Modern Orthodoxy Redux
By Robert Lebovits
I wonder if the creators of Cross Currents ever imagined that it would be such a vital forum for addressing the critical issues facing the Orthodox world. The present dialogue on the form and trajectory of Modern Orthodoxy – and the broad range of comments that have been put forward – are a testament to the success of this venue. Perhaps most impressive of all is the tenor of the discussion. Rabbis Adlerstein and Broyde have shown us all how to have discourse without disrespect, leaving polemics and acrimony by the wayside. There are some thoughts and ideas of my own that I would offer for consideration.
R. Broyde has identified the core dispute to be the question of whether the “Far Left” (FL) is or is not “seeking to leave the halachic community”. He states they are not and avers “the crux of the issue [is] they steadfastly refuse to defer to the judgments of the gedolim who dominate the community that Rabbi Adlerstein comes from and instead either put forward their own gedolim or deny the need for sanction from gedolim to make the changes they recommend”. I would suggest R. Broyde understates the issues. Let me refer to the controversy initiated by Rabbi Kanefsky over the removal of the brocha “Sh’Lo Asani Eshah”.
In his revised article R. Kanefsky writes:
“I know of course that ‘You have not made me a woman’ can be understood in many different ways. But by its plain meaning, and by the simple smell test, it has the effect today of justifying our lack of progress, and of affirming for us that women do not possess the spiritual dignity that men do. In our specific time, given our specific challenges the blessing hurts us. We thus find ourselves today in a halachic “sha’at hadchak”, an “urgent circumstance”, the sort of circumstance that justifies utilizing an ingenious halachic stratagem to effectively drop this blessing from our liturgy” (italics added).
Clearly, R. Kanefsky’s goal from the start is to remove this bracha as it offends modern sensibilities. His suggested halachic maneuvering is simply a clever means to a pre-determined end. Moreover other tshuvot coming from YCT/IRF scholars directly affirm the premise that they seek to employ the halachic process to attain congruity with contemporary cultural mores, no matter how forced or convoluted the “stratagem” might be. Such candor in identifying how they use halacha is refreshing – but it ought not be mistaken to be an honest search for truth in halacha.
Perhaps more than the actual opinion by R. Kanefsky to abrogate a bracha for the sake of social justice is the attitude that permeates his writing. Simply put, he is embarrassed by Chazal. The bracha smells bad and offends today’s woman who, one assumes from R. Kanefsky’s own acknowledgement of the multiple meanings invested in this bracha, has limited Torah understanding and therefore only considers the literal translation of the words. Might it not be more worthwhile to encourage Torah study for women so that the complexity of the bracha could be appreciated and accepted rather than altering centuries of tradition?
Additional statements by R. Kanefsky vis-à-vis Chazal’s views on women and other comments where he challenges the correctness of halacha in view of modern sensibilities seem to be at odds with R. Broyde’s own formulation of the criteria for RCA membership: “The Modern Orthodox community, and the RCA specifically, ought to welcome into its tent anyone who professes loyalty to the theology of Jewish belief endorsed by Rishonim and Achronim as historically and halachically understood, and whose conduct is governed by classical Jewish law”.
Is admonishing – and even demeaning – Chazal for not conforming halacha to the contemporary zeitgeist consistent with classical Jewish law?
At the risk of over-reaching I will take this critique one step further. Conservative Judaism in this country took root as an attempt to keep Jews Jewish, believing as the movement did, that Orthodoxy was too rigid and rejecting of New World realities. A number of Conservative clergy had Orthodox smicha and some were recognized scholars. The “tshuva” written to permit driving to shul on Shabbos and similar policies were efforts to redefine halachic principles to fit the perceived needs of the people (“sha’at hadchak”?) and give sanction to extrahalachic behaviors so as to maintain a façade of religious adherence. Today it is evident to all how poorly that strategy has played out.
I don’t question the sincerity of Rabbis Weiss, Kanefsky, et. al. and their conviction that they are serving Hashem and Klal Yisroel. I believe R. Broyde when he says they are all well-meaning ma’aminim. However, that isn’t the dispute and focusing on personalities obfuscates the real problem.
“Hachachom einay berosho”. One who has eyes sees the chasm opening up between the FL path and that of mainstream Orthodoxy. Certainly, this critique may be wide of the mark and all that will evolve from the FL activity is some expansion of what becomes acceptable within the realm of Orthodoxy. Yet truth requires one to acknowledge that the fears R. Adlerstein expresses have substance and are grounded in historical precedent. Can we agree that there are real dangers that ought to be faced as potential threats to the Klal and respected accordingly? In the opinion of many in mainstream Orthodoxy, some breaches have already come to pass: YCT lists non-Orthodox clergy on their faculty as “Rabbis”; Kabbalat Shabbat service led by a woman; The ordination of a Rabbah; A demand that the “hecsher” of a Conservative clergyman be accepted by the frum world. I fear Jimmy Durante was correct when he said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
After making the case for the “big tent” approach to Orthodoxy R. Broyde in fact turned his attention to the “Far Left” and movingly admonished the group for their intemperate excesses and apparent unwillingness to draw some boundaries of their own – a curious rebuke given his reluctance to concretely define where he would place his own borders. While his reproach is welcome, I wonder why it only came in response to R. Adlerstein’s essay and not at the very start of “this current firestorm” – i.e., the article by R. Kanefsky. Further, putting it at the very end of his response to R. Adlerstein seems to suggest that in the spirit of even-handedness R. Broyde must address both sides of the debate, almost pro-forma not to be taken too seriously. The Rav was not timid or time-sensitive in criticizing Rabbi Rackman loudly and clearly. Is that not the model for this discussion?
In reviewing the comments to both articles and the clarifications offered by both R. Broyde and R. Adlerstein, I believe it’s worth asking “How far has the Far Left taken us already?” It is not only the practices they advocate that are at issue. By setting the boundary of acceptability further and further to the liberal extreme we are all pulled away from the standards of the past, both in personal practices and in our worldview. How many in the Modern Orthodox community presume the yeshivish olam to be beneath them for their lack of advanced secular education? Did Rav S. R. Hirsch look down upon his Eastern European peers with disdain because they had no university training supplementing their Torah greatness? R. Broyde is eloquent in his description of Modern Orthodoxy as combining the best of Western Culture with Torah. Yet where is the balance point between those two sources of knowledge and what influences where the set point is established? The Far Left always exerts pressure on our thinking and behavior. Some – the Far Right – pull fiercely in the opposite direction to countervail a leftward tilt, sometimes with undesirable consequences. Unfortunately, many in the Modern Orthodox world take no notice of this drift, subtlely reframing their perceptions, allowing it to erode their commitment to Torah and mitzvos and diminishing their regard for those who choose a more stringent Torah way. I don’t live like the yid in Meah Shearim, Bnei Brak, Monroe, etc. but I recognize there are characteristics of such a lifestyle to admire and even elevate above my own. Can the Modern Orthodox do the same, respect someone whose religious practices surpasses one’s own without denigrating their actions or motives?
I would add one final observation. There are many who dismiss the debate over the acceptance or rejection of the Far Left as “same old, same old” and see it as simply a recapitulation of familiar Jewish infighting. Maybe so; maybe not. There is a psychological phenomenon known as the Normalcy Bias. It’s the cognitive process by which we seek to diminish the prospect of danger by identifying elements of an event or trend as something we’ve seen or been through before and survived without needing to take drastic action. It’s been used to explain for example why people stay in their homes even when confronted by imminent disaster like a flood or a hurricane – or a Holocaust. “I got through something just like this before and I can do it again”. There are some challenges to the future of our continuity that may call for extraordinary responses.
Dr. Robert Lebovits is a psychologist in private practice, and the former president of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center in Pittsburgh.