Friday, June 20, 2008

Modern Orthodoxy Defined and Lived

Hirhurim has an interesting excerpt form a book written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. It reads like a tantalizing introduction to a more elaborate description of the status quo of Modern Orthodoxy. It begs for an explanation of the how modernity has impacted its development. He says:

(Modern Orthodox movements) were an attempt to go against the grain of modernity. Contemporary culture replaces the traditional 'and' with a distinctive 'or': Torah or secular culture, Judaism or Zionism, Orthodoxy or the Jewish people as a whole. In each case religious principle suggested that the former must take precedence over the latter.

The ‘or’ argument was in effect used by Noah Feldman in his now infamous article in the New York Times. He claimed that we could not really be loyal to the tenets of both Orthodoxy and modernity. Accepting modernity, said Feldman, meant accepting values anathematic to Torah. I disagree with him and - if I understand Rabbi Sacks correctly - I disagree with him too. He says:

While in principle (Modern Orthodox movements) retained their commitment to derekh eretz, the return to Zion, and Jewish unity, in practice the full implications of these tenets were neutralized.

Following a path of 'Torah and… does not in any way negate Torah. Not in theory and not in practice. What it does is provide a context for adherence to Torah law. It broadens one’s perspective. However those areas of modernity which do contradict Torah become the 'or'. But Modern Orthodoxy is not defined by the ‘or’. It’s defined by the ‘and’. It is defined by engaging in the culture that is permitted to it by Halacha.

One need not define the 'modern' of Modern Orthodoxy to include violations of belief or observance. One may be selectively modern. If one is an adherent of Torah u’Mada and rejects heresy, does that mean he is not modern? I suppose if one insists on modernity to be an all inclusive term, than I guess Torah U’Mada is not modern. But I think it is incorrect to define it that way. It would be like saying that someone is not a music lover because he hates one facet of it. I hate most of rap music. But I still consider myself a music lover since I love almost all other forms of it.

I will agree that from the persepctives of belief and observance it is much easier to accept Charedi Hashkafos. They simply do away with all secular culture. There cannot be any conflict at all if anything that even has a remote possibility of heresy - or behavior that can lead to non observance - is completely avoided. But just because something is easier that doesn’t make it better.

Adherents of Modern Orthodox movements must always be on guard and discern what is permitted and what is not. That is sometimes difficult to determine. But that shouldn’t mean that modernity need be avoided at all cost. Modernity widens one’s horizons and opens up the gates of knowledge. It enables one to appreciate God’s creation – nature in all its glory. Much of that is found in secular culture.

The following story is told about Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. He was once asked why he visited the Swiss Alps for a vacation. What purpose was there in his doing that? How did that serve God? His answer was that he was worried that when he came to the Olam Ha-Emes – the world to come – that God would ask him, Nu, Reb Shamshon, did you see My Alps?

Chazal tell us Im Omrim Yesh Chachama BaGoyim - Tammim (Eicha Rabba 2:13). The nations of the world have wisdom. This includes both formal and non formal study of secular wisdom. It includes participation in the culture in order to find more ways to appreciate God’s universe - and to be able to find ways to rest and better rehabilitate oneself in Avodas HaShem - service to God.

Whether it is the study of the majesty of the cosmos or the intricacies of molecular structure and subatomic particles …the logic of mathematics and physics …the study of the literary works of Shakespeare or the stirring prose of Faulkner …the soaring notes of a Beethoven symphony or even a classic Beatles tune …or the exquisite joy of a watching a perfectly executed triple play in baseball – all are legitimate.

Modern Orthodox movements do in fact have a danger attached. One might indeed fall prey to heretical thought sometimes encountered in secular studies even when there is care taken to avoid it - and God forbid buy into it. This has happened. One might also be enticed by forbidden behavior - so common found and accepted in secular culture. That too has caused people to leave the fold.

The truth is that that are pitfalls in both Charedi and Modern Orthodox Hashkafos. One must have proper Hadracha – guidance in both. But educated properly there is much to be gained in accepting Modern Orthodoxy’s approach of broadening one’s horizons by choosing to avail oneself of all of God’s creations. That will not only permit observance and belief, it will enhance it.