Friday, April 23, 2004

A Strange Way to Show Tolerance

There are but two problems with ultra-modern Orthodoxy. One problem is its style. The other is its substance. All the rest is commentary.

Certainly, money is no problem. What these folks preach resonates with some of our super-rich who love to hear how the rest of the still small Orthodox world has fouled up Jewish life. Despite their minimal achievements in Jewish education, scholarship and chesed activities, the ultras score big in public relations and fundraising because Orthodoxy-bashing sells.

The ultras speak of inclusion and tolerance, suggesting that this is what separates them from other Orthodox Jews. It turns out that their notion of tolerance is selective, that somehow they manage to be intolerant, even nasty, toward religious Jews who are more traditional than they are. They rarely say anything not nice about the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox or about their leaders or organizations. The gloves come off when they go after Jews with whom they should have a closer affinity. A case in point is the recent dinner of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the upstart seminary established by Rabbi Avi Weiss, a man of talent and ambition. The event featured a coarse attack against Yeshiva University by Howard Jonas, Chovevei’s lay chairman and the founder of IDT, who demonstrated anew that money can buy a great deal – including communal positions – but not wisdom or class.

Why the attack? Dinners are supposed to be tepid affairs at which persons who part (or pledge to) with some of their money are found to have extraordinarily admirable qualities that even close friends and relatives were previously not aware of. Why charge that at Yeshiva University, the “gutless and spineless” have joined “in a coalition with the mindless and senseless”? Mr. Jonas has formidable charitable accomplishments and he has promoted Torah study at his company. Intolerance is not his style, which adds to the puzzlement over his remarks.

Within the ultra subgroup there is an environment that encourages hostility toward the other Orthodox, as if this is the subgroup’s reason for existence. Even as the ultras claim the high ground of tolerance and openness, they can’t avoid bashing the Orthodox. This is how they distinguish themselves from other Orthodox Jews. This instinctive quality is evident when the ultra feminist claque gathers and also at Edah conferences.

If the ultras want to have a seminary, that’s fine, but can’t they go about their business without being hostile to those who embrace a more traditional brand of Orthodoxy? Incidentally, while it is true as the New York Times reported that the bulk of Chovevei students are drawn from what might be regarded as Yeshiva University’s ranks, because of the size and continued growth of Y.U.’s seminary, the impact on it is no more than minimal. The Jewish Theological Seminary may be more adversely affected because its enrollment is relatively small and it will lose more traditional applicants to Chovevei.

On the substantive side, the ultras uncritically accept modernity, as if the Orthodox critique is little more than the eruptions of Neanderthals who mindlessly reject nearly all that modernity offers as they seek a return to the ghetto. In the compound term “Modern Orthodox,” being modern is the dominant element. There is the ultra’s preferred slogan, “the courage to be modern and Orthodox,” as if it takes courage to be modern.

While the ultras find fault with religious Jews, they scarcely identify what it is in modern life that they do not accept. Are they unconcerned about the smorgasbord of social pathologies that harm young people, specifically including Modern Orthodox youth? The ultras are agitated because they believe that too many of the educators in day schools are charedi. There is no apparent concern about cable, drugs, movies, language, popular culture and all of the rest that is available in the wonderful world of modernity. If we just got rid of the frummies, day schools would be wonderful.

The ultras, along with other Modern Orthodox, deserve to be respected on certain issues that divide the Orthodox, notably attitudes toward Israel and secular education. But they need to be more understanding of why many religious Jews who espouse an openness toward what society has to offer have moved toward greater religiosity, toward an escalating break with modernity. There are more than a few ex-moderns who have similar family and educational backgrounds as the ultras and have the same kind of jobs but who have come to believe that much of modernity is contrary to Torah law and morality.

Co-education – particularly at the high school level - is a useful illustration of this point. Those who advocate single gender schools are often derided, yet there is abundant evidence that opponents of co-education are on solid ground. At the least, they deserve a more respectful response than being characterized as fundamentalist fanatics. The ultras ought to reflect on a recent article in the Jewish Press by Rabbi Mordechai Weiss, a respected Modern Orthodox principal and the brother of Avi. Its title is “Morality in Our Day Schools and High Schools.” Rabbi Weiss writes:

“Anyone who has any contact with Hebrew Day High School kids understands that the level of morality and modesty in both girls and boys has sunk to the lowest levels in our history.” And then, “In one high school that I visited, the age of sexually active girls was as low as the eighth grade. One young man in a reputable Hebrew Day High School proclaimed that his goal for his senior year was to ‘score’ with every freshman girl. Morality has sunk to levels in which we, as a united Jewish community, must cry out, ‘Will they make a harlot of our sister?’ ”

Is it too much to hope that instead of attacking the Orthodox, the ultras will attack this situation? Is it too much to hope that their sense of tolerance will be expanded to include other religious Jews?