Monday, November 30, 2009

A State of Mind

This past week the JTA featured an article by Amy Klein, in which she pointed out the phenomenon of younger orthodox Jews focusing on social action. Newsworthy is the fact the hitherto social action was in the purview of Reform Judaism, while orthodox Jews focused more on the performance and fulfillment of mitzvoth within the framework of the immediate Jewish community. So while there were institutional frameworks for “gemilot chesed”, they weren’t inclusive of the broader, global community where social action claimed predominance. Apparently, according to this noteworthy article there has been a paradigmatic shift within the modern orthodox community.

The significance of this shift is more significant than what the article would lead you to believe. According to the article it appears as though the modern orthodox community as embodied by the younger generation of x’s and y’s have a world view much less confined and myopic than their predecessors. Hitherto, the orthodox community was defined as insular while struggling with finding their place in the larger community where they could aspire to greater professional satisfaction as well as financial gratification. Much of modern orthodoxy pivoting on this, found their voice in Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik who was the manifestation of this modern orthodox phenomenon that gained prominence in the1950’s and1960’s.

Modern Orthodoxy’s fecund days are in the past. Their seeds of destruction were sown the moment their adherents began to find ways to compromise and reconcile their orthodox life style with the secular world that was offering opportunity and advancement. During the past two decades the modern orthodox community stabilized and plateaued especially as a result of the pull to the right by many of its adherents but is now picking up momentum once again. It’s sort of like a huge glacier that creeps at a very slow pace, a centimeter a year, but every once in a while because of other global confluences pick up traction and increase the pace. So while at times it doesn’t appear as if there is motion at other times due to physical events the pace picks up and the distance travelled becomes noticeable. Modern orthodoxy seems to follow this pattern. The matrix that has been somewhat fixed for the past 15-20 years seems to once again have picked up the momentum of earlier years, moving inexorably away from the influence of the orthodox camp into the sphere of influence of the liberal movements which place a premium on social action as the quintessential practice of a Jew and of the Jewish community. Students at yeshiva high schools, colleges and post college programs are drawn to programs of social justice, aiding the poor where there were natural disasters. Last year students at Yeshiva University attended Darfur rallies and missions to Nicaragua. Rabbi Sapperstein, director of the reform movement’s Social Action Center in Washington claims that this phenomenon is a result of globalization and the awareness of it among the modern orthodox.

Social action or tikkun olam is one barometer by which the drift of the Jewish community can be measured. Basically, Judaism can be portrayed under two broad headings: insular or global; inner or outer; internal or external. It’s really a question of philosophy and there is no right or wrong answer. It comes down to how you view yourself vis-à-vis the global community. The more insular one is the greater the chance that that person will remain within the orthodox community. The more one strays from the tribe in the direction of the larger, cosmopolitan community the greater the chance that that person will become alienated from the tribe and link into the cosmopolitan community, ultimately severing ties with the orthodox community.

That is the current trend of the modern orthodox community. This is a very slow moving tendency, as slow as the movement of a glacier that is almost imperceptible to the eye. That is why I was surprise to have read a posting by my dear friend Rabbi Harry Maryles, Defining Charedim and Modern Orthodox Jews, where he conveniently links haredim and modern orthodox as two sides of the same coin. His contention is that while modern orthodox may not share certain components of the haredi community, in effect they are both linked by the same fastidious observance of halacha and hasmadah. This still may be true but there are the tell tale signs that there are significant fissures in this foundation that Rabbi Maryles feels comfortable with.

There is a profound divide separating the haredi community from the modern orthodox. The chasm that I am speaking of can’t be bridged by adherence to halacha or hasmadah. The wide gap between these two communities is characterized by the huge difference in their state of mind. The state of mind of the haredi is to maintain their insular way of life while the modern orthodox is attracted to the global community. While the haredi prefers the beis medrash, the modern orthodox Jew increasingly prefers the challenge of tikun olam (whatever that means). Because this revolves around a state of mind it won’t be long before the tenuous common denominators that bridge the two communities will dissipate, leaving each one independent of the other: the haredim continuing in their insular life style while the modern orthodox will continue their slow, tedious drift until they dock with the liberal community.