Modern Orthodoxy in the Crosshairs

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37 Responses

  1. Rabbi Jon says:

    In January 2009, when Rabbi Lookstein attended Obama’s National Prayer Service as the Orthodox representative, a friend asked me my opinion on the issue. I told him: “I’m glad that Rabbi Lookstein went to represent Orthodoxy, and I’m glad that the RCA openly condemned what he did.”

    The posts by Rabbis Adlerstein, Broyde, and Pruzansky remind me of that conversation. We need the Adlersteins out there to criticize the “Far Left” and claim that they have pushed the boundaries too far. At the same time, we need those “Far Left” Rabbis to go to communities where no one else wants to go and inspire some of the thousands of Jews who have no connection to Torah and Mitzvos. Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, after serving as assistant rabbi to Rabbi Avi Weiss, went to the northern part of Washington, D.C. and revitalized an Orthodox community that had dwindled to 15 families. The shul now boasts over 400 member families, dozens of whom became Shomrei Shabbos and Kashrus solely because of the tireless efforts of the Rabbi.

    Feel free to criticize the height of the mechitza, the woman holding the Torah, the women’s Tefila service. The watchdogs on the right serve an important meta-halachic function: they help ensure that Modern Orthodoxy doesn’t fall down a slippery slope into Conservative Judaism. And with this anchor firmly in place, I tell the Far Left rabbis to go to all the assimilated and secular communities in the far reaches of this country, and bring them Talmud Torah, Shabbos, Kashrus, and Taharas HaMishpacha!

  2. BenShaul says:

    Thank you Rabbi Pruzansky for voicing some of what bothered me about Rabbi Broyde’s response.

  3. Harry Maryles says:

    I think Rabbi Pruzansky misunderstands Rabbi Broyde’s message. There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Rabbi Broyde ever meant to equate Halacha with even the best of western culture. Saying that that both values are central does not mean they are equal.

    As for the idea that the Torah’s ethics are the sum and substance of all ethical values… that undermines the the Ramban’s interpretation of ‘Kedoshim Tihiyu’ in my view. ‘Mekadesh Atzmecha B’Ma SheMutar Lach’. There are ethical values not specifically stated in the Torah that we can and should incorporate into our own value system even though they may not be explicitly stated. And there is nothing in the Torah that says that we cannot learn such ethics from sources outside the Torah.

    • Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

      I would take exception to this. There is significant debate as to whether there is an ethic independent of Torah. (See, for example, Dr David Shatz’s excellent chapter in the recently published Contending With Catastrophe – edited by Rabbi Broyde!) One of those most frequently cited to uphold the idea of an ethic that grows out of a person’s G-d given sense of sechel ha-yashar is Rav Kook. But IIRC, Rav Kook stipulates that one’s own moral sensitivity can be trusted only if he is sure that it comes from the unadulterated purity of his own neshama, but NOT if it comes from a foreign culture!

  4. dr. bill says:

    Rabbi Prizansky, you say equate: “Can we really – should we really – equate Halacha and (even the best of) Western culture ?”

    this is certainly an easier target to combat than the one Rabbi Broyde created. rather similar to arguments against Rabbi Lamm’s article decades ago; there too he never said or implied “equality.”

    You write: ““Missing from our own tent” flies in the face of the notion of “Torat Hashem Temima…”

    Is astronomy (depression angles, the times that stars appear,actual and average lunations, etc.) and combinatorics a part of zemanim/kiddush hakhodesh and kinnim? I think not. The Gaon’s famous dictum makes that very clear. What did the Rav ztl mean when he told Prof. Blidstein a particular halakha troubled him ethically? (see footnotes to prof. shapiro’s letters of the RYYW ZTL in the TuMJ a decade ago.) was his ethical sense created ex nihilo? axiomatically it was extra-halakhic.

    the completeness of torah must be interpreted very differently, and i would argue very correctly as statements about universal relevance not as an all-encompassing totality of knowledge.

  5. S. says:

    I could be wrong, but I don’t think Rabbi Broyde (or, indeed, any proponent of TUM) means to laud Western culture per se as the necessary ingredient to add to Judaism. It so happens that we live in Western culture, so we would try to derive the best from it. If we lived in an eastern or any other culture, the task would be the same. Indeed, R. Pruzansky doesn’t really see no use for Western culture, and apparently cares deeply about it, or else he could not have written his most recent Jewish Press column (also posted on his blog).

  6. Aharon Haber says:

    I do not understand why we cannot be honest and say that we would feel orphaned without western culture. The Torah allows for a large space of many different lifestyles. But I would feel very sad if I was forced to live on one extreme of that space. Personally I am very happy that I live in this century and not 300 years ago. Why? The Torah hasn’t changed? Because I appreciate everything Western culture has contributed to my own sense of who I am. I appreciate exacting scholarship and science, knowledge, and technology. I appreciate sensitivity to other races and peoples and the opposite sex. And I appreciate the State of Israel. These are some of the examples that R. Broyde lists. Now you might say – but all of those things are compatible with the Torah and you might then try to bring prooftexts from the ages that these are Torah values. And I say Wonderful! But Torah Jews were happy living Torah lives for many centuries without these things or without particular emphasis on these things. It was western culture that brought these things out to prominence and like it or not (I like it) we are influenced by our society. And I can say that without these things (perhaps living in a shtetl in eastern europe 300 years ago) I would feel orphaned and I am grateful to the culture that brought me these things. And I want to be part of an Orthodoxy that likewise appreciates these contributions and does not denigrate them or pretend they were always there – and western culture brings no chiddush. Of course the trade off is that with more openness comes danger of incorporating bad values or perhaps even abandoning tradition c”vh. I would say that I acknowledge this danger but still feel that the optimal way (no appologetics) to be oveid hashem is with these values and knowledge emphasized. I cant see living any other way.

  7. Steven Pruzansky says:

    In response to Dr. Bill: Astronomy and related areas of science are not part of the Mesorah of Sinai, which relates to moral and ethical notions. Hashem did not provide us with any scientific truths but enjoined us to study nature and derive appropriate conclusions, each generation building on the work of its predecessors. Thus, the comment does not bear on my thesis at all.
    Steven Pruzansky

  8. yitznewton says:

    “Certainly there are aspects of Western culture that add a dimension to our lives, but if they were permanently gone would not even evoke a tear, much less wistfulness or some existential angst.”

    I would say music. Western religious music was my first experience of connection to the Divine, and I most certainly shed tears and experienced a good deal of angst as I transitioned to observance and had to figure out (as I still am) how to continue experiencing that. I daresay the sort of music indigenous to the current observant community in America lacks both inspiration and musical sophistication.

    “The Yerushalmi Peah 1:1 states: v’im reik hu, mikem hu – ‘if the Torah appears empty (deficient, missing something), it is in you.'”

    WADR to R’ Pruzansky, the question of place of “secular” values in Torah life has played out in great richness over the many centuries since the chasimas ha-Talmud(im); it strikes my ear as hollow to use classical sources to argue for one position in a blog post.

  9. Shades of Gray says:

    “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.”

    The are three separate issues. 1) The mere learning of ideas which may touch on Torah values from a secular work, and seeing if they can inform Torah, when they don’t contradict Torah(this is relevant when studing certain aspects of psychology, for example) 2) When Torah and secular values come into conflict(thus, the issues of feminism and homosexuality which relate to the Far Left) 3) The question of ethic independent of Torah, which RYA quoted R. Kook.

    Issue #1, to an extent, seems to be a difference between R. Schwab and RSRH. R. Schwab writes(“Kristallnact, A Historical Perspective, “Selected Writings, pg 87):

    “we do not even study a mussar sefer written by a non-Jew…no longer are we going to seek our Schiller to teach us about humanity…I am sure that the saintly neshamah of Rabbiner S.R. Hirsch ZT’L in Gan Eden will agree with my conclusion”.

    Nevertheless, R. Hirsch honored Schiller and prononuced a beracha and held his ideas originate in Torah, as R. Schwab quotes(I would add that one should quote other writings from RSRH regarding “Torah b’goyim al taamin” which clearly inform the limits of what RSRH held one can learn, and how).

    The link to R. Schwab’s essay can be found on Dr. Yitzchok Levine’s website:

  10. DF says:

    Rabbi Pruzansky essentially ignores the dictum of “chachma ba’goyim taamin”. He says the world would not come to an end if we didnt have Shakespeare, but we would be “orphaned” if we didnt have the Ramban’s commentary on chumash. OK, so, how far does Rabbi Pruzansky want to take this? An average of 100 new seforim appear every single day; more, if you include the various publications produced on a daily basis by bachurim and avreichim in lakewood. These are all Torah, are they not? Would we be orphaned if they never saw the light of day? And if not, then where does Rabbi Pruzansky draw the line? And didnt the world survive just fine before the Ramban’s commentary came out? And wouldnt the English langauge spoken by rabbi pruzansky be enormously poorer without the contributions of Shakespeare?

    The above simply shows that the relative value of Torah vis-a-vis western culture cannot be measured by metrics. It is better to simply acknowledge the trusim that culture has things to offer, just as the Torah does. Someone above mentioned music, which is undeniably true. The same can be said about painting or sculpture or architecture, and yes, I would even apply it to modern things like movies. Both Rabbi Pruzansky and Rabbi Adlerstein – and anyone with any education – must be honest and admit they’d be half the men they are today without the contributions of western culture. I certainly dont agree with Rabbi Broyde’s liberal assumptions as to what exactly *is* western culture, but he is right that on the whole, western culture should not be minimized.

  11. lacosta says:

    we live in an era where the [parts of the ] torah culture is producing chodors, separate sidewalks, women who may not drive , speak up [ see israel govt forcing haredi radio to have kol isha–not seeing, just talking] defining ideal education as by the least literacy possible in such venues as sentence writing, ritmetic , and any semblence of how the given country’s laws work [as can be seen by the blanket Street Hetter to violate any laws that impede unfettered lucre accumulation]… if eg instead of cultural milieu being Western , but rather Middle Eastern eg , or Taliban , heaven help us imagine what the limits of acceptable behaviour would be ….of course that’s thru Western eyes…

  12. Dan Daoust says:

    The very capacity to discuss this issue intelligently derives directly and completely from our exposure to western culture. If you don’t think so, I invite you to peruse the comments on any post on any other yeshivish blog you can think of.

  13. lacosta says:

    here are some western ideas… some of which conflict with how at least segments of haredi judasim would like to conduct themselves—–

    18 yr olds should be able to write a paragraph in teh language of tehir country

    algebra [well not really—that’s a moslem idea–so let’s say arithmetic]

    women need not wear chodors, can vocalize [though not sing] on the radio, can walk on either side of a Brooklyn street, can drive an automobile, a bus, or a jetliner;or do any other occupation they qualify for

    freedom of religion— one may not physically attack [including spitting on Old CityGreek Orthodox priests] either persons or property of either other or ones’ own religion

    abuse— if someone of any religion sexually abuses minors , this should not be the purview of a clergyman but rather an officer of the court

    government/civics— the government is not the enemy, and it’s not a mitzva to cheat it

    …. i hope in the waning days of enlightened orthodoxy some of these ideas will survive

    [though i am not too keen on driving teenage girls….]

  14. YM says:

    What does “modern” mean?

    I think that if someone poskens halacha by ignoring great achronim and holds that if something is not forbidden by the rishonim then it is not forbidden, despite the fact that a great majority of achronim forbid and only a few achronim permit, is a krum way to decide halacha. Is there any rishon who forbids davening in one’s underwear?

  15. Teaneck Jew says:

    A disclaimer: I am a member of B’nai Yeshurun and an avid listener of Rabi Pruzansky’s sermons and am in sync with much of his theological worldview. And yet the essay surprises and even leaves one sadened. Rabbi Pruzansky is fully at home in Western culture, in its literary canon, language and in its legal and philosophical foundations and a wondeful and talented Talmud Chacham as well. Is this or is he a faulty synthesis Yefet and Shem? I think not and by no means. I see creeping Haredization and fear that the tensions and exciting ambivalence of incorporating Torah and Madah now appear to some to be too demanding. Still, there is no going home to the alte Stetel. Rabbi, Modernity is here to stay.

  16. Glatt some questions says:

    I think it’s important to realize that what Rabbi Broyde is addressing is the fact that the Chareidi community feels that taking anything from Western culture is assur. Rabbi Pruzansky misses the point. He might be technically correct that a Torah Jew can live without the benefits and beauty of Western culture; the question is whether or not he should be allowed to integrate those things into a Torah life and whether he can benefit from those values as a Jew. Modern Orthodox Jews say yes; the Chareidim say no.

  17. Israel FRAC says:

    If anything, R Broyde’s article offered a detailed understanding of the growing abyss between American Modern Orthodoxy and Israeli Dati Leumi, and how rapIdly they are heading in different directions.

  18. Avi says:

    I discussed this issue with a member of the Rav’s zt”l family who learned with the Rav zt”l. I specicially referenced Ben Bag Bag’s advice (Avos 5:6) that “hafoch ba v’hafoch ba d’kula ba” as a challenge to the whole theorem of modern orthodoxy. His assertion was compelling insofar as he suggested that the process of “hafoch ba” is materially enhanced by the breadth of knowledge and perspective that general knowledge affords us. The answers are indeed to be found within Torah, but we need all the keilim available to dig for them!

    I think an excellent example of this is the antiquated apporoach that the American Moetzes took (and some would argue still do take) to cases of sexual abuse. These Rabbonim were [lacking in the] nature of sexual abuse and were therefore hamstrung in their application of Torah to this very complex problem.

    As an aside, the readers on the chareidi side of the debating fence would do well to read R’ Hirsch’s essay on von Schiller. It is self evident that Rav Hirsch did not view knowledge of von Schiller (and ipso facto Chochmas “chol”) as a b’dieved.

  19. dave says:

    I just have to roll my eyes at all the lovers of Shakespeare who haven’t opened one of his works since they were forced to do so in English literature way back then.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    Western culture is kind of a moving target. As it degenerates further, should our goal be to follow it down the cliff, to extract the increasingly scarce good from its bad, or to become more culturally self-sufficient? The last path may be the best to insure our moral and spiritual survival.

  21. cohen y says:

    No one denies that R’ Hirsch had great respect for general secular knowledge. What he detested was secular jewish knowledge (Schiller, not Graetz or Frankel) He preferred non jewish teachers to non religious jewish ones. Certainly, he would not tolerate bending judaism in the slightest to fit the zeitgeist.

  22. Michael says:

    Avi… “the antiquated apporoach that the American Moetzes took (and some would argue still do take) to cases of sexual abuse”… as compared to the Administration of Penn State, which knew exactly how to deal with the problem?

    It is very typical to hold Jews to an unachievable double standard. Who knows if our problems in Europe and the UN are middah k’neged middah for what we do to our leaders?

  23. Steven Pruzansky says:

    Perhaps it is tempting to pigeonhole someone in either the Haredi or Modern Orthodox camp, but that is too facile and life itself (and the human personality) is not like that. For example, I noted in my piece that there are aspects of Western culture that add a dimension to our lives. Indeed, part is enriching, ennobling, certainly a good de-stresser. I can even enjoy it. That does not mean I derive my values from it, or certainly not a value that is otherwise not found in the Torah. Occasionally, the best of Western culture puts a new light on an existing Torah value, or offers a different perspective. Usually, these days, Western culture is hostile to Torah values.
    So, please don’t classify me. I have very often seen Haredim at baseball games and museums. So what does make them, or me ?
    The notion of only two camps – choose your favorite and find fault with the other – is too rigid and confining. Better to look for the strengths of each than the flaws of each.

  24. Tzvi says:

    Michael… “the antiquated apporoach that the American Moetzes took (and some would argue still do take) to cases of sexual abuse”… as compared to the Administration of Penn State, which knew exactly how to deal with the problem?

    Michael, when the Moetzes deals with the problem at all, get back to me. At least the Administration at Penn State fired all involved. Better late then never. And this is the perfect example of why we need to be influenced by Western culture.

  25. Teaneck Jew says:

    Rabbi Pruzansky undercuts his own insistence on avoiding labels in using the haredi label to describe Haredim he claims to have seen at ballgames or museums. Haredim are Haredim because they dress, act, believe and identify as such and are responded to as such. We are all social types. Rabbi Pruzansky may not like it but he is a modern Orthodox rabbi, a member of the RCA and in spite of his considerable lomdus; he is to the haredi Yeshiva world, a nice but still Modern Orthodox rabbi who is not to be takedn seriously in matters of hashkofah and psak.

  26. Joe Hill says:

    “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.”

    They established pseudo-Orthodox women rabbis (rabbas), also a symbole identified with the Reform and Conservative brand. So I would not put it past them to eliminate the mechitza.

  27. Meir says:

    Tzvi… “When the Moetzes deals with the problem at all, get back to me.”
    Tzvi, sexual abuse of children is on the agenda at the upcoming Agudah convention.

  28. David F. says:

    “Michael, when the Moetzes deals with the problem at all, get back to me. At least the Administration at Penn State fired all involved. Better late then never. And this is the perfect example of why we need to be influenced by Western culture.”

    Yep – get rid of everyone who was connected with the yeshivah or institution in question regardless of whether they were guilty or not because it’ll make the media and general public happy. Don’t worry about their lives or parnassah or due process. Just can the whole bunch. Definitely an influence from Western culture that we need today in our lives. Huh???

  29. Tzvi says:

    David F… “Yep – get rid of everyone who was connected with the yeshivah or institution in question regardless of whether they were guilty or not because it’ll make the media and general public happy. Don’t worry about their lives or parnassah or due process. Just can the whole bunch. Definitely an influence from Western culture that we need today in our lives. Huh???”

    So the way we deal with it is to protect everyone, even those actively involved? And anyone who wants to report it gets branded a moiser? If this case doesn’t demonstrate our need to assimilate some western culture, I’m not sure what does.

  30. Lawrence Kaplan says:

    Dave: I read and see Shakepeare’s plays on a regular basis and would feel orphaned if deprived of them, just as I would feel orphaned if deprived of Rembrandt, Beethoven and Mozart.

    Rabbi Pruzansky: Hiler did NOT come to power through Democarcy. Study your history. He became the head of government as a result of the machinations of a conservative cabal operating unconstitutionallly.

    Also, democracy does not mean one man, one vote, one time. It involves represntative government, constitutionl guarantees of basic rights, an independent judiciary, and free standing civil institutions, among other things.

  31. David F. says:

    “So the way we deal with it is to protect everyone, even those actively involved?”

    Nope. That’s also wrong. Definitely go after the perps and stop them in their tracks even if they’re from our camp. In fact, the source for that is in the Torah. It’s not a Western value that needs inculcating in our lives – it’s a Torah value that needs chizuk, but please don’t bring me a proof from Penn State which went in the opposite direction and fired anyone they could think of just to quiet the media storm. There’s nothing to admire in that approach either.

  32. Tzvi says:

    David F.,

    I’m not sure that I agree with you that Penn State did what you accuse them of doing, but I think that is beside the point. I was not the one who brought up Penn State, but the person who did, thought that their approach was inferior. If you are saying both approaches are lacking, I can live with that.

    I also agree with you that arresting perps (and censuring those responsible for cover-ups) is from the Torah. The problem is that without the influence of western culture I don’t think the gedoilim are willing to recognize that aspect of the torah.

  33. DF says:

    Agreed with David F. [and no, not b/c we use the same intitials.] Clearly the yeshiva system failed in the way it handled the child molesters in its camp. At the same time, Penn State did not distinguish itself in its response either, by wholesale firings and mea-culpas that please nobody and by adopting “ethics officers” that do nothing but add layers of beuracracy and regulations.

    The problem is we are now in a pendulum swing. For a long time the problems were kept quiet. That was a swing to one extreme. When the dam burst a few years ago, the pendulum began to swing in the other direction. We are now in that other extreme. It is time for a correction. There has to be a balance that recognizes that yeshivas are a) an all male environment, in which 2)teachers genuninely do love their talmidim. Some people will never understand understand that, especially non-religious people, but yeshivahs and the parents who send their children there have no responsibility to adhere to someone else’s idea of a standard, if it doesnt meet their own. At the same time, there is some behaviour that without question crossed the border into the realm of obscene, disgusting, or just plain unacceptable. Rebbeim must understand that they are no longer bachurim, and types of “horseplay” [to use Jerry Sandusky’s sickening term] that can be forgiven or ignored when among peers, cannot be tolerated when they are with children. No doubt one’s parnassah is a factor be considered, but more clearly still, a rebbi who engages in such behaviour – and that is a term that must be better defined – must be terminated or permanently removed from any interaction with children.

    Someone said this issue is on the agenda for the Agudah’s convention. Good. I hope they consider these points, and the many other related points too. They should NOT adopt the over-reactive approach urged upon them by outsiders, which would ruin the relationships a good rebbi can have with a student. They should remember that the overwhelming amount of rebbeim are “above board”, to say they very least. They should remember that an overly protective environment creates a chilling effect that is also harmful to children. But with all that, they cannot continue the ostrich in the sand approach they’ve adopted hiterto. The public disgust at the Penn State abuse was genuine. With all distinctions considered, can you imagine the chillul hashem if the yeshivah world’s problems were better known? It’s a stark reminder to make sure the yeshivas get their house in order.

  34. Michael says:

    Well… I did bring up Penn State, but I wasn’t thinking about their overreacting, I was thinking about this happening as far back as 1994, reported in 1998 and witnessed in 2000, and Penn State did nothing. What exactly do you want from the Moetzes, Nevuah? Answer: yes. So you misrepresent the Moetzes. It’s the second time it’s on their convention agenda, not the first… and you pretend they aren’t acting, in order to criticize. The Moetzes said straight out that if you have good reason to believe, you must report. They said that if you are unsure you should talk to a rabbi, and everyone twists their words.

    A much better example of tossing the innocent is the Duke Lacrosse case… it was all lies, but there were rallies, the entire season was cancelled, and three players were hung out to dry, nationally. Even though one of them couldn’t even have been in the building! In a recent survey, 25% of those answering still said “yes” to “Are any of the Duke lacrosse players guilty?” So you really have to be careful before you “report” someone innocent.

  35. Tzvi says:

    So, the issue was on the agenda on the Agudah convention and now the convention is over. Anyone have anything to report? Any recommendations for dealing with the problem in our community?

  36. Tzvi says:

    Judging by the lack of a reaction, there were no constructive recommendations for dealing with the prolem of abuse in our community. Which just illustrates that the issue of abuse is not the only area we could use some influence from western culture. Other areas where we could benefit from western cultural influence are PR and (unfortunately) a commitment to emes.

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