- Debating Modern Orthodoxy at Yeshiva College:The Greenberg–Lichtenstein Exchange of 1966
The history of modern Orthodoxy in the United States is yet to be written. When it is, the Greenberg–Lichtenstein exchange of 1966 is certain to figure in the account. Greenberg is Irving ("Yitz") Greenberg, then a wildly popular associate professor of history at Yeshiva College, now a leading Orthodox avant-gardist on the American Jewish scene.1 Lichtenstein is Aharon Lichtenstein, then a much-respected Talmudist at Yeshiva's rabbinic seminary, now a leading, centrist Orthodox spokesman residing in Israel.2 The exchange appeared in the pages of The Commentator, the Yeshiva College newspaper, as part of a series "about YU, its schools, faculty, and students." While modest in its own terms, the dialogue/debate between the two men pointed to a serious fissure within the ranks of modern Orthodoxy, both at Yeshiva and beyond, that would eventuate, farther down the road, in an actual split. Greenberg's trajectory took him to the outer limit of Orthodoxy, while Lichtenstein remained firmly anchored in the Orthodox mainstream.
In 1966, Yeshiva College was very much a modern Orthodox institution, seeking to create a bridge between Jewish tradition and the modern world. Yeshiva's proclaimed ideal of Torah U-Maddah (Torah and general culture) found practical expression in a dual curriculum given over to Talmud study in the morning and science and the humanities in the afternoon. This was labeled "synthesis," and Greenberg and Lichtenstein were seen to embody it to the full. Both men were rabbis and Harvard Ph.D.s, a magical combination that propelled them to the front rank of the Yeshiva faculty. To the students who flocked to their classes, Greenberg and Lichtenstein were living proof that it was possible to be Orthodox and modern at the same time.
Lichtenstein was very much a Yeshiva insider, with strong personal ties to the school. Born in 1933, he graduated from Yeshiva College in 1953 and received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva's seminary in [End Page 113] 1959. Mention also needs to be made in this context of the fact that Lichtenstein was the son-in-law of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the undisputed leader of modern Orthodoxy in the United States, whose institutional base was Yeshiva. Upon receiving his doctorate in English literature in 1957, Lichtenstein taught the subject for several years at Stern College, Yeshiva's women's division, before moving on to a position as a star Talmudist at Yeshiva's rabbinic seminary.
Greenberg, likewise born in 1933, arrived on the scene at Yeshiva in 1959, when, as a newly minted Ph.D., he joined the history faculty. Greenberg had done his undergraduate work at Brooklyn College (B.A., 1953), while studying for the rabbinate at the Beth Joseph Seminary (ordination, 1953). Coming to Yeshiva as an outsider may have freed Greenberg to view developments at the school with a more critical eye. In any case, Greenberg quickly established himself as the leading critic on the left of Yeshiva's brand of modern Orthodoxy. Virtually overnight, Greenberg became a campus celebrity.
This brings us to the Greenberg–Lichtenstein exchange. Clearly, this is something very far removed from a formal debate. The exchange unfolded in stages, taking an irregular course. It began when Greenberg used a lengthy interview with a Commentator reporter to sharply criticize contemporary Orthodoxy and put forward his own program for Orthodox revitalization. The flavor of the interview is well captured in the title of the piece as it appeared on April 28, 1966: "Dr. Greenberg Discusses Orthodoxy, YU, Viet Nam, and Sex." In the very next issue—May 12, 1966—Greenberg was back in the pages of The Commentator, this time with an enormously long letter to the editor in which he responded to the "furor" caused by his interview. Again, the title of the piece gets it right: "Greenberg Clarifies and Defends His Views." All this was too much for Lichtenstein, who rushed to pen "Dear Yitzchak," a lengthy open letter to Greenberg in the June 2, 1966, issue of The Commentator, in which he chided him for his "objectionable" stance on a number of halakhic and theological...