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March 4, 2005

‘Tug of War’ at Y.U. An Imagined Conflict

The February 18 Viewpoint news analysis column posits that Yeshiva University President Richard “Joel stands at the center of a theological tug of war” between left and right at the university (“Y.U. Chief’s Quiet Gambit Creates Space for Change”). The Forward, however, omits reference to two innovative programs that have commenced at Y.U. under Joel’s administration that appear to belie the existence of this imagined conflict.

Through the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s Max Stern Division of Communal Services, Joel launched to wide acclaim two new Sunday morning programs, Kollel Yom Rishon for men and Midreshet Yom Rishon for women. These programs are geared toward working men and women, and offer participants of all ages, backgrounds and educational levels the opportunity (at no cost) to start their week with Torah study. And, at least equally significant in light of the theme of the Forward’s article, Joel arranged for the seminary’s Roshei Yeshiva to inaugurate and staff both programs.

Rather than get bogged down in what many believe are fictional disputes, Joel has decided to harness the extraordinary knowledge and talents of our Roshei Yeshiva in the service of the Jewish community at large. After all is said and done, isn’t that really what Y.U. is all about?

Julius Berman

Chairman of the Board

Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

New York, N.Y.

‘Rival’ Talmud Editions Make Texts Accessible

The Forward’s February 25 special section on the Talmud is, to me, a reflection of how attitudes toward the Talmud have dramatically changed in recent years through increased access to and awareness of what it has to offer the Jewish people and society at large. However, in the article on the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud, the Forward rather unfairly dispenses with the impact made by renowned scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz on the widespread popularity of the study of Talmud (“Artscroll Readers of All Stripes Find Meaning in Translation”).

In the mid-1960s, Steinsaltz began the historic undertaking of translating into modern Hebrew the entire Babylonian Talmud, along with his personal commentary. For nearly 40 years, he has been put his heart and soul into the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud, a true labor of love and a gift to the Jewish people. Steinsaltz’s goal is to make classic Jewish texts like the Talmud accessible to an intellectual readership that has little or no Jewish background.

To date, 37 of the anticipated 46 volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud have been published in Hebrew. This is no small feat, as this Talmud is the work of one man and the reflection of his individual perspective on thousands of pages of text.

Steinsaltz began publishing a portion of his Talmud in English in the 1980s. This undertaking was meant not only to bring the methodology of the ancient text to new audiences, but also to help the Anglo-Saxon Jewish community take greater pride in the richness of its heritage. However, the focus of the rabbi’s scholarly efforts remains to this day Hebrew rather than English.

Thanks to Random House’s publication of 22 English volumes of the Steinsaltz Talmud, paired with the celebratory completion and widespread distribution of the Schottenstein Talmud, larger numbers of people are studying Talmud now than at any other time in our history. Tens of thousands who ordinarily would never have picked up a book like the Talmud are proudly delving into its wisdom, many of them on a daily basis.

The Steinsaltz and Schottenstein editions should be viewed not as “rival edition[s],” as the Forward writes, but rather as complements that are bringing the lessons of the Talmud to an ever-growing audience. This will perhaps best be demonstrated at a monumental event taking place April 10, 2005 at Yeshiva University Museum’s launch of an exhibit on the history of printing the Talmud — where Steinsaltz will deliver the Schottenstein Memorial Lecture.

Ludwig Bravmann


The Aleph Society

New York, N.Y.

Umbrella Body Needs To Consider Its Mission

While we were not aware of what other American Jewish organizations were doing in regard to Prime Minister Sharon’s disengagement plan, the Anti-Defamation League asked the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to take up the issue back in June (“Why Isn’t the Leadership Listening?” February 25).

After several months of small consultations, they reported there was no consensus. Frustrated, because we believed this was first a matter for the Presidents Conference, we generated our own statement, and a number of organizations agreed to sign on to it. More might have, but we were hearing that the Presidents Conference was discouraging potential signatories. Once the conference announced its intention to hold a special meeting on the subject, ADL withdrew its effort to disseminate a separate statement.

Despite of the attempt to cast ADL’s effort as a failure, we believe that the publicity surrounding that effort forced the hand of the Presidents Conference and led to the October 14 full-blown discussion of the issue, a session heavily attended. It is accurate to say that the vast majority who spoke at that meeting urged strong support for Sharon.

The statement issued, however, was vague and indirect. Only after the Knesset voted 11 days later did a clearer statement emerge, and even this one was not the simple declarative statement of support that many of us thought was in order.

In the end, the issue is not that the Presidents Conference did not support the government of Israel, but why it had to be dragged there. I cannot recall an occasion when the president of the United States, supported by Congress, was in agreement with the prime minister of Israel, supported by his Cabinet, and the Presidents Conference was not eagerly in the forefront of support. That is our mission, and it is reasonable to be concerned about why it didn’t happen here.

Abraham Foxman

National Director

Anti-Defamation League

New York, N.Y.

More Neutral Scholar For Teachers’ Teacher

We welcomed the New York City Department of Education’s statement that it erred in the way it handled the controversial participation of a Columbia University professor, Rashid Khalidi, in the teaching-development workshops on the Middle East (“N.Y. School Board Bans a Controversial Arab Professor,” February 25). But we had no objection to Khalidi’s involvement in the program if it were made clear that he has taken outspokenly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel positions, and if he were juxtaposed with a pro-Israel academic counterpart.

Our overriding concern was that he was being invited to present the introductory lecture of the 12-week course, called the “overview” in the program That slot, in our view, required a more dispassionate scholar who is not so clearly identified with any of the political “camps” engaged in the ongoing Middle East debate.

After all, the stakes are high. The participants in the Department of Education program are learning how to teach about the Middle East, and will bring their newly acquired information to classrooms across the city. What schoolchildren today learn about the Middle East could have profound long-term consequences.

David A. Harris

Executive Director

American Jewish Committee

New York, N.Y.

JTS Faculty Takes Issue With Anonymous Quote

I am writing to disassociate myself — and the many colleagues on the Jewish Theological Seminary faculty I have spoken to — from the comments ascribed to an anonymous veteran professor in a February 25 article that “there seems to be some sort of hidden smelly mess in [the JTS Finance Department] that is not being publicized” (“New Fiscal Chief at Seminary Resigns Post Amid Debt Crisis”).

Leaving aside the comment’s crude vulgarity, it maliciously insinuates that there are financical improprieties at the Jewish Theological Seminary, without offering the slightest bit of fact or evidence. The comment is a deplorable act of defamation against an important American Jewish educational institution.

I have spoken with Richard Bengloff, JTS’s former chief financial officer, and there is no reason to doubt that his decision to leave JTS for a higher position at the WNYC radio station was anything but a commonplace personal career move. How the Forward made his decision into a story is both baffling and disconcerting.

If the quote is authentic, I am not surprised that the “veteran faculty member” requested anonymity. Since the person quoted presumably has tenure, and his job is secure, one can only conclude that he was ashamed to be associated with his own words. The JTS professors I know would not stoop to this level of discourse.

David Fishman

Chair, Faculty Executive Committee

Jewish Theological Seminary of America

New York, N.Y.

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