Thursday, September 04, 2014

Defining Modern Orthodoxy

Logo of Modern Orthodoxy's flagship institution
One of the things I have not sufficiently addressed over the years is how to define Modern Orthodoxy. Those times where I did, it was usually in other contexts – or as replies to challenges about it. Dr. Baruch Brody seems to have risen to the task. He has apparently written an essay in Hakirah Magazine doing just that – defining in specific terms what that definition is – or should be. I do not subscribe to Hakirah. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has provided the main elements of his definition – along with his analysis of it in Cross Currents.

I will first attempt to define what I believe Modern Orthodoxy should be (rather than what it is or perceived to be by others).  I will then address each of Dr. Brody’s points – which I do not believe are exclusive to this Hashkafa.

The primary tenets (for lack of a better word) of Modern Orthodoxy are inherent in its name. We are both Modern and Orthodox. ‘Orthodox’ being the noun and ‘Modern’ being the modifying adjective. We are Orthodox first and modern second. First let us define the term Orthodox.

Orthodoxy in Judaism means unequivocal adherence to the Torah in both belief and practice. There is no wiggle room in that. Rejecting even one Mitzvah – no matter how minor – takes us out of the realm of Orthodoxy. The same is true about belief. If one for example does not believe in God, then one cannot be Orthodox no matter how meticulous his observance of the Mitzvos. This definition is no different than the Charedi definition. I believe that we are both on the same page with respect to the Orthodox part on Modern Orthodoxy.  It is in the ‘Modern’ part that we disagree. There is disagreement from both the right and the left. For purposes of this post I will focus on the right (even though some of what I say might apply to the left as well).

I will attempt to explain what I believe to the essence of what it means to be modern in an Orthodox context. I basically boils down to 2 essential points. The 1st is embracing worldly (or secular) knowledge as a positive value. One that should be sought, appreciated, and utilized.  The 2nd is a positive view of secular culture where it does not contradict Halacha. Without getting into the specific differences between Torah Im Dereche Eretz (TIDE) and Torah U’Mada (TuM), they are both expressions of the primary component of Modern Orthodoxy that values secular knowledge and secular culture.

This is in contradistinction to the Charedi view which does not value it beyond its utilitarian value.

One thing that Modern Orthodoxy is not about – is being less religious. That, unfortunately is the common Charedi misconception about it. It may be true that a lot of Modern Orthodox Jews are less religious. But there are plenty of Charedim that fall into that category too. I will admit, however that the nature of Modern Orthodox enclaves do tend to be less religious. This is a sociological phenomenon, not a Hashkafic one. One that is beyond the scope of this post.  Modern Orthodoxy should be defined by its ideals. Not in how many of its adherents live up to them. Same as Charedism.

This in a nutshell is what MO is and is not. Which brings me to the specificificities  Dr. Brody wants to include as part of Modern Orthodoxy’s definition. Rabbi Adlerstein synopsizes them and questions them. I do too. I do not think that his points are exclusive to Modern Orthodoxy.  I will list his points in bold as delineated by Rabbi Adlerstein. My comments follow (in red) :

1) the value of human worth and dignity, and of human individuality;

 The value of human worth and diginity is a universal Torah value.

2) the value of beauty for its own sake;

The same is true of beauty. The Gemarah has ample examples of its inherent value.

3) the value of individual conscience in interpreting G-d’s law;

The question of individual conscience is somewhat of an ambiguous point. The conscience of a human being is based on his teachings. In psychology it is called the superego. It is that part of the personality that tells you the difference between right and wrong. In Judaism the Torah is first and foremost – that teacher. 

Are there ethics beyond what the Torah tells us? I think that is a debate that goes beyond MO and Charedi differences. But there is a source for that in the context of  ‘Lifnim MeShuras HaDin’. We can be ethical beyond the letter of the law. So that if our individual consciences tell us something is immoral even if the Torah does not spell it out for us, then it is.This too is not as specific MO concept.

 4) the value of toleration (? respect) of diversity;

MO is definitely more tolerant of diversity. But I do not see that as a definitional MO value. It is a Jewish value more practiced by MO.

5) the value of inquiry even into long-established truths;

Inquiry into long established truths is a dangerous area. But that too is not specific to MO. While MO is more tolerant of it, there is nothing inherently wrong with having questions.  It is settling on answers that defy belief in God or his Torah that is problematic. While some may find those answers intellectually satisfying, they are not necessarily the only intellectually satisfying answers to their questions. Just because there are so many unsatisfying answers out there, doesn’t mean the right ones don’t exist. This too is not necessarily an MO concept. I know many Charedi Rabbonim who feel the same way.

6) the tentative acceptance of the results of scientific inquiry as true;

Accepting the results of scientific inquiry is more of an MO feature than it is Charedi. But there too, there are Charedi scientists that do accept those results as true. The classic one being the age of the universe. To believe it is 15 billion years old is not an exclusive MO feature. Although most Charedim reject it, saying the age of the universe is less than 6ooo years old, those with a scientific orientation do, even if they are Charedi.  Among them Physicist Aryeh Kaplan. I think it’s safe to say that he defined himself as Charedi. And almost all of his works have been published by the Charedi publishing house, ArtScroll.

7) the value of reason;

The value of reason is certainly not limited to MO.

8) the belief in cumulative human progress;

…nor is the value of human progress.

9) the rule of law, derived from the consent of the governed that binds all citizens equally;

The rule of law is simply the concept of Dina D’Machusa Dina. Not a specifically an MO belief.

10) the principle of fundamental human rights held equally by all;

The principle of fundamental human rights can be seen as Kavod HaBriyos. All of mankind is created  B’Tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) and are to be treated accordingly. Not an exclusively MO belief.
11) the values of liberty, equality and fraternity;

It is interesting that Dr. Brody chooses the credo of French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity as an important feature of Modern Orthodoxy.  All segments of Judaism value Liberty – the freedom to choose how to live our lives – as long as it does not interfere with the lives of others. Equality has to be defined. In general terms we all should be treated equally. That is basic simple fairness. But when notions of equality interfere with Halacha, we do not accept them. Not MO and not Charedim. We cannot for example equalize the role of men and women when it comes to the quorum required to make a Minyan. Only men can be counted into such a Minyan. Women cannot.

12) the importance of nationality.

If Dr. Brody means being proud of the country in which we live if it has been good to us - I don’t think that is a particularly MO value. Although I do believe it is more prevalent among MO… and that some Charedim do not value it at all, I think it depends on the individual. There are for example many Charedi rabbis I know in Chicago that put out an American flag on certain legal holidays – like Independence Day and Memorial Day.

The bottom line is that none of Dr. Brody's points are exclusively MO. Nor do I even see the wisdom in narrowing down the definition beyond explaining our differences with other segments.