On my most recent trip to the United States I encountered a phenomenon which I thought was only prevalent among the eclectic expatriate community of Har Nof. I met many who sympathize with much of my critique of the haredi world, are worldly, show independence of thought and action and yet have decided to attend haredi shuls and place their children in haredi schools. What is most upsetting is the difference these people and thousands more like them, would make if they would only align themselves with Modern Orthodoxy. While many agree that they would feel more at home intellectually in our camp, they feel that something critical is missing.
I visited a school that has successfully changed its parent body to its own image. Always run by a haredi administration, this school had, in the past, made its peace with the more modern composition of its student and parent body. The principal boasted of his success in turning his school into a true Bais Yaakov type institution, where the girls are not interested in ideological diversity. He explained this by saying that his girls did not want to go on to seminaries where spiritually weaker elements were present. The equation he presented seemed to be obvious to him. It is an equation he and his team have apparently made obvious to their community as well. It has nothing to do with ideology: if you want your children to excel religiously, there is no choice but to join the haredi world.
The common perception to is that the haredi rabbinate is more committed to Judaism and more scrupulous in its observance than its modern counterpart. While part of that perception may lie in a misunderstanding of the emphases of Judaism and halacha, much of it could be based in reality. When I speak about the rabbinate, I am not speaking about the outstanding leaders of either camp. I am speaking about the rabbis and scholars to which the lay person has regular exposure. I am speaking about myself and many of the readers on this list.
We are quick to point out the intellectual mediocrity of the haredi world and rightly so. Are we as quick to accept the popular verdict about the mediocrity of our own religious commitment? I am not talking about keeping the halacha - I am talking about care, concern and enthusiasm about the halacha that we keep.
Many of us are unfocused. While the haredi world may spend too much energy on personal development at the expense of active responsibility for the general community, we must realize our own propensity to help others at the expense of our own personal spiritual growth: the two need not be mutually exclusive. Our rush to put out the fires of assimilation and ignorance has often made us spiritually emaciated. We must nourish ourselves in order to be truly inspiring individuals to others.
Rav Soloveitchik once pointed out that the kulturkampf with the non-Orthodox would only be won if people feel that the Orthodox Jew is morally superior. I think that the stress here is on the popular perception. Not only must we be morally superior but that superiority has to be perceived by the masses.
In past articles, I have touched on some reasons why I feel that many haredi policies are misguided and often dangerous for long-term Jewish continuity. I believe that many similarly minded people agree with the seriousness of that issue. If the modern camp is to present a viable alternative, however, we will need to strive for greater excellence.
The entrepreneurial free-market model has, for better or worse, become dominant in shaping people's views. In such a model we dare not scorn the consumer for his "ignorant" choice of our competitor's product. As we, perforce, have to recognize the pervasiveness of this model, we have to carefully study why are our product is thought of as inferior.
Judaism is at a crossroads. Much change is forcing its way to the surface and our natural constituents may soon be taking a second look at us. The only way that this reexamination will bear fruit is if we have the humility to learn from our own failings and from the successes of others.