The Jewish Eye
The Search Committee: A Novel
The Search Committee
By Marc Angel
Urim Publications, 2008, 155 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 16, 2009
Marc Angel, rabbi emeritus of the prestigious Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City, and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), has written his first novel, an engaging and entertaining debut. He draws upon the current conflicts between ultra and modern Orthodox Jews, and depicts how two applicants vie for the position as head of a New York yeshiva.
A search committee is examining both the qualifications and ideology of two rabbis for this position of rosh yeshiva. Should the head of the academy in the twenty first century be the son of its prior leader because of his obvious piety and knowledge of Talmud or another rabbi with both a Jewish and secular education and a desire to modernize the methods of Judaic study that would allow rational inquiry? Ten people present their views to the search committee, five for the son of the prior rosh yeshiva and five for his more secular-minded competitor. The ideological battle described in this well-written novel will grasp and hold the attention of readers, Jew and non-Jew alike, and allow them to catch more than a glimpse of the Torah world of Judaism.
The son of the recently deceased rosh yeshiva staunchly questions the right and competence of the search committee, composed of business people, to pass judgment on what is true Judaism. He insists that Jews should "walk in the ways of our fathers, veering neither to the right nor to the left." He sees the non-yeshiva world as a befouled cesspool, and contends that no mention should be made during Jewish learning of non-Jewish ideas. Thus, the yeshiva study halls, both symbolically and actually, should be closed in without windows. Yeshiva students should wear uniform clothes that set them apart, white shirts, black suits, and a wide-brimmed black hat. Women have no place in this holy world other than aiding their husbands, running their homes, and, if at all possible, being the family bread-winner while husbands and fathers sit and learn. The other applicant differs with each idea.
Although the novel is short and to the point, and although the issues are not articulated as questions, readers of the drama find themselves engrossed by a host of thought provoking reflections, ideas that help define Judaism, such as the following. Who are the true Jews? Is a Jew "contaminated" by a secular education? May women write fiction or non-fiction, secular or biblical works? Should yeshiva students be prohibited from engaging in courtships and must they have arranged marriages? Must orthodox women wear an unbecoming wig when their husbands see other women with uncovered heads daily, and thus their wives may become less attractive to them? Or, conversely, does it make sense for a wife to wear a wig that is more attractive than her own hair? Is western civilization a colossal failure in matters of spirit and holiness? Is Talmud study in a yeshiva much like treading water, going nowhere, the goal of Talmud study being just more Talmud study? Should Jews observe the secular holiday of Thanksgiving by saying psalms as part of the synagogue service, as if the day were a Jewish holiday?
The reader may be surprised by the search committee's decision; they will certainly be surprised by the reaction of one of the two candidates. They will also find themselves addressing the question of what makes a religious person, faithful adherence to the traditions of the past or an open-minded constant rational confrontation of religion and modernity.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.
The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
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