Sunday, February 11, 2007

Suffering from Success

In the latest issue of Jewish Action, R. Emanuel Feldman has a thoughtful article titled Of Shtieblach and Kiddush Clubs: Modern Orthodox, Yeshivah Orthodox and the Jewish Future. Among other things, R. Feldman laments that despite the great success Orthodoxy currently sees the movement in general fails to reach out to the non-Orthodox and has fighting between its own factions:

A Jewish fantasy: An emergency joint task force of the leadership of the Orthodox Union and the other MO institutions, and of Agudath Israel and other YO [Yeshivish Orthodox] institutions, is established. It has a single, circumscribed purpose: It will focus on ways to fight the onslaught of Jewish ignorance and intermarriage. Neither group necessarily accepts the other's worldview; perspectives on Torah and Jewish life remain unchanged. But in this critical eit la'asot situation... stereotypes and intolerance are put aside, and resources and energies are combined for this single objective.
I think that there is one main reason underlying why neither MO nor YO are able to adequately reach out to the non-Orthodox and continue to battle each other. The very success of Orthodoxy is based to no small extent on the trust in the judgment of the charismatic personalities who led our communities. We were taught to depend entirely on the decisions of the Gedolim and that their rulings are inviolable. Who in the YO world would dare to contradict an explicit directive of R. Moshe Feinstein and R. Ya'akov Kamenetsky? And who in the MO world would set aside an unequivocal ruling of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik? In other words, we are stuck in the 1950s and 60s, maintaining stances that were adopted then by the comunities' leaders based on the circumstances of that time. Even though the landscape has radically changed in many ways, as R. Feldman discusses, our very Orthodoxy and the conservatism it implies prevents us from charting a new course. This greatly hampers many of our attempts to unite and reach out. Some of the issues of legitimation no longer apply or, perhaps more significantly, apply differently than they once did. Yet, we are limited by the legacy of our great leaders from yesteryear for whom we have largely failed to find adequate replacements.

Sure, there are radicals in the various camps who are trying to change the stances. But, at least as things stand right now, they are finding much opposition and little success.

Let me add one more slightly unrelated comment on R. Feldman's article. In it, I believe R. Feldman makes a mistake of equivalence. He talks about the opposition to MO from YO circles and to YO from MO circles as if the phenomena are of the same magnitude. I understand the stylistic and rhetorical need to make such a statement. However, based on my experience, I believe this to be far from the truth. Yes, there is some opposition to YO within MO, but not that much and not of a particularly strong or widespread nature. Generally, YO is considered a valid alternative albeit maybe somewhat extreme. Rarely will you find someone who considers YO to be illegitimate. In YO circles, though, it is common to find the equation of MO with non-religious and the denigration of their rabbis. Can opposition be found on both sides? Yes, but, again, the phenomena are not on anywhere near the same magnitude. Maybe this is part of the attitude that anyone to the left of me isn't frum and anyone to the right of me is extreme -- one is more critical of someone non-frum than someone extreme. But, while that is perhaps a justification, it does not equate the two oppositions. (This isn't to say that there aren't very valid criticisms that can be made. I'm embarrassed to say that I'm probably the first to criticize both the MO and the YO camps, the MO more strongly. But that isn't the point.)

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