Ice, fire, and the search for the middle path

When one abandons the warmth of traditional Jewish belief and observance, one falls prey to the ice of skepticism and hedonism.

April 20, 2011 22:51
3 minute read.
Haredim in Bnei Brak

Haredim in Bnei Brak. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)


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The Jerusalem Talmud (Hagigah 2:1) teaches that the way of Torah is a narrow path. On the right is fire and on the left is icy snow. If one veers from the path, one risks being destroyed. The Torah way of life is balanced, harmonious and sensible. It imbues life with depth, meaning and true happiness, but it is not easy to stay on the path.

Veering to the left freezes the soul of Judaism. When one abandons the warmth of traditional Jewish belief and observance, one falls prey to the ice of skepticism, materialism and hedonism. One confronts what Viktor Frankl called a “spiritual vacuum,” or what Peter Berger termed “spiritual homelessness.”

Veering to the right causes one to become embroiled in religious fanaticism, excessive zeal. This generates a spirit of isolationism, self-righteousness, xenophobia and authoritarianism. It reduces the Torah way of life to a self-built physical and spiritual ghetto.

The Jerusalem Post recently reported a survey indicating that about two thirds of Israeli Jews would participate in a Seder for Pessah this year; about 80% of new olim would do likewise. This means that one-third of Israeli Jews and 20 percent of new olim were not at a Seder. For this huge number of Jews, participation at a Seder means little or nothing. They do not feel a religious – or even a national or cultural – impulse to celebrate Pessah with a Seder. If this is so in Israel, it is all the more so in the Diaspora.

This is the way of ice, the freezing of the soul of Judaism.

On the other hand, we witness the patterns within Orthodoxy where stringencies upon stringencies are added to Pessah observance. Food items need multiple hashgahot [supervision] to appease various segments of the community. Religiously observant people don’t eat in the homes of other religiously observant people who do not keep up with the latest humrot. This is the way of fire, the burning of the soul of Judaism and the turning of Torah life into a cultic framework.

How do we stay on the healthy, balanced middle path? Why do the forces of ice and fire grow so strong, as the middle path seems to grow weaker? Modern Orthodoxy stands for the middle path. It strives to maintain devotion to Torah and halacha while avoiding the extremes of the Right and Left. Yet Modern Orthodoxy finds that its children are being pulled toward both extremes. Some move to the Right, thinking this is a “more religious” approach. Some move to the Left, surrendering to the prevailing secular values of society.

Why does Modern Orthodoxy feel imperiled? It is difficult, even uninspiring, to fight for moderation, balance, compassion and inclusiveness. It is so much easier to take extreme positions, where one can argue from the vantage point of ice or fire, rather than to be “lukewarm.”

At a time when the vision of Modern Orthodoxy is so desperately needed, it seems to have lost its voice, its confidence, its ability to steer intelligently between the way of ice and the way of fire.

All Jews – whether Orthodox or not – need to hear a principled and articulate expression of the middle path. Happily, some Modern Orthodox voices are rising to the challenge. Let us all listen carefully. The future of Judaism and the Jewish people are at stake.

The writer is Founder and Director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. The institute is co-sponsoring, with Neemanei Torah vaAvodah, a conference on Modern Orthodoxy which will take place at Hechal Shlomo on April 21.)

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