Thursday, July 06, 2006

Is Modern Orthodox Modern?

The word “modern” in “Modern Orthodoxy” (MO) is different from the use of “modern” in “modern art” or “modern literature” and so on. In the latter cases it refers to a specific period, for example between 1910 and 1945. The painting hanging over most people’s sofas is not modern art; it might not even be art. The “modern” of “Modern Orthodoxy” is a syncategorematic term like “big”. A big ant is not necessarily a big elephant. A Modern Orthodox Jew need not be a modern person.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein is one of the most erudite and prominent spokesmen on behalf of Modern Orthodoxy. He is a Harvard Ph.D in English Literature, the head of a major hesder yeshiva on the West Bank, and the son-in-law of the much revered Rabbi Joseph B. Solveitchik z”l, who established much of the ideological foundation for the MO movement. In a long article, I would say over a hundred pages, Rabbi Lichtenstein tries to justify why it is permissible for religious Jews to study, enjoy, and appreciate great works of literature. He twists and he turns, there are proof texts and high-powered moral reasoning and at the end, the Rabbi concludes it is permissible to use one’s time to study, think about and appreciate Dante, Milton, Blake, etc.

I, for one, found the essay a frustrating experience. I was wondering all along what he would say about classical music or painting or dance? If Rabbi Lichtenstein had a Ph.D in ballet would his results have been different? And as I wondered, it occurred to me that even if all these activities were kosher, what about popular music and movies and just hanging out and an occasional game of golf or tennis or scrabble? Is a Modern Orthodox Jew permitted to do all the things that Modern Orthodox Jews actually do? Or is it that even though they engage in all these low culture activities, they are not exactly doing something kosher because they could be utilizing their time in studying Torah?

These questions bring out a big difference between the theory and practice of Modern Orthodoxy. In theory, MO obeys the exact same rules as Ultra-Orthodoxy. In our case, they should be subject to the laws regulating the study of Torah even if such laws are what we might call obsessive compulsive. In practice, it’s really very different. MO Jews tend to have a narrow conception of Halacha. They tend to shy away from open-ended rules, like “Study Torah in ALL your free time.” They prefer rules like “Go to shul Shabbus morning. The rest of the day is yours.” Even if MO has become somewhat blacker in recent years, they still pride themselves on their ability to live “normal American” lives. After all, they think of themselves as modern.

My opinion is this: Any Jew who feels guilty going to the movies or the opera because it wastes time from the study of Torah (‘bitul torah”) isn’t modern in any interesting sense of the word. Part of modernity is that a person owns his life. The belief that your positive, active religious obligations never cease is contrary to the entire spirit of the modern world. If a Jew is constantly subject to the anxiety that he is wasting time in enjoying his life, he may be virtuous or Orthodox, but he certainly isn’t modern.


At 5:24 AM, Blogger LitaLives said...

I find it interesting that someone who is obviously non observant, has a love-hate relationship with the haredi world but considers the MO to be disingenuis, hypocritical and complexed.

You reminf me of Shlomo Avnieri's phrase that " the shul I don't go to, is Orthodox".

At 5:37 AM, Blogger LitaLives said...

The word is disingenuous & not disingenuis. Next time I'll write in my mother tongue - Yiddish.

At 12:49 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

I said a Modern Orthodox Jew who does feel guilty not studying Torah all the time is not modern. The definition of modern I was refering to is "One who has modern ideas, standards, or beliefs." It is not a modern belief that there is no free time. I never said MOs are disingenuous or hypocritical. I do believe they are complex people. I am not quite sure what "complexed" means.

I much appreciate your having read my blog.

At 1:54 PM, Blogger LitaLives said...

Firstly, you needn't be appreciative.Your blog is head & shoulders above the competition.
Secondly, for those who don't speak Yinglish,"complexed" is one who has a complex.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger David Guttmann said...

I think you are a little limiting here. MO go to movies and that is the way they waste time. Chareidi just waste time in other pursuits. They politic, talk Lashon Hara etc... Time wasting is not a religious problem but a universal one.

At 3:18 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Pls. seem my comment to your next post, where I point out that a premise common to this post and that one, is actually not necessarily correct.

It might be that the MO simply pasken like the Or Sameach, and the Haredim like RBBL. In other words, a MO person who simply cannot spend all of his free time studying Torah is not violating anything.

At 12:23 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

In reponse to Mr. Guttmann's comment, I certainly agree that wasting time is universal. I am troubled by the open ended nature of the halacha of studying Torah. If one accepts the rule as it's written in its strict reading, effectively one has given one's life to Torah. Kiss everything else good-bye.

At 4:23 AM, Anonymous ndking said...

You seem to take a monoloithic approach to the command to styudy Torah- it must be an all-consuming, ever-present obligation. While some who are considered MO would feel that one should comport oneself that way, there is clear halachic precedent to argue that one may spend his time in other ways- i.e., going to movies, playing sports, reading blogs.

Regarding the issue of R' Lichtenstein's bias for his phD subject, I have heard from R' Lichtenstein that he has great respect for aesthetics as a concept. Seeing a painting or waching a sunset can certainly be worthwhile activities. One could reasonably take time from his schedule- which could hypothetically devoted to Talmud Torah- and appreciate an aesthetic activity. I'm not sure whether ballet makes the cut, though.


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