Posted on | February 21, 2008 | By Akiva | 51 Comments
by Akiva of Mystical Paths
In “Can Beyond BT Be More Inclusive” (here), Alan asks an interesting question. He says, “Beyond BT has established its place in the right wing of the Orthodox spectrum” and asks “Can Beyond BT make room for a Left Wing Modern Orthodox BT like myself?”
While I won’t try to answer this relative to Beyond BT, I’d like to expand the question, has the orthodox Jewish world “moved right”, and “is there room for left wing modern orthodox”?
The net answer, I think, is somewhat interesting. For generations, observant Judaism was under attack and in retreat. From the outside, such as Czarist Russia conscripting Jewish children, from the inside, as the haskala developed and presented the Jewish community (especially the young) with ‘alternatives’, and sometimes with them combining forces, such as the haskala recommending governments remove the community rabbonim and put their own in place.
After World War II, orthodox Judaism was broken. All of the strongholds of Torah, the great yeshivas and the great chassidic courts, were crushed. By the blessings from Above and the incredible efforts of those who escaped and those who survived, literally just a few handfuls, the seeds for the future were just barely planted. Many a yeshiva was rebuilt by 1 or 3 rabbonim, or sometimes not even that (just a surviving student!) Many a chassidus was literally just a rebbe or a rebbe and a few chassidim, not enough to fill an average living room.
The end of orthodox Judaism was predicted, major social studies were done that showed the future appeared bleak. In this environment, the rabbonim struggled to maintain the basics, Shabbos, Kashrus (not glatt kosher, not mehadrin, not 3 cheshers, just basically kosher), Family Purity, Education for the future generations.
There’s an interesting mitzvah in the Gemora, targeted at the rabbonim, at the leaders of the generation, that says (essentially) ‘don’t turn the community into sinners’. Meaning, it’s one thing to work to improve the failings of the community, it’s another to focus on those failings such that the whole community basically sees themselves as violating the Torah. In essence, don’t do the Accuser’s work for him. The community should consider itself good, and be taught how to be even better.
But we have another mitzvah from the Torah, be a nation of priests, a holy people. When the nation or community is in trouble, we’re not going to focus on the level of kashrus, the level of tznius, or the general aspect of what it means to be a holy people. While just barely kosher really isn’t good enough (we can debate whether 5 cheshers and 10 chumras are too many another time), when the other choice is not kosher, we’ll make whatever allowances necessary, as far as we can, to keep people in kosher status. If, thank G-d, people are keeping kosher and Shabbos, we’re not going to shout about covering hair, or the length of sleeves, or praying with a jacket, etc.
Through the post-war generations, things gradually improved. Modern orthodoxy sprang up first, trying to combine some strength of the past with the draw of the modern world to create Torah u’Madda. As a kosher alternative to Conservative and Reform, it held it’s ground and grew to an energetic community. While it’s balance created an energetic, thriving and, quite important, prosperous community, that higher involvement in the modern world resulted in the primary energy of the community being involved in the world. The Modern Orthodox community, beyond it’s initial structures (YU for example) was not generating the Torah scholars or high intensity Torah focus of the future.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Torah powerhouses of the past were, slowly, beginning to rebuild and regrow. The planted seeds grew, many yeshivas were rebuilt, most bigger than before (unfortunately, not all, some are lost forever). The chassidic courts recovered (those that could, some quietly faded away and some were lost) and grew bigger than ever. But it took a lot longer, 3 generations.
What happened then is a tipping point was reached in the Torah world. The majority of the Torah world, the focus of the Torah world, returned to the powerhouse yeshivas and chassidic courts. If you want to learn Torah, you to go Ponevitch, Mir, if you want to live Torah you go to Satmar, Chabad, Belz, etc.
And so, the day school students came too, and returned home with a black hat and a jacket or a long skirt, long sleeves and a commitment to covering their hair.
One of the challenges in the new balance is that the ultra orthodox community finds itself having slipped almost unaware into the Jewish world leadership position. Suddenly, the pronouncements of gedolim are being eagerly listened to, and responded to, throughout the world. The external leadership functions pretty much don’t exist yet. The shift in mindset from taking care and protecting the community to taking care of Judaism and the Jewish world is just beginning to be understood as a responsibility.
Part of this is the matter of tolerance versus defense. For the last 3 generations, the ultra-orthodox community has fought with all their strength to defend themselves, the Torah way of life, and grow. Thank G-d, this was successful. Now we need to transition from complete defense to developing functional relationships, and even respect, for our brothers who may not follow exactly the same path (yet still a kosher path).
So for Alan, the answer is, there is room for every Jew, especially every Jew who is mitzvah observant. Yet, the ultra orthodox community is new to it’s bigger role, and is not yet comfortable across the board in dealing with all aspects of the wider Jewish community. However, I am sure, with G-d’s help, we will learn to work together and respect each other as brothers before Hashem.