Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

What Does "Modern" Mean Anyway?

One of the things about Modern Orthodoxy that often gets overlooked is the meaning of the word "modern".
It seems to usually mean that MO's dress in modern clothes, have modern interests, appreciate modern secular knowledge, and so on.  Unfortunately it also gets implied that the "modern" doesn't so much influence the "orthodox" as the other way around.
But the problem with the word "modern" is the same problem with the word "now".  Neither really indicates much.  If "now" is this instant in time, well by the time I've finished typing that the "now" that was is in my past, much further back by the time you read this.
It's the same with "modern".  Folks back in First and Second Temple times didn't call themselves "ancient".  That term was reserved for the original Egyptians and Hittites, possibly also our ancestors who came out of Egypt.  And as much as we like to call ourselves a modern society nowadays, folks in the 23rd century will be talkin about us as living on "old Earth".  Watch Star Trek if you don't believe me.
If this is the case, then the "modern" in "Modern Orthodox" cannot refer to simply being trendy with whatever is hip in secular society while maintaining an Orthodox approach to life.  Rather, it should refer to the way Judaism interacts with the surrounding culture and how it takes from it elements of use to one's practice.
It seems that there's an intrinsic tension in the word "modern" since what it defines is always changing but in another respect it's always the same since it's the latest and greatest.  How does one bring that concept into our practice of Judaism?
Years ago a Conservative rabbi (I think it might have been Elliot Dorf but don't quote me) compared the halachic decision making process to a game of chess.  After the Torah was given and the Oral law develop the pieces moved into different positions as new situations came up.  The Orthodox approach nowadays, he contended, was to place a glass dome over the board so the pieces could no longer move.  The Conservatives, on the other hand, were still moving the pieces and allowing halacha to evolve.
He never mentioned the Reform but I could suggest that their approach was to clean all the pieces off and use the board as a coaster for their drinks.
I don't think this analogy is very accurate, though.  For one thing, there is clearly continued motion of the pieces on the Orthodox chessboard. It's just that the Chareidi approach to moving the pieces is to create new rules that limit options, like allowing the queen to either go straight or diagonal but not both, or restricting the rooks to a maximum move of 4 spaces at a time.  For them, the mesorah is defined as unchanging but this is clearly not correct if one looks at how normative Orthodox practice has evolved over the centuries.
For another, it could quite easily be proven that while the Conservatives are still moving the pieces but that they've tossed the rule book into the garbage.  For them, queens (and this is not a backhanded reference to their recent legitimization of homosexual marriage) can move in any direction and jump like horses while pawns can move backwards and rooks can jump over bishops.  The pieces and board are the same but the game being played is unrecognizable to someone familiar with the rules.  For them, change is the whole point and the guiding light is secular society.
Where does that leave Modern Orthodoxy?  Well, to persist with the chess analogy, both the Chareidi and the non-Orthodox approach leave an excellent option to be used: playing with the actual rules.  The rules of chess which guide the motion of the pieces are unchanging.  They are the "Modern" in Modern Orthodoxy.
What this means is developing a model of Orthodoxy based both on traditional halachic principles and academic scholarship to obtain a deeper and more accurate understanding of the mesorah.  It means saying to the non-Orthodox that what they are playing is not chess, no matter how much they want to think it is and that they therefore cannot legitimately claim to be halachic and taken seriously.  And it means saying to the Chareidim that their limitations on the rules, their adjusting of how the halacha is developed is also in violation of the rules.
Full halachic practice requires knowledge and confidence.  It requires knowledge is that a person needs to know the sources he is dealing with, from the Torah through the Talmud down past all the Poskim.  It requires confidence in that difficult situations or a lack of ready facts cause people to say "assur " just to be careful.  This is not halachic practice.  It is a cop-out.
Therefore it must be proposed that Modern Orthodoxy develop this model: a traditional model of halacha including the traditional rules for adjusting it to changing circumstances while maintaining absolute fealty to the mesorah.


Bob Miller said...

To use "academic scholarship" as one of the bases for one's Judaism makes sense on some level, but what exactly does that term mean nowadays. We have countless examples of studies twisted according to the desires of the investigators or their patrons. Who directs traffic so that only true outputs of academic scholars are taken into account by our poskim and other thinkers? Do we draw lines between hard and soft science, politically biased and apolitical sociology...? I think Rav SR Hirsch ZT"L proposed to use Torah to judge everything, and not to allow into Judaism any concept that such a judgment finds fault with. Is that your idea, too, Garnel?

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Halachic methodology can be twisted just as easily as academics.
What is required is a comprehensive education. A "Gadol" can't just know Torah but has to be aware of subjects beyond it. Yes, Torah is the lens through which we must see all issues but if we have no idea what we're looking at, what good is the lens?

SJ said...

>> What Does "Modern" Mean Anyway?

someone MO would probably answer both a belief in torah u'maddah and also religious zionism.

Gateway Pundit II said...

I actually disagree with SJ, because MO describes a wide range of practice and beliefs. I actually prefer the terms Liberal Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox.
Rabbi Avi Weiss - Liberal Orthodox.
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein - Liberal Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, shlita - Centrist Orthodox, Rabbi Herschel Shachter - Centrist Orthodox. There are differences between the two Liberals and there are differences between Reb Lichtenstein and Reb Shachter, but I stand by this. To the right of the Centrist orthodox are Ultra/Chareidim. Even within that realm, there are big differences. For example, Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva is "modern" compared to BMG, but both are to the right of centrist. I think Centrist is closest to the truth. While religious zionism is big in the liberal and centrist camps, not everyone holds by it. I would describe myself as apathetic when it comes to religious zionism. It's not my thing, but I'm certainly not anti RZ either. Even within the ultra segment, however, there are still some that are religious zionists at heart. My brother, a musmach of YU is clearly now Chareidi. However, he can't completely shake his YU roots. He recently expressed to me his admiration of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was one of his rebbeim in his YU days. My brother added that he couldn't tell anyone in his neighborhood of his feelings for Rabbi Riskin, because they would never look at him the same again. While he was joking with that last line, I'm sure he meant it a little bit. So I have rambled and haven't solved a thing!

Adam Zur said...

you nailed the problem on the head. what is bad about modern orthodox is exactly that modern defines them. not right and wrong. If existentialism was the in thing then then yeshiva university is existentialist. If psychology is the in thing then they make a psychology school. even though is is pseudo science. the one thing Torah is supposed to give to people is a sense of the difference between right and wrong and true and falsehood. Nothing in the modern orthodox world indicates that they got that lesson. At least in the charedi world they have a guide post--Torah and Talmud.

Princess Lea said...

I believe all labels are misnomers.

Either one keeps halacha, or doesn't keep halacha. And that makes him either observant or non-observant.

Once upon a time "modern orthodox" just meant "goes to college." Times have certainly changed.

Any labels amongst religious Jews merely divides us further. I just heard a shiur by Rabbi Betzalel Rudinsky: Take a chassid, and on the other side a man in a kippah seruga. In the end, they have more things in common than not. And the rest of the world thinks both are crazy.

I am labeless. I am just an observant Jew.

Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

> Either one keeps halacha, or doesn't keep halacha

Yes, but what is halacha? Ask a Chabadnik and he'll tell you the halacha is that one most avoid anything daiiy that isn't cholov Yisrael. If you drink stam chalav which is permitted by Rav Feinstein, ztk"l, you're not following the halacha in his eyes.

Same thing with dressing. According to Satmar you're a dirty whore if you don't wear thick black stockings under a black/dark grey dress that goes up to your jaw and down to near your ankles. If you wear anything less, you're not following the halacha in their eyes.

That's the problem. It's one thing to say "I hold like this but I recognize you hold like that and we're both doing it for the same end purpose". But what's happening is "I hold like this and if you don't you're committing an issur."

ahg said...

Great post, great analogy to chess, but it's all for naught.

Who gets to decide that accepting brain-stem death is a valid halachic innovation in light of modern medical knowledge but redefining Kavod Hatzibur as a malleable social construct of a chauvinist era is beyond the pale?

To use the Chess analogy: Who determines which halachic maneuvers are standard play, and which are the chess equivalent of castling?

The lack of an MO "Moetzes" is both a strength and weakness. On the one hand there is no deification of our leaders, and the inevitable abuse and corruption that goes hand in hand with such power. On the other hand, there's no central authority to establish normative standards or to call out the chareidim when they violate the rules.

In the end, the weak, fractured MO world looks to the chareidi world for validation of what they got right and what they got wrong. If you don't believe me, think for a moment what would have happened if it had been an MO rabbi who first matirred Cholov Yisrael? The chareidi world would have castigated the "liberal" who proposed the innovation, and would have doubled down on their insistence that it's the one and only true way.

Why is this significant? Because it comes down to judgement calls of what is a valid social need where we make the castling move to save the game, and what's just a liberal agenda item. Not YU, nor the OU, nor the RCA, nor YI are given that authority to make those judgements.

Therefore, your conclusion that "it must be proposed that Modern Orthodoxy develop this model..." is meaningless until, if ever, there is a unified voice to speak for Modern Orthodoxy.

SJ said...

If someone doesn't believe in either torah umaddah ooooooor (religious) zionism I would actually have to question if the individual is truly modern.

Princess Lea said...

Let's put aside chassidim for now, and what they consider halacha.

In terms of an individual: do YOU believe you are keeping halacha? How one identifies oneself is the crux of the matter, not how the rest of the world sees you (I think you are being a little hard on the Satmar; they are not all unreasonable. And Chabadnicks take their cholov yisroel very seriously, but that doesn't mean they can't see someone else's point of view).

Identity comes from within. I can't help what others think of me (one may see me as overly frum, others will see me as a bum). What matters is how I see myself.

MIghty Garnel Ironheart said...

Your point is valid but remember that proper Jewish practice is the individual interacting with the community. I have to be honest with myself but to an extent there are community standards to consider.

ahg said...

Princess Lea wrote: "In terms of an individual: do YOU believe you are keeping halacha? How one identifies oneself is the crux of the matter, not how the rest of the world sees you"

That works well for the individual in a vacuum. someone who wants to home school their kids. But, when people join together to form a community, build a school, the need to set community standards arise.

Does the school only serve Cholov Yisrael? What does the dress code require? Do you have an Internet policy? What do the science teachers say about dinosaurs?

All these are important questions and finding common ground on issues that confront us is what defines an Orthodox community. Whether you like attaching a label to your community or not doesn't matter, you're still going to be looking for people with shared values to build your community.

My in-laws, are extraordinarily traditional Conservative Jews. Aside from the fact that they drive to a (Conservative) synagogue on Shabbat, you would not see any difference between them and mainstream MO observance. They follow the infamous Conservative teshuva on driving to the "letter of the law". They make sure they have adequate gas in the tank before Shabbat so there's no need to buy gas, they avoid toll roads, they make no other stops other than going to and from the synagogue. They consider themselves halachic. However, would you see this as an acceptable halachic lifestyle? Bottom line is, you need baseline of observance to build an Orthodox community around. One that will sustain itself and build an environment suitable for raising kids that share your values. Unfortunately, today it seems like finding an MO community that can sustain itself, without its children being pulled to the left or right isn't easy.

Anonymous said...

IMHO the chess analogy fails because of the wide flexibility the chachmei hamesorah have at their disposal (e.g. The real question is who gets to dedcide when to wield the flexjbility.

Joel Rich

Anonymous said...