Modern Orthodox words in my mouth

I have just been quoted about my supposed views and I dont recognize it and agree with little of it. So you are needlessly keeping me up tonight to respond. (gezel shanah!)I am usually online- you and others can always contact me to fact check first to see if you are correct.

Some, such as Professor Alan Brill, now divide the American Orthodox community into three wings: haredi, CO and MO, where the CO straddle the ideological divide between right and left. In other words, in addition to being stricter in halakhic observance, the CO are more skeptical of the MO values described above. Some call this middle camp “gray” or “gray hat,” connoting a kind of diluted version of haredism.

According to Brill, CO has a more conservative religious ideology than that of philosophical MO. Moreover, beginning in the 1980’s, children from MO homes have become increasingly CO, partly as a result of their study in Israel post-high school. As a result, a generational shift is gradually condemning the philosophical MO to extinction.

But there are problems with Brill’s analysis. While the changes he documents are real, they seem minor relative to the overall continuity between philosophical MO and CO. Moreover, the generational shift suggests that this new ideology is nothing more than a new generation’s version of their parents’ MO, sort of a MO 2.0. Third, Brill sees CO as a uniquely American phenomenon; yet there are striking parallels in the Israeli equivalent of MO, which has also shifted toward more scrupulous observance of Halakha, more obedience to rabbinic authorities and more distance from secular culture.

Why the MO of the 60’s and 70’s changed is a question deserving a separate post. But the changes MO underwent point to larger cultural trends that include rising affluence, a more assertive rabbinic class and changes in the zeitgeist. In any case, no one will argue with Brill’s central point – that the MO community has moved right over the last 40 years.

Feh! Yuck!
Let me start with the last point, I do not think that the community has turned right. I go out of my way to avoid ever saying that. I even avoid it on the blog. I leave right and left for politics and Hegelians. (I have the word once in one article-it was added by an editor). I emphasize difference and change not right or left.

I find the Centrist community and ideology of the community more acculturated into Americanism, popular culture, and suburbia. It also has parallels with the Evangelicals. That is a specific pattern of combining Orthodoxy with modern life. I do not see Centrist as closer or further from either modern Orthodoxy or Haredi or “engaged yehivish.” It is its own ideology. I do not see it as more or less religious than any other group. I have 100’s of posts here trying to create a thick description of the workings of Centrism.

Now back to the beginning. No, No, No. I do not see three groups out there. I leave that for online quizzes and hockers. I have never discussed hats or sociological continuities.

If we are talking philosophic or ideological trends, then I see about 12-14 groups within Modern Orthodoxy. Their differences are not right and left but canon, genealogy, ideal, and goal. The most important one that some have already picked up on is “engaged yeshivish.” That would be an essential category.
The full 12-14 groups would include as a category the still inchoate “open orthodoxy,” the pedigreed “European community orthodoxy” and Israeli imports “New Religious Zionists” and “Hardal.” They are philosophic or theological trends so one person can be connected to more than one. I repeat, one person can be connected to more than one of them the same way a person can be connected to more than one philosophy, political theory, or theology. And I certainly dont arrange them on any spectrum. I certainly did not mention a correlation with strictness of observance or laxity.

As a sociologist, one needs to create a study that has predictive value. Most of the hock is not sociology and has no real correlation between observance and group.

If we talk about sociology of the community, then first tell me what form of sociology or demographic you are using. Sociology measures social behavior, an institution, or a demographic. Then we have to discuss what are you using to create your set, frame analysis, an institution, or a neighborhood. I think the author is confusing me with the sociologists who discuss “sliding to the right.” On a popular level especially on the blogs, ideology and sociology are confused. Observance levels may or may not have anything to do with a given ideology.

I do not come to this not as a sociologist, and am not answering sociological questions. Rather as an intellectual historian, or student of contemporary relgion.

If we are dealing with social organization, then mid-twentieth century documents used to write “the Young Israel movement” “the Agudah movement” The Conservative movement” “The Mizrachi movement” or the “Bnai Brith movement.” In that sense Centrism and the older Modern Orthodoxy are one movement.

The term modern orthodox has three distinct meanings in our context.
(There are more meanings but not in our context. For example, the term was first used in the 1920’s for synagogues that were mixed seating and had English preaching eventually leading them to become Conservative.)
The first meaning is the coiners of the term, the 1950’s and 1960’s modern rabbis. They called themselves modern (small m) and Orthodox. Then it was an ideology because the sociology of the synagogues were simply called Orthodox. They thought it applied to a few dozen rabbis.
The second meaning is that in the 1970’s and 1980’s the term was applied to a social group that went to certain school, camps, and a specific university- they called themselves Modern (capital M) and Orthodox. Those who lived in certain neighborhoods or had certain professional and family profiles were now Modern Orthodox. But the ideologies and religious practices of these communities were so varied and diverse, the term became a catch-all still subject to debate and hock.
The third meaning which is the one that I am most interested in- is that many groups since the late 18th century have mediated both modern and Orthodox. The term was invented in the US but we can use it to discuss diverse phenomena in many countries. I am not interested and dont know “who” is modern Orthodox but I am interested in “what” is modern Orthodox. Especially,how it works, and what forms of hybrid, acculturation, synthesis, and bifurcation are created.

Now, to the middle point. Centrism may or may not be just MO 2.0. But if it has more continuity or more break it needs to be discussed in a context of different versions of ideology and with clear criteria for what is continuity and break. My sole interest is ideology and theology to determine these ideological distinctions. If you want to discuss other questions of continuity and break: Is Isaac Breuer’s Agudah Neo-Orthodoxy a theological continuity or a break with Hirsch’s Israel-Mentsch. (I am not discussing hat color or what they ate out.) Are the Datiim Ha-Hadashim a break or a continuity with Kibbutz Hadati ideology of SHaL or from that of 1960’s Mizrachi? Is Italian traditionalism, the same as that of chief rabbi British, or cathedral American?

You write “the CO are more skeptical of the MO values.” How do you know that? I certainly have no interest in ascribing motivations or even recording motivations- a path filled with the danger of projection at every turn. I treat groups as discrete entities.

And as a final coda, I dont lump all Haredim together. They have many separate ideologies with clear distinctions.

Good night.

10 responses to “Modern Orthodox words in my mouth

  1. How about PMO – Post Modern Orthodox? Where does that fit in the discussion? Or doesn’t it yet fit in?

  2. First, sorry for keeping you up. Second, sorry for the erroneous citation; I should not have mentioned you at all in a piece of armchair sociology. (It was not my idea, but I take full responsibility.) Third, thank you for the clarification and summary. Fourth, even if I had understood your approach in all its nuance, which I did not, I was subject to space constraints that would not have allowed me to do it justice. Fifth, though you eschew the terminology of a “move to the right,” this is a popular term to describe a panoply of changes in the Orthodox community, of which the development and spread of Centrist Orthodox ideology is one. So I apologize for implying that you engage in spectrum-speak. And please forgive those of us who do. Sixth, I respect your statement that that you do not come to this as a sociologist, but in the same post you write that you are “trying to create a thick description of the workings of Centrism.” To my untutored ear, that sounds like sociology, so please forgive my confusion. Seventh: I think Conservative Judaism retained the language of “movement” well past mid-century. Eighth, the meaning of modern Orthodox that most interests you is an important one, but , I hope you will agree, not the first definition that would appear in a dictionary entry. Ninth, it seems that when you wear your sociologist hat, you detect parallels between, say, Evangelicals and Centrist Orthodoxy, but when you wear your student of contemporary religion hat, you tease out ever-increasing numbers of ideologies that casual observers lump together. Tenth: Re CO skepticism of MO values, I will translate into your terminology: Centrist Orthodoxy as an ideology takes a more skeptical, if not critical, stance of certain values associated with contemporary liberal values than Modern Orthodox ideology. Take the Yale 5, who wanted a Yale education (or at least a Yale diploma) but did not want to live in the undergraduate dormitories. Eleventh: I don’t lump all haredim together either, except in the occasional blog post about other groups or ideologies.

    • “the meaning of modern Orthodox that most interests you is an important one, but , I hope you will agree, not the first definition that would appear in a dictionary entry”

      You are missing the point: that is not a “definition” per se, it is a description of what is happening. Indeed, aiming for a definition puts one in the conceptual mode of asking what are the necessary and sufficient conditions to apply the term to a certain group or person or for a person or group to claim membership in the class. That itself is ultimately prescriptive.

      That you made the mistake is understandable because many sociologists of American orthodoxy make this mistake and rather foolishly adopt the same terms that people self-apply and then use them as categories that are supposed to reflect sociological realities. These descriptions then take on normative weight. Most of these sociologists are downright sloppy and should not be writing about the communities to which they belong without thinking long and hard about what exactly they are doing and what exactly they are supposedly studying.

      • Eli D. Clark

        I obviously was not clear. Most dictionaries list multiple definitions of words in an order that reflects frequency of usage. All I was trying to say — and evidently I was not successful — was that the meaning of “Modern Orthodox” that Alan finds most interesting is a meaning that is less frequently used than the others. I am to blame for making this point obliquely and perhaps opaquely. But I was not expressing a view whether one can speak of a sociological group or a religious ideology in terms of definitions as opposed to descriptions.
        Are the sociologists of American Orthodoxy sloppier on average than their colleagues? It’s an interesting question, but I do not have sufficient data to answer it.
        Finally, it is my sense that sociological training does not foster the kind of long and hard thinking you prescribe.

  3. >The third meaning which is the one that I am most interested in- is that many groups since the late 18th century have mediated both modern and Orthodox.

    Is it your opinion that the Italians and Western Sephardim weren’t doing this even in the 17th century?

  4. I may be wrong on this, but my impression is that these defining terms are important for those close to a border that they think important. Thus some bloggers go out of their way to distinguish between Left Charedi and Right Wing MO, as if the discontinuity when we go from one label to the other, reveals deep and important information. But consider the self identification of those Jews, maybe 3-5 million, who think of themselves as secular. They are Jews and secular, end of the description. Further self identification is now in terms of virtues,( “I am kind and caring”) activities and interests. People begin to stand out in the secular world when they stop talking of identity, and begin to exhibit, not list, distinctive sensibilities and personalities. Think of authors, movie stars, charismatic types, people who stand out. No one would differentiate between say Saul Bellow and Philip Roth by describing some detailed feature of their behavior, e.g. Roth eats meat , but Bellow doesn’t.

    I think this identity craze, this need to find the exact right box is overdone. We’d be far better off if we classified Jews by Myer Briggs indicators…”The Chazon Ish, why would you expect otherwise, he’s after all a INTJ.” And in the first person case, we would all be better off if we worried less about whether we do or do not believe chazal never made a scientific mistake, and more about our sensibilities…how do we experience the world and why. If any of this is right we can understand a common refrain in Orthodoxy . I find people always saying “I just don’t fit in,I must be an odd bird. I need to start my own minyan where I can find someone to talk to.” Orthodoxy has now been spliced and diced every which way, the boxes are a constant subject of converrsation, and yet so many can’t find an appropriate crowd(box).

    • Perhaps this reflects that in modernity, religion becomes “deeply personal.” Affiliation is optional so, so affiliating with a group that matches your religious worldview is itself a matter of personal expression.

      But more to the point, I think that you underplay the extent to which identity and identification plays important roles in modern secular society – and the extent to which feelings of alienation are pervasive throughout society. If people generally don’t seem to spend all that much time worrying about who they are, it is because identity has been comodified and pre-packaged. Take a look at contemporary advertising – to a large extent it sells identities.

      • I think the need for labels in Orthodoxies is that Orthodoxy is ultimately a negative definition: Not Reform, not liberal, not Conservative. At the same time, it is about a claimed Authenticity — which needs to label others as inauthentic.

        The result is that any tiny variation needs to claim its own Authenticity and become, to those who believe in it, in effect its own identification.

        This has only hastened as the old markers — Shabbat, kashrut, mikveh, even tzitzit — have been reclaimed by Jews who don’t see themselves as constrained by Orthodoxy. The result is the creation again of a space for non-observant Orthodox Jews, who give fealty to the markers but not the mitzvot.

  5. What Lola Wants

    Mr. Clark,
    If you are going to speak about something such as the “Yale 5”. Do it from their mouths and actually speak with more than one of the participants. They each had a different reason and agenda for doing what they did. While you are at it, speak to the MO and CO students who were at Yale at the same time who were totally against what these “5” were doing – publically and privately. Let’s be accurate.

  6. Pingback: Who is Responsible for the Term Modern Orthodoxy « Menachem Mendel

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