Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Is the Move to the Right a Rejection of Postmodernism?

The black hat - increasingly worn by RWMO Jews
As part of his Dvar Torah questioning  the wisdom of continuing to offer Talmud study to all women in Modern Orthodox (MO) schools, Rabbi Mordechai Willig made the following observation: 
The ‘precipitous move to the right within Modern Orthodoxy’ is, in reality, a rejection of postmodernism. 
One can quibble with his use of the term ‘postmodernism’.  But let us assume that what he meant by that is the extreme left of Modern Orthodoxy’s embrace of Open Orthodoxy which has adopted questionable ideals from the general culture that Modern Orthodoxy had never accepted.Rabbi Willig feels that this has caused traditional Modern Orthodox Jews to react by going in the opposite direction.

That may be true. But I think we need to look at this phenomenon historically to fully understand how Modern Orthodoxy evolved since the years of the Holocaust.  

Mainstream Modern Orthodoxy of the pre-Holocaust years consisted of customs and habits that were not entirely Halachic. One would find things like mixed dancing, mixed swimming,  lack of hair covering by married women,  and surprisingly even a lack of Taharas HaMishpacha in more than a few cases. Many Modern Orthodox Jews had no clue about the severity of this Halacha. They saw’going to the Mikva’  as an archaic ritual observed in unsanitary conditions. And they simply refused to participate in this ritual.

Shabbos observance consisted of not going to work; not driving; going to Shul, and then home to a Shabbos meal.  The idea of 39 Melachos of Shabbos was not well known in those days. The reason for that  was Jewish education was in most cases very skimpy. Universal day school education did not yet exist. A lot of MO Jews went to public school in those days.  Even for those that did attend MO schools the religious education left a lot to desire. Many of the religious teachers were incompetent. Some were not even observant! If one wants to read an account of what Jewish education was like in those days, Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet’s memoirs tell the story. It was pretty dismal.

After the Holocaust when many Jewish refugees from Europe settled in the US, things changed. Day schools, high schools, and Yeshivos were established to accommodate the vast majority of observant Jews. The teachers in those schools were highly educated Jewishly – having been trained in European Yeshivos. And a lot of Modern Orthodox parents started sending their children to those schools. Those children learned what religious observance and tradition was really all about.

So originally the move to the right was really no more than a move to be more observant of Halacha… to be more serious about it. These were the MO Jews that became Right Wing Modern Orthodox (RWMO). They became more knowledgeable and thereby more observant.

Of course there were a lot of MO Jews that preferred living the way they had been raised as children in homes that were not as knowledgeable and therefore not as committed to Halacha. They saw (and probably still see) the RWMO Jew as a rejection of Modern Orthodoxy. They chose instead to continue their previous lifestyles. The schools they sent their children to were inclined to cater to them with a coed school system where the values of the general culture were far more emphasized.

How did we get to the extremists of the left?  A committed Modern Orthodox Jew whose values are strongly influenced by the general culture has had those values validated by their Shul Rabbis and the schools their children attend. This in my view is what has led to Open Orthodoxy’s embrace of the egalitarian goals of feminism.

Rabbi Willing seems to be saying that MO Jews have gravitated to the right in reaction to that. But it is a reaction that goes beyond Halacha and tradition. And in my view - a huge mistake.

That’s because it usually entails incorporating customs that are not Halachicly required. Just more right wing. Like having separate seating at their children’s weddings;  or wearing black hats; or perhaps most significantly - sending their children to mainstream Charedi schools. Which in turn influences them even further to the right.

I have no problem with people choosing to be more right wing. My problem is why they might be doing it. If it is in reaction to the left – for fear of their influence diluting their Yiddishkeit, that is a sad thing. They should instead stand up for their own values and not mimic the right. Mixed seating at a weddings (for example) is becoming an increasingly rare event in RWMO circles. It has been relegated to the Left and to MO Lites.

I cannot object enough to this phenomenon. There is no need for RWMO to become defacto Charedi. But it seems we are crossing that line.

This is not right. We need to stand firm and not adopt the lifestyles of the right just to distinguish ourselves from the left. We should maintain our own values. Which are to be solidly Halachic Jews loyal to tradition. And at the same time fully participant in the general culture that does not contradict that. If we don’t assert ourselves this way we will all eventually be gobbled up by the tidal wave that is mainstream Charedism.  And that would be a great loss to Judaism.