Thursday, July 16, 2009

Different Branches of Orthodox Judaism

In orthodox Judaism there are several different branches. There are the Litvaks, Chassidim, the moderns, the centrists, the left wingers, and countless others. The strangest part about all of this seems to be the extremes. Why is it that the extremes believe that the rest of the orthodox Jews are not valid? If you don't follow every single chumra, even the one made up by my rabbi last week, then you are a kofer. What? How does that make sense? Also, on the other side, Judaism was meant to make people respect one another so if you follow the stricter rulings than you are being ignorant. What?

How can it be that one sect of Judaism has so many conflicting ideas? How can it be that one sect that defines itself by a strict adherence to halacha can deviate so widely? Some people might want to say that left wing orthodoxy does not follow halacha. This is incorrect, as much as some would love you to think it. Sure, there are people in the group that do not follow halacha, but that doesn't mean the group as a whole should not be considered orthodox. I would counter and say that there are many Ultra orthodox people that do not follow halacha, however, they don't follow different halachas than those people found in left wing orthodoxy. In the end of the day, no group can be defined by its individual members, rather the group must be defined by its ideologies.

Left wing orthodoxy tries to adapt the Torah to be completely congruent with modern morals and acceptable behavior. Ultra orthodoxy does the exact opposite. They require a strict adherence to how life was 200 years ago. Notice how I say 200 years ago and not 2000. Then there are the centrist orthodox that believe there should be a balance of somewhere in between. Centrists believe that, although Judaism is meant to adapt with the times, there is not supposed to be a complete congruence with modern culture.

In general, what I have observed, there seems to be the following differences between left wing orthodoxy, right wing orthodoxy and centrist orthodoxy.

1) Left wing orthodoxy seems to say, there is such a thing as halacha, but we can push the boundaries as far as they can go. This has most recently been shown through the whole Maharat issue. Left wing orthodoxy seems to be saying that women can be Rabbis and you can not show me any place in the Shulchan Orech that says otherwise. The idea of minhagim seems to be unimportant to an extent and forget about classical ideals. It seems like they believe that modern morals, acceptance of everyone and equality should be the dominating ideas in Judaism. However, what seems to de-legitimize this approach in the eyes of those outside this branch of orthodox Judaism is that some of its followers are not strict adherers to halacha. For example, there are some that do not follow all of the rules of kashrus, taharas hamishpacha or shabbos. Some will value other things before halacha and the Torah. The biggest characteristic that I have seen in this branch is that very few people ask the Rav halachic questions. Apparently they all know the Shulchan Orech by heart.

2)Ultra Orthodoxy seems to be the exact opposite in certain ways, but very similar in others. Ultra Orthodoxy refuses to accept any modern morals. They do not think all things should be equal. They think that there should be a strict adherence to halacha, but that if their Rabbi says something and you don't follow him then you are digressing from the real mesorah. I have met many Ultra orthodox Jews that consider me to be eating non-kosher when I use chalav stam. There are many other examples, but why go into it? Unfortunately, Some of them do not follow halacha either. They all keep shabbos, taharas hamishpacha and kashrus, but when it comes to treating other people civil, there are some that do not follow halacha. For example, the protests that have been going on in Israel are just ridiculous. I am not even going to get into the Neturei Karta brand of "Judaism" Yemach Shemam. The most telling part of the Ultra Orthodox community is the clothes they feel obligated to wear and that they ask their Rav about everything, even when to get a job or move houses.

3)The Centrist Orthodox, where is their place in all of this? They hold onto traditional values, but also incorporate modern values into their lives. I mean, they believe in equality, but also hold onto tradition. This allows them to keep halacha without compromising. They learn Torah, study secular studies and get jobs. They have Rebbeim that are competent and are compassionate. They do not desire to change Judaism, but can adapt it in order for it to interact with the modern world. When people have questions, that is ok and a logical answer is searched for. They ask halachic questions, but they believe that everyone should be able to make some decisions by themselves.

I think these descriptions accurately describe the differences between the varying branches of orthodox Judaism. If you disagree or agree let me know why or why not. Any additions are welcome.


The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

There are two basic categories of mitzvos - bein adam l'makom ahd bein adam l'chaveiro.
A rav I learn with once pointed out that of the two, makom mitzvos are easier to do than chaveiro mitzvos because there's more glory in them. Imagine you meet your chavrusa after a long day at work and say "So today I didn't cheat anyone, I put in a honest day's work to earn my wages and avoided speaking loshon horo the best I could." Your chavrusa would most likely nod and say "Yeah, good for you."
Now imagine you come in and say "Hey, I was just reading in the Minchas Pinchas and I came across a chidush of his so from now on I'm going to wait 6.5 hours after meat before drinking milk." Now the response is more likely to be (in the right circles): "Pssssh, you're a tzadik"!
I would add a further reason why makoms tend to trump chaveirahs for some folks. Chaveirahs often depend on the reception the chaver in question gives them. If I'm honest with you and you don't acknowledge it, then I don't receive positive feedback. But the human psyche, when interacting with God, acts completely different. If I wait 5 extra minutes before lighting havdalah candles on Saturday night, part of me thinks "See God? What a good boy am I!" and hears a voice saying back "Yes, you are."
(I'm not speaking literally, I don't need THOSE kinds of meds... yet)
As a result, in the Chareidi community the makoms have come to take precedence. The same guy who sent those three yeshiva boys to jail for drug smuggling in Japan probably only eats double-glatt meat and twice-checked cholov yisrael and would look down at anyone who did less. His is an extreme example but relevant nonetheless.
Thus we can see the riots in Yerushalayim making perfect sense to the extreme part of the community that values makoms over chaveiros. In Neturei Karta land, makoms are everything. Thus attacking fellow Jews and damaging their property, all chavero mitzvos, don't figure into their behaviour and they see themselves as perfectly pious.
On the left side of Orthodoxy, the reaction to this has been a trend in the opposite direction, the supremacy of chavero over makom. Yes, many of these people will be lax on important mitzos like hair covering and tznius dress for women, firm application of taharas mishpacha and priority of learning Torah, but they often excel at social projects, tzedekah and community work. And as a mirror image of the extreme right, the extreme left takes it as far as they can, giving minimal lip service to the makoms, but lots of sanctity to the chaveiros.
The problem is that both systems betray a lack of understanding of the relative value of each type of mitzvah. In truth, there aren't even two types of mitzvos as the Chofetz Chayim, ztk"l, points out in the introduction to Shemiras Halashon. In what seems obvious (but you never really think about), since God commanded both the makom and chaveiro mitzvos, all mitzvos are really bein adam l'makom. So the people who disparage one group or the other are equally wrong in the relative value they have assigned each.

Gut Shabbos.


E-Man said...

The only question to figure out now is who caused who? Which one was the action and which one was the opposite yet equal reaction?

The Leader, Garnel Ironheart said...

Actually, that can be traced back to the rise of the original Reform in Germany and Hungary. There were two responses to the inroads they made into the Jewish community.
The Hungarian response was dicated by the Chasam Sofer, z"tl, who announced "Anything new is forbidden by the Torah." This happened around 200 years ago which is why the Chareidim like to act like everything was frozen at that time, as opposed to earlier on in history. (Hasn't stopped them from using electricity and toilet paper, though) The fear was that any new halachic innovations would be influenced by the Reform so innovations were banned.
The German response was for Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, zt"l, to create the Torah Im Derech Eretz philosophy. He felt that Torah Judaism could confront the secular world and Reform challenges successfully and his writings, including his pierush on the Torah, all show how the Oral Law is completely derivable from the Written Torah and how eternal Jewish values need not be worried about modern challenges.
The current leftist trend in the YCT circles of Modern Orthodoxy derives from creeping assimilation. Just like the Conservatives have moved left to be more like the Reform, the YCT crowd has moved left to be more like the Conservatives.