An Unorthodox Renaissance

Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life has written an op-ed about a new organization called PORAT (People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah). Its purported mission is to revitalize Modern Orthodoxy. Which he claims has been under attack and weakened by the move to the right - to the great detriment of the many Jews who would choose that path of observance. 

First he delineates 3 segments as follows: Charedi, Centrist, and Modern. I do not accept those delineations. Because Centrism is a modern denomination. Not some cross between Charedim and the left. A more correct delineation would only include 2 groups: Charedim and Modern Orthodox – each with their own subdivisions (e.g. Chasidim and Lithuanian Yeshiva types of the Charedi world - and Centrist and the Left Wing of the Modern Orthodox world.)

Centrism is very much modern in its positive attitude about secular education and secular culture. We value both in cases where they are compatible with Halacha. And that includes a wide variety of secular studies and general culture. This is not different than those of us to our left. But is different from the right that does not value secular education except for - at best - its utilitarian value (e.g. Parnassa). And they do not value secular culture at all. Modern Orthodox Jews (Both Centrists and the left) believe in participating in the culture. The Charedi world strives to avoid it as much as possible… assigning no positive value to it whatsoever.

If Mr. Bayme’s delineations would stand, Yeshiva University (YU) would not be considered Modern Orthodox anymore. Which is ridiculous. YU is the flagship Yeshiva of Modern Orthodoxy albeit with a heavily Centrist leaning.

The difference between Centrism and the left is in some of the innovations it has. Things which may fall within the parameters of Halacha, but which Centrism rejects as inappropriate. Centrism is Mesorah oriented and tends toward a more traditional Charedi approach to ritual observances.

An example of the left is Rabbi Avi Weiss’s Shul, The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. The configuration and customs of that Shul are designed to appeal to a more egalitarian Orthodox market. Although this is unappealing to a Centrist, and some of it even controversial (like Women’s Tefilah Groups) there are people that find this approach appealing, are drawn to it, and remain Orthodox because of it.

 So since it does not violate Halacha and there is a genuine need for the left, I support its existence even though it isn’t as traditional as it should otherwise be.

 Back to Mr. Bayme and PORAT. Although I disagree with his equating Modern Orthodoxy with the left, I agree that the left should be restored as a viable choice for an Orthodox Jewry that consists of a broad spectrum of Hashkafos. (Yes, there is overlap between all the Hashkafos. There are no hard lines.)

 But Mr. Bayme’s description of PORAT’s mission does not address its intent in my view. It contradicts it.

Instead of reigning in the recent excesses of Open Orthodoxy - which for me would be a legitimate and laudable goal in restoring the left’s legitimacy - it is instead indistinguishable from it. Mr. Bayme lists three reasons to justify PORAT’s creation which make that clear. None clearer than his third reason: 

PORAT is necessary today precisely because rather than becoming moribund, modern Orthodoxy appears to be on the cusp of resurgence. Gender equality, new rabbinical training programs, receptivity to modern scholarship in the study of the Bible and Talmud, renewed interest in interfaith dialogue — all have appeared on the Orthodox scene in novel ways in recent years. PORAT aims to work with the nascent institutions and voices promoting these values in the hope of creating a vibrant, exciting and inspired modern Orthodoxy.   

So instead of creating something new - this is yet another attempt to justify the extremes that Open Orthodoxy has embraced. I see no difference between the two. With all due respect to Mr. Bayme, I see no value in repetition. Creating yet another version of Open Orthodoxy will not help its cause. It will only serve to reinforce the resolve of their opponents to resist - and even reject them.