I met someone very interesting over the past couple days, and it is clear that I need to reevaluate or at least modify my opinion about cultural Modern Orthodoxy.
I was very harsh at the time that I wrote that post. I pretended that I understood cultural Modern Orthodox teenagers; I see that I did not.
My post still stands for those who truly do know better, those who know halakha and choose not to practice it. These are people who know their religion pretty thoroughly and simply choose not to follow it.
But I met this person. And I talked to her for a while and I saw that the view she had been given of Modern Orthodoxy was very skewed. But it wasn't her fault that it was skewed; it was simply what she had been taught. For example, the words she kept on repeating, "These are new days." She seemed to believe that religion changes with the times (an approach that R' Hirsch discusses at great length and disavows.) She spoke very passionately about certain people she respects, Rabbis for instance, and she explained what they had taught her. It is clear that they have decided to teach a kind of halakha that the kids can practice rather than a halakha they know will have no impact at all. For example, with the ever-pressing topic of shomer negiah. So this girl felt very bad about not being shomer, for instance. So the Rabbi of the class gave a lecture where he explained shomer negiah on a highschool level in terms of something the kids could actually do. He explained it in time increments, that is, the first couple months you don't touch, and then if you do touch it's only minimal, and pretty much just don't have sex. And the fact was, this is something the kids could do, and not touching at all was not.
It never occurred to me that people could be raised with a complete lack of knowledge of halakha or the halakhic process as opposed to deliberately dismissing it. But now I see that people really may have no concept of what halakha means; it will appear as a bunch of laws some biased men put together years ago, archaic and outdated. Of course, the challenge is to make it more meaningful, but the point remains that people like this exist.
I was at this person's house for a while, and the part where I learned most was over dinner. A family member was reading a devar Torah aloud. It's the kind of devar Torah that I could smash in an instant; I could offer dozens of alternative approaches, all of them happier. And it was a really depressing devar Torah, the kind that wears on you and irritates you because it's all about how humans are weak and miserable and more of that mussar-oriented approach.
First I did it my way. That is, I critiqued this devar Torah and I expected that the person would be able to fight back and fight me and offer his approach as to why these words were relevant. That's because I assumed that of course he would have the same knowledge I have, and he had chosen to read this particular segment because it had meaning to him. Again, I was harsh, much harsher than I meant to be, and he was very deflated afterwards. Because I had just insulted his Torah- or at least, the Torah he had chosen to read aloud- and that is how he would see it, rather than my attempt to offer a much happier, less depressing approach.
And I realized that later and felt very bad about it because I never meant to insult anybody's Torah; it is just that I assumed that everyone has an equal amount of knowledge and that is not necessarily so, because it is very dependant on where you grew up and what circumstances you faced.
So I completely changed tones the next couple of days, especially when I was speaking to this girl. There's no way that I could or would disabuse her of the notion she had of shomer negiah, for instance, or the other overarching generalizations that are not true- for example, this idea of "These are new days." She suggested, for instance, that when the Messiah comes, women will be allowed to testify in certain cases because "these are new days." That's really not necessarily so. But I realized that this was not a case where I could put my ideals into practice and inform her about her own religion; it is simply not my place.
I also understand now, by the way, what the she'aino yodeah l'shol by the Seder night is. You know why that child doesn't know how to ask? It's not because he doesn't understand, or that he's a baby for instance. It's because he doesn't even know what he's missing! He doesn't even know that the understanding he has is flawed! He's not going to ask because he thinks he knows.
That's exactly the situation I was in: this girl is a very self-assured person who feels sure of her opinions and ideas exactly as they have been taught to her and it wouldn't even occur to her that she might be mistaken- as it shouldn't; why would it?
So what did I do, you're asking?
I did what I do best: I adapted.
We had a very pleasant conversation in which I threw in lots of ideas that would help to support her points- not the ones that were problematic, but other points. I don't know where it came up, but I referenced Rabbi Soloveitchik's opinion about "recreating the destroyed worlds" and other parts of his philosophy. We were all very genial and pleasant and it was really nice. It's very obvious that she's a good person and a good kid and yes, she's interested in a lot of things that I'm not interested in, because she's of the more popular group, and yes, she has a boyfriend, but what does it matter? You can see how sweet and sincere she is. Potentially misguided from a halakhic standpoint, but good and sincere nonetheless.
Anyway, meeting her threw me for a loop. Here I thought it was all so clear: we all attend Orthodox Jewish schools, we all have a basic knowledge and mastery of halakha; it is our choice to follow it or not to follow it. But that's not so at all.
I wonder about that Rabbi's approach. See, I personally would be very uncomfortable teaching something that works for our times, per se, and pretending that it is real halakha when it's not. But at the same time, I think it's good that he's teaching the girls something that they can do and practice in terms of shomer negiah rather than the impossible. I think I would just prefer that he wouldn't paint it under the name of "halakha" as that's misleading. Then again, I haven't been in his class, so I don't know if that's what he said or how this girl took it.
Either way, it's very good that he has these "Ask the Rabbi" sessions and the girls feel like they have someone to communicate with and to talk to.
I guess I don't believe in making people more religious; I simply believe in letting them have the information at their disposal, and a skewed understanding of halakha is a problem. But I can't sit down and have a whole discussion with her, even if I offered up every proof available, because she's not ready for it and wouldn't necessarily want to hear it; it's not my place.
And so, hard as it is, I can't put my ideals into practice and have to modify and change and adapt and say, well, this is good for now and hopefully I can make it better.