Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Modern Orthodoxy and Esav

There is a rumor going around the Internet that the Rosh HaYeshiva of Beis HaMedrah Govoha (Lakewood), Rabbi Malkiel Kotler - speaking in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush last Shabbos- compared Modern Orthodox Jews to Esav. And that he grouped them together with Conservative and Reform Jews.

I have no independent verification of this - but to it is not too hard to believe that it actually happened.

Unfortunately that right wing leaders have this view of modern Orthodoxy is not new. In a speech on Shabbos three years ago, another right wing rabbi said virtually the same thing. Only he compared modern Orthodox rabbis to Hellenized Jews seeking converts to their cause. That was verified by people that were there. Interestingly both events happened on or around Chanukah.

This enmity by rabbis of the right against modern Orthodoxy has existed for a long time. And just so their flock doesn’t forget it - they bring up from time to time in various contexts to reinforce it. The very word modern to rabbinic leaders like this is evil. And those who embrace modernity are therefore evil by default.

How in Heaven's name does any Jew, let alone a respected Rosh Yeshiva of one of the largest Yeshivos justify preaching hate? That is exactly what he and others like him do when they say things like this. What is it that makes modern Orthodox Jews a bunch of Esavs - that have to be fought like Conservative and Reform Jews? How can anyone condemn God fearing Jews who observe Torah and Mitzvos and believe in Torah Min HaShamyim ? What does he gain with this?

One may be tempted to defend those statements by saying he did not mean all modern Orthodox Jews, He only meant certain ones on the very left of Orthodoxy - who are innovating radical changes in tradition. I can certainly understand why he might be upset by that. I certainly assert his right to disagree with them - even strongly. But to call them Esav and read them out of Judaism?

If this is what passes for right wing leadership, then right wing Judaism is in bigger trouble than I ever imagined. And their demise will happen sooner rather than later. Despite their large and exponentially growing numbers. At least as Rabbi Kotler would define them.

It is a deadly combination.

They preach complete rejection of all secular culture and education unless directly related to Parnassa (which they consider at best to be a second class endeavor).

They isolate themselves from the rest of society on the pretext of protecting the holy walls of the Torah from being breached by the immorality of the outside world.

They reject any conduit to the outside world no matter how valuable.

And they reject any Jew who dares to embrace modernity – calling them Esavs.

How can they possibly survive with such growing numbers little or no preparation for jobs and the rejection of so many of their coreligionists? How can a society that preaches hatred of fellow religious Jews lay claim to any validity?

And yet when a man whose last name is synonymous with establishing the Torah world in America says something- people listen. This is how that world treats statements by their rabbinic leaders. If he says it –it must be true. Who are they to question it?

I don’t know what the future holds for this world. They seem to be on a triumphalist tear. Growing by leaps and bounds eclipsing the growth of all other demographics in Orthodox Jewry. It would seem from all this that they are secure enough to tell their coreligionists, ‘Eat my dust!’

But I cannot believe that their isolationist and anti modern Orthodox views will ultimately prevail. As I have said many times - the two communities are merging socially. At least the moderate ones from that world with the more right wing ones from the other. No amount of rhetoric will change this. On the contrary, I tend to believe that this kind of rhetoric is a big turn off to the moderates among them. I also believe that the moderates are the silent majority of the right.

The world of Lakewood as defined by Rabbi Kotler will eventually collapse of its own weight. Rabbi Kotler will only hasten their demise. Lakewood cannot not survive financially as it is. Their very growth works against them. Their students will be forced to confront modernity as many of them already have (witness the number of people there who use the ‘forbidden’ Internet and have wireless connections in their homes) . If they want to earn decent wages they have no choice but to engage in modernity at some level.

They are forced into the modern world of secular education where the good jobs come from. They will are forced into a modern workforce where the jobs actually are. And they will eventually come to realize that modern Orthodox Jews are not the Esavs that Rabbi Kotler has ostensibly painted them into… that they are not all that different from themselves. That will then give lie to what was supposedly said by Rabbi Kotler. And the more his students come to realize it, the more they will reject Rabbi Kotler and any Rav who declares observant Jews to be illegitimate Esavs.