Friday, May 05, 2017

The Orthodox Divide - Not What Appears to Be

Partnership Minyan (JTA)
One of the sad realities that contributes to the divide between Modern Orthodoxy (MO) and the right  (Charedim) is how Modern Orthodoxy is defined by the right. It is usually defined in the most negative way. This was made clear by a student of Rabbi Bechhofer who has chosen to remain anonymous. Rabbi Bechhofer has published his essay entitled ‘The Orthodox Divide” on this subject. Based on the experience he has in his own community, he sees MO the same way.

The short version is that the right (which he calls the Orthodox) sees MO observance determined through the lens of the modern world. In other words the word modern takes precedence over the word Orthodox. So that when there is a conflict between the values of each, modernity wins the day. The right never takes modernity into consideration with respect to their religious practices and beliefs. If there is a conflict, Orthodoxy wins. There is no ‘modern’ in their definition of Orthodoxy.

I tend to agree up to a point. But Modern Orthodoxy encompasses its own subset of Orthodoxies. 

(One may ask, how many division can one make in Judaism before it all becomes just one big meaningless jumble of gobbledygook. That seems like  a fair question. But if one examines all the differences – whether denominational, Hashkafic, or intra-Hashkafic, there are definitely markers that separate each group uniquely. Whether a group so small as the Jewish people (relative to others) can survive so many breakdowns is a question for sociologists. But it is nevertheless a fact that they exist and are definitively different from each other.)

I have mentioned this before and I think it is still true. There are 3 primary groups of MO: Centrists (right wing MO) Left wing MO, and what I refer to as MO-Lite.  Rabbi Bechhofer’s student conflates the latter two groups and I think he’s wrong to do that. The left is as committed to Halacha as the right. But they are definitely influenced by the modernity and see many of its cultural values in a favorable light.

So much so that they are willing to compromise tradition (not Halacha) in order to serve those values. They will dismiss millennia old traditions in service to those values if they do not see a clear-cut Halachic violation. They attribute those old traditions to prejudices that all of society had. Now in a more enlightened era, they will  say those old traditions no longer make sense. 

This is where 21st century feminism comes in. Its egalitarian nature supersedes traditions that have  in the past for example rejected the concept of female rabbis. Or partnership Minyanim.  However even though they are convinced of the just nature of their egalitarian pursuit and discard traditions they believe are incompatible, archaic and Halachicly unnecessary, they are otherwise committed to Halacha.

This is  not the same as MO-Lite. These are people that are less educated about what Halacha requires. And although they are generally observant of the 3 things that define Orthodoxy: Shabbos, Kashrus, and Taharas HaMishpacha (Mikva use by women) they tend to not understand or even care about some of the details in keeping Shabbos and Kashrus. And even less so in other matters.

It is MO-Lite that will often place lifestyle over observance. Which can end up in violations of Halacha through ignorance. They will rationalize and say that everyone picks and chooses what to observe. Only they may not know the difference between a simple Minhag and a clear-cut Halacha.

And then there are the Centrists, like me. We are as meticulous in following Halacha as both the right and the left. Only we do not as a rule see traditional values being overridden by cultural ones like egalitarianism. We do not sacrifice tradition on the altar of secular values. In that sense we are no different that the right.

Where we differ is in how we see secular values at all. Whereas Centrists allow that there is value in some of secular culture which can be incorporated into our lives as long as they do not contradict Halacha or tradition, the right sees no value in secular culture that is not utilitarian . Whereas as they try to avoid it, we tend to accept it and see positive value (again - when there is no contradiction to Halacha and tradition). 

The right, LWMO and Centrists are usually sincere dedicated Jews. Our differences are not based on lifestyle but on which values to prioritize if Jewish values are not based in pure Halacha. It is the MO-Lites that the right thinks of when using the term Modern Orthodox. But it is clearly a mistake to do so. Why do they think of MO that way? Because there are a lot of MO-Lites in the world of MO.

What about Charedi- Lite? Those among the right that observe Halacha more for social reasons than ideological ones? There are plenty of those too. Considering that they are the fastest growing demographic in Orthodoxy, there may be more of them than there are MO Lites. But they are much harder to detect that since the Charedi-Lites are outwardly very Charedi. They look the look; talk the talk; and walk the walk publicly. But in private they don't always walk the walk so much.

MO-Lites are by nature much more open about their lifestyles. So to the casual right wing observer, it is easy for them to see MO the way Rabbi Bechhofer’s student does. But reality resides elsewhere. I only wish that reality was better understood by those outside of MO looking in.