Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Centrism – Where Do We Go from Here?

RIETS Beis HaMedrash - Yeshiva University's Hashkafa must be strengthened
There is not a doubt in my mind that Modern Orthodoxy is under siege. Not a physical siege or even an intentional psychological one. But a siege nonetheless. It has been ongoing now for some time and happening right under our noses over the past few decades. We are losing the ‘war’. Right wing ideas and customs are taking hold in our world.

If Centrism is to lay claim to the term Modern Orthodox, we have to examine what has happened to us and why. And where do we go from here? How should we define ourselves as a distinct and legitimate form of Orthodoxy? It is not for nothing that many on the left see us as Charedi light. That’s because we have adopted many of their customs and Chumros. I know many Centrist Jews that wear black hats for example. It is now almost impossible to discern whether an individual is a Centrist or a Moderate Charedi. This has both good and bad implications. Let me explain.

In the positive sense, there is nothing wrong and everything right with taking Halacha seriously. In the past there was a lot of license in Modern Orthodox circles to look the other way as Halacha was skirted or even violated. The classic example of this was the idea of a Young Israel synagogue hosting an event where there was mixed dancing between the sexes. There are clear violations of Halacha when a man and woman that are not married to each other – or even if they are married but where the wife is a state of Nidah - dance with each other. Physical contact of any kind is not permitted. Certainly not in the context of a dance. But back in the day - this was largely ignored. 

I will go a step further and say that there was a time where many Modern Orthodox women that were Shomer Shabbos and Kashrus but did not observe Taharas HaMishpacha (use a Mikva). Which means that both they and their husbands  were in serious violation of Halacha. I personally know quite a few people like that. (Most eventually did come to observe these laws but it is clear that at one time they did not. In many cases it was because of pure ignorance of Halacha.)  Today, virtually all MO women from right to left do.

Improvement in our day in these areas has led in part to a phenomenon which I call social centrism rather than philosophical or Hashkafic Centrism. Which means that moderate Charedim and Centrists each have our own Hashkafos, but lead our daily lives in almost indistinguishable ways.

But there is a bad side to this in the sense that many modern Orthodox customs have have practically disappeared. To take one example - Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet laments the loss of mixed seating at weddings and banquets. It is no longer fashionable to sit together with your wife and other couples at a wedding or banquet. One should hear or read a transcript of his Shiur on this. It is eye opening. While there are some weddings that are still mixed, the tide is turning away from that as many Centrist Jews want to accommodate invited Charedi Rabbonim and friends and  that prefer to sit only with members of the same sex.  And it is also sometimes the case that children of MO parents that have spent a year in Israel come back with Charedi ideas – having attended a Yeshiva that caters to MO but is as Charedi as they come – indoctrinating their students that way. (Some call this phenomenon ‘flipping out’.)

Which brings me to PORAT. Again. As listed by an anonymous attendee of their inaugural meeting - (identifying only as ‘Comentator’), here are the buzzwords that he heard there: 
the qualities of the Orthodoxy being sought included: “Inclusion .. tolerance .. compassion...love…community…open tent… open discussion.. unifying force…grassroots voices…listening community …Orthodox…spiritual…non-judgmental…civil discourse...independent…self-confident”. 
There is little if anything among these words that I would not support and endorse. However, it matters how we define some of the more controversial words or terms among them. Like open tent. 

Contrary to what some have been saying about Centrism we are not rejectionists. Orthodox Judaism of any stripe, whether modern or Charedi should be open to all Jews, regardless of their level of religiosity or beliefs. One can and should accept every Jew at face value. What one may not do is accept some of their mistaken ideas about Jewish theology. Nor should one place any legitimacy on violations of Halacha that they may not observe. 

We should not be judgmental. Nor hit them over the head with rebuke each time we see a violation. We should welcome all Jews under the tent of Orthodoxy with open arms. But if they ask, we need to be honest with them about whether what they are doing is Halachicly correct or not. Our approach should be through mentchlichkeit and to influence them mostly by example. But accept them into the community we must. They are Jews like anyone else. We are brothers and sisters. The Torah requires us to love our fellow Jew. And it mandates responsibility for one another.

Is PORAT the answer to these problems?  For me the answer is clearly, no! First because of
PORAT’s interpretation of those buzzwords. They take the idea of ‘open tent’ to mean accepting not only the individuals themselves but their theological ideas as well. Ideas that are Apikursus bordering on Kefira. That is where I part company with them. This (among other things) crosses hard lines set by the spiritual mentor of Modern Orthodoxy, Rav Soloveitchik.

So what is the answer? Should we start a parallel organization that has its own ideas about how to define those words that would fit with our Centrist worldview? I am disinclined to believe that this will help. Sad as it may be, I don’t see grass roots type organizations accomplishing anything against the tide of right wing influences.

The only real way to return to our own identity as Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews is to each individually lead our lives that way. And to make sure that our schools reflect those views. We should encourage more Centrist young people to seriously consider a career in Chinuch. We need to develop more leadership along the lines of Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Lichtenstein. And we need to strengthen existing Centrist institutions like Yeshiva University

This approach may be ‘spitting in the  wind’ since the Charedi world is growing at exponential rates - as is their influence (compared to the Modern Orhtodox world). Add to this the fact that Chinuch is a natural field for Charedi young people to pursue, and it seems like an almost hopeless endeavor. But if we are to return to – or retain any of our Centrist values, in my view this is about the best thing we can hope for.