Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Modern Orthodoxy Conundrum

After reading an aritcle on the paradox of Orthodoxy and modernity I was left with some thoughts of my own.

Noah Feldman writes in the New York Times of the conflcting tensions between the religious world and the secular. His perspective stems from his current status in the modern world combined with the 12 formative years he spent in Maimonides, the co-ed elementary and Yeshiva high school in Boston founded by the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.

He begins by telling us that he has been given the equivalent of a modern day Cherem. That is he has been figuratively excommunicated by his alma mater because of his engagement to a Korean-American woman. He goes on to tell us that he was somewhat suprised at the way he was treated by high school who basically erased him from their memory. He and his fiancé were removed from a 10 year class reunion photo. Future mailings to the school such as birth of a child normally announced in news letters about alumni were ignored. I kept hoping to read that this had been a case of his Yeshiva making a mistake. That their assumptions about this woman were incorrect and that she had actually been a Giyores, a legitimate convert. But no such luck. She was a non Jew.

That saddened me. Another Jew lost to Judaism.

Here is a fellow who genuinely tries to explain what it’s like for a modern Orthodox Jew to reconcile faith and modernity when there are obvious contradictions and yet mentions his pending intermarriage as only an introduction to the larger issue he wants to address. That he seems to care about the Torah he learned for 12 years and tells us that it ‘informs every part of (his) inner life’ makes one wonder how he could intermarry. Doesn’t he understand the implications of this very basic Issur? For a man the consequences of violating it insure that his children will not even Jewish. Unless they convert.

That said, many of the issues he mentions that give rise to the paradox that is Modern Orthodoxy are legitimate. But I question whether those issues are exclusive to modern orthodoxy itself. I don’t think so. The issue he raises are problematic to any Jew whether modern or right wing… if they live in a society that is mostly non Jewish which has its own set of values.

Some of his issues do not really hold water. He seems to say that his alma mater’s refusal to accept his intermarriage is evidence that the ability to live in both worlds ultimately fails. Society’s acceptance of intermarriage and the Torah’s rejection of it are at irreconcilable odds. At odds, yes, but irreconcilable, no.

Engaging with modernity does not mean that one must worship at the alter modernity. What it means is that we can participate as equals with our non-Jewish counterparts in all the bounty and goodness that modernity provides, and maintain good citizenship by participating in its obligations as well. That our religion does not accept inter-marriage while modern society does, does not detract one iota from our engagement with it. All it does is preserve our roots and heritage, something modern society applauds.

Is there a contradiction in values? Not in this instance. Modernity is not defined by a dominant societal view. It is decided by how divergent views are treated by it. Divergent views are most definitely tolerated in the modern world. Let us not forget that other value systems exist in pluralistic modern societies that do not accept a universal set of modern values. If an individual or group of people believe that homosexual practices are sinful does that mean that they cannot fully participate in modernity? What makes something modern anyway? Is it the majority opinion? If a once cultural taboo is now an accepted modern lifestyle, does that mean that someone who still holds of that taboo is in conflict with modernity?

We are entitled to our religious views and modernity’s differences with us has virtually no impact on our participation in it.

Some of the things he points to are a bit more significant, however. Kosher laws have the effect of keeping us apart from our non Jewish neighbors. Our sages legislated laws specifically for that purpose. For example, one cannot eat food cooked by a non Jew even when we know it is Kosher. There are two reasons. One is so we shouldn’t become accustomed to eating their cooking because that may lead to situations where the non Jew will inadvertently serve non Kosher items. But more importantly the reason for that law is to prevent intermarriage.

This is counter to the near universal modern notion of socializing with ones fellow man... his compatriot, his neighbor... treating him as friend and equal. That is indeed a problem. And for a modern Orthodox Jew it is often a bigger problem than it is for the insular right wing Orthodox Jew. But it is not an insurmountable one. One can have very close relationships with non Jews. Here, modernity must give way to religion. But as in anything else of value worth pursuing in life, sometimes there are conflicts. That doesn’t mean we can't or shouldn’t participate. It just means we have to know where to draw lines.

Among other conflicting values he mentions is violating Shabbos to save the life of a non Jew. He cites the Gemarah which ultimately legislates that it does not make any difference between Jew and non Jew on this issue. One must violate Shabbos to save any human life. But then he gets into the reasons and differences between saving the life of a Jew versus a non Jew.

The biblical origins of violating Shabbos to save a life was intended for Jews only. But our sages extended it to non Jews as well ‘out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.’ Are there competing moral value systems at work here? It would seem that in this instance the non-Jewish value system is greater than the Jewish one in that it puts all of human life at equal value. Judaism seems to place Jewish life at a higher value.

One cannot know the mind of God. As such we do not know what his intent is with respect to the value of one life over another. But what we do know is that our sages legislated a violation of one of the most important laws in the Torah, Shabbos, and thereby equalized all human life in practice. And their mandate to do so is supported by the Torah itself as are all rabbinic enactments. One should also remember that the biblical laws pertaining to non Jews at the time the Torah was during an era where non Jews were idolaters and human sacrifice was common.

Bottom line is that yes there is a dynamic tension between the two value systems of modernity and Torah. But that doesn’t lessen our ability to live in and benefit from the modern world in any meaningful way. What Orthodoxy tells us is how to do it properly.