Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 1 June 2012

Modern Orthodoxy - The Solution

For a long time I have been noting that there are several problems facing the Modern Orthodox community but that the underlying root problem is a lack of clarifying identity.  As noted elsewhere, about the only real definition that carries any validity in the real world is "not Reformative, not Chareidi".  There is little positive to define Modern Orthodoxy that does not contain meaningless bromides like "a willingness to incorporate secular society into Jewish practice" or "a willingness to accept modernity" and so on.
But over Shavuous I was considering matters and two specific things kept coming back to me.  The first was the recent Asifa against the internet.  For those who didn't hear a large gathering of Chareidi rabbonim and layfolk met before Shavuos, ostensibly to discuss how the internet can be used responsibility by God-fearing Jews.  Despite all the pre-show propaganda, the results were predictable.  As I warned before the event, the entire day could have been summarized as "The internet is evil.  Don't use it unless your local Gadol allows you to (and fat chance he will!)."  How many millions of dollars were spent to get that message across?
What the Asifa further clarified was that it is the opinion of some of the Chareidi leadership that one is only Torah-observant if one is Chareidi and that being Chareidi is defined as "wears a particular outfit, follows 'the Gedolim' unconditionally".  The Religious Zionist and Modern Orthodox community are simply not on their radar or part of their definition of Orthodoxy.  Thus their definition of Achdus is simply "everyone accepts our way as the only way".
The second thing was quite different.  Rav Michael Broyde, following on the footsteps of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, began aggressively promoting a halachic pre-nup in order to prevent get-refusal and subsequent cases of agunos.  This is quite an interesting development seeing as the idea of a halachic pre-nup has been floating around for some time without really gathering steam.  Yet now there are calls to make it mandatory within the Yeshiva University system.
And then it occurred to me.
The one thing all human society has in common is a desire for progress.  It's something we have been steadily doing since Adam HaRishon stepped out of Gan Eden and realized that farming with fingernails isn't very productive.  We build.  We develop.  We increase our level of complexity.  That which was fine yesterday is replaced by that which we will think of tomorrow.  There is no avoiding progress.
The one thing many leaders do when confronted with progress is to try and limit it.  For these leaders progress is a threat.  They are familiar with a particular system and can't handle the change progress brings.  Perhaps they won't be competent in the new system.  Perhaps they have introduced a system of values that the new system contradicts.  For whatever the reason they proceed to fight against progress.
And they always lose.
It is interesting to note that Torah Judaism itself accommodates progress.  Despite the impression so many give to the contrary, the system is set up to handle changes and development in society.  Once upon a time we wrote on parchment.  Now we use paper.  We once used a different script to write our sacred Torahs in.  We used to handwrite books, now we print them off pdf's.  The original laws of Shabbos had no mention of electricity in them but now handling that nowadays is routine.  Jewish law grows and adapts to changing realities.  Of this there is no question.
Again, we have had leaders who kicked and screamed against every step of progress we've made in the last year.  And again, they lost.
Consider one of the most infamous warriors against change, the Chasam Sofer, z"l, who issued the famous decree that created Chareidism: "Everything new is forbidden by the Torah!"  Yet today his spiritual inheritors use electricity, drive around in cars, own cellphones and even use toilet paper.  The Chareidim are not the Amish.  They adapt, they progress, they incorporate the new technologies into their lives even as they insists they are living just like their ancestors did a few centuries ago.
But if this is the case then what can Modern Orthodoxy claim when it stakes out its legitimacy?  If Chareidim are just as adaptive then what is the Modern Orthodox advantage?  A comprehensive knowledge of Star Trek quotes?
I would suggest that this area is exactly where Modern Orthodoxy can claim the superior ground.  If progress occurs then the idea that we are a religion where it is forbidden is false, simply false.  Rabbis who stand up and claim that our Judaism is exactly like our ancestors are making false claims.  Moshe Rabeinu didn't wear a shtreiml at matan Torah, our laws of how we dress have adjusted over time and we didn't all sit in kollel for ever and ever.  And what's more, the idea that we are in many ways different than our ancestors is a testament to the authenticity of our system.
Consider the Torah shel Ba'al Peh.  The Oral Law has grown over the millenia as new situations have confronted it.  The possibilities generated by confrontation with surrounding cultures and progress in general are many but the Oral Law was given to Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, with the tools to handle such confrontations and teach us how to handle them within the bounds of halacha.  
The halachic pre-nup is a great example of the.  There is no proper solution to the agunah problem within the halachos of marriage.  As much as some people might like it to be otherwise, a woman cannot initiate divorce proceedings.  The pre-nup is a creative solution that allows one to make an end-run around this requirement without violating it.  It acknowledges the idea of free-will in that the husband-to-be signs it willingly (well, we hope!) and binds himself according to the relevant rules.  It is an elegant solution to a complex and vexing problem.
So when Chareidi rabbonim reflexively condemn it as an illegitimate innovation they are not so much stating a halachic opinion as they are engaging in the fight against progress and therefore, if Modern Orthodoxy is prepared to push this understanding, a fight against the natural halachic process.  They are fighting against Torah under the guise of protecting it.
Look at the internet.  For all the pontificating at the Asifa, Chareidim are using the internet.  Rav Wosner, shlit"a, had strong words for those who engage its services.  It's a good bet he doesn't know his own works are freely available there!  Do we want a Judaism that denies what it does or one that points out that it can take the worst of what the secular world produces and turn it into an instrument for spreading holiness?
Now I'd like to take a step back and anticipate one objection: isn't this what Open Orthodoxy/Morethodoxy is doing?
I would say that this is a valid concern.  One of the easiest things about Chareidism is its reflex approach (at least officially) to all change.  It is a lot harder to say "yes" appropriately than to say "no" indiscriminately.  Yet with Open Orthodoxy/Morethodoxy the approach seems to be from the opposite direction: say "yes" indiscriminately while looking for a heter to justify the decision.
The difference I'm proposing is saying "yes" with a jaundiced eye.  Modern Orthodoxy should not be competing to see how progressive it can be.  It should be demanding from the factors that would change it justification for even being considered.
Let me give you an example: the role of women in public service in Judaism. The Chareidi approach has been to emulate the Taliban.  The Open Orthodox/Morethodox approach has been to imitate the Conservatives, pulling back only at those points where they can't find even a single posek to justify themselves.  Therefore the role of the Modern Orthodox community must be to be firmly traditional.  Change is possible but it must justify itself.  How does the change increase their avodas HaShem within the parameters of the standard halachic decision making process?  Are they absolutely sure they're doing it for Jewish reasons as opposed to assuaging secular liberal pinings?
I am well aware that there are a few MO's who read this blog.  Take this idea to your friends, your rabbonim and your teachers.  Raise the idea that Torah Judaism is about a growing, dynamic system and that championing such a system openly should be the defining feature of your community.  Start the discussion.  Perhaps it will lead somewhere.


Anonymous said...

Interesting words Garnel.

I think for the time being we will see orthodoxy run away from anything but the smallest concessions to modernity.

I think there are many factors. But I want to point out one factor: the baal t’chuvah movement. I am a failed baal t’chuvah, but still keep up with some from my yeshiva days. I have black hat baal t’chuvah cousins too.

I think the indoctrination that goes on in the baal t’chuvah yeshivas (Aish, Ohr Somayach, I’m sure a few more) leads inevitably to Haredi-ism.

We have to understand this dynamic better if we are to understand what vexes Orthodox Judaism today.

I will start with my own observations that there are Jews returning to Orthodoxy who are coming with emotional fragility and using their newly acquired strict Orthodoxy to solve several problems.

First, if they have no career (a common problem among young men, particularly ones suffering some emotional problems) then haredism says: no problem. Don’t work. Work is for the goyim. We learn, which is the higher calling.

If they come having trouble keeping relationships with women they are taught: no problem, we will get you a bride, and there will be strict rules for your marriage, so you don’t have to be good at relationships.

Basically if they come wounded, they leave with a plan for their lives. And since the secular world basically sucked for them, haredism is perfect: it says walk away from secularism, and never look back.

Then there is the threat of modernity to Haredi values and practices.

The haredi world collectively is completely gob-smacked by the modern world.

First, the modern world appreciates and accepts science. This includes evolution, and an old universe.

Second, the modern world accepts morality and ethics as they have developed and evolved to fit modern times. This includes seeing the Torah as a nice book from long ago that certainly changed the world, but whose contents and ideas are only partially applicable anymore.

Third, the modern world thinks sexuality is something that it is dangerous and wrong to suppress. Most parents want their kids to have some sexual relationships prior to marriage. It is part of learning about yourself, and plain growing up.

Finally the modern world believes what Freud said: it is mainly about love and work. Relationships, family are very important to modern folks. So is work – where many folks get a huge sense of purpose and meaning.

And yes, the modern world partly respects religion. We are more enamored of G-d, but we also permit ourselves the occasional religious ritual or holiday.

None of this works for the Haredi. How could it? The problem is it may be healthier to be more modern than Haredi. Healthier psychologically. I know people sometimes think religious folks are happier – but it is possible that folks committed to family, children, career and counting their blessings are somewhat better off.

So how does this possibly appear to a Haredi rav? He sees the end of Jewishness. Better to circle the wagons, and await moshiach.

I figure your message gets a much better reception IF we strike the year 6000 and moshiach has not shown up.


Adam Zur said...

The place of Talmud is in a yeshiva i.e., a voluntary group of people that have come together to learn and keep it. This group should not try to undermine the freedom of other people that do not choose to join their group. The trouble with Modern and charedi Orthodox Judaism (outside of the actual institution of a yeshiva) is the basic principles are opposed to the open and free society. It is a Gan Eden for power freaks. The worst fate for a power freak in a Orthodox society is to be under the control of other power freaks. this is why people leave Orthodox Judaism.
The trouble in the orthodox world is not the Talmud which is holy and great. It is that the Orthodox rabbis are people that love to push other people around. This is not admitted in principle but it is a simple statement of the reality of the frum world.
I have no objection to a yeshiva where people come to learn Talmud on voluntary basis. The Talmud has much more to offer to people that anything in Philosophy or economies or psychology. It is one of the most deepest and most profound books i have ever read. But hey I think Plato is great also but i would not like to see his form of communism instituted .
Between the greatness of these books and the reality of human life there is a gap. And that gap is freedom. I cant and will not advocate any group that tries to undermine human freedom. Sorry. And if you ask me I think freedom was an inherent part of Talmudic Judaism when it was originally written down. people went to the local sage who had a reputation for honesty and not being able to be corrupted. The whole Talmudic system seems to be based on the freedom of the people that lived under it. This is in contradiction to orthodox today which is a tyranny and is trying in its own way to undermine freedom for all people--Jewish and not Jewish. This seems to me to be evil.

Anon1 said...

"The Chareidim are not the Amish. They adapt, they progress, they incorporate the new technologies into their lives even as they insists they are living just like their ancestors did a few centuries ago.

I work in Northern Indiana where there are many Amish. When I was recently in a Radio Shack electronics store, an Amish man was involved in a discussion with the salesman and someone else about a problem with a router.

Bob Miller said...


Are there MO rabbis you would classify as Gedolim? Why not find out their solutions?

SJ said...

Where I go to school, Muslims are able to go on dates and they are actually able to * gasp * hold hands when they date.

An actual instance where muslims act saner than the jews.

SJ said...

Orthodoxy is an utter failure.

Everyone in orthodoxy is either

- in revolt against the religion


- mentally in revolt against the religion while still sticking around


- wishing they could be in revolt against the religion but is locked in by either emotional or circumstantial attachment.

bottom line is noone wants this shit.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

SJ, please get a life. I hear they're on sale at Walmart. Alternatively, you could simply become addicted to Second Life.

Bob, here's the problem with MO "Gedolim". If the definition of "gadol" is overarching scholar with a broad knowledge of Torah and a strong innate wisdom, then yes there's a bunch. If the definition of "gadol" is powerful political leader with omniscience due to "daas Torah" whose every decree must be obeyed then no, there are none because the structure of MO doesn't allow for that.
A model of leadership which has influence over the followers needs to develop, just not along the dictatorial lines seen in the Chareidi community.

JRKmommy said...

Are there MO gedolim today who command the same sort of respect in all circles that there were in the past?

Once upon a time, not so long ago, you had Rabbi Feinstein saying that regular milk was fine and accidentally contact with the opposite sex on public transit wasn't an issue. You had the Lubavitcher Rebbe saying that pictures of girls were not only allowed but that they actually needed to be publications. You also have articles like "The Rebbe and the Rav" on, talking about the connection between Schneerson and Soloveitchik going back to their university days.

Do we have such figures today, with that sort of widespread respect, who can issue progressive rulings?

I also have to say that your line between MO and Open Orthodoxy strikes me as shaky and somewhat arbitrary.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

The last "Gadol" accepted by everyone was Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt"l. Since then the Chareidi leadership has become entirely politicized and no longer sees itself as paskening for the entire Jewish people. Look at Rav Wosner's approach to the internet at the Asifa. Had Rav Feinstein, zt"l, been around he might have published an answer to the question "What do we do with the internet" but would never have issued a "binding" fiat like that. You asked him his opinion, he gave you his opinion. Rav Wosner, on the other hand, would seem to want to tell me what my opinion must be. That's the essential change.

BawlmawrBob said...

R. Mighty,
I enjoy your blog, but why do you allow SJ to post with his gutter language? Moderation is the soul of wisdom. Back to my pre-Shabbat prep.
Shabbat shalom.

Adam Zur said...

mo do need someone with the depth of European roshei yeshivas. the problem is to get to that level while at the same time pursuing a career can be difficult.

SJ said...

Hey Garnel did you try the Megalife Pro 5000 yet?

Ben Waxman said...

"Are there MO gedolim today who command the same sort of respect in all circles that there were in the past?"

there aren't MO gedolim who command that respect or chareidi gedolim who command that respect (included in that sentence is any chareidi rav you can name). we are going to need to find a different leadership more. maybe it will be what we say on shabbat "u'bemaqehalot revvevot ahmcha beit yisrael b'rina yitpaer shimcha"

Nishma said...

I believe that there is a need to define the issues in theoretical terms before they are defined in practical terms. IOW we will not get to an understanding of what is happening as long as we define a man as charedi because he wears a black hat and one as MO because he wears a kippa sruga. It is why they wear this that is the real issue -- and when you get into that realm you may find that the groupings also change.

In regard to the present debate, the real theoretical issue is the nature of Torah. On one hand we have a concept that the Torah given on Sinai was in its ideal form and, with the concept of nitkatnu hadorot, that the generations fall in stature, we are left with the idea of looking back to the past for direction. On the other hand, there is a concept in Torah that Torah also grows and that there may be advancement in ideas. This is found in the very idea of working towards the Messianic Age and the idea that the Mashiach may be the greatest Torah scholar ever (tension with Moshe Rabbeinu). This is the actual dialectic of Torah but one that is actually difficult to understand and apply.

The statement of the value of the past is known and recognized by everyone. It is the Torah value of 'future' Torah that is much more difficult to define and then, even when defined, is further difficult to present especially in a world around us that does not give value to the past as we do with Sinai. This is part of the essence of the issue. The Charedi world simply ignores the idea of 'future Torah' which, because of its unclear nature, is somewhat easy to do especially given its unclear presentation in the texts while nitkatnu hadorot is articulated rather clearly. The problem is that the MO world generally has some idea of progress but does not understand it in its theoretical Torah state as a Torah concept. This is also the problem even more so with Open Orthodoxy.

For MO to become a true force it has to return to its theoretical Torah roots, understand what it means in concepts -- not behaviour per se -- and then promote itself as a derech with Torah, especially Torah thought. It cannot be that I am MO because I support Israel, I use the internet etc. It has to be because I have a certain understanding of what God gave on Sinai and what I am to do with it -- it is about how I look at Torah.

There is more to this than just the issue presented here but you see where I am going.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Micha Berger said...

Why are we looking for gedolim altogether? My job is "asei lekha rav -- making a rabbi for myself". Someone who knows me, where I stand, what will work with me, what I'm not ready to deal with, and can help me grow as a Jew in terms of closeness to G-d, refinement of my Image of G-d, and observance (the primary tool to reach the first two). It's not to find the top specialist in the field.

Now my rabbi's job, is to find himself a rabbi. Someone he can not only turn to the same way I turn to him, but also someone he can ask for help in how to guide me when I throw my rabbi a curveball he can't handle.

And so on.

We don't need to end up all turning to the same few rabbis as the top of a pyramid.

And I don't think we should be skipping the levels to find the top specialist in the field who might know the medicine the best, but has no chance to collect my medical history or make a personalized prescription.

Nishma said...

I wish to strongly second Micha's sentiment.


MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

And I'll point out this is part of my essential reading list:

ahg said...

The problem with Modern Orthodoxy is that it still gives deference to the chareidi leadership. The very fact that MO bloggers like yourself have devoted time to discussing the Asifa demonstrates that element of deference. IMHO, the MO world seemed to be sub-consciously hoping that the Gedolim would allow filtered Internet at home, giving their lifestyle the validation they desire at some level.

For comparison, The Rabbinical Assembly had their annual conference a month ago - did anyone on the Orthodox blogosphere take notice? The RA has passed 13 resolutions in 2012 so far - Does anyone is the crowd care? No. Why? Because nothing that comes out of the RA is of any importance to us. Why do we see the chareidi world differently?

If not for the various MO blogs I read, I would not have known about the Asifa until last Shabbat. In my "out of town" MO community, no one said anything about it, until last week when someone mentioned reading something about it at kiddush.

Why? Because from where I stand, nothing that might have been said at the Asifa would have any bearing on how I live my life or the lives of my MO neighbors, in the same way that nothing the RA comes out with effects my life I live with the confidence that my MO existence is the derech hayasher and don't need the validation of any chareidi Gedolim.

If only more in the MO felt that way, then we'd have a chance. Our own lack of confidence in our own leaders and our own way makes us weak.

It's not the lack of an issue or principal to rally around that leaves MO without direction. It's not a lack of Gedolim per se; we have plenty of stellar leaders. It's a lack of confidence a fear of being deemed not frum enough and the need for validation that we see ourselves and others see us as "Orthodox Light".

Statements like those from Zwiebel in Mishpacha that have received a lot attention this week, should be enough for any open-minding, thinking Orthodox Jew to realize that the group that Zwiebel represents can't possibly be the "true path" of Torah and they should start looking elsewhere for it.

yosef said...

Posting late, I know. ahg - Modern Orthodox Jews lack confidence in our own leaders because most, if not all of them, are spineless, uneducated men who don't deserve to be called rabbis. How many of them are bought by the establishment, always saying no and no again, instead of looking for how to say yes? Too many of them focus only on religion rather than being good, humane people, kind to their congregations and neighbors and fellowmen, helpful in times of need. Friends, in other words. WIth the entire upper establishment rotten to the core, those who are truly wonderful men (and women) are stepped on and demeaned, and can't rise as they naturally would.

When Chumrah and meticulous, rote practice of Halachah became more important than being a better person to those around you, then confidence was lost.

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