Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Black and Blacker

(It would take too long to explain who all these people are, but I’ll put it out anyway. Imagine that the left side of the J.B. legacy had prevailed, for example the Edah faction and the circle around Avi Weiss. Imagine R. Moshe and R. Aaron Kutler had looked away and let well enough alone. Imagine Halivni was now at the Seminary as Lieberman’s heir. Imagine American Mizrachi had not tried to out-gush the gush…Imagine a Conservative Judiasm that is capacious enough to house different factions, some more egalitarian, others less so.)

What would be so terrible, I ask, what would be so terrible if the space between Right Wing Orthodoxy and Left Wing Conservatism was filled with many different stripes and levels of religiosity, darga, darga, step after step, level after level, each different from each other but in friendly competition. Are we really better off with a sudden rupture: Orthodox, Orthodox, Orthodox and then you fall off a cliff and the next stop is effectively Reform?.

It reminds me of joke about the posh suburb of Winnetka. How do the natives of that town know they are keeping the riffraff out? Maybe the riffraff are keeping the natives in. Orthodoxy by surrounding themselves with a moat a mile wide has, in my opinion, lost more than they gained. To be sure the transportation costs from Orthodoxy to other places in Jew-land increased dramatically, and fewer people make the trip. This works, however, in both directions. Today a Conservative kid can’t slowly slip into the Orthodox orbit. It is too far away emotionally, culturally, religiously. The kid first has to become a baal teshuvah, which means undergoing a life changing conversion, with all that it implies for the parents and friends. For each kid that makes the trip, 500 stay put. In my opinion, had Orthodoxy pursued a less aggressive secessionist policy, they would have gained far more members than they would have lost.

By cutting off contact with moderate but far from perfect traditional Jews, the Orthodox have become black and blacker, and there is nothing to stop the constant escalation of extremist pressures, and the inflationary growth of stringent halachic rulings, (chumras, in Orthodox jargon). They have become in some ways unhinged, like a vehicle that is somewhat out of control. Where it will all end, no one knows?

Everyone is in agreement that Orthodox Jewish life has become much more extreme. The attitude to college, appropriate dress for men and women, how many men should be studying Torah in post college years, and on and on, have all become much more extreme. Everyone has a different idea why this has occurred. My point today is that the stage was already set for a move to the right in the 1950’s, when the Orthodox leadership decided to pursue a parched earth policy against moderate, traditional but halachically imperfect elements. At the time, the Modern Orthodox wouldn’t speak out publicly. Today when they feel the pressure from the Ultra Orthodox they are up in arms. In distancing Orthodoxy from Conservatives, the center of gravity shifted decidedly to the right within Orthodoxy, in favor of the heads of yeshivahs and away from pulpit rabbis and their more inclusive laymen oriented boards and committees, in favor of shtiblech (intimate, small synagogues) and away from large big- tent inclusive synagogues, in favor of the Ultra Orthodox and away from the Modern Orthodox, in favor of Chasidim and yeshiva people and away from ordinary lay people.

Most Orthodox theorists would say that Orthodoxy’s turn to the right is a good thing in and of itself. It is a question that has and will be debated and discussed endlessly. In some families the shabus table talk is of little else. Whatever the answer may be, and in some ways it is impossible to do the sums, the rest of American Jewish life has unquestionably suffered. It has pushed Conservatives towards Reform, and away from the center of Jewish life.

Not only would Orthodoxy have gained if Orthodoxy had not gone the Frankfort secessionist route, all of Jewish life would be more varied and more secure. A tree with many roots evenly distributed, some deep, some shallow is stronger than a tree with two deep roots at opposite sides of the circumference.

For me, in an ideal world there would be no denominations. It would be far better to have an anarchist, libertarian structure…many small to medium size groups in friendly competition, some specializing in some particular aspect of Jewish life, some not. Every stripe in Jewish life has something to contribute to the whole, and up to a point, the more the merrier.

A religion consisting of three denominations, two of which are slowly but surely becoming indistinguishable will slowly become a duopoly, which will invariably lead to religious homogeneity and stagnation. God never, ever said, neither at Mount Sinai, nor to any prophet “Let there be three denominations, ok maybe four and that’s it.” The idea that Judaism consists of an oligopoly of three denominations that exhaust the religious space is a way of suppressing innovation and competition. (We are in desperate need of a Jewish Foucault to bring out in detail how this imperialism actually works. Charles Liebman and Samuel Heilman simply won’t do.)


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Baalabus said...

An insightful and edifying post as usual.

My question remains though: was this unbridgeable schism the intended consequence of Orthodox policy? Did anyone forsee that a supposedly innocuous move to the right brought about far more than widespread womens' haircovering, viz., a situation wherein "for each kid that makes the trip [to Orthodoxy], 500 stay put."

My armchair sense is that the result was neither intended nor forseen, but I truly am curious as to your opinion.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger evanstonjew said...

Baalabus- We are in agreement that there were negative consequences to Austriitt , that were not taken into account. I think of this as a negative externality in economic jargon, like a company that spills chemicals into the river and doesn’t worry what happens downstream. There are many possibilities: 1) They foresaw the negative consequences and were not unhappy, maybe even pleased. 2) They foresaw negative consequences, but felt they were outweighed by the positives….the poor of your city come first. 3) They didn’t foresee anything negative. They thought the effect would be to de-legitimize their opponents and the masses would return. 4) They didn’t think about consequences. In all 4 cases it did not enter into the cost- benefit calculation. In order to say more one would have to look closely at Reb Moshe’s responsa that deal with Conservative Judaism, and speak to people who were privy to those discussions. Also relevant is the literature on the failed attempt to form a common rabbinical court with Conservatives, and the three way negotiations between Rabbi Saul Lieberman , Solovetchik and the Agudas Harabanim . I hope this helps.

At 11:44 AM, Blogger Baalabus said...

Definitely helps.

I also appreciate your historical perspective on this topic: that Orthodoxy's rightward shift and accompanying shutting out of other groups can and ought to be traced back to events that occured 100 years before (Hirsch's Austritt).

An interesting period document is an article by the Netziv (published as a t'shuva in Meshiv Davar), where he lamented secession. Also interesting is a t'shuva from R. C.O. Grodzensky where he refused to take sides on this issue (Hirhurim posted it recently in connection with Slifkin).

At 11:16 AM, Anonymous alan scott said...

What a beautiful vision!


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