Thursday, July 26, 2007

Orthodox Judaism 2017 and Off the Derech Redux

Steve Savitsky at OU Radio has an interesting new series, "Orthodox Judaism 2017", which aims to address challenges and opportunities relevant to the future of Orthodox Judaism in the coming decade. He plans on interviewing people from different segments of the Jewish Community, whether modern or more Yeshivish.

I believe there is merit to such an open and diverse approach that includes trying to learn from different people. I think that it would be great if the Yeshivah World could show a similar openness, even if it would be a modified form, on it's own terms. Perhaps someone could come up with creative ideas as to how that could work in the Yeshivah world(part of the difficulty in the latter's being open to hearing multiple approaches relates to different limits of elu v'elu, but there are also some practical challanges that come with a diverse community makeup).

In the first interview Rabbi Michael Broyde identifies three levels of sets challenges facing the Orthodox community in the coming decade(one should listen to the actual interview, to get the full picture):

A) Social challenge involved in the decline of the Jewish community structure through intermarriage. More directly, the Orthodox community, despite it's growth, is affected by people defecting, even in insular Chasidic community.

B) Intellectual challenges that differ with each generation.

C) Inter-Orthodox schism, the concern that we possible could reach a point where shomrie Torah Umitzvos can not present a united front on certain issues, where we should be able to come together on.

Rabbi Broyde is concerned that any schism should not reach the level of the schism in Israel, where a united Orthodox front does not exist. Rabbi Broyde notes that "that which unites us is much greater than that which divides us", and that there already is cooperation within Orthodoxy, but that we need to build, publicly, on the behind-the-scenes type of cooperation already existing.

On the intellectual issue, Rabbi Broyde says:

One has to always be wary about fighting the wrong war, so to speak. The challenges posed by modernity to those who are of faith don't remain constant. The grand challenge to Orthodoxy 100 years ago which was the Documentary Hypothesis simply is unimportant in our time. Nobody leaves Orthodox Judaism over multiple authorship of the Torah, at least that's my sense.

But for example, as the Slifkin matter showed, this basic question of the compatibility of Torah with modern science, has proven to be an extraordinary important issue, and it's an issue that didn't strike a particular generation as crucial, but I think in our generation, this will prove a crucial issue. People will leave over the sense[i.e., their perception] that Torah is incompatible with modern science.

A different view, downplaying the Torah and Science issue, was presented in a Jerusalem Post article on the Slifkin controversy by Matthew Wagner:

The educator at Machon Lev agrees that answers should be provided, but believes the apparent contradiction between science and religion is not a burning issue for most religious youth.

"A century ago the contradiction destroyed the spirituality of thousands of Jews. But today there are many religious scientists and professors who have refuted supposed inconsistencies.
"I think what truly bothers contemporary religious youth is a much more personal, existential question. The real thinkers are concerned with why they were put on this earth and what they are supposed to do here."

I think the importance of Science and Torah, and intellectual issues in general, varies with the person.

More generally, and to refer to the Machon Lev educator's historical comparison, the question facing researchers into "Off the Derech" is how better, if at all, is today's Orthodox society than the previous European one. From a social perspective, based on issues like poverty and community structure, one might say that we are in a better position than the milieu of vulnerability of say, the 19th Century Volozhin Yeshivah, which had Haskalah activity within its walls (see Rabbi Dr. JJ Schacter's, " Haskalah, Secular Studies, and the Close of the Yeshivah of Volozhin in 1892" in Torah Umaddah Journal).

There were always defectors from even the most insular Orthodox communities. Dr. Marvin Schik has written on Hella Winston's Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels , that "there are more than a handful of hassidim who have left the fold. This phenomenon was evident in European societies that were far more closed than America's is…"

I will add this thought from a quotation mentioned in an
Avodah posting by Rabbi Bechhofer, which people will agree or disagree with based on their hashkafa(see thread there):

…the time is ripening for a new Haskalah movement to make new inroads precisely *because* our contemporary Charedi milieu is *not* emulating German Orthodoxy, but Eastern European Orthodoxy. V'hudavar pashut.

Also on the topic is Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried's Hakirah article "Are Our Children Too Worldly", where he addresses how strong and impermeable the fences built today are, and how to address the intellectual issues that seep through the fences of even an insular chasidic community.

From the essay:

The fences are in any case not impermeable, and building them higher and thicker will not help.

Gerry Albarelli is a non-Jew who taught “English” (i.e. secular studies) at the Satmar cheder in Williamsburg for five years and wrote a book about his experiences. In the book, Albarelli talks about his relationship with Mendy, the fifteen-year-old brother of a boy he had undertaken to tutor at home. Mendy would come home from yeshivah, often join in the tutorial sessions meant for his younger brother, and always insist on walking the teacher to the subway. Albarelli relates:

Then there are the questions that Mendy asks, walking me to the subway, week after week. He asks these questions as though everything depended on the answers:

“How they know the weather?” “What means geology?” “Who was Con Edison?” “Thomas,” I say, “Thomas Edison.” “No,” he insists, politely embarrassed by my ignorance. “Con, Con Edison.” We’re standing across from the elevated train. “Teacher,” he says, one day, “why is it we know from the Torah that the earth is five thousand years old but the museum have bones that are a million years?” “Oh. That’s a good question,” I say. “You should think about that question for a long time.”

Dr. Fried concludes,

If such questions come to children while they are in closed and protected communities, surely they will come to them when, as they must, they will one day step outside those communities. The reality is that you cannot forever keep children fenced in, and if so, you must provide them with the means to protect themselves in the future.

He notes in a footnote that:

Communities faced with these breaches in their walls usually respond by rededicating themselves even more zealously to building still higher and thicker walls. It does not work. They need to begin thinking about other measures that might work better. Perhaps they should be looking at educational measures.

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