Culture

Animating the Dialogue – A Review of Yeshiva Days: Learning on the Lower East Side

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Sima Fried

 

Let me tell you upfront: I genuinely enjoyed reading Yeshiva Days, Dr. Jonathan Boyarin’s account of the year he spent as a full-time student and observer at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem (MTJ), a Yeshiva located on New York’s Lower East Side. There, Boyarin explored the traditional study of rabbinic texts. The product is an exploration of the daily rhythm of Torah study, the role of the Rosh Yeshiva, and the position of MTJ within the surrounding community. While the book forms a cohesive story, the picturesque nature of each chapter lends itself to being read in shorter segments. I suspect, however, that you will want to consume all 185 pages in a single sitting.

I must confess that I am not an entirely objective reader. Originally established in the early 1900s, MTJ has played an important role within my family since the late 1930s when my great-grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l, first took on its mantle of leadership, followed later by his son, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein z”tl. I do not, however, claim insider information to the institution or its recent leader of blessed memory. While I always admired my great-uncle, our interactions were limited to occasional family celebrations. I hope you will still find value in my reflections, as someone passionate about the study of Torah and Anthropology.

Yeshiva Days: An Overview

A word of advice: do not skip the introduction of Yeshiva Days. Boyarin’s preface is essential for framing your expectations of what this book is and, more importantly, what this book is not. Yeshiva Days is neither a memoir of Boyarin finding his place at MTJ nor an exposé of a ‘secret religious world.’ Rather, it aims to help all readers―both those familiar with the Yeshiva and those encountering the Yeshiva for the first time―gain a greater appreciation for the experience of Torah study.[1]

The body of Yeshiva Days opens by explaining the factors that led Boyarin to conduct research at MTJ, from its distinctive heritage to the author’s prior experience studying in its halls as an adult. Boyarin then moves on to describe MTJ itself: the layout of the beit midrash (house of learning) and the rhythm and flow of students within it. The narrative follows with an exploration of MTJ’s relationship with the surrounding community and its engagement with politics, both internal and communal. The author then returns in his third chapter to the “Big Room” of the beit midrash and details the fluid pattern of daily Torah study as he tackles complicated rabbinic texts alone, in pairs (chavruta), and in daily class (shiur) with the Rosh Yeshiva. The fourth chapter expands upon the larger role of the Rosh Yeshiva as both the spiritual, intellectual, and moral leader. This is continued in the fifth chapter by investigating the meaning of “learning for its own sake” (lishmah). Boyarin concludes in the sixth chapter by reflecting on his own image within MTJ and briefly ponders in the seventh chapter the unique experience and relationship of time in Torah study and in dreams.

There is much to discuss about Yeshiva Days, but I would like to focus on three areas: the way Boyarin navigates his own identity at MTJ as a student and ethnographer, the unique experience of time in Torah study, and the role of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Student vs. Anthropologist

A brief introduction to ethnographic research may be in order to help readers understand Boyarin’s approach. Ethnography is a qualitative form of research aimed at exploring and interpreting the culture of individual groups and people. The process of conducting an ethnography relies on ‘participant observation’ which “enabl[es] researchers to learn about the activities of people under study in the natural setting through observing and participating in those activities.”[2] Clifford Geertz, a famous American anthropologist of the twentieth century, describes how these analyses attempt to uncover the multiple webs of meaning of a given behavior.[3] To illustrate this point, Geertz provides an analogy of three people rapidly contracting their right eyelid. The first person has a twitch, the second is winking, and the third is parodying the first. It is the job of the ethnographer to differentiate the three, to understand the ‘why’ behind the action. Early ethnographies were frequently conducted in what was then referred to as ‘primitive societies.’ However, modern researchers have since used this methodology to explore groups in urban settings, digital spaces, and even their own communities. Boyarin joins this wave of researchers by turning his lens on MTJ.

In Yeshiva Days, Boyarin continuously grapples with his dual identity as a researcher and yeshiva student. When conducting ethnographic research, one never fully loses their identity as an ‘outsider.’ However, as a Jewish male interested in Torah study, Boyarin had natural ‘insider’ access to MTJ. In traditional Orthodox Judaism, there is an emphasis on continuous Torah study for Jewish men, and the beit midrash is the common place to study. Boyarin’s learning background may have been different than others in the Yeshiva, but his right to have access to the beit midrash and the Rosh Yeshiva’s classes (shiurim) was never questioned. Boyarin’s dual role complicated the challenge every ethnographer has: how much can a researcher ethically disclose about a group that has placed their trust and confidence in him? Boyarin is sensitive to this responsibility, both as a researcher and a student of the yeshiva, to not reveal everything that may be of interest to his audience. In many ways, Boyarin’s struggle to compose this work parallels my own struggle to review it. As a social scientist who studied anthropology, I have had the opportunity to review various ethnographies and conduct one of my own in the course of my graduate studies. However, it has been uniquely challenging to review an ethnographic work whose subject matter and institution are so close to my heart.

Boyarin’s discretion does not only stem from ethical grounds, but from a personal desire to remain a part of the MTJ community. While Boyarin may no longer be learning ‘in kollel’ full time, his continued investment in the learning and the community at MTJ remains ever present. Even in his reflections, Boyarin ponders the true purpose of his studies at MTJ. Was he “working as an anthropologist or fulfilling a traditional male Jew’s dream of engaging in intensive study? Was it possible to do both at the same time?” (3). It is a quandary present throughout the book, and a tension never fully resolved.

Time in Torah Study

In traditional Yeshivot, one continuously reviews that which he has previously learned. The process of unpacking challenging rabbinic discourses can be exhausting, and Boyarin even sheepishly reveals he occasionally dozed off during shiur. However, dozing off in the beit midrash is not as uncommon as Boyarin might think. Accounts of students and teachers dozing in the beit midrash are peppered throughout the Talmud (e.g. Pesahim 35a to name but one). Studying Talmud on a full-time basis requires significant mental exertion, but everyone has their limits.

Boyarin develops one of the unique characteristics of Torah study: students learn with the understanding that there is no clear end. The goal is simply to study as long as one can since there will always be more to learn, a deeper understanding both textual and spiritual to be gleaned. Any reader experienced with Torah study can recognize this truth. For me, it brought to mind the traditional Hadran prayer at the end of each tractate: “We will return to you, Tractate [X], and you will return to us…” One can never truly ‘master’ or ‘leave behind’ a portion of Talmud. However, the act of Torah study contains infinite potential for growth, allowing one to delve deeper into the text, review, grow, and study again.

Within his fifth chapter, Boyarin also explores how Torah study suspends linear time. This is reflected within the physical layout of the Talmud itself. The Talmud foregos any sense of linearity altogether, juxtaposing texts and commentaries separated by centuries on the same page, making them appear contemporaneous and in dialogue with each other. Boyarin claims that one reason for this dialogue is the ‘haunting sense’ of what has been previously lost. Amoraim, Tannaim, and commentaries alike have attempted to codify and illuminate nuances of oral law that have been lost since the destruction of the Temple―nuances we are still attempting to understand.

Boyarin’s characterization brought to mind Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik’s (z”tl) famous description of his experience studying and teaching Torah:

Whenever I start the shiur, the door opens, another old man walks in and sits down… And then more visitors show up. Some of the visitors lived in the eleventh century, some in the twelfth century, some in the thirteenth century, some lived in antiquity… Of course, what do I do? I introduce them to my pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam says something, the Ra’avad disagrees… A boy jumps up to defend the Rambam against the Ra’avad… And another jumps up with a new idea; the Rashba smiles gently. I try to analyze what the young boy meant; another boy intervenes, we call upon the Rabbenu Tam to express his opinion, and suddenly a symposium of generations comes into existence.[4]

The collapse of linear time in Torah study allows for a ‘symposium of generations’ to commence. However, I would posit that Rabbi Soleveitchik adds a vital addition to Boyarin’s framework. This symposium of generations is not limited to the commentaries of the text but is joined by actors in the present. It is a never-ending dialogue animated by the voices of teachers and students in the beit midrash.[5]

The Rosh Yeshiva

Throughout Boyarin’s work there is a thread of admiration and respect not only for MTJ, but for its moral and intellectual leader, the Rosh Yeshiva. Boyarin, like many, writes about Rabbi Dovid Feinstein’s unique humility and quiet nature. Unlike the Hasidic paradigm of the ‘Rebbe’ who seeks to build a community of devoted followers, Rabbi Feinstein was satisfied to serve his local community as it organically shifted over time. At one point, Boyarin describes to one of his study partners (chavrutas) his shock that one of the greatest Torah scholars would be satisfied teaching in what had then become a small Yeshiva. The student replied that he believed “the Rosh Yeshiva had stayed on the Lower East Side, precisely because he [did not] want to be the object of mass veneration” (123).

While the Yeshiva may be small, it is filled with a unique energy of learning. In his fourth chapter, Boyarin describes how the Rosh Yeshiva encouraged students to first tackle the text on their own without the assistance of commentaries. He also challenged students to fully explore multiple rabbinic interpretations. To an outsider, this amount of creative leeway may appear misplaced for traditional Orthodox Jews, who are bound to follow a specific tradition of interpretation. However, Boyarin posits that the agile learning at MTJ was encouraged because of the Rosh Yeshiva’s conviction that the ultimate halakhah would not change since “the correct halacha for us is what we do” (minhag).[6] The conviction that minhag ultimately determined the practice of a given community allowed for creativity in the process of examining the text without compromising the ultimate outcome. As Boyarin writes:

The assertion of our own autonomous responsibility for judgment at one point can coexist with the assertion of our obligation to submit to a greater authority at others. It may seem contradictory but in fact helps to sustain a community that is intellectually agile and energetic but whose fundamental loyalty to Torah as the word of God and the blueprint for Jewish life remains axiomatic (134).

I cannot help but end this review on a personal note. I am sure the Rosh Yeshiva in all his humility would have been satisfied to be left out of the book entirely.[7] However, I greatly appreciated the way Boyarin brought his presence to life for an audience that exists beyond the world of MTJ or the Agudath Israel. Rabbi Dovid Feinstein zt”l was a truly special man, and it saddens me to think of his empty desk next to that of his father’s.


[1] For the purpose of this review, “Torah study” will specifically refer to the study of traditional rabbinic texts.

[2] Barbara B. Kawulich, “View of Participant Observation as a Data Collection Method,” Forum: Qualitative Social Research 6, no. 2, art. 43 (May 2005).

[3] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

[4]The Rav’s Famous Description (from 1974) of How He Experienced the Mesorah as He Gave Shiur as an Old Man.YUTorah Online. Lecture, 1974.

[5] Boyarin further explores the non-linearity of Torah study, including its potential relationship with ‘learning for its own sake’ (lishmah) in chapter five. In the process, Boyarin creates a new framework for understanding ‘progress’ in relation to Torah study.

[6] See p. 126.

[7] While there is no traditional haskamah (a letter of consent and approval received by a religious authority regarding a newly published text), Boyarin’s introduction describes his process of getting permission from the Rosh Yeshiva to write this book. This is yet another reason to read the preface and introduction of this book.

Sima Fried
Sima Fried is a research associate at Shapiro+Raj where she employs qualitative and quantitative research methodologies to uncover insights and develop strategic plans of action for clients. Sima received her BA in anthropology from Yeshiva University and her MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago where she conducted ethnographic fieldwork. As an undergraduate, she collaborated with the Orthodox Union to research the evolving role of synagogue lay leadership.