Saturday, November 17, 2018 -
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The Search Committee

Not encouraging.

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.

Not promising.

Yet, this book is almost spellbinding.

And thought-provoking.

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 vy 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.



Hillel Goldberg

IJN Executive Editor | hillel@ijn.com


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