Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Sunday, 29 June 2008

The Slippery Middle

It's not a suprise to realize that trending towards an extreme is far simpler than maintaining a compromise position. After all, which requires less effort? Accepting a complete package or creatinga customized one based on personal choice and intellectual investigation? Most people would say that the latter is preferable for a thinking person but the former answers a person's needs and questions in a quicker and easier fashion.

If one looks at general society, this trend towards extremes is easy to spot and has been gathering steam for the past few decades. Consider George W. Bush. Now, I don't think he's been a particularily good president but there are some things he's done as the leader of the Free World that should be remembered positively. However, if one is a registered Democrat in the States, it seems almost obligatory that one should hate Bush with every fibre of one's being and strive to see nothing even remotely positive about him. Part of being a Democrat, along with being pro-abortion and pro-union is being anti-Bush. You cannot have two without the third and call yourself a good Democrat, which is probably why Joe Lieberman is campaigning for John McCain instead of Barack Obama.

Consider the homosexual community. From my knowledge of and interaction with many members of that group, I can easily assert that their attitudes and outlooks are as varied as that of general society. There are those that are right wing and those that are left, those that believe in moral principles that reflect a traditional outlook and those that don't. But to read the newspaper and watch the news, one would quickly conclude that to be a "good" homosexual means to be a rabid leftist with a penchant for public erotic exhibitionism.

Even within the Jewish world, the two extremes are coalescing at the expense of the middle. Eric Yoffie, in a recent interview, defined a Reform Jew in strikingly negative terms. In his view, the minute a Jew accepts a single mitzvah as an obligation instead of a suggestion, he ceases to be a Reform Jew. In other words, Reform is about the absolute, complete, 100% rejection of any authority on the person by an outside source such as God.

On the other side, the Chareidi community has accelerated its efforts to monopolize control of what constitutes the Torah observant community through its intimidation of the Rabbinical Council of America, deligitimization of Mizrachi and dismissal of Torah im Derech Eretz. The Chareidi view, that the only good Jew is a Chareidi Jew, is one that is being pronounced more forcefully in the public forum, to the detriment of those Jews who would like to be observant but not kissing cousins of the Neturei Karta.

One of the first casaulties has been Conservatism. Back in the 1950's and 60's, with the post-World War 2 trending away from extremism in Western culture, Conservatism was a religion ascendant. True Torah observance was seen as anachronistic and out of sync with the evolution of Western civilization while even then Reform was seen as shallow and unreflective of Jewish values. Today they are in steep decline as their members have come to wonder about the point of being neither here nor there. After all, a Conservative is (supposedly) not a Reformer in that he accepts some direction from Torah in his life but is not Orthodox since he accepts only that authority he wants to. Much of the membership has discovered that if one is not Orthodox, then one really is picking and choosing, developing a customized personal religion which is, in essence, Reform.

The next casualty might very well be Modern Orthodoxy. Here is a movement with a real identity issue, starting with it's name. As I've noted before, "modern" is a loaded term since it changes with the passage of time. What was modern, be it values, ethics or even toasters, in the 1960's is hopelessly out of date today. Modern implies constant shifting and constant shifting implies a lack of definite values.

Within Modern Orthodoxy, this lack of definite values is taking its toll. On the left side of the movement is the YCT crowd, essentially traditional Conservatism with a mechitzah. On the right side is the YU intellectual crowd for whom Modern Orthodoxy isn't so much a passionate religion but a field of study on par with physics and chemistry and about as exciting.

Is it any wonder, then, that the movement's youth are leaving in one direction or another? For those who like the glitz and rituals of Judaism, Conservatism or even active Reform are just as legitimate an expression of one's connection to the faith, and even better, without all the annoying "thou shalt nots". And if one wants to be seen as taking his Judaism seriously, there is the pull of the Chareidi world with its supreme self-confidence that it is the golden standard.

There's a joke that's been circulating for years about which type of Judaism is the hardest. The Conservatives say theirs is before Orthodoxy is about doing what the book says without thinking about it and Reform is about doing nothing but Conservatism is about doing something voluntarily and creating a meaningful Judaism out of such activities.

As noted, Conservatism has essentially morphed into a traditional version of Reform so the joke can be adjusted now to say that Modern Orthodoxy is the hardest form of Judaism to practice. The Chareidim, with their Daas Torah, have it easy. The answer to any innovative question is "no". The Reform also have it easy. The answer to anything for them is "yes".

But Modern Orthodoxy? It is supposed to be about analyzing the sources, plumbing the depths of halachah to understand the spectrum of opinions on an issue and striving to arrive at a correct, not pre-determined answer as to what the best way to behave for a believing Jew is. Yes, in practice, a Modern Orthodox and Chareidi posek might come to the same answer for a question but in theory, the Modern Orthodox answer should be the deeper one because of the MO need for wider inclusion of sources and greater understanding of the question.

The middle ground is always the hardest to hold because the slope is so easy. Whichever side you're on, your course is picked for you and all you have to do is enjoy the ride but to maintain oneself's on the slippery middle is the real challenge. Did God create us to seek out the easy answers and avoid such a challenge or is the purpose of Torah to encourage us to strive for greater tasks and efforts?

In practice, however, that doesn't happen. In practice, the joke about Conservatism has turned into the joke being on Modern Orthodoxy.

3 comments:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

On the left side of the movement is the YCT crowd, essentially traditional Conservatism with a mechitzah.

what makes you define terms in that way?

Garnel Ironheart said...

Before it was taken over by the egalitarian crowd, traditional Conservatism was quite a strong religion with a basis in Torah and external authority. Indeed, I recall Conservative synagogues where the only difference between their services and the ones at the MO shul down the street was the absence of a mechitzah.
YCT, from what I've read about them, is pretty much there except for the mechitzah. Halachah isn't just flexible for them, it's like stringy silly putty that can be molded into any shape you like as long as it's made of genuine Silly Putty. Otherwise when it comes to things like interfaith dialogue, women participating in services, etc. the YCT crowd seems to have moved beyond what's considered Orthodox.

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Do you have specific instances of halakhic sillyputty (or examples of the problematics of "interfaith dialogue" and women participating [how exactly?] in services) in mind that characterize YCT as a whole?