Monday, June 01, 2009

Eating Cake, Eating Crow

What has been described as “Yeshivishe-Modern” or “Modern Ultra-Orthodox” is widely predicted to dominate the Jewish religious world in the next few years. It can definitely be argued to be the current majority, considering the leadership of most orthodox synagogues and day schools and outreach efforts - the future is my main concern here.

I believe that a significant number of people will leave Orthodoxy, over various aspects of the transition (intellectual dishonesty, economic fallout, etc), mostly as vaguely-observant Conservative-affiliaters, a good number of agnostics, but also as lackadaisical Pop-atheists (which I think will be largely among the Charedi dissenters). There will remain many sincerely "charedi moderns", but quite a few closet Modern Orthodox and Charedi Orthoprax - but the dissenters will be replaced by the remaining adherents having many children - but many will leave the lifestyle currently 'settling' like so much concrete.

I also think the place of the current far-fringe of the Charedim will simply become one end of a new continuum - an end that will increasingly be considered simply "strict" and "stalwart" and "uncompromising" - while their lessers will feel themselves less "worthy" of such "refined", isolationist monastic lifestyles and extremist behaviors. This is already very much the case, with how people regard the extremist communities that TOLERATE these fringes; once those communities are mainlined, so will be those they harbor.

It was enough in the past that different approaches in Torah were in REALITY different Torah spheres - perhaps considering each other kosher, but not sharing in 'hashGACHa' or hashGAFah. In the Charedi-Modern future, it will be simply all on one imposed continuum, where those who are "Orthodox" will have to simply tolerate the "excesses" of 'our' more "fervent" brethren. What is most important to note is that their ideological views will be considered on a spectrum - simply on the fringe-Right of it.

With the above in mind, what follows below may seem less of a digression - but I think what I describe will play into the future above described, one already in formation.
Many are already willing to defend philosophically the matter of halacha not necessarily representing actual, empirical claims on reality. The examples abound, and are often small and of philosophical interest (birkhat haChamah, killing lice on Shabbat, etc) - but the deliverances of empirical knowledge and science are regarded enough - in most of current mainline Orthodoxy - that possible excesses of obligatory or permitted, normative behavior are preempted.
But think what would happen if this "halacha-does-not-necessarily-express-empirical claims"outlook, at present only widely-held amongst relatively few halachic intellectuals, particularly the Modern Orthodox - were widely-held by and comingled with - a hashgafah that, in ideological purity - disdains non-Torah, empirically-based, empirically-compatible knowledge - an hashgafa that condemns as heretical mamash basic principles of the sciences, considers non-Jewish legal ethics and just about any human knowledge on which "the" Gedolim and Non-Jews could reach a consensus - to be shtus.

This is of course a view very evident among otherwise-diverse Charedim - even if it is held more in principle than practice; that is a situation that think will change, due to fading political diversity in the Orthodox world. Or consider other spheres of the human endeavor, like the legal professions. There are Charedi, Ivy-league-educated lawyers who can afford to send their kids to elite yeshivot/seminaries. Great! And just like there are very 'frum' kids who score high on tests of science subjects that they consider complete shtuyot if not sheker...there are Charedi lawyers navigating legal careers with little to no regard for non-Torah law as such. Think about a "Torah Derech" where this is the attitude of the MAJORITY instead of the minority...a majority that esteems the aformentioned fringe extremists ("purists"...).

Welcome to the desert of the real.

Now for some stomach-wrenching application of the respected incongruity between empirical reality and the determinations of halacha - coupled with another celebrated concept celebrated among the Modern Orthodox;

"What halacha permits, it permits; what it forbids, it forbids" .

It would seem that as far as halachic halacha is concerned, if something is 'permitted', it is 'permitted', if it is forbidden - forbidden. This sounds all well and good from a "Modern Orthodox", positivist "rationalist" perspective - but such an outlook, with all it's checks and balances presuming a regard for contemporary ethics in complex relationship to halacha - is not the only possible "valid" path in halacha - and frankly, is not the path of the future. "If something is permitted it is permitted" - can have horrific consequences - well within a halachic rubric.

R. Chaim Pinchas Sheinberg, a virtually-universally renowned halachic decisor, responded to the parents of victims of sexual abuse...that unless there was actual penetration of their children by the molester, there was no abuse.

Granted -in a life under the rule of law instead of whim, or tyrants - the reality is that indeed, definitions must be made and distinctions drawn in as 'objective' a manner as possible. That is allegedly the case in Halacha as well as contemporary secular law – but in secular law, there is no ‘awe’ at the potentially incongruity with empirical reality in the decision making process, no celebration of disregard for moral structures outside the legal rubric.
Moral outrage at child sexual abuse - as easily as it may be mustered - isn't supposed to be a factor in halachic decision making by this positivist, rationalist model. In "the" Orthodox world, we claim the irrelevance of societal-conditioned moral outrage regarding changing women's roles, in calls for "ethical kashrut", in worker's rights in workplaces run by Orthodox Jews, in all manner of settings where Conservative Jews acknowledge moral factors in their 'halachic' rulings.

Yes, voices such as Rav Kook among (a few) others call on "natural morality" as something that we must not let be trumped by legalism. And couldn't some relevance be claimed for psak be based on the empirical, psychologically-determined claims of it's affects on victims? Modern Orthodox R. David Dratch very famously has issued Halachic rulings regarding the clear mandates of intervention and prosecution regarding child sexual abuse, etc....

The American Psychological Association got in huge trouble for publishing research suggesting that relations between adults and children were not harmful. Similarly, the well-known, sheer historical ubiquity of sexual relations with no regard for age disparity or gender, is well-evidenced in animal species, and has been rallied against claims of human homosexuality’s 'unnaturalness'. For the American Psychological Assocation and these researchers in animal was simply scientific research they were publishing, basic, objective empirical research and accounting they were engaged in...all which is so championed among the Modern Orthodox - except on philology and Biblical Criticism, archaeology that contradicts Tanach, neuropsychology when it challenges personhood or freewill, the widespread normativity of all manner of animal behaviors, condemned as 'un-natural' arayot, etc (etc, etc).

Even several halachic responses (not responses, per se), have been made regarding the arayah of homosexuality stating that it can legitimately be looked at as being “that which is forbidden” - not 'un-natural' (it simply cannot be, if all kinds of animals do it and humans are fundamentally animals, as science 'attests'), not immoral, though one must still martyr oneself before committing the act willingly – but still foremost, simply “that which is forbidden” – as with the laws of kashrut or shatnez.

This sounds all well and 'ethical' regarding people who engage in homosexual acts, who have lost much of the stigma that has historically been displayed in the Christian West - but what if “what is permitted/what is forbidden” is applied to all halachic situations? What happens to claims for the "naturalness" of sexual predation, of Social Judeo-Darwinian economics, or eugenics based on the Kuzari? I mean, our social norms change with time where halacha is eternally untainted by natural, external-to-Revelation morality…
If throughout human history - as science attests - different societies paid no heed to age disparity, how is pederasty supposed to be treated differently from homosexuality by the "it's just forbidden" stance? Or bestiality, incest, etc? The statistics, even the definitions of predation, even the "post traumatic stress disorders" resulting from sexual abuse, etc, have also been "scientifically" challenged as socio-culturally conditioned.

But what does this sort of scholarly, peer-reviewed scientific (albeit swiftly challenged), research do to the "blanket-acceptance" approach in science and Torah issues - so typical of Modern Orthodoxy? Would external, “natural morality” – contrary to “what halacha permits” and most normative Orthodox theologians – come along to help us decide which scientific evidence we will consider acceptable as well? Shouldn't Modern Orthodox Jews who claim to esteem "science" treat it no less dispassionately, no less "scientifically"?...and such an approach could just as calculatingly be used (or should I say has been used, considering the basis of even some current halachic decisions in Charedi circles), to integrated ‘dated’ science or pseudo science to defend their positions.

You can't always have your "Torah & Science" cake and "what halacha permits" ice cream and eat them too. I can't demand of religious mechanisms that they function in ways that they are not supposed to - whether regarding science or ethics - without being, to some degree 'non'-Halachic or non-scientific. Or non-reactionary halachic. Hey, no innovating darchei in Torah allowed...


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