Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tolerating the Fringe

I am a Centrist. That is a Hashkafic term referring primarily to my belief in Torah U’Mada. I would also include as Centrists those who believe in Torah Im Derech Eretz. A more sociological term which categorizes us in the broad spectrum of Orthodox Judiasm is Right Wing Modern Orthodox. We are – as the term implies - modern in the sense that we view positively participation in the secular world as long as Halacha is not violated. And we are right wing in the sense that we follow Halacha, are Koveah Itim (set aside time for Torah study), and see Judaism in traditional terms.

In that sense we do not differ too much from moderate Charedim. Our Hashkafos are different but our lifestyles are basically the same. Which is why I use the word Centrist in a new way to describe a new Orthodox demographic comprised of both groupings - one which I believe will eventually represent the vast majority of mainstream Orthodox Jewry

There are two other segments of modern Orthodoxy. MO-Lite whose members are not ideologically driven but socially driven - and Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. They are very ideologically driven. They are driven by an agenda that is decidedly untraditonal. And yet they are still Orthodox in the primary sense of the word. They do not violate Halacha and to the best of my knowledge do not believe in heretical ideas.

Modern Orthodoxy is currently at a crossroads. So says Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein in an excellent Cross-Currents article. I think he has a point. There is a struggle between these two Hashkafos as to how to define Modern Orthodoxy that has yet to be resolved.

Rabbi Adlerstein correctly perceives that the Rabbinic body representing modern Orthodox rabbis, the RCA, is struggling with the left as represented by Rabbi Avi Weiss. He has attempted innovations that clearly depart from traditional practices. He has forwarded an agenda of egalitarianism. To that end he as ordained the first Orthodox female rabbi (rabba), founded a seminary to continue doing it(Yeshivat Maharat), and allowed a woman to be the Chazzanit for Kabbolas Shabbos in his Shul.

I think it is safe to say that the left’s agenda is currently being led by feminist egalitarian ideals. Looked at in isolation the equality of the sexes is a noble goal and one which I enthusiastically support. But looking at it through the lens of Halacha and Hashkafa - it becomes much more complicated.

Halacha dictates different roles for men and for women. They are equal – but have separate roles in serving God. While in certain circumstances changing tradition may be wise it is not always the case and should not be treated lightly. There has to be a good reason to change tradition. I’m not at all convinced that egalitarianism is a legitimate reason for that change.

Many proponents of these types of innovations will argue that they merely want to expand the way a woman can express herself spiritually and that they use men’s modalities because it’s there – already in place and used by men. They will say it is actually less of an innovation than making up an entirely new ritual for example. Maybe so. But spirituality does not seem to be what the left is talking about. It is egalitariniansim and breaking barriers. In the left’s discussion of the RCA’s rejection of female rabbis - here is the money quote from Cross Currents:

The “chatter” on websites of the Left included assurances that the RCA Convention vote against ordination of women was only a minor setback, and that the struggle for egalitarianism would continue apace.

‘Struggle for egalitarianism’. Need I say more?

I am not here to re-hash the argument. Suffice it to say that I am opposed to changing traditional practices for egalitarian reasons. Like I said – changing traditional practices should not be taken lightly. Doing so can change the entire character of Orthodoxy into something that even our grandparents wouldn’t recognize.

The left wants to define Modern Orthodoxy in those terms. The right is opposed. How do we see ourselves in the future? Do we insist on retaining tradition or do we allow innovations that are dictated by which way the wind is blowing?

If Modern Orthodoxy refuses to buckle to Zeitgeist driven agendas, what do we do about the left that insists on it? Will Modern Orthodoxy continue to be a big tent and allow the left its agenda or will it write them out of it?

I am somewhat torn between the two options. On the one hand I am uncomfortable writing anyone or any group out of Orthodoxy if they do not violate Halacha or legitimize heretical philosophies. To the best of my knowledge the left does not do that. But that does not mean they have a right to re-define Modern Orthodoxy into something unrecognizable either.

The RCA is the most prominent spokesman for Modern orthodoxy. I would add Yeshiva University to that voice. It is important to declare who we are in both Halachic and Hashkafic terms. What is acceptable and what isn’t.

In my view Modern Orthodoxy must define itself in broad but limiting terms and reject radical innovations that are driven by non Torah agendas like egalitarianism. That said it should not reject the left entirely but rather tolerate it with a disapproving eye. I know this sounds somewhat schizophrenic but in my view it is important to assert what MO stands for and what it doesn’t… and yet what it will tolerate without endorsing it. So I do not agree with Rabbi Adlerstein’s suggestion that it might be more appropriate to simply draw a line in the sand and say, “This is not our Yiddishkeit!” It may not be our Yiddishkeit or that of our parents but I am opposed to drawing a hard line. I would not write the left out of Modern Orthodoxy for anything less than advocating violations of Halacha and essential beliefs. But I would clearly let them know that they are on the fringe and not definitive in any way of Modern Orthodoxy.

In any case, I do not believe the left has any real future a real movement cannot remain static. If they are currently on the fringe they may eventually cross the line. I suspect that many of those seeking egalitarianism will never be satisfied with anything but complete equality between the sexes in all matters – religious or otherwise.

They will perforce gravitate to the Conservative movement which has no restrictions. The rest will hopefully come to understand why egalitarianism is not the ideal way to express one’s devotiuon to God and find more traditional waysof doing it equally satisfying. But for the time being, I certainly do not want to push any of them out of the fold.