In early 1982, I began to study something called "The 48 Ways of Wisdom" one night a week. This was a series of classes based on the last chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, at a home study group organized by a branch of Aish Hatorah in Toronto. I knew nothing of the organization and virtually nothing of Orthodox Judaism. A friend of mine, with whom I had shared English literature seminars at the University of Toronto on everything ranging from Derridean deconstructive practices to Shakespeare's sonnets, had suddenly become involved in learning Torah with Aish.
Why did we get involved? It is difficult to pin down a catalyst moment, but in retrospect, certain attractions, became slowly but increasingly compelling, like a powerful long-distance magnet. My friend's college roommate had gone to the Aish Hatorah Yeshiva in Jerusalem, as had his brother before him. I was only the latest in a growing circle of people who--passionate about art and music, but plagued by a mysterious lack of groundedness--all began to revolutionize our lives at a time when our peers were thinking about their career prospects. There was an inner disquiet, a long-distance loneliness in each of us that was spoken to and captured by those early Aish sessions, a feeling of drift that was directly addressed by exposure to revelation at Sinai that left me stunned and permanently transformed, then and now.
Thinking of it today, I remember almost nothing of the 48 Ways class, which left relatively little imprint on me in terms of its content. What I do remember is the fierce anti-Western critique that I imbibed in those home study sessions. Many of the code words that became stalwarts in my own subsequent teaching career--meaning, values, Western materialism, cultural relativism and, above all, truth--were central to the discourse of those evenings. No matter what teaching was being presented, the material was but the backdrop for an all-out assault on the Western world's ostensible penchant for illusion and presumed lack of morality. Right and Wrong had vanished from the West; secular society was interested almost exclusively in material comforts; females had lost their core identities and had become sexual objects in the fallout from the feminist revolution. Such messages were standard extrapolations from the Mishnayot we studied. And when I subsequently attended Aish Hatorah in Yerushalayim in the year 1983-84, and in followup visits in the summers of 1985 and 1987, this dismissal of secularism and matters Western continued unabated, this time in the charismatic and persistent speeches of the Rosh Hayeshiva, Rav Noach Weinberg, z”tl.
In a sense, I was not at all unfamiliar with diatribes against the contemporary West. In a very different context, and tied to very different pedagogical aims, I had heard similar sentiments from my teacher, the late Professor Allan Bloom, in his political thought class at the University of Toronto. Professor Bloom’s bracing challenge to the orthodoxies of postmodern thought was heady indeed for many of us, and led to many post-class conversations in the cafés lining the streets near the university. But although Professor Bloom paid lip service to the Bible as a serious text, his real cultural benchmarks derived from the philosophical tradition: Plato, Machiavelli, Rousseau. Some of the examples cited in his book, The Closing of the American Mind, especially those designed to show the flaws in relativism, would find sympathetic parallels in some of the rhetoric in my earliest Aish classes. But it turned out I was in for something very different than I had known.