Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Of Hedgehogs and Ideology

Image taken  from Lehrhaus
Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl has tried to accomplish the near impossible: Make the Modern Orthodox Jew passionate about his Hashkafa. Based on the writings of best selling business author, Jim Collins, he characterizes Modern Orthodoxy to be missing the hedgehog concept. By which he means taking something form a state of being good to something being great.

Why I believe it is near impossible will be addressed later.

Rabbi Perl correctly observes that if Modern
Orthodoxy is to survive it must have the kind of passion other segments of Orthodoxy have. Each of which has what Rabbi Perl calls ‘an authentic Torah value’ as their primary focus around which all other Torah values are secondary. As he notes: 
The Yeshiva world has talmud Torah. The Hasidic world has dveykus. The Dati Le-umi world had yishuv Eretz Yisra’el. Chabad has kiruv. Though each community advocates full-fledged adherence to all 613 mitzvot, a single value is elevated above the rest.  
Indeed. I don’t think this is arguable. This, says Rabbi Perl, is missing from Modern Orthodoxy. I agree with him about that. Modern Orthodox Jews tend to not focus on any of these or any other value that they exalt over all others.  Which leaves us without the kind of passion that could fire up the Modern Orthodox base. And that suggests that we are doomed to become marginalized by those whose passion about their Hashkafa defines them and thereby are better able to perpetuate their Hashkafa into the future via their children and their educators.

It is quite clear that this is the case. That is for example why there has been an unprecedented explosion in the growth of Torah study in the Yeshiva world. And who among us hasn’t noticed the explosion of Chabad’s Kiruv efforts into all four corners of the world? There is not a doubt in my mind that in both these cases, it was the passion about their particular Torah value – inspired by their rabbinic leaders that is responsible for that.

By contrast, Modern Orthodoxy has not singled out any Torah value to be passionate about. For most Modern Orthodox Jews it is all about following Torah law while living and participating in the modern world. It’s hard to be passionate about all 613 Mitzvos in the same way it is to be passionate when singling out one Mitzvah. One can rally around one Mitzvah using all the resources available about that Mitzvah in order to show why that Mitzvah is the most important one for then to rally around – and even live for.

Rabbi Perl suggests that Modern Orthodoxy does have one Mitzvah that they can and should rally around. It is a natural for them. The idea of being an Or LaGoyim –  a light unto the nations. It is the Modern Orthodox ideology that places its adherents in the best position to do so. They are the ones most involved in the outside world. They can set the example to their fellow man - a mission that should not be taken lightly. How the Modern Orthodox Jew behaves in public (and even in private) is no less the difference between making a Kiddush HaShem and making a Chilul Hashem. This is true for all Jews. But for those of us that are more involved in the general culture it is doubly so.

There are those who might say that being an Or LaGoyim has no real basis in Halacha. It is not in the Shulchan Aruch. It has no historic precedent and no one of any rabbinic stature, past or present, ever suggested this be our primary focus. Most such individuals would even say that this ideal has been adopted by heterodoxy in the form of ‘Tikun Olam’ and has nothing to do with what Judaism is all about.

Rabbi Perl does a good job of refuting that.  First there is Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch: 
(He) is one of the few Torah luminaries over the past two hundred years who was known to extol the virtue of Or Goyim seemingly over and above the Zionist ideal.  
Unfortunately Rav Hirsch’s ideology has been marginalized if not completely dismissed by most Charedi rabbinic leaders as a primary approach to Judaism. But as Rabbi Perl also notes - these same people might be surprised to know that Rav Hirsch was not alone. And that there were respected rabbinic leaders of the past who agreed with Rav Hirsch. Such as R’ Naftali Tzvi Yehuda of Berlin - the Netziv in his Sefer on Chumash, HaEmek Davar (Devorim 21:1). Rabbi Perl adds: 
The notion that Jews are called upon to share the Torah’s teachings with the world at large, and that doing so speaks to the very essence of a Jew’s mission in this world, was expressed not only in the Yeshiva world of Netziv and the Neo-Orthodox world of Rav Hirsch, but in 19th century Hasidic circles as well. Reb Nosson of Breslov, the great scribe and teacher of the Breslover community following the death of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, records the following in his Likkutei Halakhot: 
That said, I do not believe that Modern Orthodoxy should  make being an or LaGoyim its passion no matter how noble it is. In my view it should be defined the way it is traditionally defined as adhering to the ideology of Torah U’Madda (TuM).

Rabbi Perl rejects that. He references R’ Norman Lamm who – as he points out – literally wrote the book on that subject. Rabbi Lamm says that TuM is not an ideology but rather pedagogy – a means of ‘arriving at knowledge of the Creator through the avenues of science and the arts’.

In my view, that is a distinction without a difference. Aren’t all Orthodox Jewish ideologies ultimately about that?

Another objection Rabbi Perl has to defining Modern Orthodoxy that way is that pursuing God via TuM is reserved only for the most elite among us. Those capable of studying both disciplines at high levels – leaving those among us incapable of that to be passionate about.

I hear that. But that should not remove TuM as the ideological definition of Modern Orthodoxy. An ideal I believe is the best means by which to gain knowledge of the Creator. That is not something we should dismiss just because it is difficult for everyone to live up to and be passionate about. Not only that, but TuM need not be studied only by the elite anymore than Torah should. We each do the best we can with the capabilities God gave to us to do it. 

Full knowledge of God is in any case an impossible task for human beings as is evidenced by the Torah itself. When Moshe asked to see the face of God, God told him that no human being can see his face and live. Not even if that human being is Moshe Rabbenu - God’s most devoted servant bar none.

Does that leave Modern Orthodoxy bereft of the hedgehog concept? Perhaps. But in my view using a Mitzvah that does not really define what we are really about in order to excite passion in us will in my view - not work.