Modern Orthodoxy Under the Microscope

This is only for those with time on their hands, but two very provocative essays, the first by Rav Yitzchak Adlerstein and the second by Rav Michael Broyde, provoked much thought across our small world, and prompted my response below.

Paradoxically, I found myself in agreement with both Rav Adlerstein and Rav Broyde in their recent comments on Modern Orthodoxy and the limits of RCA tolerance. Rav Adlerstein lays down the gauntlet in terms of the importance of parameters for RCA inclusion, so we do not define ourselves into irrelevancy, or worse, become a tacit endorser of quasi-heretical notions. And Rav Broyde’s exposition of Modern Orthodoxy as “Always at a Crossroads” is, in many ways, right on point and underscores true areas of difference, especially in the danger of witch hunts and in mandating acceptance of the views of “gedolim” who do not generally share our hashkafat olam. Additionally, the challenge to the “Far Left” of maverick approaches to halacha and minhag that destroy the envelope after first pushing its ends should also engender some necessary soul-searching and perhaps re-visiting of some views.

Yet, if my admiration for Rav Broyde only grows each time he puts ink to paper (or the modern equivalent), I remain troubled by certain assumptions that are made that I believe undermine his overall argument. This is perhaps encapsulated in his summation that states, in pertinent part, that Modern Orthodoxy “incorporates two central values that we cannot live without: Halacha and the best of Western culture.” I am afraid that overstates the case in a way that leaves Modern Orthodoxy bereft of its Torah moorings. Can we really – should we really – equate Halacha and (even the best of) Western culture ? Without Torah, we are nothing, non-existent. Without Western culture, we are like…more than half the rest of the planet. If the Ramban on Chumash was suddenly no longer extant, or the Mishnah Torah disappeared, r”l, we would be orphaned. Can we say the same thing about the loss of Shakespeare, Rembrandt or the Knicks ? (See how easily the world is adapting to the absence of professional basketball.) Is there one Western value not already reflected in the Torah that, if it disappeared tomorrow, we as Torah Jews would sense a loss and openly grieve? There are cherished Western notions – democracy, for one – that are not incompatible with Torah, for sure, but nevertheless, pose a grave threat to international order and safety. Democracy brought both Hitler and Hamas to power, and may leave us trembling from the aftermath of the Arab Spring. So just what are these values we cannot “live without”?  Certainly there are aspects of Western culture that add a positive dimension to our lives, but if they were permanently gone would not even evoke a tear, much less wistfulness or some existential angst. Ki haim chayenu is Torah, nothing else. And science is not a “secular” discipline, insofar as it reflects the revelation of the Creator in nature.

Thus, Rav Broyde’s contention that “The best of the house of Yefet should reside in the house of Shem – the best of western culture should be part of the Jewish community,” is misleading at best. “The beauty of Yefet should be in the tents of Shem” is primarily an admonition that the culture of Yefet should be exalted and ennobled by the influence of the morality of Shem and not descend into the tawdriness and decadence (to which it has), and secondarily (the context of that statement in Megila 9b) that the Greek language – the most beautiful outside of the language of Torah – has a place in the tents of Shem. But the blanket endorsement of the beauty of Yefet in our tents directly contradicts Chazal’s elucidation of this same pasuk in Yoma 10a: “Even though G-d extends Yefet, the divine presence only rests in the tents of Shem.”And therein lies the critical distinction: the culture of Yefet, even in its loftiest state, might find its place in the tents of Shem but can never be equated with it. And our role as the heirs to the tents of Shem is to preserve its purity and moral code and set an example for Yefet.

Therein lies another problem with Rav Broyde’s theses: “It [Modern Orthodoxy] requires that we examine western culture faithfully and diligently to determine that which is best and ought to be incorporated. More subtly, it requires that we recognize that there are things missing from our own tent, so that we ought to acquire them from the outside.” (my bold).

Really ? “Missing from our own tent” flies in the face of the notion of “Torat Hashem Temima” and even more Chazal’s commentary on the pasuk ki lo davar reik hu mikem – “for it is not an empty thing for you” (Devarim 32:47). The Yerushalmi Peah 1:1 states:  v’im reik hu, mikem hu – “if the Torah appears empty (deficient, missing something), it is in you.” If we sense something missing from our tent, then what is missing is in us, and not in our tent, mipnei she’ein atem yegei’in BaTorah, because we do not exert ourselves sufficiently in the Torah. If we exerted ourselves sufficiently, we would find all we need in the Torah.

To think the Torah is not one’s sole address for moral guidance, or an insufficient venue for one’s spiritual aspirations, is dangerous territory indeed. It lends itself not only to wholesale rejection of parts of the Torah that “offend,” but also to wholesale revisions or original compositions of parts that are deemed “missing” and need to be restored or supplemented.

Needless to say, I don’t suspect this is Rav Broyde’s credo; I do sense it animates what is called the “Far Left.” They find fault with the Torah, openly criticize and often demean Chazal, and – this is barely concealed – are often disappointed when the Torah does not conform to current but transient moral norms. But most of us are happy with the Torah, if occasionally disappointed in ourselves, and the drive to incorporate western values in Torah – or make the Torah subservient to or the handmaiden of western values – is a well known dead end for Jews. Not every desideratum of modern life should be part of Torah just because it is modern or desired. And not every value embraced by Jews – egalitarianism comes to mind – is necessarily a Jewish value.

I am also less than sanguine about the propriety of grounding one’s deviations from the norm in rejected psak, even those with a “fine rabbinic pedigree,” when those deviations are far from the current norm. One can easily locate a justification or two for wife-beating and tax-cheating, as unsavory as those practices are, scattered in the words of fine scholars operating from different premises, but antithetical to the majority opinion and prevailing Jewish practice through the ages. We do not do that because minhag yisrael is sacred, because the mesora matters, and because we are a nation and not just a collection of individuals serving G-d in accordance with our subjective interests.

Obviously, our Far Left would not dare eradicate the mechitza – despite embracing ideological criteria that would endorse such a move. My sense is it would not be done not because it would violate the halacha (the Shulchan Aruch, they would posit, is silent on the matter) but rather because it is identified with the Conservative brand. It would be a blatant admission of defection. So the next best thing is done – either it is rendered unnoticeable or dismantled at the first opportunity, or that very same fight is taken to other battlefields. Hence the list of deviations from prevailing Orthodoxy that Rav Broyde cites critically as enacted by the Far Left without any hint of self-criticism on their part, or awareness that they are distancing themselves from the mainstream of faithful Jews. But the main deviation, as I see it, is not in this or that practice or change, but in an approach to the words of Chazal and the Oral Torah that is more reminiscent of the Conservative movement and that prompts each step away from the tent.

In truth, I am agnostic about expulsions because the fears of Rav Broyde of endless line-drawing and persecution are well-grounded.  Nevertheless, I do see the value in clarifying what we stand for and giving clear guidance to our fellow Jews, even if that means pulling down the flaps of our tent to keep out deviationists. As Rabbanim – teachers of Torah – we shirk our responsibilities if our solitary goal remains a big tent. That would be useful if the primary objective of the RCA is to serve as a professional rabbinic fraternity that protects our jobs and pensions, come what may. But if we aspire as an organization to Torah leadership, and to impact the spiritual lives of our fellow Jews in traditional ways, then lines must be drawn and clarity achieved.

Where those lines are drawn should make for an interesting discussion. But at a certain point, it is clear that diverse opinions are impossible to reconcile and a unity on paper only will easily crumple. Therefore, “scholars, be careful with your words, lest you incur the penalty of exile, and are banished to the place of evil waters (heresy) and the disciples who come after you will drink and die, and G-d’s name will be desecrated” (Avot 1:11). That is good musar for all of us.

2 responses to “Modern Orthodoxy Under the Microscope

  1. All three essays (yours and the 2 linked ones) are missing something, if I may say so.

    rav Adlerstein cannot seem to comprehend of an Orthodox Judaism that does not have a system of “Gadol worship” in place. As a result he demands that Modern Orthodoxy assemble its equivalent of a Moetzes like the Agudah’s to set standards for the movement that must be followered. however, Modern Orthodoxy is partly defined by the lack of a moetzes and the higher level of autonomy on its individual rabbonim and adherents.

    Rav Broyde’s essay fails to see the problems with the YCT innovations. One is that they do not ask questions honestly but rather determine the answer first (we’re going to get rid of the beracha we don’t like because it offends us) and then look for support (anyone important out there agree with that?). One gets the feeling that they would ultimately get rid of the beracha even in the absence of any kind of support from the literature but are more comfortable with the fig leaf they’ve located.

    Finally, your essay mentions this: Missing from our own tent” flies in the face of the notion of “Torat Hashem Temima”

    Even the Torah admits, in the second tochachah, that it is incomplete. The recipe for chicken soup, how to best cast a fracture and the optimal structure of a five part symphony are not in the Torah, nor should they be expected to be. Thus there is a need to bring in elements of the outside to enhance Torah and Judaism.

  2. The three points you mention are not “part of our tent.” They are the universal tent. They are essentially unrelated to Torah. Torah loses nothing without them, and gains nothing with them – although we as individuals may gain from them. But that does not make them part of Torah.