Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Finding a more modern Orthodoxy- My speech at the Project Makom shabbaton

[A few people wanted to know what I spoke about on Shabbos at the Shabbaton and since I don’t have the Shabbos App, I was unable to record my speech. What follows is an approximation of what I said, plus or minus a few witty comments. Where appropriate, I add a little commentary.]


As many of you know, I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to say for many weeks. Before I start with what I am going to talk about, allow me to tell what I will not be talking about.

What I don’t want to say

  • MO is the right community for everyone- you’ve already spent enough time in a community that tells you it is the right place for you. I will not be doing that. In fact, I will not be speaking about Modern Orthodoxy. Instead I will speak about a more modern Orthodoxy.
  • That the charedim are wrong- I am not here to bash anyone. Different communities will work for different people.
  • That there is one way to be a Jew- As I always tell my students, anyone who says “The Jewish view of X is…” is almost always lying. There are many legitimate views.
  • Being modern Orthodox is about a uniform, or being a wishy-washy Jew- It is about being a serious Jew with a different perspective.
  • That I am here to teach you- I am not some brave modern Jew here to save from the error of your ways. In fact, I am not here to save you at all. I am here to speak with you, and to learn from you. Each of our communities can benefit from some of what the other one has.

So what do I want to say? Allow me to begin with a story

A friend who went to a very Litvish yeshiva, you know, the kind where they don’t play basketball during Elul [inside joke, you had to have been at the Shabbaton] told me of a time when he was saying selichos in Chevron by Maaras HaMachpeila. As he looked around, he noticed many types of yarmulkes, and modes of dress. As they sang “Tefilla L’Ani”, he watched the other Jews sing and realized that everyone there meant what they were singing, and wanted to be close to HaShem.

One of the biggest challenges is that for many of us, other types of Orthodoxy is seen, at best, as a bidieved. Forget that, from what I heard from some of you, being a different type of Orthodox Jew is like being a “sheigitz”. How do we change that?

I’d like to talk a little bit about stars.

Imagine someone like us, who lives in the Northern Hemisphere. He loves stars. He loves looking at the various constellations, and can name all of them. One day, he meets a person from Australia, who also loves stars. Only this person says he’s never heard of the other constellations. No Big Dipper. No Little Dipper. If the first guy didn’t know better, he’d think the other person was lying. Depending on where we are, we see things differently. It is not that one is right and the other is wrong. There are different perspectives.

So when did modern Orthodoxy begin? I’m not going to bore you with a historical analysis. Instead, allow me to mention various Jews who represent the best of what a modern Orthodox Jew might think. so where did it all begin?

  • Maybe it was Avraham Avinu looking around and finding HaShem through nature. As the midrash explains, Avraham looked at the world and realized there must be a Borei Olam.
  • Or maybe it was Dovid Hamelech looking up at the stars and saying  כִּֽי־אֶרְאֶ֣ה שָׁ֭מֶיךָ מַֽעֲשֵׂ֣י אֶצְבְּעֹתֶ֑יךָ יָ֘רֵ֥חַ וְ֝כוֹכָבִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר כּוֹנָֽנְתָּה: מָֽה־אֱ֭נוֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ: וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹקים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ: Looking up at the stars we talked about beforehand, he engaged in serious thought about man and his relation ship with God.
  • I know. It was Rebbe Meir. When his rebbe, Elisha ben Avuya stopped believing, Rebbe Meir continued to learn from him. In a way similar to what Rambam would say 1,000 years later, Rebbe Meir realized that we can learn from everyone, and that the idea should be judged, rather than the person saying it. The gemara tells a beautiful story of rebbe and talmid studying together on a Shabbos, as Acher rode a donkey. When they reached the techum Shabbos, he told Rebbe Meir he had reached the limit of permitted travel. Apparently, even non-believers can be caring, sensitive people, who have what to teach us.
  • On the other hand, it could have been Rav Saadya Gaon  and Rambam who taught that Torah and TRUE science don’t conflict. More than that, they can’t conflict as they are given by the same Creator. In fact, they said that when there is an apparent conflict between the two, we leave science as it is, and realize we have misunderstood the pasuk. They taught us that we need not fear as we engage with the secular world.
  • This might seem odd, but it could have been the Baal Shem Tov and the early founders of chassidus who emphasized the words “Bechol deracheicha da’eihu”. Through all of our traits, and all aspects of our personality, we can connect with HaShem. We need not hide who we are to be a good Jew.
  • Some would say it was Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who taught that we could combine the best of Jewish and general culture, that a Jew could use modern culture including art, music, and poetry as part of their Avodas HaShem. He also taught that when it came to science, the chachamim used the best available science of their time, and therefore could make mistakes. No one is perfect other than HaShem.
  • My suggestion might be Rav Kook who taught that no part of the world is foreign to a Jew, that extremism is harmful to Judaism, and that if we look at things correctly we can  see HaShem in everything. In LeNevuchei HaDor [holding up the sefer] he wrote a new Moreh Nevuchim for his generation. He saw that his generation was struggling. Instead of banning questions, he tried to give them a framework to use to deal with the questions
  • This might surprise you, but it could have been Sarah Schneier who founded the Beis Yaakov movement. She knew that while Torah doesn’t change, the world we apply it to DOES change. The BY she founded was open, serious and intellectual. There are various approaches to women learning Torah. Different people will follow different approaches, but for the women here, if you want to learn serious Torah, do it. When my daughters were born I thought about what I want for them, and I know I want them to all have the opportunity to learn Torah on a serious level. Throughout history, women like Bruriah, who was married to Rebbe Meir, as well as Rav Hutner’s daughter, who helped him edit Pachad Yitzchak, through today with women like Dena Bloch who will be speaking next, have studied Torah at the highest levels. Knowledge is power. The more you learn, the less others can tell you what you must think.
  • Getting to more recent times, modern Orthodoxy is lived by people Aaron Feuerstein who owned a factory in a small town where many of the locals worked. When the factory burned down, Feurstein continued to pay his workers their salary at great personal cost. This is not an Artscroll story. For a while, he faced bankruptcy. Still, he saw the Tzelem Elokim in everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, and he placed mentschlichkeit before profits.
  • Finally, let’s consider Robert Aumann who is a Nobel Prize winner. He came late to the ceremony so that he would not have to violate Shabbos. He also wrote a commentary on Maseches Kinnim, one of the most complicated masechtos in Shas Mishnayos, which he helped explained using the same math that won him the Nobel Prize. [NOTE: apparently I confused RA with someone else who used math to explain Kinnim. RA used game theory to explain a challenging sugya in Kesuvos]

[At this point, I added in a bit about my personal religious struggles, as well as my journey from and back to Modern Orthodoxy. ]  Sometimes we have to leave our birth community behind. At times, it is possible to come back to what we left behind, at least the good parts, and incorporate them into our new lives.

Finally, bringing it full circle, let’s talk again about stars:

In Tehillim Perek 147 pasuk daled it says
מוֹנֶ֣ה מִ֭סְפָּר לַכּוֹכָבִ֑ים לְ֝כֻלָּ֗ם שֵׁמ֥וֹת יִקְרָֽא:

He (God) counts the stars, and gave names to them all. What does this mean? The Malbim teaches that HaShem values each star. We might look up and see stars, but each one is unique. Each one is an individual. In the world you are in, you have not always been treated as individuals, but you are stars. Each and every one of you. As Chazal teach, just as no two people look alike, no two people have the same personality. You are individuals, and each of you is unique.

[A few people wanted to know what I spoke about on Shabbos at the Shabbaton and since I don’t have the Shabbos App, I...

Posted by Pesach Sommer on Tuesday, June 16, 2015


  1. Did Dr. Aumann write about Maseches Kinnim? A short search didn't turn it up.

    He famously wrote about Ketubot (good summary: http://terpconnect.umd.edu/~jmr/MathTalmud.html).

    If he also wrote about Kinnim, I'd like to read it.

    1. Thank you. It seems I might have confused someone else's work with his. I have noted the mistake on the blog.

  2. "On the other hand, it could have been Rav Saadya Gaon and Rambam who taught that Torah and TRUE science don’t conflict. More than that, they can’t conflict as they are given by the same Creator. In fact, they said that when there is an apparent conflict between the two, we leave science as it is, and realize we have misunderstood the pasuk."

    I think the last sentence is an MO myth. The Rambam spells out two reasons why he didn't treat Genesis 1 as an alegory:

    1- Aristotle didn't really prove that the universe is eternally old. His argument is flawed.

    2- That understanding would be contradict the teachings of all our prophets and sages.

    For some reason, MO Jews tend to forget the second part, creating a lopsided image. I think the Rambam was far more intellectually honest than your version makes him appear. If there is an apparent contradiction, you must have misunderstood something -- either the Torah (including Oral Torah's take on the verse, not just the verse itself) or the philosophy. You cannot assume you know which. Just that if you see a contradiction, it cannot be real.

    I also see traces in the body of this summary that contradict the opening call for plurality. For example, inherent in your choice of Aaron Feuerstein as an example MO Jew you imply that chareidim are ethically inferior when dealing with people outside our community. Similarly, the closing bit about stars implies something about chareidism being a cookie-cutter system that demands too much uniformity. Whether true or not, it's not the even-handedness you promised in the opening.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I see I already blogged my point about the Rambam. See Aspaqlaria: When Science and Torah Conflict

      What you are saying is kind of like insisting that if the Rambam had another brother, that brother would have liked noodles.

    3. http://www.aishdas.org/asp/when-science-and-torah-conflict

    4. My concern is not with whether Rambam seriously considered accepting Aristotle's formulation. My concern is that he clearly accepted Rav Saadyah Gaon's formulation that provable science is one of the things that forces us to re-read peshat in a pasuk.

    5. I am saying that it is equally true, and equally contained in the very same paragraph in the Moreh, is that the Rambam clearly accepted as well that a well established and not controverted tradition is one of the things that force us to question the validity of a philosophical proof.

      As did RSG.

      They didn't believe contradiction was possible. That doesn't mean they believed that philosophical had greater epistemic strength than mesorah.

    6. To quote 2:25. "Kapach" (el-Qafih):
      כי אילו הוכח החידוש, ואפילו לפי השקפת אפלטון, היה נופל כל מה שהעזו בו הפילוסופים נגדנו.
      וכן אילו נתקיימה להם הוכחה על הקדמות כפי השקפת אריסטו, הייתה נופלת כל התורה ויעבור הדבר להשקפות אחרות.
      הנה ביארתי לך שכל הענק תלוי בחקירה זו, דעהו.