Monday, August 28, 2006

Am I Anti- Modern Orthodox?

Recently two readers of this blog complained, not for the first time, that my views are biased and prejudice against Modern Orthodoxy (MO). Last time they made these criticisms my response was “I haven’t even gotten started.” This time around I would like to speak more directly towards the issues. Because the criticisms are so broadly based, I know of no easy way of responding other than by ranting some without much hope of settling anything. What follows is my response to the criticism of Baalabus, which can be found in the comments on my blog of 8/23/06.

Baalabus- as usual you have posted a sharp and pointed criticism. I fail to see why you find what I have written sooooo upsetting. I am not a posek (legal decisor) or a rav or a spokesman for a group or a denomination. I’m one guy sitting in Evanston yada-yadaing away. So even if I contradict myself or don’t like what you like, it’s not really very important. I write from a subjective position, which is all that I could possibly do. I’m not standing in some neutral place above it all. I am talking out of my subjective experience and life. It is true that I am personally comfortable with Strict Orthodox people, mostly because of a long history of personal friendships. It is also true that I lack the creative imagination and empathy to write in a natural way about what it is to be Modern Orthodox. I can only do what I can do. A quote from The Little Prince says it best: ‘’It’s only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I have never suggested that a MO person ought to be anything other than what he is. Indeed, I did say as an empirical fact MO have Charedim on the brain and not vice versa, but I wouldn’t call that “skewering” anyone. As for my not blaming charedim for anything, I wrote five anti-charedi blogs on the Kolko affair, one anti-bashert blog, and a blog called “Torah Torah Torah!” where I called charedim obsessive. In my discussion of gays, I wrote that in having many children, charedim are bringing about greater numbers of gay children. In my blog called “The Center Moves Left”, I attacked charedim for distancing Conservatives. One reason that I am not up in arms about charedim is that much of what they say goes right past me. As an example, I believe Rebbe Eliyushuv was right in banning Slifkin, but not because I don’t believe in evolution. I have no doubt that evolution is true and I certainly don’t need Slifkin to tell me this. As I hope to argue, I’m opposed to importing evolution into the study of Torah. I have problems with the and in the ideal of 'Torah and Knowledge.'

I wrote a number of blogs defending Charedim from Modern Orthodox criticism. Whether I am right or wrong, these are not to be taken as direct criticisms of MO, but as defenses of Charedim. I do this because NOBODY else does it, except people who are lame. In fact, the Jewish blogosphere is one huge conversation of MO with itself. You certainly can’t have an objection to one blogger writing something outside the party line. It is true that I am not a fan of the philosophy espoused by Yeshiva University. (Torah Umadda). I am also not a fan of their style of learning or of the late Rabbi Soloveitchik. If I can work up the courage, I will blog on this. I point out that not being a fan doesn’t make me an enemy. Second all my objections are intellectual. I have no personal antipathy to the lifestyle or people called MO. In rereading what I wrote I found one glaring negative description. At the end of my blog of 8/15 I said the Strict Orthodox are in many cases more knowledgeable and more sophisticated than MO. If I could rewrite the piece I would omit the entire remark. I have no way of justifying such a claim, and for all I know it isn’t true.

In two of my pro-charedi blogs, I was less than enthusiastic about the political position of religious Zionism. Although I haven’t blogged on this topic, I acknowledge having a big problem with the religious, mostly MO settlers on the West Bank. I was terribly disappointed when Mizrachi went the way of the Gush. I could never understand why the Rav Kook schools of thought, (pere et fils) trumped the more moderate schools of Religious Zionism even in America. I say upfront I am a left-wing person. If somebody wants to read right-wing pro-settler views, they ought to go to a different blog. I think of such a disagreement as political; they have nothing to do with religion as such. I feel Charedim have some affinity with the progressive left. Even in the case of Strict Orthodoxy the situation is not really different. They have for the most part become right wing, but it will be quite some time before any of their children fight in a war. They are in favor of fighting forever provided the troops are supplied by the religious Zionists and the secular. On this particular issue I feel the more extreme charedim are generally less hypocritical.

Your claim that I idealize Conservative Judaism is also not true. I have not written one pro-Conservative blog, and have argued against Chancellor Schorsch’s ideal seminary curriculum. mixed seating, gay rabbis, and the movement of the Conservatives towards Reform. My criticism of Conservatives has not been a religious one but pragmatic. In fact, my entire blog is devoted to seeing how much can be done without appealing to religious arguments. It is therefore particularly ironic that you see me as not different from Charedim who criticize Modern Orthodoxy. They criticize from a religious point of view; to wit that MO are not frum enough. Such words will never pass from my lips.

Moving on to the continuum question…my view is that Orthodoxy is already a continuum. There are four shuls on one block in Boro Park, each minutely different from the other. Somewhere around left-wing MO the spectrum begins to thin out and keeps on getting thinner so that when you get to Jewish Renewal, it is like Montana… you can drive two hundred miles without seeing a soul.

I am in favor of a continuum from left-wing MO until the middle of the Conservative movement because I believe the center has collapsed, Conservatives are moving toward Reform Light, and I am not in favor of building a wall around Orthodoxy. An additional reason, which I haven’t spoken about, is that I believe the place to make a stand against intermarriage is somewhere just left of Conservadox. I leave this for another blog. When one gets to Reform it is totally utopian to talk about a continuum. Reform and even Conservative Judaism are not sufficiently well-defined to be able to speak of a specific way of life, let alone a continuum of many different variants. I will blog on this topic.

In answer to your rhetorical questions…I am not a peace-and-love-unity guy. As far as I’m concerned, MO and Charedim can tear themselves apart from now until eternity. I consider my essays as a contribution to the polemics. Furthermore, I don’t have a problem if the right-wing of MO defines themselves by way of contrast with the wishy-washy left-wing MO. I believe that the bitching on all sides is what makes Jewish life so interesting. The existence of an other serves a constructive function of solidifying a community.Your final question was “who is more tolerant of Edah, etc., the Modern Orthodox or the Charedim?” The term ‘’MO’’ is ambiguous; very left- wing MO IS Edah. As for the Y.U. crowd, I stand by what I said in my blog on Orthodox women rabbis. Of course Charedim are not accepting of Edah, but they don’t interface with them. Not only don’t they accept Edah, they never even heard of them. The polemics in a place like The Jewish Observer is mostly against Y.U./R.I.E.T.S. branch of MO because they are the competition.

One final thought…there are a lot of things that MO can say against Charedim, which would be very effective and are not frequently said. The one thing you don’t want to say is that MO is also really, really frum. Once you get into the “me-too” game, you lost. You end up having the worst of both worlds….you become black and still feel the snobbery of the charedim.


At 1:20 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...


I hope to post about your composite positions on my blog, esp. daas torah, as promised.

Let me say in the meantime that I hope my writing style did not turn you off. You scare me when you say ... if I can work up the courage, I will blog on this. Don't let the caffienated blatherings of anyone (me) scare you away. Let's put it this way: whether I agree with you or not, I always feel edified and challenged by your writings, a feeling I scarcely get when reading the other frum blogs (exceptions: adderabbi, krum, fred).

Please don't pull any punches.

At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Part of the problem is that it still seems that you lack ironic and sociological distance from MO. You are not asking why and how various positions are serving their MO audience?
For Conservative and Chardei you are comfortable with analytic distant. Try treating MO the same way; you are not one of them. They are conservative and you are liberal.

For example, what are the sociological and economic advantages for RW MO to engage in rhetoric of excluding everyone they don’t like as heterodoxy and orthoprax? How does it create their useful boundaries and group identity? Why is it useful for those who send their kids to Charedi schools and look continuously to Rabbinic authority to still call themselves MO? You wrote “Once you get into the “me-too” game, you lost.” But why do the RWMO think they have won? What would sociologists think they have won their goals? The Hatam Sofer by all accounts won his game. What do RWMO gain by the rhetoric of forbidding anything new?

Or you were correct to praise Artscroll and its haigiographies for its functionality. How come you do not praise the Slifkin group for the role that books like that serve in their lives? Why not analyze how a RW MO, a group that is entirely professional in its reading – Law school- actuarial- Accounting- like everything they read as certain as a textbook. So they want their Torah and secular to be equally fixed- The Torah has science and science agrees with the Torah. While you may find this approach silly. Think of the Artscroll reader who does not realize that the books are hagiography and thinks that their World history books are wrong and JH books are wrong and Artscroll is correct. You had sufficient detachment.
So you should say the same about Slifkin, not everyone wants to have to realize that intellectual domains are separate or that intellectual domains take research and that popular works are not scientific research. The Time-Life science works that combined popular science, American democracy, and free inquiry as God’s will, were all immensely popular in the 50’s and 60’s. As you noted, Strictly Orthodox have the potential for a Godly existence, and secular scientists have a potential to contribute scientific advancement to the world. How about some sympathy for those who want a professional suburban life without any intellectual or religious achievements? The Conservative movement originally catered to that group, now MO wants a cut of the non-intellectual lifestyle. Slifkin would be perfect for them.

Or when Avigdor Miller left YU to become Ultra Orthodox, he also rejected science. Maybe Slifkin functions as a great demarcation device for these ex-Yu students not to admit that they are now almost Charedei.

Or if RWMO rhetoric on the blogs sounds a lot like Rush Limbugh and Ann Coulter, then explain why it is healthy and useful for this groups’ identity, like it is for political conservatives. When it comes to Charedim, you are happy to explain their position as an outsider. Here, you do not.

Where you as a self-proclaimed liberal believe in intellectual debate and the “More the merrier” you may not be realizing that for some of your MO readers who are arch conservatives, it is not intellectual debate but actual cultural wars in which their certain values are on the line. You have a continuum. RWMO does not. Maybe you should try some detachment to explain why it is good for them not to have any sort of continuum.

Your point about needing empathy to write is correct. You may be pointing out in contrarion fashion that a liberal has more in common, based on humanism and the human condition, with Strict Orthodoxy than with RWMO. (This itself is worth a post.)

The Democratic Party and most liberal ideologies are currently lacking the ability to sweep America, so too liberal MO. Baalabus seems to want an MO that was a clear defined ideology that excluded RWMO and the Conservative movement. You want a liberal continuum of ideology. Yet neither MO has a strong ideologue today. If both of you could create a new ideal what would it be?


Finke-Stark Reader

At 1:51 PM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Finke-Stark Reader,

I would not mind a continuum either. My immdediate point was that EJ has mis-indentified who's really preventing this.

At 10:31 PM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Though I have read and reread your comments there are so many points being made I am not as clear as I would like about all you are trying to say. I have all the distance and irony a human can want from RWMO; I just don’t know the crowd that well. I am a newbie to blogging and I have not had time to figure out who are the internet players, let alone the nuances of their views. Looking at some of the leadership of RWMO, for example- Rabbis Schecter, Bleich, and Blau- they all strike me as serious, sincere people that any Strict Orthodox person would/should respect. I don’t sense any of them are engaged in ideological posturing. I would be hard pressed to talk Foucault like about the hidden power advantages of their positions. Meiselman is different …he’s a charedi baal tershuvah and can’t seem to get frum enough. Your point about Slifkin is very interesting though it doesn’t account for many of his defenders. Are you talking mostly about Hirhurim? . The sentence beginning 'How about some sympathy…' seems to be about a totally LWMO crowd and is confusing.

It is hard enough to explain the Rabbi Eliyashiv position, you try it some day. You are asking me to also explain the diametrical opposite position. I took it upon myself to explain aspects of charedim and to advocate certain positions. As I said in my blog, I never signed on to explain every position. If you would like to write up your ideas on RWMO, you are most welcome to be a guest blogger, if you don’t have a blog of your own. Email me if you are interested.

And finally I don’t understand your last question.

At 11:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last question was asking:
Since it seemed that you were not satisfied with the current MO options or looking for gold in a silver mine. Your liberal premises of free discussion and continuum were quite interesting.
So, I was asking how would you conceive of an appropriate [liberal] MO?


F-S Reader

At 11:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Post Script:

I was not thinking about any Foucault quests for power on the part of the Rabbis.
I was not thinking about Foucault, I was not thinking about the Rabbis, But I was thinking about the group idenity dynamics of the blogs in the reaction to the women leader of a synagouge.
Although, if you start offering Foucault inspired posts it would be interesting.

F-S Reader

At 1:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"As I hope to argue, I’m opposed to importing evolution into the study of Torah. I have problems with the and in the ideal of 'Torah and Knowledge.':"

looking forward to elaboration

"It is true that I am not a fan of the philosophy espoused by Yeshiva University. (Torah Umadda). I am also not a fan of their style of learning or of the late Rabbi Soloveitchik. If I can work up the courage, I will blog on this."

Please do

At 7:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow there is so much in your blog that is stupid I do not know where to begin. First an empirical fact is one that is scientifically provable not something that your barley sufficient Yeshiva High School education leads you to believe as true. You are not a fan Of Rav Soloveitchik’s learning. Even those Charidim who hated him the most (i.e. most jealous, like yourself) never questioned his learning (if they did it would have made their subsequent theft of his Chidushim in their Sifarim harder to explain), only his Hashkafa. Also, can you please tell me about these great Chariedi intellects that outshine their MO counterparts? The only first class Noble prize wining frum Jews I know are all MO.

A concerned friend


Post a Comment


Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home