Monday, March 22, 2010

Redefining Centrism

I have to take issue with Dr. Norman Lamm.

Most people know that I am a big fan of his. Never having had any personal discussion with him on the subject – he is nonetheless - based on his writings - one of my philosophical mentors as described in my bio. He helped ‘flesh out’ my Hashkafa of Torah U’Mada by providing various models in Judaism that could be seen through that lens albeit with various reservations specific to each.

He is also the first to use – if not coin - the term Centrist Orthodoxy. This is a term that I use to describe a specific sociological grouping within Modern Orthodoxy. And it is to this grouping that I belong. But as pointed out in a recent interview published in the Yeshiva University student newspaper, The Commentator, he rejected that term almost as soon as he chose it. He explained as follows:

I quickly saw that it was totally misunderstood. “Centrist” does not mean that you have Conservative and Reform Judaism on one side and “Real Judaism” on the other and we are somewhere in the center. That is nonsense. Rather, it means that we are the center within the Orthodoxy community. I now try very much to discourage the use of the word “Centrist,” because it has been misunderstood…

I would agree that if the word Centrist alone is used outside the context of Orthodoxy, one might make such an error. At the same time I believe it is a valid sociological grouping within the context of Orthodoxy itself.

One cannot make the kind of error Dr. Lamm describes if one attaches the word Orthodoxy to the word Centrist.

Dr. Lamm further argues that although there are obviously differences between various Modern Orthodox Jews that does not justify separate philosophical groupings:

Some sociologists distinguish between “Modern” and “Centrist” Orthodoxy – which is narishkayt (foolishness). Of course there are varieties within Modern Orthodoxy, just as there are varieties within Charedi Judaism; none of us is monolithic. But there is absolutely no essential difference between these titles in terms of the group they describe.

The dichotomy is not between Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox. It is between Centrist Orthodoxy and right and left wing Orthodoxy. So why bother at all with the term Modern Orthodox? Because I happen to believe that as a Hashkafa, Modern Orthodoxy is more proactive in asserting the legitimacy of a Centrist Hashkafa.

At this point I should explain what I mean by Centrism. Although I have done so before in other contexts it will be helpful for purposes of this essay to briefly explain it again in this conext.

Centrism as the word implies means middle - between two extremes. It is what the Rambam describes as the Mida HaEmtzais - the golden mean. He goes on to describe it in terms of human temperament and states that a balanced and non extreme temperament is the Torah ideal. I believe it can be applied to Hashkafos as well. I firmly believe that God does not want extreme interpretations of His Torah. The truth almost always lies somewhere in the middle. Hence the name Centrist.

Most Centrists might be considered Right Wing Modern Orthodox (RWMO). They are on the right side of Modern Orthodoxy, but they are definitely near the center of Orthodoxy itself - sans the word modern. Centrism can apply to virtually all Hashkafos. But I do believe that its philosophical home is Modern Orthodoxy. It is also true however that moderate Charedim can be also be found near the center of Orthodoxy.

Right Wing Modern Orthodox Jews and Moderate Charedim are very close. Even though they arrive in the center from different perspectives. As I’ve said many times - this is the basis for their ultimate melding into a single sociological grouping. They may not call themselves Centrists but that is where they live – right in the center of the two extremes of left and right. As I’ve said many times - both groupings will definitely end up melding into one sociological grouping to become the largest single identifiable segment within all of Orthodox Jewry. At least in America.

One might argue that Centrists are to be found only within Modern Orthodoxy because of their views about Torah and Mada (TuM). But I am no longer so sure about that. There are many who believe in Torah IM Derech Eretz(TIDE) that stem from the Charedi perspective. Although there are philosophical differences between the two camps about TuM versus TIDE – it cannot be argued that both groupings value Mada and participate in various aspects of western culture. I strongly believe that both camps can call themselves Centrist.

Getting back to Dr. Lamm’s point about the term Centrist Orthodoxy having no essential differences from Modern Orthodoxy – I would say that is not the correct dichotomy to be made. Centrism is not a Hashkafa in contradistinction to Modern Orthodoxy. It is rather a legitimate subdivision of it that is outgrowing its roots to include moderate Charedim.

I doubt that moderate Charedim would ever accept that term for themselves since it has been so closely identified with TuM – which they do not accept. But-the center is definitely where both RWMO and moderate Charedim can be found.

The bottom line is that Centrism is not only a legitimate description and name for those of us in the Hashkafic center that value the study of Mada and participate in the culture - I think it is the wave of the future for mainstream Orthodoxy. There will always be Hashkafic differences between people of faith. As Dr. Lamm notes:

Of course there are varieties within Modern Orthodoxy, just as there are varieties within Charedi Judaism; none of us is monolithic.

But those differences do not diminish the actuality of a vibrant and growing Centrism that includes members from both the modern Orthodox world and the Charedi world. They may not call themselves Centrist. But I can think of no better name for them.