Tag Archives: modern orthodoxy

Interview with Adam Ferziger – Beyond Sectarianism

At a recent conference, a speaker noted as a forgone conclusion that Chabad was the only force shaping the last decade of American Jewry.  Prof Adam Ferziger responded strongly and loaded with data that the Yeshivish world has had a great influence in shaping the current American reality. His latest work Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, examines this claim and in addition offers several other essays where he investigates the changes in American Orthodoxy of the last two decades.


Adam S. Ferziger is a professor and holds the S.R. Hirsch Chair for Research of the Torah and Derekh Erez Movement in the Israel and Golda Koschitsky Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan University. His first book was Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity Ferziger is primarily  a social historian looking at community structure, theology plays an ancillary role.  Prof Jonathan Sarna praises him, that he “is one of the smartest and most perceptive scholars of Orthodox Jewish life.” I will add that he is also a nice guy.

In his prior work, Exclusion and Hierarchy  (excerpt here., Ferziger shows how 19th century German Orthodoxy evolved two different approaches toward the non-Orthodox majority.  In the initial approach, that became associated with Ultra-Orthodox, the non-Orthodox Jews were simply excluded from the purview of the minority community.  In the predominant approach, which emerged in the context of Neo-Orthodoxy, Orthodoxy  created space for the nonobservant but spawned  a hierarchical culture in which some were seen as keeping the tradition better than others, and as such more “authentic” Jews than others. Hence only the top of the hierarchy could have public religious roles.

In his latest work, Beyond Sectarianism: The Realignment of American Orthodox Judaism, Ferziger arrives at the binary conclusion that American Haredi movements such as community kollels have been socially outgoing, pragmatically protean, and concerned with outreach. In contrast, Modern Orthodoxy – once the pioneering Orthodox movement that engages the spectrum of American –  has gravitated toward an inward looking, boundary drawing religious style , and is focused more on raising its own education level.  In short, the former has recast itself as outward and outreach oriented, while the later has become more centripetal focused on its own narrow enclaves.

The first part of the book is a collection of Ferziger’s articles on a wide range of topics in American Orthodoxy: Rabbi Yekutiel Yehuda Grunwald , the Lookstein dynasty, and the SSSJ- Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.

The second part of the book is a theme and variations on the current approaches to sectarianism of American Orthodoxy.  In 1965, Charles S. Liebman published a study dividing Orthodoxy into two groups, modern Orthodoxy and Ultra-Orthodoxy.  Liebman  based this division on the sociological distinction between a “church” group that seeks to be open and broad, as opposed to a “sectarian” group that is only concerned for its own members.  Ferziger traces a narrowing of the gap between the two Orthodox trends and ultimately a realignment of American Orthodox Judaism.

Ferziger shows that significant elements within Haredi Orthodoxy have abandoned certain strict and seemingly uncontested norms. He shows how Yeshivish Haredi Jews in the United States are outward looking, non-sectarian, college educated and acculturated in American life. Much of the discussion focuses on the emergence of outreach to nonobservant Jews as a central priority for Haredi Orthodoxy pushing even its core population to new attitudes.

In his focus on Centrism, Ferziger has a long essay, first published a few years ago, on Rabbi Hershel Schachter’s creation of a social boundary by labeling feminism as heresy. Centrism uses this heresy boundary to police its own sect by hunting down violators. He also shows how Rabbi Schachter created an entire historical vision and criteria for authority based on his own newly minted ideas of mesorah. (I am surprised that Ferziger’s article was not cited during last year’s culture wars around women and tefillin. If anyone has antecedent sources, excluding Rav Soloveitchik, for a genealogy of mesorah please  email them to me. )

American modern Orthodoxy does not have the same views as 1965 when Charles Liebman predicted that the future of the movement was in the ideas of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, but that does not make Centrism into a form of Haredi Judaism.  Yet, I wonder about the other direction, in that, current practice for many parts of the professional Yeshivish world are more educated and acculturated than some prior forms of modern non-Haredi Orthodoxy.

I have a few mild comments on the work. First, Ferziger replaces Liebman’s terms Ultra-Orthodox with the current word Haredi, to include Yiddish speaking Hungarian Hasidim, Chabad, and American Yeshivish.  He is quite aware of the distinctions, but we may need to work on a differentiated nomenclature.

Second, the book has a before and after set up of Liebman in 1965 and then bases his conclusions on 1996-2015. The book and the answers below have a wide chasm between the years of 1975-1995 that needs to be filled in. To judge the change, we need to hear more about Rabbi Norman Lamm, Abraham Twerski, Chait, and JD Bleich, more about NCSY, Ohr Sameach, Touro, the Nefesh organization, and Rebbitzen Jungreis, and an integration of what we know about Artscroll and Daf Yomi.

Third, it was not his task, and it does not take awy from his fine book, but I would like an anthropologist to look at some of the same topics and ask questions about books on the shelf, seforim purchases, family leisure time, household décor, political rally’s, sports, and Americanization. In the 19th century topic of Ferziger’s first book, we already knew to only look for the piano and set of Goethe& Schiller in the family salon of those advocating hierarchy and not exclusion.  The book (and interview) touches on economics but I would also like to hear about class, caste, and habitas.

  1. What is the most important message of your book?

A realignment has taken place within American Orthodoxy, most forcefully in the last two decades, offering an alternative to the previously accepted dichotomy of Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy.  One side of this transition, the “shift to the right” of the Modern Orthodox, has received a considerable attention from prominent researchers in recent decades.

My work supports and offers fresh nuances to this appraisal, but it stands out in highlighting the ways that significant elements within Haredi Orthodoxy have simultaneously abandoned certain strict and seemingly uncontested sectarian norms. In so doing, they have become less monolithic and adopted manners of conduct and attitudes formerly associated with the Modern Orthodox.

Once considered a dwindling relic of European Jewry, American Orthodox Judaism has established itself both as a vibrant American religious movement and as a vital subject of academic interest.  Fifty years after the pioneering studies appeared, however, some of the initial definitions and observations need to be reexamined. My book challenges the fixed typological distinctions between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy that have held sway from the 1960s in academic and lay discourse.  Both sides, then, have contributed toward a narrowing of the former gap between them, engendering a more fluid and complex religious stream.


2)  Can you contrast the paths of Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi in the last generation?

Among the generation of American Orthodox rabbis that emerged in the early to mid- twentieth century, there was a strong feeling that Orthodoxy had to try to appeal to as many Jews as possible. At a time when few congregations existed that could boast of a critical mass of fully observant individuals, it was obvious that Orthodoxy would become obsolete if it only catered to the pious. This “broad constituency” approach evolved into part of the ethos of American Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship rabbinical training ground, RIETS of YU.

Modern Orthodoxy’s Americanized, college-educated graduates were dispatched to communities throughout the country with the goal of creating Orthodox congregations that would offer religious services to the entire Jewish population. With this attitude in mind, some even walked a denominational tightrope by accepting pulpits in synagogues with mixed seating.  RIETS’ historically groundbreaking role in Jewish outreach was orchestrated during the mid-twentieth century through its Max Stern Division of Communal Services (MSDCS).

In contrast, the Haredi world was created by survivors and remnants of the leadership of the Lithuanian yeshivas and Hasidic dynasties who arrived around World War II and directed their efforts toward recreating the institutions and lifestyles that had been destroyed. Fearful of the seductive power of the treife medina (unkosher state)—which to their minds had tainted the established Modern Orthodox—they set up enclaves in which they could regain their former strength and vitality. As such, their yeshivas and kollels concentrated on producing Torah scholars rather than multitalented pulpit rabbis. If some of their graduates later served in more heterogeneous Orthodox congregations, this was certainly not the primary goal of their mother institutions. The main objective, rather, was to create a community devoted to Torah learning and or/Hasidic teachings a cadre of rabbis and teachers who could service the needs of recently imperiled communities of the faithful.

More recently a role reversal has taken place.  While non-Hasidic Haredi yeshivas continue to emphasize theoretical Talmudic learning over practical rabbinics during regular study periods, they and their Jerusalem affiliates have increasingly developed and supported auxiliary programs dedicated to training rabbis (and their wives) so that they can reach out far beyond Orthodox boundaries.  RIETS, meanwhile, focuses most of it energies on inreach—servicing the highly specific intellectual and ideological needs of its natural constituents, observant Jews. Indeed, in the past few years it has offered an option for rabbinical candidates to train to serve as outreach specialists.  Paradoxically, however, the program is funded and orchestrated by the Haredi oriented Ner LeElef, that specializes in training Haredi outreach activists.

If the evolution in Haredi Orthodoxy reflects a distancing from strict sectarianism, the core Modern Orthodox versions exemplify a retreat of this sector inward toward survivalist mode.  Many within the Modern Orthodox camp now admit to the lack of well-defined ideological principles and charismatic leadership.  Some children of Modern Orthodoxy have responded by moving closer to the more doctrinaire Haredi Orthodox approach, while others have been attracted to other social and intellectual frameworks that have led to a weakening in their Jewish observance and religious involvement. Whichever the case, the common result has been a sense of “crisis” that has been articulated by Modern Orthodoxy’s strongest supporters and leading ideologues.

The changes that have occurred within American Orthodoxy have resulted in a more fluid and less easily categorized religious stream than that described by those outstanding academics who initially studied American Orthodoxy in the mid-1960s. Like any religious trend it is variable and continues to evolve in response to changing internal and external realities.

3) How did Kiruv change Haredi Orthodoxy?

The key position that outreach now occupies within the formerly “sectarian” “yeshivish” Orthodox ethos points to a basic change that began to emerge within this sector in the late twentieth century.  The more confident the leaders were that their style of Orthodoxy was not threatened with extinction, the more sensitive some of them became to the sharp increases in assimilation and loss of Jewish identity around them. Indeed, they may have seen outreach as a tool for strengthening their own groups through “mass conversion” of the non-observant. Yet, these trends taking place within Haredi Orthodoxy move beyond mere efforts to draft more adherents.

Rather than simply aiming to bring new recruits into their own ranks, there is a growing appreciation for positive expressions of Jewish identity on the part of the broader Jewish collective, even if they do not lead to adoption of an Orthodox lifestyle. In tandem with the novel efforts, various institutional boundary markers that were considered sacrosanct in previous generations— such as the height of the barrier between men and women in the synagogue, not entering a Reform synagogue even to teach Judaism, strict separation between sexes in social and cultural settings, non-participation in certain types of secular or popular oriented recreational and public events —have been traversed or blurred in the effort to engage other Jews.

There are also growing economic incentives for the Orthodox to adopt a less combative approach and even congenial approach to other denominations and to the broader Jewish community. As the Haredi yeshivas produce larger pools of graduates, the pressure to generate employment opportunities for individuals who possess rich stores of religious knowledge but minimal secular education has increased dramatically. Today, for example, there are nearly 6500 full-time students in Lakewood’s Beth Medrash Govoha.  With an average stay in the institution of six to seven years, more than 500 alumni enter the work force each year.

The Orthodox outreach “industry” has opened new vistas for Haredi employment. By lowering the internal Jewish tensions, then, more opportunities to market their outreach products are made available to the kiruv workers.

Another financial motivation for the Orthodox to adjust their approach to the non-Orthodox is the need to secure funding for specific programming. As Haredi institutions have expanded, they have increasingly looked to earn capital grants awarded for specific projects by nonsectarian frameworks. As one of the conditions for their support, these organizations often demand that those being funded refrain from polemics and demonstrate their commitment to Jewish unity.

The majority of American Haredi Jewry do not necessary have direct exposure to the boundary crossing changes described in my book, as they remain rooted both geographically and culturally in the enclaves spread all over Brooklyn and Rockland County in New York, in Passaic and Lakewood in New Jersey. Nonetheless, the influence of the outreach ethos and practical leniencies on these sectors filters down way beyond the actual activists themselves; in the course of the exposure of their extended families to new environments and locales during visits and lifecycle events, via the numerous programs for training outreach professionals and facilitating their programming that are advertised and often based on yeshiva campuses and in Haredi publications, and through the transformation of “kiruv” superstars into Haredi role-models.


4) How have Modern Orthodox “gap year” pilgrimages to Poland gravitated toward a Haredi model?

Since the 1990s, 8-10 day seminars to Poland have gained a central place in the menu of educational experiences offered to Orthodox students spending their gap year in an Israel-based Torah establishment.  The trip to Poland takes place in the context of a year in which they have detached themselves—almost always for the first time in their lives—from their parents’ homes and watchful eyes and become exposed to all-encompassing environments led by charismatic, spiritually oriented individuals.

During this period abroad, students are often exposed to a holistic brand of Orthodoxy that questions the ideals of Americanization and acculturation once championed by Modern Orthodoxy. In addition, some Israeli Religious-Zionist yeshivas that support the State of Israel and send their students to serve in its army are nonetheless highly critical of secular culture and its educational premises. Their tendency is often toward strict interpretations in matters of halakhah, except in areas that relate to the Zionist enterprise. There are also many products of Modern Orthodox homes and schools who attend yeshivas in Israel staffed by American immigrants who have adopted a Haredi lifestyle and are eager to thrust their students in this direction as well.  Undoubtedly, there are certainly prominent and popular Israeli yeshivas and seminaries that do not fit neatly into this overall description.

The immersion that is experienced during the weeklong seminar in Poland does not in and of itself cultivate new identity formation. It is rather an agent, albeit a uniquely potent one that can complement or concretize processes that have already begun, or even set in to motion new ones.

The numerous encounters with the locations in which Nazi persecution and systematic murder led to so much Jewish suffering, is wrought with tension and emotional intensity. The students remain with their groups during the entire trip, under the supervision and charge of knowledgeable, compelling, and often spiritually driven educators, who perceive the seminar as a unique environment for disseminating religious ideals. Some even refer to it as a “journey toward holiness.”

Like Victor Turner’s now classic description of the pilgrimage, then, the Poland trips for American Orthodox yeshiva/seminary youth represent a phase in which one is separated in space and time from normal social frameworks and their limitations. Yet rather than isolated events with limited long-term influence, these pilgrimages to Poland—which take place at the end of the winter–spring term, when students are generally at their most enthused and motivated—actually serve to solidify lessons learned throughout the year.

These programs have gradually adopted rules and changed educational concentrations such that the overall tenor is much closer to the prevailing Haredi perception of pre-war Eastern Europe and the Holocaust than the more diverse approaches that characterize Modern Orthodox discourse on these subjects. Once a coeducational endeavor, today strict separation of the sexes is enforced to the degree that male and female delegations may not visit the same concentration camps simultaneously.  On an ideational level, Jewish solidarity and the diversity of pre-War European Jewry, once core themes, are no longer central motifs on such seminars.  In parallel, over time considerably more emphasis has been placed on connecting students to an idealized world of prewar Torah luminaries and Hasidic masters.   Two locations that serve, for example, as focal points for this type of experiential education are the gravesite of the early Hasidic master, Rebbe Elimelekh of Lezajsk and the former court of Gerrer Rebbe in Gora Kalawaria (adjacent to Warsaw).

To be sure, other aspects of the Modern Orthodox seminars, such as centering the program on the destructive events of the Holocaust and supporting Zionist perspectives regarding postwar Jewish life, remain firm.

5) How did Rabbi Herschel Schachter create a new heresy? 

Rabbi Schachter has been responding vociferously in writing to various ritual initiatives of Orthodox feminism since 1984, when he together with four other RIETS rashei yeshiva published a responsum forbidding participation in women’s prayer groups.  All of his relevant discussions during the late twentieth century were rooted in his perception of a direct relationship between Orthodox feminist proposals and the “slippery slope” of adopting behaviors associated with the Reform and Conservative movements. (For Ferziger article, see here. )

This focus on interdenominational boundaries changed in 2003, when he published an essay titled “On the Matter of Masorah,” in which Reform Judaism is not the main culprit, but merely one among a long line of heresies that, according to Rabbi Schachter, now includes Orthodox feminism.

The initial theme in the essay is the significance of masorahlongstanding traditions of handed-down religious behavior—for deciding normative Jewish law, even when the textual sources may allow for alternative rulings. He then applies this principle as the basis for prohibiting public Torah recital by women, a novel practice that had risen to the forefront of Modern Orthodox debate.

In a certain sense, Rabbi Schachter’s utilization of “masorah” as a tool for ruling on normative observance is not unlike the authority given for many generations to minhag (custom) as a basis for the correct religious behavior.  That said, minhag may provide justification for conduct that does not seem to be consistent with textual sources, but it does deny the theoretical correctness of the interpretation derived directly from the text. Masorah, on the other hand – as articulated by Rabbi Schachter, not only specifies the correct behavior, it nullifies the possibility of acting differently or even identifying the existence of an alternative approach, even if there exists a strong textual basis for doing so.

Toward the end of his essay, Rabbi Schachter reinforces his prohibitive ruling by depicting a “historical tradition” relating to women and Judaism: “The Tzedukim [Sadducees] were apparently bothered with the fact that the Torah discriminated against women regarding the laws of yerusha [inheritance], and they attempted to “rectify” this “injustice” somewhat. In later years the early Christians adopted several of the positions of the earlier Tzedukim…Several centuries later, the Reform movement continued with this complaint against the tradition,  that the rabbis were discriminating unfairly against women by having them sit separately in the synagogue, etc. This complaint has developed historically to become the symbol of rebellion against our masorah. The fact that this symbolizes harisus hadas [destruction of the religion] causes it to become a prohibited activity.”

In this narrative, which is unprecedented among Orthodox authorities, feminists have not simply followed the path of their Reform and Conservative contemporaries. Rather, through their behavior they had declared themselves direct heirs to the heretical groups who deviated from normative Judaism since ancient times. For beyond any other areas of dispute with the rabbis, according to Rabbi Schachter, the complaint that linked all these historical heresies was discrimination against women. As such, anyone who raises objections to accepted rabbinic policy on this topic is clearly aligned with the deviant legacy and intent upon destroying the religion.

During the following year, 2004, Rabbi Schachter published an essay “Can Women Be Rabbis?” in which attacked the new custom of inviting a learned woman to recite the text of the ketubah (marriage writ) under the wedding canopy. Following the masorah thesis, he argues that the fact that there is no law which requires a male reader for the ketubah, does not automatically mean that having a female one is consistent with other hallowed values that emerge from the halakhah. Here, once again, Rabbi Schachter returned to comparing Orthodox feminists with classical heretics through the common goal of destroying rabbinic Judaism: “Clearly the motivation to have a woman read the kesuba is to make the following statement: the rabbis, or better yet—the G-d of the Jews, has been discriminating against women all these millennia, and has cheated them of their equal rights, and it’s high time that this injustice be straightened out. . . ”

In 2014, Rabbi Schachter revisited this “heretical narrative” for the third time in a nine-page Hebrew responsum that declares “partnership minyanim” to be unequivocally forbidden. Once again, he states that the motivation behind much of the contemporary actions is the sense that the rabbis have historically discriminated against women. Such claims, he warns, can be traced to the Sadducees who disputed the Sages’ understanding of the Torah during the Second Temple period, and subsequently to the early Christians.

In Rabbi Schachter’s references from 2003, 2004, 2014, together with the Sadducees and Christians, the Reform and Conservative movements constitute factions that found their roots in Jewish tradition, but whose theologies and religious behaviors had placed them irrevocably—in Rabbi Schachter’s opinion—beyond the framework of normative Judaism. By associating the claims of the Orthodox feminists with them, he declared that they too were destined for a similar fate. I suggest that in associating Orthodox feminism with other historic heresies, Rabbi Schachter sought to clarify that feminism was not just an issue for debate, but it had become the central litmus test for whether a group or institution could be remain part of the Orthodox spectrum.

6) What revolution is taking place in the role of women in Haredi Orthodoxy?

It has been assumed that Haredi Orthodoxy was relatively immune to the trends of feminism and gender egalitarianism. In recent years greater attention has been drawn to the emergence of new types of Haredi female figures. Chabad women emissaries constituted one of the first groups to draw notice in this transformation.

My book highlights parallel and unique trends among non-Hasidic Haredi women.  There is a “silent” revolution taking place in which Haredi women are increasingly taking on more prominent religious leadership roles. One of the main frameworks for these transformations is the field of outreach. The rise of the female outreach activist is an additional manifestation of the ways that Haredi Orthodoxy’s abandonment of sectarian approaches to nonobservant Jews has led to less rigid religious and social norms on the part of members of its core constituency. The new functions taken on by female outreach activists raise conflicts and engender complex hybrid identities that digress in notable ways from accepted notions within this sector.

Interestingly, despite certain parallels with the new positions – such as “spiritual leader” advanced among Modern Orthodox feminists, to date there has been little public criticism by Haredi leaders of the novel figures within their own camp.  I suggest two explanations for this seeming passivity.  First, while social boundaries have been traversed, the Haredi female initiatives have avoided the area of ritual and prayer.  Thus, the public sanctum has not been challenged.  Alternatively, the rise of the Haredi female leaders may account in part for the virulent condemnations by Haredi officials of Modern Orthodox feminist initiatives such as partnership minyanim.  The main goal of attacking the Modern Orthodox efforts so vigorously, then, is not to dictate Modern Orthodox behavior but to clarify the limits of “Haredi feminism.”

7) How are Haredi activists and YCT graduates more similar to each other than to the RIETS products?

Ironically, from a professional perspective the liberal YCT rabbi actually has more in common with Haredi outreach-oriented figures than the inreach focused RIETS graduates. YCT rabbis are to a great extent, like their Haredi outreach counterparts (along with Chabad), specialists who gravitate to peripheral Jewish communities that lack a strongly-rooted Orthodox infrastructure. Neither of these cutting-edge rabbinical products would reject more “mainstream” congregants, but the skill sets and outlooks that they internalize through their rabbinical training tailor them to attract and address the concerns of the wider Jewish community. To be sure, the YCT and Haredi worldviews diverge dramatically on multiple issues. Yet both frameworks demonstrate that in order for Orthodoxy to deliver a relevant message to the majority of American Jews it must cultivate environments and train leaders who are in touch with the needs of this body.

Notwithstanding the common denominators, it is important to reiterate the distinctive backdrops that led to the emergence of the new Haredi and YCT rabbinates. The Haredi “outreach specialist” training programs emerged as manifestations of strength. The vastly improved self-image of a triumphant Haredi Orthodoxy has engendered the creation a new type of rabbi. One who feels that he can afford to concentrate on dealing with issues that stand outside the immediate concerns of his own community.

YCT, in contrast, came about because prominent Modern Orthodox leaders sensed a weakening in the ideological fiber of their core constituency. Its main justification for existence is to serve as a corrective to what is seen as a Modern Orthodoxy gone astray. In this context, part of the attempt to reformulate its priorities is the need for greater involvement with the weakly affiliated Jewish population. But this is not necessarily an expression of vitality. It stems from a conviction, rather, that without this element American Modern Orthodoxy is lacking a crucial ideological mandate that was for many years at the root of its own self-identity.

The idea that this common “outreach” principle could forge a bond between the ideologically polar but similarly innovative elements within American Orthodoxy based on a shared broad constituency discourse is tantalizing. That said, the chapter in the book on Chabad and Haredi outreach activists, suggests that on a practical level such commonalities more often than not sharpen competition rather than afford a sense of shared mission.

8) How has the emergence of YCT/Maharat impacted on the realignment?

The controversies surrounding YCT, Open Orthodoxy, and Orthodox feminism are expanding and accelerating the realignment of American Orthodoxy. Throughout most of the book I present the move to the right of Modern Orthodoxy and the shift to greater outreach and decline of Haredi sectarianism primarily as parallel but not interdependent phenomena that have reached a certain degree of confluence.  The rise of Open Orthodoxy and the sharp criticism it has received both from the RCA and the Haredi world has recently facilitated a more synchronized coordination.

To offer just two examples: As part of an effort to vilify Open Orthodoxy, in 2014 Agudath Israel spokesman Rabbi Avi Shafran offered a relatively broad list of who does fit in to the Orthodox rubric that exemplifies the postsectarian realignment examined in my study:

An adherent of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, a Satmar chassid, a ‘Litvish’ yeshiva graduate and a student of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchonon Theological Seminary are all unified by the essence of what the world has called Orthodoxy for generations. But ‘Open Orthodoxy,’ despite its name, has adulterated that essence, and sought to change both Jewish belief and Jewish praxis.

Taken in light of past Haredi attacks on Yeshiva University as well as Chabad, this is quite a historic document.

Similarly, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein, a moderate Haredi figure, responded to Rabbi Schachter’s strong ruling against partnership minyanim with this comment:

Rabbi Schachter’s piece is a wonderful contribution. There are tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews in the Modern Orthodox world (and certainly in the Haredi world) who view the tearing down of all barriers by YCT and Open Orthodoxy with horror… Rabbi Schachter’s presentation ought to be a wonderful beginning. This will be more important in the long run than the existence or disappearance of partnership minyanim. It will not be enough to take Rabbi Schachter’s formulation and use it to rally the troops. The challenge will be to take it and build upon it, at least to those who do not reject the idea of contemporary rabbinic authority. Before this essay, making the case for limitation was an issue of each rabbi for himself. Rabbi Schachter’s contribution could allow for a common platform upon which others can build and explain… that can be shared by the entire community, excepting the outliers.

These declarations exemplify Emile Durkheim’s now-classical explanation from 1892 of the role of deviance in society, “the deviant act then, creates a sense of mutuality among the people of a community by supplying a focus for group feeling. Like a war, a flood, or some other emergency, deviance makes people more alert to the interests they share in common and draws attention to those values which constitute the ‘collective conscience’ of the community.”

Having said this, the future of Open Orthodoxy and for that matter a less Haredi-sympathetic Modern Orthodoxy all together, may be determined just as much by geographic and economic considerations than by clarifying theological beliefs and synagogue standards. Even if Haredi Orthodoxy has expanded its reach and language of discourse, it still remains concentrated geographically around a few locations in Brooklyn and Rockland County in New York, Lakewood and Passaic in New Jersey, as well as smaller but considerable representations in Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto, and Los Angeles.

At the same time, an active and significant group of Orthodox Jews still exists that—regardless of whether they resonate with the ideals of Open Orthodoxy—sees cross-cultural interaction and secular education as part of an ideal. For many of these Orthodox Jews, YU is their standard for a Modern Orthodox institution. Even if they do not necessarily approve of all the innovations associated with YCT and Open Orthodoxy, they may sympathize with some of its core ideals—especially those related to gender—and appreciate its place within the broad spectrum of American Orthodoxy.

At this juncture it is premature to declare that Modern Orthodoxy will disappear as a distinctive educational ideal and lifestyle. Indeed in the end Modern Orthodoxy’s future may be primarily a function of its financial feasibility far more than its capacity to inspire ideologically allegiance. According to the 2013 Pew Report, the Modern Orthodox have the highest per-capita income of all American Jewish sectors (37 percent earn over $150,000) and also have the largest percentage of college graduates (65 percent) and are the most attached to Israel (79 percent). Living within the Modern Orthodox community—joining its synagogues, educating children, sending them to camp, visiting Israel, as well as covering their college and graduate school tuitions—is an especially heavy economic burden. Were there to be a major financial upheaval, Modern Orthodox families and institutions would be particularly vulnerable to these changes.

9) What do you think American Modern Orthodoxy needs for the next decade?

The ongoing vitality of any religious movement depends upon its ability to sustain for its adherents a sense of collective purpose and meaning. The specific issues that preserve group identity can evolve over time; sometimes the focus may fall on positive principles, sometimes on opposition to rival factions or theologies. When the driving assumptions are clear and inspiring, internal differences can be overcome. But when ideological inertia sets in, differences tend to become inflated and to portend rupture.

For over two centuries, factions loosely assembled under the “modern” Orthodox rubric came together around three main principles that were seen merely as pragmatic compromises. First, a full commitment to religious observance does not demand reclusion from the broader society or from secular knowledge. Second, while personal observance is the ideal and should be encouraged, it is not an unconditional requirement for individual membership in the Jewish collective. Third, neither Reform nor Conservative Judaism is a legitimate expression of Jewish theological teachings.

Historically, there were sharp internal debates about these principles as well as multiple interpretations of them. But there was also overwhelming consensus on the foundational ideals that inspired Modern Orthodoxy, and that distinguished it both from liberal denominations and from sectarian forms of Orthodoxy.

If, at the heart of today’s Modern Orthodoxy, one finds only a common “lifestyle”—what Jay Lefkowitz has dubbed “social Orthodoxy”—part of the reason may lie in the weakening hold of its foundational vision on the allegiances of the spectrum of its adherents. Today, by contrast, haredi circles increasingly accept higher education and cooperate with non-Orthodox denominations under the banner of combating assimilation. Still, the norms of haredi Judaism remain clear-cut and well defined, while the nuanced messages of Modern Orthodoxy become harder to detect.

Not long ago, certain causes—a striking example being the activist campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, a movement in which the Modern Orthodox took a leading part in mobilizing the energies of the entire American Jewish community (and to which a chapter in the book is devoted)—continued to nurture a sense of shared and distinctive purpose.

What themes continue to galvanize America Modern Orthodoxy today? Commitment to the State of Israel as a religious value is still an ideal that joins together the different factions and generates considerable enthusiasm. But those most passionate about Israel tend to move there in order to contribute more directly to the society’s welfare as well as to experience a less bifurcated Jewish life, and this causes American Modern Orthodoxy to lose some of its most capable and inspired offspring.

This brings me back to the evolving religious role of women: the one issue that continues to spark serious excitement and debate among both those who campaign for expanding opportunities and those who oppose far-reaching changes. Whether equilibrium can be achieved on this issue, and can be accepted by the broadest part of the constituency, is unclear.

What is clear is that the ongoing vitality of American Modern Orthodoxy, and ultimately its survival, will depend upon the emergence of new causes or visions that generate pride and solidify a broad identification not just with the movement’s “lifestyle” but with its distinctive religious outlook.

10) What was your biggest surprise in your research?

Among my biggest surprises during my field work were: discovering community kollel-sponsored annual golf tournaments, kiruv Super Bowl parties advertising beer on tap, and that the key to Haredi outreach activists being able to meet students and non-Orthodox colleagues for learning sessions over coffee at Starbuck’s was the decision some years back by the latter to offer soy milk based latte’s and cappuccino’s – thus alleviating the “cholov yisrael” problem.

11) How will the sexual and financial scandals affect the community?

Tragically, over the past decade numerous sexual and financial scandals have come to light across the spectrum of American Orthodoxy.  They are troubling to anyone who, correctly to my understanding, perceives moral fortitude as a central mandate for committed religious Jews.  Their deepest direct impact is, however, upon the specific communities and individuals who held the religious leaders involved in esteem and were personally connected to them – often in very positive ways.

However, fundamental questions are raised by the fact that banner institutions and their leaders were aware at some level of the abuses and whitewashed them and did not confront them straight on. But these do not necessarily relate to ideological issues as much as to a basic stumbling block within organized religion.  Namely, the difficulty to balance between the main goal of religion-which is serving God- and the need to create and sustain religious institutions -that inspire and disseminate religious ideals.  Too often, maintaining the “edifice” takes precedent over securing the values.  Turning the other way when unethical behavior of prominent individuals are discovered out of fear that the scandals will damage the religious or educational framework is a prime example.

It would appear to me that the main lessons to be learned are not that there is any innate connection between the aberrant behavior of individuals and the theological foundations of the movements with which they associate.  Rather, to first acknowledge that religious institutions, like all contemporary public frameworks (corporations, universities, government offices, hospitals) will more likely than not be populated by a certain minority of deviant persons who use their authority and esteem as tools for illegal and/or immoral activity.

Therefore, religious movements cannot simply create internal safeguards.  They should contract with outside, independent bodies, that specialize in this type of security and will not be swayed by personal connections to the perpetrators or fear of damage to beloved institutions. The more realistic and pragmatic the approach is to these issues, the less they will eventually blow up into major public scandals.

Reflections on the Pew Survey

When Rav Soloveitchik was teaching the beginning of Yoreh Deah, which excludes those who do not observe the mizvot or those who spitefully cede from the community, he told a story of how men who attended Yom Kippur balls and ate on Yom Kippur later in life become members of his Chevra Shas. He had a keen sense of reversals and surprise endings.

My post on the Pew survey was up five minutes after we were allowed to reveal its data, and consisted of a collection of the factoids, but it was not yet a piece of reflection. It turns out that even though the margin of error for the entire survey, was +/- 3%, the margin of error for the Orthodox data turns out to be +/- 12.4%, explaining the surprising and wildly outlying data. Yet, the overall directions and proportions remain correct. In addition, much of the data was descriptive as opposed to predictive because of the generational and terminological differences.

But what do I think the results mean?

I share the same reaction as Professor Jonathan Sarna which is that one does not have prophecy about the future. No one would have predicted that the Conservative movement would be the largest group in 1920 and likewise, no one could have predicted the return of Ultra-Orthodox in 1955. In 1960, modern Orthodoxy was the least educated and poorest of the three denominations not the most professional and with the most high incomes.

One of the few certainties in history is its unpredictability and the ever present reversals yet there are unexpected returns. Some who threw off all Judaism in 1880s were by the 1920s, integrated into the newly established Jewish community. In the 1930s, many who thought religion was going to die and that keeping ritual was old-fashioned, returned post-Korean War to the suburbs and affiliated with a house of worship. The Jewish community did this if for no other reason than because their Christian neighbors were affiliating. Assimilated Jews isolated in North Dakota and Arizona became aware of their Judaism as soldiers and used the GI Bill to settle in Jewish-dense Long Island and Los Angeles.

Two decades after Harvey Cox’s 1966 declaration of The Secular City, we were in the midst of a return to traditional religion that no one foresaw. Soviet Jewry has returned twice; first, when the secular Communist era Jews received a large influx of more traditional Polish Jews when Eastern Poland was absorbed by Russia and then again when the over-whelming majority immigrated to Israel and the US. Who would have dreamed of it?

Historians used to teach Hanson’s Law from the “The Problem of the Third Generation Immigrant” in that we would say, “What the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember.” If one generation seeks to integrate into the melting pot, the next one returns. It does not serve as a useful analytic tool anymore but when taught it at least gave you sense of reversals in Jewish history.

Jewish Identity

When do people assimilate to the point of forgetting the past? Usually, in the case of Judaism, the answer to that question lies in times of cultural and economic oppression as well as around a time that conversion offers a possibility of escape. For example, Ottoman Empire Jews converted to escape the oppressive poll tax during the period of decline. European Jewry converted during the time between 1780 and 1815 (and well into 1900) to escape the exclusion from the social, economic, and cultural worlds.

The Jews often assimilated when they did not have enough Jewish markers in their lives. In his comparison of the Jews of China and India, Nathan Katz notes that the former assimilated away because they used Chinese cultural forms for their Judaism, while the latter kept to Jewish forms.

But in America, 94% of all Jews are proud of their Judaism! Jews are at a social, financial, and cultural peak and do not have significant restriction. Who would have thought fifty years ago that there would be more Jews in Congress and other establishment benchmarks than Episcopalians? That is a success

American Jewish identity has always had universal benchmarks and its own forms of “nones”. Currently, these Jews define themselves as being funny, smart, and wealthy. In the 1950s, bastions of secular anti-religious Jewish thought such as Commentary Magazine, made the hallmarks of being a Jew to be alienation, outsider pariah status, and to have universal social justice values. During the 1990s, the benchmarks were fighting Anti-Semitism, Holocaust commemoration and supporting Israel.

In a great blog post by Rokhl (whom I do not know), she pointed out that in AJC’s commissioned Lakeville study as the typical American Jewish suburb done in the early 1950’s by Marshall Sklare, et. al. . where they predicted the demise of Orthodoxy, the criteria for being a good Jew were, in order,

Lead an ethical and moral life,
Accept his being a Jew and try not to hide it
Support all humanitarian causes
Promote civic betterment and improvement in the community
Gain respect of Christian neighbors
Help the underprivileged improve their lot
Know the fundamentals of Judaism
Work for equality for Negroes

So do not blame this generation for stressing the universal. She also notes “Public opinion surveys some years ago indicated that hardly 18% of American Jews attended religious services at least once a month.” -Will Herberg, 1950

The biggest problem in the survey, as pointed out by the sociologist Ari Kelman, was that when discussing Jewish-not-by-religion, the survey did not show any “deep understanding of the ways in which Jews-not-by-religion understand and engage in Jewish life.” Kelman notes “that the survey asked Jews of no religion to offer a denominational affinity for themselves, even when denominationalism is really a way of distinguishing between religious choices…It would be like asking someone who is lactose intolerant to choose her favorite kind of cheese.”

The survey has a false religion and culture distinction. As noted by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, the survey shows the continuing truth of Mordechai Kaplan for American Jewry. “Jewish peoplehood, culture and civilization are the prime motivators of Jewish pride and connection.” However, in the past peoplehood and civilization were considered Judaism itself. In fact, the Conservative movement defined affiliation as peoplehood for decades. The survey had a funny meeting of a the Pew’s Protestant separation of peoplehood and religion, with the Jewish consultants Orthodox bias of stressing ritual observance.

If I would want to add one extra breakdown to the survey, I would add location. The sociologist Steven M. Cohen, who worked on the survey, notes on many occasions that zip code is destiny. In Bergen County, as the third lowest intermarriage rate in the country, a non-affiliated Jew is more likely to marry a Jew that an affiliated Jew in a zip code with few Jews. As shown by the noted Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, intermarriage is due to proximity close enough to fall in love not from a failing interest in religion.

And most important for the Orthodox statistics, Chabad should have been separated from Ultra-Orthodoxy because their eclectic mixture of practices has little in common with Satmar. Much of American Jewry of all denominations has a secondary affiliation with Chabad.

The most significant statistic is the high rate of marrying those of another faith. But even those Jews are proud of their Jewishness. There is a joke going around this year that the predominate religion among this year’s Harvard freshmen is “half-Jewish”. Rather than spinning the story as one of the loss of American Jewry, the challenge for everyone should be how to increase Jewish markers in this demographic.

The survey shows that the denominations are not as they used to be and people dont define in institutional terms. When the current configurations of the denominations came to be in late 1950s they had clear imagined lines of demarcation for their social constructions. If you lived in Newark you were Orthodox, uneducated, and poor or if you were acculturated, you moved to Caldwell or South Orange and choose a Conservative congregation to balance tradition and change. If you were wealthy you sought to become more Protestant in lifestyles in order to break the still prevalent glass ceiling for Jewish participation in American life, so you choose to move to Summit and affiliate Reform- think of Roth’s Goodbye Columbus. But now it does not sort out that way. To use an Orthodox example, modern Orthodoxy has the highest percentage of high income and the highest college rate. Or Orthodox progressives and Reform conservative have been out of place for a long time. (For a devastating treatment of all the movements- see Volokh)

In the 1950s everyone went to synagogue as part of suburbanization, the same way Methodists went to Church. Modern Orthodoxy did well in the 1970s and 1980s by emphasizing Shabbos table warmth, home life and study rather than synagogue. But everyone now needs to think about should be emphasized in an age that has little patience for institutional religion. During this religious recession, organized institutional synagogues have a bad reputation. As noted, even Orthodoxy has 22% that claims to have no affiliation.

The major change shown in the survey was that Jews have finally internalized the post Nostra Aetate change in Christianity and have lost their fear of Christian practices and sancta. American Jewry’s relationship with Christianity will become the same sort of symbiosis that Jews showed in Islamic land when Jews prayed in Mosques, went to dhikr, and became Sufis.

All Jewish movements and leaders have to address the issues of half-Jews, “nones,” and synagogue decline. There should be some serious listening and responding in new ways by rabbis. But more likely, we will repeat what we did in the past which is to copy the solutions of Protestants and Catholics use to reach out to their nones.

Judaism theology in its traditional form affirms the divine promise of the eternity of the Jewish people. Despite persecutions, assimilation, and upheavals we assume, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (I Samuel 15:29). We don’t know God’s thoughts on the cunning of history, its dialectics, and reverses.

The covenant of God with the Patriarchs (Brit Avot) has full expositions, in many thinkers including Yehudah Halevi, Marahal, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, as well as by Nachman Krochmal and Leo Baeck. In 1962, the author Arthur A. Cohen wrote a profound work, The Natural and the Supernatural Jew which offered a theory describing the natural secular existence of the Jew has metaphysical elements of God’s providence and a promise of eternity. There are many aspects to debate in the book, especially from an Orthodox point of view, but when 94% of the Jews surveyed by Pew, including those intermarried are proud of their Judaism, it affirms Cohen’s point.

However, I find the response of some rabbis to the Pew survey as going against the Jewish idea of the Patriarchal covenant. Their commitment to the identity politics of their Orthodoxy is a denial of the mission of Israel. Their narrow sense of the Jewish community as limited to their provincial approach is closer to the approach of a Jehovah Witness, who thinks only their small group will be saved in the end of days. These Jews may have assimilated more due to the culture wars by denying a fundamental tenet of Judaism than those with Christmas Trees.

Rav Soloveitchik distinguished between the Sinai covenant that teaches what a Jew should do and the Patriarchal covenant (Brit Avot) – the “I’ awareness of the Jew. 94% of the Jews in the entire study had that awareness. Rabbi Soloveitchik clearly stated that precedence goes to the Patriarchal covenant. How do we learn about this covenant? Rabbi Soloveitchik answered that we learn through exemplarity; Abraham was kind to strangers and argued for justice.

(This is a first draft that may have changes in the next day or two)

Quarreling with Orthodoxy- more post-orthodoxy

Here is a book review from internetmonk.com, the blog from which I first adapted the term post-evangelical to post-orthodox. The problems of emphasis on body count and any technique or argument is good is it makes someone religious are obvious in the Orthodox community. The sentimentality and materialism of the community are standard critiques of Orthodoxy. His first problem of provincialism takes a bit more imagination to understand. Provincialism means that Orthodoxy means following the opinions of Teaneck, Riverdale, or YU and not the full gamut of the tradition. It also means that Orthodoxy is following the social enclave and mores of frum neighborhoods more than following God. The blog notes that now we need a book of solutions.

From internetmonk: A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church

By Chaplain Mike
Warren Cole Smith’s book, A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church has a title with which I resonate. If you’ve been reading Internet Monk for any length of time, you’ll know that we describe ourselves in two ways: We are evangelicals. We’re having struggles with the church. We are engaged in a critique of the church which bears Jesus’ name. We have become convinced that it is not very Jesus-shaped these days.

Many of us call ourselves “post-evangelical”—that is, we no longer feel comfortable within the system known as the American evangelical church.
In this book, Warren Cole Smith sets forth the question many of us are asking: What is it about evangelical theology or evangelical practice that is both so appealing and so troubling? (p.8 )

One of the great contributions Smith makes is that he gives names to the chains that bind us in cultural captivity. These are:
The New Provincialism: Evangelicalism has so cut itself off from history and Biblical and church tradition that, “the evangelical church risks ceasing to be a Christian church at all.” (p. 60)

The Triumph of Sentimentality: “Sentimentality is the result of our unwillingness to realign our desires with the reality of the world, but rather to remake the world in accordance with our desires” (p. 67). Having rejected history and our theological legacy, today’s evangelicalism is all about creating an alternate reality—through highly efficient, full-service megachurches, through technologically-generated “worship experiences,” through therapeutic, positive-thinking, and prosperity-Gospel preaching.

The Christian-Industrial Complex: The “Christian market” has expanded so dramatically over the past generation, that a vast industry has grown up to supply products to satisfy its desires. It’s the American way. Now, many aspects of church life are driven by target marketing rather than by theologically-informed, pastorally-sensitive ordained and accountable leaders.

Body-Count Evangelism: As any evangelical will tell you—size matters. Smith shows how today’s evangelicalism, fueled by such trends as the growth of the parachurch movement, has bought fully into the revivalist tradition with its emphasis on numbers, scale, and spectacle.

The Great Stereopticon: Rejecting the long understood fact that “the medium is the message,” evangelicalism has adopted the philosophy that any means is OK as long as one is communicating the right message. However, as Smith observes, “When you change the medium, you change the message, whether you intend to or not and though the words remain exactly the same. It is a lesson the evangelical church has not yet learned.”

I would love to see Warren Cole Smith write a second book for us—A Lover’s Proposal for the Evangelical Church—in which he might flesh out these suggestive ideas and help guide evangelicalism back to a more Jesus-shaped way.

From the Amazon review
Smith argues that we evangelicals are just as prone to being power-hungry, materialistic and being builders of our own empires as anybody else, to the detriment of community.
Evangelicals are also often guilty of a new provincialism. Provincialism usually means our outlook is narrowly determined by our small localized setting. For evangelicals, our narrowness is due to being stuck only in the “now.”

Now how would we solve each of these? What would be the chapters of the book about orthodoxy?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Rabbi Ronen Lubitz as potential Chief Rabbi of Haifa

According to Maariv, Ronen Lubitz, the Rabbi of Kibbutz Nir Etzion potentially could be the new Chief Rabbi of Haifa, to replace Rabbi Shaar Yashuv Cohen. Lubitz was part of the wave of the New Religious Zionists, that includes Rabbis Cherlow, Bigman, Gilad, Benny Lau, who wrote programmatic essays a decade ago in Deot, Amudim and Akdamot about the future of Religious Zionism and who formed Tzohar, as a more progressive rabbinical organization.

Lubitz, who is less well known in America than the others, has already stated to Maariv that he seeks for greater tolerance of gays in synagogue and that he accepts the compromise of accepting that entertainment remains open on Shabbat.

A decade ago he wrote a programmatic article on what is “modern religious orthodoxy” called in Hebrew AD”M (Orthodoxy ha-Dati haModerni. For my American readers I must point out that he is referring to an Israeli phenomena and not an American phenomena. With the rise of the aforementioned New Religious Zionists in the early 1990’s due to the breakdown of the older state-building and collective vision of the older religious Zionists, these younger rabbis turned to individualism and started calling themselves “modern.” (Note: Religious Zionism and Modern Orthodoxy are not co-extensive and have different origins and trajectories. Too big a topic for here). This group of Religious Zionists have no connection or sympathy with Haredim since they attend separate schools and form identity through army service. Rav Cherlow even advocates not learning Haredi seforim. The article seeks to distance AD”M from the Religious Nationalism of Merkaz Harav such as the followers of Rav Aviner.

Man Searches for Meaning (Again) in Deot 7 April 2000

Lubitz offers chapters toward a Orthodox Dati ha-Moderni AD”M
We need to seeks our way. We used to have a clear path but not anymore. AD”M is between the national religious camp and the religious liberals, the former-associated with Rav Aviner-are connected to Religious Zionism but lack modernity and the latter embrace modernity but are sociologically separate from Religious Zionism.

How do we relate to modernity? Confrontation, combination, synthesis, or even intergrafted?
Now we have the new issues raised by Postmodernity where ideas are contingent. In the National Religious group many run away back to certainty and Haredi life. If modernity does not work the default is to reject it and seek certainty.

Ronen Lubitz defined the struggles of the New Religious Zionists as consisting of five elements.
Five characteristic of modern Orthodoxy (he mean Israeli Datiim Hadashim or AD”M, don’t confuse with America)

(1) One needs to choose life- nothing in the fullness of the secular world should be foreign to Judaism.
We need to identify with Western culture and still keep mizvot in their fullness. Correct action is required but we allow many opinions so we are more orthoprax than orthodox. (I am not sure if he means these terms in the American usage.-read the Hebrew) We embrace doubt pluralism, contingency, there is no one opinion or theology. Sometimes a moment of holiness in the secular and sometimes a moment of secular in the holiness- “there is nothing as whole as a broken awareness”

(2) Doubt is serious; misgivings about observing mizvot, skepticism about belief, and questioning of Torah are all to be taken seriously.

(3) Observant Jews can lead a normal life, and not conform to an ideal life. It is OK to relax with normal entertainment or to enter any profession. Legitimacy for modernity to permeate your life the way Israeli nationalism used to permeate lives. Torah Study does not override tasting and being part of the world.

(4) There is a pluralism of truth, without a reconciliation of halakhah, mahshavah, and secular studies. AD”M does not see a contradiction of Torah and the pluralism of scattered and fragmented truth. In this we differ from the National Religious who treat western culture as fact and try to keep out its values. Every month they have a new worry, reaction, and restriction. We openly accept human rights, autonomy, freedom, equality. We recognize that Western culture contributed to the advancement of humanity, therefore we seek to ground these values in Torah. In time, we will succeed in integrating post-modernism as well.

(5) We need to live in a religious language but we need a new religious language since the old language does not serve us anymore.

Interesting other piece about Lubitz protesting for human rights in China from 2008

In a small town in northern Israel Rabbi Ronen Lubitz is very happy to welcome his congregation’s leavened bread. It’s a token of solidarity to remember the days when the Jews had to cross the desert without it after they were freed from Egypt.But this year Rabbi Lubitz is adding something more to this ancient tradition. He’s asking everyone in his congregation to sign a petition against human rights abuses in China. His hope… to have his community know about the persecution of Falun Gong in mainland China.
[Ronen Lubitz, Rabbi of Nir Ezion]:
“I decided this year to use this opportunity to let people know about what’s going on in China. The persecution and torturing of the Falun Gong, and the prohibition of very basic civil rights to the people of China. I think it’s very much connected to the basic ideas of Pesach (Passover). Because during Pesach we celebrate our freedom. Our freedom as people, as a nation. Our freedom as individuals.”

“I go in the way of Rabbi Kook. He talked a lot about our duty to love all human beings and he spoke about our Passover, our Pesach as a sign of freedom to all humanity…I would like to wish the people in China and in other places in the world that this spring of our nation will be a sign for spring for them as well.”

Critique of Kugel #1

“Open my eyes so that I may see wonders of Your Torah” (Psalms 119).

I have a few observations on Kugel’s book that I have not written up because I expected someone to get there first. But neither the Orthodox or Conservative critics went in this direction. I knew people were writing reviews so I naturally assumed they would cover these points. I am not writing from the perspective of a Biblical scholar but as a theologian. I am not looking to reiterate what has been said already but I also cannot guarantee that I have seen everything out there on the web. I write this as notes for a first draft of a summer essay, so I am willing to correct anything that is overstated in this contextual understanding.

When Kugel’s book first came out, it was reviewed by the NYT (David Plotz Sept 16, 2007) as having rejected literalism and that “He also seeks a safe haven for rationalist believers. In other words, having broken all the windows, trashed the bedroom, stripped the wires for copper, sold the plumbing for scrap, and jackhammered into the foundation, Kugel proposes to move back into his Bible house.” Well, look at this review. The New York Times does not have a problem with the documentary hypothesis and it rejoices in daring works like the Book of J. So why was Kugel seen as trashing and stripping the Biblical house? My major point is that Biblical criticism is not the message of Kugel. And the problem with Kugel is not per se, the Biblical criticism. The problem is loss of the Biblical enterprise. Yes, the book is an important book and a great read. But I do not think that the critics of his work and looking at the right aspects.

1] Kugel’s concern with the possible Iron Age meanings and his not seeing any moral teaching in the Bible has little to do with the documentary hypothesis. One finds similar statements of the lack of morality in the Bible in Voltaire and other 17th-18th critics of the Bible as well as by early 20th century free thinkers who wrote books with titles like “The Bible Unmasked,” which showed the immorality of the Bible. Many of Kugel’s readings that Sommers argued against are offensive even without any Biblical criticism or separate documents.

2] For Kugel, the Bible has no moral lessons or theological ideals. He has a materialistic skeptical sound to him. There are no grand ideals or religious claims in the Bible. Contradiction and parallel texts in the text do not teach anything. Kugel’s position at this point is similar to Freidrich Delitzsch in “Babel and Bible”. Delitzsch maintained that many Old Testament writings were borrowed from ancient Babylonian tales, there is no unique ethical message or religious message. In fact, the Bible needs to be unmasked as immoral. Delitisch was the rare voice that the Bible has nothing to teach theologically and should be treated as part of Babylonian and Canaanite religion. In later years, Deliitsch saw Christianity as the moral solution, so those parts of his thought are not to be impugned to Kugel, but the implication of ancient near east parallels is similar. I do not think he is as extreme as Delizsch, but he is heading in that direction.

2] In the context of Kugel’s writings I am surprised that no one mentioned Peter Enns, a student of Kugel, was dismissed from Westminster Theological Seminary. The problem at a Protestant seminary was not the human element or the weak theories of revelation. Enns however even quotes and accepts, the anti-documentary hypothesis works like Kenneth Kitchen. The problem was that Enns says that the morality of the Bible is that of the Iron Age. He advocates accepting the moral critiques of the new atheists – that the Bible is not a moral exemplar. Kugel’s method takes the sanctity out of the Bible. There is something very skeptical about the method. Furthermore, Biblical texts are depicted as not knowing the original meaning of a story. The human part of the Bible is all too human. So human that it strips the ability for a more theological-literary-document reading. I am surprised that the Enns debate did not come up in the discussion of Kugel.

3] Why did the Introduction to Bible written by Marc Brettler not create the same stir? Why did Jon Levenson’s work create the same buzz. Both use Biblical critical methods, and both were in the broad sense of Orthodox culture. The answer is that there is a skeptical voice in Kugel. Brettler concludes his book that the Bible is great. He writes that he likes the Bible and here is how we moderns use Biblical criticism. Levenson sees the Bible as teaching Torah and mizvot, a covenant at Sinai and the giving of the land of Israel. Kugel’s tone is bursting myths and slaughtering sacred cows. Kugel reads more like Freud’s Totem and Taboo.

In his recent post, Kugel’s clarified his position from his earlier response. Kugel rejects all of the prior Jewish names in the field who use theological, integrationist, and canonical methods.. Certainly Kaufman, Sarna and Greenberg who were more theological about the virtues of Biblical religion over the pagans may be too theological. But also integrationists, that seek to combine the best of both worlds- Weinfeld, Zakovitch, Milgram, Knohl, Tigay, Fishbane, Levenson, and most other professors with whom Jews do graduate work- are too theological. Kugel has a clear disjunctive between the Bible and the Scribes of the Oral Law. There is no integration of the critical and the traditional. Kugel denies any attempt at synthesis or integration. Many of Kugel’s readers mistakenly thought that since the integrationists used Kugel’s work on Second temple period interpretation to justify their own integration of the Bible and the interpretation that Kugel would agree.

4] The Bible as the sacred scripture of Judaism in a canon needs to be seen as special, as moral, and as a religious guide. Those who reject that are usually skeptics not Biblical critics. The four qualities of later Biblical interpretation are usually assigned as qualities of the Biblical documents themselves. These four points (1) The texts are cryptic and symbolic. (2) The texts are prophetic and homiletic. (3) The texts are consistent. (4) The texts are divinely inspired/given. Most of the Jewish scholars who see Biblical criticism and the documentary hypothesis as helpful also assume that the Biblical authors themselves already ascribe those qualities to earlier Biblical material. They study topics like Intertextuality and literary prophecy that assume these points.

5] In addition, Kugel rejects literary approaches to the Bible. Already in his work on the Biblical Poetry, he presented literary methods as a modern construct based on human subjectivity having little in common with a fixed Divine meaning. Kugel based himself on Herder studies of the primitive Hebrew approach. Since Kugel’s own doctorate is in modern literary criticism and his immense sensitivity to the literary voice of a text, many people mistakenly thought he was an advocate of literary approaches to the Bible. Most scholars not only find the Bible a great work, but also the epic of Gilgamesh is fine literature. Kugel’s rejection of literary methods is the innovation, not his use of Biblical criticism.

5] The last chapter on the potential for revelation did not alleviate anything because it did not understand revelation. Theories of revelation answer how a Divine can reveal in a naturalistic order. But acceptance of revelation is not pixie dust to magically wave over a human document. Traditional theories of revelation assume a Divine in the content – that there must be a supreme content greater than other books, a verbal content, a historical transformative content or an experiential moment of communion with God. Even the most liberal Protestant theories of revelation such as Tillich assumes that the Bible is not counter to reason, rather the Bible is revelation since it offers answers to our ultimate concerns and presents models of highest ideals. For Tillich, it may be written by humans but the revelation is the model of our highest ideals. One cannot treat the Bible as primitive and then call it revelation. Revelation must transcend its context. For Rosenzweig, revelation is our love relationship with God that transcends our finitude and teaches us that “love is stronger than death.”

6] Most scholars who teach the Akkadian documents and archeology together with the Bible call themselves scholars of “Israelite Religion.” They do see a disjunctive between Israelite religion and later Judaism but they in turn respect their boundaries and do not offer up advice on Judaism or the Hebrew Bible.

I am not sure if this is completely analogous but those who teach Icelandic sagas and their use in English literature are not considered Shakespearean scholars.

7] Finally, to return to the NYT article. If one is unmasking the Bible then one is not teaching how to read it and if one is teaching the Bible then it is within a context of history, theology, and culture- from liberal to fundamentalist. The NYT called out that he wants to be both skeptic and defender of the Bible in the same breath.

Another question: why did this book wake up Orthodoxy from their dogmatic slumbers more than other works? Why are Orthodox still interested in the book?

1] It could be that just be that he speaks in Orthodox synagogues whereas Levenson and Knohl do not.

2] Or it could be that Kugel is tapping into a skeptical streak in the community, that appreciates his message. An audience with an inner skeptical voice that does not know or have patience with liberal theology. His slaughtering of sacred cows is the zero sum dichotomy that the community understands.

3] Another element is that since Modern Orthodox intellectual types have not read Brevard Childs, Fishbane, Levenson, or most canonical approaches defended by Ben Sommers, Kugel is closer to what they think is over on the heretic side. Kinda like the Chussid who goes off the derekh and eats in McDonalds but never considers Modern Orthodoxy. The Modern Orthodox who gets tied up in Biblical criticism does not consider liberal approaches but wants the skeptical approach.

4] It could just be another parallel with the evangelical world that is now trying to open up to Biblical criticism
See Kenton Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words
Enns, Sparks and the others all have blogs and post on each others blogs

5] It could be that Kugel’s rejection of literary interpretations hits home. It is right now fashionable in the Modern Orthodox world of educators to think up a novel literary interpretation in a weekend and then return on Monday to the classroom and teach that this novel interpretation is what it always meant, it was the original intention, and QED it solves all critical problems with the text.

6] The attraction could be the radical perspectivism in Kugel’s writing’s. Kugel has the Bible and the Midrashic interpretation as a complete disjunctive. At an AJS – fifteen years ago, may of the elders saw his choice between modern criticism and ancients as somewhat post-modern. Truth is perspectivism Orthodoxy may like his perspectivism. Everyone is entitled to absolute and exclusive non-foundational acceptance of one’s own view.

Even though his reply also mentioned the objective facts of archeology If the goal was irrefutable facts then he should have started with Biblical History and shown the progress away from trusting the Biblical account. Rather, he frames things as “this is the critical perspective.”

7] It could be that since he does not seem to be theologically coherent and his own religious views may be those of his book On Being a Jew Sometimes vague or ambiguous works can generate more heat because everyone can project on it.

8] Finally, this book may be important because Modern Orthodoxy has built up a confidence level that orthodoxy can handle all scholarship or at least has been inoculated to have a rejoinder to all scholarship. This book explicitly shatters the assumptions on which this rests, whereas most books on the Bible just present the critical perspective without needed to reject the Orthodox view.

Any others?

If you comment, please help me think though the issues to a more formal presentation.

I could have loaded this post with links, but I didn’t. I might make them separate posts.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Three Guideposts on a Thursday

Last Thursday, I received notice about three events that will define modern Orthodoxy more than things that people are shouting about. A Mekhon Hadar lecture on Halakhah, Aliza Hausman on Memoirs of a Jewminicana, and Orthodox outreach as fun.

The first email I received was that Mekhon Hadar was webcasting the shiurim of Rabbi Ethan Tucker on the core issues of Halakhah. According to my reliable inside source, more women from the Stern learning program (GPATS) are attending or involved with Hadar than with Maharat.. Women don’t need to be debated about they can just opt out. Hadar does not worry about the Agudah or about the RCA or the RA nor even about blogs. The question will be how many men, especially graduates of the new hesder programs they will attract. How many gen y’s will find this the answer for our times?

The first lecture was all about the need for commitment to halakhah but without sectarianism. Tucker said regardless of who was appropriate for the nineteenth century, in our age we should choose Rav Bamberger over Rabbi S.R. Hirsch in working with the entire Jewish community instead of creating a sectarian enclave. We already survived the onslaught of modernity, we do not need to be sectarian anymore. He gave three reasons for giving up sectarianism: (1) It creates a distorted halakhah, shielded from the lives of real people. It considers the lives of real people strange and answers questions that fewer and fewer care about. (2) It writes off most Jews. It does not trust their natural intuitions and there is major gap between the people and an idealized halakhah. [This should probably be broken into two reasons- AB]. (3) lt lets secular Jews off the hook. But in real life, even the secular have a stake in the halkhah through marriage, conversion, and fluidity of lives.

Halakhah must be real life not ideal projection or ideal people. The Rabbis of the Talmud recognized the big gap between an ideal and after the fact-bidieved. This is in contrast to the second temple sectarians. We need to avoid constructing a halakhah that can only be followed by a small group. We should not glibly write people out. Short term sectarian success will lead to long term irrelevance
The question is how many will opt out of the modern orthodox debates in order to join this approach.

The second was about the Teaneck performance of Aliza Hausman, Memoirs of a Jewminicana as a women’s only Rosh Hodesh group (I know it was not really Rosh Hodesh) at the local reform Temple. Outside of East Coast enclaves, modern orthodoxy has large numbers of Jews by choice, people who affiliate from diverse ethnic backgrounds, couples where one of the spouses converted, and people who discover their Judaism after long and interesting journeys. The question is how much will these diverse eclectic orthodox communities see themselves as separate from the provincial enclaves and how much will the provincial enclaves reject the actual demographics of the community? As I told someone who is a macher at one of the local orthodox shuls and who agreed with my question because his Midwest hometown has this eclectic demographic- So why did your NJ shul not sponsor the evening? and he said your right we need to start.

The third item that came to my attention on Thursday morning was the WSJ article on the new YU Rabbi doing outreach in the bay area. What stuck out was the emphasis on fun, fun, fun. I have noticed that quite a bit in recent modern orthodox shul and kiruv events, we are fun. They are not promising meaning in life or Torah, but fun. Will modern orthodoxy take on the persona of Southern Methodist University, football, cheerleaders, and tailgate parties, God and beer? I have seen posters that say we not like the others that are no fun, we are the fun group. Will those who want learning seek it elsewhere? Will this approach lead to success of places like Hadar for those who want learning? The article states “there is room for having fun.” The next day, she joined about 50 people who watched the Super Bowl on the synagogue’s 110-inch screen. Super Bowl parties, a Chanukah gathering with a keg for adults

The new rabbi also adopts elements from the Chabad and Aish playbook: “he had put together a beginners’ service for the High Holidays. Last fall, he opened a preschool across the street from the synagogue to help bring in families.” And like Chabad and Aish he envisions our Judaism as practiced today as the same way as Moshe practiced his Judaism.. “It’s an ambitious mission trying to bridge the gaps between the outside world and making the religion—the way it was practiced 3,000 years ago—more relevant.”

Time will tell how these elements define the community. But they are some of the current issues.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

No More Modern: Intuitions and Habitas

Another good post at the Immanent Frame, this one is by Penny Edgell, tries to overcome seeing religion as a combination of Modernity and Orthodoxy, where the two are separate ideas that clash or need to be rationalized. For example, it wants to overcome seeing Modern and Orthodoxy as two conflicting ideas because then all discussions become mired in issues of authority and maintaining boundaries of Orthodoxy.

Edgell uses the model of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. We act intuitively and then post-hoc create rationalizations and systems. For her, religious decisions are pre-conscious. The actual pre-conscious categories are things like “respect for authority, the importance of in-group loyalty, and a drive to maintain purity/sanctity.” Those who want to keep things exactly as they are and those who like variety are playing out the same psychological positions they had in kindergarten but now they post-hoc explain it by the religious tradition. Some kids put all their toys in perfect rows and others liked them all around. Some kids felt spoiled and privileged while others liked sharing and saw play time as a collective.

In this approach, it is not a question of how much modern change the religious system can take or how one needs to listen to authority. If it were, then it would be a constant clash. Rather, one has pre-conscious vision of the world and the religious debates are post-hoc- useful for ideologues to frame as a tension of modernity and religion.

Or to use the habitas model, Gladwell mentions how professionals know in a blink how to act in their chosen field. Lawyers, doctors, firefighters, and storekeepers have different ranges of intuitions. A law partner has one intuition that this religious act fits in with his life, a social worker has a different intuition, and an IT person who is home by 5:30 has another intuition about life. They then after the fact justify their original intuitions with discussions of religious authority. Intuitions about maintaining a Life in Midwood, Brooklyn are not the same as intuitions about living in Berkeley, CA.

I once did a study of how people use the word Chumra for a talk I gave and I found that it matched this model. People don’t mind strictness that makes immediate sense with their habitas, they mind it when they intuitively feel the strictness does not fit their habitas. Most of the use of the word, occurs when different intuitions or habitas clash or even meet.

In the original 1950’s sorting hat of denominations, differences in class, caste, education, and location led to separating out into different denominations. Now that we have a wide range of habitats within a single denomination, the clashing intuitions are bound to occur.

The people who are performance-foodie-kabbalah of tu beshevat are not those of obedience-newspapers-eating the same thing. One does not have to mention authority or modernity to explain their differences. See prior discussion here.

Or the loss of modernity as temporality in modern orthodoxy and the subsequent inability for those modern to articulate any aspiration may need to be replaced with an understanding of different intuitions or that they live in different habitas. See discussion here- this older post is definitely worth returning to in order to integrate it into this post.

Read the excerpt below- then consider if we should still rarefy religion out of the full habitas of our lives.

The originating and continuing impetus behind sociological inquiry into religion has been a sense that religion is “at odds” with modernity, continually undermined by ongoing rationalization.
From this perspective, the religion that thrives in the modern world, to borrow (and perhaps misuse) a metaphor from Mary Douglas, is a pig that has learned to chew its cud, an ill-fitting social form transformed into something that fits, albeit precariously, in the modern order. The pervasive unease about whether religion can maintain its role in highly modernized societies drives the substance of sociological inquiry—can the pig keep chewing its cud, can religion continue to fit in the modern world, or is the transformation ultimately doomed to failure?
Central debates have revolved around issues of religious authority, understood as the authority of religious elites and officials to compel respect, and the authority of orthodox doctrinal statements to compel assent and to shape behaviors.
The first is suggested by research in cognitive and social psychology that views consciousness as a two-level phenomenon, with most motivations for behavior originating in an underlying, pre-rational level (the gut, or “blink,” reaction made famous by Malcolm Gladwell). Rationalized beliefs and belief systems, including religious ones, are in this view largely just that—post-hoc rationalizations of the real underlying motives for action.
These underlying motivations are pre-conscious moral, aesthetic, and practical impulses and habits—if that sounds like the habitus, that is in fact an adequate way to translate these concepts for sociologists. If religion is understood as a cultural phenomenon that expresses underlying pre-conscious moral and aesthetic impulses, that takes much of the wind from the sails of the strong program.
For example, Jon Haidt, an influential cognitive psychologist at the University of Virginia, calls for an approach that investigates … these include respect for authority, the importance of in-group loyalty, and a drive to maintain purity/sanctity.

Full Version

1980’s and the coining of the term post-orthodox

I first heard the term post-orthodox in the mid 1980’s. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s some people chose to attend the new resurgent Orthodox institutions and pick Orthodoxy as their religious choice. They were part of a small elite group that first attended the new after HS year in Israel programs, first learned to speak of a halakhic universe, and first accepted Torah uMadda. Whereas many of their peers still thought of Orthodoxy as the urban ethnic traditionalism that still looked backwards to a Yiddish orthodoxy, they were a new vanguard of an upper-middle class educated triumphalist Orthodoxy.

By the mid-1980’s, however, there was already a minority group that went oops!! What did we do?  They wanted out. The word post-orthodox meant that in the sorting hat of the 1980’s they chose to be orthodox and they were already over that ill fated decision. The term did not catch on because most people who used the term, with time, left orthodoxy for other denominations. A variety of authors used the term post-orthodox in the late 1980’s But only a very small number of tortured souls kept the drama going for decades. The most famous of those who kept the drama going for years is Rebecca Goldstein, who even moved to Teaneck and then to Highland Park before checking out.  There is a review of her new book in Today’s NYT.

Seltzer’s rebellions — rejecting Orthodox Judaism, shrugging off the influence of a controlling mentor, and coming up with a theory for the meaning of life and love that excludes supernatural agency — mirror Goldstein’s own. These preoccupations recur throughout her work. In her 1983 novel “The Mind-Body Problem,” she wrote of a dishy lapsed Modern Orthodox Jewish philosophy student who ditched faith for scholarship, then tried to acquire genius by marrying one.

Even in her nonfiction, like “Betraying Spinoza” (2006), a study of the famous philosopher who was ejected from Amsterdam’s Jewish community for his heretical views, she merged her personal history with her idol’s. Now almost 60, Goldstein remains fascinated by the codes and beliefs she absorbed in her Orthodox girlhood and continues to transmit her defiance and doubts to her characters.

Goldstein shows that philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel.

Her 1983 novel “The Mind-Body Problem” presented most of her frustrations with Orthodoxy and her fantasies of life outside of Orthodoxy. Yet, since Orthodoxy was still growing in institutional strength and social capital, her critiques were waved off as bad personal experience.  Or at best, it offered glimpse into some of the more risqué parts of Upper West Side Modern Orthodox life. – the occasional sin, libidinal encounters, and philosophic doubt was socially within the bounds of a society created by collective Shabbat meals. But the term post-orthodoxy disappeared because either one chose to move to an orthodox neighborhood or one did not. Religion was in vogue for the next 25 years. and why gripe about things when all is going well?

As an aside, in the 1990’s, the term had a brief life when those who had been trained as Orthodox and who taught Kabbalah and Hasidut gravitated to the Renewal movement and New Age worlds. They could claim to offer the best of the “secrets” of the Kabbalah but in a freer, eclectic, non-traditional,  post-Orthodox way.

In both of these cases it referred to isolated individuals, not to a mood or social change, and certainly not to anything in liberal modern Orthodoxy.

Update- But neither of these two prior uses has much to do with the current sense that seems, at least to me,  as similar to the phrase post-evangelical. A moment that will have diverse sociological implications. In the current version there is a sense that the last 25 years are over, and that for those of gen y – millennials orthodoxy has lost its former coolness, people are seeking to create new definitions and/or ignoring current ones,  and that the last 25 years is treated in a more limited and humble way accepting its strengths and faults.  Time will tell what it brings in all directions.  But I dont see it as connected to baby-boomer liberalism. Even among the Evangelicals, it is used by diverse groups including those who have opted out, those who have created the more spirit driven Emergent Church, those mainline Evangelicals who have started new projects, and as a name for a new era that would also include the opposition.  And now back to philosophy. I will report on Habermas and Theology next week.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths: Eastern & New Age Beliefs Widespread

Last week, the Pew Forum has put out a report on how Americans believe in many contradictory things. Many Americans “Mix Multiple Faiths and that Eastern, New Age Beliefs Widespread”

Some 24 percent of U.S. adults surveyed (including 22 percent of those who identified themselves as Christians) say they believe in reincarnation — that people will be reborn in this world again and again. Other results of the Pew Research Center survey:

* Belief in Astrology: 25 percent
* Seen or felt a ghost: Nearly 20 percent
* Consulted a fortuneteller or a psychic: 15 percent

“The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories,” Pew analysts concluded. “Large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects.”

Nearly half (49 percent) said they have had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight or awakening.”

Most this applies in equal percent, if not greater, to the Modern Orthodox community. There are several of us who have watched the local community list serve for several years and have noted the ever increasing magic and superstition.

To return to the discussion of rationality from below. If someone calls the Modern Orthodox community rational and the Yeshiva world superstitious then does it correspond to the facts? On one hand it does not since the modern community displays all the beliefs of the Pew Report. Are they saying they want to be rational and rather than engaging in rationality they say other are others are superstitious?  Or is it that modern Orthodox has reached a point where they have a rational public Judaism but a magical superstitious private life. Meaning that to treat Torah as irrational is no good, but to live a new age life is OK. Or is it just a denial of what people actually think?

Maimonides would not approve of any of these beliefs but he was willing to write off the masses or at least seek to change them minimally by fiat. But what is this rationality of modern orthodoxy that does not involve rational training. It is like the works of Chassidus that describe dvekus as a way to warm people’s hearts even if they are not having such an experience. (This is a whole Michel Certeau  discussion to be had here)

One way of looking at this is to return to the discussion of rationality of the 1970’s of Wilson-Barnes-Winch. who used the African Azande tribe described by EE Pritchard as their model. The Azande tribe knew that trees fall for natural causes but if someone is hurt it had to be witchcraft , this way they can speak of theodicy and meaning. But this case of the tribe of the Modern Orthodox is a bit tougher to unravel.. What is the first order causality and what is second order? Do they live in the world of their secular professions and suburban lives and then make a leap into a second order world of Torah and halakhah in order to make meaning in life and give order to a secular existence? Or do they live in the rational world of their professions and have a halakhah equally secular of the supernatural so they find solace in the supernatural, new age, and superstitious beliefs? Is Torah their primary cosmology or are the beliefs of the Pew study their cosmology? Do they get meaning that transcends their rationality from Torah or from superstition?

An alternate way to explain things might be to compare the orthodox community to religion in China, where Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism exist simultaneously.  As Rav Lichtenstein, and others, have noted, halakhah functions as a proper order of life, providing education, hierarchy, values, and respect similar to Confucianism. Here is a possible extension after the Pew study, the superstition and new age functions like Daoism- it provided “scientific” explanations of sickness, of power and of magic.. People live surrounding themselves with forms of Daoism like Fung Shui and Chinese medicine. And finally, only some people, those more monastic and meditative, seek the greater explanatory force of Buddhism. So too here, while everyone does the ordered life of halakhah, the Jewish magic and new age is ever present in the community, while only some people go in for either philosophy or spirituality, akin to Buddhism, with their greater explanatory power but their greater removal from ordinary life.

Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation

Ever wonder about the nebulousness of the term Modern Orthodox? Or why no one seems to be able to move the term or the ideology forward? There is a new book by Webb Keane called Christian Moderns, featured at the Immanent Frame, that may offer some tools for thought. (I ask in advance for people not to leave in the comments the usual homiletical pabulum defining Modern Orthodoxy fit only for day school mission statements.)

Webb does not define modern in a temporal sense, rather modernity is a moral issue of self transformation. One wants to raise oneself to a new stage of autonomy, freedom, and liberation from false beliefs.  Think of modernity as a form of ethical training to think a new way. One labeled those who accept different positions as lacking rationality. Modernity, as a Protestant virtue, also implies the lack of materiality, physicality, and externalization. But if one is not striving for self-transformation then one cannot call oneself modern.

This moralization of history—a largely tacit set of expectations about what a modern, progressive person, subject, and citizen, should be…I do not try to define modernity as an objective aspect of a period of history, but rather as a feature of people’s historical consciousness. Enlightenment thought about morality, autonomy, and freedom, which became central to later secular institutions and habits.

They are asking things like: Are we there yet? How do we get there? What will it cost us? How can we get out of it? Why are others not as modern as we are? Are they going to drag us back?

Modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermine freedom. Conversely, those people who seem to persist in displacing their own agency onto such rules, traditions, or fetishes (including sacred texts) are out of step with the times. They are morally and politically troubling anachronisms, pre-moderns or anti-moderns.

A great deal of contemporary academic and political work tends to presuppose the moral narrative of modernity. Arguments about agency, rationality, or freedom, for instance, are often tacitly informed by the assumption that self-transformation is not only a central aspect of historical progress, but also a good that exceeds local systems of value.

Those people who reject the claims of modern agency—those non-moderns who defer to (excessively material) gods, scriptures, or traditions, for example—are subject to accusations of “fetishism.” To accuse people of fetishism is to indict them for misunderstanding their own capacities.

Now to return to the Jewish community, those authors who used the term in the 1950’s and 1960’s specifically showed their modernity by their use of Kantian philosophy and existentialism. These philosophic movements stressed autonomy, freedom, and  responsibility. This helps explain their avoidance of the myriad of other viable theological partners that did not emphasize the modernist ethos. They wanted to remove the physicality of the mizvot and say that what counts if the fulfillment in the heart.

But what about now? What happens when people are not striving for self-transformation to autonomy anymore? This is where Webb may be the most handy. If one is Modern Orthodox and does not have a moral issue of transformation then one has no way to describe oneself.

One approach is to define oneself in the negative by saying that one is not one of those “non-modern” groups. But that may not be empirical about the negated group or even about one’s own group.  The Conservative movement has a similar problem In their period of triumphalism they were embracing the modern world and could say that Orthodoxy was not embracing the modern world. Now, they simple say they are the only ones making a hybrid of modernity and tradition.

A second approach is to define oneself as rational, but that falters because rationality is not defined, as Steve Nadler pointed out on Angel. And is hard to define in the age after modernity, unless one is using Habermas, Taylor et al. More importantly, rationality is no longer seen as a moral issue of transformation.  If being modern is a simply quality that one has naturally  then one is not modern. According to Webb, one would need to work to be modern, at least as much as one works to keep up with computer/web literacy.

A different point is that many of those who want to call themselves modern Orthodox stress how they are open, sensitive, or dealing with the needs of the people. This is a definition, but leaves the problem of gaining any traction in rhetoric or ideology. Open orthodoxy has a self-definition is that open and sensitive but that has nothing to do with modern. To be modern is to speak of autonomy and freedom. They are not looking to start accusing people of fetishism.

The new open Orthodoxies are not modern but have developed a new ethos. But they have not found a means of articulation.

For example, Rick Warren offers the language of the purpose driven life; the virtue is to build a meaningful life. Here is not medieval, but now lives in the post-secular post-modern world and functions with a new ethical scale of self-transformation based on meaning in a suburban life.  Open modern Orthodox, in contrast, keep calling themselves modern as if that is to have a resonance. And their rhetoric is off, since they keep citing as their exemplars 1960’s Orthodox about autonomy, when they are striving for inclusivism (feminism, GLBT rights, acknowledgment of handicaps and psychological difficulties).

I found that similar comments to mine about Rick Warren were made in a later post to Webb, “After Purification” by Philip Gorski. Engaged Yeshivish and Kiruv has much in common with Pentacostalism and are better are playing the inclusivism card.

But this process of purification is necessarily incomplete. Humans, after all, are social and physical creatures. Thus,  processes of purification inevitably give rise to new forms of hybridity—in this case, to new texts, rituals, incantations and so on, either directly, in the form of routinized religious practices or, indirectly, in the form of heterodox religious movements, such as Pentecostalism. Gorski notes that much of the critique of the modern position has been from those returning to the classical tradition.

For MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Elshtain, Milbank and Taylor critique modern liberal secularism not from without, but from within, by drawing variously on Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas.

Does this mean that prophetic critique is the only possible form that a critique of secularism can take? That one must be a theist to be a critic in our secular age?  By no means.  Political philosophers such as…Michael Sandel, amongst others, have elaborated a powerful neo-republican critique of modern liberalism Even Jürgen Habermas, that icon of Euro-American enlightenment, has recently urged his partisans to recognize the untapped “semantic potentials” and “moral resources” still contained within religious languages and communities

Do those who formulate other position offer any alternate to modernity? Centrist Orthodoxy offers a relinquishment of autonomy and the promise of living an idealized halakhic existence Mekhon Hartman offer the modernist vision of autonomy and freedom. What do those who want something else offer? In the 1950’s, there were many rhetorical devices that made people in the Levitttowns think they were into freedom,autonomy, and rationality. But there seems to be a gnawing sense that the idealized halakhah does not not correspond to otherwise observant suburban family life.

A Tiny but Articulate Minority -The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzburger

I have been asked by several people  for a copy of my article on Rabbi Walter Wurzburger’s thought- A Tiny but Articulate Minority TRADITION 41:2 (2008). So here it is below. Wurzburger  formulated an existential and Kantian defense of Orthodoxy against historicism.  In his time, congregations in Queens and Long Island, with YU rabbi were still called Orthodox. Yeshivish Jews were called Ultra-Orthodox. The term modern Orthodox  (small m) was a term only for the rabbinical intellectuals who embraced modernism, by their own count – a few score at best. In the late 1970’s the term was applied to a not very clearly defined sociological group of those who have more modern congregation, graduates of day schools, and orthodox summer camps. By the 1990’s  there was a serious mess of terminology.

Rabbi Wurzburger saw a need to affirm a modern philosophic Orthodoxy. He was active in interfaith work and was committed to an ethical Judiasm that aspires to answer to higher “covenantal imperatives,” greater than a formalist reading of the legal canon.

I wrote a long article but think someone out there should use my article to write for him an appropriate wikipedia article.

Here it is:  A Tiny but Articulate Minority- The Thought of Rabbi Walter Wurzbuger by Alan Brill

Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue by Trude Weiss-Rosmarin

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin (1908 – 1989) was a Orthodox Jewish-German-American writer, scholar, and feminist activist. She co-founded, with her husband, the School of the Jewish Woman in New York in 1933, and in 1939 founded the Jewish Spectator, a quarterly magazine, which she edited for 50 years. She was an influential critic of the Christian- Jewish dialogue. She was also a critic of Rabbi Steven Riskin’s first years at LSS, which she perceived as modernizing away from traditional synagogue practice.

One of her little discussed books is Towards Jewish-Muslim Dialogue (Sept 1967), written right after the Six Day War. The journal Tradition accepted that the victory was God’s hand in history, but we should avoid open messianism. In contrast, Weiss- Rosmarin was cautioning that victory does not occur on the battlefield but in the winning of the peace afterwards.

She affirmed that Israel is a successor to the ancient Jewish states in the Middle East, but bemoans how it is presenting itself as an outpost of the West. She considers as proof of this Western exclusivism the attitude of the European born elite toward the immigrants from Arab countries, treating them as the “second Israel” and judging them by Western mores. Israelis have to become integrated into the Arabic middle Eastern society around them.

A product of Europe and its civilization, Zionism was caught up in the notion of the superiority of Western, i.e., European civilization. This notion caused the Zionists – ad Jews as a whole – to look down upon the Arabs and their ancient culture in the manner the British looked down upon “colonials.” The Jews came to Palestine with the determination to make the country an outpost of Western civilization and to “civilize the Arab nations.” The unequivocal cultural identification of the Yishuv with the West and the failure to support Arab nationalism in its post-war struggles with the Allies disabused the Arabs of the hope, expressed by Feisal, that the “Jewish cousins” were cousins by Arab definition. (6-7)

If Zionist movement and Jews generally had been more humble in their encounter with Muslim civilization (and the “Second Israel”) and if they had not come to Palestine waving the flag of “Western civilization,” Israel might well have benefited from Arab tolerance and humaneness.(9)

If henceforth Jews will assign to Jewish-Muslim dialogue the importance that is its due, the Arabs, in whose nationalism religion is as important as it is in Jewish nationalism, will eventually-and perhaps sooner than cold-headed realists will dare expect-rediscover that the Jews are their cousins, descendants of Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, who was Isaac’s brother. (44)

If the young State of Israel is to survive and prosper it must become integrated into the Arab world and be accepted by its neighbors. The crucial challenge confronting Israel is how to conclude an alliance of peace with the Arab nations. We believe that with a complete reorientation, especially a muting of the insistent harping on the theme of “Israel is an outpost of Western civilization” the Arab nations would accept Israel on the basis of the kinship which unites Jews and Arabs. (40-41)

Weiss-Rosmarin advocates the return and revival of Hebrew and Israel to its Near-Eastern roots. A complete reorientation to see Judiasm as part of the Arab world.

If there is to be “dialogue” between Israel ad the Arab countries, Israel will have to project a new image of herself-the image of a Semitic brother-state in the midst of Semitic brother-states. Instead of proclaiming itself “the outpost of Western civilization,” Israel should emphasize that Hebrew is a Semitic language and a sister-language of Arabic. The setting of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud is not Europe but the Near East-its deserts and its fruitful regions. The biblical ideal of feminine beauty is not the Western dream. It is “the dark and comely beloved” of “Song of Songs,” who is swarthy as “the tents of Kedar” and –as Arab tents are to this day.(10)

Our prayers for the end of Exile and for the Return plead: “Renew our days as of old.” The renewal in the State of Israel should be a renewal of Jewishness in the traditional pattern of Hebrew civilization which was born, matured and produced its choicest fruit in the Middle East among kindred Semitic neighbors with kindred mores and, after the birth of Islam (622) in cross-fertilization and symbiosis with a kindred religious civilization. (11)

She cites the works of the Jewish Islamisists on the Judeo-Islamic similarities and synthesis. We lived together for more than a millennium. Islam is monotheism and law. We both have oral traditions and diverse schools of legal reasoning. But she adds her own observations on the similarities of the modern trajectories. We have the same problems of Madrasas and Yeshivot wanting to keep modernity and secular education out. Judaism and Islam both had secular nationalisms rise up to create modern states. She even paints a picture of common suffering.

The identity of Jewish and Muslim fate and suffering at the hands of Christians, during the Crusades and in Spain, has not received sufficient attention. It was a period of shared agony and confrontation with a common enemy. This deserves to be better known by Jews and Muslims. The shared fate of oppression and persecution under “Christianity triumphant” is a strong bond of Jewish-Muslim brotherhood. (30-31)

As practical steps, she calls for (1) American Jewish organizations to foster Jewish Muslim dialogue.(2) Jewish institutes of higher learning, especially the seminaries, should introduce courses on Islam and Arabic culture.  (The way Ignatz Goldziher and Jacob Barth, both observant Jews, taught respectively at the Budapest and Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminaries.) (3) Jewish Institutions should assign priority to hosting Muslim lecturers, the way they host Christian lecturers. (4) There should be adult education courses fostering Jewish Muslim dialogue. [42-43]

This was in 1967.

Update- Here is the full text from The Jewish Spectator

Trude Weiss-Rosmarin – Toward Jewish-Muslim Dialogue