Forward Thinking

Orthodoxy — It's Not What They Want You To Think

By Jerome A. Chanes

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American Apparel’s idea of an Orthodox man

What is “Orthodox”? Is it “Haredi”? Is it “Modern”? Is it “Ultra”? Is it “Yeshivish”?

These days, the Orthodox world is a confusing place.

Fifty years ago, Orthodox Jews (who had been known at the turn of the 20th century as “Traditionalist”) talked about three flavors of Orthodoxy: (1) the Modern Orthodox; (2) the “Yeshiva Welt,” the arena of sectarian or “Haredi” yeshivas — Torah Vo-Da’as, Mir, Telze, Chaim Berlin, Lakewood and many others; and (3) Chasidim. Period.

In 2014, none of these categories works the way they did in 1954 or 1964 — or even 1994.

In my new taxonomy, there are six categories: Modern Orthodox; Centrist Orthodox; the Yeshiva arena (“yeshivish”); Chasidim; Chabad; and Satmar. These last two, whatever else they may be, are not Chasidim.

Modern Orthodox first. The Modern Orthodox of 60 years ago showed the rest of the Jewish world that Orthodoxy was not just an accretion of unthinking, obscurantist practices, but was and is a religion with serious intellectual underpinnings. The idea of “halakha” as popularized by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (when I was a kid we used the term “din” to denote the normative system) told us that there was a rational construct informing the world of orthopraxis. Modern Orthodoxy in the 1950s and 1960s spoke not only to the Orthodox but also to the non-religious Jewish world — and to the non-Jewish world, too.

Starting in the mid-1960s and stretching into the 1980s and ‘90s, two things happened. First, religiously, the Modern Orthodox began looking over their right shoulder at the more sectarian world of Agudath Israel and the Brooklyn Yeshivas. “Hmm — they are wonderfully observant, they sit and ‘learn,’ and they do send their kids to college!” Second, in terms of interaction with the external world — what we call public affairs — the Modern Orthodox began moving in a rightward direction.

The result? The overwhelming majority of those we used to call “Modern Orthodox” are further to the right both religiously and in terms of public affairs, increasingly conservative on Israel and religious issues. The Modern Orthodox world of the 1960s, moderate-to-liberal on most public policy issues — church-state, civil rights, Israel, even reproductive choice — has moved steadily rightward. These are the “Centrist Orthodox.”

How did this state of affairs come to be? Historically, Orthodoxy was viewed by the non-Orthodox as oppressive and pre-modern. Today, precisely those characteristics that decades ago were viewed as negatives are at the root of the appeal for many in the Centrist Orthodox fold. Orthodoxy provides community; it’s protective of its adherents; it provides certainty in an uncertain world.

Sadly, Modern Orthodoxy today is small and beleaguered. The hegemony of the Centrist Orthodox — most Orthodox shuls today are Centrist — is the result of the well-known dropping out of the “Modern” in Modern Orthodoxy. In the old “Modern Orthodox,” the “Modern” got pinched by a conservative public-affairs agenda; the “Orthodox” got pinched by a rightward-looking religious agenda.

The Modern Orthodoxy of today, distinguished from the Centrist, is the only place in the world of traditional observance where interesting, creative, innovative things are happening. It’s the arena of Drisha and Yeshivat Maharat, offering traditional study of Jewish texts for women; of Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg; of the “partnership” minyanim, pushing the envelope in traditional structures of prayer; of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s “Open Orthodoxy.”

Third, there is the arena of the “yeshivish,” to use the contemporary term that categorizes the world of the sectatarian yeshivas, with the Lakewood behemoth having cannibalized many of the once-proud yeshivas in Brooklyn (Torah Voda’as, Mir, Chaim Berlin) and elsewhere. These yeshivas are the mainstay of the sectarian “black-hat” world, with few students going to mainstream colleges — a radical departure from 50 years ago.

Fourth, the Chasidic communities are those identified mainly with the substantial “Ger” and “Bobov” Chasidim. Once defined by the study of and adherence to the writings of Chasidic masters, Chasidism today is more a matter of external appearance and devotional prayer.

Finally, Chabad and Satmar. One thing is clear: Chabad and Satmar, whatever else they might be, are not Chasidim. Chabad and Satmar deserve their own discussions. Suffice it to say that Chabad, a discrete group, bears no resemblance to the Chasidic Chabad in Europe a century ago. Centered on outreach and P.R., they cannot be characterized as “Chasidic.” Simply put, the Chabad of today does not do “Chasidus” — Chasidic text-study.

Satmar, a sectarian group, is also — contrary to conventional wisdom — not Chasidic. With its own distinct separationist character, Satmar is far more “yeshivish” than Chasidic. In fact, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum — Rav “Yoilish,” who brought Satmar to America — considered himself more an Eastern European “rav” than a Chasidic “rebbe.”

Is this six-category taxonomy cumbersome? Maybe. But, unlike the outdated Orthodox taxonomies we’re used to, it works.

Jerome Chanes is the author of four books on American Jewish public affairs and history, including the forthcoming The Future of American Judaism, a volume in the series “The Future of American Religion” (forthcoming, Trinity/Columbia University Press).

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