about Judaism for less than a year at that point, but he seemed very certain of his ground. The problem, as he saw it, was not in the explanation for the Holocaust, which Chaim saw as correct; just in the unforeseeably bad timing of its presentation.
I was very troubled by the lecture and the subsequent exchange. Like Chaim, I was new to Orthodoxy. I had studied philosophy in university and was conversant with philosophical discussions about evil. But was this, in Chaim's words, what “the Torah teaches”? And in the aftermath of that moment I began to think seriously about this subject. Not about why bad things happen to good people; about this I had thought a good deal and, frankly, to little avail. Rather, what I began to consider was why bad explanations happen to good people; whether, by definition, any good explanations are even possible in this domain of life; and about the drive we have as Jews and as human beings to try and understand or contain the jagged presence of human pain and suffering on a constant basis.
At the time because I did not have the knowledge base, Jewishly, to truly confront what I was hearing. (Since that time, I have lectured around the world on Judaism and theodicy). I was also struck by how many of the other students at the yeshiva were enthralled with the very same rhetoric that left me so ambivalent; hence, there was no community with whom I could share these thoughts. All I had was an intuition that something simply did not add up. Our secular pasts were at best tolerated, and at worst patronized or maligned, but they were never to be trusted. Secular people were simply those who were misguided and had not yet been led to the light of truth.
I left the yeshiva, much to the consternation of my teachers, to continue my graduate studies in English Literature at the University of Toronto, where I eventually received my doctorate and began to teach. In the rhetorical words of my main teachers at Aish, why would I want to go back and "teach goyishkeit to goyim" when I could be--and again I quote--"saving the Jewish people"? This quasi-messianic fervour was de rigeur at the yeshiva in the early eighties, but I cannot say if that is still the case. It could be that the temperature has since been lowered and that the intellectual climate has broadened. I do not know and cannot say. But after leaving, new ways of thinking about Judaism slowly started to become clearer for me.