Talmudic Expert Takes to Facebook to Share Broader Communal and Religious Ideas
A rabbi who has taught Talmud for years and is an expert in it has been publishing essays on Facebook to spark broader discussions. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz has been using the medium of Facebook to post pictures and accompany them with essays of his thoughts on broad issues relating to Judaism and the Jewish community, many times quite provocatively.
Katz, who grew up as a Satmar hassid (and kicked out of a Satmar yeshivah for possessing a copy of the Tanya/Likkutei Amarim), used to lead a large daf yomi shiur for over over nine years in Brooklyn before moving on teach Talmud at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) for the past decade. Earlier this year, he began as the first-ever director of the Lindenbaum Center for Halakhic Studies at YCT and he took on a pulpit in Brooklyn in addition to his teaching duties (for more on the latter position and his religious journey, see this article in last month’s Forward).
Having begun to post these essays a year ago with an essay discussing heresy-hunting in Orthodox circles (opening with “Heresy hunting Olympic season is upon us…” and concluding with “One can’t help but wonder if the Chareidi chorus isn’t but a smokescreen, covering up the real problems plaguing their own community”), Katz initially did not begin to post his mini essays accompanied with pictures until earlier this year. Most of the posts concern the Orthodox world, especially Modern Orthodoxy in America (e.g.: this one: “The tragedy of MO (at least the American version) is that at its inception its leadership adopted a litvish/rationalist ethos.
Consequently, law, logic and reason became the sole arbiters for what’s acceptable or not acceptable, endorsed or not endorsed. In the halakhic context it means that values and practices have meaning only if they originated within the narrow confines of halakha.), although they touch on other topics, as well, such as his assessment of this year’s cinematic release of “Noah”.
Katz frequently writes bold assessments, such as this one from two months ago:
The last few months saw the publishing of a slew of biographies of prominent dead Rabbis.
One suspects that this explosion of biographies taps into an intellectual emptiness felt in our collective zeitgeist.
Most if not all of the denominations have been devoid of creative and courages leadership for many years now. Ultra-Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodoxy, as well as the Conservative Movement has not had a person of intellectual stature at its helm for a while.
In the absence of live intellectual genius, we write books which attempt to metaphorically reincarnate the dead ones. Taken together, these books express a collective yearning for the days of yore when ideas reigned supreme.
Many of his posts have generated a lot of discussion, such as his “God (talk) needs a tune-up” post from last month in which he begins his post with
Our religious discourse is outdated, stuck in medieval paradigms. We still talk about “ought” when “ought” language no longer resonates with your average 21st century intellectual. We need to update it!
Should needs to be replaced with could. I long ago made that change.
I don’t believe in God merely because I have to, I believe in Him because I want to, because belief in a transcendent Being adds meaning to life.
Heresy, frankly, isn’t our biggest problem. The real tragedy in our community is the rampant am ha’aratzot. Few people in the MO community know enough Torah to create a community that’s knowledgeable, passionate and committed. Torah knowledge generates halakhic commitment, scholarship breeds religious inspiration. Lack of religious certainty is hurting us much less than the lack of Jewish knowledge.
In the former, one such gem is
I finally figured it out. The Chareidi world is floundering: The attrition rate is skyrocketing, Rabbinic leadership is dissipating, and sociologically they have become completely dysfunctional and irrelevant. That Chareidi void will eventually be filled by the right-wing of Modern Orthodoxy, they will gradually become the new chareidim. That in turn will create a Modern Orthodox void. Into that breach will come Open Orthodoxy. Open Orthodoxy will eventually become the new Modern Orthodoxy.
While he frequently writes about Modern Orthodoxy, he also frequently critiques haredi society, which garner a lot of attention from haredim or former haredim. Posts on communal debates, Katz said in a recent phone interview, tend to generate the most discussion.
Katz took to Facebook as a publishing medium for his thoughts, since “Facebook seems more like a neutral territory” of a medium insofar as communal politics are concerned. Also, “it is where the younger generation is having their conversations and, somehow, the establishment doesn’t have a monopoly on it.” Katz finds it to be an “incredible opportunity to put out a voice that is neither being hindered nor filtered,” and that it is “much easier to convey a Modern Orthodox approach on Facebook without getting shouted down.”
Taking an unabashedly Modern Orthodox approach with his views, “it has been exciting” for him since he began posting his ideas. One thing he hopes to do with this is to “show a different face of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and of Modern Orthodoxy – passionate and progressive.”
Using Facebook as a way “to engage in conversation and get people’s thoughts and ideas has been an incredible experience”, Katz said. It has been, “an incredible opportunity to have diverse conversations” and has also allowed him to make friendships with lots of people through it.
His essays are always attached to a picture on Facebook, which certainly grabs someone’s eyes, but the pictures aren’t just there to grab attention. “Art is an underutilized medium for teaching Jewish values and for Jewish education – it is something that is not available in an oral encounter.”
When he decided to begin posting these essays on Facebook, “it wasn’t a thought-out methodical attempt” to post them to Facebook, rather, Katz said, “it was students telling me to get my voice out there.” Indeed, he said that, “for the last couple of years, the students of the yeshivah were using Facebook and were taking stands on important issues and, often times, I would encourage them to take a stand – to be courageous and to take a part in the larger community discourse. In general, there was a sense that I was teaching the students to be courageous and confident in their beliefs and to put it out there and to benefit from their Torah.” However, he said, “as much as there is a value in teaching it, there is something to be said for teaching by example.”
Katz used to try to be involved and respond to all of the comments, but has stepped back and checked the comments less frequently, so as to allow for a greater discussion amongst others to take place. “I want to put out ideas and let them percolate rather than getting involved in a back-and-forth with all of the comments.” It is also great for the commenting, since there are no interruptions for people to be involved in the conversations.
To follow Rabbi Katz and read up on what he is writing, you can do so by following him on Facebook.