A guest post by Dr. Michael Schweitzer
As time passes since the publication of my landmark article on Modern Orthodox (generously hosted at this blog by Lord Ironheart), I've come to realize there are some areas in it that should be expanded upon. I plan at some point in the next while to add a section on the Rav and his role in the development of Modern Orthodoxy but at this point I want to add something to what I think is the weakest section of the piece: the solutions for the problems facing Modern Orthodoxy.
As I wrote in the original article, there is a great need for Modern Orthodoxy to define itself in some fashion as opposed to the current default "We're Orthodox but not Chareidi" that seems to be the only common factor uniting an otherwise disparate community of people. Despite noting that personal autonomy seemed to be about the only defining factor there is a strong need for the community to come up with some parameters, especially in light of the recent rise of a group, Open Orthodoxy or Morethodoxy, which has come to see its mission as pushing the leftward boundaries of Orthodoxy as far as possible to bring that edge in sync with modern secuular norms.
This is not to say that Ultraorthodoxy is also not desperately in need of developing a similar parameter for its rightward edge. As events over the last few years have shown us repeatedly there are many in the Chareidi community whose authentic Jewish values begin and end at the clothing they wear as a uniform. Ultraorthodoxy certainly needs to do a chesbon hanefesh to decide how frum is "too frum". However, that is not the purpose of this post.
Therefore, the first suggestion I would make would be to define the nature of the relationship between the average layperson and his/her Rav. This is an area where, for many Modern Orthodox, there is a great deal of work to be done. This is due to a combination of factors. In the Modern Orthodox community the Rav is often a pulpit one, more an employee of one's shul than one's spiritual guide or influence. As a result people see the Rav as a source of sermons or shiurim but not necessarily someone positioned to answer important personal questions or those with halachic significance.
In addition, there is the amazing plethora of seforim which now exist on all manners of topics, many of them halachic. Publishers such as Artscroll have brought classics such as the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch within the reach of even that part of the Modern Orthodox community that knows little Hebrew. Beyond these are the books detailing the proper observance of Shabbos, kashrus and niddah. With resources like these available there is certainly a trend to pasken "by the book".
Finally there is the era we live in, that of the Gedolim. Unlike generations past many people have instant access to some of the most important halachic minds on the planet. The result has been a delegitmization of the local community Rav. Why ask him if the pot is kosher if you have Rav Eliashiv's home phone number?
For Modern Orthodoxy, therefore, the answer to these problems is to stress that people within a congregation have a tie to their Rav that goes beyond simply showing up for shul to hear the Shabbos morning speech. The Rav, in turn, has an obligation to develop that relationship as well.
One thing that the Conservatives have done, for example, is include training in counselling and advice giving as part of their rabbinical curriculum. This is an important thing to consider in an age where people are looking not just for answers to shailos but also for advice, help in their personal life or a source of comfort. All the training in Shulchan Aruch in the world will not prepare a Rav to do a good job counselling a grieving congregant and ham-handed methods reinforced by little more than ancedotes from the Tanach or Chazal will not aid the situation. Therefore it is imperative that Modern Orthodox rabbonim recognize that this is an important part of their role in their community. If they are training in counselling already, so much the better. If not, such professional development should be strongly encouraged.
In addition, there is a need for Modern Orthodox laypeople to recognize the concept of the shailoh. As noted above, books and a certain "I can figure this out myself" spirit have caused the practice of asking the Rav important questions to almost fall by the wayside. Other times the yetzer gives us a difference answer like "Oh I'm sure it's okay" or "I can't believe that this would be an issue". A close tie with a Rav is, as Lord Ironheart himself has noted, as essential to a Jew as a relationship with a primary care physician is to the average person. A person who refused to consuult a physician, looking up answers to his problems on the internet or in self-help books instead would surely be dismissed as a fool by thinking people. If our physical health is so important that a relationship with a personal physician who is familiar with us is essential, how much more so a relationship with a trained Rav who is familiar for us when it comes to our spiritual health.
There is a need to emphasize this personal relationship, to make the Rav a part of one's live when it comes to important spirirtual and halachic issues. Rabbonim need to work with sensitivity and professionalism in accepting this role but nevetheless the role must be embraced by the Modern Orthodox community.
Forget the "Gadol" in Israel or New York you've never met. Your questions can be handled by someone who knows you and who know his limitations when it comes time to handle difficult situations. This needs to become a defining feature of Modern Orthodox.