Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Middle of the roadism 2

Here is a photo of a dear friend and colleague; Rabbi David Mason, the dynamic community rabbi of Muswell Hill synagogue. He recently read my blog: "Is there such a thing as Middle of the road Judaism?" and he sent me his thoughts on this subject.

I thought it would be a good idea to invite the Rabbi to be a guest blogger over here on my blog. and share his excellent ideas with us. So here he is:

Please note my comments at the end...

United Synagogue, Centrist Orthodoxy and ‘the Middle Ground

It is great to see more and more of my colleagues blogging and expressing their opinions on important issues. This is healthy for the Rabbinate and for our organisation. In this vein, I noted an article by my colleague Rabbi Yehudah Black on the concept of the ‘middle ground’ and his seemingly unsuccessful search for its definition. In fact the reader would be easily left with a negative conclusion about applying this motif to our organisation. I feel that this is a fundamental debate and I would like to contribute my thoughts.

Rabbi Black defined ‘middle of the road’ in a sort of arithmetical manner. In other words this definition of the United Synagogue puts it half way between one extreme and the other, right in the middle point. This of course would be an extremely parve definition empty of any dynamics and emotion and quite rightly Rabbi Black was critical of this approach. It is also simply not backed up by the diversity of engagement with Judaism expressed by our membership.

But I think that the wrong definition of ‘middle of the road’ was chosen and I would like to use as my source, an article written 1989/1990 edition of the Yearbook of Religious Zionism by Rabbi Norman Lamm who was until recently the Dean of Yeshiva University. His article was entitled ‘Centrist Orthodoxy and Moderationism’.

Rabbi Lamm begins by clearly distancing ‘centrist Orthodoxy’ from the definition that puts it arithmetically in the middle between two points. In fact he is quite vocal on this point:

“It is no compliment to our intelligence to imagine that in the name of centrism we advocate walking about the religious terrain with a yard-stick, callipers and a pocket calculator measuring the exact distance between Neturei Karta and Humanistic Judaism in order to locate the exact middle or centre. We are not and do not aspire to be ideological geographers or spiritual surveyors who search out the exact point between right and wrong, religious and non-religious, mitzvah and aveirah and settle upon that centre as our religious goal.”

Strong words. So how does Rabbi Lamm define ‘middle of the road’ if not an attempt to find a point that is mathematically in the middle of the ‘road’? Well he uses Rambam’s theory of the mean, which was derived itself from the Aristotelian theory of the Golden Mean. This theory as Maimonides applies it begs us in most cases to aim towards a central point between two extremes. So one should not for example be overly greedy or overly extravagant with money but find a position in the middle. On the face of it, this theory also looks too arithmetical and according to Rabbi Lamm. ‘bloodlessly parev…emotionally inhibiting, passionless and uninspiring’ However Rabbi Lamm explains to us an idea which he had received from his Rav, the great Rav Yosef Soloveitchik. Maimonides adds to his recipe for the mean this statement:

“our earliest Sages instructed us that a man ought always weigh his dispositions and measure them and direct them to the middle way”

According to Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi Lamm, what Maimonides is telling us is that the result of being on the mean, the midpoint is not the be all and end all. The process of getting there is also important and possible more so. In Rabbi Lamm’s words:

“In other words, the process of arriving at the determination of one’s own life and character is more important than the results. It is the dynamic quality of rationally weighing and assessing and then out of freedom deciding and choosing…that qualifies this activity as the way of God”

This is crucial. We are asked here to firstly be aware of where we are on the spectrum of characteristics. Then we should direct them to the ‘middle’ point, but we do this by being aware of all the points on the spectrum. In fact we may take up different valid points on any spectrum as long as they are expressive of the mean, the average. Rabbi Lamm has transformed the theory of the mean from a cold, mathematical decision making process to one which engages all options and then involves a decision which takes heed of these options. In fact a decision based in moderationism will actual engage both extremes, whereas an extremist will not veer from one side of the argument. I will give you an example from my approach to the issues facing our beloved Israel. I sometimes find myself sympathetic with a more right wing and entrenched view of how Israel should relate to the Palestinian leadership and people. But not always. I often find myself sympathising with a more left wing and dovish approach. Is this because I am indecisive? Maybe. I am more worried about the trap of extremism which blocks one from considering any other valid point of view. But I am not frightened of listening and engaging with diametrically opposed views.

So ‘centrist orthodoxy’ or ‘moderate orthodoxy’ is careful and moderate in the process of making a decision. But when a decision is made it is made with clarity, passion and strength. This approach can equally apply to the realm of halacha. A posek, or halachic decisor will also need to relate in his decision to a multiplicity of opinions before he makes his decision. And this decision will not always be strict and not always be lenient. The Rav who is a posek may look therefore inconsistent in his approach. He is not. He is carefully weighing up each situation before deciding according to the specific conditions. Here is how Rabbi Lamm puts it:

“A posek is not a computer in human form who accesses his halachic data-base for the relevant and dominant halachic opinions and offers them ‘as is’ without considering minority views and without insight into the unique human situation of the one who posed the questions”.

One small example. In my Synagogue there is a custom, as with many, that milk and milk products should be supervised. I stick by this as I feel that the standards of kashrut in a Synagogue kitchen should be high. But that does not mean to say that I have toyed with the alternative approach. Some have said to me that if one does not allow chocolates from the kashrut guide, one gives the message that they are not kosher enough. Possibly, yes. I do not reject this view, but after weighing things up another view is taken.

I remember in my time at Kingston Synagogue as Rabbi, that someone criticised me for being ‘middle of the road’ and not strong minded enough as I had allowed a woman to speak to the community (from her side of the mechitza) on Shabbat morning. I was told that in the middle of the road one would get run over. My reply was that I may only seem to be in the middle of the road as a leader because I need to hold the community to together, and to do so I would need to have my arms symbolically around each side of the community on each issue. My decisions would rarely be middle decisions – rather I would be constantly getting off the fence – but I would share these jumps off the fence with both sides of the community. Of course each decision needs to be made with reference tightly to halacha and Talmud Torah. But being the Rabbi of a United Synagogue community is a challenging and important role because of this challenge. Our goal is to ensure that Jewish people can find a place under the umbrella of our Orthodox community. To be passionate about this we need to be clear that our community is not based on a boring and passionless concept of decision making but a dynamic and creative one that is careful and tolerant, but in its result is firm.

I will finish with the words of our Chief Rabbi in his book ‘Community of Faith’

“It would mean that Jewish leadership would have to be exercised in a way that was faithful and yet open, tolerant without ceasing to be firm”

This I feel is our definition of ‘the middle road’.

Thank you Rabbi Mason for your thoughts. Here are my questions to you. First and foremost I better tell you that I am an admirer of both Rabbi Y Soloveitchik Z'L-The Rav as he was affectionately known by his followers, and Rabbi Norman Lamm who is perhaps one of the greatest exponents of Torah Umaddah alive today.

  • When using the term "middle of the road" I wasn't referring to Jewish leadership. The message was in relation to your everyday Jew who refers to his/ her Judaism as a middle of the road Jew. what does that mean?
  • So in relation to Jewish committment, are you going to advance the counsel of Maimonides that he keep the golden mean?- I know I'm supposed to read the shema- should I read only the first paragraph? and that makes me a middle of the road Jew? should I eat kosher at home but when I go out I eat treif? Do you see what I mean - in these cases middle of the roadism cannot be your philosophy - it gets you nowhere, and it creates stagnation.
  • I don't think I disagree with you in relation to seeing both sides of an argument. But is that really called Centrism or is it just the fifth Chelek of shulchan Aruch which is as you well know just common sense?

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