Friday, September 25, 2015

Defining Modern Orthodoxy as Centrism

Centrist leader, R' Aharon Lichtenstein, ZTL 
I found the debate between Rabbis Avrohom Gordimer and Michael Chernick enlightening. The truth is that I agree and disagree with both of them - although I object to the insulting tone used by Rabbi Chernick. The subject is Modern Orthodoxy and how to define it. This is a subject that is dear to my heart since I consider myself Modern Orthodox.

I have discussed this issue in various ways and contexts many times. My definition is very simple and very broad. Modern Orthodoxy first and foremost is exactly what the name implies it is. It is Orthodox (which is the subject) and modern (which is the modifier adjective). 

Orthodox is defined in the dictionary as: conforming to established doctrine especially in religion.

Modern is defined by that same dictionary as: relating to the present time or the recent past

This means that we Modern Orthodox are loyal to what defines us as Jews: The Torah and Halacha derived from it. The basic elements of modernity are secular education, ethics, and culture. We have a positive view of that - with a caveat that rejects anything that contradicts the Torah.This is where the debate between Rabbi Gordimer and Rabbi Chernick comes in.

Rabbi Chernick rejects Centrism (sometimes referred to as  Right Wing Modern Orthodoxy) as being Modern Orthodox - considering it a form of Charedism defined as simply wearing modern clothing and speaking passable English. While this is true about Centrists it hardly defines them. 

Centrists, he says, are beholden to Daas Torah – meaning that they too rely on Poskim (albeit their own) just like Charedim. Modern Orthodoxy, he says, rejects that notion and sees that authority belonging strictly to the Morah D’Asra - the communal or synagogue rabbi of any given community. That may be true for the most part. However meta Halachic decisions have always been referred to by the Morah D'Asra to people more knowledgeable than themselves. 

Centrist rabbis realize that there are Torah giants that can make more informed decisions than themselves. This is not an impediment to Modern Orthodoxy as I defined it above. 

Another important distinction is how we view the State of Israel. Centrists have a positive view of it and support it. Charedim have a negative view of it and at best tolerate it and at worst condemn it and its founders.  That positive view lies anywhere between a Religious Zionism seen as near messianic to a view that sees no inherent messianism in the State but nonetheless sees it as a very positive development for the Jewish people since Israel was, is, and always will be our God given homeland. Not to mention the fact that it was a haven for Holocaust survivors displaced after the war.

In this sense all of Modern Orthodoxy is the same. But there are other incarnations of Modern Orthodoxy. One is what I call MO Lite, where I fear many Modern Orthodox Jews lie. Jews in this segment see themselves as Modern first and Orthodox second. Which sometimes means that they will compromise Halacha they consider trivial in favor of modernity.

As I understand it, this is due mostly to being Jewishly under-educated (either by circumstance or by design) . Having been raised Sabbath observant; in Kosher homes; and belonging to an Orthodox Shul they tend to continue along those lines generally. In other words they are more culturally Orthodox than they ideologically Orthodox. 

The other category is Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy - which has morphed into Open Orthodoxy (OO). I believe that Rabbi Chernick defines Modern Orthodoxy this way. While he doesn’t say so explicitly, his definitions can easily fit into that category. 

They have openly rejected the wisdom of their great mentors and substituted their own wisdom to make decisions so controversial that it has placed them outside of anything that can be called Orthodox. 

Just recently one of their bright lights has called for accepting biblical criticism as one legitimate approach to the Torah. Which is identical to the Conservative Movements position. Both OO and the Conservative Movement apparently accept (but do not demand) the belief that the bible was written by different people in different eras and redacted (rather poorly) into one book. They have also bowed to spirit of the times in rejecting centuries old tradition in favor of modern concepts of ethics.

This is not modern Orthodoxy. This is as Rabbi Gordimer points out neoconservative Judaism.
That said, I disagree with Rabbi Gordimer on why we seek secular educations and engage with modern culture. Here is what he says:
Modern Orthodox Jews can remain fully engaged in the broader world and its educational and cultural offerings, they can dress in contemporary Western style, speak with enlightened articulation. 
In this I agree with Rabbi Chernick. This can easily be a description of a moderate Charedi Jew. Rabbi Chernick identifies this as Centrism which he does not consider to be Modern Orthodox. I disagree.  Centrism is more that moderate Charedism. It is not passive interaction with the culture. It is active. We do not only see utilitarian value in it. We see intrinsic value in secular knowledge, culture and ethics. I always think of what Rav Aharon Lichtenstein said about the English Literature he studied at Harvard. It gave him a much deeper understanding of certain portions of Tanach. Rav Lichtherstein was the embodiment of the Modern Orthodox Jew - the Centrist. He is the role model we should all follow. Not those that have rejected tradition as antiquated.  

Rabbi Chernick points out we are obligated to adjust to the times. I agree. New circumstances require new Halacha. But new innovations in Halacha must be developed in ways that are consistent with past innovations. As Dr. Eliezer Berkovits once told me: We do not adapt the Torah to fit the times. We apply the Torah to the times. In the view of most Centrists - only the greatest rabbinic minds of our time are capable of decisions that change our traditional way of life. Not the Mara D’Asra (which means community or synagogue rabbi).  

No matter how well educated he is Jewishly – he is no match for a someone like Rav Soloveitchik who was is immersed in Torah. Only people like him, or Rav Lichtenstein in his day, or people like Rav Hershel Shachter in our day can make the kinds of ground breaking decisions that OO rabbis make. Which are based more on what their constituency wants than on the unbiased decision making process of a great Halachic mind.

I understand why they do it. They see it as Kiruv (although I never heard them use that word). 

Rabbi Chernick says: 
Many conditions of modern Jewish life are unprecedented. Therefore, creative halachic responses to these new conditions are required for successful Torah living and the healthy continuity of the mesorah. 
This is true. But the idea that a synagogue rabbi has the ability to see things without any bias - or authority to make major changes in tradition cannot be - nor has it ever been - an accepted approach to innovation. Even if it is for purposes of ‘drawing Jews into greater mitzvah observance’. That is the job of someone more objective and outside his immediate influences.

As I have said so many times in the past, the future of Judaism rests with Moderate Charedim (the overwhelming majority) and Centrists.

I know I will be accused of seeing only my way as the right way. Guilty as charged. I do. As far as Modern Orthodoxy is concerned, this is what I truly believe. I believe Centrists are the true bearers of Modern Orthodoxy and it will be they (us) who will ultimately perpetuate it into the future. OO (what LWMO has evolved into) is in my view destined for failure in any Orthodox context. MO-Lite Jews will only survive as Orthodox if they become more serious about their religious ideology and join with Centrists (or moderate Charedim). They or their children will otherwise either assimilate out of Judaism - or join the left which will take them out of Orthodoxy