Is this Beit Midrash on a Razors Edge or in a Tower: Danny Landes in Tikkun

As a 25th anniversary special, Tikkun magazine asked several people about tikkun today. One of them Rabbi Danny Landes who was in the very first issue of Tikkun writing on halakhic tikkun. Landes is an advocate of an egalitarian non-denominational beit midrash. Now, 25 years later he views his approach as a corrective for Orthodoxy that “drives the Orthodox sane.” He wants the classic beit midrash to be saved “from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.” Yet, the same beit midrash must avoid liberal thinking that would severe it from the tradition.

But is that true? Is an open beit midrash really just on a narrow ridge? It is severed from the Orthodox world of pesak and politics, and it is severed from the thinking of bestsellers such as Radical Judaism. Can one be non-denominational in Tikkun and quite denominational in Jewish Review of Books? Does this non-denominationalism have a location outside their walls?

Is it an escape from the outside real-world Orthodoxy without changing the outside world? Is it Jewish Week Orthodoxy? If it has no egalitarian minyan then is it non-denominational ? If you claim you are the real and the truth but don’t go outside does it do a tikkun?

Landes describes the process of learning as the exciting dynamic world of Chevruta study but doesn’t that approach fade as one spends years engaged in Talmud study. Landes describes how “the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it.” But people trying to deal with contemporary issues memorize commentaries instead of doing argumentative cartwheels in thin air. Rather, they do CD-Rom searches of responsa. His vision of the hard-one argument is compelling if compared to “unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos” but aren’t the Pardes videos commenting on world politics just that?

So where is “this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah?” If “It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern)” does it actually engage to perform a tikkun for the imagined demagogue?

No real criticism here. Just some first thoughts and reactions.

Passionate Midrash by Daniel Landes
My tikkun practice is the care and feeding of, and participation in, an ever-changing yet eternal organism — the Pardes Beit Midrash. This noisy study hall for a diverse crowd of intense, wisecracking, basically brilliant Torah students is a threefold tikkun: it’s a traditional form that transforms students, allowing the secular to access the Tradition; the Reform to become literate; the Conservative, passionate; and the Neo-Hasidic to gain textual traction; and it drives the Orthodox sane. Yes, we drive them sane. Second, the Pardes Beit Midrash is transformational in that its participants quickly shed this silly, slimy lizard skin of denominationalism, being too busy learning to fill the time proclaiming. Finally, it transforms the classic Beit Midrash, saving it from systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism.

At its center are text and method. Text is Torah, especially the hard stuff: commentaries, Mishnah, Talmud, and Codes — untranslated and uncensored. The method is straight-on attack in chavrutah (learning in pairs), utilizing classic and new-fangled approaches. Two to three students sweat the small stuff in the context of others doing the same, until peshat, the illusive “plain” meaning, is nailed. Easier said. Given the multilayered dynamics, a text within a text with infinite regress/progress, a variety of moral issues which are taken seriously, and the chavrutah relations, the discussions get dizzier as firm ground vanishes, and funnier as study partners turn cartwheels in the air the closer their chavrutah comes to getting it. Interesting things happen. One makes the argument presented in the text, offering a logical explanation. Soon white-hot heat is generated as the resistant chavrutah turns from pleasing partner into implacable foe, as he or she breaks the argument — it’s wrong; nonsensical! Then, suddenly, mid-fight you discover that your chavrutah is actually correct; indeed, as you explain: more right than they know! And you prove it triumphantly! Inevitably the startled partner silently rethinks, turns around and rejects his own line of argument and argues ferociously for your first line of reasoning. The Great Switcheroo has been effected. Sides swap, positions permeate each other, and students and teachers switch roles. The discussion moves magically from peshat to meaning. And this volatile meaning — subject to dialectical ascents to the heights and perilous drops into the abyss — is hard-won and enlightening. It’s a far cry from an ex cathedra shtender (lectern) delivered from unapproachable and definitionally unassailable shmoos or from a clever “I had a thought” derived really not at all from any verse or source as ironically delivered in a Shabbat minyan.
No, it’s hard-won, and I see it happen around me, every day. And then, once again, as a witness I believe that it’s not a slogan: this tikkun of the Jews, of the world, of our sacred Torah, is possible and actually present.

Rabbi Daniel Landes is Rosh HaYeshiva of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He wrote on Halakhic Tikkun in Tikkun magazine’s inaugural issue.

5 responses to “Is this Beit Midrash on a Razors Edge or in a Tower: Danny Landes in Tikkun

  1. “No real criticism here. Just some first thoughts and reactions.”

    I’d hate to be on the receiving end of real criticisms then…

  2. I am beginning to become confused what is the topic and what are the issues. I felt the same when you posted the announcement on the lamdanus conference. I received an email this afternood from Sh’ma about their new issue…”Most would agree that we’re on the cusp of a new landscape of Jewish learning.” Maybe that’s true, but this cusp is proving difficult for me to understand. Here’s what’s bothering me. I can understand a desire to change the standard, historical Jewish curriculum. But why not just come out and say it….less Talmud, more Jewish culture, less chumash more kabbalah, whatever. Each of these can be looked at, accepted or rejected at the personal or institutional level. But if are talking knowing the Talmud, there are no ways around learning at a certain pace, day after day, year after year until one acheives the desired level of proficiency. No one has discovered analytical insights that substitute knowing the plain meaning of the sugya plus the views of the main rishonim. It is madness to think we should start with source criticism or the historical context or the hundreds of academic articles on the Talmud if the goal is to know the Talmud. I fail to see how anything has changed. You want to know tractate Yevamos you must jump in and you don’t get to emerge from this difficult place until you master the material. Yes, we have a Schottenstein translation, and yes some clever guys have written out flow charts how you can be your own grandfather, and yes there are some stimulating yeshivish shiurim, all very helpful, but not different in kind than the old Jastrow and the Bais Yehuda chumushim and the classic achronim.
    If Landes wants to call the standard ways Jews became baki in Shas “systemic parochialism, chosen irrelevancy, and sought-after faux elitism,” I don’t quite know what to say other than it seems to me a foolish quip. Yevamos is for the most part irrelevant as is Zevachim, and thank God it is about itself and not Yevamos and the Jewish Question or Yevamos in the light of Ugarit.
    I once had a neighbor, an otherwise ordinary man, who learnt daf hayomi beiyun bechavrusa his whole life. He told me “The fifth, sixth time around it gets a little easier, you have a little better idea of the whole.” The elitism Landes mocks is an elitism that wants nothing more than to to sit and be a student all one’s life. It seems to me if one also works for a living and is not dependent on Jewish charity, the goal of learning forever is indeed noble, with or without cartwheels.

  3. Perhaps the answer to your perplexity dear EJ lies in the invention of the airplane. Before that invention we say the world with limited perspective. In Judaism, breaking ones teeth on the Talmud represents a portion but not the whole length and breadth of the Jewish experience. It seems to be everything but if you look back you realize that there is much more. I think we are in a time and place where many different traditions are now viewable from above as it were. The chain of transmission does not come from one source but from many. As such it is hard to suggest that we should not drink from all of the waters and choose a path. If you are brought up in an absolutely traditional way, there is only one path, the path of your father. However, there are more things in the Jewish heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.

  4. EJ- I think that is the point, they are not talking about curriculum or even method of study. They are talking about process, Jewish identity, and new forms of cultural identity. As David points out, it is not the substitution of Kabbalah for Talmud but some very different change that is showing up wherever we look. It is not hasmada, iyyun, or bekiut- it is “cusp of a new landscape.” Here are some of your Shema articles, non of them are about learning in the old sense.
    Stephanie Ives on teaching text with a sense of mission; Charlie Schwartz and Russel Neiss, as well as Judd Kruger Levingston write about technology and new ways to “remix” learning; and Lisa Grant explores the lifelong pursuit of learning through narrative restorying of our lives.
    My questions in the original post were intended to decipher the new horizon from my old-fashioned horizon.

  5. I can’t help but think when reading this article that Landes is less concerned with changing the practices of traditional yeshivot than he is with giving non-Orthodox Jews access to Orthodoxy. His concern with the “chosen irrelevancy”of the “classic beit midrash” only rings true to one for whom the Orthodox yeshivot seem irrelevant; they obviously seems relevant in the communities that engender them. Here we have a program for Jews who feel alienated by traditional Judaism (an admittedly large percentage), but who wish to engage in it. The second half of the article reads to me like a sales pitch to the Jew who longs for a (consumer-ready?) spiritual education.

    EJ’s comments above will remain true for Jews who see Mishnah as the key to a just life. Meanwhile, Jews who interpret Judaism/Yiddishkeit in non-Orthodox ways continue to search for potent expressions of their religious selves. P.S. I’m still mad at Landes for his complete dismissal of “Radical Judaism” and the bizarre accusation that Art Green has a “secret master” in Mordecai Kaplan.

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