“Modern” Orthodoxy faces an internal schism

Rav Schachter, Shilita, doesn’t like the term Modern Orthodox. Many don’t. If the term is to be used, it means the type of Orthodoxy that is ready to deal with modern issues using modern knowledge. Rav Schachter believes this is nothing new in the sense that dealing with modern issues is something most groups with Orthodoxy undertake. They have to. When a question comes before a Rav, he needs to either answer it, or send the questioner to a different Rav who may be more qualified to answer that type of question.

Whilst Rav Schachter is also a Rosh Kollel, and in general a Rosh Yeshivah or Rosh Kollel doesn’t make the “best” Posek for a Ba’al Habayis, because they often live in a surreal world which is cut off, at best from the vicissitudes facing the man and woman who are immersed in Olam HaZeh, and not looking at Daled Chelkei Shulchan Aruch for most of their day. Rav Schachter is different. His interaction with an ordinary Ba’al HaBayis is palpable when he speaks, although stylistically and on occasion his oratory is more Yeshivish. He has a modest and respectful charm, which I can testify is very much real and uplifting.

Like his own teacher, the renowned Rav, Rav Soloveitchik ז’ל, Rav Schachter has an enormous and unshakeable attachment to Mesora/tradition. Mesora isn’t always that clear, of course. For example, simply looking at last week’s Parsha, when discussing how the Jews had access to Shitim wood in a dessert, Rashi quotes a Tanchuma and Yerushalmi (from memory) that Ya’akov Avinu foresaw that the Jews would need Shitim to build the Mishkan and ensured that these were planted in Egypt and then transported. Yet, Ibn Ezra says words that

If these thoughts of the Amoraim and Geonim are a Kabolo (Mesora) in learning that they received, then we must accept it. If they are not, but rather constitute a more homlitic interpretation by Chazal, then we (he, the Ibn Ezra) has another suggestion. His view is that there was an Oasis near Har Sinai, and it was from there that they took Shitim Wood

What’s obvious to the Ibn Ezra is that he is completely respectful to the Mesora. He just doesn’t have (from his own teachers) a definite teaching that Rashi’s sources constitute a definite truth, as opposed to a possibility. He does not dismiss this view as “far-fetched” and not to be accepted. Rather, he qualifies his comments with an “If then else”.

In terms of dealing with new questions, or indeed old ones, in a “modern” framework, what makes Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy different is really two things

  1. A rejection of the Hungarian view espoused by the Chasam Sofer, that “all that is new is forbidden”. In other words, if you don’t know about a new proposal or approach, then in a void of Mesorah, it is safest to always pronounce that the answer is “NO”
  2. The use of modern knowledge to aid us in understanding and further bringing Kavod LaTorah.

The latter is scary for the Aguda and those to the right of the Aguda. It represents a precipice. There is no question, that when, ironically, it comes to questions of Kashrus, all agencies rely on modern science. Science is respected, and the knowledge of the food chemist is critical. When it comes to questions of electricity and Shabbos, the Posek again must understand the physics. The Posek of a certain generation will indeed Pasken according to the modern understanding of the Science of their time. However, the modern orthodox Posek will not be afraid to also PERMIT something which was once forbidden because of a faulty model that was understood in yesteryear.

Another divide can be seen in issues involving the types of items identified in the Sefer, Hilchos Shmiras HaGuf VeHaNefesh. This has a list of many things that should be avoided because they may be injurious to health. Some are from the Gemora, others are more Kaballistic.

Rav Schachter contends that on matters of health, for example, THE MESORA itself, was to use the best knowledge of doctors of the time. In reality, when we are sick we all do that. However, when it comes to some “dangerous” things, Rav Schachter will often say that we don’t need to worry about it, as it only represented the best medical/scientific knowledge at the time. Now, we know better. We, however, must according to the Torah, use the best knowledge available in coming to a cogent and relevant (read modern Psak) as opposed to taking the Hungarian/Chassidic line of forbidding more and not less.

That being said, there are lines, and there always have been lines. Some of these lines can be argued with on the basis of “modern NEEDS” as opposed to modern knowledge or science. This constitutes the basis of articles involving  R’ Haskel Lookstein.

It is ironic, that the vast majority of ladies who want to include male mitzvos, do not routinely keep female mitzvos. One only has to look at the practices of those in Shira Chadasha style prayer organisations (I can only speak somewhat about the Melbourne manifestation). If only, if only, egalitarianism wasn’t the petrol in their Jewish Car, and comprehensive attempts at all Torah and Mitzvos, especially those already germane to women and men, were adhered to scrupulously. Alas, they appear not to. The emphasis is on egalitarianism, the catch cry of the conservative, and the idea that people like the Rav, R’ Moshe warned about. These cannot and must not change the existing Mesora.

Yes, if there is a particularly enriched and scrupulous woman, who is like the women of yore, with Tehillim on their lips, Torah in their hands, and Yiras Shomayim in spades, who objects to such exceptions fulfilling a natural progression. Ashreichem, if you reach such a Madreyga. Men don’t need to. We are enjoined to do these things, even if we haven’t reached such heights. Woman, however, are enjoined to focus on their important orthogonal role, and if they are special, so be it.

Rav Schachter, and his colleagues, are debating these issues behind closed doors, and doing so in a spirit of Torah and not through the press with hot loaded statements, that really don’t constititute adequate Tshuvos on the topic(s) (especially when they have erroneous sources, but let’s not go there).

I pray that Rav Schachter and his Chaverim are able to peacefully negotiate the issues with Ramaz and the like, and keep true to the firm and unshakeable weltanshauung of Rav Soloveitchik when it comes to “ceremony” and Shule. Shule was never about a mode of ceremony for the Rav. It was all about Hilchos Tfilla, and the Lonely Man of Faith, never lost sought of this.

I see no renaissance in female Jewish observance surging through the modern orthodox world. On the contrary, they seem to struggle with “why is sending sms’s on shabbos forbidden”.

Enough. I don’t want to cast aspersions on many good people.