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Religion and Reason in Dialogue

Straus Center Programs, Seminars and Lectures Promote Interdisciplinary Study of Jewish and Western Thought

What happens at the intersection of faith and reason?

It’s a complicated question whose depths have fascinated Jewish and gentile thinkers alike for thousands of years. Is it possible to be a religious intellectual? How does faith inform the scientific and philosophic discoveries of our time, and how do those discoveries in turn affect religious beliefs and lifestyles? Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought is committed to providing forums for Jews in the modern era to continue that conversation and arrive at their own understanding of the concept of “Torah Umadda”: the balance of Judaic and worldly values.

Naom Safier Noam Safier, a Straus Center Fellow

"In undergraduate courses, seminars for semicha [rabbinic ordination] students, adult education and public events, the Straus Center has brought about the bridging of Torah with the world in every part of Yeshiva," said Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director of the Straus Center. "In just the past year, students in our classes have approached, though a Torah lens, the fields of political thought, American history, law, Zionism, philosophy, art and medicine. We are so proud of having made the vision of Moshael Straus a reality: for Torah Umadda to never be merely a motto, but rather something that can be experienced throughout Yeshiva and the larger Yeshiva University community."

This fall, that includes a new undergraduate fellowship directed by Dr. Aaron Segal, assistant professor of philosophy at Yeshiva College; a semicha seminar for select YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary students taught by Rabbi Dr. David Shabtai, a fellow of RIETS’ Wexner Kollel Elyon; and multiple courses at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women exploring the Center’s themes.

Together with YU’s Center for the Jewish Future and Congregation Shearith Israel, the Straus Center is also hosting a Community Beit Midrash Program at the YU Museum in the form of a six-week interdisciplinary seminar, “The Image and the Idea,” which discusses art history and Jewish thought.

“The Straus Center’s mission of bringing Jerusalem and Athens into conversation is at the core of many of my courses, in which we critically examine themes at the heart of the Jewish and Western philosophic traditions: community, tradition, law, moral truth, love, family, politics, and other concerns that are central to the human experience,” said Dr. Matt Holbreich, assistant professor of philosophy, whose Stern College course, “Great Political Thinkers,” is offered through the Straus Center. “To engage with the great works of Western civilization, from Plato to Nietzsche, is to deepen one’s understanding of the various responses to problems confronted by both Jewish and non-Jewish culture, and to experience the challenge of the Western world and be able to understand and respond to it in sophisticated and nuanced ways.”

Undergraduates are currently taking advantage of three other courses being offered by the Straus Center—“Judaism and Democracy,” co-taught by Rabbi Soloveichik and Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Kressel and Efrat Family University Professor of Jewish Thought; “Comparative American and Talmudic Law,” an honors course taught by Professor Adina Levine; and an honors Jewish philosophy course on the thought of the medieval poet and thinker Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, also taught by Rabbi Soloveichik—as well as the fellowship, a selective program bringing high-achieving undergraduate students together to study the topic of “Faith and Reason.”

“We discuss the question whether we can be responsible, authentic and reasonable believers in the absence of any articulable justification for our faith, drawing on such thinkers as William James, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Soren Kierkegaard, Rav Nahman of Bratslav, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, C.S. Lewis, and the Hafetz Hayim,” said Segal. “We will also have four guest lecturers, all prominent intellectual historians, who will offer us some historical perspective on how the issue of faith and reason was conceptualized, if at all, by Jews in various periods. It's a great opportunity because it encourages thinking deeply about faith and enables students to do so together with an intellectually curious and religiously committed group of peers.”

For Noam Safier, a sophomore majoring in psychology, the fellowship has been a grounding experience. “Judaism is a beautiful and meaningful religious system,” said Safier. “However, it can also be obscure and incredibly esoteric, especially when considering God. I believe that by tackling the issues that Jewish philosophy does, it allows us to take an intellectual approach to this system that can sometimes be so foreign to us.”

Miriam Pearl Klahr, another Straus fellow, who is majoring in biology, felt similarly. “As a Modern Orthodox Jew, living a life of faith lies at the core of my day to day activities,” she said. “And though much emphasis is often placed on analyzing which actions qualify as acts of faith and how, it is less common to spend time discussing what faith is. I think understanding the premise behind one’s religion and not just the details can deeply enhance one’s Jewish life; the Straus fellowship is an important program that creates a community of students ready to honestly analyze basic religious principles through exposure to different philosophical works.”

20131106_YU_Antonin_Scalia_0249 Left to right: Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and attorney and YU alum Nathan Lewin at a 2013 Straus Center event.

For semicha students in Shabtai’s Straus Center RIETS seminar, “Jewish Perspectives in Bioethics,” that analysis is critical not only because it helps crystallize their own ideological beliefs, but because it prepares them as future spiritual guides to help congregants navigate complex and often emotionally-fraught decisions about modern medicine and Jewish values. “The seminar is important because it exposes our future rabbinic leaders to significant advances and discoveries in science and medicine that have important and wide-ranging intersections with Jewish law and thought,” said Shabtai. “We are looking at issues from their broad perspectives, with a focus on the ‘larger issues’ that they raise as well as analyzing bioethical approaches to these same questions and issues.”

Other public events and lectures designed to provide a broader Jewish audience with a taste of the Straus Center’s undergraduate dialogues are in the works, such as a “Great Conversation” public event on December 17 featuring columnist George Will and New York University President John Sexton to discuss “Baseball, Tradition and God.”

“The idea behind these public events is to enliven our appreciation for Western thought by looking at these topics through the prism of Torah and bringing in public intellectuals and politicians to speak who have wrestled with these issues, whether it’s United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and YU alum and prominent lawyer Mr. Nathan Lewin wrestling with the issue of church and state or Senator Cory Booker discussing the role of faith in the public square or Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks discussing how he utilized Jewish texts to inform prime ministers’ multicultural agenda,” said Dr. Stu Halpern, assistant director of the Straus Center, referencing three large-scale public events the Straus Center has organized over the past few years. “We want to create and help maintain a sustained, engaged intellectual Jewish community.”

In addition, the Straus Center recently announced the creation of a Tikvah Fellowship, which will support a postdoctoral fellow whose work relates to Torah and Western Thought as they spend between one and three years teaching and doing research at Yeshiva while serving as a resident scholar at the Straus Center. "Through this generous gift by the Tikvah Fund, we will be able to attract to Yeshiva a gifted future academic star who will be at the heart of all of the Straus Center's intellectual activities and play a strong role in fulfilling our most cherished charge: the teaching of students,” said Rabbi Soloveichik.