Monday, March 26, 2007

The Lazy "Commentator"

Oh! I don't even have the words.

Let's start with Eitan Kastner's article, "How Torah u'Madda Can Work."

It's a very nice article overall, except for the claim that Torah u'Madda is impossible to define and moreover, is an utterly subjective approach, different for each individual.

    These two lessons in particular struck me as exemplifying Torah u-Madda, but that does not mean I expect they would have the same affect on others. The onus is on each and every student striving for a more meaningful Jewish existence to try to find a way to synthesize, harmonize, and rationalize Torah and Madda in their lives. There is no one right way of achieving this, and methods and ideas will often differ from person to person. [emph. mine] The best way to teach Torah u-Madda is by offering traditional shiur and genuine liberal arts courses uncompromised by religious apprehensions while fostering an environment that encourages the fusion of these ideas.

    Many who try to define Torah u-Madda often do so by saying what it is not. [emph. mine] It is not Haredi. It is not Conservative. It is not Torah u-Parnassah. But we do know that it is something different. And we do know that it makes Yeshiva unique. But because it is up to the individual to find meaning from its methods, it can be hard to peg down. I, for one, cannot define Torah u-Madda, [emph. mine] but I know it when I see it.

This is simply not so! See Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's very clear speech/ essay on the subject in The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, page 229. To wit:

    I have heard criticisms against the Yeshiva that we have not yet achieved the proper synthesis between Torah study and secular endeavor; between fear of God and worldliness. We have not achieved what the German Orthodox Jews called "Torah with derekh eretz [worldly occupation"] [Avot 2:2]. I claim that the true greatness of the Yeshiva is that it does not have this synthesis. The truth is that there is no real synthesis in the world. If there is a contradiction between Torah and secular endeavor, then synthesis is not possible. If there is a thesis and an anti-thesis, then no synthesis is possible. In general, a synthesis is very superficial. It is apologetic, it imitates others and the individual loses his uniqueness. In synthesis, no one succeeds. Even our great teacher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides] did not succeed in his attempts at synthesis. The greatness of the Yeshiva is that it is a real Yeshiva and on the second level a proper academic institution. Both divisions function without synthesis and compromise.

    My students go from my shiur on the first floor of the Yeshiva building to their college classes on the third floor. In my class, they study in depth such talmudic topics as whether the signatures of the witnesses or the witnessing of the actual delivery make the get [divorce document] effective [Gittin 23a], or whether going over the writing on a get document can validate the get [Gittin 20a]. Then they go upstairs to their college classes, where they study theories in mathematics and physics. I am proud when my student is both a Torah scholar and a good college student. If there were a synthesis, both achievements would be weakened!

    In this concept, our Yeshiva is unique. It is not like other yeshivot. [...] The Catholics also have religious universities. I do not like to imitate others! We have a Yeshiva, and because the times demand it, we also have a university. These two divisions will not be synthesized. They will remain two institutions. It may be like a man with two heads, but it is better to have two heads than not to have one. [Laughter]

    The uniqueness of the Yeshiva is another reason why I am loyal to this institution. It is a reflection of my own thinking and commitment. (pages 229-231)

There! Torah u'Madda is a philosophy that advocates for the knowledge in both the secular and the Judaic in addition to an admission that there still remains a tension between the two, and an attempt to use the secular, wherever possible, to enhance and develop one's appreciation of the Judaic. It is not a synthesis or an amalgam.

Eitan's use of the words "synthesize, harmonize and rationalize" is incorrect, at least according to the Rav (who is perhaps the most significant figure when it comes to Modern Orthodoxy.) The statement that "there is no one right way to achieving this" also seems incorrect. It would have been better had Eitan taken established approaches and explained how he either agrees/ disagrees with them than advocate for these vainglorious, tolerant approaches towards all.

Secondly, let's deal with the very poorly-written "Made-Up" Goes Nowhere.

It's taking all my strength to refrain from writing a scathing critique of the author's English, so I'll suffice by pointing out one sentence:

    "Garrulous and directionless are the two verbs that occupied the stage opening night."

My dear, dear man. Occupied the stage that night? Yes, there were certainly two verbs (read: adjectives, you dolt) strolling around, taking a midnight lover's walk about the meadows and glades, the beautifully scenic stage of the Schottenstein Cultural Center. Certainly, most certainly.

But let's leave the wordy, contorted, ugly, highly-unintelligible writing aside and move on to the review itself.

The man has no specifics! He speaks completely in generalizations. The ridiculous thing is, some of his points are actually valid! However, I would have written my review in a significantly different manner. One can slam a production, critique it, and so on and so forth, but for God's sake have the decency to do so by pointing out particular flaws as opposed to obsessively painting all with the same brush. He also does not put forward any kind of plot summary, so those who did not attend have absolutely no idea what the play was about.

As an aside, I also resent his depiction of the typical Stern student.

Here's how I would rewrite his review (using his own points):

    "Made-Up" Goes Nowhere

    "Made-Up," an original play written by YCDS senior Chai Hecht and directed by former _____, Reuven Russell, premiered on March 18-20 at the Geraldine Schottenstein Cultural Center. This is the first play Stern students have performed since _____, when they starred in an adaptation of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. In a Cinderella-esque twist, the play stars a passive, meek make-up-artist-turned-Messiah (Nattie, played by Stern junior Sarah Medved) in her journey towards confidence, self-respect and decisive action in a moment of crisis. The cast also includes her compelling aide and sidekick, Melanie (Gila Kanal), two saccharinely sweet talk-show hosts, Nattie's former employers (Adina Schwartz and Aviva Ginsburg), the previous Messiah (Michal Simpser), a pompous newscaster (Olivia Wiznitzer), an unhappy drug addict (Michal Schick) and a booking agent-turned-killer (Deanna Frazin).

    Unfortunately, the play falls far short of its grand scheme. Seemingly unconnected voiceovers, guns appearing at every moment and a directionless cast who could not seem to face the audience and were at times inaudible served to detract from the play's overall meaning. However, that meaning was itself unclear. What does "Made-Up" imply? Was Hecht attempting to make a particularly savage jab at society's use of cosmetics to make people appear beautiful rather than facing reality? Or was he attempting to vividly demonstrate in the denouement of the play that violence is never the answer? The confusing interplay of various themes allowed the viewer no clear message; the play was in and of itself incomprehensible.

    More frustrating for audience-members was a technique Hecht employed where characters did not finish their sentences but left them hanging, dangling participles that were particularly annoying. This would have been excusable had Hecht characterized a particular character in this way, but when almost everyone in the cast resorts to stuttering, the audience is left in chaos. This reviewer believes that an editor or director ought to have guided Hecht rather than allowing him free-reign with this particular stylistic choice.

    The script on a whole seems to be a satirical take on Chabad Lubavitch's Messianist sect. In the play, the seventh leader of Desperate Children, a peaceful cult, comes to power, and tradition has it that she will be the real messiah. The Messiah must be a woman because the cult believes that the redeemer must be someone who can experience the power of creation. Although Nattie denies her divinity, a fringe group breaks off insisting that she is indeed the messiah. Sound familiar? I thought so, too.

    Perhaps the most successful part of the production was its set-design. The first set featured a wall of mirrors and decadent furniture, quite in keeping with the idea of its being a beautiful dressing room. The second set, a hotel room, featured white wall molding on a chocolate brown background, a successful attempt at a "modern" look. A lovely rug, tall vases and a beautiful sofa completed the effect.

    Sadly, the same cannot be said for sound and lighting. The poorly chosen and irrelevant sound track seemed to have been taken from Pirates of the Caribbean, and the lighting/sound effects were off and ill-timed. This was more problematic with sound, as the gunshot sounded a full five seconds after the on-stage character had pulled the trigger. These technical travesties might have been excusable if something more interesting was occurring on stage. Instead, I watched as the backstage cast vainly tried to close the curtain in order to divert attention back to the show.

    Stern College should be congratulated for putting on a complete if not successful show, a feat not attempted since their production of Little Women little over a year ago. It was obvious that the cast had raw talent that could have been better utilized with a no-nonsense stage manager and director. As it was, the director's biography was sparse, which suggests that some of the flaws in the production stemmed from his inexperience. While it is thrilling to witness the resurrection of the Stern College Dramatics Society, I hope that in the future the society is more selective in its choice of material and more demanding of its cast and crew.

    I don't agree with all of this, but I do think it's a) more fair and b) much clearer! Although if I had really been writing this, I would have included references to the individual's performances as well...

    I expect much better from "The Commentator." I think that the poorly-written nature of this review and Kastner's neglect to cite actual definitions from other sources are simply a function of laziness and an attempt to churn out ideas without properly researching them first. There are more articles of this nature, of course, but these were the two that were particularly frustrating. Come on, "Commentator," you're better than this!


      Anonymous said...

      A public appology from a lazy "commentator" is in order!!!

      Anonymous said...

      A flippant and careless review. Though I suppose one who invests such minimal and superficial effort into a negligable article cannot appreciate or fathom the depth of commitment and hard work that others have participated in.

      Chana said...

      Anna N,

      Let's use your words against you.

      Apparently, I "cannot appreciate or fathom the depth of commitment and hard work that others have participated in" because I believe that "The Commentator" is becoming lazy and falling short of their own high standards.

      And did the authors of the article about the play "Made-Up" take into account the "depth of commitment and hard work that others have participated in" when they wrote their "flippant and careless review" of the play?

      Did they think about the six-hour practices girls put in every single night before the play?

      Did they think about the fact that this is Reuven Russell's first production at Stern, and that might have been a little difficult?

      And did they think that the play was worthy of their respect? Did they write a respectful (if negative!) review?


      Is this a negligible article? No.

      But say it were. The first article I discussed, Eitan's, is actually the most popular article at the moment. It would be slightly hard to do away with that one as "negligible," wouldn't it?

      Honestly, don't you want "The Commentator" to do its best? Don't you want it to be a standard for brilliant writing, excellent journalism, clear ideas and original innovative thoughts? I do! I love "The Commentator," that's why it upsets me when it's less than stellar.

      Anonymous said...


      While all Commentator articles aren't necessary as well-written as one would like, there are certainly enough well-written ones that nitpicking is a bit disingenuous. This is, after all, Yeshiva University. And the Stern play was, by all accounts (I personally did not see it), a disaster. Any of the three other writers who wanted to do the piece for me said they would have also done a very critical piece. Not to mention your own bias against the review - you were an actress in the play, as I understand?

      You're entitled to your criticism, just as my writer was entitled to his. But critiquing the Commentator's review of the Stern play (as opposed to the obviously more significant review: the YC review of the YCDS play) and your bias makes this critique a bit silly. :-P

      Chana said...


      I wasn't critiquing the review.

      I was critiquing your writer's use (or lack thereof) of the English language.

      If you read my post, you ought to have noticed the difference, and ought to have realized this was not disingenuous, only true.

      I am amazed that you aren't ashamed to publish an article in which your writer calls adjectives verbs, slurs Stern girls on a whole, and cannot formulate a coherent sentence.

      For that matter, I am amused by the paper's cowardice in refusing to release names. If you're going to critique, you might as well stand behind your words, right?

      Anonymous said...

      This may not be accurate to Stern, but unfortunately YCDS has not distinguished itself as being able to handle criticism of any form. I think my writers were concerned about being the recipient of social ostracism or actual violence. This may seem ridiculous, but I respect my writer's wishes in good faith. Again, though, feel free to criticize some of the other pieces in the Arts and Culture section, though. Not just the one that reflects poorly on the play you were in. Feel free to go after my Stooge's review, or after the review of the YCDS play - which we obviously made sure was of higher standard. Honestly, reviewing the SCDS play was a secondary decision - and thus didn't warrant the kind of heavy editing other articles in the paper receive.

      Also, I'm disappointed you refer to Stern students as "girls." They are most certainly women. Though if you see them as children, I certainly understand why a poor review of their play would rub you the wrong way. After all, they put hours and hours into practice. We should clap for them.

      Anonymous said...

      That last paragraph is mildly tongue-in-cheek. This is my second-to-last issue of the Commentator ever, so I don't really feel too inclined to argue one way or the other. On a lighter note, Chana, I heard you were the best thing about the play.

      Anonymous said...

      Oy Chana! I meant the article, not you!

      Chana said...


      I can't go after your Stooges review because I don't know anything about the subject. I can't attack the YCDS review because I didn't see that play, either. Unlike you, I don't make statements about plays I didn't see. If I had any knowledge of either of those events, I would have critiqued or praised them accordingly. Moreover, neither piece exhibited the poor writing of this one (the YCDS play review's author did a much better job.)

      I personally find your attitude toward the editing/ care you take of your Arts and Culture section distasteful. You easily dismiss the poor writing by claiming that it was a secondary decision to include the review? Where are your standards?

      Your point about Stern "girls" or "women" is simply irrelevant. Your writer, on the other hand, made an utterly uncalled-for statement when he stated, "If there's one thing that a Stern student can play, it's a Stern student. Garrulous and directionless[...]" Who gives a damn that in the next line he references "women" strutting around the stage? Obviously he doesn't respect them either way.

      "After all, they put hours and hours into practice. We should clap for them."

      There was no intimation that effort equals success, only that effort means that the play should have been treated respectfully in the review- which you and your author failed to do.

      Lastly, I don't particularly care for your secondhand compliments. Go flatter someone who finds your opinion worthwhile.

      Chana said...

      Anna N,


      Glad we agree, then. *beatific smile*

      Anonymous said...

      Mordy said:
      " I think my writers were concerned about being the recipient of social ostracism or actual violence. This may seem ridiculous, but I respect my writer's wishes in good faith."

      Chana is correct. If your writers are going to critique, they MUST stand behind their words. Since they have chosen to hide-hey are cowards-pure and simple.

      Anonymous said...

      My standards are that I have X amount of time a month to run my section. My care and time go into articles that are necessary to the paper. Like a YCDS review. This is no different than what the NY Times does, and we are barely the NY Times. (Go check how competent the NY Times reviews are when buried in the far back of the Lifestyle section.) And I meant my compliment sincerely. And though I didn't see the play, I admitted that upfront. That's why I didn't write the review. Though I notice you still refuse to concede you may have a bias. It's a shame you're so angry about this - because your final comments are offensive and needlessly mean. I never attacked you directly. If you honestly want to burn this bridge, though, please. Go right ahead.

      Chana said...


      And your comments aren't "offensive and needlessly mean?" You insinuate that I'm a biased, immature little girl, then condescendingly try to placate me by handing me what I see as a throwaway compliment. And I love it that you see me as being the one to burn bridges!

      Am I biased? I don't think what I wrote was biased. I attacked the poor writing, not the review. I agree with many aspects of the review. I am disappointed by the fact that instead of apologizing for the poor writing, you instead claim that it's okay because this is YU, not the New York Times. I want us to be better than that. I want us to be great, to be brilliant...not to just accept limitations!

      That having been said, I apologize for misunderstanding your compliment and responding nastily to it.

      Anonymous said...

      I didn't intend to insult you, and my compliment was meant sincerely. I'm sorry you didn't get that. Tone is hard to convey in text, I guess.

      Chana said...

      Yes, tone is hard to convey in text. (Well, other than when I'm shouting, I suppose.)

      We'll be friends again?

      Anonymous said...

      As always I marvel in your ability to swiftly comment on our publication. Your citing the Rav to counter my argument in my column actually helps prove my point. He, in all his infinite wisdom (absolutely no sarcasm is intended there) was not the only significant figure in Yeshiva’s history to have an opinion about Torah u-Madda. “Synthesis” was the term used by Yeshiva’s first president Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel, a man who I would argue knew a thing or two about what this institution should stand for (ok, some sarcasm was intended there). Harmonizing and rationalizing were terms used by Rabbi Dr. Belkin and Rabbi Dr. Lamm about the nature of the duel-curriculum here in Yeshiva. None of these giants, not even in Dr. Lamm’s book specifically written on the subject, goes into an in depth explanation of Yeshiva’s philosophy. While Rabbi Lichtenstein has mentioned in a few essays the benefits of a strong grounding in the liberal arts, such as the source quoted by rabbi Schacter last week, he presents this argument as something personal. Something that works for him.

      What I attempted to convey in my column was that, in specific cases, each of these ideas (synthesizing, harmonizing, rationalizing) can work, depending on each person’s abilities and background knowledge. For some people, only one, if any, of these methods will work. For others all three can. I would argue that it all comes down to one’s willingness to explore all possible avenues of figuring out Torah u-Madda and one’s background in the text and traditions of both.


      Anonymous said...

      anna n = anna newberry?

      Anonymous said...

      Anna N = Anna Newberry?? Didn't she get herself blown away- writing from the world beyond now???

      Jeremy said...

      Very well put, Eitan. I was going to write my own response to Chana, but you saved me the time.

      The Rashblog said...

      "For that matter, I am amused by the paper's cowardice in refusing to release names. If you're going to critique, you might as well stand behind your words, right?"

      Considering that I have, at one point, written an anonymous article, I can sympathize with those who wish not to include their names in such reviews. The fact is that the writers are typically YU students, while the participants in the plays are students as well. In order to write an honest critique, one has to sometimes criticize a friend or acquaintence. If you leave your name out there, you could be hurting yourself. It's not so much cowardice as a safety measure. Sometimes people take criticism personally, and to avoid any trouble, the authors avoid any connection to themselves.

      Chana said...


      You're so polite when you had every right not to be! Nicely done!

      But why didn't you include all those different views in your article? It's lovely that you have information to back your points; I just wish you'd put them in so I wouldn't have to be upset and think you were a careless researcher before you informed me of said backing.

      Now that you've explained your whole thought process, I see that you were correct.

      *smiles at Jeremy* Oho, you wanted to critique me, too? Thanks... ;)

      Oh my God, Anna Newberry? Are you Anna Newberry? (I actually didn't get that. *sigh*)

      Rare Find,

      I think it's still cowardly! :D

      Anonymous said...

      Unfortunately. I only have so much space at my disposal for column and I can not spend 100 words giving a history lesson for all of my points . it certainly makes the piece a little weaker, but things do need to be triaged at times.

      My columns are not dissertations. They are simply vehicles for getting people to talk about ideas, as we are doing now, so I didn't think the history was crucial to the piece. Perhaps I was mistaken.


      Chana said...

      Ah yes, space.

      As you can tell, I am not exactly a fan of being concise at the expense of information...

      Then again, I'm not a fan of being concise in general...

      But okay. Now that mundane limitations explain the lack of (theoretically crucial, but perhaps only crucial to obsessively detail-oriented individuals) material, it's all good.

      What it comes down to, then, for both you guys is space and time, space and time. (Space- for your article, and Standards emanating from Time for Mordy.) All part of the space-time continuum. *sigh* I can't fight that, but boy, do I ever wish I could.

      Ezzie said...

      Then again, I'm not a fan of being concise in general...


      But okay. Now that mundane limitations explain the lack of (theoretically crucial, but perhaps only crucial to obsessively detail-oriented individuals) material, it's all good.

      Hmm. The ideal article vs. the real world one, limited by the... well, limits of practicality, by space on a page and the curse of deadlines.

      Chana - as a wise friend once said: Time for new methods and new rules, folks; the revolution is here. :D

      Time to come up with a new format for the Commentator, one which is not limited by time and space. Perhaps the blogworld? :)

      Anonymous said...

      There are those of us who have joined the Commentator in hopes of lifting it from the mire it has become so accustomed to as of late (see the co-ed flood of articles, and these recent articles fit right in with that motif). I certainly hope we can improve the reputation of our publication.

      Anonymous said...

      Thanks for your anonymous comments, Zev.

      Anonymous said...

      A major critique I have with the Commentator article, besides for all the grammar mistakes, is the fact that whoever wrote it has got his facts wrong, making me wonder just how closely he even paid attention to the play, and if he even actually saw it?

      "Anna" (a character not even explained in the original article) was not the one who was supposed to kill herself or who wanted to kill the next Messiah. It was, in fact, Nattie who was being nearly forced to kill herself to prove her mortality (thereby proving she is not the Messiah, seeing as the Messiah is supposed to be immortal) and to do one unforgivable crime to prove her impurity (since the Messiah is supposed to be pure). Nattie devised a plan where she will kill the next Messiah, along with herself, in order to leave Desperate Children, the cult searching for a Messiah, at a dead end, for if their next Messiah was killed without being proven impure, members of Desperate Children will have no way of knowing if she was the true Messiah or not, and so they will not be able to go on searching for a new one. After all, the character Melanie in the play says, "Mortality without impurity proves nothing."

      Anna, as mentioned in the article, is one of the Three Talking Heads and is killed by Hailey, the former false Messiah, in her act of impurity, before Hailey kills herself, in her act of proving her own mortality.

      Seeing as Anna appears in the second act only as a ghost, it is very difficult to confuse her with Nattie, who is the protagonist and to whom nearly all the action is happening.

      Secondly, "half the cast" did not "burst in with handguns" in the second act. Nattie was given a gun by Melanie, by which she was supposed to perform her acts of proving she is not the true Messiah. Mandy somehow acquired a gun, and though it is not explained how, it is also not necessarily improbable seeing as Melanie carried around a gun, so the security in the building must not have been careful about picking up guns, and she, a Conformist, wanted to prove Nattie's Messiah-hood by proving her immortal, an act that can only be accomplished by attempting to kill her. They are the only two characters with guns, aside from Melanie who always carries a gun, as she tells us in the first act. Why this is "absurd" or bothersome to the writer of the article, I haven't the slightest idea.

      "The show was spliced with oddly placed clips of two women listening to a radio show that never intersects with the main story" - this, too, is incorrect. Nattie tells Melanie at the very end of the play that she has a recurring nightmare about a radio show, where she is asked a question and is afraid to answer, and so she breaks the radio and wakes up, then admitting to Melanie, "only usually I wake up before I break the radio" (a line which I loved in the play and was sad when no one laughed at it all three nights. Oh well). So there is your intersection with the main story.

      "As it was, the director's biography was sparse, indicating a deficiency of experience" - I haven't the slightest idea what is meant by that but I suggest the writer of the article reread the biography of the director in the playbill.

      My other critique, which Chana already covered, is the fact that the Commentator is a student newspaper and, by reviewing the Stern play, is speaking about the efforts of fellow students. This is actually the same reason given above for why the article was written anonymously. While I understand why the writer of the article might want to hide his identity (although I agree with Chana, it seems pretty cowardly to me, especially seeing as the identities of those he is so brazenly criticizing are not hidden), he should still realize that his fellow students deserve respect, no matter how awful he thought the play was. The article was unnecessarily harsh and seemed to be bashing the play rather than reviewing it.

      Anonymous said...

      HA HA, ah, much amusement! I thank ALL of you for these lovely comments as they have provided me with much amusement during my stressful pre-pesach craziness. I love watching other people fight, it makes my own particular battles so much more fun knowing that there might be someone out there getting enjoyment from my own. I clearly am NOT one to nitpick about grammar or language, considering I don't know anything about either of them. But kudos to all of you english nerds out there who do. (I say that with much affection - me being a nerd as well, just in another field)