Thursday, July 12, 2007

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

Harry Maryles’ survey of the Hebrew Theological College was fascinating, to say t the least and provided a portal by which to gage the growth and development of a segment of the Chicago Jewish community. The Hebrew Theological College, known by Chicagoans as the ‘Yeshiva” or in later years as “Skokie yeshiva” carried a certain mystique that Harry managed to convey well. Harry’s four part survey is important for what it says as much as it is important for what it doesn’t say.

The Yeshiva from its inception existed in sort of a schizophrenic capsule, which for a significant period of time was repressed as a result of the social milieu in which it existed. It was however a time bomb, waiting for the right convergence of social patterns to develop before it would explode. The name itself, Hebrew Theological College was indicative of there identity crisis. Did they want to be a yeshiva or a college? Even the name Hebrew Theological College was a heavy hitter and I wonder to this day who thought it up. Did they actually believe that as an orthodox yeshiva they would be able to pursue theological studies? It brings to mind Rabbi Jacob Perlow’s comment that the Hebrew Theological College reminded him of the Holy Roman Empire. The Holy Roman Empire wasn’t holy, it wasn’t Roman, nor was it an empire. The Hebrew Theological College wasn’t Hebrew, it wasn’t theological, nor was it much of a college. So what was it?

Over the years the Yeshiva struggled with self definition. They looked to Yeshiva University as the model of what they aspired to be. They saw themselves as a modern orthodox institution whose goal was to produce educated “well rounded” Rabbis capable of serving communities in the south and Midwest. To a limited degree they were successful, especially in their earlier years when the yeshiva produced able very able well educated rabbis who left an indelible mark on the Jewsh community. They also had inspirational teachers who were not only excellent teachers but were connected to the community and sensitive to the encroachment of Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi David Regensberg, an unusual and outstanding torah scholar and sensitive to the needs of the broader Jewish community masterminded the concept of the traditional synagogue that became very prevalent in Chicago as well as many Jewish communities in the Midwest and South. The prevailing thought was that if traditional synagogues could be created that would be linked to the national orthodox institutions, educational systems and youth camps and organizations. The reasoning was that if this could be accomplished generations of kids could be redirected from Conservative Judaism to orthodox practice.

These years, the years prior to Rav Aharon Soloveitchik were the golden years of the yeshiva. It was the years of the late 50’s and early 60 are where the institution attracted students from all over the United States. Students from California, Colorado, Nebraska, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Florida attended the yeshiva because it was their rabbis from traditional synagogues who prevailed over their parents to send them to the yeshiva. The rabbis who went out to thee communities were idealistic and believed that they had a mission. When they succeeded in sending students to the yeshiva there was a gratification and vindication that assuming these non-mechitza pulpits had been the right thing to do.

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik, zt”l, changed all that when he was appointed the Rosh Yeshiva. While this isn’t the forum to go into his strengths and weaknesses, there is a direct correlation between his premiership and the decline of the Yeshiva, from which it never emerged. Rav Aharon’s tenure spelled the beginning of the end for the traditional movement. He wasn’t able to understand that there was a vast Jewish community in the Midwest and south, communities that were in need of spiritual growth and development which couldn’t be harvested over night. His refusal to be “masmich” students devoted to serving the Jewish community with the right intentions spelled the beginning of the decline of the yeshiva. The yeshiva no longer was a distinct and unique institution serving the South and the Midwest. It was no longer there to serve the broader Jewish community. The yeshiva now became an insular institution serving its own interests. It had become just another mediocre yeshiva with a struggling budget a graying building fading out of the mind and sight of the community it had been designed to serve.

Prior to Rav Aharon’s tenure the yeshiva had a goal – it had a mission and saw itself in distinction from the classical yeshiva. It stood apart from the others in that it regarded itself as serving and developing a vibrant modern orthodoxy. It was full of promise and saw a bright future for its stated mission. Because of this they were able to attract not only good students but also a wonderful staff of highly unusual scholars. On the faculty of the yeshiva were men who combined critical scholarship with their incredible scope of Torah and Poskim. Teachers such as Prof. Leonard Mishkin, zt”l had an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish history, Rabbi Hirsch Eisenberg, zt”l was a great scholar of the Hebrew language and a consultant to the Vaad Halashon in Israel. Dr. Joseph Babad, zt”l was a fine and recognized scholar of Bible studies and Akkadian. Prof. Eliezer Berkovitz, zt”l a world renowned philosopher and author on approaches to halacha. Match these great minds to the faculty in the beis medrash of Rav Herzl Kaplan,zt”l Rav Selig Star, zt”l and Rav Mordechai Rogow, zt”l. Each brought with him unique qualities of sensitivity and significant scholarship.

In my moments of nostalgia thinking about the yeshiva I realize how privileged I was to have studied under some of the greatest Jewish minds in the second half of the twentieth century. And then I compare that institution to that of today and I can’t believe it is the same one I once attended. I ask myself whey aren’t there scholars like that there today so that our student would have the same advantages and benefit I had. And I’m reminded of the song “Where have all the flowerers gone”.

I know where all the flowers have gone. They have gone to other fertile fields where they can grow and flourish, not be held back, unappreciated and ridiculed. Once upon a time the yeshiva had created a vital, unique institution with a delicately balanced faculty, a symbiotic relationship, a spiritual echo system between the dreamers and doers, between limudei kodesh and limudei chol, between the rabbaim and those that wanted to become rabbis. Rav Aharon’s vetoing the traditional movement terminated that delicately balanced spiritual echo system and gave fresh meaning to Rabbi Yaakov Perlow’s question as to what was the Hebrew Theological College other than a name etched into stone.