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There is No Tent

Originally Posted on YUBeacon.com: There is No Tent

Lately it seems like everyone is trying to define Modern Orthodoxy. The purpose of these attempts revolves around one specific institution and its graduates, Yeshiva Chovevei Torah (YCT).

Four articles (1, 2, 3, 4) on a prominent Centrist-Orthodox blog tried to tackle the YCT issue (see links below). Three of the articles called on Modern Orthodoxy to disaffiliate with YCT. One article explained that YCT deserved to be included in the Modern Orthodox tent. Much ink has been spilled over YCT and the more that is written, the more things stay the same. Platitudes and proclamations have done nothing to stop YCT. Indeed, they serve a need within Orthodox Jewish community. They tend to those who would like to be Orthodox but find some its social constraints too limiting. There is a place for YCT. However, there is no place for the articles calling for its demise.

The articles assume there is an umbrella under which some institutions, rabbis or individuals are permitted to take shelter. The outsiders are subject to excommunication and ridicule. It is a tent where like-minded people share common goals, appreciation and self-congratulation. In their opinion, YCT belongs outside the tent.

A second assumption in the articles is that Modern Orthodox Judaism needs a definition. It must be codified lest it suffer some horrible end. Without a definition it is doomed to be over-inclusive and possibly even under-inclusive. There is talk that YCT is “counterfeiting Torah” and that must be ousted from the Modern Orthodox camp.

All this talk of camps, umbrellas, tents and definitions is misplaced. Similarly, limited denominations such as Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are misplaced.

Tackling the second assumption first, it seems that Modern Orthodoxy has a complex. It needs “defining.” It is as if Modern Orthodoxy feels that it is novel form of serving God or an aberration from the classic style of Jewish life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Modern Orthodoxy needs to have the confidence to positively assert that Modern Orthodoxy is not the “kid brother” of big-boy Charedi Judaism. It is the Charedi world that is an aberration from almost every Jewish society in recorded history.

Jewish life for over 2500 years has been determined by fealty to God, Torah and Mitzvos all while living with one foot in the general society. Tannaim held typical jobs and conducted conversations with Greek philosophers. Similarly, Amoraim discussed religion with Roman royalty. During the period of the Geonim and Rishonim, Jews had jobs, educated Jews studied the sciences and philosophy of their day and the great Torah scholars were well versed in many disciplines including Torah. Even during the period of the Achronim, many of the most famous interpreters and codifiers of law were proficient in science, mathematics and philosophy.

Where is the societal precedent for today’s isolationism and shunning of all wisdom outside of Torah? Why does Modern Orthodoxy not proudly assume the mantle of traditional Judaism? Why does it always feel like Modern Orthodoxy needs to be explaining and defining itself?

Modern Orthodox Judaism is a straight shot from the Jewish life that was lived for thousands of years by Torah observant Jews. There is nothing for Modern Orthodox Jews to be ashamed of other than not realizing this important point. Torah observance is primary; there is no doubt about that. Wisdom found outside Torah has always been valued and there is no reason that should be any different today.

As to the first assumption, that of the tent: Judaism is the only necessary denomination. Everything else is just the narcissism of small differences.

Throughout Jewish history, Jews with varying degrees of observance and a variety of beliefs lived side by side. Sometimes they quarreled, oftentimes vociferously, but their disagreements took place in one tent. It was unwise and unfruitful to divide and self define into small groups. More significantly, there was no social benefit to doing so.

In Ashkenaz, for their non-Jewish neighbors, the Jewish people were “the other.” For the Jewish people, the non-Jewish people were “the other.” There was no need to drill down into subgroups. There was no social benefit to subgrouping.

When non-Jews ceased to be “the other,” as Ashkenazik Jews became more integrated into general society, a new “other” was created. The more integrated group branded the more isolated group as “Orthodox” and the more isolated group branded the more integrated group “Reform.” Jews were now “the other” for other Jews.

In truth, this was a tragedy. Judaism is not just a religion. It is a family. We are all united as Jews by common ancestry. We are also united as people who follow the Jewish religion. But one can be a non-religious Jew. This is not so with other religions. By calling one another “the other” we cast aspersion across the religious spectrum. Fights and disagreements ensue. Communication is halted. And this is where we start erecting self-serving tents. There should be only one tent. A tent that is large enough for our entire family, no matter how they observe. Our family should all be able to live under one tent.

This is not a pipe dream. At least three contemporary Jewish communities function in this way. These communities are the South African, Persian/Iranian and the Syrian communities. In these communities there is no segmentation based on Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox. Rather, everyone is part of a larger community and within the larger community some families are more observant than others. Yet, many different levels of observance will be found in one shul or one school

It wasn’t too long ago that this was the case in Ashkenazic communities in North America. In the 60’s and 70’s, children from non-observant homes went to school with children from very observant homes. The greater Jewish community was not strong enough to tolerate subgroups and segmentation. Our strength has become a curse. We are now very strong and we now are willing to exclude fellow Jews from our tent.

These subgroups do not serve a religious purpose. Judaism has always been about performing the mitzvot as prescribed in the Torah. It is a personal relationship between Man and Creator. There is no allegiance that must be paid to human dogmas. People are supposed to study, learn and forge their own relationship with God.

To this end, what purpose does the tent serve? Who needs a tent and tenets of the tent to tell them what to do and how to act? The Torah, its interpreters and codifiers have given us all that we need. The tent only serves one purpose: to exclude others.

It is true. Most Jews are not Orthodox. Most Jews do not celebrate Shabbat and the holidays the way that Orthodox Jews celebrate those days. Most Jews do not adhere to the strict rigors of halacha. So what? Why should those factors determine who is the tent? Who benefits by not allowing them into our tent? No one does.

The differences in observance might matter at some point. A Shabbat invitation will require that both parties are comfortable with the level of kashrut. A dating couple will need to be religiously compatible. There are a few examples, but they are only a few. It is up to the individual parties to try to find common ground. A tent is not needed to make these decisions for us.

Are we scared that some exposure to less halachically observant Jews will cause or own to run off and frolic in the fields with the less observant? Is the current edition of Orthodox Judaism so flimsy that mere interaction with others will cause it to crumble beneath the weight of enlightenment? I should hope not. If we have the truth, and I believe we do, what are we so afraid of?

As the rabbi of a shul that calls itself Orthodox but is a spiritual home to Jews (and non-Jews) of every single level of observance, I can attest that it can be done. Not only can it be done, it can be done in spectacular fashion. Our shul has something akin to a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Anyone who wishes to pray and learn in our shul is welcome. There is no “Tzitzis check.” There is no subgrouping based on observance. And it works. Sometimes there are awkward moments. But our relationships are more important than those moments of discomfort and I don’t believe any of us would trade our friendships and shul family so that we would never have to think critically on our own about how we interact with others. I believe we have a viable model. I believe that we have a preferable model. I believe our tent is big enough for every Jewish person to find spiritual shelter together. I believe that firmly grabbing hold of the Modern Orthodox, non-isolationist view, we can return to a more authentic and traditional Judaism that empowers us to embrace Jew of all textures and flavors. It will allow us to break free from the limitations of a tent and it confining walls. Following this model, there is no tent.


29 Comments
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  • Anonymous

    It is the Charedi world that is an aberration from almost every Jewish society in recorded history.

    I would also prefer no tent, but if there has to be a tent for now, then we ought to allow the Charedim to exit (rather than to continuously eject others).

  • http://twitter.com/alexphilo7 Philo

    This is one of your best posts ever. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6013153 Shlomo Abraham

    Excellently written first-half of an article. :)The only ‘tent’ for people we should be talking about should contain all Jewish people. Agreed. People can be culturally Jewish, religiously Jewish, both, neither, and still be Jewish. Agreed again.

    Where lines start to get drawn is around ideas. And perhaps it is better to think of them as ‘Torah-compatible’ rather than ‘Jewish’. Woody Allen, for an extreme example, is most certainly Jewish, but doesn’t live a lifestyle that is Torah-compatible: (having an affair with, then marrying your step-daughter).

    Certain rabbis espouse lifestyles that aren’t Torah compatible as well. Certain rabbis perform gay marriages for example. I think you would agree that is encouraging a lifestlye incompatible with Torah-observance. Should Torah-observant rabbis embrace such a man as a colleague? I don’t think so. So too with Moden Orthedoxy, if it as a philosophy, is striving to foster observance of the Torah and Mitzvot, then efforts should arguably be made to exclude those who aren’t doing so, yet wrapping themselves up in the same flag.

    Whether YCT encourages or discourages Torah observance… I’m not sure. I think it does more good than harm now, but it could go the wrong way quite easily. But I quibble with the contention that there is no need for exclusions, definitions, dividing lines, etc.. You do realize that after you said ‘no tents’ you went ahead and defined what your tent looks like. :)

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I disagree. As you would expect.

      There is no need for statements of who embraces whom and what my group’s accepted practices are and are not. It is just useless blabber.
      I described “my tent” as a tent that is absolutely inclusive. That’s the point. It’s not much of a tent…

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6013153 Shlomo Abraham

        ‘Absolutely inclusive’ is a platitude that boils down to meaningless. Does your Jewish non-tent include people like Bobby Fischer who swore off any Jewish affiliation? Does it include The Kabbalah Centre? Does it include Christianity? Jesus was Jewish. Is Hinduism part of that tent? If Brahma = Avraham…

        Your rose-tinted history also doesn’t measure up. There were groups that were branded as ‘out of the tent': Kaarites, Saducees, etc.. There also were divided lines within the Torah observant tent: Mitnagdim/Chasidim, Ashkenaz/Sefard, with serious questions at times whether or not Chasidism belonged inside the tent.

      • Kibi Hofmann

        I like your post, but I have to agree with Shlomo – getting on with everyone sounds great, until someone comes along and says something that you utterly disagree with should actually be fine and dandy. My understanding is that you run a shul – so it makes sense that people who come in all respect the basic ground rules you have set. Assuming you keep orthodox-like gender segregation in the shul, I doubt people come in and demand to be seated husbands and wives together. But what if they did demand it? And what if you said “no, we don’t do that here” and what if they said “but my Rabbi says it’s ok”? At some point you have to say “this is my place and these are my rules”. This unfortunately happens all the time and about issues which are basic and divisive – Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha.
        You lamented that communities split themselves into Orthodox, Conservative and Reform groups, as if people’s only worry was petty politicking. It’s in no way as simple as that – in old shuls there were always people who kept less mitzvot – and there are well established halachic guidelines on how to deal with issues that might come up – will you eat in their house, will you count them in a minyan. At a certain point a couple of hundred years ago, the Reform movement decided that their non-observance was actually correct observance. It’s not a simple Hillel/Shammai argument where we can agree to disagree, one side completely abrogated the basic principles of Jewish tradition as an official standpoint. That being done, it became necessary when someone said “I’m observant” to ask “observant Orthodox, or observant Reform?” since they are for all intents and purposes different religions. It’s unclear to me at what point Christianity finally split from Judaism, but it must have been a similarly difficult process for the Rabbis back then – do we want to lose thousands (millions?)  of Jews, or should we just say these Messianic ones are Jews who are a bit “off the derech”. Reform Judaism clearly denies Torah, it doesn’t reinterpret it, or understand it differently, it clearly decides that “Torah is nice but it isn’t how we run our lives”. That has been a choice made by millions of Jewish individuals over millennia, and for any individual we can always say ‘you made that choice, now unmake it and come back to us’ – we could say that to someone who converted to Christianity, Islam or Hinduism too. But at no point (since the split) have we defined Christianity as “inside the tent” with Judaism.

        • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

          This is in reply to @google-3ff528c9f1c4bd9d95c7bd8384ab18b1:disqus and @facebook-6013153:disqus :

          I think you are both missing the greater point. There are people that might not belong in a synagogue. But that must be determined by “affiliation”. In fact affiliation is useless. There should be no affiliations. There should not be calls from on high to extirpate people who belong to groups by dint of the fact that they belong to those groups. If you were a conservative (politically) and your family was liberal would you expect that they would disassociate from you?! Of course not. We have to view every Jew as a brother and sister. I really doubt that we would be erecting small like-minded tents if we all truly felt as if every Jew was family.

          I am aware that throughout history Jews have erected self serving and exclusive tents. It was dumb then and it is dumb now.

          (Shlomo, by the way you might want to read my post on Sacred Trash to see how Karaites and Talmudic Jews got along in Cairo: http://finkorswim.com/2011/05/17/book-review-sacred-trash-the-lost-and-found-world-of-the-cairo-geniza/)

          • Kibi Hofmann

            Being a conservative or liberal politically is a valid position, and people can agree to disagree with no harm done. If I declared myself a Holocaust denier or a dedicated follower of the teachings of Sun Myung Moon, my family would probably be extremely distraught, and yes, might eventually disassociate from me in despair.

            If people said (and people have said this to me) that they are not so hot on Shabbat or Kashrut or whatever, then I understand that, because after all, who’s perfect? So, I have lots of things I do wrong, it’s not for me to say that my flaws are less than theirs. And I probably gloss over my flaws and don’t outright admit that I’m wrong too, I try to justify myself and so on. But Reform Judaism redefines itself as something new, not a failing, not a laziness, not a mistake, but as a new view on how to be Jewish. In this sense it’s like Shlomo said comparing it to Karaism, or as I compared to Christinaity. There is no doubt those movements started off in mainstream Judaism, and there is also no doubt that they at some point crossed a line which took them out of the fold permanently. Again, any individual could “become” a Karaite or a Christian and do it out of a sense of questing for the truth, and be a lovely person, but at some point, that person has removed themselves from the Jewish continuum. And of course they can come back – there are all sorts of stories of people who went in all sorts of directions and ended up orthodox Jews – not even mentioning converts. So that’s my opinion of Reform Judaism –  most of the followers are undoubtedly Jewish at this time (as time goes on the increase of intermarriage will muddy this) and are probably ignorant of most Jewish practise while being affiliated to a movement which is called Jewish. If you don’t make the point of saying that they are wrong, then you are doing them an injustice by complicitly approving their religion. Remember that most people experience religion as “something my family does” without a great deal of intellectualization, and when faced with resistance, usually react form the guy, not the head. It is correct to be friendly and nice to all people from all belief sets, but you do have to define yourself at some point and your beliefs too – and while I have no problem saying “Reform Jews are wonderful” it’s problematic to say “sure Reform Judaism is ok”. 

          • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

            it is problematic to “sure reform Judaism is ok”.

            Why say anything at all…?

          • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=6013153 Shlomo Abraham

            I understand your point to a point: Embrace all Jewish people. Which brings up the easy question of ‘who is a Jewish person’? But that’s an aside for now. I’m fine with embracing all Jewish people (whoever that may include).

            That doesn’t mean you have to embrace all ideas that are claiming to be ‘Jewish’. Take Jews for Jesus: if a (Jewish) J4J member wants to come for Shabbat, that’s fine. If he wants me to acknowledge that his religious views are a legit part of Judaism, I would not.

            I hope that when people talk of tents they don’t talk about cherem to those outside, or what not. I don’t think that’s helpful at all. But asking whether or not an idea or philosophy is a compatible with Judaism is a valid question, and ‘no’ is sometimes a valid answer.

            • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

              The tent is a euphemism for “whoever is outside the tent must be excluded”. It’s not as benign as you describe.

          • Anonymous

            Was it dumb when the Tanaim erected a tent to exclude an am ha’aretz?  
            My understanding of the calls to separate from YCT were for the reason that it doesn’t promote Torah observance.  A call to define modern orthodoxy is a way to state that they are not interested in promoting the same ideals as us and we must separate.  Much the same as orthodoxy separates from reform or the talmidei chachamim separated from am haratzim in the mishna.  No where did I see that they should be treated disrespectfully or even as if they were non-jews.  The point is so that people should not be misled.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=52602716 Daniel Bukingolts

    What do you do once your kids are old enough to understand their surroundings and when there are some influences around that adversely affect their spiritual upbringing? 

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      Teach them right from wrong and give them the tools necessary to make the proper choices. I expect them to make mistakes and I expect them to learn from their mistakes.

      To be honest, I don’t really understand the question. Are you saying I should isolate myself form millions of Jews and alienate them just so my kids won’t see something wrong?! Sounds insane to me.

      • Anonymous

        Maybe you should expose your kids form an early age to the filth and teach them it is wrong.

    • http://finkorswim.com E. Fink

      I don’t understand the question.

    • MarkSoFla

      It is your job to teach them how to deal with (how to avoid or minimize their effect) those adverse influences at each age in an age-appropriate manner. Unless you expect to never expose them to such influences (i.e. never allow them to grow up into functional adults). And, by the way, even if you try the latter, very often it doesn’t work.

  • Susan Barnes

    Kibi Hofmann says “So that’s my opinion of Reform Judaism – most of the followers are undoubtedly Jewish at this time (as time goes on the increase of intermarriage will muddy this) and are probably ignorant of most Jewish practise while being affiliated to a movement which is called Jewish. ”

    This makes me think Kibi doesn’t know much about Reform Judaism. Without going into the whole “Who is a Jew” argument, we study the same Torah as all Jews, celebrate the same major holidays, say many of the same prayers, and follow many of the same rituals (brit milah, mezuzah on the door, shabbat candles, havdalah, bar mitzvah, etc.) So, no, we are not ignorant of most of Jewish practice.

    In fact, our movement is about learning as much as we can about Jewish tradition and practice, in order to help us make more informed choices in our lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/avi.kessner Avi Kessner

    I agree and disagree with your post.  It’s a very complicated issue.
    I grew up going to NCSY, and the JCC BJE youth groups.  I did USY and Camp Ramah.  I went to Chabad early schools, community day schools, A Yeshivah Highschool and spent a year in Israel before going to college.  The town in which I lived always seemed like the most unique place in the world to me, because of this heavy integration of all Jews regardless of background or observance or theological affinity.  It was a strongly South Africa community with a  strong Chabad presence, and a devoted Modern Orthodox Shul that my family was heavily involved in.  I hope the community continues with it’s strengths until all Jews live in Israel.

    Jewish life is, and was great in that town.  But I also noticed something else. Observant Orthodox Jews often moved in and out of the town for various reasons.  It is rare to know people who were born there, or lived there for 2 generations, or were around for more than 15 years.  There are a few stable families that have deep roots in the community, but they are the exception.  They also would not feel comfortable living anywhere like Balitmore or New York.

    It seems to me that as great as the life style and tent free environment that you advocate is, it’s not an environment that works for everybody.

    • Susan Barnes

      I doubt that thre is an environment that exists that works for everybody. Different strokes for different folks. But just because I prefer, and live in, a different environment than you doesn’t mean that either one of us should put down the other or deny that we’re part of the same family.

      • http://www.facebook.com/avi.kessner Avi Kessner

        Susan, you are contradicting yourself!
        The places people move to from my community tend to either be Israel, or Jewish communities where they have very divided tents!  If one prefers to live in an environment that has lots of divided tents, then that doesn’t mean one of us should deny we are part of different groups?

        My point is, not everyone can handle living in a community with a ‘no-tent’ philosophy, and they will move to places with well defined tents.  To then tell them that they should behave as if there are no-tents is saying that this environment works for everybody.

        That is why I agree and disagree.  If you truly want a no-tent philosophy, then you have to be accepting of the people who demand itsy bitsy tents as well.

        • Susan Barnes

          I don’t agree that it is contradictory to say I prefer this environment, and you prefer that environment, but we’re still both Jews. If someone has an environment that says, “If you don’t live in my environment then you’re not a Jew,” then that is a problem. I think we do have that situation at times, and it is a problem. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

      • Anonymous

        who is asking to put others down?  they are asking for disassociation.  Nobody said go out and heckle them.  You are making a mountain out of a molehill.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001238656551 Mike Smith
  • Michael Millenson

    This is a post startlingly full of plain-spoken wisdom, speaking aloud what we know to be historically and psychologically true about Jews. Bravo!

    • Anonymous

      Historically true?  there has always been different camps in Judaism.  And to say they all got along is completely unfounded. R. Fink has a view that the chareidi world believes everything was perfect in pre-war Europe, bu that it is completely untrue.  He has the same view about other generations, they had it right but we got it wrong.  This is untrue as well, they had the same issues as we have. There is nothing new about it, the only difference is that we have the technology to expose the arm to a greater number of people.

  • David Sher

    Fantastic post!

  • Menachem Lipkin

    “In the 60’s and 70’s, children from non-observant homes went to school with children from very observant homes.”

    Yup. That was me. I went to one of those schools. I was from a traditional, but not-shomer Shabbat home. In my class were rabbis’ daughters (Lakewood types, but the word “Chareidi” did not exist in America back then) and kids from MO homes, but most were from non-observant homes. We all played together, we went to eachothers’ homes. Yes, even the “frum” kids came to my house! And you know what? Not one of the frum kids grew up to be less frum than their parents! Imagine that. And many of us, what some would call the Eruv Rav, actually become frum. In some cases along with entire families.

    Here’s some real shockers for you. Since we weren’t far from Lakewood, many of the Jewish studies teachers were Yeshivish types. You’d better sit down. They taught us about the state of Israel, they sang Hatikvah at our assemblies. There was a palpable sense of pride about Israel. At our graduations we had a choir, a MIXED choir! The choir leader and piano player were, you’d better lie down for this one… Lakewood Kollel guys!

    Today frum Jews are afraid of their own shadows! It’s so pathetic and shows a true lack of security in their own beliefs.

    • Menachem Lipkin

      Oh, and by the way, great post!

      If anything I think YCT are the only ones within US orthodoxy who are close to getting it right!