Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Orthodoxy's New Reality

Yeshiva University Beis HaMedrash
I think he’s on to something. Rabbi David S. Farkas has written a thoughtful essay in Cross-Currents that echos some of my own thoughts. In a recent essay, Professor Marc Shapiro had warned that Modern Orthodoxy (MO) and their flagship institution, Yeshiva University (YU) might become the next target of the right (Agudah) after it finishes off Open Orthodoxy (OO). Rabbi Farkas disagreed and came up with his own assessment about where MO stands with the right. The relationship has improved. Significantly.

Ironically this is corroborated by a recent criticism of Modern Orthodoxy by Agudah Moetzes member, Rabbi Aharon Feldman. In addressing the RCA statement rejecting female rabbis (with which he obviously agreed) he said they were missing the point and should have condemned Open Orthodoxy – the source of that problem and of many other ones, including the acquiescence by them to the heretical views by one of their top ordainees*.

But in the same breath Rabbi Feldman said that his differences with Modern Orthodoxy – while significant – do not (and never did) place them outside the pale (as it does OO). MO he concluded is well within Orthodoxy’s orbit.

As Rabbi Farkas indicates, strident differences are hardly ever mentioned any more by the right. He mentions many reasons why that is. All of which are true. The primary among them in my view is the realization that the views of the YU Roshei Yeshiva are not all that different from theirs.

That was tangibly demonstrated by Torah VoDaath’s Rav Yisroel Belsky who until his death worked side by side with YU’s Rav Hershel Shachter at the OU. They spoke very highly of each other. 

Added to this is the fact that OO’s chief critic is a right wing MO rabbi ordained by YU, Rabbi Avrohom Gordimer. The past is therefore not prologue. Past strident criticism by the right of MO and YU will not be restored. Certainly not to the same vitriolic level it had been in the past. It will be more like the criticism offered by Rabbi Feldman mentioned above.

Aside from all the reasons Rabbi Farkas mentions, there is also the fact that both the moderate right and Modern Orthodoxy (in the form of Centrists) has moved towards each other. This has been noted by Rabbi Berel Wein in his writings. The right has adopted some of MO’s modalities. Like getting a professional degrees from a university (for purposes of supporting one’s family.) The lifestyle of a right wing Modern Orthodox Jew (Centrist) is virtually the same as that of a moderate Charedi. They live in the same neighborhoods in many cases. They Daven in the same Shuls. They are Kovei Itim (set aside fixed times for Torah study) - often studying together. Their children might attend the same moderate Charedi schools that offer a decent secular education for their children. 

I have long ago concluded that there is little difference in lifestyle and values between the moderate Charedi and the Centrist.

There are Hashkafic differences, but they do not factor into the relationship. None of this is new. I have discussed it here more than once.

As Rabbi Farkas pointed out - all of this has been facilitated by the virtual elimination of the strident right wing criticism of Modern Orthodoxy which was a staple of the not so distant past. The question is why? Why has that criticism died down? There too Rabbi Farkas has a reasonable answer. There are bigger fish to fry.

As western culture has seen a revolution in recent years in which it has defined deviancy down (to quote the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan)  countering it has become more important than fighting each other. The cultural challenges today threaten the values of both religious Christians and religious Jews. There is an old Arab saying that I’m sure everyone has heard: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This has created strange bedfellows. You will for example see amicus briefs being filed jointly in a court by the Catholic Church and the Agudah on the issues that affect them both.

In my view, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back is Open Orthodoxy. While Rabbi Farkas does not downplay its significance, I don’t think he gives this phenomenon enough credit. This issue has created the precipitous moment where the Agudah and the RCA are virtually on the same page. Never have the two organizations been closer.  While there are still differecnes, Open Orthodoxy seems to have united the right and the ‘middle’ like never before.

This is not the first time that a serious fight has been abandoned - and former antagonists became united in common cause. One may recall the great fight against Chasidim by  Misnagdim led by Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer (...better known as the Gra or the Vilna Goan). He considered them to be heretical. The antagonism was fierce. My own great grandfather (7 generations back) was practically disowned by his father when he decided to become a Chasid.

But after the enlightenment freed the Jewish people from the ghetto, the attraction of the forbidden fruit of Haskala (the Jewish enlightenment) threatened to destroy them. After a few adjustments to the philosophy of Chasidus, Misnagdim and Chasidim became partners in the fight against the draw away from observant Judaism brought on by Haskala.

I think that the right might see Centrist Modern Orthodoxy in the way they eventually saw Chasidim  - joining in oppostion to a movement that they see as dangerous in attracting serious Jews away from what they consider the legitimate form of Orthodoxy.

Is this a good thing? I think it is. I have always been for unity. This is a step in that direction.

One more thing. Those critics who say that Centrists are not really Modern Orthodox but are instead Charedi  - is simply not true on an ideological level. There are significant differences. Just to mention a few, MO’s positive view of the State of Israel; the view of secular studies as more than just a means of achieving a decent living; and a more positive view of the general culture when it does not contradict the Torah. 

I will admit however that we have become sociologically very similar. That is a good thing and I am happy about it. Now if only OO will pull back a bit from pushing the envelope so far to the left, maybe we can finally have some across the board unity once and for all.

*The head of their flagship Yeshiva , Rabbi Asher Lopatin, has since repudiated that view saying that the events at Sinai are ‘non negotiable’ and that the ordainee in question has not yet developed the skills to be able to properly deal with the questions raised by the bible critics.)