Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Scholarly View of the Right, Left and Middle

Bar Ilan Historian, Professor Adam Ferziger
I had the privilege yesterday of listening to a lecture given by social historian, Professor Adam Ferziger. He was the scholar-in-residence at the Boynton Beach Synagogue I attended. Professor Ferziger was ordained in Yeshiva University and received his PhD from Bar Ilan Universty. He is a prolific writer and intellectual having written several books on his area of expertise - as well as many scholarly articles in professional and academic journals. Needless to say, he is also an Orthodox Jew. And if I may say so his religious sentiments seem to be oriented toward Centrism even though I doubt that he would like to be pegged that way – Or pegged any way for that matter.

It always gives me great satisfaction when I hear a scholar with a reputation like Professor Ferziger’s say the kinds of things I have been saying here. As a social historian he has a perspective that few others have. While his views and mine are not identical, the overlap is substantial.

His message yesterday at one of his many lectures was about how Orthodoxy has changed over the last century or so. He began with a premise first proposed by another Orthodox Jewish scholar, Professor Charles S. Liebeman. Back in the 60s Professor Liebman authored a pioneering essay entitled Orthodoxy in American Jewish Life wherein he rejected the commonly held belief by historians that the future of Judaism in America was in heterodoxy. Jews would thereby better fit in to the American ‘melting pot’ society of the times. Orthodox Jews were thought to be ancient relics of the past that were doomed to fail in an America whose freedoms were in many cases anathema to many of Orthodoxy’s ideals.

(This became tragically apparent when a group of 100 Orthodox rabbis traveled to Washington DC on Shabbos to meet with then President Roosevelt. They wanted to discuss saving European Jews during the Holocaust.  Before the meeting FDR asked Samuel Rosenman who was Jewish and one of his his senior advisers whether these rabbis represented any real constituency. Rosenman responded with the accepted notion that these rabbis represent a small and dying segment of Jewry that would no doubt shortly disappear from the American scene.)

Based on his personal experiences, Professor Liebman correctly predicted that Orthodoxy would grow dynamically and that many Orthodox Jews felt quite comfortable integrating with American culture while maintaining their religious beliefs and practises. This was the way it was in America prior to the Holocaust. Orthodox education was mostly geared towards that type of integration. Then Orthodox Jews sought to be both Orthodox and fully American.  Yeshiva University came into existence to accommodate that mindset. As did movements like Young Israel. Day Schools and high schools at that time were geared towards producing assimilated observant Jews with an emphasis on higher education.

Until the great European immigration resulting from Holocaust, this was the way most Jews lived. Although there were some fledgling right wing institutions that sprang up pre-Holocaust (e.g. Torah VoDa'ath), even they understood that a higher education was the path most Orthodox Jews sought.

With the mass immigration of European Jewish refugees post Holocaust - a new paradigm arose. One that most people refer to as Charedi or ultra-Orthodox. That has grown into what we have today. A major and dominant force in Orthodoxy. That culture is one of insularity from the culture. It supports Jewish values to the exclusion of all secular values. 

There resulted in a competing set of Orthodoxies. One that rejected most of the secular world and one that embraced it. Both loyal to traditional beliefs and practises. The chasm was pretty great. 

But as I have said many times, Professor Ferziger noted that both communities have been moving to a center point. He cited several examples where the Charedi world was moving toward the center from the right… and Modern Orthodoxy was moving toward the center from the left. 

I have called this phenomenon the New Centrism. One which is based on social rather than idealistic concerns. It consists of observant Jews that live all but identical lifestyles and have jobs requiring a higher education in many cases. 

In addition, there is more participation in the culture by the moderate Charedim albeit with perhaps some guilt. And moderate Charedim are the ones that choose schools for their children that offer a secular education. 

By the same token many Modern Orthodox Jews have moved to their right, while maintaining Hashkafos that include positive engagement with the culture. Which is what ideological Centrism is all about (as opposed to sociological Centrism).

This is a subject I have covered many times. It’s nice to see a credentialed expert on Jewish sociology saying pretty much the same thing (albeit with very some minor nuanced differences.)

What Professor Ferziger did not really touch upon was the impact of the extremes at both ends. There is still a strongly held belief by the more right wing Charedi rabbis that insularity is the only way to preserve traditional Judaism. They discourage any participation with non Jewish culture.This is true even in the American Yeshiva world. 

But in the Satmar type Chasidic world and the entire Charedi world in Israel (Yeshiva and Chasidic), the isolationist ideal is so strong tit makes even the extreme right of the American Yeshiva world seem modern by comparison. Although moderate Charedim are by far the mainstream, the influences of the extreme right cannot be discounted. Those influences are very powerful on the Charedi mind that views their rabbinic leaders as their ultimate authorities in all things.

And to the left there is an Orthodoxy so strongly influenced by the values of the general culture that Orthodox Judaism as we know it is being turned into something unrecognizable – even as observance of the Mitzvos is a given for them. Their influence should not be discounted either.

I’m not exactly sure how Professor Ferziger sees the fringes at the extreme ends of Orthodoxy. I’m sure he is aware of them and has an opinion.  (I may be wrong but if I had to guess I suspect his views may not be that far off from my own.) But I understand his reticence to discuss a controversial topic to an audience where people from both factions were present.