Synthesis vs Irreconcilable ? Modern Orthodox vs Modern and Orthodox

My recent post on the YCT graduation speech generated a large bevy of comments; go read them -many of them are excellent. But is seems to have hit a raw nerve with some readers of the blog. Was this nerve hidden until now?

The comments did not deal with the speech itself. The comments offered several detailed and well thought out comments on Modern Orthodoxy, way beyond what we are used to hearing. Go read them.

It seems to have revealed the live issue among the commenters. But what was the issue? What was the meta-issue at stake? There seems to be two clear sides with at least 6-7 on each side. Neither side was advocates of an intellectual ghetto and neither side wanted to relinquish Orthodoxy. Yet, half the commenters evoked a visceral reaction from the other half who called the first half negative or cynical. So what is the dividing line? Why so emotional?

One side wants to be Orthodox and read Hegel, Derrida, and Biblical criticism but does not work on resolving any problems. This position seems to strike the other side as a rejection of Modern Orthodoxy, as Neo-Haredi, as anti-Orthodox. Why? Is the other side clamoring for synthesis works? And why the emotions?

Is it that one side sees Orthodoxy as a social imaginary in the Charles Taylor sense, non-foundational and not subject to apologetics.

One side wants Torah uMadda volumes of apologetics that are comforting even if they don’t prove anything because maybe they do prove something? Or they show the strength of Orthodoxy to confront modernity.

Is it that one side wants truth claims even if apologetic and the other side relinquishes the need for truth?

Is it that one side thinks that one must be invested in a specific ideological project called Modern Orthodoxy and the other more loquacious side believes that one can be committed to Orthodoxy and Western culture without a specific ideological project, or to a specific project of synthesis?

Is it simply that one side has a double truth theory and the other side has a single truth theory. Why does the position of Averroes, Maimonides, Albalag, Narboni, Ibn Caspi or in modern times Krokhmal and Isaac Breuer seem to betray Orthodoxy to the other side?

Is this mid-brow vs high-brow?

And what about the struggle and angst? Do people on the synthesis side really think that everyone has to have it? Or is it just a need for confrontation of ideas and not necessary angst?

There are lots of good lines to quote in all the substantive comments but to give one:
Isaac- “Maybe the whole struggling trope is an existential answer to the contradictions of modernity and Orthodoxy, rather than a strategy for overcoming or resolving them.”

Deep struggle with ideas in graduate school in a chosen discipline makes sense after training a field for many years and where one knows the prior data and method. Then struggle can lead to new knowledge. But does intellectual struggle to achieve synthesis and confrontation mean something without training or enough prior mastery of the problem so that one can formulate something of significance? Is it important to struggle to go though open doors?

Bottom line- some blogs have their identity on a fault line of pro and con skepticism, others are pro and con feminism, it seems this topic is one of the live fault lines on this blog. So those of you who responded viscerally or felt that the anti-synthesis side is wrong. What is the issue?

So Nachum, Jon, Isaac – how do you explain the fault line? Even if you called the other side negative – what do you offer in its place that AS & EJ did not offer?

21 responses to “Synthesis vs Irreconcilable ? Modern Orthodox vs Modern and Orthodox

  1. To begin, I find that R. Linzer is presenting a critique of the Orthodoxy of the centrist Orthodox/YU world, from which I myself was graduated (I realize that am lumping several smaller subgroups into this heading, but I am driving at certain points). As I read his words, the challenge he is placing before his rabbinic graduating class is how to find a balance between being innovative/creative and being pastoral. The balance I refer to is how to bring the Torah out of the desert without compromising on one’s role as a spiritual leader caring for others. How this is translated into reality is a different question. When I was beginning semicha at YU, we first year students had a dinner with R. Norman Lamm, who harped on the need for Rabbis to keep a structured learning seder every day, as well as the need to read multiple newspapers. While most of us can get our news from the internet in greater doses than a couple of papers, the other part, about a set learning schedule, is not nearly as simple. And it is this that R. Linzer is perhaps referring to. The rabbi must be a pastoral presence, but must also grapple with personal growth, both spiritually and intellectually. As an aside, this is a big challenge of chaplaincy, which some YCT’s graduates and students find themselves working in as well. Can one’s intellectual study find a place in one’s pastoral work? Is it even supposed to?

    Now I will address some of the original questions.:

    In terms of the issue of the relevance of grappling with the Holocaust, Zionism, biblical criticism, etc. I disagree with the idea that we no longer have to confront them. I find that these topics have not become passe, as one can see in the blog world and within various Orthodox communities. In the community I live, a group got together about five years ago and established a lecture series under the title, The Orthodox Forum. What I find fascinating is that while much of the rhetoric is outdated or doesn’t respond to the challenges presented, there are many speakers on the circuit who feel that they can engage the topics with sophistication. As such, even for those of us who find the debates to be besides the point or irrelevant, people are interested and will always remain so. Just look at the titles of lectures being offered around the country, or the journals being published by Marc Angel’s Jewish Ideas and Ideals. Granted, it might be easy to argue that the topics this journal is covering are also in the category of irrelevant, but my point is that this is what people want, for otherwise the enterprise would not be as broad.

    Personally, while I often struggle with the confluence of modernity and Judaism, I do believe that there are greater issues facing the Jewish community than Israel, the divinity of the Torah, etc., such as tuition, cost of living, economic and social change. We do have a responsibility to the world. I should clarify that I define this responsibility different from many. Nevertheless, to simply shrug off the grand questions as pointless is arbitrary and becomes a personal vendetta.

    From a rabbinic standpoint, one must realize that when crisis hits, then of course, the questions and struggles disappear. And this is where the rabbi trained in pastoral care will thrive and potentially make a greater impact. Yet, in order to be effective at supporting people in crisis, one must first grapple with how crisis affects one’s own thought and life. Confronting ourselves in all our struggles will be the impetus to allow us to fight, to lead and to be confident in our authenticity.

  2. No one speaks of the fact that human beings have finite resources. While one struggles with modernism, he or she leaves over little energy or time to struggle with the devotional side:tikun hamiddos, imwardness in tefilllah etc – or are these things not important in the MO spirituality? Is it all about the intellect?

  3. Unfortunately not. They are all pan-halakhic and intellect. When they become “spiritual” they tend to have emotionalism. The two closest pulpit rabbis to here would both laugh at your words. Hashem Yirachem. One of them would choose politics as his practice, the other sports.

    • The MO pulpit rabbinate, in my experience, under-serves the market niche of people interested in for those devotional practices. Academics fill some of the gap, and martial arts practitioners also fill some of the gap (a combo might be quite successful).

  4. May I speak for the Orthodox “man in the street”? I do not have a post-graduate degree in philosophy, history, theology, etc.. I read the comments on the previous post and this one and I just have to shrug my shoulders and go back to trying to get through the day. It seems to me that you people are just talking to each other without the slightest interest in what “real” people in the “real” world are all about.

  5. Yossi-
    Do you realize how ironic your avatar becomes with that description. Yeshaya Leibowitz had many phd’s and could break off a friendship or conversation over the lack of qualifications of the other side in philosophy.He did not care for the man in the street at all. YL was also the ultimate believer a position like ej’s where science, Biblical criticism, and Torah do not have to agree, nor should one seek to harmonize them.
    SO, why did your side react calling the verbal side as cynical and negative? Why not just stop reading and move on? Why get involved in the first place?

    • Thank you for pointing out the irony. I only know YL from his writings and some videos I’ve seen of him.

      I say, live and let live to both sides. Personally, I have not been able to resolve the conflict between Orthodoxy and Modernity. I think they can’t mix, despite what I learned at YU all those years ago. I just go on living an observant life, learning Torah and keeping my thoughts in a hermetically sealed part of my brain.

      • So if you think there is not any resolution, and you keep the two sides separate -then you should like the comments of EJ and AS?

  6. I think you are right about that. Except that I’m not certain I understand everything they are saying.

    I remember reading Rav Soloveitchik’s book on prayer. When I read the parts about the “depth crisis” that we all have when we confront the fact of our mortality, I thought to myself that I don’t really have such a crisis and I don’t know what the Rav was talking about.

    I think is was AS who wrote that we should just put up an iron divide between our orthodoxy and modernity, get on with life and let our grandkids worry about it. I like that so I guess I do agree with EJ and AS and we can let it rest at that.

  7. Speaking as another ‘man in the street’, I’m not sure that there is such a strict demarcation between the two camps Prof. Brill mentions. A lot of people (myself included) go for a bit of both. We’re kind of caught between this notion that halacha somehow ‘binds’ us in an objective sense, and the realisation that ‘God has a history’. So we come up with ad-hoc resolutions when we are challenged on a specific point, but don’t even have a ‘mishna sedura’ in our own minds.

    There’s very few human beings who can live a satisfying life whilst believing that the entire structure which governs it lies in a black box which cannot be opened for fear of it disappearing. In the end of the day, there’s either some metaphysical reality behind or it there isn’t. I’m not saying we should give it all up if we decide that the latter is the case, but playing this word game whereby none of these questions matter isn’t going to work outside of the confines of this blog or other rarefied intellectual fora.

  8. To Moish:

    What do you mean by “God has a history” ?

  9. If Hareidi, ahistorical positions are seen as triumphalist, I think some see EJ’s non-synthetic stance as defeatist. Holding two opposite conclusions about when the world was created has few practical implications, and is relatively easy to deal with. But when things get practical, like in the arena of women’s roles, bifurcation turns out to be subjugation of one world-view for the other. I don’t mean to say that Orthodoxy always wins, either. But living in that inconsistent state while having an expectation of certainty and consistency, creates dissonance for some. The idea that this is the best we can hope for is not appealing. And it’s particularly disappointing in the face of values like Truth, or sacred histories of Divine revelation and ongoing explicit guidance (eg the angel and the mechaber).

    All I can offer is to suggest that Modern Orthodoxy is challenged by uncertainty. To deal with that uncertainty you can ignore it (the Hareidi approach), or retreat from it (and i see Ej’s compartmentalization as fundamentally a retreat from a battle that cannot be won), or you find the courage to face it and take action. Taking action will necessarily mean producing a society religious culture that is not what MO was yesterday. It means making halachic decisions that upend prior practice. It means embracing the idea of Yiftach B’doro and daring to change – much as Hareidi and Hadar-style Judaism have done, if in opposite directions.

  10. Isaac-
    On social issues, I can see the need to take action. Equality and Diversity are separate topics.

    But on theoretical issues is it also a retreat? If someone in philosophy for example reads Plotinus, Hegel, Habermas, Vattimo, Rorty, and Quine on the graduate level, and does it as someone trained, then they are not waiting for a pulpit rabbi to offer a few mid-brow ideas from something he read. Or if someone is reading anthropology- Boon, Clifford and Appaduri- she is not waiting 2 decades for a rabbi to catch up with the field. What does “certainty” mean when one is engaged in contemporary fields and is also Orthodox? Are you looking for someone to pasken secular knowledge?

    On Sacred History- Orthodoxy has not risen to historicism even when there are very relevant works by conservative Catholics offering models.

    What is this uncertainty? Uncertain of what? We know what the secular fields say and we know what Torah says. Above RabbiChaplain says he like the comfort of Orthodox Forum type articles, he like the lectures even if dated and he likes the feel of grappling. Are you looking for Apologetics in the best sense? Or are you looking for a unified theory? Unified theories are harder to come by in our age.

    Are you looking for a solid Foundationalist theology? The mid-twentieth century ones were existential and did not seek of certainty.Wold you be happy with a narrative theology of story and virtue?

    RabbiChaplain like the comfort and aspiration of the attempts and EJ has no need.
    As you mention Hadar and Haredi in the last line as moving forward in opposite directions, but all intellectual synthesis by its nature is static and retrograde because knowledge keeps changing.

    If your had the money and could commission a think tank or articles to confront issues- what would you confront? What would be expected results?

  11. Turning this discussion on its head, it seems to me the 1960’s existential angst of the Lonely Man of Faith doesn’t resonate in the least with 21st century Jews. As Rabbi David Hartman comments in his new book: “I question the importance assigned to the single individual by traditional Judaism. Fundamentally, Judaism is the way of life of a community and provides someone who seeks to build a spiritual life within the language and structures of community”.

    In that context, perhaps the question being debated is as irrelevant as Rav Soloveitchik’s 1960’s struggling existentialism to thinking 21st century Modern Orthodox (and Halachic Independent) post-university Jews?

    Perhaps, we are finally recognizing what we always knew before we were told what to think by the Rav — social man is not superficial; lonely man is solipsistic and requires self-imagined fault lines because he would never join any club that would have him as a member?

  12. There is another option: escape into personal experience and mystical awareness that confirms experiential truth against all questions
    Think Breslav

    It is a very workable option with a respectable history. Call it strong Fideism.

  13. Oh boy. I’m not ignoring this, just have to have time to write.

  14. Re: apologetic responses being dated, pulpit rabbis needing 20 years to catch up, etc. Isn’t it a feature (a feature, not a bug) of a conservative system such as Orthodoxy, that it waits for the dust to settle, so as to evaluate what needs to be responded to? Many philosophical trends take decades to settle, until we can filter that which has staying power from the ephemeral, all the more so the various social studies. But what are 20-30 years on the scale of the history of Judaism?

    • Yeah, but what are we, who don’t have life-spans of hundreds of years, supposed to do now?

      • One the one hand, struggle, search, while remaining conscious that we may not find an answer that soon. On the other hand, the strength of an ancient system of thought expresses itself also in that area, that there is no need to respond to every latest argument or philosophical trend, for our system provides something of great intrinsic value: stability and continuity.

        Over time, the challenges that have shown a measure of staying power need to be addressed, but not every branch thereof. For instance, Biblical Criticism has been around long enough that some more responses are overdue. However, we don need to answer every biblical critic, nor every question raised by the consensus of scholars. What we need is to produce a cogent approach that deals with the issues, and that can be trusted, over time, to respond to enough questions. As a matter of fact, I think that slowly, Mikhlelet Herzog (R’Yoel Bin Nun et al) are doing exactly that, through their literary approach. (It also happens to be very convincing.)

        The same can be said for other questions that have been around for a while. But I do not think that we need to respond to works that were produced recently, or that have fallen by the wayside. Forever running after the critics (be they biblical, philosophical of other) is to essentially concede your own insecurity and leave no time over for the beef of your own tradition, of the great gift we should herald to the world through the integer Jewish life.

  15. Dr Brill, thanks for engaging me in this conversation! I’m not as well-read as many who post here, but I will do my best to keep up. My opinions have been formed by a brief ten years of work as a Jewish educator and communal professional, and I may say some foolish things, but I appreciate the chance to share ideas.

    I think asking what the uncertainty is about misses the point. A great appeal of Orthodox Judaism is freedom from doubt, at least on the big issues. God exists, there’s only one of Him, and the rules for living a good and true life have been revealed by God in both written and oral Torah, and their integrity is maintained by an unassailable transmission process. Whatever religious doubts or uncertainty a person might experience are a personal test. The community does not wrestle with religious doubt – no, its role is to provide chizuk, whether through apologetics, appeal to emotion, embracing victimhood, insularity, ethnic pride, etc. There is no public, communal, non-individual grappling with the key doubts raised by modernity: that the Torah does not appear to have been written by God and given at Sinai 3,300 years ago; that the Mesorah is deeply riven, flawed and unreliable in a plain sense; that science, democracy and freedom – values largely foreign to Jewish tradition – have propelled human well-being and even human morality so far, so fast.

    The uncertainty that I think the Orthodox community fails to acknowledge is that we don’t know whether our opinions and beliefs about God’s will correspond with God’s will. Every time we make a choice to permit or forbid, to embrace a modern value or shun it, we’re making an uncertain decision. A rabbi at YCT once told me that people don’t like to fly without wires, without a net. But the reality is that there is no net, and Orthodoxy does its very best to obscure that, to conjure up a net in the minds of its people.

    As for what I’m looking for, narrative theology sounds about right, but narrative theology probably needs to be paired with a much more fluid halachic system, or else the story’s meaning may only be constructed to support a foregone halachic conclusion.

    I don’t truly hope for complete synthesis. I don’t think it’s possible. I appreciate the effort though and believe that it can be incredibly fruitful (eg the Rambam). I think we go in cycles of synthesis and antithesis, or redemption and exile, of ideology and confusion. I’m not trying to end the cycle, I’m trying to honor it and contribute to it. I find Wolfson’s exploration and interpretation of the Rebbe’s theology and eschatology fascinating… and I’m equally enraptured by Kearney’s anatheism. Both reflect Jewish reactions to the dominance of the culture of the individual, and if I were to fund a think tank, I would direct it to consider the evolution of Jewish thought, practice and community in response to the skyrocketing stature of the individual.

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