Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Redefining Centrism

It has occurred to me that one of the issues facing Centrist Orthodox Jews is that Centrism is not a well defined Hashkafa.

For the most part it is associated with Torah U’Mada (TuM). This is a philosophy that espouses that the world of Torah knowledge- Limudei Kodesh - and the world of secular knowledge – Limudei Chol - are two separate realms of legitimate study. And that although Torah is the primary area of study for Jews, secular studies have a very high value of their own. It is through the independent study of both where one arrives at both spiritual and material truth.

But TuM is not the only legitimate philosophy of a Centrist. I have in the said in the past and continue to believe that Hirschean Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) is an equally valid approach for Centrists. Torah Im Derech Eretz agrees with Torah U’Mada that both Torah and Mada are necessary. But they disagree on separating them. TIDE sees it as an integrated endeavor. TIDE believes that it is essential to study Mada that enhances ones beliefs and understanding of Torah. But Mada that does not do that is perhaps not even permitted.

On the other hand TuM believes that independent study all disciplines without trying to integrate them will give you the same result - and that only after studying and knowing a given discipline independently will one be able one to see its the relevance to Torah. It is a bit more complicated and there are other differences but I believe this is the main one in a nutshell.

Participation in secular culture is the same for both. Both Hashkafos see it as positive when there is no contradiction with Halacha.

What about Torah and Paranssa (TuP)? There are many people who believe that studying secular studies is entirely permissible for purposes of making a living. Many of these individuals actually come from Charedi backgrounds. And many of them participate in the culture too. Should they be included as Centrists?

I think that the answer is yes, they should. I would define Centrism as more of an overall attitude about life in general rather than a religious philosophy or Hashkafa. TuM, TIDE, and perhaps TuP are each independent philosophies which can be held by any given Centrist. In other words one’s philosophy may or may not make you a Centrist. But Certainly Centrism is not a single philosophy. It is a category of Observant Jews who share certain common beliefs, worldviews, and lifestyles but can differ in Hashkafa.

This is not the traditional view of Centrism. I believe that ‘Centrism ‘is a term that was coined by Dr. Norman Lamm. It was in response to a leftward move in Modern Orthodoxy that had become somewhat apologetic.

If I recall correctly he felt it was important for Modern Orthodoxy to not be apologetic about their lifestyles and be more proactive about them. If I recall correctly he wanted to put as much emphasis on the word Orthodox as he did modern. He saw Modern Orthodoxy as a L’Chatchila - not a B’Dieved. Some might call this view the right wing modern Orthodox view. The idea is to embrace what is good in the culture (not the least of which is to have a positive attitude about Limudei Chol); to be serious about Torah learning; and to be meticulous in the observance of Mitzvos. This is what he urged Modern Orthodox Jews to do.

I think he was right about that. That is the standard I try and live by. But this definition no longer applies only to right wing modern Orthodox Jews. I think many Charedim may be comfortable with it.

Orthodoxy in all of its incarnations has evolved into a sort of melding of all groups of serious Jews along the lines of what Rabbi Beryl Wein has spoken of and of which I have written about in the past.

There are of course extremes on both ends of Orthodoxy. You have Meah Shearim Jews on one end and Modern Orthodox-Lite Jews on the other.

But there is a vast ‘middle class’ that tends to meld the closer it gets to the center of the spectrum. The vast ‘middle class’ is slowly merging into one social unit. How far down both sides of the spectrum that goes – I’m not sure. But to the extent that it does - it can legitimately be classified as Centrist.

The very term Centrist connotes middle - the middle of the spectrum. Centrism is not as much a Hashkafa as it is a way of thinking. It is in essence - moderation. The way of a Centrist is to eschew extremes and to tolerate different points of view.

On that level many Charedim can be Centrists too. That includes vast majority of working Charedim – especially those in the professions who have had higher educations.

Of course not all of them are. They too have their apologists… those who say, ‘Nebech! I couldn’t make it as a Kollelnik and I am now a lesser Jew than them. Such people may even discover the cure for Cancer and still believe that about themselves. They are not Centrists.

But to those Charedim that do not have this ‘inferiority complex’ I say. ‘Welcome aboard’. They pretty much lead the same lifestyles that right wing modern Orthodox Jews do. Both are as meticulous in Mitzvah observance. Both place a high value in Torah learning. Both raise their children with similar values. Both have strong work ethics and value secular knowledge - at least at the Parnassa level. The Hashkafos may be different. How each sees secular studies may be different. But the lifestyles are very similar. And that in my view makes them both Centrists.