Thursday, October 31, 2013

Orthodoxy - Outreach or Retreat?

Rabbi Asher Lopatin seen here with the Zidichover Rebbe
Unfortunately we live in a world of labels. Judaism has many faces. Far too many to list.

I identify with the right wing of Modern Orthodoxy called Centrism. I guess being a Centrist means looking to my right and to my left and seeing both sides rejecting  my views as either illegitimate (by the right) or out of touch (by the left).  

But the truth is that Centrism is not some sort of middle ground. We are as proactive in Mitzvah observance as the right. And our attitude towards the secular world – both intellectually and culturally is the same as the left. We view it as positive when it does not contradict our Torah values and even as an enhancement of our Torah observance in many cases. I’d like to believe that I could live in both worlds of the right and the left. But I don’t think I could live in either. I could neither live in a world that rejects all of secular culture or in a world that embraces values I consider counter to Torah values.

That said I will always defend both the right and the left as valid members of Orthodoxy. I have recently defended the Agudah for example – even though I disagree with some of their policies.  But I also defend the left even though I sometimes disagree with their policies.

Which brings me to a letter signed by a large number of RCA rabbis (although it was not an official RCA document). The RCA is the fraternity of Modern Orthodox rabbis that represents a wide spectrum of Modern Orthodox views, from those that are almost Charedi to those who are almost Open Orthodox. The letter was critical of Rabbi Asher Lopatin and Open Orthodoxy.  In short they were responding to a plea to the right by Rabbi Lopatin written in the Yated. He asked to be allowed to build bridges with them.

Rabbi Lopatin was hurt by all the shrill voices of condemnation of him and his views before he has even begun his presidency of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT). The point of that RCA letter was that if Rabbi Lopatin is so upset at his critics who want to remove him from Orthodoxy – that he ought to look in the mirror. It is he – they say – that by his actions and his views ‘put him on the other side of the divide’.

While I understand what they were saying and even agree with them to a point (For example - I criticized his round-table discussion with the leaders of Reform and Conservative Judaism) - I would not have signed that letter. I know Rabbi Lopatin. He is a good man and truly believes in across the board Achdus.

Rabbi Lopatin is a bridge builder. He wants it all. I don’t know if he is going to get it - but I would cut him some slack as he tries. He had an excellent relationship here in Chicago with the right. Why not let him try and mend some fences in the larger Orthodox world? It is one of his stated goals in taking over the leadership role at YCT.

Given the chance he might even modify his approach to pluralism so as to make it more palatable – if not completely acceptable to the right. Before publicly criticizing him he should be given the opportunity to seek the Achdus we so sorely lack. And by Achdus, I do not mean agreement. I mean acceptance and friendship. As I have repeatedly said, I agree with Rabbi Lopatin’s goal - which is outreach  to the Jewish masses. I just disagree with some of his methods based on my understanding of the directives of my mentor and his, Rav Ahron Soloveichik, and his brother, the Rav.

The truth is that all Orthodox denominations have failed at outreach. Centrists included. This can be seen by our relatively small numbers as compared to the rest of Jewry. Even with all our outreach efforts and growth - we are only ten percent of the total number of Jews in America. As I have said in the past – that 70% of non Orthodox Jews intermarry is not something to be disregarded. We are hemorrhaging badly.

Rabbi Lopatin’s movement is at least trying even if it is in ways that are problematic to the rest of Orthodox Jewry. But what about the rest of us?

Rabbi Simcha Kraus who identifies as a Centrist believes that we Centrists can do more and has written an article along these lines.  He puts the blame squarely on the ‘move to the right’. This affects all segments of Orthodoxy (with the possible exception of the left).  There was a time in America when Centrist values were more mainstream. Even in right wing Yeshivos. But no more. Here is an excerpt that tells the story:
Then came the "turn to the right" that is so often touted by Orthodox triumphalists as a great success. In fact, this was a retreat from the challenge of the non-Jewish worlds, from fellow Jews who were not as Orthodox, and from modernity as a whole. The sad result has been described by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik…  
While Rabbi Soloveitchik claimed to have successfully transmitted the intellectual heritage of Judaism to his students, he admitted to failure in transmitting the Jewish religious experience. This, he felt, was because the students "act like children and experience religion like children."
He went on: "This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. Sometimes they are even ready to do things that border on the immoral. They lack the experiential component of religion, and simply substitute obscurantism for it. After all, I come from the ghetto. Yet I have never seen so much naive and uncritical commitment to people and to ideas as I see in America.  All extremism, fanaticism and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist." 
Immaturity and obscurantism, superstition and intolerance, abound in the Orthodox community, and the problem has worsened since Rabbi Soloveitchik's day. Every problem has a simple answer, it seems, and life is robbed of all its complexity. 
Do you have doubts about the divinity of the Torah? Bible codes "prove" the truth of the traditional view.
Does the death of 6 million innocent Jews in the Holocaust give you theological problems? There is "proof" that the Jews were punished for assimilation, for Zionism or for something else. Similar "proofs" explain why the World Trade Center tragedy took place.
Is someone sick? Have the mezuzahs checked. Marital problems? Have the ketubah checked? Are you still single? Stop speaking lashon hara.
Contemporary Jews are thirsty for Jewish spiritual sustenance, but give them medieval obscurantism and superstition, and they will run the other way - as proven by the new data. Orthodoxy is losing the battle of ideas because our culturally outmoded thinking and language cannot convince anyone even minimal intelligence or cultural sophistication.
 Need I say more?