Lately it seems like everyone is trying to define Modern Orthodoxy. The purpose of these attempts revolves around one specific institution and its graduates, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT).
Four articles on a prominent Centrist-Orthodox blog tried to tackle the YCT issue (see links below). Three of the articles called on Modern Orthodoxy to disaffiliate with YCT. One article explained that YCT deserved to be included in the Modern Orthodox tent. Much ink has been spilled over YCT and the more that is written, the more things stay the same. Platitudes and proclamations have done nothing to stop YCT. Indeed, they serve a need within Orthodox Jewish community. They tend to those who would like to be Orthodox but find some its social constraints too limiting. There is a place for YCT. However, there is no place for the articles calling for its demise.
The articles assume there is an umbrella under which some institutions, rabbis or individuals are permitted to take shelter. The outsiders are subject to excommunication and ridicule. It is a tent where like-minded people share common goals, appreciation and self-congratulation. In their opinion, YCT belongs outside the tent.
A second assumption in the articles is that Modern Orthodox Judaism needs a definition. It must be codified lest it suffer some horrible end. Without a definition it is doomed to be over-inclusive and possibly even under-inclusive. There is talk that YCT is “counterfeiting Torah” and that must be ousted from the Modern Orthodox camp.
All this talk of camps, umbrellas, tents and definitions is misplaced. Similarly, limited denominations such as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are misplaced.
Tackling the second assumption first, it seems that Modern Orthodoxy has a complex. It needs “defining.” It is as if Modern Orthodoxy feels that it is novel form of serving God or an aberration from the classic style of Jewish life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Modern Orthodoxy needs to have the confidence to positively assert that Modern Orthodoxy is not the “kid brother” of big-boy Charedi Judaism. It is the Charedi world that is an aberration from almost every Jewish society in recorded history.
Jewish life for over 2500 years has been determined by fealty to God, Torah and Mitzvos all while living with one foot in the general society. Tannaim held typical jobs and conducted conversations with Greek philosophers. Similarly, Amoraim discussed religion with Roman royalty. During the period of the Geonim and Rishonim, Jews had jobs, educated Jews studied the sciences and philosophy of their day and the great Torah scholars were well versed in many disciplines including Torah. Even during the period of the Achronim, many of the most famous interpreters and codifiers of law were proficient in science, mathematics and philosophy.
Where is the societal precedent for today’s isolationism and shunning of all wisdom outside of Torah? Why does Modern Orthodoxy not proudly assume the mantle of traditional Judaism? Why does it always feel like Modern Orthodoxy needs to be explaining and defining itself?
Modern Orthodox Judaism is a straight shot from the Jewish life that was lived for thousands of years by Torah observant Jews. There is nothing for Modern Orthodox Jews to be ashamed of other than not realizing this important point. Torah observance is primary; there is no doubt about that. Wisdom found outside Torah has always been valued and there is no reason that should be any different today.
As to the first assumption, that of the tent: Judaism is the only necessary denomination. Everything else is just the narcissism of small differences.
Throughout Jewish history, Jews with varying degrees of observance and a variety of beliefs lived side by side. Sometimes they quarreled, oftentimes vociferously, but their disagreements took place in one tent. It was unwise and unfruitful to divide and self define into small groups. More significantly, there was no social benefit to doing so.
In Ashkenaz, for their non-Jewish neighbors, the Jewish people were “the other.” For the Jewish people, the non-Jewish people were “the other.” There was no need to drill down into subgroups. There was no social benefit to subgrouping.
When non-Jews ceased to be “the other,” as Ashkenazik Jews became more integrated into general society, a new “other” was created. The more integrated group branded the more isolated group as “Orthodox” and the more isolated group branded the more integrated group “Reform.” Jews were now “the other” for other Jews.
In truth, this was a tragedy. Judaism is not just a religion. It is a family. We are all united as Jews by common ancestry. We are also united as people who follow the Jewish religion. But one can be a non-religious Jew. This is not so with other religions. By calling one another “the other” we cast aspersion across the religious spectrum. Fights and disagreements ensue. Communication is halted. And this is where we start erecting self-serving tents. There should be only one tent. A tent that is large enough for our entire family, no matter how they observe. Our family should all be able to live under one tent.
This is not a pipe dream. At least three contemporary Jewish communities function in this way. These communities are the South African, Persian/Iranian and the Syrian communities. In these communities there is no segmentation based on Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Rather, everyone is part of a larger community and within the larger community some families are more observant than others. Yet, many different levels of observance will be found in one shul or one school.
It wasn’t too long ago that this was the case in Ashkenazic communities in North America. In the 60’s and 70’s, children from non-observant homes went to school with children from very observant homes. The greater Jewish community was not strong enough to tolerate subgroups and segmentation. Our strength has become a curse. We are now very strong and we now are willing to exclude fellow Jews from our tent.
These subgroups do not serve a religious purpose. Judaism has always been about performing the mitzvot as prescribed in the Torah. It is a personal relationship between Man and Creator. There is no allegiance that must be paid to human dogmas. People are supposed to study, learn and forge their own relationship with God.
To this end, what purpose does the tent serve? Who needs a tent and tenets of the tent to tell them what to do and how to act? The Torah, its interpreters and codifiers have given us all that we need. The tent only serves one purpose: to exclude others.
It is true. Most Jews are not Orthodox. Most Jews do not celebrate Shabbat and the holidays the way that Orthodox Jews celebrate those days. Most Jews do not adhere to the strict rigors of halacha. So what? Why should those factors determine who is the tent? Who benefits by not allowing them into our tent? No one does.
The differences in observance might matter at some point. A Shabbat invitation will require that both parties are comfortable with the level of kashrut. A dating couple will need to be religiously compatible. There are a few examples, but they are only a few. It is up to the individual parties to try to find common ground. A tent is not needed to make these decisions for us.
Are we scared that some exposure to less halachically observant Jews will cause or own to run off and frolic in the fields with the less observant? Is the current edition of Orthodox Judaism so flimsy that mere interaction with others will cause it to crumble beneath the weight of enlightenment? I should hope not. If we have the truth, and I believe we do, what are we so afraid of?
As the rabbi of a shul that calls itself Orthodox but is a spiritual home to Jews (and non-Jews) of every single level of observance, I can attest that it can be done. Not only can it be done, it can be done in spectacular fashion. Our shul has something akin to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Anyone who wishes to pray and learn in our shul is welcome. There is no “Tzitzit check.” There is no subgrouping based on observance. And it works. Sometimes there are awkward moments. But our relationships are more important than those moments of discomfort and I don’t believe any of us would trade our friendships and shul family so that we would never have to think critically on our own about how we interact with others. I believe we have a viable model. I believe that we have a preferable model. I believe our tent is big enough for every Jewish person to find spiritual shelter together. I believe that firmly grabbing hold of the Modern Orthodox, non-isolationist view, we can return to a more authentic and traditional Judaism that empowers us to embrace Jew of all textures and flavors. It will allow us to break free from the limitations of a tent and it confining walls. Following this model, there is no tent.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is the rabbi of Pacific Jewish Center | Shul on the Beach in Venice Beach CA. Rabbi Fink is also a 2012 JD Candidate at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He blogs at http://finkorswim.com/.