July 15, 2024
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Condemning Unfairly: A Reply to Avrohom Gordimer

Editor’s Note: This piece is in response to this article.

Precise use of words counts, and honest use of words counts more. Avrohom Gordimer’s “Redeeming Modern Orthodoxy” is a classic of vagueness and deception, which allows him to condemn unfairly a loyal sector of the Orthodox community, which in his view is unredeemed.

As to honesty, several of Gordimer’s claims are specious. For example, he opines that for the Rav and Dr. Bernard Revel “…pursuit of advanced secular education, support of political Zionism, and so forth, did not define Orthodoxy, but rather worked with it and buttressed its ability to impact, or were necessary undertakings geared to achieving various essential goals.” That is, for the Rav or Dr. Bernard Revel, advanced secular education and political Zionism were not inherently worthwhile but were mere instruments of advancing Orthodoxy. I have no idea, then, why “Torah Umadda” (Torah and secular knowledge) became the motto of Yeshiva University or why synthesis of the two was deemed a beneficial goal by that institution, at least in my time.

It is tragic that Gordimer’s article fails to heed Rabbi Norman Lamm’s eulogy in which he warned against any revisionism regarding the Rav’s positions regarding either Torah or secular knowledge. As Rabbi Lamm declared, “…The Rav was not a lamdan who happened to have and use a smattering of general culture, and he was certainly not a philosopher who happened to be a talmid chacham, a Torah scholar…. We must accept him on his terms, as a highly complicated, profound, and broad-minded personality…. Certain burgeoning revisionisms may well attempt to disguise and distort the Rav’s uniqueness by trivializing one or the other aspect of his rich personality and work, but they must be confronted at once.” Gordimer has without doubt trivialized one facet of the Rav’s thinking and work, and I hasten to confront that distortion.

As regards the Rav and political Zionism, his break with the Agudah was at great personal cost to his reputation in the transplanted Eastern European yeshiva community of his time. It was far from a mere instrument to win the hearts of estranged or wavering Jews to Orthodoxy, as his ongoing involvement with the already dedicated Orthodox members of the Mizrachi indicates. It was clearly an ideological turn for the Rav whose essay, Kol Dodi Dofek (“My Beloved Knocks”), is a deeply felt and theologically rich statement concerning the religious meaning of Zionism.

Vis-a-vis Modern Orthodoxy, the position that Gordimer takes is not reflective of anything that vaguely passes for committed Modern Orthodoxy as it grew to maturity in the late 1960s-1980s. The intrinsic value of secular education and a commitment to political Zionism with a religious orientation is only in part what committed Modern Orthodoxy was and is about. It, however, stands for a lot more, little of which Gordimer seems to know about (or if he does, won’t acknowledge). His proposed suggestions for the redemption of Modern Orthodoxy would in fact be its undoing.

Perhaps a “mission statement” defining what committed and serious Modern Orthodoxy is would clarify matters. Such a statement is as much descriptive as it is prescriptive, and it adds precision to the definition of what Modern Orthodoxy actually stands for.

Essential to Modern Orthodoxy’s understanding of Torah life is:

1) God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people, and halachah is the foremost expression of how the Torah is put into practice.

2) Diversity has always been legitimate within the halachic system. While carefully weighing the opinions of great halachic authorities, ultimately halachic decisions for a particular community are the province of its mara d’atra, who knows his community best.

3) Many conditions of modern Jewish life are unprecedented. Therefore, creative halachic responses to these new conditions are required for successful Torah living and the healthy continuity of the mesorah.

4) While halachah is the lifeblood of authentic Jewish communities, as pure legalism it is not sufficient for leading the ideal Torah life. Meta-halachic values such as lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, “doing the right and the good in the eyes of God,” compassion (chesed) for every individual, justice and the dignity of all human beings based on their Tzelem Elokim must pervade all authentic Torah life and inform halachic decision making.

5) Encounters with refined secular culture often hone our ethical and aesthetic sensibilities and thereby enhance us as human beings. Therefore, Modern Orthodoxy sees positive value in such encounters. Modern Orthodoxy also seeks to instill an ability to recognize when as Orthodox Jews we must take a countercultural stance. This ability cannot be created without knowing secular culture and what in it is “friendly” and what is inimical to Torah-true Judaism.

6) The Torah obligates us to be responsible for the welfare of the entire Jewish people (klal Yisrael). Therefore, Modern Orthodoxy views as obligatory working and interacting with all identifying Jews for the benefit of the Jewish community and the enrichment of Jewish life.

7) Modern Orthodox Jews believe in drawing Jews into greater mitzvah observance by presenting in their lifestyle a noble and convincing picture of how Torah-true Judaism fosters a deep relationship with God. It is this relationship that creates the beauty, joy, holiness, commitment and sense of community that characterizes a successful Orthodox community.

8) Gaining respect for Torah-true Judaism is impossible without the Modern Orthodox community’s and individuals’ adherence to the highest ethical standards the Torah and our contemporary society demands in relation to our fellow Jews, to our fellow human beings and to God’s Creation.

There is nothing soft about this. Rather, it represents an alternative to Centrist Orthodoxy, which is what Abraham Gordimer and company actually stand for. The need for constant guidance by a rav, rebbe, or gadol, which Gordimer lauds, when one is halachically knowledgeable or has a mara d’atra who is, is a position espoused by the Agudah. I have no quarrel with that position for those who want it or believe in it. For those who see value in the modern notion of autonomy—limited in the case of Judaism by commandedness—this is Centrist Orthodoxy. That Orthodoxy is just a form of Charedi Judaism that speaks English passably and wears Western clothes. If this is the paradigm that Gordimer proposes for the redemption of Modern Orthodoxy, no Modern Orthodox Jew would recognize it as anything else but a call for self-destruction.

Last but not least, Gordimer’s notion that the mesorah is unambiguous, monistic, and never revolutionary flies in the face of reality. That proposition is an insult to both the mesorah and to any historically informed Orthodox Jew’s intelligence. There are few educated Jews who are unaware that halachah and lomdus are dynamic and reflect a variety of approaches to our foundational texts, an acceptance of diverse halachic traditions (e.g., Ashkenazi and Sephardi), and different methods of practical halachic decision-making.

Gordimer has much criticism to say about Modern Orthodoxy, which in his view is unfortunately unredeemed. He has no real program for its redemption beyond demanding that it change its spots and becoming Centrist. That is an arrogant proposal that presumes infallible knowledge about what constitutes authentic Orthodox Judaism. What makes his sources of knowledge superior to those whose decisions about their Orthodox Jewish life derive from different strands of our Torah-true tradition?

Modern Orthodoxy is a brand name and a trademark. Centrist Orthodox Jews and the institutions that foster Centrist Orthodoxy should not describe themselves as Modern Orthodox. If they are truly Modern Orthodox let them subscribe to the principles of Modern Orthodoxy and the values it espouses. To do otherwise is patently dishonest.

Rabbi Michael Chernick is Professor Emeritus of Rabbinic Literature at Hebrew Union College. He is a musmach of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

By Rabbi Michael Chernick

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