Response to Dr. Shai Secunda, Part I: On Those “Anti-Intellectuals”

Dr. Secunda’s interview has garnered an unusual amount of attention for this blog (over a hundred views!). It’s only fair that I give my probably less interesting response to the many important points he makes.

Let’s start from the end. Dr. Secunda asserts that:

I think the [rampant disinterest of Orthodox high-school students in Talmud] is part of the anti-intellectual environment in which the majority of the US and Israeli Orthodox communities find themselves, where the life of the mind and the attempt to really sweat over gaining one’s own understanding is simply not valued.

I think this assertion is simply wrong, at least on the students’ end. There are many better explanations for the disinterest – the apparent irrelevance to daily life, the many petty details, the inscrutable and arcane language as well as the lousy and inefficient methods of instruction have much more to do with this, in my opinion.

Dr. Secunda would do well to draw his attention to the many Orthodox Jews who go into intellectual life in various settings such as Beit Morasha, or Hartman and Van Leer to their left. All of these are people deeply committed to a “life of the mind”. However, the overwhelming majority are interested in non-gemara areas – Tanach, philosophy, history, sociological surveys and the like. Even when they do discuss the literature of Chazal, the focus is on aggada and midrash, not the “hard-core” halachic sections.

So the issue is not the unwillingness to live a “the life of the mind”. It’s that far too many students don’t see the benefits of gemara study to invest in it. I’ve seen many people do incredible things to get what they want intellectually – but only if they thought there was some kind of achievment at the end of the journey. HS students just don’t see that purpose.

The Evil ‘Anti-Intellectuals’

Let me relate a story that may help explain what I’m about to discuss:

A yeshiva bochur stayed at our family house for Shabbat (we’ve had many, so there’s no disclosure here). The bochur in question was a standard MO Jew. He loved wrestling and he studied intensively in a yeshiva known for its intellectual challenges and hurdles. He was about as ‘out-of-the-box’ as you can get. Yet when I asked him how he wants to raise his family, he replied that he wants to do so in a sheltered community. Needless to say, I was stunned. Why would this guy, who clearly can take it and dish it with the real world, want to retreat into a cocoon for his kid? When he said that, I began to understand the rationale for the ‘anti-intellectualism’ Secunda bemoans.

Secunda is right that a wave of anti-intellectualism is spreading through the more right-wing elements of the Orthodox community. It has hit the most committed – the teachers, the idologues – especially hard. These are the people who will praise every chumra and view any attempt at kula as ‘Reform’. This is even though, because of their lack of secular knowledge, few of them will know what ‘Reform’ actually means. Where pretty much every critic of the RW errs is in the inability to understand that the ‘anti-intellectuals’ have very good rational reasons to be afraid.

Once upon a time, when the ghettos were opened and the “light of the enlightenment” seeped in, Jews thus affected simply left Judaism or adopted breakaway versions like the Conservative and Reform movements. Only מתי מעט  remained “frum” to any extent. Even Poland was not immune to the many secular ideologies sweeping the world at the time.

In Israel as in much of Eastern Europe, secular Zionism was often the anti-religion magnet of choice. There are no Guttman reports from that period, but data from the Ministry of Education’s Mamad branch during the 1950s would indicate that the OTD rate ran from 60-70%. Slowly but surely, that hemorrhaging was slowed; today, the rate of religion abandonment is around 20%, a pretty normal and manageable statistic.

There are many reasons for this slow-down – the increase in homogenous communities, the strengthening of religious education from K-12, the establishment of yeshivot and mechinot, the decline of the belief in secular Zionism in general Israeli society and the rise in confidence of the Religious Zionist branch of society. Regardless of each factor’s weight, religious Jews should have started to ‘calm down’ – they were and are growing demographically in spite of the regular 20% loss.

The problem is that while at least nominal observance of halacha increased and eventually stabilized, the power of the many questions and challenges brought up by modernity did not. If anything, they’ve increased in power and scope. Far more religious Jews have either attended university or college in the past twenty years than previously. The age of the internet also means that whatever walls people try to erect are doomed to be dismantled.

All of this would be somewhat bearable for the ‘anti-intellectuals’ if the people making the challenges were all secular – i.e., the “others”. However, the past several years has seen a steady rise in the number of “frum academics” – people who are versed in academic Jewish studies and also keep halacha. Prof. James Kugel is only the most prominent and brazen example of this trend. Once upon a time, frum Jews who were “burned out” theologically because of biblical criticism, philosophical challenges or kept their opinions to themselves or at least only published them in obscure publications which no-one read. This is not the case anymore, and in many instances what they have to say is anathema to an Orthodox ear.

An ‘anti-intellectual’ increasingly sees kippa-donning Jews who deny the historicity or the divinity of the Tanach or argue that it makes no difference whether or not you keep halacha to be a ‘good Jew’. Every week, said ‘anti-intellectual’ will see people for whom liberal values always seem to trump halacha and fidelity to God. I once saw one of them use a very derogatory term – such people are ‘חילונים חובשי כיפה’; secular Jews who wear a kipa. The anti-intellectual attitude is thus not just one of erecting barriers with the outside world; it is an attitude of erecting barriers between the true faithful and what the Chazon Ish once called ‘frum apikorsim’. It is first and foremost a war within Orthodoxy itself.

Dr. Secunda will no doubt rightly complain that my above description was an unfair generalization. He’ll say: You’re cherry-picking the worst examples and forgetting the many religious and truly devout Jews – not simply ‘sociologically Orthodox’ – who are at home with Jewish studies whether formally or informally. He will argue, much like in the interview, that academic, rational study can provide a profoundly spiritual experience by ‘getting into the heads’ of our great sages and understanding the background against which they lived.

The problem is that for the ‘anti-intellectuals’ and even many of the fence-sitters, people like Dr. Secunda are the exception and not the rule. They see a world in which ‘criticism’, ‘subversiveness’ and just plain ‘anti- for the sake of being anti-‘ reign supreme. They see a group of people who may keep halacha, but who view the intellectual and moral foundations of their world with skepticism and even disdain, while looking lovingly at anything that is ‘Western and progressive’. There may be a few צדיקים בסדום, but it’s still סדום.

Worse still for the Dr. Secundas of the world is that most of his frum colleagues don’t even try to make the case that they are not the enemy. In fact, the most vocal of them relish in being gadflies. I’ve yet to see any really concerted and truly empathetic attempt to address the anti-intellectuals’ legitimate concerns. All there is today is simply self-congratulations among the ‘already enlightened’. Small wonder, then, that the ‘anti-intellectuals’ prefer to run to the hills and build walls than live with their brothers as neighbors.

But what of Dr. Secunda’s actual defense of academic study? Surely he makes a good case, even if his colleagues do not?

Indeed he does, and we will discuss what I consider to be both the good and the weak points in his arguments in upcoming posts.


Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s