Monday, April 8, 2013

Looking For The Middle – From The Right And From The Left

In the last edition of the Queens Jewish Link I had the honor of having my essay, “ A Post –Hareidi Election” published, and I am gratified to report that I received a lot of positive feedback from our readers. As I wrote then, the opinions presented were not new or novel, but merely expressed views that are shared by a great many, who, for whatever reason, are reluctant to state them publicly.
Indeed, there is a great middle ground of serious people who are now referred to as “Chareidi”, who feel repelled by many of the statements and actions of Chareidim spokesmen and activists, and wish they were not associated with these statements and actions in the court of public opinion. Put another way, while others may express themselves as they wish, and take responsibility for their own bringing honor to Hashem and His Torah (or Heaven forfend the reverse), we should not be implicitly or explicitly blamed or implicated for those actions by our association.

In particular, I was very gratified to a receive a positive response to the article from one of our most distinguished Queens Rabbonim, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld שליט"א. He noted among other things that one great Rav who we both hold in great admiration, namely Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch זצ"ל, went to great lengths to avoid labels such as Chareidi-Judaism, or Modern-Orthodox, preferring to refer only to “Torah True” Judaism.1 This of course, as it should be. One ought to feel comfortable, as I did today, davening in the Satmar Beis Hamidrash in Williamsburg in the morning, proceeding from there to Yeshiva University to attend a seminar with Rabbonim of various hashkafot, and then finishing the day at our Young Israel at a Yom Hashoah commemoration with Jews of an even greater variety of observance and outlook. We ought to be able to look at ourselves as comprising only one large group, that of Torah true Jews.

Nevertheless, the reality is that there are many serious Hashkafic differences between Jews, and although we are all bound by the same Halacha, there are significant differences in many matters that affect our approach to life. In broad strokes, there are Ashkenazim and Sephardim and Eidot HaMizrach; Chassidim as opposed to Misnagdim; those looking to embrace all that is good in the secular world and those who are looking to stay away from anything in the secular world that isn't absolutely necessary; those who see Zionism and the State of Israel as a great blessing and those who see it as a cause of much turning away from Torah; and everything in between. This is nothing new.

Moreover, many of the great commentaries point to the division of Israel into twelve tribes as being not only of genealogical interest, but as indicative of different paths to Avodas Hashem, each of them equally co-valid and complementary, wherein different people could find their own way in the service of Hashem that speaks to the needs of their own Neshamos. We know something of the differing paths of Yissachar and Zevulun, or Yosef and Yehuda, and certainly that of Levi, somewhat less of the other tribes, but the message is clear: it is only by recognizing and validating that there are different people with different sensitivities, talents, thought patterns, resources, abilities, and spiritual needs that we come together as a great diversified nation united by Halacha and loyalty to Hashem. In our time, it is up to individuals to fulfill the dictum of Pirkei Avos עשה לך רב – Establish a Rabbinic Guide for Yourself – in order to find the spiritual path that matches their neshama, within the Halachic world.

Given that this is the case, and that for both the purposes of self identification and for that of our children's education, we feel the need to belong to a particular group within “Torah-True Judaism”, it is necessary that the groups be drawn neither too narrowly nor too broadly. On the one hand the group needs to be broad enough to contain many shades of variety and diversity, or else the dangers of insularity, group-think and defensiveness will create people who are devoid of the ability and need to appreciate and understand others, and will stifle originality, creativity and growth among its members. On the other hand the group needs not to be drawn so broadly so that it includes extremes so far beyond the pale of the beliefs and views of the more moderate members that they are appalled to be associated with those positions. It is to that phenomenon that my last article spoke.

I wish to add that this phenomenon is not limited to the Chareidi,or so-called “Ultra-Orthodox”, world. (I used to object to the pejorative nature of the term “Ultra-Orthodox”, given that the dictionary defines the word “ultra” as going beyond due limit”, and offers helpful synonyms such as “extremist, fanatic, rabid, radical” etc. More recently I have begun to question my objection . . . ) A similar issue is very present in the Modern-Orthodox world as well. As a recently term-limited-out member of the Executive committee of the RCA (Rabbinical Council of America),2 I had a front row seat to many of the struggles that go on within Modern Orthodoxy. On the one hand, there are those who are seeking to push innovations such as: female Rabbis, prayer groups for women including Kaddish and Krias HaTorah, or of “partnership minyanim”; acceptance of homosexual couples as full members of the community including having a mazal tov kiddush when they adopt a child; pushing lower standards for conversions; no longer saying the blessing of “Shelo Asani Isha” as offensive to women (and perhaps even omitting “Shelo Asani Goy” as politically incorrect); and, more broadly, introducing secular, academic, and non-traditional sources when considering Halachic p'sak (decision making). On the other hand, there are those who strongly resist and resent those efforts (and many somewhere in between). It is a struggle, as well, between those who look to Gedolim such as Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Hershel Schachter, Rav Mordechai Willig, and Rav Gedaliah Dov Schwartz (all שליט"א ) as the standard bearers of the Mesorah in our time; and those on the far left, particularly those associated with Rabbi Avi Weiss and Yeshiva Chovevei Torah who have a very different vision of of what the future ought to be considered within the pale of Modern Orthodoxy.

I have friends and colleagues who have the same angst at being known as Modern Orthodox as I do at being known as Chareidi, if Modern Orthodoxy includes the extreme innovations of those on the left. They, too, suffer uncalled-for criticism, that makes them cringe. I remember attending an Agudah convention some years back, when one of the Roshei Yeshiva attacked “Centrist Judaism”, the term then in vogue for Modern Orthodoxy. Citing some of the excesses of some of the more left wing Rabbis he thundered “If that is centrist, than what is to the left of them, Conservative Judaism??” How shameful it must have felt for serious Talmidei Chachamim and Yirei Shamayim within the Modern Orthodox world to be pronounced one step removed from Conservative Judaism! That is the danger when a publicly identified group is too large – the inevitable extremists taint the mainstream and traditional members with their excesses.

I do not know what the answer is to all this is, other than for a re-emergence of a true Centrist Judaism group, one that is broad based and comprised of “Torah-True Jews”, that will not tolerate either the extremists of the right or the left in speaking for them or setting the agenda for the Klal. One whose leaders will be serious Talmidei Chachamim, who represent of a true diversity of Hashkafot and styles, while possessing mutual respect and dignity for each other and in speaking to those both within the community and without in ways of pleasantness and inspiration. With apologies: “perhaps I am a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.”

1The famous dispute between Rav Hirsch & the Wurzburger Rav is very germane to this, but space does not permit comment
2 I note that the RCA is a broad based organization of predominantly Modern Orthodox Rabbis of a variety of Hashkafot, and some who have a more Chareidi outlook. The RCA does not presently offer membership to candidates with semicha from YCT .

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