Friday, February 22, 2008

Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy

I decided to make a blog post of my definition of Left Wing Modern Orthodoxy so I'll always be able to find it when once again I will need to explain the difference between the halakha-observant philosophical stream of LWMO and the sociological phenomenon of lax observance and lax philosophical inquiry known as MO-Lite.

For a more detailed essay explaining LWMO, see Rabbi Avi Weiss's article on Open Orthodoxy, although I don't necessarily agree with all the details there — which is probably why while I self-identify as Left Wing (or sometimes Left-Leaning) Modern Orthodox in general, I usually don't self-identify as "Open Orthodox" in particular, institutional affiliations notwithstanding. ;-)

So here's Steg's Short Explanation of LWMO:

Left-Wing Modern Orthodoxy is...
  1. a generally positive view of general society (i.e. asks the question “what’s out there that can make me a better person/jew?” as opposed to “what’s out there that i should avoid in order to be a better person/jew?”)
  2. a preference for lenient halakhic opinions over stricter ones, especially for the sake of preserving community
  3. a differentiation between halakha and sociology; i.e., just because something “hasn't been done” doesn’t mean it’s forbidden, and if it’s not forbidden, and there are good reasons for it, do it! (this tendency is commonly found in issues of gender and women’s roles)
  4. a valuing of integration over isolationism, both in cooperating with other Jewish groups and in views on interacting with Non-Jews
  5. an acceptance of academic methodology as part of learning Torah (such as Critical Talmud study, and Literary Analysis of Tanakh)

38 Comments:

OpenID daniel-saunders said...

Interesting post. I presume you are taking for granted the 'MO' part and just concentrating on the 'LW' bit, otherwise you need to define what LWMO considers halakha and how it sees the halakhic process operating.

Point 3 seems a bit simplistic. In practice, the boundary between halakha and sociology is often blurred, while "good reasons for doing" something (or not doing it, for that matter) are frequently subjective and politicised.

I admit that as an outsider, I find the subtle distinction between the dozens of different types of Orthodoxies in the US and Israel endlessly fascinating, confusing, inspiring and more than slightly worrying. I honestly have no idea where I would fit in on such a spectrum (probably LWMO, but towards the right end of the LWMO spectrum...); in the UK, where I live, it can be hard enough to separate Modern Orthodox and, to coin a phrase, 'moderate Charedi' (I have never heard the term 'Yeshivish' used in the UK).

I say worrying both because introducing such gradations is divisive and because it can force people to take up positions (on both right and left) purely because in response to the positions other people take. Of course, the Anglo-Jewish attitude of 'don't ask, don't tell, don't rock the boat' has problems of its own, but that's another subject entirely.

2/21/2008 11:51 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Another reason i put this up was so that people could comment on it and help me refine it. I originally wrote it as an explanation of LWMO as distinct from other modes of Orthodoxy, so some things should be understood, while others are too varied even within MO or LWMO — philosophies of how Halakha works, for instance. Trying to figure out what my hashqafa of halakha is is something i've been trying to start working on.

The boundary between Halakha, Sociology and Communal Policy is very very blurry... when you have a range of opinions in the halakhic literature, and you choose one — is it because it makes the most sense? because it has the most later authorities supporting it? because you think it'll result in the best future for your community? All those factors go in to weighing halakhic decision-making. It's really scary.

2/21/2008 11:58 PM  
Blogger thanbo said...

the preference for kula over chumra is interesting, it makes a shita out of MO-Lite - is that where you want to go?

as for academic methods, where does it end? do academic methods that change girsaot, or change our understanding based on how we view history of science, impact on halacha? how?

e.g. killing lice on Shabbos - the old Pachad Yitzchak says no, because now (1700s) we have the microscope, while most poskim say it's OK, because there's an element of chok to every halacha, or because we don't know all the reasons why Chazal said X or Y.

one rav of my acquaintance has said that one reason he feels comfortable in UTJ is because they accept academic methods, but stop short of letting them affect halacha and halachic process.

2/22/2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

What's your definition of MO-Lite?

I thought it was (definition influenced by RYGB) people living more-or-less generally observant lives, but not thinking about things halakhically or hashqafically, and therefore doing things like tefillin dates or eating hot dairy/fish out.

The preference for qula over hhumra that i'm talking about is on the level of pesaq. i.e. you go to the rabbi with a shaala, and their job is to find a way to be matir the proverbial questionable chicken on ‘erev shabbos, not to make your life harder.

Not sure about the halakha/science/mehhqar question; since this definition is supposed to include a range, i don't want to decide that to make it any narrower than necessary, since i don't know enough about the darkhey pesaq of different rabbis.

2/22/2008 5:00 PM  
Blogger tmeishar said...

If the boot fits... I personally find the new trend of pigeon-holing your entire weltanschauung into 5 words or less highly disturbing. Life and religion are about the complexity and the grays. If I ask you your opinion on academic Talmud, feel free to share; if I ask and you answer “left wing modern orthodox,” I’ll probably laugh.
Or, to quote one of my rebbeim, “it's all about developing a hashkafa, not choosing one.”

But then again, when I took the Orthodoxy test I got a "Huh?"

2/23/2008 2:07 PM  
OpenID daniel-saunders said...

All those factors go in to weighing halakhic decision-making. It's really scary.

I’d say ‘daunting’ rather than ‘scary,’ because to me it’s what makes the halakha a living, organic, open-ended process, a process conscious of the people living their lives through it, even if not exactly tailored to them, as opposed to a static, potentially oppressive, set of statutes. I see being part of that as a daunting responsibility, but not scary.

That said, part of what had in mind when talking about the blurred boundaries between halakha and sociology was concepts like tzniut and kavod ha’tzibbur, which are based in part on societal norms. When the wider world and the ‘right’ of Orthodoxy take very different views of these things, where does the ‘left’ of Orthodoxy fit in? After all, we see ourselves as part of both Jewish society and the wider western society. Do we opt for one or the other? Attempt a synthesis? Create an independent mini-society on our own terms?

I’m also curious to know where (if anywhere) you would put the boundaries of belief. For instance, if someone is meticulous in his halakhic observance, at least from a LWMO point of view (i.e. no chumras and segulas), but believes that the Torah is a composite document with minimal, if any, Divine input, is he very LWMO or RW Conservative?
(I understand if you don’t want to answer that; I’m not trying to catch you out.)

2/23/2008 10:12 PM  
Blogger evanstonjew said...

I think your definition might work theologically but from a sociological perspective it is much too high.

You need to include two rather large groups. Orthoprax that doubt some/many/most of the dogmas and /or accept different versions of the DH. And you should incude what I once called 'Not So Frum Orthodox." These are people who keep 70-90% of halachot and conveniently forget about those rules they don't like irrespective of their severity or centrality.

For me LWMO is someone who davens in an Orthodox shul, self identifies as Orthodox, is not RWMO or charedi and keeps the broad outlines of mitzvot without specifying exactly what these are.

2/23/2008 11:00 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

tmeishar:

what do you mean, 5 words or less? this is many words, with explanations! if you want to see me self-identify my religious weltanschauung in 17 or 18 words or so, though, you know where to find it ;-)

daniel-saunders:

i'm not sure about belief. i can say, though, that i'm fairly traditional in my belief, and i feel uncomfortable when people in my general category don't quite toe the party line on that one.

evanstonjew:

the point was to distinguish between an actual LWMO philosophy and the sociological MO-Lite ("Not So Frum Orthodox") phenomenon, which people frequently lump together in order to delegitimize LWMO, or even MO in general.

also, MO-Lite people sometimes tend to gravitate to LWMO communities because of their philosophy of acceptance and non-pushiness.

2/25/2008 3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The preference for qula over hhumra that i'm talking about is on the level of pesaq. i.e. you go to the rabbi with a shaala, and their job is to find a way to be matir the proverbial questionable chicken on ‘erev shabbos, not to make your life harder."

can you distinguish between a preference in paskening le-kula for "laypeople" vs. for one's self, as a rabbi/otherwise educated and committed person who doesn't mind things being hard occasionally? (ie, do you think there is such a thing as ha-machmir (al atsmo) tavo alav brakhah?)
-Miriam

2/25/2008 6:10 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Miriam Anonymous:

the important word there is hamahhmir ‘al ‘atzmo tavo’ ‘alav berakha.

Hhumras are things you adopt for yourself, not things you impose on the community as a whole.

2/25/2008 6:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Hhumras are things you adopt for yourself, not things you impose on the community as a whole."

I imagined you would think as much (as do I), which is why I phrased it that way. But the question still is: how does/should (acc. to you) a "LWMO" rabbi/educated layperson who would not feel too put upon by not being mekil (or even who would) approach kula? It's is one thing to be mekil for laypeople for whom one has compassion, and another to be mekil for one' self, when, for one thing, the motives are much less clear and, for another thing, one perhaps should have the goal of "working on" observance or some such. Related: Does "communal unity" require people to adopt lower standards _for themselves_ than they otherwise would? These are not trick questions, I'm just curious what you think.
Thanks.
Miriam

2/25/2008 7:48 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Anonymous Miriam:

That's why many rabbis don't pasken for themselves, and instead ask more objective outsiders, such as their own rebbeim, to rule for them in situations where they think their nogeia‘-badavar'ness might affect their judgment. For the same reason, i went and got myself a rav when i became an aveil — just because i can go research the laws and customs of mourning on my own doesn't mean that i'd feel comfortable making decisions on my own when it comes to such a sensitive subjective field.

I think communal unity might require people to put up with more lenient standards in communal settings than the ones they keep individually; but it shouldn't force people to do so in their own house. If someone generally keeps "cholov yisrael", but the wider community holds that "cholov hacompanies" IS hhaleiv yisra’eil, they're not obligated to keep CHC milk in their house.

2/26/2008 4:05 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

There's definite precedent for the idea of looking for kula. RMF had a reputation for trying to make people's lives easier within the boundaries of halacha, and he was far from MO in any sense. The problem arises when MO consider something a kula and UO consider it simply a violation of halacha.

2/26/2008 11:27 PM  
Blogger tmeishar said...

Left. Wing. Modern. Orthodox. - that would be 4 words. The rest was just a peirush. I say scratch out the LWMO and make it all about the peirush!

2/27/2008 1:29 PM  
Blogger BZ said...

daniel-saunders writes:
For instance, if someone is meticulous in his halakhic observance...

"Meticulous" doesn't belong on a left-right spectrum. The definition of "halakhic observance" does.

(Ploni makes sure to vote in every single election. Federal, state, or local; primary or general; he hasn't missed an election since he turned 18. Is Ploni a Democrat or a Republican?)

3/02/2008 1:16 PM  
Blogger ALG said...

Very nice. Thanks for writing this. I don't quite know what I think about it, but I'm sure I think something.

3/02/2008 1:38 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...

Nothing to do with waht's called "left wing" in politics?

3/05/2008 8:05 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

"Nothing to do with waht's called "left wing" in politics?"

Interesting question. Generally, the answer is "no." It's sort of like asking whether Conservative Judaism has anything to do with political conservatism.

I've known many LW MO Jews who are knee-jerk rightists when it comes to politics, especially Israeli politics. Indeed, there's a perception that MOs tend to be take more hardline positions on Israel than Haredim do.

I recently saw an article in Jewish Press (which I don't normally read, because I think it's a biased rag) about a survey showing that 56% of American Orthodox Jews identify as politically conservative, though interestingly, more are Democrats than Republicans. (I suspect it's because they tend to live in Democratic strongholds where it's advantageous to register as a Democrat whatever one's political orientation.) It would be interesting to see a study of the voting patterns in different sectors of Orthodoxy.

3/07/2008 2:21 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...

Kylo,

this may have to do with the deeper divide b/w "ideologically" something vs. "circumstantially" sth. In other words, one can be ideologically "left-wing" (like Steg here, it seems), but very frum by those standards. OTOH there may be one person who doesn't think about it just goes along. The same is true in all sectors. But I find -based not on professional surveys, just conversations- that many who are ideologically LW are also politically LW.

And your last point is 100% correct. Most Ortho Jews who are aware of politics tend to be more on the right, but come election day they do as the Rebbe said - in Kiryas Joel he says vote Hillary coz she give more wilfare, and in Teaneck he says vote Hillary b/c she will protect Mama Gaia from evil Town Cars, thus (in his mind) his prestige in academia will rise.

Bye,
JI

3/09/2008 7:58 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

Every movement has a gap between ideological members and demographic members. In Conservative Judaism, that gap is very wide, but it exists all across the Jewish spectrum to varying degrees.

It's quite possible that "many who are ideologically LW are also politically LW," though of course both concepts need defining. Remember, what people call left-wing Modern Orthodoxy is still to the right of Conservative and Reform. "Left-wing" can also mean different things politically. Voting Democrat in U.S. elections is not the same as being politically left-wing.

Still, it makes sense that there would be a correlation between left-wing MO and political liberalism, especially when it comes to social issues like feminism and homosexuality.

Finally, I hope you did not mean to imply that most frum Jews go to their rabbi before deciding whom to vote for. That simply isn't true, and I seriously hope it doesn't become true anytime soon.

3/09/2008 10:38 PM  
Blogger Jameel @ The Muqata said...

LWMO doesnt have to be MO-Lite if it's lekhatkhila (to itself)

3/11/2008 5:55 AM  
Blogger Yehue said...

"Finally, I hope you did not mean to imply that most frum Jews go to their rabbi before deciding whom to vote for. That simply isn't true, and I seriously hope it doesn't become true anytime soon."

Depends if you call hassidim frum. I call most of 'em idol worshippers. The Skverer is Spitzer's whore, as you probably know. (He told him to change his endorsement of the sherrif). Not in all chasidus it's so, but there are many who do crawl head first in their ADMO"R's rectums. In fact, the same is true for many politicians.

I was convesing with a person who told me he invariably votes for "liberal democrat" candidates. I asked him even in such and such cases, (i.e. if eg. a republican were closer to his beliefs) he says yes. This wasn't a truck driver or a hassid. A university professor!

I don't like the word "liberal". I consider myself liberal, although in political theory I feel closer to Chuchill and Mussolini. In US politics Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes represent most what I belive.

"correlation between left-wing MO and political liberalism," That's exactly what I was talkin about. IMHO there definitely is, even if not necessarily. So I was wondering whether the mere term "LWMO" (LMAO?) implies this or not. Fron your answers it seems not.

Jameel-

Depends what you mean by "lite".

3/14/2008 5:57 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

Correlation is just that--correlation. It is not the same as an official characteristic of a movement. It may be true that some of the issues separating MO from Haredi, such as feminism and homosexuality, intersect with politics to a degree. But I've known frum people who have relatively progressive views on those issues, while being basically right-of-center in their politics. On the other hand, there's a perception that MOs tend to be more right-wing in their Israeli politics than Haredim.

Sometimes the root cause of a person's politics is less ideological than sociological. In plain English, I'm talking about frum people who put on talk radio, and in a week have morphed into arch-conservatives. (I've personally seen this happen.) In those cases, it almost doesn't matter where they fall on the religious spectrum.

The point is that we can't make generalizations. I know a Lubavitch guy who's more politically liberal than I am. I also encountered a Hasid from another sect who is--how shall I put this--a lefty peacenik.

3/15/2008 8:34 PM  
Anonymous Mike S. said...

I have a hard time considering a posek who is consciously looking for either kula or chumra all the time Orthodox. An Orthodox posek ought to call the halacha as he sees it, and an honest one will some times be machmir, and other times lenient. I am refering to cases that arise where there is no clear p'sak from the Shulchan Aruch and posekim, reasons to go either way that the posek must weigh.

The proverbial chicken on erev Shabbat is a case where there is a a normative p'sak l'chumra in a d'rabbanan, with permission to be meikil under certain circumstances (see Shach's kuntress Hap'sak in YD (242 IIRC)) Thus, a normatively clear p'sak, even if some of the circumstances (e.g. what is hefsed m'rubah) is left to the Rav's judgement. I can't imagine that you mean the definition of LWMO is how big a loss one considers hefsed m'rubbah.

3/17/2008 9:29 PM  
Blogger Yehue said...

In short, "Left-Wing MO" has no political connotations, as I wrongly imagined, taking Steg and a few others as models.

Damn! Zogby and Rassmussen can take a few hundre out of a few hundred million and always be right - I take a handful out of a few thousand and I'm rong!

The ratio was in my favor, tho'!

3/17/2008 9:55 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I have a hard time considering a posek who is consciously looking for either kula or chumra all the time Orthodox.

Interesting. Does this mean you find the culture of hhumra that's found in some parts of the Jewish world ideological problematic?

3/17/2008 10:56 PM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

"I have a hard time considering a posek who is consciously looking for either kula or chumra all the time Orthodox."

And who's doing that? Steg merely advocated "a preference for lenient halakhic opinions over stricter ones, especially for the sake of preserving community." There's certainly a tradition for that in Judaism. Ever heard of Bais Hillel?

3/18/2008 2:26 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

"Damn! Zogby and Rassmussen can take a few hundre out of a few hundred million and always be right - I take a handful out of a few thousand and I'm rong!"

Like I said, I don't think there's ever been an extensive study of how people from different segments of Orthodoxy vote. (If there has, I'd be curious to know the results.) I'm just reporting my own personal experience, as you are yours.

3/18/2008 2:27 AM  
Blogger Yehue said...

I think in part the "hhumra culture" is a [lame] attempt at countering the materialism the Western world, -all juice included, hassidim, MO, litvaks etc- is being drowned in. Effectve? Very little, imho, but otoh the "by default" (or birth or circumstancial, i.e. not Steg/Kilopod style hardcore intellectual) "kulah society" is heading there much faster.

BTW, my shita is to be machmir for others and maikel for myself. It really works! :-)

3/18/2008 10:48 AM  
Anonymous Mike S. said...

Yes. especially when it leads to Chishud k'sherim.

3/18/2008 11:12 AM  
Blogger B.BarNavi said...

FTR, I could REALLY have done without the Conservative-bashing in the intro. Considering their target audience (I would imagine an Orthodox echo-chamber), "LWMO"s think they have to distance themselves from "those Jews" in order to make their case. "Oh, we're left-wing/modernist, but at least we're not THEM."

The fact that the writer can simply paint the C movement as "not believing in Torah MiSinai" with just one uncited statement just astounds me. LWMOs have plenty of room to make their case without being divisive. Otherwise, they face deaf ears from both sides.

Kylo - A nearby suburban congregation that shall remain unnamed is known in the area for making VERY liberal decisions on women's participation among other religious issues. However, I became fed up with the umpteenth "Israel sermons" which leaned so far to the right they make Avigdor Liberman look like a peacenik. Considering the demographics of the area, I'm not surprised, but it's certainly interesting when juxtaposed with their religious views. (Partnership minyanim in Hebron?)

4/15/2008 1:47 AM  
Blogger Kylopod said...

"FTR, I could REALLY have done without the Conservative-bashing in the intro."

What the heck are you talking about?

"However, I became fed up with the umpteenth "Israel sermons" which leaned so far to the right they make Avigdor Liberman look like a peacenik."

It may be just my limited experience, or perhaps I haven't been paying enough attention (a distinct possibility since I really don't listen to sermons too often), but the yeshivish shuls I've been to rarely if ever have inserted politics into their sermons. The shuls where I've seen this happen (and it hasn't been that often) have been MO to centrist, but the politics expressed were invariably rightward-leaning, if that isn't an understatement.

4/15/2008 2:45 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Kylopod:

B.Barnavi is talking about R' Avi Weiss's "Open Orthodoxy" essay that i linked to.

B.Barnavi:

I don't think it was meant to be insulting; after all, Torah miSinai is generally held to not be a dogma of Conservative Judaism, as opposed to the more general notion of Torah min Hashamayim; see the Conservative statement of principles Emet V'Emunah, although it doesn't use that terminology from what i saw skimming the 'Revelation' section.

And it makes sense that he would want to distinguish himself from both "those to his Left" and "those to his Right" — after all, he's trying to eke out a self-identity distinct from others. I can see how it could be taken offensively, though.

4/15/2008 6:34 AM  
Blogger Amitai Blickstein said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2/23/2009 5:02 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

(previous comment)

Amitai Blickstein said...
BZ had a great comment above which relates to many things posted here, about a confusion of terms.

"BZ said...
[...]
"Meticulous" doesn't belong on a left-right spectrum. The definition of "halakhic observance" does.
[...]
Ploni makes sure to vote in every single election....Is Ploni a Democrat or a Republican?"

Thus, as has been noted, "religious" does not equal "orthodox" in modern idiom. (The stereotype of) JTS != University of Judaism with regards to Revelation at Sinai (re: Barnavi and Klyopod).

Mike S. mentioned his discomfort with a poseq trying to be meqil or machmir. But to take Steg's inclusion of sociology as a halakhic datum means that we acknowledge the inevitable bias of any human being (cf., off the cuff, BT San 6b about a judge's intuition, or the letters of the Hazon Ish about how he doesn't like to speak to Gedolim about halakhic matters since everybody's opinion is pre-determined by their youth, circumstances growing up, learning style, etc.).

This is a definition of "halakhic observance," not "meticulousness." (Anybody else think of the Kuzari when s/he read this distinction?)

Just to finish before it gets too long, Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill gave an honors course at Yeshiva University called "Varieties of Modern Orthodoxy." The syllabus, non-copyrighted sources, and all the lectures are available for free at www.YuTorah.org

For example, he characterizes a 'variety' of MO as comfortable pasquning like one poseq, for example, the Rama, Sridei Esh, or Rav Moshe, rather than feeling a need to uphold the majority of poseqim simultaneously.

He also notes the inaccuracy of the characterizations "right" and "left". And many other informative and helpful observations that can jump-start the conversation, with many learned and previously invented wheels for the taking. :)

PS Wazzup?

2/23/2009 6:38 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Amitai:

What in the Kuzari are you reminded of?

2/23/2009 8:07 PM  
Blogger Amitai Blickstein said...

I'm thinking of the framing story of the Kuzari. The angel told the Khazar 'Your intentions are acceptable to God, but not your actions.' The angel then gives the Khazar a big bear hug.

["The Kuzari," HIR press]

2/24/2009 8:41 AM  
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