Notes in the Margin (Ideas #7)

I remember once feeling sorry for a Conservative rabbinical student I knew. I felt bad for her and other Conservative leaders who were serious about halacha: Why would she put herself in a situation where she had separated herself from almost all of halachic world Jewry, aligning herself with a movement where much of the leadership, not to even mention the laity, isn't serious about halacha?

Lately I am finding myself identifying with her situation. No, I don't have any thoughts of defecting to Conservative Judaism but I am no longer sure that the above description only applies to that branch. Living in a predominantly Haredi neighborhood has reinforced my identity as a proponent of Modern Orthodoxy (as defined by openness to the thought of general humanity, not by shabby observance of halacha). I envy the Haredim for the number of followers committed to following the dictates of their leadership. Our leadership, on the other hand, often only extends to the marginally committed. Our followers often identify more with what we are not than with what we are. In our desire to reach out to those less religious, we end up with mediocre institutions that generate little intensity.


While previous articles have often touched upon the spiritual void that exists in all sectors of Orthodoxy, I am presently concerned about the lack of historical impact generated by my brand of Orthodoxy.


As a serious student of Jewish history, I am convinced that the last two hundred years have represented a unique time period that continues to require new responses. While movements of radical social change are no longer very popular, we are far from close to times of renewed social and moral stability. I do believe that classical Judaism provides us with the answers to the central classical life and theological issues. However, as age-old power structures, assumptions, technology and patterns of wealth are radically transformed, we require new ideas, paradigms and metaphors that speak to modern man. Orthodox groups that ignore this reality would put us in a situation similar to that of the Amish.


I don't think that I am saying anything radical. Still, why do I feel so isolated among the serious Orthodox. A correct notion remains marginal if it is not accepted by a significant number of people.


The real question is about personal identity. How can we associate with Orthodoxy when the Haredi majority is deciding how it is being defined? I cannot accept the simplistic black-and-white way in which things are viewed. Nor can I accept the xenophobic belligerence towards anything slightly deviant from shtetl norms of two hundred years ago. Is it unorthodox to be open-minded and humanistic? Must we then go elsewhere to find these qualities? Yet we have nowhere else to go, so long as the authenticty of the Torah remains at the center of our Weltanschauung. I live in a neighborhood that includes a variety of people with interesting ideas and breadth of life experience. More often than not, they keep both to themselves. It is something that has to be hidden in order to have their children accepted in the "right" schools, i.e. to generally find acceptence in the Haredi community. They are willing to sacrifice their intellectual integrity in order to belong to what they see as the only serious VIABLE option. We are looked at with pity as dreamers who believe in something UNVIABLE. Living a marginal intellectual existence is all the more frustrating when it feels like a ship wherein most have jumped overboard. More exactly, I feel like a lemming who has been blessed (or cursed) with the realization that everyone else's inexplicable direction will result in the self-destruction of my group.

I realize that I am not alone, but still I feel like a member of a vanishing breed. If Orthodoxy needs to realize that things are not as good as they seem, we Modernists must realize that our ideas will become historically marginal if we cannot create intense religious communities that provide inspiration to our people. ??? ??? ???? ??? Before we can move forward we must first look inside ourselves. With G-d's help, we may yet find a way to save Judaism from contemporary irrelevance.