Thursday, January 30, 2020

Moving to the Right - Moving to the Left

The quintessential Centrist - Rav Aharon Lichtenstein 
There is the right. There is the left. And there is polarization. That is the biggest obstacle to Achdus – Unity in Judaism. The more time passes, the more polarized we get. Making matters worse on both scores is the acrimony that accompanies that polarization.

There is of course a third option. It’s called Centrism. Which is not the mathematical midpoint between those two extremes. It is a rational approach to Judaism where one seeks the truth wherever one finds it.

Unfortunately, Centrism is not the most sought after approach. Extremism has been the  most sought after approach for decades - ever since since the Holocaust. 

In one respect we have the ‘slide to the right’. That was addressed by Professor Hyam Soloveitchik in a seminal article called Rupture and Reconstruction: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy.

In the latest edition of Tradition Magazine Rabbi Efrem Goldberg addresses this article and its relevance now, 25 years after it was published. He begins by describing Professor Soloveitchik’s thesis. Which essentially is as follows.

Transmitting traditional religious customs and practices via mimeticism has been replaced by ‘the book’. Meaning that the family Mesorah has been replaced by rigorous textual analysis of Halachic sources. The results of which are a slide to the right. The idea behind this is that we must be Choshesh for the Daas HaMachmir - ‘maximum position compliance’. 

Rabbi Goldberg asserts, however, that there is more to the ‘slide to the right’ than that. Which is the current trend by the right of the blind acceptance of rabbinic authority regardless of the family Mesorah. this is what might be called listening to Daas Torah. Here is how he describes it: 
In the Charedi world family traditions are often characerzed as a leniency that one should not rely upon. When Daas Torah comes out with a prohibition about something that was freely permitted for generations, the  family  tradition is abandoned. The argument is that even if there are lenient opinions, why not try and saitfy all opinions and take upon oneself the most stringint religious practice. That the family was lenient for so many generations does not mean one should be leinient in our day. 
(Examples of this abound. Most common among them are things like taking upon oneself the strictures of Yoshon; waiting 72 minutes after sunset for Shabbos to end; separate seating at weddings or any other public gathering; and the increased separation of the sexes characterized most recently by the elimination of pictures of women in Charedi publications.) 
This relatively new trend leaves students of halakha worse off and at a loss, deprived of the possibility to analyze, examine or consider the arguments behind the pesak. And yet, perhaps that is exactly why this trend has emerged.
In a general world that promotes and celebrates independent thinking, rigorous scientific examination, the rejection of centralized and established authority, this segment of the Orthodox community has crafted a culture of acceptance without challenge, that promotes following without seeking or needing to understand, that is more concerned with blind compliance than eye-opening questioning and comprehension.
That community is made up of individuals admirably engaged in rigorously learning halakha at the highest levels, but when it comes to halakhic practice, collectively yields to the absolute rulings of the gedolim without challenge or even curiosity. 
The fallout is quite obvious. Family traditions and practices have been abandoned - replaced with new strictures that have never been part of a family’s Mesorah - going back many generations. 

While that phenomenon is troubling, so too is the slide to the left. Which says Rabbi Goldberg is happening simultaneoulsy. He describes this as shooting an arrow into a tree and then drawing a bulls eye around it.

What is happening here is that certain popular cultural values that are traditionally problematic have generated a search for a source – no matter how obscure – that will justify those values – even though that source has long ago been rejected by Poskim of the past and of our own time. In the day of the internet, anyone can do a search and find an obscure Daas Yachid (singular source) to hang their at on – and justify a culturally popular cause. What might be called using ‘Rabbi Google’ as a Posek. Here is how he puts it: 
(P)erhaps even more dangerous, the Internet serves to democratize halakha. It gives all an equal voice and undermines the system of mesora and halakhic authority. Social media in general, and several apps and platforms in particular, enable crowdsourcing to develop and defend positions in halakha without the input and authority of a bonafide and qualified posek who has both a knowledge of halakha and a training inruling on it.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) cautions us in the strongest terms not to be “megale panim ba-Torah,” understood by many as guiding us not to be presumptuous by arrogantly and inappropriately voicing an opinion about Torah when the gravity of the issue exceeds our stature. 
The left demands understanding and exploring before willingness to accept and observe while the right blindly follows gedolim, exchanging the mimetic model of what was seen in our homes for emulating and imitating stringencies (some of which were never intended for “mass consumption”; others invented from whole cloth).  
One community, threatened by the permissiveness in society in general, and that attitude penetrating into religious life, has used stringency to retreat, insulate, and intensify. The other community sees a philosophy of retreat as itself a form of surrender and feels emboldened to expand the boundaries of leniency, and trying to push the very border of orthodoxy to be as broad and inclusive as possible. 
I could not agree more with Rabbi Goldberg’s excellent analysis. It should be read in its entirety. The purpose of which is to strengthen Centrism. That is the Hashkafa I inhabit. 

These are the very things I have been talking about here since I began this blog.  The road to Emes is indeed the road of rationality and moderation.  Not extremism and stridency of either the right or the left. Sadly, it seems that polarization is the order of the day as more people tend towards the extremes than towards the center.  Be that as it may, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.