Modern vs. Ultra: A False Dichotomy
Moses Mendelssohn is considered the spiritual father of the Reform movement. Ol' Moses did such a hot job Jewishly that his grandchildren were all either non-Jews or Jews who converted to Christianity. He's a cautionary tale made flesh.
Because -- and this is sometimes ignored by a lot of people -- Moses Mendelssohn was frum. He was as observant as any frum Jew of his time. Nor, I think, did it ever occur to him not to be. The problem was never his observance. It was his hashkafa. To use Rabban Gamliel's terminology, tocho lo hayah k'baro. His insides were not like his outsides. He may have done all the ritual, but hell, anyone can do that. You can train a monkey to lay tefillin if you want. On the inside, where he generated his thoughts and ideas -- the thoughts and ideas that made him a Jewish dead-end -- he was a goy.
There's a growing number of the ein tocham k'baram (ETK) crowd, it seems, and an awful lot of them have blogs. And I tremble to see what's going to be in another generation. To think of what they teach their children. I can only hope that the social pressure to send their kids off to yeshiva will minimize the ill effect these people will have on the next generation of frum Jews.
But I'm getting offtrack a little. This is about the ridiculous false dichotomy between "Modern Orthodox" and "Ultra Orthodox". I find both of these groups a little scary and a little pathetic. With regards to the "Modern Orthodox", so-called, I refer you to my article on the Edah/JOFA/CLAL axis. With regards to the "Ultra Orthodox", also so-called, I want to tell you a little story.
In 1997, I was davening on the Yamim Noraim by a certain Young Israel. The daughter of the rav there invited me for lunch on the second day (I think it was) of Rosh HaShana. During the meal, we got onto the topic of ancient history. Of course. I mean, people ask what you do, and you tell them that you're a secretary, but that you also work on articles and books in the field of ancient history, and it tends to pique their curiosity.
I waxed all passionate about the need to educate frum kids about archaeology and the way in which it can enhance our understanding of our history. After all, unless they're completely cloistered, they're going to run into claims that archaeology contradicts Tanakh, and if they're left unarmed, they're going to wind up like the very many ETK Jews I was complaining about above.
I cited books like Artscroll's History of the Jewish People: The Second Temple Period as an example of the problem. The book is so riddled with contradictions that anyone with a modicum of reasoning skills is going to read it and ask, "Why are these people lying to me?" At which point, the rav's daughter started looking extremely uncomfortable. So I dropped the Artscroll bashing, like a good guest. Rav Scroll can look out for himself, after all.
But I gave her another example. The Living Torah. Now don't get me wrong. I like The Living Torah. But there's a problem with it. Not a problem that stems from the book itself, nor -- chas v'shalom -- from R' Aryeh Kaplan z'l, who wrote it. No, the problem stems from the outlook that's become representative of the so-called Ultra Orthodox community. You see, R' Kaplan has notes in this translation of the Torah. Botanical notes, explaining what exactly the plants are which are referred to in the Torah. You want to know what atzei shittim are? Check the bottom of the page and read all about the Acacia tree (if I'm remembering correctly). And historical notes. The Torah talks about Pharaoh and Joseph. Well, check out the notes at the bottom of the page and learn all about Amenemhet II, or whichever Egyptian king R' Kaplan identified with Joseph's Pharaoh.
And therein lies the problem. Because Amenemhet and Sesostris and the rest of that dynasty probably all date to the period of the Judges. Along with their contemporary, Hammurabi of Babylon. Or maybe I'm wrong, and they don't. But in any case, R' Aryeh Kaplan, for all his brilliant scholarship in the areas of Torah and physics, was not an expert in Assyriology or Egyptology or archaeology. He never claimed to be. He didn't study up on the subjects and determine as a Torah truth that Amenemhet II lived at the same time as Yosef HaTzaddik. No, he probably opened an encyclopedia, and looked to see who historians say was king of Egypt at that time.
I pointed out to the rav's daughter that there were probably people who thought it was a matter of emunat hachamim, or trust in the rabbis, to accept R' Kaplan's identifications in this matter.
And readers, how do you think she reacted? Let me preface this by saying that she'd gone to Stern College, but her outlook was 100% "Ultra Orthodox". She looked at me with a mixture of discomfort and a small amount of horror and said, "But if R' Aryeh Kaplan said that's who it is, you can't just dismiss it."
Hmm... Yes, actually, I can. And I do. And I do so without taking the slightest bit of respect and credit away from R' Kaplan. Rabbis are people, folks, and just like you and me, they can make mistakes, particularly in areas outside of their expertise. That's why we have the rule that says rabbis have to consult physicians when it comes to medical questions. And it doesn't begin and end with medicine. When the Rambam spoke about astronomy, he based it on the experts of his time. They were wrong, and so was he. Big deal. When Reb Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuva claiming that no one can actually have a sexual orientation towards members of the same sex, and that anyone saying they do simply has a yetzer hara for forbidden acts, I can -- and do -- say that he was dead wrong. And I say it without taking the tiniest bit of kavod away from him. He spoke out of assumptions that at the time and in his cultural milieu were understandable. But he was wrong. Just as the Rambam was wrong about planets being embedded in spheres with the Earth at the center.
And that's why I have a hard time with the so-called Ultra Orthodox. And in case you wonder why I keep referring to these folks as "so-called", it's because I dispute the labels. The "Ultra Orthodox" are no more orthodox than those of us who refuse to bow the social pressures that require plus signs to be made like a (T) or kamatzim to be revised so that they have little balls on the bottom. And the "Modern Orthodox"... well, so many of them are more orthoprax these days than orthodox, but they certainly aren't any more "modern" than those of us who are computer geeks, but still insist on the Truth (with a capital T) of the Torah.
When I lived in Israel, there was a category called "Yeshivish". Yeshivish Jews didn't cower in the ghetto, but at the same time, they stood fast against creeping Mendelssohnism. As someone who is proud to be yeshivish, hashkafically speaking, I'm tired of the loopy extremes that are touted as the only two groups within the frum world. And like everyone who rejects the far extremes, I've grown used to being called "Modern Orthodox" by the ultras and "Ultra Orthodox" by the moderns. But I don't like it. It shows a shallowness of thought that is one of the biggest flaws in the frum community today. Across the spectrum.