Monday, April 16, 2012

Rediscussing Rav Soloveitchik and Lord Caradon

An excerpt JR drew my attention to from an article by Shalom Carmy:

...Education is not limited to the classroom. Extracurricular encounters are as much a part of learning as lecture and library. Outside speakers are potentially an important enriching ingredient in the college experience. But controversial speakers arouse intense passions, precisely because the invitation to speak is often more about sentiment and self-image than about truth and falsehood. Explicit debate about academic openness at Yeshiva has occurred in connection with such invitations.
The most notable case was a speaking invitation extended by the Political Science Club, some fifteen years ago, to a leading representative of the Arab League. As I recall, the speaker would not have been allowed in the United States, in that "pre-peace-process" era, were it not for his United Nations status. Quite apart from the strong and understandable reactions that many students felt against a militant antagonist, many of us feared that the appearance of this individual, in his official capacity, would cause harmful misunderstanding outside our walls.
Yeshiva has a reputation as a citadel of Zionism, and the distinction dear to champions of academic freedom, between learning about your enemy and endorsing him, could not overcome the perception that we were taking an implicit political position.
The ivory tower cannot always be disengaged from the very real shadow it casts. Having this speaker as our guest, moreover, would defeat our purpose. He could most authentically be experienced by our students away from our campus, in a place where he could speak his mind unhindered by diplomatic sensitivity to the temper of his audience.
Nonetheless, many of us who were unhappy about the invitation were alarmed at the prospect of its being rescinded. Taking it back would set an intolerable precedent and lead to further embarrassment were the speaker to publicize the fact that his invitation had been canceled under pressure. The prolonged uproar led to much discussion on all sides regarding the factors that must be weighed in such cases. Subsequent educational contacts with Arab speakers have maintained a low profile with no accompanying unpleasantness. If rapid change in the international climate makes these debates sound like ancient history, there is perhaps a lesson in that, too.
It is difficult for me to speak about Yeshiva without referring to my revered mentor Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903–93), known simply as "the Rav," whose stature in our community paralleled his worldwide prestige as the century’s foremost Talmudist and Jewish philosopher. His classroom was far from egalitarian: he was clearly the teacher and we were there to learn from him. But the most urgent lesson he pressed upon us was to think for ourselves. For "muddy pools" of unearned, parrot-like Talmudic analysis he displayed contempt. Nor did he believe that personal or communal dilemmas could be resolved vicariously, by being passed upward to the heroic master. A teacher’s role, he often said, is to create the frame of reference for the student’s own thought.

The situation with the Arab League speaker came up after the Rav’s withdrawal from public activity. I would like to end with an incident from the time when he was still with us. His example, I think, represents the combination of righteousness and restraint that should govern the relationship between divine Torah and human culture at an institution like Yeshiva, for those who are committed to the primacy of the former and the significance of the latter.
In the 1980s a militant politician from Israel visited the United States to hawk his wares. Years later, this man was banned from candidacy for the Israeli Knesset because his anti-Arab harangues violated Israel’s antiracism law (which had been passed with him in mind). Already, the Rav regarded this man’s selective citation of Jewish sources as a distortion and desecration of Torah. He told people close to him that the individual should not be given a platform. But certain students desired the controversial speaker’s presence in our midst. Some, when they learned of the Rav’s displeasure, proceeded to cast aspersions on his Zionism. He, for his part, was not disposed to impose his opinion. The charismatic speaker made his way through the civilized but unambiguous demonstration that greeted him, ascended the rostrum, and allowed himself remarks about the Rav’s religious authenticity that would probably have provoked violence in a conventional yeshiva.

Academic freedom, in the broadest sense, was served in this case. By which I mean that under ordinary conditions, and even under great strain, students and faculty are entitled to their own mistakes. So long as we can live with such challenges, Yeshiva’s existential atmosphere will continue to differ, subtly but crucially, from that of other yeshivas as it surely must differ from that of other universities.

Which reminds me of the Lord Caradon incident at YU.

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