Opinion: When Orthodoxy fails


A few years ago there was a kerfuffle in the Orthodox Jewish world over a book called “Making of a Godol: A Study of Episodes in the Lives of Great Torah Personalities.” The book was a scholarly history of life in the world of the Eastern European Lithuanian yeshivot of the last century, with specific reference to the rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath in Brooklyn, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. Rav Kamenetsky, who lived from 1891 until 1986, was one of a group of prominent Eastern European rabbinical scholars which included Rav Aaron Kotler, who founded the most famous of American Torah centers in Lakewood, New Jersey.

When they arrived in the USA as refugees, Orthodoxy was such a small and ignored section of Jewish life that no one would have predicted that 50 years later the institutions they founded and the communities they helped create would become the most dynamic and fastest growing section of American Jewry. Their single-minded vision to recreate their Eastern European world in the West has succeeded beyond imagination; combined with the resurrection of Chasidism, this will guarantee Jewish survival. The question, of course, is what kind of Judaism.

This question emerged with force in the wake of the ban issued on the book by much of the extreme Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbinic leadership in Israel. The book was written by one of Rav Kamenetsky’s sons — himself a distinguished Lithuanian-style rosh yeshiva — Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky. Its crime was to suggest that Rav Kamenetsky, as well as Rav Kotler, had read secular books in their youth. You might think this more of a compliment than a condemnation, but not in the world of extreme Orthodoxy nowadays. The book was withdrawn from the public. Copies were so rare and in such demand that you could only find them on eBay, costing thousands of dollars. Thanks to my younger son’s interest, I have been able to get hold of a photocopy of both the original and a follow-up called “Anatomy of a Ban.”

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