Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Defining Modern Orthodoxy

R' Aharon Lichtenstein - a Centrist Icon
Defining Orthodoxy is fraught with peril. It is virtually impossible to get a consensus on what its parameters are. Of course there are some segments that define themselves as the only true representatives of Judaism and de-legitimize all other segments. Including other Orthodox ones. They may be one manifestation of it. But they are certainly by far not the only manifestation of it.

For purposes of this post, I will define the general category of Orthodox Judaism as follows. It is the belief in the fundamental tenets of Judaism and acceptance as mandatory adherence to Halacha.

I have always divided Orthodoxy into these categories: Charedim, Chasidim, Centrist (RWMO), Left Wing (LWMO) and  MO-Lite (...observant more by rote or peer pressure than by conviction). There is also a category called Orthopraxy that consist of Jews who are not believers but practice Judaism for a variety of reasons unrelated to belief. (Such as honoring one’s parents or just being desirous of belonging - and being an integrated member of an Orthodox community.)

The problem with dividing Orthodoxy into categrories is that there is often a lot of overlap. In some cases it’s hard to peg to which category one might belong. I don’t think one can draw any hard lines. But in a general way, I think these categories are fairly distinct.

There are others that breakup Orthodoxy somewhat differently. In a Forward article, here is how Jerome Chanes has done it: 
Modern Orthodox; Centrist Orthodox; the Yeshiva arena (“yeshivish”); Chasidim; Chabad; and Satmar. 
I actually agree with this breakdown up to a point. It does not really contradict my own classifications. I concede that Chabad  and Satmar are additional independent categories. (Although I do not agree that they aren’t really Chasdim at all. They most certainly are).

Where I part company with him is in how he defines Centrist Orthodoxy out of Modern Orthodoxy... and the reason it has developed the way it has. As a Centrist, I consider myself Modern Orthodox. I think it is important to make that clear. What he now defines Modern Orthodoxy is the way I define Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy. Here is how he says Centrism evolved: 
(T)he Modern Orthodox began looking over their right shoulder at the more sectarian world of Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Yeshivas. “Hmm — they are wonderfully observant, they sit and ‘learn,’ and they do send their kids to college!” Second, in terms of interaction with the external world — what we call public affairs — the Modern Orthodox began moving in a rightward direction. 
The result? The overwhelming majority of those we used to call “Modern Orthodox” are further to the right both religiously and in terms of public affairs, increasingly conservative on Israel and religious issues. The Modern Orthodox world of the 1960s, moderate-to-liberal on most public policy issues — church-state, civil rights, Israel, even reproductive choice — has moved steadily rightward. These are the “Centrist Orthodox.” 
Leaving out the political side of it, that is not exactly what happened. I can understand why someone on the left that now calls themselves MO thinks that. But this is not exactly what a Centrist is. First (aside form the obvious adherence to the fundamentals of faith and adherence to Halacha) a Centrist has by no means abandoned modernity. We believe that there is much to be gained in the modern world both educationally and culturally.

Modern Orthodoxy actually encompasses two separate Hashkafos. Torah U’Madda (TuM) and Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE - as expressed by its founder Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch). Although adherents of TIDE sometimes vehemently deny that they are MO or that they have anything to do with TuM - by definition, TIDE embraces modernity and has much in common with TuM.

Both believe that secular knowledge is valuable. Both believe that there is much in secular culture to admire. There are differences in the reasons of both. But  in practice there is little difference. (TIDE should not be confused with some of the customs that are common among German Jews who are the people most commonly associated with TIDE. It is not the customs of German Jewry that defines TIDE. It is their Hashkafa that defines it.)

I do agree with Mr. Chanes that the Modern Orthodoxy of our day is not the same Modern Orthodoxy of our parents and grandparents day. But I don’t accept that the new ‘Modern Orthodoxy’ is only reflected by the left. In my view the category still very much includes Centrists.  We may be perceived as being more right wing but we are certainly not pushing any rightward envelopes. The left on the other hand is pushing the envelope of Orthodoxy leftward beyond acceptable limits. The things he cites as innovations are the very things that border on crossing the lines of even the Modern Orthodoxy of old. Here is how he puts it: 
The Modern Orthodoxy of today, distinguished from the Centrist, is the only place in the world of traditional observance where interesting, creative, innovative things are happening. It’s the arena of Drisha and Yeshivat Maharat, offering traditional study of Jewish texts for women; of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg; of the “partnership” minyanim, pushing the envelope in traditional structures of prayer; of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s “Open Orthodoxy.” 
This may be modern. But it barely resembles Orthodoxy in my view. Mr. Chanes  attributes the Centrist move to the right to looking over our shoulders at organizations like Agudah. This is simply not a fact. What we have done is become more educated about Judaism and accepted the fact that in the past, there was a lot of ignorance about actual Halacha. 

Just to take one example. Modern Orthodox social events used to have mixed dancing. That completely ignores Halacha. It is forbidden by Halacha for a man and a woman (that are not married to each other) to touch one another. Even according to those who allow it in non sexual platonic ways – dancing together is not one of those ways 

To take another example, most married Modern Orthodox women of the past did not cover their hair. Halacha requires them to do so. In our day almost all married Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair – even those in LWMO.

In most cases we are far more educated than our MO parents and grandparents were. That is what the day school system has accomplished. We are more knowledgeable about Halacha and strive to follow it more carefully. To the causal observer who sees us now and remembers the past, it just seems like we are looking to our right. But that isn’t what we do.

What distinguishes a Centrist from a LWMO is not our attitude towards modernity. We both have positive views of it. It is how we view innovations in our religious practices. Whereas Mr. Chanes sees  breaking with tradition as a positive response to the spirit of the times - we view it as a negative break from normative Judaism. We value tradition and are resistant to changing it unless there are some very strong – even existential reasons to do so. By responding to the spirit of the times with innovations like Partnership Minyans LWMO begins to resemble Heterodoxy more than the do Orthodoxy. That they do not cross any Halachic lines may still make them Modern Orthodox*. But certainly not exclusively so... or even in the mainstream sense of the word.

They no more have that kind of exclusionary claim, than do certain Charedim to the claim that their version of Judaism is the only authentic form of it. In my view, though both may be Orthodox, they are both extreme versions of it.

*Leaving out their recent embrace of one of their ordained rabbis who has rejected some of the fundamental tenets of our faith - which does cross a line into Heterodoxy.