By Yaelle Frohlich

The first time Dr. Daniel Rynhold set foot in America was for his interview at Yeshiva University.  Accepting the tenure-track position of Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Philosophy at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and relocating to the United States in 2007 (along with his wife and four children) was, to an extent, a risk for the London-born academic; he was leaving behind a permanent position at King’s College.

The risk paid off.  Rynhold was granted tenure last year, and this year accepted an additional responsibility at Revel, the new position of Program Coordinator of the PhD program.  The new position was created in response to Revel’s growing administrative and advisory workload, the result of a PhD population on the increase. (The current number of Revel PhD students is 26, a record high).  Rynhold’s primary duties in his capacity of Coordinator will be to help keep track of registration and serve as an academic advisor to the students in the program.

But for Rynhold, YU is much more than just a university employer.  One of Rynhold’s specialties is the philosophy of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, and YU is the institution that seeks to embody that philosophy as a way of life.  Rynhold says that the Rav is the reason he went into Jewish philosophy. “He [the Rav] is why I’m here,” states Rynhold.

However, Rynhold was originally set to pursue a very different path.  In English high schools, each student studies only three “A-level” subjects in their final two school years. Essentially, this means that most pupils choose their future career field at the age of 15 or 16.  Rynhold earned his A-levels at Hasmonean School in chemistry, math and geology, with the intention of eventually earning his university degree in Chemistry.  “I’d have probably never read another book,” jokes Rynhold, smiling behind his desk in his office in Furst Hall.

Rynhold started to change his mind about chemistry during his yeshiva “gap year” at Yeshivat ha-Kibbutz ha-Dati in Ein Tzurim, Israel.  It was a Jewish philosophy course on the Kuzari that did it.  “The person teaching Kuzari was actually a rationalist,” explains Rynhold, “so he would explain the Kuzari and then give the Rambam’s point of view.  I was absolutely fascinated and I went up to him and asked, “Is there anything between Yehudah ha-Levi and the Rambam?” And he said, “Rabbi Soloveitchik.””

Rynhold found the yeshiva’s copy of Lonely Man of Faith and was captivated.  “I quite literally sat in the beit midrash reading that book,” he recalls, “and said, “This is what I want to do.””

Back in England, after two weeks at Cambridge University, Rynhold changed his major from Chemistry to Philosophy.  “To that extent,” deduces Rynhold, “I’m a talmid of the Rav.”

In addition to his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Cambridge, Rynhold holds an M.A. in Hebrew and Jewish Studies from University College London, and a PhD in Jewish Philosophy from the London School of Economics.  His areas of specialty, in addition to the philosophy of Rav Soloveitchik, include Nietzsche and Jewish philosophy and approaches to Ta’amei ha-Mitzvot.  He has authored several scholarly articles, as well as two books: Two Models of Jewish Philosophy: Justifying One’s Practices (Oxford University Press, 2005) and An Introduction to Medieval Jewish Philosophy (2009).

Modern Orthodoxy in America is a stronger and significantly larger movement than in the United Kingdom, according Rynhold.  Although most Jews in England belong to an Orthodox shul like their parents and grandparents, says Rynhold, that fact does not reflect a widespread, conscious Modern Orthodox ideology among most English Jews.  “I was a bit of a novelty in England if I spoke or wrote of Rav Soloveitchik,” admits Rynhold.  “Here, the only way I’m unique is that I’m the only one who teaches about him and his philosophy who can’t say that I was a [direct] talmid of the Rav. I was nervous coming here…but I think it gives me a different perspective. Especially because I come here from a philosophy background rather than from any personal attachment.”

Part of Rynhold’s unique approach to Rabbi Soloveitchik involves reflection on the Rav’s genuine philosophical side from a general philosophical perspective.  “Many students here,” believes Rynhold, “as much as they’ve heard of the Rav, get something new and interesting when they come to my courses.”

The gain is mutual.  Since coming to teach at YU, Rynhold has felt enriched by interactions with his students in a different way than he did at King’s College.  As much as he liked it there, he says, most of his students were studying Judaism as part of a general theology degree and he was limited in what he could teach due to the students’ lack of Hebrew background.  Because Revel students, on the other hand, typically enter their programs with pre-developed Judaic textual skills and prior knowledge, Rynhold says he is pushed by his students to think through informed, challenging questions “at almost every class.”

Sometimes the classroom discussion borders on an interdisciplinary experience.  “If you have semikha [rabbinical] students and you do a course on philosophy of halakha,” explains Rynhold, “RIETS students can bring a wide variety of different cases to philosophical discussions because of their Talmudic knowledge.”

The Revel PhD requirements consist of several elements: thirty credits’ worth of courses on top of one’s M.A. degree, six of which must be taken outside of Revel; two language examinations, usually in French and German, though a different language may be determined more important depending on the individual student’s work; a comprehensive exam; then, a dissertation proposal and thesis, which the student must eventually defend to receive the PhD.

A recently initiated member of the vibrant, Torah U’Madda world of YU, Rynhold has a message for the wider Yeshiva community–a caution not to take the institution for granted.  “As Jews we can make Jewish jokes and other people can’t,” analogizes Rynhold.  “A lot of people who are attached to YU make YU jokes, and I think we’ve got to stop doing that–because I know what it’s like to be in a Jewish community that doesn’t have a YU”

Rynhold maintains it is vital to prioritize sending students to Yeshiva.  “Because without it, the strength of Modern Orthodoxy that we see now won’t be here,” states Rynhold, noting the demise of the degree-granting program of the London School of Jewish Studies in 1998.  “In England it was minuscule even when it existed, but it still held something together and it’s gone,” he says.  “The Torah U’Madda that we talk about here is really a dying breed there. While they have great affection for the institution, at the same time the way certain people talk about YU a) doesn’t reflect the reality and b) can be harmful.”

But despite these broader sociological concerns, Revel’s PhD program is expanding.  “The biggest problem now [with the PhD program] is that we have to reject so many people, because we get lots of applications,” says Rynhold.  “Given our size and numbers, there are only so many that we can take. It’s a shame, but it shows you the strength of the program.”

Rynhold is happy to be in America and at YU, though outside of Revel the professor has kept up at least one deeply-rooted English pastime: watching his favorite soccer team, Tottenham Hotspur.  “Though I’ve become a big Yankees fan since I’ve come here,” he adds with a grin.


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