Much of my thinking nowadays relies on dissecting the social phenomenon of Modern Orthodoxy. I really don’t feel like I have a good understanding of it from either a secular or Jewish perspective. I mean by this that there are at least two ways to look at it; sociologically and halachically. By the former I mean looking at the lived reality of self-described MO people. One really insightful analyst is “Heshy Fried” at his infamous blog “Frum Satire.” By making fun of various Jewish identities, he teaches us about the experience of what it means to be “Modern Orthodox.”  Although I find issue with some of the language featured on the site, its brilliance can’t be denied. See, for example: 


http://www.frumsatire.net/2007/02/21/modern-orthodox-stereotyping-and-judging/ 

http://www.frumsatire.net/2010/03/22/you-know-youre-modern-orthodox-if/ 


Heshy’s hilarious commentary has informed some of my understanding *as someone who has not spent so much time on the inside of this social group. But I should note that I profoundly respect any institution that follows Shulchan Arukh, so i absolutely love experiencing different shuls and communities.  Kind of like Heshy, I sometimes try to think of the MO self-described community the way a sociologist would, loosely speaking- like how would one design an index to measure what MO-ness is? I know that there are whole philosophies behind MO, but on a day to day level, how do these people resolve the tension between two highly distinct civilizations? i believe that a study would find that self-described**MO people are traditional Jews who exhibit a range of beliefs and levels of observance. Also, that they maintain a worldview very similar to that of their more liberal brethren and of the surrounding society. MO is a reliable indicator that a person perceives themself as a member of both communities, and probably attends a synagogue with such a description on its web page. Also, its Rabbi is likely be from RIETS/YU, as would a certain percentage of its highly professional congregants. 


* I am highly wary of Jewish stereotyping but still see the site as valuable and insightful, but not to be taken too seriously 

** note: I make a point of saying “self-described” so as not to detract from the unity of the Jewish people. 

It is important to point out that the ‘Modern’ part of this identity is correlated with the adoption of both paradigms and concrete practices from contemporary non-Jewish society. This is a crucial dividing line between Modern Orthodoxy and Chareidism. Although unfortunately modern ways of thinking have infiltrated Jews of all social affiliations, these two groups are marked by different responses. Jews who pay obeisance to both halacha (Shulchan Arukh) and more modern ways of thinking tend to come from societies that accept Jews to a greater degree. 

Now we move to the second lens for examining MO- that is, through halacha. (Jewish Law) I really feel that i need to learn more about the relationship between Jewish law and such an identity. Here are some of my thoughts/questions on the matter:  take the idea of Bittul Torah.(wasting time that could have been used studying Torah) In halacha, men are assigned the never-ending task of filling all of their “spare” time studying Torah. That is, they are only permitted to interrupt their study in order to perform a mitzva that must be performed by them specifically- for instance, pursuing a livelihood. I was told by a friend recently that R’ Soloveitchik based Torah U’ Maddah in part on the view that studying secular subjects does not count as Bittul Torah. 
This would seem to contrast with the view of the Tanya (ie a Chassidic opinion) that decries the damage that studying the wisdoms of the nations can do if it does not follow specific criteria. If it does not enhance our understanding of Torah (ie Astronomy, etc.), or cannot be elevated, then it is a waste of time. By ‘elevated,’ I mean if the knowledge can be used for a mitzva purpose, like making a living. I really need to do more research on this issue, since it seems like it holds the key to the MO versus Chareidism debate.

While sone people may argue that there is enough independent value in studying secular knowledge "lishmah," I do not think that I agree. The only yardstick in my mind is whether or not it fulfills a mitzva. While a lot of baalei teshuva who become Chassidishe find ways to 'elevate' their secular education, this is not necessarily the way to go L' chatchila. Can I really tell myself that I can use my limited intellectual "steam" to study anthropology without foreseeable benefit.? For me, although I am no where close to realizing this ideal, I feel as tho

Also, we have the prohibition of “and in their ways do not walk”- I know that some issues of distinctness from other nations are encoded in halachah. For instance, it says in Shulchan Arukh that we must be careful not to emulate the customs of non-Jews with regard to clothing or hairstyles. It famously goes as far as to say that if the non-Jews in a locale wear a certain color of shoelaces, and the Jews another, then it is forbidden for a Jew to switch. 

This leads into the incredibly complex issue of minhagim. First of all, what in the heck is a minhag??? In general, it is a practice not based upon a Torah or Rabbinic law that is nonetheless considered binding. Like in “Fiddler on the Room,” the answer as to why we do these things is “TRADITIOOON!” i really want to know what defines a minhag, and how long it takes for a practice to be accepted as a Jewish one that is considered holy and obligatory upon members of that community. For example, people are fond of pointing out that the clothes of Chassidim were taken from European nobleman. (not sure if this is actually factual) Also, I have a friend whose grandfather started wearing a certain set of clothing for presumably decades- his family asked a Rav who told them that his descendants have to dress this way in perpetuity. Now his hundreds of male grandchildren all dress in this distinctive fashion. So there are minhagim specific to both families and communities. Anything jumping out to anyone here? Can someone drop me a thought? I assume that this is part of the brilliance of the sages, who realized centuries ago how easy it can be for practices to shift too rapidly to ensure the continuity of Jewish culture. 

I also had an interesting discussion with my friend recently- he asked me about the idea of practices (minhagim) becoming incorporated by the Jewish people over time. If the practice among a community has been to be Modern for generations, then isn’t this now the accepted custom? I answered that I could not think of an example of an ideology being adopted in this way- only concrete practices. (Anyone have evidence to the contrary?) In terms of worldview, a Jew has only Torah. That is why I am so skeptical of the authenticity of MO, while adopting a pluralistic attitude towards it, since there are many great scholars who hold like this. MO holds that we can we can be members of two separate civilizations, that each has merit in its own right. I would like to share a story that has dictated much of my personal view on this. One day the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe saw two Jews arguing about various political systems. They were trying to figure out which one is endorsed by the Torah. The Rebbe corrected their initial assumption, that this is even possible. A Jew’s allegiance is only to Torah. Of course, each ideology has elements that meld with Torah, but Torah tells us what to agree with. There is no legitimate, separate set of criteria. 

This story is the chief reason why I am so critical of Modern Orthodoxy. I could easily see the potential legitimacy of the more liberal view on Bittul Torah. But to push for women Rabbis, or allowing Orthodox Gay Marriage, seems to me to be a consequence of Jews adopting alternative conceptions of justice. I also struggle on a constant basis with these topics- but that is because I am a modern. I don’t consciously raise this up as an ideal, but I am not in denial of the fact. One time one of my Rebbeim called it “the plague of our generation”- it may appear over-the-top at first, but on closer analysis, its worth serious contemplation. I can't shake the feeling that the beginnings of Reform and Conservative probably looked a lot like MO today. Picture a leader in the German Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah). They probably observed halacha, but believed in the value of secular knowledge. At the time, this was really revolutionary- the problem was that this led to an inexorable slide downwards towards assimilation and internarriage in a few generations. Like how none of Moses Mendelsohn's grandkids were Jewish. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think Judaism encourages living in the world, befriending non-Jews as long as it doesn’t cause assimilation, and using modern technology for in the service of holiness. The point is, doing these things has no intrinsic value. But often they can be a mitzva. For instance, going to High School/College enables us to join the workforce outside of the Jewish businesses of Brooklyn or Monsey. This means that we can make more money to afford yeshiva tuition, to take one example. 






 

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    Yaakov Grossman is a Jewish educator, author, private tutor/child care professional, and student in the Metro New York area. Professional inquiries should be addressed to jjgrossm@gmail.com

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