Sunday, September 06, 2009

Israeli Modern Orthodoxy Part One:בלי חשבון

What would it take to develop Modern Orthodoxy in Israel? The question has been gnawing at me for a very long time. Of course, prior to asking that question, one must first ask: Do we need an Israeli version of that spectrum of Orthodoxy that developed primarily in the United States (with Frankfurter antecedents), here in Israel?

I believe that the answer to both of these questions is absolutely affirmative. We desperately require an Israeli version of the Modern Orthodox spectrum. I believe it is not only achievable, but eminently possible. In this, and the ensuing posts, I will set forth why I maintain this to be the case. Before doing so, however, I want to make a few points.

First, any legitimate interpretation of Torah must be based upon Love and Fear of God, upon קבלת עול מלכות שמים, and devotion to a life of שמירת מצוות. That means, inter alia, that there will be limits to where the Torah will allow one to go, despite one's burning desire to push further in the interests of a cherished ideal. It means that one must, at some point, admit the limits of one's understanding and surrender to the Will of God. This, it is true, will seem to some a matter of taste or judgment. It is, to a certain degree, that. However, I believe that there are objective limits to where Judaism (and Halakha) can go and still retain its integrity. The expanse is wider than many would admit. It is not, however, endless. I believe, that despite its polemical casting, that was precisely the Rav זצ"ל's point in the proem to his שיעור on Torah and Massorah.

Second, conviction requires a life of heroism and sacrifice. This sounds, perhaps, overly dramatic, and I suppose it is. What I mean is that devotion to Truth in Torah is a very complex thing. On the one hand, one should be open to respectful criticism and be ready and willing to engage other opinions and interpretations. He must be open to changing his mind However, one must never, ever surrender one's convictions out of fear: Fear of disapproval by those ostensibly more pious; fear of those ostensibly more progressive and trendy; fear of those who threaten social repercussions, who roll their eyes, who try to beat up with their self-important paternalism and so on.
I believe that the Rav זצ"ל once put this very clearly (cited by R. Lamm נר"ו). The Torah states (Gen. 32, 1): ויעקב הלך לדרכו ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לוקים. The first part of the verse is, prima facie, superfluous. Of course, Jacob went on his way to Eretz Yisrael! There is, however, a deeper truth here. Jacob pursued his own, unique mission in the service of God. He did not deviate from that path, his path, His path. He did not look to the Right. He did not look to the Left. He looked straight ahead, and on his way encountered God's angelic messengers. ויפגעו בו מלאכי א-לקים.

Third, לא המדרש עיקר אלא המעשה. In the Modern Orthodox community, far too much time is devoted to debating the niceties of ideology and policy. That is not to deny the vital role of study and ideological exchange. However, these exchanges (courses, articles, debates, fora, caucuses and so on) are insufficient (though pleasant; מפגשי שבט we call them in Hebrew). Action is required. We need to do Modern Orthodoxy. We need to do Torah in the widest sense of the term (call it Madda, Hokhma, Derekh eretz; it doesn't matter). What that action involves will be a later subject.

Fourth, the path of Modern Orthodoxy is a חומרא. It is the harder, more worthwhile path. It demands more of the Jew than the alternatives. It demands spiritual growth, Torah learning in the narrow sense and Torah learning in the broader sense. A principled Modern Orthodoxy challenges its adherents, and vexes its opponents (be they secular or Haredi). Most importantly, a principled Modern Orthodoxy is תפארת לעושיה ותפארת לו מן האדם. Why מן האדם? Not because we seek כבוד. It is because we seek a life שיתאהב שם שמים על ידינו.

Next Post: Component Parts

[NOTE: מפאת חשיבות הנושא, והעובדה שבכל מקרה הדברים מיועדים להיות מיושמים כאן בארץ, החלטתי להחיות את הבלוג העברי ולפרסם שם דברים מקבילים למופיע כאן בהאנגלית, א"כ בשפת עבר. הבלוג נקרא 'הגיגים' ומופיע כאן. אני מקווה שהמאמר הראשון יופיע בימים הקרובים.]

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

now were cookin.

Nachum said...

Count me in. :-)

robert said...

on what basis do you say that there is no MO in Israel?

Is Bar-Ilan University an example of MO? I believe it is. Is the Hesder Yeshiva movement an example of MO?

Perhaps you should start by defining what MO is (if it is possible to do so).

You seem to be a beautiful example MO in Israel. You do not see around you many others who share your passion for halachic, modern judaism?

Jeffrey Woolf said...

I will, IY'H, define my terms over the next few postings. However, in the interim, let me say this.

Bar Ilan University is a university under Orthodox Jewish auspices. It is not a parochial institution and, by definition, takes no role in advancing Orthodoxy (as opposed to YU which IS a parochial institution).

Hesder Yeshivot are Religious Zionist institutions. They are not (with a few exceptions) Modern Orhodox by any stretch of the imagination. MO requires positive, axiological engagement with the outside world. Neither the yreshivot, nor those who head them, show any such engagement (again with exceptions).

I do thank you for the compliment.

Ben-David said...

How familiar are you with Bar-Ilan?
They most definitely see themselves as producing future Orthodox lay leadership.

Most recently, they have spearheaded campus bet-midrash and Jewish Law programs.

As a YU grad, I remember YU as a place of schizophrenia rather than "engagement" - I got very little hashkafic guidance from the Rebbeim of the Yeshiva Program - who often seemed intent on shoring up RIETS' credentials as a Yeshiva Gevoha.

You are also ignoring the history of the Hesder Yeshivot - in this case, the "outside world" they engaged with was a virulently secular/secularizing army.

That tradition continues with a host of Rabbis from across the spectrum - you could say "from Aviner to Cherlow" - that are "engaging the outside world."

MO looks different here because the milieu - and the battles - and the styling - are different. Much more "engagement" is possible - with less compromise.

...or is it only MO if it involves the religious camp's capitulation, rather than its prevailing?

Jeffrey Woolf said...

I have taught at Bar Ilan for 16 years, as a member of the Talmud Department. So, I know the university very well.

It is a superb academic institution, and possesses some of the greatest Jewish minds in the world, in dozens of fields of expertise. It has undertaken very important initiatives in the effort to Jewishly educate the Jews of Israel. It is, however, not a parochial institution, and properly so. It does not train rabbis and does not devote itself to developing Orthodox leadership, as RIETS does. Again, this is fine, as it is primarily a university.

Hesder yeshivot are yeshivot, mostly modelled on the Lithuanian model. Some have MO components (Otniel, Har Etzion, Birkat Moshe, Petach Tiqva). Most, however, are most emphatically not MO in their cultural orientations. The so-called Yeshivot ha-Kav, that follow Rav Tau, are an extreme example of a general trend. True, they engage the world, by rejecting it outright. Yes, Rav Aviner and Rav Lior engage the world, by rejecting all of Western Civilization, like the Maharam Schick did in the 19th century. Service in our army is a crucial and sacred task. It is not, per se, Modern Orthodox, nor do the yeshivot (as opposed to the Mekhinot) prepare their students for that encounter. The tragic results speak for themselves.

MO is a curricular imperative that empowers the individual to critically deal with the outside world, as delineated by the Rav and others, while retaining a passionate commitment to Torah and Mitzvot.

Seth (Avi) Kadish · אבי קדיש said...

Hi Rabbi Woolf, I enjoyed reading your four pillars of Modern Orthodoxy.

To my mind there is a fifth pillar that cannot be left out. It should be number 2 on the list, immediately after Yirat Shamayim. It is by far the greatest lack in Israeli Torah life, and also (in my opinion) the most important characteristic of Yeshiva University. (At least it used to be; unfortunately I haven't been there for a very long time.) And that is derekh eretz towards those who think or act differently than we do.

In my day at YU, the most incredible thing I discovered was the unique atmosphere of derekh eretz both within the beit ha-midrash, and also towards the world outside of the beit ha-midrash. Within the beit ha-midrash people with strikingly different opinions and coming from vastly different backgrounds all learned Torah together in what was largely an atmosphere of mutual respect. People really listened to each other and learned together, even if they didn't agree with each other. No conformity was demanded or expected in thought or in action beyond a loving pursuit of Torah and avodat Hashem. Individuals were generally interested in improving their own avodat Hashem rather than criticizing the frumkeit of others. Before seeing this, I would never have imagined that a beit midrash could be that way. And I hope the YU beit midrash still is that way.

That basic derekh eretz also exhibited itself in how YU people were able to relate to Jews outside of the world of Torah, as well as to the entire world outside of Judaism. It is not openness to academia or western culture per se that characterizes Modern Orthodoxy, but rather a basic respect for the world at large, and the basic legitimacy of living life to the fullest as the starting point for a life of Torah.

Modern Orthodoxy doesn't have to be an elitist, academic pursuit. Rather, the pursuit of academic excellent is just one important way to exhibit basic derekh eretz for God's world.

It is precisely the lack of this derekh eretz and openness (both within the beit ha-midrash and without) that divides Modern Orthodoxy from the Haredi world. Which explains exactly why so many Religious Zionist institutions are not at all Modern Orthodox.

Your comment about striving to be a talmid of the Rav zt"l but not a hasid is also part of this; that the Rav didn't want his talmidim to accept his opinions or to think the same way he did is ultimately not a matter of ideology, but simply derekh eretz. It is an attitude not shared by much of today's rabbinic leadership, and is sorely lacking.

robert said...

JW said:
"MO is a curricular imperative that empowers the individual to critically deal with the outside world..."

Jeffrey,

Can it also be said that MO empowers the individual to also deal critically with the "inside" meaning orthodox halachic world? or is the "critical" dealing only limited to the "outside" world?

Anonymous said...

Isn't modern orthodoxy an american invention whose sole purpose is to either battle other religious movements or distinguish itself from amongst them?

I would venture to say Israel probably has an orthodoxy that perforce must engage with a country and the need to run and defend it. This engagement is probably the major defining characteristic of what is referred to as "modern orthodoxy". In the USA you can let the (goyim.. or whomever take care of many things. That luxury or handicap is not available in Israel unless you get into goyim dobrei ivrit ideology.

I have always hated the term modern orthodox because it means different things to those who claim to wear its mantle and is a pejorative term to its detractors. Just plain orthodox should serve everyone's needs.

Henry J.

Anonymous said...

"The tragic results speak for themselves."

you really don't have any evidence of any so called tragic results. I would add that I agree with your assessment of the Yeshivot HaKav but I'm not sure you can say there are "tragic results"