Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart
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Monday, 15 November 2010

Whither Modern Orthodoxy (Again)

One of the problems with a movement that prides itself on giving its members autonomy is that it is very difficult to define the parameters of that movement.  Chareidism has it relatively simple with very specific criteria that tell one how to be a good member.  With Modern Orthodoxy it's not so simple, especially as recent events regarding Rabbi Avi Weiss have demonstrated.
Perhaps another reason Modern Orthodoxy has trouble defining itself is the name the movement has chosen.  The English equivalent of Chareidism is Ultra-Orthodoxy which pretty much tells you what the public image of that community is - you find the chumra and they'll take it on.  What does Modern mean?  Does it refer to the style of dress, an acceptance of television and movies as an acceptable part of life, or an approach to halacha that differs from the Ultra-Orthodox?
For many, there is an impression that while the Chareidim are stuck in the Dark Ages and unwilling to change anything about halacha, the Modern Orthodox are willing to be flexible, almost to a fault, at ensuring that Jewish law changes to keep up with developing needs in the community as well as expectations from the surrounding secular culture.
However, neither of these impressions is actually true, despite what some might think as this article about Rav Daniel Sperber, demonstrates:
The Orthodox world has dealt with the “uncertainty” and “perplexity” brought on by these changes in two ways, Sperber says. One is to “retreat behind the walls,” condemning all change as a threat to “the nostalgic picture of what Judaism was.” The haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community, and “the so-called right wing of modern Orthodoxy,” take their cue from the 18th- and 19th-century Talmudist and teacher known as the Chatam Sofer, who ruled that “chadash assur min ha-Torah,” or, “Innovation is forbidden by the Torah.” That began, Sperber says, as a technical point about the laws of the harvest; was applied “out of context” to Orthodoxy’s conflict with the new Reform movement in Germany and Hungary (and even among the Orthodox, Sperber says, it was considered “a very extreme statement”) and finally became a universal rule.
Sperber gave two examples of from the Hungarian town of Mattersdorf (now Mattersburg in Austria). The synagogue had never been heated, and during the winter the synagogue officials had to pay people to come to be sure of having 10 adult men for prayers. But when someone proposed installing a fireplace, Sperber said, the reaction was, “Our forefathers didn’t have it, and chadash assur min ha-Torah.”
Synagogues had never had benches, either, only upright reading desks known in Yiddish as shtenders. That made for a lot of discomfort during the long High Holiday services, but the idea of bringing in benches met the same fate: “Our forefathers didn’t have them …” (“Did he say he’s bringing in examples,” a bystander whispered, “from Mattersdorf or from Chelm?” -- the legendary Jewish town of fools.)
The problem with this analysis is obvious: does anyone know a Chareidi today who won't use electricity, a chair or even toilet paper, all innovations since the Chasam Sofer's famous proclamation?  Do Chareidim hand-sew all their clothes?  Do they insist on books that are printed on old-fashioned presses without any assistance from computers?  What Rav Sperber is describing is of historical interest but hardly applicable to the Chareidi community today.
Many in the Modern Orthodox community don't like being labelled as "less frum" than their Chareidi brethren but if you take a moment to look at those areas that Modern Orthodoxy claims it is more involved in, it becomes very clear that Chareidim are there too - doctors, lawyers, accountants, stock brokers, computers, engineering and many more professions.  It's true that a smaller proportion of that community is engaged in such fields but that is usually because of a greater commitment to the idea that full-time learning is as acceptable a profession as gainful employment.  Perhaps the greatest difference is the idea that Chareidim use those professions for their purposes (making money to support the local yeshivah, for example) while the Modern Orthodox are more likely to immerse themselves in the culture of the profession itself.
If this is so, then how does Modern Orthodoxy distinguish itself?  It's interesting to observe that more many, the main focus of attention is the same as that of the Chareidi community in recent years: gender separation and sexuality.  While the Charedi leadership in recent years has attempted to emulate Talibanistic standards in terms of definitions of tznius as separation of men and women in public, those on the left fringe of Modern Orthodoxy have gone the other way, trying to push the limits of what halacha will allow in terms of minimizing feminine-specific clothing, gender separation and even roles in prayer.  This focus, to the exclusion of an approach to the greater problems facing the Jewish nation, is beneficial for neither group.
It must be recommended that Modern Orthodoxy stop worrying about the stereotypes of Chareidim we have all allowed ourselves to become hypnotized with.  Instead of reacting, Modern Orthodoxy needs to start defining itself and building its strengths along the lines of those definitions.  It means looking that the halachic literature and analyzing it with proper methodology to determine what behaviours and beliefs are considered properly Orthodox instead of looking to secular culture for answers and then trying to find supports within the poskim.  Modern Orthodoxy, in short, should be about Orthodoxy, not Modernity.

10 comments:

Michael Sedley said...

There are several ideological differences between the "Modern Orthodox" and "Ultra Orthodox" worlds which you didn't mention.

The biggest differences are (although within each of these points there are different opinions within both the Charedi and Modern worlds):

- Relationship to Zionism and the State of Israel

- Relationship to Secular learning, is it only a means to geta career, or does it have intrinsic value

- Da'as Torah (which is a new concept that somehow now has to be binding on the Charedi World)

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Those are all good points but the underlying question is: how are these attitudes arrived at in each community?
I would suggest that the Chareidim will use copious halachic reasons to justify their views on all the subjects you mentioned. Meanwhile, the MO's will use more practical, but not necessarily, halachic arguments to support their position.
To use your examples:
Zionism is good because we need to have an Israel.
Secular learning has value because it leads to a better job and lifestyle.
The new Daas Torah is wrong because no one is infallible.
My point is that each of the attitudes you mentioned have copious halachic positions to back them us but rarely does the average MO invoke them.

Chaim B. said...

Rav Sperber seems to equate disagreeing with the changes being implemented by segments in MO with disagreeing with all change. I heard him speak about the issue of women's ordination and it pretty much boiled down to the same thing, with similar examples. Not accepting a woman Rabbi = not accepting electricity in your shul.

Garnel Ironheart said...

That's the impression I got from the article. I mean, it's interesting to recall historically that there were some authorities who were against electricity because it was "new" but that's really not relevant anymore today. Clearly those authorities were either overruled or changed their minds. As I noted, the Chareidi world does, despite official denials, embrace change but at its own pace and it's always better if no one comments on it.

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

Is there really anyone out there trying to create a Modern Orthodox 'movement' ? There is no Orthodox 'movement' of any kind, as far as I can see. Hence it is difficult to pin down definitions. And that is how it should be, no?

David said...

"One of the problems with a movement that prides itself on giving its members autonomy is that it is very difficult to define the parameters of that movement. Chareidism has it relatively simple with very specific criteria that tell one how to be a good member."

Why is this a problem? There are frequently blurry lines in many aspects of reality... I'm sure some folks would call me "Orthodox" (I keep kosher and observe Sabbath) and others would call me something else (I don't really daven, and am rather agnostic). Why are you so keen on figuring out whom you can exclude? There is-- or should be-- more to a religion than who can be kicked out of it.

SJ said...

There really is no modern orthodoxy. At this point it really is nothing but Williamsburg Satmar with "modern" part being that they're kiruv-conscious.

Garnel Ironheart said...

Wow, this is just like old times. David's back and SJ's ornery again!

SJ said...

No seriously, the "modern" Young Israel synagogues are full of black hat old schoolers, and that Satmar meat place is still around in Avenue J of Brooklyn.

In a sane world the Satmar meat place would get rocks thrown at it for the anti-zionism as Glatt Kosher is halachically valid and enough.

I don't see modern orthodoxy as modern orthodoxy. I see it as a trojan horse for the hardcore religious.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

You think Young Israel is representative of Modern Orthodoxy? What about YU? Heck, what about YCT?