Letter To The Editor: Responses To Tzvi Goldstein On Centrist Orthodoxy And Haredi Orthodoxy

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Letters to the Editor

An unnamed yeshiva’s “scoreboard” of mitzvot, potentially able to be racked up by an hour of serious limmud ha-Torah (2,942,400,000,000 mitzvot before multiplying by the number of chavrutot and doubling that sub-total if in the land of Israel), is the jumping off point of Tzvi Goldstein’s meditation on the respective approaches to what he refers to as Yeshivish/Haredi and Centrist/Modern Orthodox camps. Despite acknowledging what he calls their “video game nature,” the mitzvah-points to be accrued via talmud Torah, by their sheer astronomical numbers, cause Goldstein see them as reflective of the Yeshivish/Haredi worldview—one which, so he says, focuses on Olam ha-Ba, the Next World, over the here and now, and which chooses, with singular purpose and tenacity, to focus on talmud Torah over and above other mitzvot—never mind the secular and profane. Modern Orthodoxy, as Goldstein sees its tenets expressed through the words of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch as well as Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, is, in contrast, about building a Godly world in the here and now; it focuses more on Olam ha-Zeh, or, as Rabbi Hirsch famously put it, on the fact that ikar Shekhinah ba-tahtonim: a priori, it was God’s desire to see this—the physical world of man—turned into a model Torah society wherein His Presence would find its main abode.

Although I am not entirely in agreement with Goldstein’s reference to Rabbi Hirsch’s conception of Torah im derekh eretz as being a synthesis—it is, in fact, a much more holistic worldview—any Hirschian would fully endorse Goldstein’s description of TIDE as a critical one, one wherein the Torah is the arbiter, and through whose lens any given society (the Hirschian definition of derekh eretz) and all of that society’s arts, sciences, and culture, is to be appraised. The Torah, as Rabbi Hirsch makes clear numerous times, is there to elevate man and civilization (who have never yet reached the pinnacles of its lofty heights), and is never to be lowered to the depressed state that may currently be in vogue in a given society: that which does not match the yardstick of Torah is to be rejected. Any reevaluation or change of circumstances and views must be “progress to the Torah height, not, however, lowering the Torah to the level of the age, cutting down the towering summit to the sunken grade of our life.”

While Goldstein sees the over-focus on talmud Torah lishmah and Olam ha-Ba as cause for some of the problems faced by the Orthodox world today, I would argue that it is the failure to adopt TIDE’s critical approach that has caused major problems, in both the Yeshivish/Haredi and Modern Orthodox camps. Ramhal is no less revered in the Modern Orthodox world than he is in Yeshivish circles. It is the way that many in both camps relate, or fail to relate, to this world, that causes trouble, not one camp’s alleged prioritization of the World to Come over the current, temporal one. 

To personify these two groups, Goldstein conjures up before us two friends—Shlomo, from, perhaps, Teaneck, the M.O. representative; and Shloimie, who now resides in Lakewood, and is the Yeshiva world’s faithful delegate to this symposium. Growing up, Shlomo followed some sports, was on social media, and was not overly devoted to his Torah learning, while Shloimie had access to a talk-and-text phone only, was involved in numerous extra-curricular Torah-learning activities (where, we may assume, he was busy racking up those very mitzvah-points), and went on to post-high school yeshiva and kollel, before eventually and grudgingly seeking some kind of income-generating activity for his growing family.

Our author is very kind to both of these young men—almost, one might say, to the point of naïveté. If Shloimie did not own a kosherized smartphone, his parents or older siblings very likely did; WhatsApp is high up in the Yeshivish ways-to-communicate totem pole. We hear nothing of the de rigeuer gadgets, tech, and clothing brands and styles he was expected to, and gladly did, care about. Shlomo may now dress in black and white, but there is a very good chance that he in fact attended any number of minyanim when off from school attired in Adidas warm-up pants and the coolest sneakers his parents, school, and/or wallet could handle. 

In turn, while M.O. Shlomo is described as having always been careful about keeping Shabbat, we hear nothing of his struggles—and perhaps they were a lost cause to begin with—with such issues as kol ishah, nivul peh, being shomer negi’ah, and keeping a modicum of shemirat einayim, when watching movies and TV, listening to the latest music, and having everything available—and sometimes popping up without warning—literally in the palm of one’s hand, on one’s smartphone, lightly filtered or not. Truth be told, many “Shloimies” (categorized as such based on family background and yeshivot being attended) struggle with these issues as well.

Our author has also neglected mention of the boys’ sisters, Shlomit and Shulamis. While they perhaps varied in their seminary, college, and career choices (Shlomit attended Migdal Oz and Stern College, followed by SUNY downstate, while Shulamis attended BJJ, earned her degree through a frum college program and ventured to Touro for grad school), they are surprisingly similar as well. Both make use (one hopes only good use) of the latest tech; both are keenly up on styles and trends; both, unfortunately, and despite a Yeshiva day school or Bais Yaakov background, tend to engage in little textual Torah study past their last seminary or college Judaic studies course. In short, both are very much the products of the modern world.

A critical appraisal of what the wider world has to offer is seldom seen in either segment of the Orthodox world under discussion. Indeed, the Yeshivish/Haredi camp would claim no need of any sort of critical apparatus—it wants no part of the wider world in any case, or so it asserts. It should be noted, however, that the “world” under discussion here, the world which the Yeshivish camp wants out of, is not “this world” as opposed to the next, as Goldstein posits, but the “treif, peritzusdikoutside world, as opposed to the “Torah velt.”  One may hear all the stories one wishes of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa or Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and their ascetic, other (next) worldly, lifestyles—but it is every likelihood that one will be doing so at an Avos uBonim melaveh malka with pizza, or at a Thursday night mishmar with cholent, while trying to avoid getting the cuffs of one’s Italian-made jacket dirty. Prestige, status, connections, know-how, and money (even including the proud non-possession of the last) do not strike one as terribly next-worldly mindsets and values.

Generally speaking, the more practically useful aspects of today’s civilization—technology and science, just to mention a couple—are accepted without much background context or thought by the Yeshivish/Haredi camp. Ironically, though this camp is generally described as Torah-only, many of its members seem intent on bringing all of today’s culture of materialism into its Torah citadel, with only a perfunctory “kashering.” Moreover, precisely because ostensibly “only” Torah is to be permitted entry, every new gadget and luxury, as well as the most ephemeral opinion, must become a part of the Torah world that one is to never leave. Phones and gadgets, luxury brands and luxury lifestyles, all slip in once having donned a kosher varnish. Sometimes, indeed, the varnish is almost invisible. Why everything from toilet-training books to real estate investment guides must be beatified with the descriptives “Torah” or “frum” is less than immediately apparent, and how or why support of MAGA and anti-vaccine ideologies became a Jewish—never mind “torahdik”—mindset will have to be left to later and wiser researchers than this author. A walled city from which one never has occasion to leave may be appealing —one must wonder, however, if the solution is truly to bring everything, lock, stock, and garbage dump, inside its perimeter. 

Conversely, too many in the Modern Orthodox world, in practice, seem too busy munching popcorn at the latest movie to be overly critical of the outside world, to begin with. This is not to say that thinkers and writers within the M.O. sphere do not engage critically with the world, and critique and criticize it in good measure, but a TIDE “critical approach” obliges a consequent abstention from anything which has failed the criteria. Much of Modern Orthodoxy seems to have left the citadel for good, to go wandering through an unfenced and unpoliced big wide world outside. On the more innocuous side of things, we are invited by an M.O. congregation to “come watch Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and elevate your melaveh malka with a ramen bar (pareve)!” On the more worrying side, we are faced with educators and others, all supposedly well-imbued with Torah-knowledge and Torah-views, who seem incapable and unable to pull back from the regnant, liberal positions on such issues as homosexuality and transgenderism, even as these views which they endorse veer towards explicit conflict with halakhah. To put it mildly, this is hardly a critical engagement with the world—this is capitulation, and the Shekhinah can hardly be expected to look forward to dwelling in such current tahhtonim

TIDE sees no walls, no dichotomy, between Torah and world civilization, yet values each differently, and finds the place and the value for the latter based solely on the dictates and halakhic and moral imperatives of the former. A TIDE civil engineer would recommend replacing our citadel’s walls with, instead, careful fencing around those areas outside which must be avoided. But for all that is acceptable—to use it, use it mindfully, and use it in the context in which it belongs—as derekh eretz, but not as Torah. 

This mindfulness and critical approach are what is all too often lacking today, across the board, and no amount of  Yeshivish “geschmak” or M.O. ramen melavei malka will substitute.

R.A. Alpert
Washington Heights, New York

I was disappointed to read Tzvi Goldstein’s essay “Rack Up Those Mitzvot! 

While I appreciated and welcomed some parts of the essay, it presents a reductive view of Haredi Judaism, one that oversimplifies and errs in its understanding. 

The principal error of this piece is the claim that Haredi Judaism is chiefly defined by some form of strategic spirituality or utilitarian piety. In Rabbinic terminology, this sort of instrumentalist’s intentionality already has a term: “shelo lishmah,” or “not for its own sake.” Goldstein’s wholesale characterization misses the clear tradition that controverts his analysis.

To substantiate his view, Goldstein draws on just a single passage from the eighteenth-century text Mesilat Yesharim, interpreting it in a way that reduces the Haredi “worldview” to a mere transactional spirituality. He argues that the Haredi “worldview” is best understood as treating “this world [a]s an opportunity to invest… so as to earn for oneself the highest berth possible in the World to Come.” Or, that “preparing for the promised pleasure of the World to Come, is not oriented towards building anything meaningful in this world. Instead, each individual is directed to do what he can to maximize his time in this world for the best ROI in the next world possible.”

Goldstein’s construct fundamentally misconstrues the traditional perspective on utility-driven religious behavior. The Sifrei long ago interrogated the validity of pursuing reward in the World to Come as a primary motive in religious behavior.  

“To love the Lord your God”: Lest you say, ‘I shall learn Torah to be rich, to be called Rebbe, to receive reward in the world to come’ — it is therefore written, “To love the Lord your God.” All that you do shall be out of love alone (Sifrei, Deuteronomy, 41).

There are numerous other rabbinic exhortations against Torah study as a tool for self-promotion. Instrumentalist approaches are at worst met with the Sages’ admonition that “anyone who engages in Torah not for its own sake, it will be for him an elixir of death,” and that it’s “preferable for him had he not been created” (Ta’anit 7a; Berakhot 17a).  At best, the sages acknowledge that while still inferior, “a person should always engage in Torah and mitzvot, even if not for their sake (shelo lishmah), as through not for their own sake  he will come [to engage in them] for their own sake (lishmah)” (Pesahim, 50b).

If by “worldview” the author means a prescriptive philosophy, it’s implausible that the Haredi community would prioritize what is universally considered a lesser method of Torah study. Granting the primacy of Torah study, autonomous validity should not be equated with simple utilitarian motivations. 

Offering a comprehensive assessment of Haredi theology is a complex undertaking. In my view, the theoretical contest between Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy has been sufficiently exhausted. Still, a more accurate accounting would acknowledge the diversity and sophistication of Haredi religious approaches, which go far beyond, and likely exclude, any utilitarian approach suggested by Goldstein.

For starters, Goldstein, in a footnote, unceremoniously dispenses with the view held by no less than three of the most influential figures in the Haredi world: R. Hayyim of Volozhin, R. Yisrael Meir Kagan, and R. Yitzchok Zev Soloveitchik. A succinct account of this position, with an emphasis on R. Hayyim’s presentation, is warranted.

R. Hayyim championed the independent theological value of Torah study. As he sees it, the purpose of creation, the sustaining of that creation, and the ultimate communion with God, rest on the study of Torah. “Through the study of the holy Torah,” as he puts it, “one fulfills the divine intention in creating the world, namely, to have Israel engage in Torah” (Nefesh ha-Hayyim 4:13). 

For R. Hayyim, unlike other creations, Torah is not an emanation from God; it pre-exists from the mysterious most upper root of “ein-sof” (Nefesh ha-Hayyim 4:10). A natural consequence is that Torah is the telos of all existence. Therefore, “without any doubt at all, if the entire world, from one end to the other, would be empty literally for even one moment from our involvement with and contemplation of the Torah, immediately all of the worlds would be destroyed” (Nefesh ha-Hayyim 4:11).

The study of Torah, then, is a communion with a timeless entity that originates in the uppermost root of existence. In a celebrated passage, R. Hayyim proclaims that “[d]uring the time of the study of Torah it is certainly unnecessary to be conscious of deveikut (attachment), for by the very act of study, one is attached to the Will and Word of God, and He and His Will and His Word are One”(Nefesh ha-Hayyim 4:10). As R. Norman Lamm put it in Torah Lishmah, his classic study of the thought of R. Hayyim, “the study of Torah, without any concomitant religious experience, even without the consciousness of its vast spiritual efficacy, itself constitutes an act of communion, or devekut.” This concept of study is far from a transactional theology.  

Goldstein’s portrayal of Haredi Judaism, while provocative, simplifies a complex tradition. Far from being monolithically transactional, a prominent view sees Torah study as the most profound communion with the Divine. Recognizing this is essential for a fair representation and broader understanding of Haredi Judaism.

Yaakov Resnik
Upper West Side, New York