Friday, June 14, 2013

Parading in the Middle - Principle or Moderation?

When I was given the honor of writing a regular column in the Queens Jewish Link, the question arose, “What should the byline be?”   I thought of ideas such as “A Rabbi Reflects” (too stuffy), “A Tree in the Forest” (a presumptuous reference to Forest Hills), “Libi BaMizrach” (my blog name) and even Mordechai Shmutter's “A Title Goes Here” (it had already been done).  But when I hit on “The Middle Road”, our talented editor Naftali Szrolovits warmed to the idea.  I am not sure what it meant to him, but to me it is a reference to my quest to help articulate the voice of what I believe is the silent majority of those who feel comfortable neither fully in the left nor right of Orthodoxy; seeing both positive and negative aspects of both sides, and seeking to embrace that which is good from all sides. 

I suppose that this is a way of moderation – of trying to live within the “Golden Mean” so eloquently described by Maimonides – to stay away from the extremes of both sides and to cleave to the middle path.  However, even the Rambam would agree that the middle road is not always the appropriate one.   In a beautiful essay, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm שליט"א described the tension between being a moderate and standing for principle.  In matters of character and personality – in developing character traits through which one interacts with others – one ought to be a moderate and keep a healthy distance from extremes.   “But when it comes to principle – to ideas, philosophy and commitments; to a code rather than a mode of conduct – then only the vision of truth may guide us.”   Furthermore, he quoted the Kotzker Rebbe זצ”ל as commenting in his inimitable style on the traffic conditions of his day that “only behemos (animals) walk in the middle of the road; not human beings.”   The Kotzker, a man for whom truth was everything, and to whom popular opinion mattered not a whit, was the ultimate man of principle – not by any means a moderate.  But I am confident that the Kotzker would agree that although matters of principle were vital, acting in a way that promotes Kiddush Hashem and assiduously avoiding actions and statements that cause Chilul Hashem, are equally important, even if it means adopting a moderate form of expression in public. 

The trick, of course, is being able to properly differentiate when something is a matter of principle – that must be upheld even if viewed by others as extreme – and when the matter is one that calls for a moderate stance.  This is particularly difficult when there are Rabbonim on different sides of an issue, and one is torn as to whom to listen to.   The topics of  “Aseh Lecha Rav” (the obligation for each person to choose a Rabbinic authority to follow) and “Da'as Torah (the authoritativeness of Rabbinic opinion) go way beyond the scope of this article (I have written extensively on this on my blog for those interested).   Once one has a Rav, one most certainly ought to follow their Rav's guidance as to how to conduct oneself on controversial (and all other) matters.   But there are certainly Rabbonim and schools of thought that believe that many issues are to be left up to the individual person to decide how to conduct themselves, under the general rubric  and guiding principles that they received from their Rabbinic authority.   It is in this area that it becomes difficult to decide whether it is a matter of principle that is at stake, or it is an issue about which the path of moderation is appropriate.

Two cases in point, on the last two successive Sundays.  The first Sunday was the occasion of the annual Salute to Israel parade.  In the last QJL edition I wrote about what a wonderful occasion the parade was, and how marvelous it was to see such a broad range of people joining together to “march for Klal Yisrael”.  I also noted that there was a group that was conspicuously absent – the Chareidim – and lamented that we could not all join together in support of Israel, much as many others had not joined with the Chareidim in celebrating the Siyum Hashas last summer.  
I received a fair amount of feedback regarding the article, most of it very positive.  However, I also received some criticism for the perceived implication that the Chareidim who did not attend were not acting correctly in so refraining.  My critics cited several reasons that  fully justified their absence.  These included (a) The fact that the laws of modesty and traditional separation between the genders would not be properly kept.  This was particularly problematic when considering that spectators were there to observe marchers dance and sashay down Fifth Avenue on a summer day when not dressed according to tznius standards acceptable in the Chareidi community, (b) the presence of several objectionable groups, such as the so-called LGBT synagogue groups, which was protested by many Rabbonim as a Chilul Hashem, and (c) a general ambivalence, or less, about the State of Israel and Zionism, which made this a non-optimal use of precious time.   In essence, they were saying that there were matters of principle that overrode the path of moderation that would argue for burying differences and joining with the others.

The next Sunday saw the large demonstration in Foley Square organized by Satmar to protest “the Persecution of Religious people in Israel”.  I do not want to discuss this event at length, other than to note that it was confusing for many who consider themselves Chareidi as to whether or not one should attend, given that there were some Rabbonim who said one must go, and others saying that one should not. (See my blog for a collection of the letters).   While most Chareidi Rabbonim would be in agreement about the principle that there is a need to fight the intentions of the current government, there seemed to be a disagreement about whether it was right to make a public demonstration upholding that principle, or whether  the appropriate path to take was one of moderation; not one in which the secular media could report as a massive anti-Zionist protest.  A question of principle vs moderation. 

Which is the proper approach in these matters?  That is not for me to decide.  In my humble opinion, however, it is incumbent for every person to decide for themselves which Rabbonim to follow in these matters.  (Factors in making that decision would require a long discussion, but it is an extremely important question that ought to be given a great deal of effort and thought).   It is also crucial that people really think through why, by commission or by omission, they are acting to uphold some principle, and whether they really think that the cost of doing so is worthwhile if it goes against principles of moderation that would have one act together with the majority of the community.

Finally, I am thinking of principle vs moderation in a professional context.  As of this month I will begin practicing law and mediation, while continuing as a Rav on a part time basis.   In the area of mediation, one of the main objectives is to help the parties to a conflict see that if each of them stands for the “principle” that they are arguing for with no room for compromise or moderation, they will likely never achieve resolution of the matter at hand, nor peace with the person with whom they are arguing.  Ways must be found for the sides to feel that they are engaged in moderation of behavior without sacrificing principles that are important to them, particularly in a severe conflict such as a divorce.  It is my honor and privilege to help the parties achieve this balance, and I hope to help many others in resolving their differences.

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