Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

More Flawed Definitions of Modern Orthodoxy

One of the side effects of Open Orthodoxy's slow but definite exit from Torah Judaism is its effect on the remainder of the Modern Orthodox community.  Modern Orthodoxy has been loathe to define itself in firm terms but Open Orthodoxy, by raising issues and producing defining statements on them, is forcing Modern Orthodoxy to begin seeing if it can develop is own terms of existence as a movement.
Into this fray comes a recent article that purports to provide twelve defining principles of Modern Orthodoxy.  While clearly well meant and heartfelt, it is my opinion that these definitions fall victim to the same flaws other attempts have made to define the movement.
To wit:

1. HalakhahWhile anchored in the Torah, Talmud, and rabbinic tradition, Halakhah is shaped by, and responds to historical and cultural circumstances.
I am reminded of the classic comedy scene in which a runner spends time preparing, stretching, getting mentally ready and when the starting gun is fired he trips over an untied shoelace and falls flat on his face.  The statement on what shapes halacha is such a stumble.  It is exactly how the Conservative movement justifies all its violations of Torah.  Women rabbis?  Get with the times.  Homosexual rabbis?  Get with the times.  Totally egalitarianism?  Get with the times.  This is a dangerous attitude, one that has removed YCT from the bounds of proper Orthodoxy. Perhaps instead one could state that halacha is eternal, founded on certain immovable principles and is shaped to each generation's needs by the greatest poskim who are able to balance the immutable mesorah of Sinai with circumstances that urgently require addressing.  As opposed to the Open Orthodoxy and the Reformatives who allow secular liberalism to guide their acceptance of Jewish law Modern Orthodoxy should view any issues through the lens of Torah with all other values coming second.  As opposed to the Chareidim, the community should embrace the pattern of guided change that has characterized halacha over the millenia instead of pretending that what we do today is exactly what our ancestors did as little as a few centuries ago.
2. EthicsHalakhah demands adherence to the highest moral standards. Proper behavior is dictated by traditional Jewish values and modern ethical norms.
This one starts out better but again betrays a liberal bias.  What are modern ethical norms?  Let's look at medical ethics, for a start.  Consider the example of abortion.  Modern ethical norm dictate that a woman has a right to choose the fate of her unborn foetus.  Never mind the partner who contributed half the DNA, the decision is hers and hers alone.  This conflicts strongly with halacha in which a person has no true autonomy over their body and where medical needs are dictated by Torah law.  Yes, halacha demands we practice the highest moral standards but the moral standards encourage by Torah often conflict with what's trendy in surrounding society and there can be no question which gets pushed aside in case of a conflict between the two.
3. Torah StudyTorah study is a primary Jewish value. Such study should almost always be pursued in conjunction with self-sustaining employment. Full-time Torah students are not automatically entitled to financial support by the Jewish community.
There is much to agree with but again, a few changes are necessary.  Torah study isn't a primary Jewish value, it is the primary Jewish value.  The ideal Jewish, as I will mention again below, is to be able to sit and learn all day long.  The material needs that come with living in this physical world make that lifestyle unattainable for the majority but that doesn't change its status as the true ideal.
4. WorkWork is an ennobling pursuit. Work should not be viewed as a necessary evil whose purpose is limited to earning a living.
This is another point of strong disagreement.  Does work have value?  Yes, as Chazal tell us that any Torah without accompanying labour goes bad.  The Gemara abounds with examples of our Chazal extolling working for a living.  And yes, it's not a necessary evil but one most ask what it is if not that.  Work in and of itself for the sake of work is also worthless.  We were not put in this world to labour for a pay cheque.  The answer is to remember that the Torah is full of laws regarding the worker and how to conduct himself in his occupation.  Work is an expression of the application of Torah values.  Work has worth inasmuch as the Torah Jew brings Torah laws to his occupation.  Therefore we can say that work is a chance to apply the laws that God gave us in a practical and material sense.  It is there that work has its true value and a strong rejoinder to those who see it as a necessary evil.
5. Secular Knowledge and CultureThe best of secular learning and culture has inherent value beyond any economic benefit.
The only knowledge and culture that has true and eternal value is Torah-based culture.  Shakespeare in isolation, da Vinci in isolation, Star Trek in isolation, have no real value.  Secular knowledge and culture can benefit Torah knowledge and culture but it is always a supplement, not an independent entity for us.
6. Science, Creation, EvolutionThe earth is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Evolution is the best scientific explanation for the development of life on earth. The account of creation in the Book of Genesis is religious, rather than scientific. Since the Torah is not a scientific work, scientific fact and theory neither conflict with nor confirm the Torah.
This is one of the things that bothers me.  I hate simplistic reactivity.  The Chareidim say we have to read Bereshis literally and believe that the world is 5776 years old.  This means, for the author, that a fundamental principle of Modern Orthodoxy is that we must believe it's not?  We must look beyond the simple argument and see the bigger conflict: the current official Chareidi position on understanding the first chapter of the Torah is that it must be read and understood literally.  We must believe that all true Jewish authorities over the centuries all the way back to Chazal held this to be an important ikkar emunah and if we find authorities who differ then we invoke the Eliashiv principle: They could say it, we can't. In other words, the current Chareidi position is to read the Torah through a len of dogma and ignore its true depth in order to maintain an ideological uniformity.  That's what Modern Orthodoxy should be fighting again.  It's not about how old the Earth really is, it's about how to read Torah and understand it.
7. TheodicyTheological justifications of evil — e.g., the Holocaust was God’s punishment for Jewish assimilation — are wrong and offensive.
When the Second Temple was destroyed (may it be speedily rebuilt) one in three Jews were killed and the entire land of Israel was laid waste.  Yet a few centuries later Chazal were able, in their wisdom, to explain the moral failings of our ancestors that led to this tragedy.  One day we will be able to understand why the Holocaust happened but right now it's too soon.  It may turn out that it was because of assimilation, Zionism, anti-Zionism, Chareidism etc.  We cannot say at this time but we know that the good and evil both come from Above.  ts just we are still too soon after the horrors of the Shoah to discuss it.
8. Zionism and IsraelBoth secular and religious Zionism are legitimate ideologies. The State of Israel is the fulfillment of religious and secular aspirations for an independent Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel.
I must be very clear on this point: Secular Zionism was a tool in the hands of the Creator to initiate the first flowering of our redemption.  Any Jewish ideology that lacks obedience to Torah and halacha at its core can be useful but not legitimate.  The legacy of Secular Zionism, a state in which the majority of the Jewish citizens are ignorant of the amazing nature of their heritage, is not a pretty one to behold.  The opposite ideology, Chareidism, begs us to ignore God's intervening hand in history and pretend that the greatest things to happen to our nation since the destruction of our Temple is a coincidence or worse, a maaseh haSatan.  It is therefore Religious Zionism that emerges as the proper ideology with which to appreciate the State of Israel, influence its citizens and encourage its progression to a Torah-run state that can properly receive Moshiach tzidkeinu, speedily in our days.
9. Non-JewsAll human beings are created equally in the image of God. The Jewish community must work in fellowship with its non-Jewish neighbors towards the betterment of society.
I think this point needs more emphasis.  With the triumph of the Chasidim in influence Chareidi society we are seeing more and more a focus on the difference between "us" and "them".  "They" are all savages, hate us and have no spiritual worth.  We can lie to "them", cheat "them" and steal from "them" with impunity.  This must be opposed.  The Modern Orthodox Jew sees all humans as a creation of God with intrinsic worth and our moral behaviour must be extended to them as much as to our own brethren.
10. Non-Orthodox JewsThere is one Jewish people. We share a common destiny and many religious values with non-Orthodox denominations and we must cooperate on issues of mutual interest.
This is once again a fundamental value position that I think is being mis-stated.  Yes, there is one Jewish people but there is also only one Torah and one set of rules for interpreting it.  One sine qua non of Judaism is that God appeared at Sinai and commanded His Torah to us.  That is the basis for the authority of halacha.  Ultimately we do what we do not because it's a good idea or sounds nice but because God said so.  Thus a Jew who visits someone in hospital because it's nice to do so is not demonstrating the same set of religious values as a Jew who wants to fulfill the mitzvah of bikkur cholim.  A rabbi who keeps a strictly kosher and shomer Shabbos home but who believes that humans wrote the Torah centuries after the events it depicts is deviating from the fundamentals of Torah Judaism.  He may act just like a Torah Jew but he isn't because the root reason for his performance is not the command of Sinai.  Yes, we must treat the non-Orthodox with respect and kindness and certainly cooperation with them in areas of communal need is critical.  What's more, we have an obligation to act with the highest Torah ethical standards in order to refute the contention that being observant interferes with one's ability to participate properly in modern society.  But we cannot share religious values unless those values are based on Sinai.
11. DressDress is a matter of individual taste, within the bounds of propriety determined by local custom.
Chazal tell us to know God in all ways that we think and act.  I have written before that one of the neatest things about Chareidism is their concept of a uniform since that means even when they dress they are performing a religious service.  Modern Orthodoxy has reacted to this by developing a sad trend towards emphasizing modern, non-Jewish dress and pushing the boundaries (crossing them sometimes to) of what is appropriately Jewish wear and what isn't.  We would do well to learn from the Chareidim that "the clothes make the man" and bring our dressing choices into the realm of obedience to and awareness of God.
12. WomenWomen are free to pursue careers of their choice. They may attain the highest levels of Torah scholarship and assume leadership roles within the Jewish community.
In one position statement the author shows what is concerning about the YCT way of adjusting halacha to accord with secular liberalism.  The first part of the statement, about pursuing careers of their choice, is fine as is the second.  One of the defining features of Modern Orthodoxy is that women study at the same levels as men as per the instructions of the authorities of the movement back the Rav, zt"l.  It is the final point that slips in and ruins the position.  The idea that women can assume leadership roles  within the Jewish community is terrible vague.  It could mean that women are allowed to lead female study groups or work as Yoatzot.  Alternatively it could mean giving them the title "Rabba" or "Maharet" and handing them their own congregations.  It is something that would have to be clarified and certainly the pre-existing bounds of halacha must be the basis for that clarification.

In summary the author has started a discussion and Modern Orthodoxy would certainly benefit from that but we must move beyond "We do this" and "We do that" to look at the underlying principles that motivate us.  If that happens then worthwhile advances will happen.


micha berger said...

Random comments, by item number in the definition list:

1- I have often likened halakhah and Jewish values to a Foucault's Pendulum, one of those things you find in a tall room in a science museum used to prove the earth rotates. The pendulum goes back and forth on the same plane, but because the world turns beneath it, the endpoints of its motion move in a slow circle about the floor.

Our values too -- we stay put. It only looks otherwise because the world moves.

That said, halakhah is a process. The specific practices do evolve. Precedent is a major factor in decision-making, but there are times it can be overruled. (Although most often, it only looks overruled and in reality it's that circumstances have changed.)

2- The Shoel uMeishiv argues that copyright violation is prohibited halachically even beyond dina demalkhusah dina (the obligation to obey civil law, and the notion that civil law and market norms are assumed by the parties in a fiscal transaction). Rather, he argues that because this protecxtion is part of societal morality, and we are prohbited against being less moral, we have to protect copyrights as though it were halachic property, beyond what the law demands.

So there is precedent for saying that societal morality has a say in halakhah.

Personally, though, I would have focused on natural morality. "What you would loathe for yourself, don't do to others."

3- "Torah study isn't a primary Jewish value, it is the primary Jewish value."

I disagree. The primary Jewish value is benefiting others. As per Hillel, Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai.

Even Rav Chaim Volozhiner, founder of the yeshiva movement and author of Nefesh haChaim sha'ar 4 held this way. As his son describes him, in the introduction to NhC:
והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחריני. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות

To quote Rav Shimon Shkop:
יתברך הבורא ויתעלה היוצר שבראנו בצלמו ובדמות תבניתו, וחיי עולם נטע בתוכנו שיהיה אדיר חפצנו, להיטיב עם זולתנו, ליחיד ולרבים בהוה ובעתיד בדמות הבורא כביכול, שכל מה שברא ויצר היה רצונו יתברך רק להיטיב עם הנבראים, כן רצונו ית׳ שנהלך בדרכיו כאמור "והלכת בדרכיו", היינו שנהיה אנחנו בחירי יצוריו, מגמתנו תמיד להקדיש כוחותינו הגופניים והרוחניים לטובת הרבים, כפי ערכנו

I realize that due to the Rav, Mod-O is a yeshivish spin-off, but that doesn't mean the yeshiva movement got it right.

5- "The only knowledge and culture that has true and eternal value is Torah-based culture. Shakespeare in isolation, da Vinci in isolation, Star Trek in isolation, have no real value." Perhaps, but that's more the Vilna Gaon or R SR Hirsch than the Rav. To him, Ramasayim Tzofim, he stared out from two peaks, and looked at the dialectic, not that one was always the other's handmaiden.

6- Agreed that 6 and 7 may or may not be true, but they aren't definitional features of Mod-O.

8- Variant on a theme on what i said on #5.

11- His statement is just plain wrong. Not only are there the bounds of propriety determined by local custom, there are also absolute standards.

Again, not a defining feature of Mod-O.

Although I would argue that eschewing uniforms is. Regardless of how many fedoras one might find in a Young Israel today. The whole idea of the uniform is to defy fashion and create a separate society. It's the "raise the walls" attitude to modernity that defines chareidism, rather than Mod-O's approach of sanctifying what can be utilized from Western Civ.

In terms of definitions, I would say it's simple, Or at least I did until a blog post of yours from a while back.

Chareidim see the dangerst of modernity and assimilating its values, and therefore treat it as the opposing team.
Mod-O sees modernity as the field we play on.

Then you added the whole issue of autonomy vs da'as Torah, and nowadways that might better fit what is actually dividing the social camps then the more obvious definition.

RAM said...

I don't see how one can universally define something so amorphous, except by contrast with other outlooks that have clear, well-accepted principles (Torah or anti-Torah principles). MO means something new every few years and varies with location, social class, etc.

Michael Sedley said...

Great Post Garnel,

I have always had trouble understanding exactly what "Modern Orthodox" is.
It seems very different from say Religious-Zionism which is the equivalent in Israel.

The 12 points in the article seem somewhat random, and reflect more the bias of the writer rather than Modern orthodox dogma (if there is such a thing).

I think your critique pretty much sums up the problems with the article.

Mr. Cohen said...

I might be wrong about this, but I suspect that this problem might not be happening if we had done a better job of teaching the The Rambam’s 13 Principles of Emunah.

PS: * *

Rabbi Ben Hecht said...

It would seem from your opening paragraph that you believe that the thrust of this desire to define Modern Orthodoxy is the need to distinguish it from Open Orthodoxy. What hits me, though, from this presentation of the principles of Modern Orthodoxy is how similar it would seem to be to a presentation of the principles of Open Orthodoxy.

What I actually see happening is that there is a challenge from two fronts on what is termed Modern Orthodoxy or Centrist Orthodoxy. One of these fronts -- emerging from those who essentially agree with Open Orthodoxy -- involves an attempt to define Modern Orthodoxy as very similar to Open Orthodoxy. This is what I believe we are encountering in this presentation of the principle of Modern Orthodoxy -- the attempt to co-define Modern Orthodoxy and Open Orthodoxy. It is important that this be identified.

Rabbi Ben Hecht