Thursday, August 24, 2006

Centrism and "Extremism"

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the transcript of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s lecture regarding Centrist Orthodoxy. His cogency and erudition make for a pleasant perusal.

Beyond what Jak and I posted a few days ago, there are some additional points, beyond Madda, (though there will be some overlap) which caught my attention and are worthy of further discussion. One of them is the Centrism/ “Extremism” divide. My references to “extremism” throughout this segment are not meant to refer to going out of the bounds of what is considered “normal”, to excess. I mean a zealous devotion to an ideology, to the point of striving for the pinnacles of achievement in those areas.

Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

It is only by instilling this kind of passion that
we can avoid the lapse of centrism into mere compromise.
There ARE times when one must compromise, and this itself

is an issue between us and the Right: how are we to gauge

the qualitative as opposed to the quantitative element?

They are the champions of the qualitative, "shemen zayit

zakh" - adherents of the position which, in a magnificent

sentence in his On Civil Disobedience, Thoreau presented

that, "It is not so important that many should be as good

as you, as that there be some absolute goodness

somewhere; for that will leaven the whole lump." We have

a much greater commitment to the quantitative element, to

reaching large segments of the community, even if we are

only to reach them partially and the accomplishments are


But even if we must, in a certain sense, compromise,

it cannot be out of default. I remember years back

reading a remark of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and a very

perceptive one; he said, "The problem with the

Conservatives is not that they compromise - it is that

they make a principle out of compromise." We cannot, God

forbid, make a principle out of compromise, nor can we

lapse into it by default. But if we are to avoid

lapsing, then that passionate commitment must be kept

burning. It is only when we can attain that, that

Centrism as a vibrant and legitimate spiritual force can

be sustained. Only by generating profound conviction can

we sustain ourselves from within and be inured onslaughts

from without: conviction of the overall importance of

Torah and of the worth - and there is worth!
- of our own
interpretation of it.

There is no question that any movement or ideology requires passionate adherents, or it will perforce be condemning itself to mediocrity, apathy, and, ultimately, demise. However, what must be considered is whether a Centrist upbringing will water down passion for Torah and her ideals, not whether it will dilute passion for Centrism!

I believe that true passion, enthusiasm, and soul-bonding, can be instilled only in conjunction with an acceptance of “extremism” in that which is meant to be inculcated. If enthusiasm for the idea of Torah study as a pursuit, meant to fill both our set times and our spare moments, is to be successfully imparted, there is no room for tempering that gusto with competing values. If going to college, even if we were to assume a pristine environment of pursuit of the humane, is presented, from the earliest years of junior high, is an ideal which one must strive for, even at the expense of precious hours of Torah study, then we have split the protégé’s attention, and have denied him the opportunity to taste the sweet flavor of unbridled passion for Torah.

Of course, the Torah itself demands that in a situation of a Mitzvah which cannot be performed by others, that Mitzvah takes precedence to continued engagement in Torah study. And, to be sure, pursuit of a Parnassah, and a broadening of one’s own horizons, is a Mitzvah which cannot be done by others. However, these are areas which should be pursued only after the passion for Torah study is firmly entrenched in the heart of the student. This cannot happen, for the vast majority of students, in an environment where the option of multi-year, or multi-decade, study of Torah is not seriously contemplated. There is no question that, from Chazal’s standpoint, a person who decides to commit himself to a life of Torah study, making do with the limited funds (and the healthy dose of Bitachon) accompanying this lifestyle, is a Kodesh Kodoshim. He has not only made an excellent choice, but, in terms of Torah study, he has made the choice to be excellent. True, not everyone, not nearly so, is able to make this choice. But this “extremist” approach to Talmud Torah must be there, not only as a thoroughly acceptable, even beyond merely a laudable, option. It must be presented as the pinnacle of achievement, even if only to impress upon the Talmid, the concept, in full color, of כי הם חיינו ואורך ימינו, ובהם נהגה יומם ולילה

In a similar vein, zest in adherence to Halachah must be given the leeway of some extremism in this regard. A person with deep Ahavas Hashem will want to do whatever he can to avoid sin and to please the A-mighty. Now, there is no question that this extremism can spill into areas where it is undesirable, such as in condemnation of others, or lacking perspective of countervailing, or superseding, Halachic concerns. Nevertheless, temperance and perspective must never be had by a dampening of zeal. It must be through a channeling of that zeal to appreciation of the need for tact or balance.

As the Chazon Ish (Iggeros Chazon Ish 3:61), in a letter which is all but the antithesis of Centrism, put it:

"Just as simplicity and truth are synonymous, so are extremism and greatness synonymous...We are accustomed to hearing in well-known circles, as announcing about themselves that they have no share among the extremists, and they nevertheless reserve for the themselves the right of (being) a loyal Jew with sufficient Emunah in Torah and the words of Torah. And we allow ourselves to state from the vantage-point of justice, that just as among those who love wisdom there is no love for a bit of it and hatred of abundance of it, so too there is not among those who love Torah and Mitzvos a love of the middling and a hatred of extremism.

All the fundamentals of faith, the 13 principles, and their derivatives, are always in vigorous contradiction to easily grasped concepts and the ebb and flow of life developed under the sun. And their clear and justified cognition, which grants an excess of particularism in believing in them, is the pleasantness of extremism.

And those who testify about themselves that they have not tasted the sweetness of extremism, are simultaneously testifying that they are lacking in faith in the principles of the religion in terms of their analytical prowess and emotional bonds, and only with the ropes of some level of relationship are they tethered to them. And the extremists, at the depths of their soul, with all of their most intense wish to pity those lacking in extremism, will not accord respect and honor to those who oppose them. And the abyss which divides them, when it meets with practical actions which create, by the force of their nature, arguments and bickering, will add to the rift incurably.

The Beinonius which has the right of existence, is the attribute of the Beinonim who love extremism and strive for it with all of the will of their soul, and they educate their descendants to the apex of extremism. But how pathetic is the Beinonius which has contempt for extremism. The obligation of our Chinuch is to extremism! The armory of Chinuch is, to plant contempt and disgust for those who mock extremism.

Therefore, the following statement of RAL, which seems to be a granting of legitimacy to Centrism due to the feelings of the parents [1] and teachers being condescended to, is a bit dismaying:

The process of the shift to the right, especially
with respect to the younger generation, is for many
fraught with pain and a sense of almost bitter irony.
Parents who sacrificed so much in order to maintain
Shabbat observance or to establish and support day
schools at a time when none of these were the vogue,
suddenly find that their homes are not kosher enough or
their Kiddush cups not large enough. Analogously, at the
professional level, educators who pioneered in the Five
Towns or Johannesburg when these were, from a Torah
standpoint, literally deserts, are chagrined to discover
that their very students now regard them with a jaundiced
and condescending eye.

I can only speak for myself, but if my children were to come home one day and tell me that they want to start keeping Yashan in Chutz LaAretz, with all the code checking and mild hardship that entails - not due to social pressures, sincerely - I would be thrilled. If they told me they wanted to try to fulfill some of the more stringent opinions of the Chazon Ish, I would be overjoyed! My children have come on to the path of “extremism”, read, excellence!! They want to excel in their Avodas Hashem, and this is a manifestation of that drive. To be sure, imposition of super-Chumros on others is incorrect, but feeling pain as a reaction to their personal choice, and even to a request from them to alter what goes on in my house, is misplaced. They are passionate, and in their zeal they may overstep the bounds of what is proper to request - but to dampen their enthusiasm by denigrating it is a death knoll to excellence. It is indicative of the lack of passion which RAL identifies in the latter part of the lecture as an Achilles heel of the Centrist community. Unquestionably, if there are issues of basic Halachic adherence in a home, they must be dealt with in a manner exuding tact and grace (any Charedi Rav would agree!). It is not the stuff out of which one builds an alternative worldview.

The Chazon Ish, at the end of the same Iggeres, addresses these issues:

"It is true, that for the boiling spirit in the heart of the youth, it is not beyond possibility that they will issue a heated judgment on the individuals among the mockers, and in a manner which is exaggerated. However, the development of the youth to true love of Torah, which is required for fascination of the soul and Heavenly pleasantness, does not allow to place hindrances on the path of life which leads to 'sitting in crowns and basking in the Glory."

The Chazon Ish concludes with an uncharacteristically harsh condemnation of attempts at limitation of zeal as a Shita:

Those who establish middling houses of Chinuch, were unsuccessful, because of the phoniness which is in the middling. And a wise heart gradually rejects phoniness. Their Chinuch, grants legitimacy to the protege to turn his back on laws which are thrust upon him against his will, and on the beliefs which distress his heart in opposition to the flow of life, and the secret of extremism they have robbed of him, as his parents and teachers have also ruined it.

[1] On a humorous note, I once heard one of these parents self-described as PORK -“Parents Of Religious Kids.” Apparently, some who pick their kids up at the airport at the end of a year in Israel, only to meet a barely recognizable Borsalino hatbox toting youth, are wont to call themselves thus in their chagrin at the socially discomfiting turn of events.

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