First Published Dec 4, 2006
I’ve long been taken with the following quote from Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik: “All extremism, fanaticism, and obscurantism come from a lack of security. A person who is secure cannot be an extremist.”
Perhaps the quote has stuck so firmly in my mind because of the context in which I first saw it. Rabbi K., a prominent Modern Orthodox rabbi, invoked this quote in an article railing against the Chareidi world for its “intolerance,” castigating Chareidim again and again for their unwillingness to accept the validity of any expression of Torah observance other than their own.
It’s a pity Rabbi K. didn’t read his own article. The thick vitriolic brush with which he paints the entire Chareidi world would do any extremist proud.
Which doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t have a point. The Chareidim do, too often and too typically, look down their noses at “less committed” communities within Orthodoxy. But this kind of disdain for anyone not like ME is hardly unique to men in black.
The problem of invalidating other hashkofos seems to have become far more common of late. George Carlin once said (or so I’m told) that everyone driving down the highway thinks that he is going at exactly the right speed, and that everyone else is either obstructing traffic or a reckless maniac. But is it possible that the rational middle really has come to represent fewer and fewer Torah Jews and Torah movements than ever before, so that every group condemns every other as either fanatical or heretical? Why have the Orthodox grown so insecure that we are all racing headlong toward one extreme or the other?
In a deeply thoughtful essay in Tradition Magazine (“Torah Without Ideology,” published in 2002), Professor Moshe Koppel offers an elegant explanation for the polarization within the Orthodox world. As a physical being striving for spirituality, as a spiritual being exiled in a physical world, every Jew is sentenced to a life of inevitable and irreconcilable tension. If he embraces the physical world, he may compromise his spiritual health. If he eschews the physical, he may endanger his physical well-being. How does he choose?
Professor Koppel observes that both the modern world and the Chareidi world make the same fundamental mistake, each in its own way. In their efforts to eliminate this spiritual-physical tension, Chareidim are inclined to reject any involvement with the physical, whereas Modern Orthodoxy is inclined to legitimize everything physical in the context of being a Torah Jew. In my own language, Chareidim tend toward forbidding everything not expressly permitted, while the Modern Orthodox tend toward permitting everything not expressly forbidden.
Of course, these are not the stated ideologies of either camp, but this is where many adherents end up. In practice, each camp frequently becomes a caricature of itself. Because the painstaking avodah of evaluating what to take and what not to take from the physical world produces such acute, chronic tension, we flee for the extremes instead of striving to find balance. And, on our way, we condemn everyone who has staked out a position different from ours, lest we face the tension of having to ask ourselves why they have engaged more or less of the physical world than we have.
I can’t say it any better than Moshe Koppel: “[Internalized values] are always full of tension between conflicting poles: between loyalty to Jews and loyalty to the values they embody, between the letter of halachah and its spirit, between conformity and individualism, and so on. This tension is a wonderful, healthy thing — it is the source of a person’s intellectual vitality and creativity. Living a Torah life means living with tension…”
But it’s not easy. Today’s extremism is no mere matter of right versus left. It is the unwillingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of other hashkofos within the bounds of halachah. It derives from a passionate desire to avoid tension, whether that tension comes from our uncertainty of how to synthesize the spiritual and the physical or from our insecurity that maybe someone else is doing a better job of it than we are. And the middle is that place where we can struggle with the tension of living as a Torah Jew, each in his own way, without resorting to the defamation of those who go about it differently.
The flight of so many Torah Jews from the middle testifies to just how hard it is. And it gets even harder for the few of us left in the middle when we find ourselves increasingly isolated from the growing community of observant Jews who refuse to accept that there is more than one kosher way to live as a kosher Jew.