Sunday, July 15, 2007

Is Bashing Modern Orthodoxy a Solution?

Rebbetzin Toby Katz is a friend of mine. We are in fact distantly related through marriage. Her sister is married to my daughter in law’s uncle.

My wife and I had the pleasure of meeting Rebbetzin Katz upon an invitation issued to me when she had learned that I was going to be in her ‘neighborhood’ of Miami Beach. My initial contact with her was on the Avodah/Areivim e-mail list in which we both participate. There I learned of her views on just about everything.

In most cases our views are not that far apart. She is an adherent of the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy which she tells us was that of her father’s. Her father was Rabbi Nachman Bulman, one of the most beloved rabbinic leaders of the twentieth century. Rebbetzin Katz once told the Avodah list what her father said about Baltimore Yeshiva Ner Israel which I think best describes how he thought Judaism should be practiced: They specialize in ‘normal’.

I often say that the philosophies of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) and Torah u’Mada are not that far apart. The differences are somewhat academic but in the main, both philosophies value the study of secular subjects. Both philosophies believe in participation in permissible aspects of secular culture. Rabbi Bulman had a television in his home as his children were growing up. He obviously believed, as do I, that television has value if properly used.

Rebbitzin Katz is an articulate spokesman for her views which are usually quite thoughtful and balanced. But as I have come to learn over time her statements sometimes seem like they are at odds with her own views. After first expressing her own exasperation at how Chasidim in her in her North Miami Beach neighborhood seemed to avoid all social contact with their Orthodox neighbors , she went the other way. Instead of the balance I usually hear from her she issued a challenge. In last Friday’s essay on Cross-Currents after reading some very strong comments against the members of the community she had herself criticized she said the following::

“I’d like to see a Modern Orthodox blog on which some MO writer would admit there are problems in the MO community(or a Reform site on which a writer admitted there are some things wrong with the Reform movement), and dozens of people would pile on to criticize him for not condemning his own community even more strongly, and to point out that his community is much worse than he admits, and in fact, has hardly any redeeming features

Quid pro quo? Is that the balance she seeks? Must we bash one community so that we can better accept the behavior of another? Would it not be more productive to address the issues and challenges of those who were criticizing the very same people she had just criticized? True, there was a sort of ‘piling on’ by commenters who viewed actions by this group negatively. That is sometimes the case when being critical of other groups, it give rise to people pointing out other problems they have experienced or seen in that group. But that should not generate a challenge to be critical of others. Pointing out the problems of others is not going solve these problems. All it does is inflame the argument.

That said, I would agree that there are some very serious problems in the Modern Orthodox community. This community is the home of the Torah U’Mada philosophy and those of us that adhere to it… which I define as Centrist. But the sad fact is that the vast majority of Modern Orthodoxy can be defined as a social grouping and not as a philosophy. As Rabbi Yosef Bechhofer recently put it:

MO is not really a philosophy, but a lifestyle... The average Ba'al HaBayis in an MO community (or any community, for that matter) is not given to philosophical rumination"

I believe that is an accurate statement. Modern Orthodoxy is full of problems. Here is just a partial list that comes to mind.

Because Modern Orthodxy is looked at as a lifestyle choice many of its members are not concerned with optimal Mitzvah observance. It is therefore not uncommon for a family to have only the most basic level of observance while making sure that their lifestyles are as assimilated into the general culture as possible. In other words the lifestyle has a high level of importance to them. For many in the Modern Orthodox world, observance does not go beyond two very important issues: Shabbos and Kashrus. Ignorance of Halacha in both areas, however, causes many inadvertent violations.

For example some Modern Orthodox people mistakenly will eat fish prepared in a non kosher restaurant without making certain that it was prepared in accordance with the rather complex set of Kashrus laws. Shabbos is observered in ways that subtly violate Halacha. In most cases this is due to ignorance, at least in part. But I believe that in many cases it is due to an almost deliberate avoidance of knowledge on the subject.

I have heard many Modern Orthodox Jews... in response to why they are not observant of a particular Halacha say the following statement: ‘Everybody picks and chooses what they observe anway, don’t they?” “We choose to be lenient on this or that issue.” And because of ignorance on various Halachic issues the leniency is an actual violation of Halacha. Most modern Orthodox Jews will choose behavior which fits in best with their lifestyles. If a relatively minor Halacha doesn’t fit in… well they just ignore it. Given the choice they will usually pick lifestyles over Halacha.

Their lifestyles include as much assimilation with the general culture as possible to the point where some of their activities border on Issurei Arayos, those laws guiding sexual behavior. Here are a couple of observations I have made over the years.

*Far too many Modern Orthodox Jews can be seen dancing with the spouses of other people at weddings and Bar Mitzvos that have social dancing.
*Mixed swimming is the norm in the MO communities. Women will wear the most fashionable two piece bathing suits they can afford. Yes I’ve seen it. I admit that I used to go mixed swimming in the Glatt Kosher Hotels in Miami Beach back in the eighties. I no longer do.

The truth is there were plenty of Charedi Jews by the pool too. The men wore black hats to Shul and in the streets. The women wore expensive wigs and were normally very modest in their dress,well within Halacha. But they also went to the pool every day. They covered their hair at the pool… but not much else! Their kids? Well, many had Peyos and in most cases went to right wing Yeshivos in New York. But I digress.

The point I am trying to make is that many if not most Modern Orthodox Jews place far too much value on assimilation and not nearly enough value on Halacha.

Another problem is the values that are prioritized in the Modern Orthodox community. Instead of putting Torah first they put Mada first. But it isn’t really Mada. It is the ‘right schools’. To many modern Orthodox parents, the entire goal for their children is to get into an Ivy League school. Yeshiva post high school is limited to at best a year in Israel which is some cases is treated by modern Orthodox students as a year long vacation.

After they come back, they are all set to go to Harvard or Columbia. Yeshiva University is a poor second choice. Torah study? Yeah yeah… when they have time! Right.

Now there are some good people who attended University and are as sincere about Mitzva observance and Torah learning as the most devoted Lakewood student. But I think that is the exception rather than the ruele. The vast majority of them tend to be very limited in their Torah knowledge and their observance level mimics what they saw in the home.

So yes, Modern Orthodoxy has problems. And I haven’t even touched upon the very left wing segments of it where the Hashkafos themselves might be borderline.

Acknowledging that Modern Orthodoxy has serious problems like these does not make the problems of the Charedi community go away. We are one people. And we ought to note the problems as a whole and address them together. That’s what Achdus is all about.