Friday, July 25, 2008

Differences between Charedism and Modern Orthodoxy

What exactly does it mean to be Charedi? That may be as difficult to define as is what it means to be Modern Orthodox. Just as there are many divisions in Modern Orthodoxy so to are there in Charedism. But there are certain features that are distinctive to each.

As I often say, there is far more that unites us than divides us. But people tend to focus on divisions. Sometimes vehemently so. But many of those divisions are more about attitudes than they are about actual practices.

One would be hard pressed to see a difference between a right wing modern Orthodox Jew and a moderate Charedi Jew. They may both attend the same shul send their children to the same Yeshivos, work in similar fields and learn in the same Batei Midrashim, sometimes together B’Chavrusa. And they socialize quite nicely together.

But even though they lead the same lifestyles their attitudes may be entirely different. Attitudes about secular studies and participation with the culture are the two such areas. Even while participating in the culture, the Charedi Jew will see such activities in a more negative light while the Modern Ortbodox Jew will see them in a more positive light.

Differences in the extremes of Modern Orthodxy and Charedim are of course much more pronounced and the cause of much misunderstanding and - on occasion - even hatred between the two. Looking at the extremes of the other as definitional is an impediment of great significance that needs to be addressed. But that is not the subject of this essay.

It is equally important to focus on one of the more essential misunderstandings overall between the two and not just on the extremes - the question of the fallibility of Chazal - our sages of blessed memory.

Modern Orthodoxy has often been accused of believing that Chazal were fallible - that they made mistakes. They were human beings subject to the spirit of their time and that influenced how they created rabbinic law which we must follow.

This is simply not true. Modern Orthodoxy does not believe that. Faulting Chazal in this way is tantamount to heresy! Where we differ is in matters of science. Charedim believe that Chazal were infallible there too. Or more precisely scientific statements recorded in the Gemarah were passed on to them via Mesorah – just as were Halachic statements.

Contradictions between scientific statements in the Gemarah and the scientific knowledge we have today is simply thought of as either a misunderstanding of what Chazal said. Or those statements were meant as allegory. Or were statements about Kabalah - not science as they seem to be at first blush.

There are many Modern Orthodox Jews who believe that too. But there are many more who will rely on the various Rishonim who say that in matters of science Chazal were simply as scientifically knowledgeable as their era allowed. They were conversant with the best science of their day. That is what they recorded in the Gemarah. In our day, since we have better and more precise ways of studying nature, we have better knowledge of it.

This view - although promoted by accepted Rishonim - has recently been rejected by Charedi Poskim who say it is heretical to believe that in our day. Modern Orthodoxy does not consider that to be heretical at all. It is only the Halacha that is Masoretic and there fore infallible. Not the science.

It should be noted that Rav Ahron Soloveichik is of the view that Chazal were infallible in matters of science too. He takes the same view as do the Charedi Poskim. Rav Ahron often explained difficult passages in the Gemarah in the modern scientific terms of our day. For example, he explains the term ‘Mazikin’ in the Gemarah - a term usually translated as demons - as really referring to bacteria and uses innovative methods to come to that conclusion. But… he agreed that they made no error even in science. Saying so - he said - is repugnant.

This is a legitimate difference. My Rebbe, Rav Ahron, not withstanding - many if not most educated Modern Orthodox Jews would disagree with him relying on Rishonim who said the same thing.

But in another matter there is no disagreement. And that needs to be clearly pointed out.

In our day there have been many challenges to Chazal’s methodology by disciplines developed over time – such as critical or literary analyses of the text of the Torah. Using these techniques many have raised difficult theological questions. Some of these questions have caused people to question the very basis of their belief.

The question must be asked, in light of these new methods of Torah study, is there any legitimacy to them? Just because we have our own traditional ways of studying Torah does that mean we reject out of hand ‘outside’ methods of Torah study?

This question was answered quite brilliantly by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik -the Rav. It can be found in yet another brilliant essay by Chana in her blog, The Curious Jew. The answer might surprise people. That’s because the Rav rejects out of hand any study methods outside of the traditional ones.

The words of the Rav are very strong:

Kabalas ol malchus shamayim -- which is an identical act with talmud torah -- requires of us to revere and to love and to admire the words of the chachmei hamesorah, be they tannaim, be they amoraim, be they rishonim. This is our prime duty. They are the final authorities, and an irresponsible statement about chazal borders on, I don't like to use the word but according to Maimonides, the heretic.


Why did he add v'hamach'chish magideha --whoever denies the authority of the scholars, the chachmei hamesorah? Apparently the Rambam says that under the category of kofrim batorah [16]are classified not only those who deny for instance that nisuch hamayim[17] or avodas beis hamikdash [18] is required, or those who deny the torah she b'al peh -- there is no doubt about it in those cases.

But moreover, even those who admit the truthfulness of the torah she b'al peh but who are critical of chachmei chazal as personalities, who find fault with chachmei chazal, fault in their character, their behavior, or their conduct, who say that chachmei chazal were prejudiced, which actually has no impact upon the halachah; nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer.

This is the correct attitude. Why this is the case can be found in Chana’s beautiful and well presented essay. It is a must read.