Sunday, March 07, 2010

Defining Modern Orthodoxy

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky has written an interesting article trying to define what Modern Orthodoxy is and what it is not. He believes that it is generally miss-defined even my many of its own adherents. I think he’s probably right about that. But when he finally does define it, I’m not really sure he has succeeded. Here is what he said:

What it’s actually about is the quest to articulate a religious vision that speaks to, and has the capacity to bring positive change to the modern world - a world whose notion of morality is rooted in a commitment to the equality of all human beings and to universal human rights, a world whose idea of religious responsibility entails not the building of self-encasing walls, but the building of bridges to communities who are “other”, a world in which people seek a relationship with God that does not require understanding and living our halachik commitments so that they support – not contradict – this vision, is the objective that puts the “modern” in “Modern Orthodox”. This is the work that will render us historically important, and religiously relevant. It’s work that’s underway here and there if you look for it. It is work that needs many many more hands.

I agree that articulating a religious vision that brings positive change to the modern world is definitely part of Modern Orthodoxy’s mission. It’s called Tikun Olam. But that is not a specifically a Modern mission. It is an ancient one required of all of Jews not just modern Orthodox Jews.

Nor do I see Modern Orthodoxy’s primary function as joining with the modern world in their commitment to the equality of all human beings and to universal human rights. Not that this is necessarily a bad goal. It is just not a particularly Jewish one and can be harmful if misapplied to ourselves as Jews.

Part of the philosophy of Judaism is an emphasis on the unique and defining roles, responsibilities, and rights of its subgroups. For example: A Yisroel (non Kohen or Levi) does not share the same responsibilities or privileges that a Kohen or a Levi does. Nor do men and women have the same responsibilities and rights. Each has obligations and rights that are specific to them. Universalizing them would be counter to Halacha.

To embrace universal rights for all of humanity is to negate this essential tenant of the Torah for ourselves. So while it is right and proper to promote the ideals of equality of humankind - one must do so from the perspective of the Torah. Joining in the great cause of fighting for universal rights without that very important underpinning is wrong headed and can easily lead sincere people astray.

Building bridges to other communities is always a good idea. But is that an exclusively Modern Orthodox function? Bridges are very important to our existence and well being as a nation. This is the essence of Arvus, the Halachic requirement of responsibility of every Jew toward his fellow. I can unequivocally say that we are all required to reach out and build bridges to fellow Jews of every denomination. Perhaps Chabad knows this better than anyone else.

What we may not do is grant heterodox movements any legitimacy.

Coming from the perspective of the left I suppose Rabbi Kanefsky means reaching out means joining with heterodox movements even in religious matters – something that the acknowledged and decades long leader of 20th century Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik did not approve of. One can perhaps debate whether times have changed and Rav Soloveitchik would now approve (I do not think he would have). But one cannot call this controversial idea a defining component of Modern Orthodoxy.

I do agree with Rabbi Kanefsky about Modern Orthodoxy not building self-encasing walls. That is a legitimate difference between Modern Orthodoxy and right wing or Charedi Orthodoxy.

What I think is missing from Rabbi Kanefsky’s definition is more basic. It is how Modern Orthodoxy views the ‘outside’ world and our participation in it - both on an educational level and on a lifestyle level.

Before we define Modern we must first we define Orthodox. This means that we believe in God and that the Torah is His word. A word which we are required to follow. Modernity is the world outside of those parameters.

Modern Orthodoxy sees a very positive value to secular knowledge either in the form of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) or Torah U’Mada (TuM). Secular knowledge is seen as a positive force in Judaism whether as in integral part of Torah as is the TIDE philosophy or considering Torah and Mada as independent and highly valuable areas study with Torah as a priority over the study of Mada.

Modern Orthodoxy also sees modernity with respect to lifestyle as neither holy nor profane although one can find elements of the holy and the profane in several of its incarnations. Some of it is anathematic to Torah and to be avoided. But there is a vast area wherein we may indeed engage and appreciate modernity as long as it does not violate Halacha. So one may for example listen and appreciate classical music or any other permissible secular activity without any guilt.

By contrast, the right wing tends to vilify almost anything secular in one's lifestyle. If it has no Jewish content it is to be avoided. Only Torah learning is valued. Secular learning is seen at best as a necessary evil for survival to be done sparingly as needed. This is best demonstrated by the Charedi educational system in Israel.

Religious Zionism is another division between right wing Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. But I do not consider it a defining component. Religious Zionism stands alone as a Hashkafa independent of whether one is right wing or Modern – even though it tends to be widely accepted by Modern Orthodox Jews and widely rejected by right wing Jews.

There are of course divisions within divisions that can be made. But this is how I see the two broad categories of right wing Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy.

Finally I would add that that – at least in America - there are very few purely Modern Orthodox or purely right wing Jews. Ideologies by definition must be pure but pure adherents are rare. There is much overlap in the middle. Lifestyles of both communities can therefore be very similar - even while maintaining their Hashkafic differences although there might be some cross fertilization of ideas eventually.

This is why I predict that moderate Charedim and right wing modern Orthodox will meld sociologically into the largest and most significant entity of Orthodoxy.