Thursday, August 28, 2014

Unresolved Dilemmas

R' Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Once again, I am amazed at the insight a Conservative rabbi has into Orthodox Jewry. Professor Jack Wertheimer has written yet again on the subject of Modern Orthodoxy (MO). This time addressing responses to his original article on the subject.  

The sense I get from his essays on the subject is that in his heart of hearts, he wishes he was part of it. His praise of it - combined with his frequent criticism of his own movement leads me to believe that. To the best of my knowledge he is an observant Jew even by Orthodox standards. Leaving aside the critical issue of belief in Torah MiSinai – which I think he questions based on biblical criticism - he would fit right in. And he would love it here.

What Professor Wertheimer likes about Modern Orthodoxy is what the Conservative Movement was initially supposed to be about: successful engagement with the culture combined with strict adherence to Halacha.

So where in Modern Orthodoxy would Professor Wertheimer fit in? Just as there is denominational divisions in Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox), so too are there divisions in Orthodoxy itself. For purposes of simplicity let us break it down to 2 divisions: Charedim and Modern Orthodox. 

R' Aharon Lichtenstein
Even Modern Orthodoxy (which is the focus of this post) has divisions. Which I have classified in the past as follows: Right Wing MO, Left Wing MO, MO-Lite (meaning those whose religious observance is based more on social reasons than idealistic ones), and Orthoprax (meaning those who observe Halacha but do not necessarily believe in the fundamental tenets of Judaism). There is a lot of overlap… but I think these divisions are fair.

In his article Dr. Wertheimer discusses the influences on Modern Orthodoxy. The following is my take.

The influences of the left are in my view negligible. Open Orthodoxy was created by the left to cater to the left. But because of a Hashkafic approach that was long ago firmly rejected by their mentor, Rav Soloveitchik - and their acceptance as members in good standing of rabbis with heretical views - even some of the more liberal rabbis of Modern Orthodoxy (like Rabbi Barry Freundel) have rejected them.

MO-Lite is not a Hashkafic movement and has no impact on the Hashkafos of Modern Orthodoxy. 

Orthopraxy by definition is not really Judaism.You cannot say that you seriously question God’s existence or the truth of the Torah and claim to be Orthodox in any real sense of the word.

What interests me most is the Charedi influence.

I believe it is indeed very strong. And that it has both positive and negative aspects. As a Centrist I embrace many of the values of the Charedi world, primary among them the strict adherence to Halacha and the high value of Torah study.

Obviously adherence to Halacha is what makes MO – Orthodox. The better we are at observing it, the more Orthodox we are.

Torah study too enhances Modern Orthodoxy. The study and mastery of religious texts on Halacha; texts on the source of Halacha (which include Gemarah, Rishonim, and Achronim) are paramount in understanding who we are and how we got here. More importantly without studying Halacha, we can’t possibly know how to keep it.

Leadership is one area in which we clearly lag behind our Charedi counterparts. As was pointed out by several  of Professor Wertheimer’s respondants ( most directly Rabbi Barry Freundel):
“Who in the Orthodox community is engaging in original Jewish thought,” Freundel asks? Nearly three decades after Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ceased functioning as a leader, he remains the totem invoked at every turn…
But Freundel poses the right question: the failure of contemporary Modern Orthodox leaders to develop Jewish religious thought does indeed appear to be a symptom of theological uncertainty, if not malaise. 
If there is any failing that Modern Orthodoxy has, it is the current lack of great Torah personalities like Rav Soloveitchik (the Rav). There is no Modern Orthtodox thinker around today that has anywhere near the respect and authority that did the Rav. The closest one would be Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. But even if at age 80 he were to be granted the same degree of respect, there is no one else even close to him on the horizon. There is not a single rabbinic authority of great stature in Modern Orthodoxy today that anyone can point to and say: He is our guide in Halacha. He is our guide in Hashkafa.

I suppose that this is in part the ‘nature of the beast’. Modern Orthodoxy is less focused on central authority figures.  Those of us with a strong background in Torah study tend to think for ourselves… and take positions based on the teachings of our mentor. In some cases more than one mentor has influenced us. We also look at sources to corroborate our positions on matters of Halacha and Hashkafa. But that leaves a vacuum of leadership on matters not so simply clarified on our own – no matter what our background is.

This is why Charedim have made inroads into our world. For lack of any other authority figures, many RWMOs turn to Charedi leaders for guidance. And their guidance may not necessarily be what a MO thinker like the Rav would advise.

This is amply demonstrated by the gap year in Israel. There are many former MO Yeshiva and seminary heads that have moved to the right in a big way, relying on Charedi Poskim for guidance. Which is why some parents see their children ‘Flipping out’ (Becoming Charedi) during their time in Israel.

There was a study done awhile back on whether ‘Flipping out’ during the gap year was actually happening… and if so - what that entailed. The conclusion as I recall was that these kids were not flipping out at all. They were just taught to take their Judaism more seriously.

I think that’s true. But along with that came other behavior that not only reflected seriousness about Judaism but a Charedi approach to it. Like wearing black Hats; insistence on Chalav Yisroel, Yoshon and various other Chumros; putting all secular culture in a negative light; turning away from a university education (even in a Yeshiva environment like YU); And instead joining a Charedi Yeshiva; and possibly even deciding to join a Kollel and learn indefinitely after marriage.

Not every student that goes to Israel for their gap year turns out this way. I don’t know what the numbers are - but many do. I know quite a few like that. Is that flipping out or is it just becoming more serious about your Judaism? I think it in many cases it is the former.

There is also the Charedi influences from Israel. They  do not impact MO directly. They do however influence American Charedim. The differences between these two sets of Charedim are huge. Here is how Professor Wetheimer puts whatI believe to be the major divide between them:
American haredim, for example, are far likelier than Israeli haredim to seek gainful employment and pursue degrees in higher education. In fact, haredi rabbis in Israel have disparaged this American trend, while American haredi leaders have given their tacit if not explicit approval.
I think that’s true. It is the way Orthodoxy is evolving into what I have called the ‘New Centrists’ comprised of moderate Charedim and RWMOs whose lifestyles are essentially be the same.

There is however a trend in the more right wing segments of the Charedi world in America to emulate the Israeli system – which they see as holier. To that end they are minimizing or completely eliminating secular studies in some of their high schools. 

There seems to be a tug of war here between moderate Charedim and right wing Charedim. I’m not sure which will prevail. Perhaps there will be another ‘split’ in Judaism that will separate the moderates from the right. I don’t know. But I do know that whatever happens in the Charedi world will trickle down into the RWMO world.

So there you have it. It is a mixed bag with forces on all sides impacting each other. I don’t think any of these segments of Orthodoxy will survive in their present incarnation.  I think that after all is said and done, a new sociologically centrist mainstream will be formed. The only question is, with all these influences at play - what will it look like?