Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A Critique of Pure Centrism

I am a Centrist. That means exactly what the word implies: Being in the middle between two religious extremes in Orthodoxy. But it also means a lot more than that. It is a philosophy that one can live by that includes much detail. I am also part of a religious community that I define as Right Wing Modern Orthodox (RWMO).

I can’t really say that I am 100% RWMO since I have some tendencies that are more to their right and some that are more to their left. But for lack of a better category, I am probably closest to this one.

In many ways these two terms - Centrism and RWMO – are interchangeable. I have always looked at the former as more of a Hashkafic definition and the latter as a social definition. But for purposes of this post I will consider them the same.

While the following is far from a complete definition I think it encapsulates the essence of Centrism.

Centrists value Torah –which includes meticulous observance of Halacha and Torah study. They also value traditions and customs developed over Jewish history which have over time become fully integrated into mainstream Orthodox Jewish practice by virtually all its segments. This they have in common with Charedim.

But Centrists also value Mada, or worldly knowledge. Furthermore they value that part of the general culture that does not conflict and often enhances Judaism. There are two distinct Hashkafos that adhere to these principles: Torah U’Mada (TuM) and Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) as defined by Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch.

While I (and other adherents of TuM) do not see a great difference between the two, followers of TIDE vehemently deny any connection and completely separate themselves from TuM. It is true that the philosophies are distinct and different. But the basic elements I spelled out apply to both.

Charedism or what some might call ultra Orthodox Judaism or right wing Judaism is on the opposite end of the Orthodox philosophical spectrum. They do not place any intrinsic value on Mada aside from its utilitarian value. And they see virtually all of the general culture as incompatible with Judaism.

I have always believed (and still do) that Centrism is the correct way to observe God’s will as expressed in the Torah and our Mesorah. But I fully respect those who disagree in an Elu V’Elu sense. However, since I see Centrism as the right way to live, I have not really focused on the problems that are inherent in this Hashkafa. And I agree that there are problems. Just as there are problems in all Hashkafos.

My Hashkafic criticisms have generally been directed to those on both my right and my left. I think that is natural. That so many posts have been critical of members of the right is not a function of any inherent animosity to their Hashkafa. Most of my friends are Charedim. It is a function of media attention given to them. If a news story involves a public Chilul HaShem – which publishing or broadcasting it does, I’m going to say something about it. In all cases, my criticism is event driven – not ideologically driven. I don’t make up those news stories. I just comment upon them.

I have been criticized for not focusing inward. I recently wrote a post admitting that and explaining that I did not see anything of sufficient merit to criticize in RWMO. But I admited that in being a part of it - I may have overlooked the problems within it. I therefore asked readers to come up with critiques they felt deserved attention.

They responded. What follows are the comments from that post that deal directly with this issue. I have carefully culled only those comments that are critical of RWMO. Although almost all the comments had value - I have purposely left out defenses and praises of it; I have omitted repetitive comments that were already mentioned by others; and I also left out critical comments of Charedi or left wing Hashkafos. That was not the purpose of the post.

I agree with some of these; disagree with others; and some I am uncertain about. But if I were to tackle each comment this post would be book length. There are basically 25 points. I present them here almost verbatim for evaluation by all. They are listed in the order I received them:

1. Hashkafic stagnation. I don't mean so much unchanging views or pop culture shiurim so much as an increased disengagement with broader societal philosophical thought. You don't see the innovative restatements to it like, say, the Rav.

2. RW Yeshiva world puts an emphasis their population being Kove'ia Itim and I don't see that among our RWMO.

3. Regarding internet use, I sadly think my fellow RWMO will simply believe that their "kids know better" than to go check out sites that are not appropriate. 4. Many RWMO communities have yet to draw the line in the sand and say that they follow either TuM or TIDE (and I'm referring to those non-YU communities.) 5. RWMO also has never really figured out how to do adult outreach.

6. One of the weaknesses of the centrist approach is also one of its strengths. Centrist adults are often thoughtful people who have found a way to be involved in the world and remain Halachic. Getting there took much thought and strength of character, navagating a tricky world and finding a balance. They hope their kids will do the same. The problem is their kids are kids. It isn't easy to be in both worlds or to have parents who are in both worlds. There's bound to be problems. A kid from a Centrist home nowadays has so many more things pulling at him, because it's all part of being broadminded. But many

7. Lack of respect for rabbinic authority. I don't mean gadol worship, but local rabbinic figures should have the right to establish hashkafic parameters for their communities. The laity can (and should) respectfully question those parameters when needed, but fully cede decision-making to the rabbinic leadership. Unfortunately, the (otherwise laudable) mass distribution of halachic information in the vernacular means that people decide issues for themselves, and lambast rabbis who disagree.

8. The fetishization of academic Judaic learning at the expense of "traditional" torah learning. Chata'ai ani makir hayom: I love Marc Shapiro's writings and lectures, but I shouldn't be spending more time on them when I haven't done my shnayim mikra.

9. Tuition for RWMO is around $17k per child. Even couples making $250k are struggling to pay bills. The Charedim by contrat haver tuitions well under $10k or less per child.

10. RWMO, as represented by the recognized leadership (i.e., some of the prominent YU rashei yeshiva) and some prominent bloggers, are narrow and judgemental - even if they are less so than their Hareidi counterparts - considering some innovations by the LWMO as "beyond the pale".

11. There is no consensus among the RWMO leadership as to the value of secular knowledge. One Rosh Yeshiva defines it as simply mada subjects being taught in the same building as Torah. Another considers that knowledge of literature has helped his understanding of people and events in Tanach, i.e., a more integrated approach. That integration hasn't proceded to the point, however, of using historical and literary analysis of the talmud (or Rishonim) and other basic texts.

12. If you want to live outside the ghetto walls, without the protection of a fortress to keep assimilation and negative influences at bay, then you need strong Jews. Do you know how to produce those strong Jews in today's world? I agree with this approach, but I don't. Who is thinking about how to solve that problem?

13. A serious problem in the RWMO community is a solid basis in what Torah U'Maddah or Torah Im Derech Eretz mean. It seems to me as if the masses of RWMO are not very aware of these things.

14. Confusion between Midrash and Pshat and a misunderstanding of what Mesorah is (granted a problem of Charedim too)

15. Fewer MO school rebbeim in outlying areas, leading to Charedim taking over schools.

16. Too much focus on materialism in many areas

17. Condescending view of "MO-Lite" who in many cases are not wanton individuals, but just people who have not been convinced and are waiting for someone to convince them (i.e., lack of focus on the people between outreach and inreach).

18) Lack of recognition of those legitimately religious but on the left.

19. Quality of life. Are people in MO society generally happy or anxiety ridden, how hard must they work and how much time do they have to relax, spend time with their children and enjoy life? Day schools are the killer, but so is the nouveau riche lifestyle.

20. We hardly ever look up, except when we talk about rabbis and even then there is plenty ambivalence, (our rabbis vs. their rabbis etc.) The society itself, and its unquestionable superiority over other Jewish and non-Jewish groups is generally taken as a given.

21. It seems there is an inherent ambivalence that many have towards the life style. Face to face communities, for all their value as networks and safety nets, generate above average amounts of competitiveness and envy. Over the long run this endless pressure takes away the joy of living, and leaves many desperate.

22. No RWMO Yeshivos other than YU (maybe Skokie), I feel this creates a lack of diversity and I guess divergence of ideas (even though YU isn't the typical yeshiva, with multiple RY's), plus this creates basicaly a giant feeder system into YU, with YU and the New York area sucking up the best and the brightest from the rest of the country, to the detriment of smaller communities around the country.

23. Sending kids away to colleges (away from home). I see this as a major problem, and the fact that some rabbis are in favor of this. I have been on college campuses, and it’s just a fact of life. There’s way too much temptation out there, and kids even from the best families, will become not frum there. It’s not an indictment on the day school system, or on families, its like putting candies in front of babies, they will want what’s out there. It’s not even just a sexual thing. It’s the entire atmosphere, of kashrus, shabbos, everything. It takes a very strong person to fight it.

24. MO rabbis always talking about "why we are MO" etc...I think that its ridiculous, people don't need to be constantly reinforcing to themselves why they are who they are. You don't have chassidim giving vertlach about why they are chassidish or a rosh yeshiva giving a similiar speech.

25) The constant reference to the Rav. It is as though this were required for self validation.