Monday, 24 January 2011

Is there such a thing as Middle of the road Judaism?

A few years ago, I delivered a sermon on Shabbat Mishpatim on the subject of Middle-of-the-road Judaism. It created quite a stir in the community. Some people agreed others were not so happy- especially when I spoke about it again the next week. But it gave a lot of people some food for thought whilst ingesting their Shabbat afternoon cholent.. Here it is...

Middle of the road Judaism

This is the term which we tend to commonly use for the United Synagogue brand of Judaism. My question is what is the definition of this term and is it a correct expression to describe who we are? Isn’t it strange how we use these words all the time-"I am a middle of the road type of Jew"- but we really don’t stop to think about what we are saying. In America the middle of the road Judaism is called Centrism- But we still need to know what it means.

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos”- a quote from Jim Hightower.

In a physical sense when I say middle of the road I think of the fact that if you are walking you are vulnerable from both sides and you can get hit from a passing vehicle coming from either direction, because the middle of the road is not a sensible or usual place to be!!

On a spiritual sense when I think of middle of the road- I think of the fact that I am neither veering to the left or right- it suggests a certain parevness, a mediocrity- a certain sitting on the fence, but is that necessarily a good thing for Anglo Jewry?

Before I go any further let me just give you insight from my own experience. I was brought up in a United Shul. My father as you all well know was the Rabbi, yet at that time I’ve got to be honest,I was not turned on at all by United Synagogue Judaism. It was in the mid seventies that Rev A.D Sufrin – a Lubavitch shaliach and his wife Henny and family came to town and I was enticed by firstly the fact that here were people who were frum and at the same time they were modern and trendy and who definitely did not class themselves as middle of the road Jews. Tolerant and open minded yes- but not middle of the road Jews. Dare I say it but perhaps it was the fact at the time that Lubavitch Chabad was not mainstream meant that I was drawn towards this brand of Judaism. Could it have been- the very fact that they offered more obvious truth and were uncompromising on Jewish issues that attracted me to that way of life.

Every day we recite in the Shema- the statement of faith in Judaism: "Veahavta et Hashem Elokecha bechol levavecho uvechol nafshecho uvechol meodecho"- "and you shall love the Lord your G-d with all your heart with all your soul and with all your might"- Meodecho- means the meod shelcho- with all your muchness- (which is not really a word in English)with all your strength, force, capacity. Love of G-d, the connection with which a Jew forges with Hakodosh Boruch Hu- should not be bound by middle-of-the-roadism. Completely the opposite, Judaism requires that a person be totally dedicated and committed to Hashem and His Torah.

There’s no room for half measures or compromise.

It means to me as a Jew for example that when I recite the Shema my mind should be totally absorbed with what I am doing. I cannot half recite the Shema- there’s no middle ground here. I am either doing it or not.

A story from the Book of Melachim that I am fond of reading is the showdown between Eliyahu Hanavi and the Priests of Baal. It was a time in Eretz Yisrael when Ahab and Jezebel sat on the throne and ruled the Northern Kingdom. Their influence had become so great that they had managed to implant idolatry- Baal worship throughout their Kingdom. So Eliyahu demanded that they come together- the Priests of Baal- the entire B’nai Yisrael on Har HaCarmel to ascertain whose was truth.

Now listen to the words of Eliyahu addressing the B’nai Yisrael;

"Ad mosai atem poschim al shtei haseifim"

How long will you vacillate between two opinions

"Im Hashem Elokim lechu acharav- veim habaal lechu acharav"

If Hashem is the G-d-follow Him! And if the Baal-follow it!

Eliyahu is saying; there is no room to stand in the middle. You’ve got a choice between idolatry and following Hashem, you cannot stand in the middle. Middle of the roadism for such a decision cannot be the way forward. Dithering and indecision is worse than even following Avodah Zarah, because at least then even though you may have turned away from Hashem, at least you have made a decision.

The quote however has been from quite a clear cut situation- on one side of the road is idolatry on the other is Judaism and following Hashem- in such a state of affairs there’s no middle ground- it’s definitive- Once you’ve made the choice then you’re either for Hashem or you’re not.

But within Judaism is there such a thing as the middle ground?

On one side of the equation is Secular Humanistic Judaism- the other side is Neturei Karta- Middle of the road means a middle point between the two. Once again this is a very difficult suggestion. Secular Humanistic Judaism means a non Halachic way of life and United Synagogue which is an Orthodox institution cannot use that as the barometer-way to measure the middle ground.

So I am at a loss. I do not know what is meant by middle of the road Judaism.

If it means inclusivist and tolerant- which the United Synagogue endeavours to be- you can also find inclusivism and tolerance amongst the Chareidi and Yeshivish world. So what do we mean by middle of the road Judaism-Could it be that perhaps we are just playing with words -food for thought- perhaps a theme to which I will return in coming weeks


  1. I find it very interested that you see 'middle' to mean half - surely one can be an observant Jew within some respects, however less so with others? I once heard an interesting though 'We must not strive to be good Jews, but better Jews.'There is always room for improvement, but modern orthodox Judaism is not 'all or nothing', nor could it be with the myriad of different opinions. We should aspire to inspire those around us with enjoyment of our religion, and celebration of our beliefs, rather than condemnation of our shortcomings and adopting a 'glass is half empty' aproach.

  2. Thank you Jew blogger for your post- whoever you are. This was not an attack on Modern Orthodoxy-even though it seems you thought I was having a go-That terminology I have no problem with because you can be vitally passionate about your belief in MO or Torah Ummadah.Some of the most passionate people I know about Judaism are MO Jews.It was really a challenge to those who try to limit their own growth either consciously or sub consciously by saying that they are Middle of the road Jews. I just don't like the terminology because it doesn't really mean much, it stifles growth and creates mediocrity. I think we all have to- at times analyse where we are vis a vis our relationship with Hashem, Torah, Israel and the Jewish people. Middle of the roadism suggests we don't.