Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gedolim: A Centrist View

Rael Levinsohn had some thoughtful questions. Due to the importance of the subject matter and the length of my answers I have decided to feature this as an independent entry.

Following are his questions and my thoughts on them:

1) Would it be fair to say that Centrists are the defacto "gedolim" of the modern orthodox world, eg like the YU Roshei Yeshiva.
I’m not sure how you would define Gadol In fact, I’m not sure that all Centrists have the same definition of a Gadol. Bearing that in mind I would think that the following is true. Virtually all people that are considered Gedolim by Charedim are equally considered as such by Centrists. Rav Moshe Feinstein is the prime example of that. But none of the people Centrists consider Gedolim are considered such by Charedim. The biggest 20th century Gadol of Centrism by far is Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik... to a Charedi.... NOT a Gadol. But in lieu of a precise definition of the term Gadol I would say that Centrist Gedolim are those who identify in at least a minimal way with the philosophy of TuM, meaning that they at least accept an intrinsic value to Limudei Chol, Such people would include many of the RYs of YU bit not all. Good examples of such people currently would be Rav Herschel Shechter and Rav Aaron Lichtenstein.

2) Could the fact that the reason why a large percentage of MO jews are unudecated / unobservant relative to their Chareidi counterparts is due to the current education system / curriculum of Torah U Madda

I don’t think that is the primary reason although there may be some truth to it. It is cultural. MO Lite is a perpetuation of a pre-WWII value system that developed before the advent of the day school system as we know it today. The MO schools of the type you mention above are an offshoot of that mentality. Pre-WWII sentiments were largely melting pot ones. That is, parents considered getting ahead in society the primary goal and staying religious (Shomer Shabbos) important, but secondary. To that end university education was encouraged but only as a socio-economic tool, not as an Hashkafa.

The Centrist of today is one who has undergone an educational process that includes an Hashkafic orientation. And such people as the Rav, Dr. Lamm, and Rav Lichtenstein are the role models and thinkers whose lectures and writings fuel that study. And that is one reason the proportion of knowledgeable Centrists is relatively small. Knowledge takes work and dedication. Being MO-Lite and not learning is easy and is the population where the Centrist in most cases is drawn from. But Ignorance of Hashkafa is not the sole possession of Modern Orthodoxy. There is more than a significant number of Charedi that I would call Charedi Lite for the same reasons.

Pre-WWII, university study was little more than a tool for advancement. Those who comprise Modern Orthodoxy today are products of that generation... either directly through absorbing their parents values, or spiritually in the sense that they don’t really care and aren’t really serious about Hashkafos. They merely want to be hang on to the Yiddsishkeit of their MO upbringing while assimilating as much as possible within that parameter. There are other factors as well but I think that is the genesis of the reality that exists today. And it is somewhat self perpetuating for those of their children that absorb those values themselves.

3) MO and Centrism prides on self on the lack of Daas Torah concept (as defined by the Chareidim). In this day and age is this not effecting them negatively, for then the proper reverence for Gedolim is not inculcated and Gedolim are not considered part of ones day to day life. Also MO pride themselves on certain degree of skepticism and free thinking. However the reality is that attitude often ends many people up with lesser faith and lesser commitment, because to “free think” a person must have the necessary background which many MO lack.”

The degree to which Centrists do not accept Daas Torah is limited to how it is defined and who happens to be defining it. There is a major difference between Centrists and Charedim here. To a Charedi Daas Torah applies to everything in one’s life. This is similar to the way a Chasid looks at his Chasidic Rebbe. For example A Charedi will ask his Gadol a Shaila about whether he should go to college and a Centrist will not. This is key. Centrists look at Hashkafos as allowing a more personal thought process while Charedim do not and look to a Gadol, and accept his words on Hashkafa to be immutable.

This of course leads Charedim to vest upon their Gedolim defacto infallibility (while paying lip service to his humanity by agreeing that he is human and subjet to human error). The lesser stature of non-Gedolim thus confers upon a Gadol an aura of infallibility. To a Centrist, a Gadol is given this kind of weight when it comes to Psak Halacha. As to statements that are in the category of advice on personal and family matters, or matters of Hashkafa, a Centrist will give his Gadol’s views great weight but not consider those words inviolable. For example I have disagreed with my own rebbe’s views on how to approach the situation between Palestinians and Israelis. I have tended to side more with Charedi views on that issue and have been far more pacifist in my views than Rav Aaron.

I do not agree with your characterization as Centrists being free thinkers. We are bound by the same rules as Charedim as to matters of belief. But what I would say is that we do not deny questions when they occur to us. We try and seek answers that satisfy those questions as best we can without resorting to disbelief. This is another major difference between Centrists and Charedim. Charedim will deny any question that disagrees with mainstream thinking on a given issue. This is what accounts for the current controversy with Nosson Slifkin's writing. Charedim who once accepted views about scientific matters that were not mainstream but well documented in Rishonim, immediately dropped those views when a Gadol said those views are not acceptable today. Centrists do not view this to be the final word on the matter precisely because it is Hashkafic and it is backed up by Rishonim and Gedolei Ha’achronim and the refusal to consider a Gadol as infallible in such views especially when there is so much written by earlier generations of Gedolim and Poskim in support of those views and in disagreement with that Gadol.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Critique of Modern Orthodoxy

While I lament the current dominance of Charedi influence in Orthodoxy, I must criticize Modern Orthodoxy as well.

Most of Modern Orthodoxy would better be classified as Modern Orthodox Lite or Orthopraxy. It has been my experience that the typical Modern Orthodox Jew is more or less ignorant of a true Centrist Hashkafa which is defined by the principals of Torah uMada. For most Modern Orthodox Jews, it is a lifestyle choice for them. They choose to be Orthodox because they still retain a modicum of loyalty to parental teachings about the importance of being observant but they wish to do so in the most unobtrusive way to a modern lifestyle that they can.

Sometimes this even leads to a shedding of Halacha when it comes in conflict with a desired goal such as mixed swimming or head covering. They might say out of ignorance, "There is nothing wrong with it" or "We all pick and choose what we observe anyway". Orthopraxic Jews often do not know the difference between Minhag, and Halacha and usually confuse the two. Sabbath observance is usually cultural and includes not driving a car, going to Shul, having a Sabbath meal and the like. Many Modern Orthodox, however, will not be so careful in other more detailed observances of Shabbos. Observance is thus not based on any thoughtful analysis but purely on cultural considerations. And such ignorance and resultant behavior will appear as to hypocrisy to the children of the Modern Orthodox who go to religious day schools and are taught values that they don't see at home or worse... see that clear Halacha is sometimes casually violated by their parents.

This phenomenon feeds the constant de-legitimization of Modern Orthodoxy by the ultra-Orthodox world. While it is inexcusable for the right wing to paint serious Centrists with the broad brush of disdain it certainly understandable that they do it, when the majority of Modern Orthodoxy is so arbitrary about their religious observance. It makes it all too easy for the ultra Orthodox to criticize. All they have to do is point to a typical Modern Orthodox Halacha violation such as the tendency to go mixed swimming and tells their adherents… "See?"

Monday, November 28, 2005

Yeshivos and Kollelim

The following is a practical view of the reality of the Yeshiva system. It is not based on my views of Torah uMada which sees Mada as having intrinsic value that should be studied L’Shma.

Let me begin by saying that I have profound respect for all Roshei yeshiva as the leaders of Klal Israel. I believe that they are responsible for providing us with the next generation of Roshei Yeshiva and Gedolim. They provide: 1) the guidance spiritually, and 2) a place to learn and thereby produce individuals who are capable of becoming our future leaders. I would, also, like to make it known that my oldest son is currently learning full time in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalyim, and is a Shoel uMeishiv to a Beis HaMedrash of over four hundred students in a new Beis HaMedrash there. He also has my full support to learn full time for the rest of his life, if he so chooses. This should give you some idea of my perspective. I am not a Yeshiva or Kollel basher.

1. The Problem:

The problem is the systemic abuse of the Kollel and the Yeshiva in the sense that many Avreichim stay there far too long, and when they finally do leave they have virtually no training to enable them to compete in the Job market. I have spoken to many Roshei Yeshiva and Rosh Kollel about this problem and, so far, they privately agree with me. They, however, do not want to go on record.

To date as far as I know the only Rosh HaYeshiva who went on record was Rav Aaron Soloveichik, ZTL. He stated publicly as well as in print that not everyone is meant to learn full time, that learning full time is meant for the Yechidei Segula. " Vehogeisa Bo Yomim Va Lailos" is an imperative for them, in that fashion. The rest of us can fulfill our obligation of "Vehogiso" by being Koveiah Itim (setting aside time) both in the daytime and at night for learning Torah. One can theoretically even fulfill his obligation to learn Torah by reciting Krias Shema.

There are some Avreichim who don't have what it takes to make it in learning and, nevertheless, continue to doing so trying to “make it” despite years of not succeeding, instead of perhaps going into a field where they can contribute to a much higher degree to serve God and Klal Israel ( i.e. be more productive! ) Change is needed. The attitude needs to be developed that it is OK to get a job. It's not the end of the world if you want to support your family. In fact it is a very positive thing.

The problem is that The Roshei Kollel and Roshei Yeshiva are encouraging a “Torah only” approach as the only legitimate approach to Torah study.

This attitude is based on the writings of Rabbi E. E. Dessler: Throw 1000 Bachurim into a Beis HaMedrash and if one rises to the top and the others fail, so be it! This is the “price” of creating a Gadol! 999 Bachurim or Yungeleit, who don’t make the grade don’t matter because: we need Gedolim!

I don’t agree that this is the “price”.

Yes we need Gedolim, but we shouldn’t have to sacrifice anyone. A Torah nation requires the full spectrum of goods and services that all of society requires and we should be encouraging our students to follow their “calling”. If, for example a student has a certain facility for science, why not encourage him to go into medicine or scientific research? Maybe that student is bright enough to be a big Talmud Chacham, but his real brilliance may be in medicine. Under the prevailing conditions in the Yeshiva system, that student’s desire to go into medicine or science will be discouraged.

2. The Solution:

As I have said many times all Bnei Torah should spend time learning full time after high school for perhaps at least 5 years. But in most cases there should be preparation for some of that time, in conjunction with learning, for one's Parnassa. Although I believe all Bachurim need
to learn post high school for at least a year or two without any of the distractions of college etc.) I believe that the Roshei Yeshiva who in many cases are surrogate fathers to these Bachurim should be more proactive in guiding those who do not "have what it takes in learning" into other areas. Any Rosh HaYeshiva worth his salt knows which of his students are destined for greatness (and should be encouraged to stay in learning full time) and which of his students are not destined for greatness in learning. They should be guided into Parnassa. The benefit of such an approach is immeasurable. In addition to contributing to Klal Yisroel in a better way ( each individual custom tailoring his contribution), the money needed to support the vast amounts of people presently in Kollel will be freed up and better distributed to those Avreichim who DO have what it takes. They currently learn with great material sacrifice to themselves and their families. Why shouldn't they be able to learn full time L’Shma and not have to struggle for their own material well being and that of their families? Wouldn't even their learning improve if they didn't have to worry about how they were going to get their next rent check?

A former Avreich confided in me that the peer pressure to stay in Kollel is enormous, and that while one is in Kollel the impression is made on the Yungeleit that leaving learning is a terrible thing. He was able to leave and found out that it wasn't that terrible, and in fact he is pretty well accepted by all of his Kollel friends.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Lauding the Educated ...Disparaging the Education

There is an interesting phenomenon that exists in the "Torah Only" world (better know as the Charedim). On the one hand we hear constantly about the trend away from secular studies in the ultra-Orthodox Yeshivas especially in Israel but even in the United States. On the other hand we see ultra-Orthodox conferences and banquets that often include experts with high secular degrees. Much praise is heaped on these people both in ads and during introductions at a banquet or convention. They are also heavily featured writers and authors of articles in Charedi magazines such as The Jewish Observer and in books published by Charedi publishers such as Artscroll/Mesorah and Feldheim. The books often contain Haskamos from Gedolei Yisroel. Obviously these people are valued as experts, and they are often involved with being Mechanech our children. Yet, they have been trained by secular universities and that is in the main where they get their expertise. How can this be? Either you think secular studies is a waste of time and nobody goes to college or you think it does have value.

Isn't a contradiction to say Bnei Torah shouldn't go to college and then at the same time confer great value and honor on those who have PhD’s by having them speak to us as experts?

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Rise and Fall of Centrism

Centrism is a philosophy which embraces the study of secular knowledge as well as the best of Western culture, while strictly adhering to Halacha. It places the highest value on Torah knowledge but also puts a very high value on secular knowledge. It believes in participating in, rather than withdrawing from society and fully enjoys what society has to offer within the limits of Halacha.

Sociologically, Centrism is on the wane. But this wasn't always the case. Back in the early days of Yeshiva University when it was still Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, its founding president, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel struggled for students. He realized that the only way to have any possibility of attracting them to serious Torah study was to implement a college program. One must realize that this was a country and a time where the pursuit of happiness in a melting pot world meant succeeding in a secular society, by means of going to college, and then to professional school and finally joining the ranks of the upwardly mobile.

Dr. Revel believed that in order to achieve any kind of success at attracting students to serious learning, he would need to create a college so that students could both learn Torah and Mada without leaving the Yeshiva grounds. Otherwise he would lose the best and brightest to the pull of the "university". He, therefore, founded Yeshiva College which ultimately became Yeshiva University.

The forces toward modernity and assimilation leading to abandonment of a Torah lifestyle in pre WWII America were very powerful. Few succeeded in overcoming those forces. Dr. Revel had the wisdom to realize that the only way a Torah lifestyle could be achieved was through engagement with the culture limited only by strict adherence to Halacha.

But no one foresaw the effects of a post WWII influx of a "Torah Only" group of Roshei Yeshiva and the impact they would have on the Jewish American psyche. When Rabbi Aharon Kotler, Rabbi Eliahu Meir Bloch, and others re-established, intact... their "Torah Only" institutions, with it's “detachment from the culture” approach. No one believed that this would be the wave of the future. Yeshiva University has had only limited, if any success at importing Centrist ideology to other locations across the country. By far, the largest concentration of adherents is located mostly on the east coast. On the other hand, Rabbi Aharon Kotler's ideology has spread far and wide across America in the form of Yeshiva high schools and Kollelim which have become increasingly popular amongst the masses, while the spread of Yeshiva University's philosophy of Torah uMada has remained stagnant. Even Yeshiva University's student body, has significant numbers of students who learn in Yeshiva’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary that tend more to the Torah Only" approach. This, despite the best efforts Former Yeshiva President and Rosh Yeshva, Dr. Norman Lamm.

Why is this so? It is the "Nature of the beast". The vast majority of educators come from the "Lakewoods" the "Phillys", and the "Long Beaches"... of the Torah Only Hashkafa. Yeshiva University graduates tend to go into the professions and not into Chinuch. Amongst those who do go into Chinuch, many tend to lean toward a Torah only approach. This creates a built in bias into the system no matter where the Hashkafa of the board of directors may lie.

Skokie’s Hebrew Theological College is a case in point. Ostensibly a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva, its faculty is heavily of the "Torah Only" persuasion. This Hashkafa is transmitted to its students and most of them, no matter what kind of background they come from are subjected almost exclusively to the same Hashkafos as any student of Lakewood. It's not that the HTC board wouldn't prefer more of Torah uMaddah faculty but Centrist oriented graduates almost never go into Chinuch, (Jewish education)... at least not in sufficient numbers to compete with the vast numbers of educators available from the "Torah Only" school. Qualified Centrist educators are nearly impossible to find. Those that do exist are mostly found in and around the New York area. Add to this equation the high birth rate of the ultra-Orthodox, and the tendency of the entire spectrum of Orthodox Jewry's to gravitate to the Right, and the deck really becomes stacked against the survival of Centrism into the future beyond a couple of generations.

What makes this so sad for me is that it seems so clear to me that the best of western culture which has much to offer whether it be in education, the arts, and other forms of permissible endeavor, will eventually be lost to Orthodox Jewry The "Torah only" school of thought rejects virtually all outside activities as foreign to Torah or at best a waste of time, whether technically permissible or not. Secular knowledge for its own sake is viewed with almost complete disdain or at best as only a means toward learning how to support oneself if unable to make it in “learning”. The trend is to get as far away from secular education as possible even in high school. This was made abundantly clear earlier this year at a Torah uMesorah convention by statements from Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh HaYeshiva of Ner Yisroel when he actually advocated there be established a high school system that encourages the best and brightest to learn Torah only... full time, without the “distraction” of secular studies. Even though there were other prominent Roshei Yeshiva that publicly disagreed with him, it is a very significant development that for the first time an American Rosh HaYeshiva of a major educational institution has advocated anything like this. It is the rule in Charedi schools in Israel and it has begun taking root in the US as well as many smaller new have sprouted without offering secular studies. As well, some Yeshivos known for their excellent secular studies programs have been increasingly downplaying secular education.

This does not bode well for the future well being of the Orthodox community. The more this trend continues, the less we will be able to afford it. Large families are sending their children to Lakewood type schools and encouraging them to stay in "learning" as long as possible. Most of those children are having large families of their own and encouraging their children to do the same.

It is a geometric progression that seems to have no solution. If hearts and minds don’t change, our material well being will suffer and through that so will our spiritual well being.

Monday, November 21, 2005


Lubavitch as is well known is one of the most active and far reaching movements in Jewry. It is spread literally across the entire planet where there is any human habitation. Its primary activity focuses on getting non- religious Jews to embrace observant Judaism. And it has been very successful in doing so for over 50 years. This is due primarily to the leadership of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, who passed away several years ago. The Rebbe was a very charismatic leader who inspired tens of thousands of Jews to follow his directives and thus created an empire that spans the globe in pursuit of getting fellow Jews to become observant of Torah Law.

My first encounter with Lubavitch was when I was an elementary school student. I believed them to be just another in the wide array in the smorgasbord of religious Jews that hardly looked different (at elementary school age) than the rest of us. I later learned of their Kiruv work and was most impressed at their vast worldwide network. It was axiomatic to me that Lubavitch was it the forefront of recovering lost souls to Judaism and quite successful at it. Needless to say I was greatly impressed. After all, nobody else was doing it, at least not on such a grand scale. I was a big fan and praised them at every opportunity.

Somewhere near the end of my high-school education, I began to notice something very peculiar things about Lubavitchers. When they were Mekarev, they did so in a way that almost precluded any potential Baal Teshuva from becoming anything other than a Lubavitcher Chasid. The first thing they did in Kiruv was to convince the potential Baal Teshuva that only through Lubavitch and the Rebbe could one be the ultimate practicing Torah Jew. Customs unique only to Lubavitch such as single girls lighting Shabbos candles, were taught as essential to Judaism right along with Shabbos and Kashrus. This approach had a dual effect. First it made you a Lubavitcher before it made you religious and second, it made you extremely loyal to Lubavitch.

Lubavitch is also very insular. Either you are one of the group or you are out in the cold. You either get the entire support network that Lubavitch has to offer, including Shiddach (matchmaking) services through its vast networking resources for yourself and eventually your children... or you are left to fend for yourself.

They never seem to intermingle with other mainstream Orthodox Jews whenever they can help it. They have their own schools and other social organizations and socialize almost entirely amongst themselves. Even though they obviously recognize the rest of the Torah world as legitimate, it is considered the outside world to them. If one of them sends their children to another day school and not a Cheder Lubavitch, they just about lose their credentials as Lubavitchers.

How do I know any of this? Well, some of it is rather overt in their behavior. The rest I know anecdotally from my experiences with friends and relatives who have been involved (and in some cases still are) with Lubavitch to one extent or another.

My admiration for what Lubavitch has been severely reduced by what I have come to learn over the years. Now, when ever I see Lubavitch doing Kiruv work I see the making of a Lubavitcher Chasid instead of making someone an observant Jew. And it is the Baalei Teshuva within Lubavitch that are the most susceptible to some of the more radical Meshichist beliefs i.e., that in some way shape or form the Lubavticher Rebbe, though deceased over ten years ago, is the Moshiach.

This phenomenon began when near the end of his life the Lubavitcher Rebbe started more aggressively promoting the concept of Moshiach’s imminent arrival. He boldly stated that the time has now arrived for the Messiah’s arrival and never missed an occasion to promote this idea. His Chasidim started interpreting many of the Rebbe’s statements and deeds as proofs that the Rebbe himself was Moshiach. While he denied it, he never discouraged his followers from proclaiming it at every opportunity with signs posters and slogans. His followers took his denial as a kind of humility and used quotes from his numerous speeches, discourses, and writings that indeed he did believe himself to be the Messiah and was only waiting for the right moment to reveal it to the world.

After his death, instead of resigning themselves to the reality that he wasn’t Moshiach after all, they re-interpreted Jewish theology and redefined the Messiah akin to the Christological theology as one who may indeed die with his messianic mission unfulfilled only to return resurrected in a second coming to complete his mission to bring the messianic age upon the world.

The mainstream belief is that he died but will be resurrected at Techias Hamesim to become Moshiach and lead us out of Galus. This, in and of itself, may not be heresy but is enough to discourage any knowledgeable Torah oriented Jew not indoctrinated by Lubavitch, away from the movement... and consider Lubavitch as distancing themselves away from mainstream Judaism. The theology they use to maintain belief in the Rebbe’s Messianism is after all one of the essential elements of Christianity, a theology that we have been disputing since the advent of that religion.

There are those within the movement that go a step further and believe that the Rebbe is not dead at all and is “hiding” until that moment when he will reveal himself as Moshiach. This is a bizarre belief yet there are many mainstream Lubavitchers who believe it! I don’t know the numbers involved in this particular belief but I do know that at the very least, they are tolerated and accepted as Jews and Lubavitchers in good standing by their mainstream. The most bizarre and frightening among the beliefs by some Lubavitchers is the claim that the Rebbe is G-d. I have actually seen this in print distributed by some their spin-off organizations. This is most certainly apikorsus (heresy) or even Avodah Zara in its most literal sense, and a virtual copy of Christianity!

Most recently there has developed amongst Lubavitch a division in how to handle Messianist views. On the one hand there is a significant number of Lubavitchers with ample funding who are promoting the belief that the Rebbe is Moshiach as publicly as possible, most notably in Israel. On the other hand much of mainstream Lubavitch is trying to dissociate themselves from such public declarations and correctly view them as harmful to their goals. This has led to some very public fights over the issue and has caused much grief amongst their leadership. They are currently involved in a struggle for the hearts and minds of their members. But the truth of the matter is that, even though they identify themselves as either Meshichsist or anti Meshichists, both sides believe in a version of The Rebbe’s Messiahship. It is just a question of degree. The least Messianist among them still believes in at least the possibility that the Rebbe will be resurrected as the Messiah. How the numbers break down as to who believes what and to what degree... is hard to determine but there is no question about the basic theology nor is their any question as to a major divide between those who want to “proclaim it from the hilltops” and those who do not and just keep it as a matter of private faith.

What Lubavitch needs to do to regain its respectability is more than just eliminate the foolishness about the Rebbe being Moshiach in any of its interpretations, although that would be a good start. They need to shed the bonds of it’s cult like existence and start participating with the rest of Klal Israel. They need to integrate with the rest of in all areas of Judaic life especially educational institutions like, elementary schools, high schools, girl’s schools and Yeshivas. They need to alter their approach to Kiruv and take a page from NCSY where the goal is to integrate you into the mainstream of all of Klal Israel and not just a singular branch of it.

It would be a noble goal for Klal Yisroel to eradicate this Messianist nonsense from Lubavitch and integrate them into the rest of the mainstream. They have much to offer Klal Israel and Judaism would be forever enhanced if this were to happen.