When they were both teachers at Yeshivat HaDarom in Rehovot, Rabbis Yehuda Amital and Elazar Menachem Shach were known to argue constantly about Zionism, the fledgling State of Israel, and the necessity of drafting yeshiva students into the army. Despite an age gap of almost 25 years, the cousins-by-marriage would bounce ideas and bum cigarettes off of one another as they debated the pressing issues of the day.
Eventually, they went their separate ways. Rabbi Shach became the head of the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak and the firebrand ideological and political leader of the Lithuanian charedi community. Rabbi Amital went on to establish Yeshivat Har Etzion, a flagship religious-Zionist institution, just south of Bethlehem, and later co-founded the dovish religious-Zionist Memad party. Years later, the two happened to meet somewhere, whereupon Rabbi Shach embraced Rabbi Amital and said: “Reb Yehuda, Reb Yehuda! We’re so far apart now that we don’t even argue!” (This story appears in Chapter 6 of By Faith Alone.)
I often use this story to characterize the sense, shared by many, that an important conversation is foundering and in desperate need of revitalization. Too much discussion has been taking place in echo chambers. Too much writing was about what is wrong with “them”, whoever “they” may be. This was true both within and across denominational lines. Indeed, those very lines, the boundaries that define who is “in” and who is “out” of a particular community, have been the subject of endless speculation and polemicizing. We seemed to be growing so far apart that we didn’t even argue anymore.
We wanted to play host to the thrust and parry of vigorous Jewish debate. We wanted to bring new thinkers and ideas to the fore.
About a year and a half ago, a group of up-and-coming rabbis and scholars contacted me and several others about joining a new web-based publication as editors. We named our initiative The Lehrhaus—the German word of “house of study” or “beit midrash”—after an adult learning initiative founded in Frankfurt by Franz Rosenzweig in the early 1920s. Rosenzweig had diagnosed the German Jewry of his era with a spiritual malaise, a detachment of Jewish life from the texts and traditions that animate it. Even those who meticulously observed Jewish law, Rosenzweig contended, did so by transforming it into rigid practice and catechism, something that restrained and shackled life, not something that is organically rooted in life.
The analogy between contemporary American Jewry and Weimar-era German Jewry breaks down in many ways (though, one might contend, not in enough ways), but the founders of the new venture saw our goal as one of reanimation and resuscitation. In addition to providing a forum that readers could count on consistently for fresh and original content that is deeply rooted in Jewish text and tradition, we wanted it to be a place where people could argue. We wanted to play host to the thrust and parry of vigorous Jewish debate. We wanted to bring new thinkers and ideas to the fore. (One of my personal goals is to bring some of the fascinating developments in Israeli Judaism to the awareness of an American readership.)
The editors are all affiliated with the Orthodox community, and the vast majority of our writers and readers come from that community. There is no question, therefore, that the interests and sensibilities of the Orthodox community shape the site and its content to a large degree. Nevertheless, we take pains to keep the content accessible to all, and, for the most part, we manage to avoid denomination-specific frames of reference. Our goal has always been to reach beyond the Orthodox community for both writers and readership, though there is much room for growth in that respect.
It is within the Orthodox community that The Lehrhaus has met with its greatest successes. It has indeed managed to bridge some of the deepest divides in Orthodoxy today—not by ignoring or remaining pareve on them, but by providing a forum where those divisive issues can be addressed and debated without having things deteriorate into a virtual shouting match. Consider one of the most controversial issues in the Orthodox community today: the recognition of women as members of the clergy. The Lehrhaus hosted a symposium with 16 contributions from across the Orthodox spectrum, from faculty and students of yeshivas like Ner Israel and the Skokie Yeshiva to faculty and students of Yeshivat Maharat. The Orthodox Union’s position paper on the topic was analyzed from a variety of perspectives, with some writers defending and others criticizing it.
Most importantly, the symposium maintained a respectful dialogue. It was very gratifying to read the words of OU executive vice president Allen Fagin in his column in Jewish Action, citing the Lehrhaus symposium for the participants’ sometimes critical but respectful comments on the OU Statement.
The Lehrhaus has developed a reputation for being thoughtful and thought-provoking, scholarly but not overly academic, and consistently well-written. Last Sukkot, just a few weeks after the launch, a number of participants in a Hoshanna Rabbah learning program at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue could be seen carrying printouts of Lehrhaus articles. We hear increasingly of rabbis citing Lehrhaus articles in their weekly sermons and teachers sharing articles with their classes. We are now reaching some 28,000 unique visitors per month, More important than the numbers, though, is the fact that it is reaching a very diverse cross-section of the Orthodox community and, hopefully, beyond.
Elli Fischer, a frequent contributor to these pages, is a translator living in Israel and an editor of TheLehrhaus.com