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Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism (Part 2)

It has been over 3 years since my first discussion on the topic of Modern Orthodoxy Vs. Religious Zionism and I have been mulling over it ever since. In recent months a public debate has arisen in Israel surrounding the question “is there such a thing as Religious-Zionist Psika”. At the same time, in the US the debate between Modern Orthodoxy and newly named “Open Orthodoxy” continues to bubble in the background of many public debates. Though none of these terms are “real” terms, meaning, terms which have Halachik-legal definitions they are ideologies and outlooks which deeply effect both societal norms and, I would argue, the Halachik approaches and decisions of rabbis in these communities. (I am aware that there are those who would strongly disagree with my premise that Halachik deciscors are influenced by predisposed ideologies and rather hold that they interpret the Halachik sources based exclusively on an objective Halachik understanding. Though there is room for a discussion whether that should or should not, ideally, be the case – or even possible – I believe it is very naive to pretend that is not the reality of the Halachik world today, especially when it comes to socially sensitive topics).

This in mind, I will do my best to define the terms based on living in both communities – both in Israel and North America – having studied directly from several prominent rabbis from both communities and having learned and read extensively from their Torahs and writings.

Modern Orthodoxy is what it sounds like – an Orthodox outlook which is informed by and responds to Modernity, seeing value in the phenomena. These include, among other things, the recognition – and value – in the change in the status of women in society, the necessity – and value – of modern scholarship and study, and the positive approach towards the State of Israel. According to this approach, Zionism is just one more phenomena which is a positive outcome of Modernity and as such – we have a positive and inclusive approach to it as part of our Orthodox life. The degree to which ones Orthodoxy is effected – and in what way – by their Modernity seems to be just that – a difference of degree (The baseline seems to be “To what degree does this phenomena fit with our Orthodoxy”? with some taking it a bit further asking “can we make it fit enough?” while some go even further stating “how can we make it fit, period”).

Religious Zionism, on the other hand, is not exactly what it sounds like. Religious Zionism is not the combination of 2 things and is not the relationship between 2 competing ideals. Religious Zionism sees itself as THE Zionism and as THE (Jewish) Religion; a religion which is one in the same with “true” Zionism – the existence of the Jewish People as a Priestly Kingdom and a Holly Nation, meaning – the life of the collective that is The Jewish People  in the Land of Israel according to the Torah of Israel. According to this approach one of the vehicles, or catalysts, to the re-emergence of the Jewish collective is Modernity. But Modernity is not the root cause of political Zionism and the State of Israel. The divine destiny of The Jewish People is. Modernity allowed for that destiny to materialize, almost like a stage which has – finally – been completed for actors who have been practicing for all too long. Therefore, the question that is always in the background of RZ discussions – both ideological and Halachik – is “what is the essentialist character and destiny of Am Yisrael and the best way to realize it?” Modernity is just one more tool through which this may be done.

Meaning, Modern Orthodoxy values Zionism as one more product of Modernity while Religious Zionism has no inherent stance on Modernity at all. This can explain the fact that, while there are many similarities between the communities, there are several key issues they usually find themselves almost completely opposed on.

A few examples:

  1. Tzniut – the prevailing Modern Ortodox approach puts more of an emphasis on the balance in ones individual life between internal and external beauty and spirituality and the exclusivity of the physical relationship to building a unique bond with ones spouse. The prevailing Religious Zionist approach puts more of an emphasis on צניעות as a national characteristic which distinguishes us from other nations, building strong families, which builds a strong and holly nation. As a result of this difference, the Tzniut norms in Religious Zionist communities is higher with many Religious Zionist rabbis holding Halachik approaches – for both men and women – more similar to those of Satmer than those of the Modern Orthodox community. (this also accounts for the growing phenomena of both young men and women in the Religious Zionist community in Israel who have developed unique dress styles, which are both צנוע but also distinct from other cultures, especially Western culture. In a bit of a reverse logic, this also accounts for the fact that, in practicality, there seems to be more of a lax approach among educators and teens in Religious Zionism towards the actual observance of these higher standards, which is a result of the fact that the core educational emphases are different).
  2. Shmita – the prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that Shmita is one more Mitzvah which the individual Jew should be on the “safe side of”, leading to many Modern Orthodox rabbis (especially in America) to beware of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין. The Religious Zionist approach, however, sees Shmita as a test case for the collective observance of a Mitzvah that defines the return to The Land. New factors have been added into the equation, such as the effect Shmita will have on Israeli agriculture and Israeli financial independence. As a result there is a strong endorsement of היתר מכירה and אוצר בית דין whereas יבול נוכרי is treated as אסור, almost as Treif.
  3. Settling the Land of Israel – The prevailing Modern Orthodox approach is that living in the Land of Israel is A Mitzvah which we are once again fortunate to be able to observe in our generation – if you are able to. In the Religious Zionist world, on the other hand, it is seen as the Mitzvah of our generations, as it is the foundation for the realization of the destiny of The Jewish People which is unfolding in front of our eyes. It is seen as as significant to what it means to be Jewish as Shabbat and Kashrut, possibly even more so. This also accounts for another difference – the question of “Land for Peace”. A fairly common approach within the Modern Orthodox world is that, on a theoretical level, if peace with the Palestinians were possible portions of the land should be given in exchange. The predominant approach in the Religious Zionist community and its rabbinic circles sees the mere suggestion as Jewishly repugnant.

Other examples include topics as varied as “family planning” and contraceptives, the celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut as a religious holiday (including shaving during Sfira), the attitude towards the Conservative and Reform movements, the status of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, reliance on non Mehadrin Kashrut and the Halachik weight of the plight and voices of the various “others” within the community. By no means do these differences always translate into Modern Orthodox – lenient, Religious Zionist – stringent. The last 2 are good examples of the reverse. Also, by no means do these differences translate into Modern Orthodox – North America rabbis and communities, Religious Zionist – Israeli rabbis and communities. There are plenty of rabbis and communities in Israel who have strong Modern Orthodox leanings, be it because they originate from Modern Orthodox communities in the US or have adopted a Modern Orthodox outlook after being exposed and influenced by some of its proponents.

I admit that this is an oversimplification of a variety of issues and questions which deserve a much more individualized discussion. Many rabbis, including some leading authorities, would not fit so snugly into the boxes I have depicted here and you will find their Halachik rulings crossing the ideological lines just drawn. Individual rabbis will inevitably find themselves taking a stance on each topic based on their understanding of the relevant sources, their tradition of Psika and their evaluation of reality. Even so, I still believe that what has been laid out here explains the major trends and differences between the communities, as best evident in their extremes as well as by the changes the communities have experienced in the past few decades.

Why is this discussion important?

There is a mistaken thought that the Modern Orthodox community in the US and the Religious Zionist community in Israel are the same community with minor, cultural, differences. That they are 2 sides of the same coin with the 2 sides just being the sides of the Atlantic Ocean; that Religious Zionism is the Israeli version of Modern Orthodoxy and that Modern Orthodoxy is the American version of Religious Zionism. That is not true. (Just ask Americn Olim who live anywhere in Israel other than Gush Etzion, Chashmonaim and certain parts of Yerushalaim and Modi’in). There is, of course, a lot of overlap and there are many people – and rabbis – who embody a combination in their personalities and their Torah approach but, the whole context and orientation of the communities are different.

This, I believe, is a reason why the Religious Zionist community in Israel is not only continuously growing in numbers but have, arguably, become the most influential force in Israel society today, while the Modern Orthodox community in the US seems stagnant, not only in its size but more importantly, by a sense of paralysis due to the dialectic values and groups it has difficulty continuing to encompass (some great insights on the state of Modern Orthodoxy in the US by Prof. Jack Wertheimer can be read here).

In North America, recognizing the differences can, hopefully, encourage the Modern Orthodox community to reflect and realize what is missing from its ideology, what emphases are lacking from its internal discourse and more importantly – from its educational philosophy and institutions, a topic I hope to explore soon in a separate post.

In Israel, on the other hand, this can help explain some of the vocal debates in recent years between what seem to be different factions within the Religious Zionist community, with some having a far more Modern Orthodox approach to modernity – and much that comes with it – while others, as stated, having no inherent approach to it at all.

On a personal note, when trying to figure out my own “place” in this discussion I have found myself, over the years, on what seemed to be conflicting sides of some of the specific issues. I have finally understood why. When it comes to my private life – I am Modern Orthodox but when it comes to the public sphere – I am a Religious Zionist.













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3 parables about living in Galut today

To what is it similar?

1. To a man who was punished and chained beside a ferocious attack dog. At times, the dog would bark at the man or maul him while at other times, he would ignore him completely, busying himself by barking at the other dogs, warding them off. Because of his chains, all the man could do was cower in fear and pray to God the dog would not notice him, would not attack and maul him, rather continue barking at the surrounding dogs. After every such prayer, when no dog (the surrounding one or the one he was chained next to) would attack the man, he would say to the dog “good dog! good dog!”. After many such days, someone broke the man’s chains. The man had became so accustomed to living beside the ferocious dog, cowering before it, praying not to be mauled by it and retorting “Good dog! Good dog!”, that instead of getting up and fleeing he just remained where he was. And until today one can find the unchained man laying on the filthy ground beside the vicious attack dog, eating left over scraps and once a week saying: “please God, save me from this good doggie! please don’t let him – or any other dog – maul me to death this weak!”

2. To a man in Germany saying the prayer for “his” government in 1932. (In Germany, some communities continued saying the “prayer for the government” until November of 1938. In Norway – until the closing of the last Shul in 1942. In Denmark – until Rosh Hshanah of 1943. In Antwerp – until late 1941, even after the government surrendered to the Nazis. In France – until the summer of 1942 when the mass deportations began. In Italy – until 1938 with the publication of the “race laws”. In Hungary – until the spring of 1944, when mass deportations began as well. And in Austria – some communities continued praying for the welfare of “their” government until the end of the war.

3. To a man who comes to a formal event and is introduced to a a colleague’s wife. The colleague says to the man: “what do you think of my wife?”. “She seems very nice”, says the man blandly. “it’s ok” says the woman, “Take a nice long look. Stare at me. I don’t mind. Tell me – and everyone else – how beautiful and attractive I am. Wouldn’t you want to spend more time with me? don’t worry – I take it as a complement!”. Not wanting to be disrespectful, the man does as he is told. He looks, he stares, he ogles. The more he looks and the more they speak the more mesmerized he is by her. “If you really think I’m pretty” she exclaims, “prove it and sing me a love song”. Without hesitation the man begins to sing. As he completes his song for his friends wife, his own wife appears besides him and asks: “honey, what’s going on here? did I just hear you sing this woman a love song?” “Don’t worry sweetie” he replies. You look pretty and attractive too. Didn’t I buy you those beautiful cloths and Jewelry you’re wearing? didn’t I spend a whole day just with you last week? here; I’ll sing you a love song too. But please understand that when I’m done singing your song – I still plan on sleeping at her place tonight”.

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It’s time to rethink Slichot!

I’ve always found Slichot (Penitential Prayers) difficult for a variety of reasons: the poetic (and archaic) language of the Piyutim, the speed in which they are usually said, the rote recitation of something intended to be contemplative and even the challenging hours of when they are traditionally said. I’ve always felt there was a bit of a charade going on during Slichot, with a false sense of piety replacing the individual self reflection which the Slichot are meant to express and evoke.

This year, my uneasiness with the Slichot – as it is commonly practiced – has become even greater after deciding to take a closer look at the Piyutim. Though the most important component of Slichot is the recitation of “the 13 attributes of mercy” the Piyutim have come to play an important role as well. Written primarily between the 11th and 14th century, the Piyutim focus on sin and confession, remorse and punishment as well as hope for forgiveness and redemption. Many of them combine ‘scenes’ from Tanach, Misdrah as well as references to historical events. Seemingly, these are perfect features to be focusing on as interludes between the 13 attributes, as they confront us with a picture of ourselves – as individuals and a community – and what is lacking. Even if the language and rhyming are difficult to understand, one can still hopefully get the general idea. And even if one doesn’t, I believe there is (or can be) value in the ceremony for the sake of the ceremony – continuing a long standing tradition, and the feeling of additional spiritual effort as individuals and a community.

Until I started reading the Piyutim and not just saying them in a mantra-like fashion. Just a few, of many, examples (the translations are my own): On the first night we say: “מאז ועד עתה אנו נידחים נהרגים נשחטים ונטבחים. שורדנו מתי מעט בין קוצים כסוחים, עיננו כלות בלי מצוא רווחים”-“And from then until now we are dispersed, murdered, slaughtered, and butchered. In small numbers we have survived among dead thorns (the nations) our eyes yearn without finding any relief”.

On the second night we say: זעם כרגע ועתה להיפוך זרי קודש עתה לשיפוך חביבת רע כקרן הפוך חשובה עזובה כקורעת בפוך – “A moments anger is now reversed (to longstanding anger) holly crowns are now spilled (the crowns of Torah, priesthood and kingship are now desecrated). A beloved friend (Am Yisrael) like a ‘vessel of beauty’, now considered as one who is deserted and ‘rips their clothes’ (as a prostitute)”.

On the third night: “כל היום עליך הרוגים לכפרה אין אנו משיגים” – “the entire day we are killed on you(r name because) we have not achieved atonement”. The following Piyut states: “פחודים הם מכל צרות ממחרפיהם ומלוחציהם” – “they are afraid of all calamities, of those who curse and oppress them”.1919 June Brit Jews march vs Polish pogroms

On the fourth night: “איה כל נפלאותיך הגדולות והנוראות אשר ספרו לנו אבותנו ה’ צבאות”  – “where are all your great and terrible wonders(!) which our forefathers told us about Hashem of Hosts”. A few stanzas later: “מעת לעת צרתי מרובה” – “from day to day our plight increases”.

On the fifth night: “איויתיך קיויתיך מארץ מרחקים” – “I yearn and hope for you from a distant land”. In the following Piyut: “והם שחים ומושפלים עד מאד מהר יקדמונו רחמיך כי דלונו מאד” – “and they are exceedingly lowly and disgraced, may your mercy come hastily because we are dwindled (and cannot bare the hardship of exile)”.

On the sixth night: “ארכו הימים ודבר חזון ארמון נוטש וחדל פרזון” – “Lengthened are the days (of exile) and (lack of fulfillment of) words of redemption. The palace-deserted (Beit Hamikdash) and open cities (of Israel) – have ceased”.

On the seventh day: “מתי תחיינו ומתהומות תעלנו” – “When will you revive us and bring us up (to the land) from the depths (of exile”.

On Erev Rosh Hashana: “העיר הקודש והמחוזות היו לחרפה ולביזות וכל מחמדיה טבועות וגנוזות ואין שיור רק התורה הזאת” – “The holy city and its suburbs have been disgraced, all its treasures sunk and hidden and there is nothing left but this Torah”.

The common thread to all these quotes (and there are many more) is this: how can they possibly be uttered in today’s day and age? how are they not the gravest of insults and show of ungratefulness towards Hashem, who has – in this generation -brought us back to the Land of Israel, to sovereignty, to military and economic self sufficiency, to the flourishing of agriculture, Torah scholarship and technological advances? in short – to redemption? These statements are not being said in past tense. They are being said in the same fashion in which they were written – as a reflection of the current state of the Jewish People. As if nothing has changed. Is there a greater חוצפה כלפי שמיא than that? How can the denial of Hashem’s Chessed be expected to serve as a tool of self reflection and repentance? How can one hope to get close to Hashem through ingratitude?

סמל מדינת ישראל=ויקיפדיה---

Of course it is important to always remember the hardships we experiences and their causes. Of course not everything has been rectified but – on Pesach, would we consider for even a second saying עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים (we were slaves in Egypt) without adding ויוציאנו ה’ אלוהנו משם ביד חזקה (and Hashem our God took us out of there with a strong arm)? Would we fathom to only discuss the terrible slavery without the redemption that followed? We are not talking about formal Tfilot and prayers which have strict rules and warnings about change (although I most definitely do not recite the traditional version of נחם on Tisha B’av but that is a topic for a separate post), rather on Piyutim, which are not the central part of Slichot which in itself does not have nearly the status of formal Tfila (even if it is fashioned after its model).

The are 2 possibilities I can think of for how people can continue saying these Piyutim, or at least sentences of these sort in the Piyutim:

Option 1 – People don’t pay attention, or mean, what they say in Tfila, let alone in Slichot.

Option 2 – People choose (knowingly or not) to stay in a state of perpetual trauma. A psychosis, in which ghosts of the past are conjured into their perception reality. (Why would people do this? is it an escape mechanism for not having to deal with the truth and the obligations that would bring with it? is it an emotional inability to process the truth with its challenge of the familiar? maybe a topic for a different post).

Either way – neither of these possibilities bode well for us as we enter The Days of Awe, days which require sincerity towards ourselves and sincerity towards Hashem, days, during which we spend hours in Tfila, speaking to Hashem and to ourselves about what is true and what is false about our past, present and future.


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The Philosophy of Rav Kook – new lecture series

I’ve started a 5 part lecture series on the philosophy of Rav Kook. It will be taking place every Wednesday evening, starting October 9th, at the BAYT in Thornhill, Canada.
The first lecture dealt with Rav Kook’s unique approach to the question of Torah and Science.
Part 1: “The Philosophy of Rav Kook; Torah and Science” can be viewed here on KosherTube .
Part 2: “The Philosophy of Rav Kook; Torah and Morality – a revolutionary reading of the Akeida” can be viewed here:
Part 3: The Philosophy of Rav Kook; “Freedom”, can be viewed here

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What I learned at Harvard

I recently spent a week training at Harvard’s Principal Center.

There were lectures and workshops covering a wide range of topics from “Adaptive Leadership”, to “New Approaches to Teacher Assessments” and “Defining School Efficacy” and much more. It was a fantastic institute and an extraordinary learning experience.
How surprising, then, is the fact that 3 of the most memorable experiences of my week in Harvard are the ones that took place outside the classroom:
Lesson 1 – The International; The Cultural Divide
170 participants from 22 countries around the world participated in the institute. 
On the second day of the institute we had a morning of ice breakers and team building activities in smaller, 14 person, cohorts. For one of the very first activities I found myself paired up with Eida. The activity was this – pairs needed to decide on a song they are both familiar with. One person stands and sings the song while their partner walks around them in circles. When the singer is ready for a switch – he taps the partner on the shoulder and they switch places. 
(The purpose of this ridiculous activity was to get us way, way out of our comfort zone as an opener to a full day of team building and open conversation).
A bit about my partner. Her name wasn’t actually Eida, rather – by her own admission – something none of us would be able to pronounce. Eida is the Student Activities Coordinator of a 1300 student, public high school, in Southern China. I, on the other hand, am the Judaic Studies Principal of a 200 student private, Jewish-Orthodox, high school in Toronto.
After apologizing and explaining that we will have to do without the tapping due to “religious restrictions”, we moved on to search for a song we both knew. I asked if she knew any nursery rhymes. She didn’t. She asked if I knew any traditional Chinese songs. I, foolishly, responded that I knew some of the songs from Mulan. She frowned, though I’m not sure if because she didn’t know what I was referring too, or because I was being ‘culturally insensitive’ (the absolute worst of crimes at a place like Harvard). No success with the Beatles or Madonna either. She came up with “Jingle Bells”, which I wasn’t comfortable with as – for the rest of the group – it would strongly be associated with Christmas. (“Jingle-Bell-Rock-Dancing-Santa” shout-out to the Malkosh clan…).
Several minutes had gone by and the rest of the group was standing around waiting on us to start. They all threw in their own suggestions. Finally, someone suggested the “A, B, C” song. 
Looking approvingly at each other we awkwardly carried on with the (ridiculous) activity. By the end of it we recognized that we had done more than find a way to carry out the activity. We had found a bridge, albeit a slim one, across a massive cultural divide. It was the opening – for all of us – to an extraordinary cultural education throughout the week as well.  

Lesson 2 – The National; How Close and How Far We Drift

Lesson 3 – The Personal; Me and My Chicken Soup (Coming Soon)

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