SEARCH COMMITTEE: A Novel
Weight: 1.00 kilograms
SEARCH COMMITTEE: A Novel
by Marc Angel
Hardcover, 155 pages
ISBN 13: 978-965-524-012-2
published by: Urim Fiction
When the leader of a venerable Torah academy passes away, a search committee begins to investigate two candidates, both serious and committed Torah scholars. However, the resemblance ends there. One, the previous leader's son, is a staunch traditionalist determined to keep to the old ways, while the other is a university graduate with a modern, open-minded perspective. The candidates hold opposing views about the role of the yeshiva, the ideals of Torah Judaism, the role of women in the community, and the future of Orthodoxy and the Jewish people. As they, their wives, colleagues, students, and donors address the Committee, a dramatic story emerges about the ways in which a traditional community may embrace or reject the modern world.
About the Author:
Rabbi Dr. Marc D. Angel is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City and founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. He is the author and editor of over two dozen books, and this is his first work of fiction.
Praise for The Search Committee
"I have never read anything quite like The Search Committee, a fascinating novel by the Rabbi Emeritus of America's most distinguished Sephardic congregation. Through the story of two very different men, both vying to lead a prestigious Talmudic academy, the author leads us with breathtaking insight through the maze of religion and politics that is at the heart of the Orthodox Jewish world. This novel is a true contribution to Jewish-American literature."
-Naomi Ragen, best-selling author of Jephte's Daughter and The Saturday Wife
"Marc Angel's The Search Committee should be required reading of every divinity student as well as anyone interested in the future of our pluralistic culture. Angel shines a bright light on the cloistered trappings of the contemporary Orthodox scene. The Search Committee is a modern mystery novel for the theologically inclined, a needed corrective to an increasingly rigid 'Modern' Orthodoxy. Will Orthodoxy open itself to varieties of religious experience and pluralism, or will it retreat in fear and hatred of all that modernity is and represents?"
-Dr. Ezra Cappell, Assistant Professor, University of Texas and author of American Talmud: The Cultural Work of Jewish American Fiction
But, oddly, successful.
This novel has virtually no plot, a very limited and unsubtle cast of characters, no change of scenery -- in fact, with the exception of one lovely retrospect on Greece at the beginning of the 20th century, the whole story takes place around a table -- and, to boot, the subject is of rather limited scope.
Not to mention, the two main characters are so overdrawn as to be caricatures.
Yet, this book is almost spellbinding.
The endgame is not "whodunit," but "who's hired." It's very hard to predict who, in fact, will be hired.
Here's the plot, such as it is: Great scholar founds yeshiva. Great scholar dies. His son takes over, then he dies. Now, two extraordinarily different candidates vie for the position of rosh yeshiva, or head of the yeshiva.
Each candidate presents a radically different vision of Judaism (and, thus, of the future of the yeshiva).
The point of the novel is to contrast these two visions of Judaism, to hold each vision up to scrutiny (even ridicule), as the novel presents advocates and detractors for each side.
The Search Committee is a creative vehicle for a debate about Judaism, with a very sharp eye for contemporary developments that most people do not to see, or prefer not to acknowledge, or do not understand.
Meet Rabbi Shimshon Grossman. He is Ashkenazi. It is his grandfather who founded "Yeshivas Lita" and his father who just died. The son believes the leadership of the yeshiva is his by right. By which he means a lot more than inheritance.
Only the son understands the yeshiva and is committed to its ways.
Those ways are very clear, sacred and unidimensional.
The future of Judaism is built on Torah study only. Secular studies are worse than a diversion. They soil the sacred. Still more. Hitler tried to kill the glorious intellectual and spiritual achievements of yeshivas in Europe. The Grossman family will recreate this vision of Judaism in all its purity, rigor, integrity and success.
In fact, under the grandfather and father, Yeshivas Lita has flourished, training untold numbers of Torah scholars.
Rabbi Shimshon Grossman's teaching style is by the book, demanding and, if one applies himself, of great merit.
Rabbi Grossman is caustic, knows what he is doing, and is deeply annoyed that he has to appear before a search committee at all. The leadership of the yeshiva is his by right.
Meet Rabbi David Mercado. He is Sepharadi. He was raised without any yeshiva background at all. He was turned on to Judaism in college, where he explored philosophy, astronomy, anthropology, literature, art, physics, Latin and geography.
He ended up in Yeshivas Lita, where he excelled. He became a Torah scholar himself.
Along the way, he married a convert to Judaism. Through a twist of events that would qualify as "truth is stranger than fiction' were it not for the fact that this is fiction, Mercado's wife is the granddaughter of the non-Jewish woman whom Mercado's father wanted to marry back in Greece, but did not, because she was not Jewish.
Rabbi Mercado's teaching style is creative, drawing in new students and others who would likely drop out were it not for his passion and wide-ranging knowledge.
Rabbi Mercado is gracious and grateful to the search committee for even being considered for the yeshiva leadership.
As I said, the two rabbis are overdrawn. Realistically, no candidate, no matter who he is, could insult a search committee so directly and rudely as Rabbi Grossman and expect to be hired. But no matter. What about the visions of Judaism they represent?
This is the soul, the agenda, of the book. Author Rabbi Marc Angel of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City carries it out with great vigor and fairness. If he wears his bias on his sleeve -- in favor of Mercado and his vision -- Angel's presentation of the other side is anything but a caricature.
What, indeed, is the way forward? Torah study in its purity and intensity, for the great scholars? Or Torah studied and taught in a way that makes is relevant to a wider audience?
Each side has much to say for itself. Angel presents each side gracefully and powerfully, with a keen eye for each side's contemporary benefits and distortions.
Besides the two rabbis, the following people appear before the search committee to present their cases for and against each side: each of the rabbi's wives; two faculty members, one modern, one not; two students, each of a very different commitment; two financial supporters of the yeshiva; and, finally, the chairman of the search committee.
Mystery novel that this is, I shall not reveal which of the two rabbis is hired, nor the implications for the future of the yeshiva and the losing candidate.
See for yourself via www.UrimPublications.com.
Be prepared for a deep, engaging and swift-moving reconnaissance of a slice of modern Judaism -- plus that lovely retrospect on Greece 100 years ago.
-Rabbi Hillel Goldberg
Intermountain Jewish News
I read it with great interest and enjoyment. The device of talks before the Committee was very effective. Although we never hear from the members of the committee, we get a real sense of what they are struggling with. I especially like how you let the reader know the results. You never tell us directly, you just give the post-decision talks. It's a very inventive and engaging way to tell a story. Lastly, I think it contains an important message for the Orthodox world. I hope someone is listening!
-Professor Ari L. Goldman
"The Search Committee" a first novel by (Rabbi) Marc Angel, Rabbi Emeritus, of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, is a powerful, vivid portrayal of the divergent ideals, personalities, and social views of the traditional leadership of the Yeshiva world versus the cosmopolitan orientation of Modern Orthodox Torah institutions and rabbis. Though both perspectives are described as committed to Torah scholarship and observance, each orientation has both defenders as well as critics detailing the foibles as well as its positive features. Each side fervently believes that it represents the key to the survival and growth of Torah in America. The drama of the choices seem so real, the reader is actually transformed into a member of the Search committee personally listening to two radically different Torah personalities striving to be crowned as the leader of a Yeshivah. The difficulty is that a third model is not even articulated. Namely, a Torah scholar who has the ability and sagacity to integrate the best of both worlds. Is it because in the real world such a personality does not exist? Or, is it because one simply cannot have worldly views and still be recognized by the right wing world as a Torah scholar?
The crucial issue is that the choices are not who shall be the Rosh Yeshiva of a work of fiction, but, rather, who serves as the guiding light for Torah and Halacha for modern life. Accordingly, the book should be a "must read" for all segments of the Jewish community. Rabbi Angel has outlined the issues. It is up to the readers to decide whether the views articulated remain within the works of a novel or become a formula for life.
-Rabbi J. Simcha Cohen
Marc [Angel] has written a remarkable novel called 'The Search Committee' about the positions expressed to a committee searching for a new rosh yeshiva for a Lakewood style yeshiva. I read the book in two gulps - could not put it down. While the author's sympathies are clear, I thought he did a remarkable job of getting into the skin, as it were, of people whom he does not much love, and allowing them to speak. The book is published by Urim.
-Professor Menachem Kellner
R. Marc Angel's recent book, The Search Committee, is an interesting attempt to portray the divisions within contemporary Orthodox Judaism through a fictional story. The story revolves around the largest yeshiva in America, Yeshivas Lita. It's rosh yeshiva has passed away and the board appointed a search committee to find a replacement. The entire book consists of interviews -- with the candidates, their spouses, their colleagues and a few others.
The search committee narrowed their options to two candidates -- the former rosh yeshiva's son and a brilliant, charismatic instructor in the yeshiva. R. Angel uses these two candidates to show the growing split within Orthodoxy. The rosh yeshiva's son, Rav Shimshon Grossman, represents isolationist Yeshiva Orthodoxy and the instructor, Rav David Mercado, represents the left wing of Modern Orthodoxy.
Rav Shimshon believes in lifelong, full time study of Torah only, with full faith in every utterance of every sage and as little exposure to the gentile and non-religious world as possible. He wants his students to follow the tradition he knows in all aspects of life, whether in terms of study or finding a mate.
Rav David is a ba'al teshuvah married to a convert (long, moving story). He is open-minded to secular knowledge and modern approaches to Jewish texts, greater roles for women in Judaism, and engagement with the gentile and non-religious world.
In this book, you will find articulate arguments for both sides. The book is essentially a passionate debate between Yeshiva Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. For many readers of this blog, most of these issues are old hat. But for the majority of the Jewish community, who only know their own ideologies and are not familiar with the rationales for other approaches, this book might be very eye-opening. It just might convince a Modern Orthodox reader of the correctness of Yeshiva Orthodoxy and vice versa.
However, it probably will not. That is because the author made the characters too stereotypical. Rav Shimshon is an arrogant bully and Rav David is a humble idealist. The truth is, and I write this from personal experience, that these types of personalities exist on both sides of the divide. This unfortunate portrayal of the personalities involved is, I think, a significant negative in the book.
I think some reviewers will lament the entire concept of the book and wish that we would spend our time emphasizing points of agreement rather than disagreement. I don't subscribe to that point of view. I fully agree that we all have to remember that, in the big scheme of things, we are all Orthodox Jews and therefore agree on most issues of spiritual importance. However, in order to cultivate full religious personalities we have to respectfully acknowledge where we disagree. How else are we going to teach our children what we believe? For that, I think this book is helpful in articulating the points of divergence within Orthodoxy.
I found the literary concept, writing style, and overall plot in this quick read to be very interesting. While the real world is more complicated, this book shows -- in an entertaining way -- some of the major ideological differences within today's Orthodox community.
[I saw in the book an interpretation of the Baraisa (Avos 6:9) about only living in a place of Torah, that this is a wrong approach that was rejected. I tried but could not find any such interpretation in the classical commentaries. Does anyone know of such an interpretation or is this R. Angel's unique contribution?]
-R. Gil Student
"The Torah Was Not Given To Be Kept In A Closet": A Conversation With Rabbi Marc Angel
He always dreamed of writing a novel but never did. Now, after writing and editing 26 books, Rabbi Marc Angel - who served as rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue for 38 years - has finally published his first work of fiction, "The Search Committee" (Urim). The novel revolves around a yeshiva's search for a new head. Two candidates are considered for the position of rosh yeshiva: Rabbi Grossman, the haredi son of the former rosh yeshiva, and Rabbi Mercado, who is both Sephardic and Modern Orthodox.
Rabbi Angel, who holds a doctorate degree in Jewish history and is a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, retired last year to found the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals.
The Jewish Press recently spoke with Rabbi Angel.
The Jewish Press: Isn't The Search Committee unfair in depicting Rabbi Grossman as arrogant and Rabbi Mercado as the perfect gentleman?
Rabbi Angel: I think people who read it that way read it wrong. Rabbi Grossman is not arrogant; he's a zealot. His grandfather founded the yeshiva, his father was rosh yeshiva, and he gives the top shiur, so he feels there was no reason to have a search committee in the first place.
I think the book is very fair. It happens that I love Rabbi Mercado and I wish I could study in his yeshiva. But there are very strong cases made on both sides of the equation.
JP: You've been criticized on some Jewish blogs for having, in the words of one critic, "made the characters too stereotypical." What's your response?
Well I don't accept that either, of course. This is a work of fiction, it's a story. Very often readers, because of their own personal hashkafot, interject their personal feelings into the book and take sides, which is very interesting actually. But this is a story and readers should try to judge it as a literary work, not as a polemic.
JP: One character in the book complains that Yeshivas Lita "establishes one set of rules and takes no other traditions or opinions into consideration If you do not follow [the yeshiva's] way, you are wrong, ignorant, or religiously deficient. Students learn, subtly and not so subtly, to discount their own family traditions." Do you generally agree with these sentiments?
Yes. Torah Judaism as we understand it has been in business for about 3,500 years. It's flourished in many different countries, with many different languages and hashkafot, all of which are wonderful and all of which reflect aspects of this jewel we call the Torah. So to restrict the Torah to one of those hundreds of different versions or interpretations is false to the whole Jewish tradition. There were great chachamim in Yemen, Berlin, Izmir, Russia - all over the place. All of those people belong to the Torah community, all of those traditions are valid.
JP: So it's fair to say that you don't believe in yeshivas pressuring students to conform.
Not only that, I think it's mamash a sin. I'll give you an example. When I was in Yeshiva University we learned that when a man is saying Kiddush the people listening are not supposed to say "baruch hu u'varuch shmo" because it's considered a hefsek.
Now in our family we always said it. So when I came back home to Seattle the next summer I said, "Dad, we've always been doing it wrong." He said, "What do you mean, that's the way my parents and grandparents did it."
I said, "I can't help it, I learned the rules." So, very hurt, he said okay.
In 1992, a year after my father died, I bought a sefer called Minhagei HaChida. In it, it states that the Jews of Turkey say baruch hu u'varuch shmo, "v'ein mochim b'yadam [and we should not protest]." Not only that, in the notes of the book I learned that the Baba Sali, a Moroccan rabbi, says you must say baruch hu u'varuch shmo. In fact, the author writes that he was at the Baba Sali's house and when someone didn't answer baruch hu u'varuch shmo, he said you can't stay at my table!
In the meantime I had made our whole family change our tradition (we're from Turkish background) because the person who taught me didn't know, didn't even present that there was another possible point of view. I felt so bad. My father had already passed away, so how am I supposed to apologize?
JP: In the book, Mrs. Mercado says women no longer need to cover their hair. Is that your opinion?
My opinion is that there are various opinions on the subject. There's a wonderful teshuvah by Rav Yosef Messas (a great Moroccan rabbi and later chief rabbi of Haifa). He says that not only do married women not have to cover their hair but that they shouldn't cover their hair. First of all he's 100 percent against a sheitel because it looks better than a woman's own hair. And to cover with a snood, hat, etc. is not healthy, he says, because they will become less attractive to their husbands who constantly see women with uncovered hair in the streets.
Not too many poskim follow him; he's a yachid. But when I was a kid there certainly were many rabbis' wives who didn't cover their hair. So, I'm not giving a psak. I'm saying there are different opinions.
JP: Please talk about your new organization, the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals - its raison d'tre and some of its activities.
I wrote a lot about this on our website, jewishideas.org. But briefly, over the last number of years I have felt increasingly choked within the Orthodox world. Legitimate discussion has been limited and the rabbinical world's become more narrow in focus and more subject to authoritarianism.
We publish a journal, which is going to come out three times a year. We're also publishing books. For example, I'm currently preparing a book, probably for the high school level, on Orthodox Jewish religious leadership during the modern period. There will be Sephardim, Ashkenazim, men, women - and not in separate chapters - in order to show in a natural way that there were a lot of people with different positions and ideas that were relevant in creating Judaism as we know it. I want students to know from an early age that we have different models of leadership we can draw on.
JP: You also recently founded the International Rabbinical Forum with Rabbi Avi Weiss. Why?
The IRF was founded to create a safe forum for Orthodox rabbis. Safe means no reporters, no TV cameras - you can say what's on your mind without worrying if you're going to lose your job or be disinvited to a rabbinical conference.
We already have about 150 members and have had several conferences. I've never been to rabbinical conferences so powerful in my life. The conversations were so honest, heartfelt and sincere and touched on subjects which you never could ordinarily touch on.
JP: Switching to the book you wrote on Rabbi Benzion Uziel, the first Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel [d. 1953]
Rabbi Uziel once wrote that the holiness of the Jewish people is "not the holiness of asceticism and separation from life and the work of life. On the contrary, [it is] the holiness that is in life itself - to sanctify ourselves in thought and deed, to sanctify our landour individual and national beings, andthe entire world." This sounds a lot like Torah im Derech Eretz or Torah Umadda.
Look, Rabbi Uziel never went to university. Nonetheless, he had this open view on life; he read all kinds of things. He was very attuned to the needs of society at large, Jewish and non-Jewish. The Torah was not given to be kept in a closet; it was given to bring light to the whole world. And I think that spirit imbued him.
The Jewish Press
This ingenious novel focuses on the appointment of the "rosh yeshiva," the head of Yeshivas Lita, a Torah academy in New York. Founded in 1938 by Rabbi Leibel Grossman, a European Torah scholar who came to the United States in 1934, anticipating the carnage that was about to beset European Jewry. His school was soon recognized as the most outstanding center of Talmudic study in America. When Rabbi Grossman died in 1945, he was immediately succeeded by his thirty-year old son, Rabbi Yosef Grossman. The yeshiva flourished during the next forty years, growing from 125 students to six hundred. The faculty increased from five to twenty-five. The success of the institution was due in part to Rabbi Yosef Grossman's skill in attracting wealthy donors whose financial support led them to become more and more involved in managing the affairs of the yeshiva.
In 1985, Rabbi Yosef Grossman died and his son, Rabbi Shimson Grossman, assumed that he would become his father's successor, since he was generally perceived to be the leading Talmud scholar at Yeshivas Lita and "the greatest Torah giant of this generation." However, the contributors who had been organized into a board of trustees, decided to appoint a search committee to select the new head of the yeshiva. The thirteen interviews which the committee conducted constitute the material for the book.
Each interview is reported in the words of the people who appeared before the search committee.
It turns out that there is another candidate for the job, Rabbi David Mercado, a graduate of the yeshiva and now a faculty member. A Sephardic Jew from Portland, Oregon, he was a student at Reed College for two years before he began his Jewish studies. At Reed, he was encouraged to explore all aspects of human knowledge and while he enjoyed this, his determination to learn about Jewish tradition led him eventually to New York and Yeshivas Lita (which he modernizes by calling it "Yeshivat Lita"). As a student, he had trouble with Rabbi Shimson Grossman who later objected to Mercado's being ordained and hired as a teacher.
The two candidates make their statements to the search committee and the differences between them become quickly apparent. Rabbi Grossman wants to continue the tradition set by his father and grandfather while Rabbi Mercado wants to bring Torah study into the 20th century and to make the yeshiva "a bastion of intellectual freedom."
The candidates' wives appear before the committee, followed by two faculty members, two students, and three donors, one of whom is the chairman of the board of trustees. The frank and fascinating statements they make alternate between support for one candidate and the other. Advocacy for change and for maintaining the status quo is clearly expressed. Finally, the committee makes its decision and there are two final appearances by Rabbis Grossman and Mercado.
The distinguished author, Marc Angel, has written and edited more than two dozen books. This is his first venture into fiction. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue founded in 1654, the first synagogue in North America. Highly respected as an eminent Orthodox rabbi, Angel has skillfully encapsulated in his delightful novel the struggle between modernity and tradition in the Orthodox world specifically but in the general Jewish community as well. With a light touch, he has highlighted a profound problem for contemporary Jews. Everyone interested in Jewish life will find this book to be both enlightening and entertaining.
-Morton I. Teicher
National Jewish Post & Opinion
The Search Committee is a novel that effectively narrates the conflicting memories, successes and failures of the culture of "Yeshivot Lita," the Lithuanian yeshivot that provided the educational and philosophic foundations of American Orthodoxy. It is a delicately balanced work consisting of thirteen chapters, each one allowing a narrator and two passionate ideological antagonists to speak about what they believe are Judaism's fundamental principles. The author, Marc Angel, is well qualified to write a Torah novel, being an Orthodox rabbi trained in both Jewish studies and English literature.
In the tradition of the classical epic, the story covers the momentous week when the new Rosh Yeshiva (seminary head) of a specific seminary, "Yeshivas Lita," is selected. The choice of a fitting replacement impacts the future of Orthodoxy as well as the destiny of the yeshiva, whose name reflects the culture of Lithuanian Jewish tradition that excludes other interpretations of Judaism, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike. Similar to Tolstoy's War and Peace and Yehuda Amichai's Not of this Time, Not of this Place, this short novel presents two sides of a social and theological war with an alternating narration of clashing perspectives.
Just as Tolstoy and Amichai juxtapose macro and micro narratives, Angel presents a microcosmic narrative with macrocosmic implications. Unlike Herman Melville, Angel allows each character to speak with his unique voice en medias res, reflecting how the many voices of the past converge into a critical moment of the present.
The story begins with the each of the two contenders for reins of the yeshiva explaining why he should direct the school and, by implication, chart the future of Orthodox Judaism. The yeshiva's founder, R. Leibel Grossman, immigrated to New York via Berlin from Poland-the same route taken by the father and son tandem of Rabbis Moshe and Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Yeshiva University. R. Leibel's son, R. Yosef, succeeded his father, similar to how Rav Joseph Soloveitchik succeeded his father at Yeshiva University's Yeshivat Rabbenu Isaac Elchanan in 1941. But R. Joseph Soloveitchik studied philosophy in Berlin while this R. Yosef did not, indicating that we are reading a work of historical fiction whose characters are archetypes but not embodiments of actual historical personalities.
The "war and peace" epic pits R. Yosef Grossman's reactionary traditionalist son, R. Shimshon, against the modernizing wunderkind, R. David Mercado. The former's first name alludes to the arrogant, powerful, but ultimately blind biblical slayer of the Philistines. Grossman's ego, high-handedness and sense of entitlement are the most conspicuous aspects of his persona. He reveals these traits in his ironic first person narration in which he knowingly pleads his case and unknowingly broadcasts his own unworthiness.
Convinced that the Rosh Yeshiva office naturally belongs to him by dint of his pedigree and ultra-Orthodox credentials, Grossman's tone, temper and taste resemble the Philistine giant, Goliath. His family name, Grossman, is a double entendre, meaning "great man" or ultra-Orthodox gadol-or alternatively, a gross man who is self-absorbed, one who possesses a large memory but a mere pedestrian intellect. Mercado's pedigree consists of only of own prodigious accomplishments, and his freshly framed modernity is infused with the quest to recover the best of Jewish tradition.
Mercado's modern sensibility clashes with the religious, social and ideological conservatism that Shimshon Grossman regards as the essence of all that is Jewish and holy. Mercado's first name echoes the young biblical David-the least of Jesse's sons who ultimately earns the Kingship of Israel. His family name in Ladino refers to the first name of a child transferred from one family to another to avoid the angel of death-thus alluding to the frailty of the hero's origin and mission. The core presentation here is of two contending visions of Orthodox Judaism: the "tradition" policed by European culture conservatives who erect culture barriers and demand unconditional deference to Torah as they understand it vs. the new and exciting search for truth that uses modern historical and philological methodology to uncover the richness of Torah as balm for the human condition. For Grossman, Torah is by definition understood only by ideologically correct rabbis, and God's truth is ultimately unknowable to the world exclusively through them. Mercado sides with Maimonides, for whom Torah truth resides in the most reasonable interpretation rather than in the charisma of rabbinic authorities or the entitled pious reader. So it is for Mercado that Torah is discovered by decoding the holy text.
The second sequence of confessions presents the wives of the contending rabbis. Mrs. Grossman shares her husband sense of entitlement, talent and "modesty," which she understands as a badge of attire that allows her to proudly broadcast her membership in ultra-Orthodox society. Such modesty does not preclude her speaking negatively about the person of Mrs. Mercado, who acquired a secular education, studies poetry and is a partner, not an extension, of her husband. Mrs. Grossman calls attention to Mrs. Mercado's "immodesty"-her non-affiliation with haredi religion-because she refuses to wear a wig, a practice not uncommon among the wives of the leading 20th century rabbis of Lithuania, including Dr. Tanya Soloveitchik. (Mrs. Mercado believes that expensive aristocratic wigs are immodest in the extreme.) Mrs. Grossman is also scandalized by Mrs. Mercado's rumored lack of pedigree, with the reader alone aware that she is a convert, like the Biblical Ruth whose descendant was King David. According to Talmudic law, women's wigs may not be worn outside of a courtyard on the Sabbath, nor may converts be slighted (T.B. Shabbat 64b). Thus to the knowledgeable reader, Mrs. Grossman is depicted as adhering to social Orthodoxy but ignoring halakhic Orthodoxy.
The third sequence of narratives portrays faculty member Hazkel Gottlieb favoring Mercado. Gottlieb believes that current Orthodoxy is "off the path" of truth while the freshness of Mercado's perspective empowers the Torah to address contemporary realities. On the other hand, Mr. Shabsai Velt claims to know both men but is committed to the tradition of social stasus. And because modern values are evil, he rejects even well-intentioned modernizers like Mercado. This reflects the well known and often harsh debate tearing at the fabric of Orthodoxy today. According to "Culture Orthodoxy," as understood by R. Moses Sofer (Hatam Sofer), "the new is forbidden by Torah." But according to "Halakhah Orthodoxy" of Mishna Eduyot 2:2 and Bet yosef 1:1, only acts that are explicitly forbidden are forbidden by Torah.
In the fourth narrative sequence, two of the yeshiva's students contrast the conflicting Orthodox Judaisms from their own needs and existential conditions. Shammai Abelson's name reminds the reader that the able son, Grossman, should emerge as the rosh yeshiva. Like his namesake in the Mishna, Shammai is aristocratic, hard and autocratic. While recognizing Mercado's talents, Abelson views Grossman to be the more "authentic" of the two. Mercado is likeable and talented, but his innovations put at risk the traditions of social inertia and Orthodoxy's elites. (This is naturally contrasted with the dialect of Judaism's classical library, where it is the disinterested principle rather than the familiar expectation that is normative.) Chaim Boruch Haber is a devoted follower of Mercado and his innovative, engaging approach. For him, only Mercado's interpretation of Jewish tradition is ethical, critical, and anthropological-and applicable to everyday life. Ultimately it was only Mercado's approach that convinced Haber to remain in the yeshiva and Torah life.
The final narrative juxtaposes the guilt ridden, affluent and assimilated Kalman Rabinowitz (now Clyde Robinson) and the Modern Orthodox widow, Esther Neuhaus ["New House"]. Driven by shame for his secular life and his children's abandoning Judaism altogether, Robinson is a gelt-giver, but his largesse is only to soothe his guilt, an offering to assuage his own agony. He wants the Judaism that he rejected to remain unchanged as compensation for his own changes, both his business success and his Jewish failure. Neuhaus' family follows the German "Torah Im Derekh Erets" ideology and hence she objects to Yeshivas Lita's cultural ethic. Yeshivas Lita also imposes its style, (mis)pronunciations and biases upon all those it controls. More significantly, by creating elite learners who are incompetent as earners forces otherwise pious men to marry for wealth, not love, the yeshiva in turn yields a population of parasitic pietists.
According to Maimonides, only a select few may enjoy a life of uninterrupted learning. Others who learn but refuse to work and are committed to live off charity forfeit their portion in the world-to-come. Ironically, it is the non-observant Robinson who prefers low-brow uninformed traditionalism, while the old-moneyed, refined Orthodox Esther Neuhaus prefers the modern Mercado.
Angel's thin novel exposes the thick culture pulsating in contemporary Orthodoxy's conflict of cultures and ideals. The future of Yeshivas Lita, the future of Torah life and Orthodoxy in the 21st century hangs in the balance. While Mercado probes for future possibilities, Grossman reifies-indeed defies-the past that validates his status and legitimates his claims. Angel's work is a plea that all Jewish voices consistent with the Orthodox canon be rediscovered and revivified, not a polemic against religious and cultural conservatism. His novel is a literary prayer for the symphony of diverse Jewish voices to be heard.
-Alan J. Yuter
Interview with Rabbi Marc Angel on His Recently Published Book, The Search Committee
Kol HaMevaser: You recently wrote your first novel. Would you tell us a little bit about it?
Rabbi Angel: It was born one summer mornings as I was walking on the boardwalk of Long Beach. Around this time, YU was looking for a new president and established a "search committee," presenting the institution with the opportunity for self-reflection and self-definition. The book, The Search Committee, is about a Lithuanian-style yeshivah, "Yeshivat Lita," in search of a new head. And even though these kinds of yeshivot don't have search committees, this is fiction. There are two candidates for the position: Rav Shimshon, the established son of the previous Rosh Yeshivah, and the more off-beat Rav Mercado. These candidates represent different views of the yeshivah and its future path. The book is unique insofar as there is no narrative. Rather, the characters speak in their own words and voices. I made it this way because everyone has a voice and it is a sin to remain silent -- no one should be silenced. Interestingly, save the Chairman, the Search Committee itself remains silent, anonymous. Ultimately, the question is: does the Search Committee have a voice, or the right to one?
KHM: Why did you write this novel and who did you intend it for?
RMA: I wrote the novel for myself. Writers generally write for themselves. It's a self-expression that hopefully others will read. For example, a friend of mine is a frum, "Modern Orthodox" Muslim. He said that if I changed the names, it would be a Muslim story. He said, "Rabbi Angel, I want to kiss your hands." I sent the book to another friend, a Catholic priest, who remarked: "how do you know what goes on in the Church?" It's about how a traditional society can function in a modern world. The book explores the locking of horns between traditionalism and modernism, extremism and non-extremism.
KHM: How would you describe the difference of perspective between Rav Shimshon and Rav Mercado? What are themerits and shortcomings in each of these approaches?
RMA: Rav Shimshon is angry and authoritarian. Some say I've overdrawn him, but I don't think so. One fellow, who is a Rosh Yeshivah, said, "I couldn't stand him, but I know people like him who want to be boss." Yet, Rav Shimshon still represents a valid opinion -- to make our own world and insulate ourselves. He represents centuries of tradition, a system that works, and the realm of the beit midrash, which has life and represents a powerful and compelling world. Rav Shimshon is angry because of the laymen, thinking they have no right to judge him. This is a valid, although incorrect, view. Where does Rav Mercado come from? He is someone whose life starts in jeopardy. All odds are against him. He is from Oregon, attends Reed College, and is married to a giyyoret who doesn't cover her hair. Rav Yosef, Rav Shimshon's father and former Rosh Yeshivah, was a genius. He viewed Rav Mercado as the greatest proof of the Yeshivah's success: its ability to attract the greatest intellectuals and bring the vision to the outside.
KHM: I couldn't help but notice that all of Rav Shimshon's supporters refer to the institution as Yeshivas Lita, while Rav Mercado's adherents call it Yeshivat Lita. Is this coincidental?
RMA: No, it's part of the different visions they represent. Rav Shimshon wants this school not to touch on anything of the modern world; the Yeshivah's roots are European; they are old and run deep. The tav in "Yeshivat" is modern. Look at Artscroll -- it's frum. They don't want to adopt new pronunciations, which is why they write "Yisroel" and not "Yisrael". They can't deal with the modern era. Rav Mercado and his followers say, "It's a new world; let's speak Hebrew." Rav Shimshon says, "Don't open the windows," while Rav Mercado recognizes that the Torah wasn't given to be a hothouse for plants -- the Yeshivah should be part of the world and cope with it. And not how the world was one hundred years ago, but how it is today. He says that we can't be afraid -- but yes, it's a challenge. The nagging question in the book is: "is Rav Shimshon really right? Maybe we do need to be hidden?" I sympathize with him, but think he's wrong.
KHM: Rav Shimshon and his followers all seem caustic, even angry, whereas Rav Mercado's devotees are presented as more agreeable. Are you trying to communicate something about the schools of thought they represent by molding their personalities in these ways?
RMA: I don't know if I accept that. It's only true of Rav Shimshon and his wife because they find themselves in an offensive setting, insulted to go before the Search Committee. I think this is because in order to develop an insulated philosophy, one must denigrate the outside world and speak of it as hedonistic and sexual. It's a defense mechanism: if the outside world is not bad, then why not be a part of it?
KHM: A theme throughout the novel is the notion of independence in thought, dress, and lifestyle. How much independence can there really be in a religion that requires, in every aspect of life, submission to Heaven and Halakhah?
RMA: We learn, we have sources, we study with open minds. God gave the Torah to each individual; no one has a monopoly on truth: shiv'im panim la-Torah. There are boundaries, but there is tremendous latitude. Rav Shimshon thinks these boundaries are narrow, while Rav Mercado tries to expand them. There isn't only one way. Halakhah is like a locus in geometry and not a point -- there is a range. People ask a question and think there is one answer, but that's false. God knows the one answer, but in His humor He gave us a locus. Rav Shimshon wants to give a pesak, whereas Rav Mercado wants to give a range of correct answers. Historically, Rav Mercado is correct.
KHM: Rav Mercado seems to represent a more sensitive, open Judaism. The dangers in this approach are obvious. How ought one to know where to draw the line in embracing the outside world and all that it represents?
RMA: It is dangerous, correct. Rav Mercado believes in teaching Torah thoroughly, thereby inoculating himself from the dangers of the outside. He believes that under proper Orthodox leadership, people can be independent enough to make the right decisions. It is a slippery slope, but becoming frozen and fossilized is also dangerous -- it doesn't fulfill God's grand vision at Sinai. The best way is to face the world with strength -- to train the Yeshivah students so that they have the ability to cope with the world.
KHM: The novel suggests that the power of synagogue rabbis has waned while that of Yeshivah rabbis grown. Why might this be problematic and who is to blame for this?
RMA: I don't think anyone is to blame. There are sociological patterns at play -- it's not just Jews. In their search for authenticity, wisdom, and knowledge, people think that if someone is learning in a yeshivah they know more than a synagogue rabbi. Rabbis are denigrated as glorified social workers and not viewed as knowledgeable in Torah. This view is widespread, and synagogue rabbis have played into this. A rabbi should spend the first hours of every day just learning. That's why I write books. Torah is our fuel; without it, we fizzle out. We must constantly replenish it. Rabbis have failed at this -- at devoting themselves to Torah. It's true that the new generation of rabbis is more devoted to learning than the older generation. Nevertheless, I was once at an RCA conference when a Rosh Yeshivah remarked that "rabbis must bring shalom to communities; the real questions should come to me." This is reprehensible. It's just the opposite of what a yeshivah is supposed to accomplish. Yeshivot should train their students to make decisions by themselves and keep them learning Torah. The Rosh Yeshivah should only be a back-up. When I would ask Rabbi Hayyim David ha-Levi, former Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo questions, he would have me send my teshuvah and would then look it over and tell me its strengths and weaknesses. This is the way it should be.
KHM: It's hard not to pick up on the male-dominated storyline; after all, it is about a Lithuanian yeshivah. Still, certain characters advocate for an expanded, even emancipated, role for women in Judaism. What do you think is the ideal place for women within all areas of the community and how might this be achieved?
RMA: I don't have the ideal place. The issue of Orthodoxy and women exists because the world has transformed. Today, women study Talmud; this used to not be the case. But you have a glass ceiling; you can only go so far. We've created a dynamic by educating our women, and we don't know how to deal with it. We don't have an answer yet. I'm in favor of opening options: women's tefillah groups, women's Megillah readings, and women as members on boards. In our synagogue (Congregation Shearith Israel), we have Lynne Kaye filling the position of Assistant Congregational Leader -- she does everything a rabbi would do except for the ritual aspects. Sure, these developments may be a dead-end, but how do we know unless we experiment? These boundaries -- how flexible are they? A pesak on these matters would freeze the process. We must see how things unfold.
KHM: Is it wishful thinking to suggest, as the novel does, that the Judaism which Rav Mercado represents will eventually overpower that of Rav Shimshon?
RMA: I disagree with this assessment of the novel's direction. However, Rav Mercado is a great man. He loses this battle, but his life can't be over. I'm not sure he'll succeed, but I hope he does. His success now is that the book was published -- that's his greatest victory. This plants the seeds and makes people think. If peoples' assumptions are challenged, there is intellectual commotion, which holds tremendous potential for the future, for change.
In "The Search Committee," Rabbi Marc Angel explores dangerous territory. Grappling with the mine-ridden terrain of Orthodox Judaism, Angel attempts to compare and contrast Modern Orthodoxy with its Haredi counterpart. The overarching message must be that of nuance, and one must wonder whether it is possible for him to be successful at so difficult a task. While his book sadly suffers from the flaws of generalization and stereotyping, it is a significant first effort that will allow others to follow in his path.
"The Search Committee" documents the ideological struggle between two individuals, the Haredi Rav Shimshon Grossman and the Modern Orthodox Rav David Mercado. Struggling to succeed the late Rav Yosef Grossman, Shimshon's father, as head of Yeshivas Lita, the two offer extremely different perspectives in terms of their views on education, the pursuit of knowledge and their personal lives. A search committee has convened to appoint the next Rosh Yeshiva, and the two contenders must present themselves and explain why they are the best option. Others, including wealthy donors and students, argue for or against their case as well.
As with any work of this nature, the novel falls prey to depicting extremes rather than nuanced people. Since the characters are symbols, they take the form of philosophical constructs rather than human beings. The Rabbis are not placed on equal footing. The Modern Orthodox Rabbi is married to a geir (convert) who is a college graduate and does not cover her hair, and the implication is that the Haredi world would not be as welcoming of geirim. The Haredi Rabbi is portrayed as overly aggressive and firmly mired in his backward beliefs. He lacks the articulate, relatively soft-spoken demeanor of Mercado. However, Mercado goes too far with his questions and search for innovation within the boundaries of the law. Angel depicts one interchange in which there is a Talmud portion dealing with a discussion about a chicken whom the shochet (ritual slaughterer) killed, which strangely did not seem to have a heart. The Talmud cites two opinions of two sages: either the shochet had mistakenly dropped the heart, or perhaps the heart was very small and so he could not find it. The other rabbi stated that it is possible that God created the chicken without a heart. It is at this point that Mercado laughs because, "I thought it ridiculous to suggest that the chicken had been created without a heart. Obviously the heart was simply lost or misidentified by the shochet" (Angel 31).
Mercado's laughing at a Talmudic text is hardly supported by philosophical Modern Orthodoxy, in which Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik clearly states that one must support and believe the words of Chazal. If this is meant to be a depiction of the Modern Orthodox scholar, it is a poor one.
All of the statements in the book require further elaboration and explanation. In an impassioned address, Rav Mercado explains, "I would like this yeshiva to be a bastion of intellectual freedom. I want students to think, to ask questions, to search for truth. I want them to know not only Torah and Talmud, but the wisdom of the nations as well. I know that my own Torah knowledge has been powerfully strengthened by my worldly studies. We want our students to be exposed to art and science, to world literature and music" (Angel 37). This is an entire philosophical approach that has been argued by countless people in countless climes. Everyone gives a different reason for permitting secular studies, and everyone agrees that there are borders, though they may differ as to the parameters. For Mercado to claim that every student should be taught secular studies simply because he himself has been "powerfully strengthened" by them is ridiculous.
To make matters worse, Angel documents the disputes between the contenders as revolving around petty matters. In one spiteful dialogue, Mrs. Leah Grossman, the Haredi contender's wife, takes Mrs. Sultana Mercado to task, not because she breaks halakha, but simply because she despises her. "She is an outsider. I have heard plenty of things about her background, but I naturally keep these things to myself. I am not a gossip or slanderer. But I can assure you-knowing what I know-that she doesn't belong here and has never belonged here" (Angel 45), she states. This is not a critique of Sultana's value system; if anything, it is a portrayal of Leah Grossman's character- in which she comes across as a snide, haughty and intolerant person.
To write this work properly, Angel would have to depict two evenly-matched characters, both soft-spoken, both sweet, both gentle and willing to listen, and have them explain, according to halakha, the ways in which their views differ. They would be respectful of one another, and stand before the search committee eager to defend their points of view rather than simply slander their opponent. Currently, the novel is simply an excuse for those with differing views to hurl insults at one another, claiming that each party violates halakha without offering any sources or otherwise supporting that contention. Indeed, it does us in the Orthodox realm a disservice, for what if one were to read it as an introduction to the Haredi-Modern Orthodox debate? What impression would be offered up of our community and of our contentions with one another? Surely it is not all a matter of what we feel to be true; surely we believe we are right for more reasons than simply because we would like ourselves to be. And hence, this novel falls short, for while it superficially deals with the debate, it does not say anything of substance. Angel does not explain the reason behind the differing views; he only demonstrates that these views exist. While it is an important first work in this genre, ultimately, "The Search Committee" fails to find the truth.
I've been meaning to write about Rabbi Marc D. Angel's new novel, "The Search Committee," for about three weeks now. The rabbi was kind enough to send me a copy of whose words I devoured quickly and with delight. To be honest, the book is an incredibly quick read. I do find it interesting, though, that his name appears on the book as "Marc Angel" and not "Rabbi ..." But maybe I'm just nitpicking! So first, some background on the rabbi.
Rabbi Angel is the rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel of New York City (a Sephardi congregation), and is the founder of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals -- a group which I highly recommend you look into. They put out oodles of interesting papers and responsa about issues facing Orthodox Judaism, not to mention the greater Jewish community. Rabbi Angel is the author and editor of more than two dozen books, and this is his first work of fiction! How exciting for him and for us, eh?
So where to begin? The story revolves around a series of testimonials issued to the search committee at a prominent Yeshiveh. The most recent rosh yeshiva has died, and his replacement is to be made by this search committee. There are two rabbis in the running -- one the son of the former head of the school who is essentially staunchly similar to his father and maintaining the present order, and the other a younger rabbi who comes across as very modern in his Orthodoxy. We hear from each rabbi, their wives, students, philanthropists who give to the school, yet interestingly -- we NEVER hear from the committee itself. What a juxtaposition for the book to be titled as such and yet the committee never graces our presence.
Many of the characters are entirely believable, their testimonies sounding as though they were truly coming from the mouths of real individuals. Other characters, including (in my opinion) the deceased rosh yeshiva's son, seem almost unreal in their outrageousness. I do appreciate that the characters -- both those believable and perhaps not so much -- are deeply encamped in their Jewishness. As characters are giving their backgrounds and how they arrived at the present situation, we get long, meandering stories with often unnecessary details -- I can picture the traditional rabbi and his wife at the meeting, as if standing at the pulpit, carrying on and on with over-emphasizing hand gestures and a deep accent. The book is written very much so that we can sympathize with one party over the other, I think, and it is quite obvious that there is a message here about the old versus the new, tradition as it evolves, and the world of the yeshiveh and Orthodoxy in general -- as it accepts outsiders, new ideas and approaches, and makes decisions about the future of how it schools its children.
But to be honest, the book's outcome absolutely surprised me, and I think that for those who take the chance to pick the book, you also will be surprised. The book seems to lean one way -- it is cut and dry that there are two definite sides of Orthodoxy here -- but the outcome chosen by the search committee left me feeling perplexed and almost uncomfortable. But perhaps that is Rabbi Angel's intention, and if so, then I applaud him for a well-composed book that questions what we know and what we think we know.
I think anyone and everyone should pick up this book. I imagine Rabbi Angel has unique experiences that allow him to assist us in delving into the world of the yeshiva and the schisms between more traditional Orthodoxy and more modern Orthodoxy. It is, as I said, an incredibly quick read. So nu? Pick it up already!
In his first work of fiction, Rabbi Marc Angel creates a dynamic stage for the competing worlds in an Orthodox learning institution. The setting is the Board Room of an established yeshiva created in the philosophical learning style of the "old school" Lithuanian/Polish yeshivot. The story unfolds through a series of interviews conducted by the Search Committee as it looks for the next head of the Torah Academy. Two candidates -- from opposite ends of the Orthodox spectrum -- are being considered for the position. The contrasting interviews disclose the deep-seated belief of each group that it has the unequivocal formula for how to live the "correct" Orthodox life.
The heated tone is set from the very first interview, given by the grandson of the first head rabbi of the yeshiva. His astonishment that a search committee would have been established to choose someone other than himself, who was groomed for this position, reveals the obdurate attitude toward change that the established Orthodox community lives by. Rabbi Marc Angel, who himself is currently at the forefront of a similar debate within the Modern Orthodox community, uses the story to promote his agenda, exposing the staid and stoic attitude of the right wing Orthodox community. The contrasting points of view given in the book decidedly favor Marc Angel's more modern leniency. However, the story ends with a surprising twist. Perhaps Rabbi Angel's book will encourage the long overdue open discourse that is necessary between the right wing Orthodox community and its more modern counterpoint.
Jewish Book World
In this intriguing new work, Rabbi Marc Angel's first piece of fiction, the author describes the clash between the traditional yeshiva world of a rebbe and the more modern approach of a young Sephardic rabbi. The story revolves around the work of a search committee organized for the purpose of selecting a new rosh yeshiva for a traditional Lithuanian-style yeshiva. The old rebbe has died without specifying a successor. His son, a talmid hakham of the old school, finds himself competing for the position against a newcomer -- a vital young rabbi who had been mentored by the old rebbe. Whereas the son is zealous in his defense of the status quo, the young Sephardi represents a more innovative approach, reaching out to the world beyond the yeshiva.
In a manner reminiscent of the pairs of advocates found in the Talmud, the committee is presented with pairs of witnesses. One of the two supports the traditional rebbe while the other one favors the outlook and methods of the newcomer. Issues ranging from the covering of women's hair to the offering of tsedakah to non-Jews are examined, as the committee evaluates the views and the impact on the community of the two rabbis. Almost imperceptibly the tension builds to a climax: the search committee must decide which of these two approaches is appropriate for the future. It's a gripping conclusion that keeps the reader engaged to the very last page.
-Randall C. Belinfante
Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter
Presidential elections are one way to choose a chief executive. (Leave aside, leave aside, whether they always produce the best result.) But there are other worlds and ways of life, and they have chiefs - and politics - too. In the Orthodox Jewish world, especially the "black hat" (or "ultra-Orthodox") community, the key institution is probably the yeshiva. A yeshiva is a Torah institute, usually a kind of combined high school and college. Talmud study is the heart of the curriculum. The head of an important yeshiva is always an influential rabbi and talmudic authority in the Orthodox world.
(I spent some time at a Yeshiva when I was a kid. After you've studied Talmudic law in Hebrew and Aramaic when you're 15, law school in English in your 20s holds no terrors. But that's another story...)
Marc Angel, long-time rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York, has published a fascinating novel, The Search Committee, about choosing the head of a yeshiva. It's fiction, but it's really an inside look at the Orthodox world. If you know that world, you'll recognise the issues, the divisions, and the cross currents; and some of the human types. If you don't, the book will be all the more revealing. "Black hat" Orthodox Jews are a real presence in American life, but very few people - in fact, very few non-Orthodox Jews - have any idea what their lives are like, or what issues preoccupy and sometimes divide them.
The leadership contest in the story is between a hereditary - and brutally authoritarian - traditionalist and an unusual sephardic candidate with a more open, humane temper. I was talking with an Orthodox friend about the book, an academic who knows the Orthodox world intimately, and I murmured something about finding the "traditionalist" candidate almost too horrible to be believable, a monster. My friend, who had read the story (and admires it) immediately said that the "villain" is completely believable, a readily recognisable type, with plenty like him in the real world. It's the sephardic "hero" who is harder to imagine, said my friend, as a candidate to head a major yeshiva.
Read The Search Committee. It's a window into a way of life.
The Right Coast blog
"Angel's novel, The Search Committee, is at once modest and harrowing. Its design is charming in its simplicity. It is clear and short -- its hundred and fifty pages are a quick absorbing read. But the book's very unpretentiousness makes it all the more unnerving; the novel is a shocker on its own quiet terms."
"Would that every rabbi write a novel or at least something that tells us who they are and what they think! People who have been J-blogging will find much of it to be old hat, but of course not everyone has nitpicked these very issues over and over and over again. I must say that despite some problematic portrayals and misperceptions of the yeshiva world, the book succeeds in accomplishing what it sets out to do, which is to analyze a big divide in contemporary Orthodoxy, and to take a side."
-On the Main Line blog