The difficulty with being a Modern Orthodox Jew attempting to understand the Haredi community lies in our mostly knowing its negatives. When one thinks of the Haredi community, one generally thinks of extremism. The anecdotes that come to mind revolve around the Tznius Police in Israel, a focus upon obedience and guilt-tripping, all that which is distasteful or forced upon constituents who either submit to this brainwashing or abhor it. We cannot understand the allure of an insular community, have difficulty comprehending the concept of people who choose to be isolated and live outside of the tenets of our secular world, and this is all aside from the fact that if we choose to be honest, it is quite possible that we are embarrassed by people who make themselves so distinctly different, wearing their black and white garb proudly, without the faintest desire to fit in or otherwise agree with the customs of the times.
Such an approach fails to take in the absolute beauty of the Haredi lifestyle, all that which is pure in it, much of which it would be important for those who refer to themselves as Modern Orthodox to implement within their own lives. This is not deliberate; it is simply that our exposure to Haredi people is so limited and seems so uncultured in contrast to our own lifestyles that we cannot comprehend the beauty within the culture until it is shown to us so vividly that we no longer have the ability to deny it.
The first point is that ideally there should be no labels. Ideally, there ought to be no distinction between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox Jew, the only question there ought to be is whether or not one is a practicing Jew. There is right and wrong, and this is defined by the Torah, the guide which we claim to follow. If this is so, the only question that remains to us is whether we do right or wrong, whether we choose to obey or disobey the law. But with the understanding that the society we currently live in greedily clutches at labels, we shall assume there is a difference, and attempt to dissect it.
Perhaps the greatest distinction between the Haredi and Modern Orthodox philosophy appears with the idea of Torah u'Mada. Torah u'Mada suggests an equation, Torah and Science, by which we mean everything secular- secular studies and the like. We use the phrase without thinking about it; it has become a catchphrase, something easy, but what does it really mean? Does it mean to equate Torah and secular studies, and suggest that the same amount of value is to be found in both of them? Does it mean to suggest that secular studies are a form of Torah? Does it simply refer to the fact that one ought to be allowed to study secular studies alongside Torah? What in the world does the phrase mean?
It seems logical to begin at the beginning, in which case one refers to the Rav, the alleged founder of Modern Orthodoxy, for clarification. He states very clearly:
- I have heard criticisms against the Yeshiva that we have not yet achieved the proper synthesis between Torah study and secular endeavor; between fear of God and worldliness. We have not achieved what the German Orthodox Jews called "Torah with derekh eretz [worldly occupation"] [Avot2:2]. I claim that the true greatness of the Yeshiva is that it does not have this synthesis. The truth is that there is no real synthesis in the world. If there is a contradiction between Torah and secular endeavor, then synthesis is not possible. If there is a thesis and an anti-thesis, then no synthesis is possible. In general, a synthesis is very superficial. It is apologetic, it imitates others and the individual loses his uniqueness. In synthesis, no one succeeds. Even our great teacher Rabbi Moses ben Maimon [Maimonides] did not succeed in his attempts at synthesis. The greatness of the Yeshiva is that it is a real Yeshiva and on thesecond level a proper academic institution. Both divisions function without synthesis and compromise.
My students go from my shiur on the first floor of the Yeshiva building to their college classes on the third floor. In my class, they study in depth such talmudic topics as whether the signatures of the witnesses or the witnessing of the actual delivery make the get [divorce document] effective [Gittin 23a], or whether going over the writing on a get document can validate the get [Gittin 20a]. Then they go upstairs to their college classes, where they study theories in mathematics and physics. I am proud when my student is both a Torah scholar and a good college student. If there were a synthesis, both achievements would be weakened!
In this concept, our Yeshiva is unique. It is not like other yeshivot. [...] The Catholics also have religious universities. I do not like to imitate others! We have a Yeshiva, and because the times demand it, we also have a university. These two divisions will not be synthesized. They will remain two institutions. It may be like a man with two heads, but it is better to have two heads than not to have one. [Laughter]
The uniqueness of the Yeshiva is another reason why I am loyal to this institution. It is a reflection of my own thinking and commitment. (pages 229-231)
~The World of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, page 229.
Well, there is a simple example of a play being performed on a Friday night. Simply due to the fact that one would have to act in this play on a Friday night (and use a microphone or otherwise break the rules of Shabbat), one would not be allowed to indulge in this secular endeavor. But of course, there are examples that are murkier than that, and delve into shades of grey rather than easy black and white. And this has to do with secular endeavor on a whole.
What exactly is a book like The Fountainhead to me? Before now, I would have said that it was a form of Torah, because Torah encompasses everything, which means it encompasses all secular studies as well, which leads me to the idea that everything true and beautiful would be found within it, including the subject matter of The Fountainhead. Yet, when I come down to it practically, am I going to live my life in accordance to the tenets of Objectivism as outlaid in The Fountainhead or in accordance to the Torah? Should these values conflict (and they do, perhaps most strongly in Ayn Rand's take on charity, which works within her black-and-white construct of a world, but would not work when applied to our society) then I must stick with the Torah values. This means that the Torah is my guiding principle when determining what kinds of secular endeavor are appropriate or accurate. In this way the easy phrase "Torah u'Mada" becomes meaningless. The phrase seems to equate the two, to place them on the same level. Yet even I as a Modern Orthodox Jew must acknowledge that in fact Torah is higher than Mada, Torah trumps secular endeavor because it is Torah that defines what in secular endeavor is accurate or pure. This suggests that on the simplest level, a Modern Orthodox Jew believes just as a Haredi Jew does, that there is a hierarchy, and Torah appears before secular studies do.
In that case, one must then wonder exactly what role secular studies fulfill. There are several options. One could argue that secular studies in and of themselves have intrinsic value due to their introduction of pretty concepts and ideas, which one can enjoy simply as entertainment (but need not apply to one's life.) Then again, one could also argue that secular studies enrich one's learning and approach to Torah, as I find is the case with me. There are many ideas I could not have thought up unless I had watched movies or read books first, for it is only due to reading those books that I was even allowed to comprehend such an idea. But this begs the question- someone like R' Aharon Kotler, who did not delve into secular studies- do I mean to suggest that such a person was lacking in his knowledge of Tanakh and Gemara? No, for shame! That cannot be. For does not the Torah contain everything, and would a person not be able to grasp everything contained within it? What I can suggest is that perhaps it depends on the person. Some people would be able to come up with such creative thoughts simply from reading the Torah itself, while others would only have such ideas suggested to them through outside means, such as reading English literature. But even then, one must wonder whether an entire philosophy can be based upon what is best for a particular person. This is all aside from the most basic fact that it may simply be better to be exposed to something secular so that one does not find the forbidden attractive and alluring at another point in one's life.
The point remains- there is a hierarchy here, and Torah trumps Mada. As the Rav makes clear, if there is a conflict between Torah and secular endeavor, Torah wins out.
This brings us to the matter of halakha. What is halakha? Halakha has been incredibly misrepresented. This is perhaps due to the way in which it has been taught to us in our elementary schools and high schools. Halakha is a subject, just as Machshava/ Hashkafa is, Chumash is, and Navi is. Halakha has been interpreted as being one part of Judaism, one facet of Judaism, but is not in and of itself Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To be a practicing Jew is to keep halakha, to follow its tenets and its laws even when it makes demands on you that are absolutely horrifying to our ethically and rationally ordered minds. And this is what makes it so difficult to obey. We live in a Western society and for the most part we cannot help but be influenced by Western values. This allows us the illusion of thinking that something is morally or ethically right simply because it seems right to us. We are the final arbiter, the final judge, something is either logical or illogical to us. If something is distasteful, if we find something difficult, we do not hesitate to reinterpret halakha accordingly. Oh, some of us are less bold than others, and would not put it in such terms. But there is no doubt that that is what we are doing. We are recreating halakha to suit our needs, to suit the needs of the time, whether it be arguing that there ought to be women Rabbis, trying to come up with impossible loopholes in order to free agunot, or claiming that halakha on a whole is fluid rather than codexed, and that we have the right nowadays to take it further than it was hereto taken.
Why is it that we do this with halakha? What is the reason that we are not terrified, scared out of our wits to reinterpret it in this fashion? It is because many of us do not know people who truly live their lives in accordance to these principles, who function, live and breathe in accordance to halakha. To us, the concept is foreign. It is difficult for us to understand. We function as part of a society which promotes tolerance, the live-and-let-live approach. And practically, it is important that we do so. But it is similarly important that we realize that according to the tenets of the Torah, certain practices are permitted and others are not. My heart may bleed for homosexuals who wish to practice their homosexual behavior, but that does not mean that I can reinterpret this behavior as not being a sin simply because I do not want it to be so. The same goes with any other law, however it is derived. There is often (not always, but often) a distinction between the action and the person. One must have the ability to say that a person is not following halakha in a certain matter, but that does not in and of itself make them a less worthy person; one must be able to note the difference between right and wrong while still acting in a nonjudgmental fashion. And yes, this too is very difficult to do. But that does not mean that we must engage in apologetics in an attempt to allow for people to do what they want, simply because they want to do it. I too desire to do what I want, and sometimes I do. The difference is that most of the time I am very aware that I am simply doing what I want, rather than attempting to justify what I want and call it legitimate per halakhic practice.
Now comes the question of people choosing to live in an insular community. As a Modern Orthodox Jew, the first argument that comes to mind is one having to do with the strength of Judaism. If Judaism is a strong religion, shouldn't it be able to flourish and function in any society, no matter the deterrents or the opposition? And in that case, living in an insular community is a suggestion that Judaism can only function behind closed doors, an extremely weak form of the religion! As an idea, this sounds very appealing, does it not? But then there is the practical approach these people are taking. Practically speaking, who is going to be exposed to less ugliness in the Torah sense of the world, people living in this insular community or people living outside of it? Those of us who live outside of it are inured to various images, words and statements that would make those who live inside this community shudder. Can you imagine never having seen someone being mechalel Shabbat, or never having seen a billboard with a provocative picture of a woman? Can you imagine having the ability to shudder at such things, to see God's word defiled and stepped on by others, even by those who are not necessarily aware of what they do? Does it make you cry to see a non-religious Jew marry a non-Jew, or are you so used to it that you shrug your shoulders and continue about your day? There is a certain purity in being able to live a life that is insulated so that you might practice God's word in a community that truly values it, in a community where God's word is so much your life that to see anyone disobey it comes as a shock and something deeply hurtful for you.
Those who live outside such a community might instinctively express scorn for such an approach. Oh, it is not the real world, they will say. They will claim the real world is the world where God's word is trampled, where one becomes accustomed to its defilement and ill-treatment. But who says one must trade in one's purity for such a world? How does such an argument hold up?
This is not all. There is the institution of learning, of kollel. Now, let us grant to begin with that kollel is not for everyone, that indeed there are people who are not serious and who would not devote the proper amount of time or effort to study, and in that case are simply taking from the community's funds without giving back. But what is learning, truly? You have not seen learning until you have seen someone from the Haredi community learn. Learning is their life blood, something beautiful and true, something absolutely gorgeous, a song that flows through their veins and makes them live more truly, more beautifully, something which identifies them and makes them them. What is most important is the ease with which your Haredi scholar learns, the facility he has with texts and different ideas. He has mastered this at a young age, and for him the Torah truly is his lifeblood, something authentic, genuine and true, his master and his teacher, his beloved in a way that is incomprehensible to anyone unless they have either seen or experienced it. It is not the lackluster learning that many of us experience because we are forced into it, or even the increased intensity one accesses upon spending the year in Israel. It is learning as a deep and abiding pleasure; it is learning as a dance; it is learning as fire in the veins, which propels and seduces the one who studies the text.
And what of those who are not so smart? There is still the beauty in their commitment- they wake up in the morning, go to seder, begin preparing with their chavrusa and learn away. They have committed themselves and their time to their God. Do you realize the simple charm that lies in such a commitment? The ease with which they practice it? This is simply their life; they are truly humble; they take no excess pride in what they do; it is simply what they have been taught to do. To love God's law and to learn it each day, in a rhythmic sort of sway and dance. The fact that they do this so simply, so easily- that too is to be admired! That too is something beautiful.
This is a community which desires to live Torah, which has no tolerance for apologetics, for dancing around the truth of an issue. Something is wrong or right, muttar or assur, in accordance to the noted opinions of the scholars. Doing things in order to keep friends and avoid enemies is frowned upon, making certain claims because they are easier or we want them to be true is also frowned upon. So why do we have so much trouble submitting to halakha? It is that many of us lie to ourselves and refuse to see halakha as codified, preferring to see it as fluid, something still malleable, able to be created and changed. Or it is that we truly have had no role models who live their Judaism truly and genuinely, with respect for halakha in their every act, who are truly passionate about desiring to be pure, desiring to be bothered by things they see which are inappropriate or against God's law. But most of all it is that we want what we want- we want God to be compassionate on our terms; I want God's law to make sense to me- for it to make sense for me to kill an Amalekite, for him to have actually harmed me before I do so- and this is not a luxury I am granted. And for that, for that, I struggle so, and I cannot surrender- unless I change something in myself, unless I humble myself abjectly and utterly, which is something I must strive to reach, and have not yet reached.
Every community has its problems, and it is certain that one could point out problems in the Haredi sector just as one could point them out in the Modern Orthodox sector, the Centrist sector, the Reform or Conservative sectors, and so on and so forth. But it is necessary to understand the beauty in such a lifestyle, genuinely and authentically lived, to realize what passion fires the veins of its constituents, to see the grandeur of such an approach to one's God and one's religion, the respect with which its members hold its Rabbis and scholars. There is something so beautiful in this. God, it is so beautiful! I am envious, yes, very envious, of the ability they have to integrate Judaism and halakha, to see those two things as one and the same rather than seeing one as a part of the other. God grant that I should see it, too, and be able to humble myself before You as I would like! God grant me strength.