By Yonatan Gordon
After reading recent articles about the state of Modern Orthodoxy, some of my own experiences started bubbling back to the surface.
For most of my school-age years I attended public schools. But as I had already begun to grow in observance, following in my two older brothers’ footsteps, I decided to attend Yeshiva University in the fall of 1997.
At that time, I took everything at face value. So when I was told about Torah Umadda (Torah and natural sciences), I thought that the letter “vav” (and) joining these two words together indicated that these two extremes were somehow reconciled. But seeing that the secular subjects had little or nothing to do with the Jewish ones, not being able to reconcile the two, my fervor and excitement for Jewish observance began to wane.
Only years later, after much more searching, did I discover what was missing. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh begins his classic treatise entitled “The Torah Academy” with the following gematria: Torah (תורה = 611) = art ( אמנות = 497) and science ( מדע = 114) combined.
Since “art” is the one word that isn’t presently included as part of the Torah Umadda paradigm, I thought to bring some stories from my time at Y.U. related to the importance of encouraging artistic expression according to the Torah.
Pi The Movie
Not long into my freshman year, during November 1997, a friend of mine would excitedly tell of the happenings that were taking place during the filming of a local independent film. In addition to the director being Jewish, the actual topic of the film brought themes from the Kabbalah. Additionally, as it was a small project, anyone could walk up, say hello to the crew, watch, and even participate in the filming. This is what my friend did.
For those who aren’t familiar with secular movies, that film was Pi, the director Darren Aronofsky, and the budget $60,000 (financed from $100 donations from friends and family according to Wikipedia).
I brought this story not because the film grossed over 3 million dollars, or the fact that he is now one of the most well-known directors in Hollywood. This is a difficult thing to say, but as we are all able to “rewind the clock” through teshuvah (repentance), there is still time for all of us to gain from “what if” scenarios.
While researching the movie, although Darren apparently didn’t grow up orthodox, what if he had studied in-depth what Kabbalah had to say about the number Pi? For instance, while a book could easily be written on the subject, Rabbi Ginsburgh has a two part series on the number Pi according to Torah mathematics (one, two). As it is readily available on the internet, if Darren were to begin researching for the sequel of his debut movie, he would likely come across these two articles.
Why did I bring this story? Because throughout the years, I have met many creative, ambitious souls, who didn’t understand what was new or modern about the Torah. While these creative souls may include the Torah as part of story–as in our Pi example or Darren’s upcoming Noah* movie–the “modern” or inspiration comes from the secularization of these themes.
What does it mean to modernize Modern Orthodoxy? To first take the most creative and modern-minded adherents, and make sure they have a place for their creative ambitions. Then once they are included, many more will be inspired to follow.
So as not to appear like someone speaking from the distance, my wife was once in that world. But seeing from firsthand experience that Hollywood was empty, she declined an offer to audition in the starring role of a feature movie in favor of her decision to increase her observance.
There are many more examples, including many well-known talents that either I or fellow students of Rabbi Ginsburgh have corresponded with over the years. These are highly creative individuals who have the ability to inspire millions, but are searching for something true and lasting to inspire themselves with.
* Darren’s attraction to the story of Noah further indicates his love of mathematics. In addition to the symmetrical nature of Noah’s name, as in the verse: “And Noah (נֹחַ) found favor (חֵן) in God’s eyes,” according to Rabbi Ginsburgh’s book “Lectureson Torah and Modern Physics,” he was also the first to teach us about the concept of symmetry.
Although the presence of six-winged angels is not part of the original rendering of the Noah story, as Rabbi Ginsburgh explains, angels with six wings relates to the prophecy of Isaiah, virtual particles, and the desire to unify the four fundamental forces of nature, in what physicists call the Grand Unified Theory, by means of 256 total “wings” in the World of Formation. See Lecture 7 there.