Thursday, August 25, 2016

YCT: Open? Or Modern?

YCT head, Rabbi Asher Loaptin

I reject it. I reject the hijacking of the Modern Orthodox label by Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). That’s because I define it in far different terms than they do.

YCT head, Rabbi Asher Lopatin has of late eschewed the Open Orthodox label. I don’t blame him. It has been the source of much controversy in Orthodox circles. In some cases it has been called heretical. Based on interviews I have heard I am convinced that it is not. But that has not stopped the controversy surrounding them.

Changing your name does not change who you are. They are still controversial. YCT can perhaps say they are part of a larger group of Modern Orthodoxy. But they cannot say they are the sum and substance of it. I submit that they are not really Modern Orhtodox at all but Open Orthodox as they have claimed in the past. (A term coined by YCT founder, Rabbi Avi Weiss).

I consider myself to be a Modern Orthodox Jew. We do not see Modern Orthodoxy as a movement. We see it as a natural outgrowth of Judaism’s encounter with the modern world. And we see that encounter in a positive way.

We see the world and ask, how can we benefit from what it has to offer? And then we attempt to find out by studying both its academics and its culture… and applying the lessons learned to our way of life. Which will enhance our Avodas HaShem (i.e. serving God).

This is not an original idea. It was first conceived by Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch when he formulated his philosophy of Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE). He truly believed that the modern non Jewish world has many positive things to contribute. And when he found it, he promoted it as an ideal for the Jewish people. Which is why he famously extolled the virtues of German poet, philosopher, physician, historian, and playwright, Friedrich Schiller. His view was that any source that can enhance our service to God was a legitimate source to study and incorporate into our lives.

American Modern Orthodoxy has a different origin sourced not so much in Hashkafa as it is in circumstance.  The Jewish world that dominated early America was very limited religiously. There was little Jewish culture at all and no formal schools of Jewish education at any level. 

As immigration increased over the years, religious life began to be rekindled by the newer immigrants who arrived here more religiously inclined. But the melting pot society that was America until recent times was a powerful force. In a country where freedom prevailed unlike any other, the children of these new immigrants Jews were quick to abandon religion in favor of becoming American and living the American dream.

It didn’t help that it was typical of that time for people to work on Shabbos. In many cases a religious Jew could not find or keep a job if he did not work on that day. So as much as these new immigrants wanted to be observant, many of them succumbed to the pressures of supporting their families  with the security of not losing their jobs. So they reluctantly worked on Shabbos. 

They nevertheless wanted their children to remain observant. But in most cases the children saw that as hypocritical and soon abandoned it all– rejecting any form of observance while chasing the American dream all the way. Meanwhile Jewish education in America was in its infancy.

And yet, there were Jews that struggled to retain their observance. Willing to put up with multiple firings or working at menial jobs at very low pay.  This was the environment of the observant Amercian Jew. Little to no Jewish education, living in a modern culture with liberal values and customs tugging at their children’s hearts. It was a struggle to be observant in live in a society which by definition was to assimilate everyone into its culture and values.

Even observant Jews became acculturated and adopted the American way of life. Their level of observance was limited by their own limited education and the pull of the assimilationist society. This, I believe is how American Modern Orthodoxy evolved. It was not an intellectual process but a cultural one that combined modernity with observance. 

The lack of a solid Jewish education and the pull of the culture meant that their observance that by today’s standards was minimal. Many things crept into Orthodoxy that would be frowned upon by most observant Jews today. Like Orthodox Shuls hosting mixed dancing affairs.

Obviously this is a bit of an oversimplification. But I think it more or less describes the evolution of Modern Orthodoxy in America.

A cultural evolution of Modern Orthodoxy cannot be the definition of a Hashkafa. A Hashkafa must have an ideology.  I think we have to go back to its Hirschean roots in order to define it as a Hashkafa.

At this point I would note that adherents of Hirschean TIDE take strong issue with being called Modern Orthodox. But I think it is fair to call a philosophy that puts a positive spin on both observance; and modern education and culture, Modern Orthodox.

I do understand their objection, however. They define it the way it evolved in America as a cultural phenomenon not based in an ideology. They do not see TIDE as modern, but as the best way to serve God. I would say that it is really both.

Modern Orthodoxy as I see it is basically Hirschean. We can quibble about the differences between TIDE and TuM (Torah U’Mada). And there are significant differences. But the bottom line is that it is the positive encounter between Torah and Mada is what defines us. What does not define us is the desire to fit into Judaism  a modern ethos that in many cases is anathema to our beliefs and practices. That takes our encounter with modernity into new territory. Territory that compromises rather than compliments our service to God. 

Once you start compromising, you never know where that will lead. Ask the leaders of the Conservative Movement where compromise has led them. Like the leaders of YCT, they wanted to ‘conserve’ Judaism in order to appeal to the masses that wished to live their lives as assimilated as possible. Which ended up being a prescription for disaster.

YCT’s motives are more of an appeal to the intellectual Jew of the day rather than the cultural Jew of the past that was the target of the Conservative movement. In some ways YCT’s motives are worse than those of the Conservative Movements were. Culture can change. We are no longer a melting pot society. We are multi cultural. But once you establish an ideology it is much harder to change it. And if that ideology is rejected by the mainstream, you no longer just have a Hashkafa. You have a movement. 

You cannot really call yourself Orthodox if the group you wish to be a part of rejects you. Insisting on the name Modern Orthodox doesn’t make YCT Modern Orthodox. By its statements and actions YCT has changed the original Hashkafic understanding of its founder, Rav Hirsch.  They are no longer just seeking ways in which modernity can enhance ones observance. They are seeking ways to incorporate modern ideas foreign to Judaism into it with a sledge hammer - using tortured explanations of verses in the Torah to make their case.  That is not Modern Orthodoxy. That’s Open Orthodoxy.  That’s what they are and they ought to stick to that name.