Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Defining Centrism

Centrism, Left wing Modern Orthodoxy, Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy - how does one really define these Hashkafos?

A lot of it depends on who is doing the defining. Perspective is a huge factor. Certainly those who see themselves as Centrists may in fact be either left wing or right wing. On the other hand perhaps a moderate Charedi can technically call himself a Centrist too.

It’s therefore kind of difficult to pinpoint exactly what one means by those terms. I have heard the word Centrist used by both the left and the right.

I define myself as a Centrist. What that means to me can be seen somewhat by my bio on top of this blog. But I believe defining Centrism requires a bit more description.

It might be useful to follow the trek I took in getting here.

The first three years of my formal education were spent in public school in Toledo - a city where there was not even a Minyan of observant Jews. I therefore had no religious peers.

My parents were of Chasidic background but of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) Hashkafos – or more correctly - Torah Im Parnassah. But Torah was first in their priorities so they sent me to a Charedi Orthodox day school in nearby Detroit. Despite the fact that some of my Rebbeim there were - and still are - heroes to me, I did not fully pick up their Charedi Hashkafos there.

It was the Rabbis from the Hebrew Theological College (HTC) in Skokie sent to my father’s Shul in Toledo that inspired me. They were hired for Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur. They were Musmachim and were highly educated in secular studies – most of them with college degrees – who were observant, knowledgeable, and well on their way to becoming professionals. Those were my original role models.

After graduating elementary school I attended Telshe for my first two years of high school. That experience solidly turned me away from Charedism. They are (or at least were) a tremendous Makom Torah but I was totally turned off from their hard core Charedi Hashkafos. Their products were not my role models. After completing my sophomore year at Telshe I transferred to HTC which I subsequently attended for the next 10 years and from where I received my Semicha.

The HTC of my era more closely resembled Yeshiva University. During that era Dr. Eliezer Berkovits was an integral part of the Jewish studies program and an important influence in my life. I took 3 of his Jewish philosophy courses and one general philosophy course. I think one can comfortably say that he was on the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy. Some in the Charedi world considered him an Apikores. But he was in good company because I heard Rav Soloveitchik say the same thing about himself – that some people considered him an Apikores too.

The biggest influence in my adult life was Rav Aharon Soloveichik. Aside from the four years in his Shiur and the fact that he was generally my Posek - he was an important source for much of my Centrist Hashkafos.

There were many such influences during those years when I crystallized my Hashkfic outlook. It is from those combined experiences that I developed it - but not from those experiences alone.

I am an adherent of Torah U’Madda (TuM). My definition of TuM is based largely but not exclusively on Dr. Norman Lamm’s attempt at formulating a philosophy of it. Without getting into too much detail TuM means that in addition to the value one gives to Torah study one gives independent value to the study of Mada. But that Torah is the superior of the two. It is in the interplay between Torah and Mada that one will derive truth. If I understand Rav Soloveitchik correctly he called such interplay the source of all truth.

I think that one can see that in two of his great philosophic works -Halakhic Man and Lonely Man of Faith. It is in the Hegelian dialectic between the two independent personalities of a human being. One reflects pure spirituality and the other reflects his observations and study of the physical universe - homo-religiousus and cognitive man. That constant dynamic produces the Man of Halacha.

My Hashkafos obviously contain the five perspectives of Rav Ahron as well - outlined here. Aside from my educational background my Centrist Hashkafa is largely derived of these views as well as those two great works of the Rav and Rav Ahron’s Hashkafic perspectives on Torah U’Madda.

That describes me. But the bottom line definition of a Centrist is one who has a serious and knowledgeable commitment to Halacha with a Hashkafa of either Torah U’Madda or Torah Im Derech Eretz.

I have recently come to interchange Centrism with Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy (RWMO). While I think that there are serious Left Wing Modern Orthodox (LWMO) Jews - there are nevertheless differences between the two that separate them. For example - RWMO Jews tend to shy away from societal trends like feminism even though they might withstand Halachic tests. And most RWMO tend to adhere more strictly to the teachings of the Rav.

LWMO tend to bend over backwards to accommodate social trends like feminism within the parameters of Halacha. And they have parted with some of the teachings of the Rav (e.g. the open Orthodoxy of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah). They explain that they do so because there are new conditions that require it – a position they say the Rav himself might have taken. RWMO would strongly disagree with that.