Commentary Magazine


Today's Rabbis

To the Editor:

In his observations on “The Modern Rabbi,” [February] Rabbi Petuchowski puts his finger on the dilemma of “rabbis” who are not rabbis, i.e., scholars in the field of Jewish learning. He sees an aroused laity as the only solution for congregations to get exactly what they seek.

Although he draws his examples primarily from the Reform and Conservative rabbinate, the trend to lower standards of learning . . . was until recently in evidence among the Orthodox as well. While, I suppose, no Orthodox school numbers among its graduates men who . . . cannot read un-pointed Hebrew, there are certainly some who cannot make much sense of a page in the Talmud.

Yet in the past two decades, a radical transformation has taken place in the Orthodox seminaries. . . . The new emphasis on genuine learning is primarily the accomplishment of one man. At his death, thousands turned out . . . to honor Rabbi Aaron Kotler. In a demonstration of reverence, they saw in him the man who had turned the tide. In his Yeshivah in Lake-wood, he taught not only subject matter, but by his personal example of zealous love of Torah, he inspired his students to set learning above all else. The fire caught on and spread throughout the many schools of Torah in the land. . . .

That so much of the American rabbinate is a burlesque is less the fault of the laity than of those on the faculties of the rabbinical seminaries who give their imprimatur to the kind of student who cares little and knows less. . . .

(Dr.) N. L. Rabinovitch
Charleston, South Carolina

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To the Editor:

. . . Rabbi Petuchowski points up a situation which is, alas, not sufficiently recognized by laymen. The most disturbing aspect of the problem is that while the rabbinate and seminaries are not unaware of the current dilemma, they seem wholly unwilling to change direction. They continue on their merry way, manufacturing clergymen instead of preparing rabbis. . . .

Dr. Petuchowski indicates that the redirection will have to come from a dissatisfied laity. A journal like COMMENTARY can be an important outlet for such dissatisfaction, for it is not chained to a sponsor’s point of view. . . . Let us hope that laymen will make themselves heard, demanding more from the rabbi, and thus redirecting the entire rabbinate toward its traditional role.

Tom L. Freudenheim
New York City

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To the Editor:

In his article Rabbi Petuchowski gives a critical review of my book The Power Within Us. Rabbi Petuchowski lists the roster of “authorities” quoted by me, stating that in the majority of instances I cite them in order to “dignify simple platitudes.” . . .

I believe that anyone who has read my book carefully must conclude that the quotations, without exception, are not employed by me to bolster my spiritual thesis, but merely to serve as illustrations of the points in question. The Power Within Us is designed to serve as a self-help book for the many among us who are sorely in need of spiritual guidance. The main intention of my book is to make us aware of the great spiritual potential which God has put at our disposal, and from which can accrue great advantage in our personal lives.

What has been the function of true religion through the ages if not to show man a way of life and raise him to a higher level of consciousness? Will Rabbi Petuchowski refuse to concede that this is still the task of our rabbinic leadership of today? . . . Is it harping upon “a simple platitude” to admonish the Jewish businessman of today to apply his religion in the sphere of the market place and not merely to pay lip service to Judaism?

As a teacher of rabbis, Rabbi Petuchowski should know that most of our Jews do not pray, because they do not know how to . . . because unfortunately many of our spiritual leaders have failed to teach them the technique of prayer. During the seminary years of many of our rabbis, little emphasis was placed upon the practical aspects of the rabbinate . . . while a lot of time was spent in abstract discussions and theoretical studies.

Rabbi Petuchowski takes exception to the fact that I would judge the teachings of traditional Judaism by the criteria of Western thought. Is he not familiar with the teachings of Samson Raphael Hirsch, or Ezriel Hildesheimer, at whose seminary I was privileged to receive my rabbinical training?

Clear thinkers within traditional Judaism have never been afraid to expose their teaching to the critique of Western thought. . . . Traditional Judaism, to which I adhere, does not view what transpires in the realm of thought under the aspect of Western civilization, but sub specie aeternitatis.

To Compare The Power Within Us to Peace of Mind is fair neither to the late Rabbi Liebman, of blessed memory, for whose book and for whose teaching I have great admiration, nor to my own, which was never designed to compete with it. Our books do not belong in the same category. While Liebman’s book attempts to establish the compatibility of religion and psychiatry, mine is exclusively a self-help book, offering guideposts for creative living to the individual.

To accuse me of aping the Christians is utterly ridiculous; and Rabbi Petuchowski’s attitude of ex cathedraism is the manifestation of a definite lack of humility on the part of a teacher of rabbinics.

(Rabbi) Kurt Klappholz
Brooklyn, New York

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Rabbi Petuchowski writes:

Rabbi Klappholz is unnecessarily upset by my review of his book. I have no quarrel with those who want “to make us aware of the great spiritual potential which God has put at our disposal, and from which can accrue great advantage in our personal lives.” It was just that I was a little overwhelmed by all the authorities he led into the field, and it is possible that my review showed this. But I am definitely not guilty of the two “sins” with which I am charged. I did not “take exception” to the fact that the criteria of Western thought are invoked. An author writing in America in the second half of the 20th century could not do anything else. Of course, I know about S. R. Hirsch and about the Hildesheimer seminary. I know about them, and I am aware of their historical significance. But I am also aware of the fact that, until comparatively recent years, Orthodoxy in America was anything but under the sway of the ideas of German Neo-Orthodoxy. The fact that Rabbi Klappholz is under that sway was, therefore, a fact sufficiently important to deserve mention in an article about the modern American rabbinate. I can only hope that he will have many followers in the ranks of Orthodoxy. Moreover, since my main task was one of description, I also did not “accuse” Rabbi Klappholz of “aping the Christians.” As a matter of historical fact, I would have no hesitation in stating that there are Christian influences in the medieval Book of the Pious—without wishing such a description to be taken as an “accusation.” All of us who write on religious matters today are, consciously or unconsciously, subject to environmental influences. Again, in a description of the modern American rabbinate, I do not think that it is out of place to draw attention to such cultural cross-fertilization. If there was any accusation at all in my review, it was not about that cross-fertilization in general, but about the particular genre of Christian literature (viz.: Norman Vincent Peale) by which Rabbi Klappholz has consciously chosen to let himself be influenced. But I would venture to suggest that, in a free country, both author and reviewer are entitled to the expression of their respective prejudices.

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