Centrism Is Dying – And For Good Reason

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur, popularly known as the “Chidushei Harim” used to go out of his way to pass by the docks of his city where he was greeted daily by a group of rough-looking longshoremen. They would line up in a row, hat in hand and say “Good Morning Reb Itche Meir” to which he would respond “Good morning my fellow Jews”. They would continue to stand in respectful silence, until he passed from view.

An inquiring chassid, aware of how much the Rebbe valued his time, suggested that perhaps they make use of a shorter route in the future. The Rebbe’s reply was priceless. “These unlearned and unobservant Jews,  besides for expressing their respect for a Torah scholar when I pass, are also observing one of the basic tenets of the Torah: the mitzvah of U’Bacharta Bachaim, You shall choose life. Not all are capable of doing what is required of them, due to circumstance or whatnot. However, by choosing to admire and respect those who do, they are demonstrating the purity of their hearts. The choice at least, is still within their means to make, and I will not deprive them of that”. And so he continued day in and day out walking past these “people of the street” and allowing them to pledge allegiance (as it were) to the crown of Jewish existence in this world: the Torah and it’s scholars.

Hot off the press comes the following from the NYT:

After decades of decline, the Jewish population of New York City is growing again, increasing to nearly 1.1 million, fueled by the “explosive” growth of the Hasidic and other Orthodox communities, a new study has found. It is a trend that is challenging long-held notions about the group’s cultural identity and revealing widening gaps on politics, education, wealth and religious observance…

“There are more deeply engaged Jews and there are more unengaged Jews,” said Jacob B. Ukeles, a social policy analyst and one of the principal authors of the study, which was sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York. “These two wings are growing at the expense of the middle. That’s the reality of our community.”

This is just the latest in a series of studies confirming a noticeable trend in the Jewish community. The center is hemorrhaging believers to the wings as people abandon “moderate” ideologies for the more rigid “right” and “left” extremities. It would be accurate to point out that this phenomenon is hardly restricted to Jews. Moderates across America bemoan the increasingly partisan divide which they claim has made reaching consensus more difficult then ever before. Too much time has passed to dismiss this mass migration as an aberration, a passing fad. It therefore behooves us to examine what is causing this universal flight from what would appear to be a reasonable and sensible, middle-of-the-road, approach to life for the often demanding diktats of a less accommodating path.

Moderates would like you to believe that a number of societal ills are responsible for what they see as the “fragmentation of society”. Explanations range from the lack of proper education to the general immaturity of the younger generations. What moderates refuse to do is take a long hard look in the mirror. One can hardly blame them though; chances are they wouldn’t see much of substance staring back.

Centrism has no form of it’s own, it is a hybrid. However, unlike the Prius, it’s components do not complement each other. The disparate matter that centrism wrestles to fuse into one are inherently programmed to work at cross-purposes, not allowing for any meaningful and lasting synthesis. Oil and water don’t mix, fire and water are mortal enemies, so too the Word of G-d and the Idol of Man or (lehavdil) the Milton Friedman School of Economics and the Keynesian Bureau of Government Works will always be at loggerheads with one another. Reality intrudes, whether it is invited or not.

Back to the Jewish scene. On the right are the Traditional Orthodox (i.e. Haredim) who pledge unwavering fidelity to the One True G-d and His Torah. Over to the left are those who, in the tradition of the ancient Arabs, worship the dust of their feet i.e. the Almighty Self (secularists). Along comes Modern Orthodoxy with the suggestion that we worship them both. However, man cannot have two G-d’s as our father Avraham taught us and as was later confirmed at Mount Sinai. One can either give a full measure of devotion to G-d or one can ignore Him (c”v), half measures won’t cut it. G-d, (either the real one or the idol (self)) is either everything or He is nothing. Modern Orthodoxy is vaguely aware of the Catch-22 they’re in, hence the constant “struggle”, the never ending navel-gazing and existential angst that so permeates the movement.

What has changed? Much. What may have worked for the elders is no longer working for the youth and hasn’t been for some time. While the elders have hammered out a practical, workable way of life, drawing lines and boundaries that would confuse Pac-Man, the youth are adrift. They look to the right, then to the left and back over to where they are and want no part of this marriage of convenience. The couple is totally incompatible and they want out. They want a divorce.

They ask themselves “If the Torah is G-d’s word, shouldn’t we embrace it with all our heart and soul, without compromise and apology”? “If however, it is secular humanism that is progress, secular ideals that represent the best in mankind, then where are those ideals? Where are the women rabbis? Where are the gay marriages?” To them, the half-baked excuses that are offered in lieu of a consistent weltanschauung are seen for what they are: nisht aheen un nisht aher, nisht tzu gott un nisht tzu lait (neither here nor there).

As Centrism appears to wither on the vine, one looks back and wonders “where did this come from, what were the conditions that brought forth this unique flower from the garden of history, one that burst on the scene with so much promise only to fade away shortly thereafter”? A cynic would posit that with the dawn of the Enlightenment, the rigors of observance were too much to handle. However, not wanting to totally jettison thousands of years of tradition and wary of unforeseen consequences, enough was held onto to allow for a quick retreat to the embrace of yesteryear should the need arise. In other words, let’s see what we can get away with and still be called “Orthodox Jews”.

However, there is a more charitable view that may pass muster as well. As beautiful, meaningful and rich that Judaism is, it can also be one more thing: difficult. The demands placed on a Jew often appear to be overwhelming and out of reach. It is therefore quite reasonable to want to cut it down to size, to bring G-d down to us if we feel we cannot ascend to him. But as the Talmud tells us (Sukkah 5a), G-d has never descended to this world, if we want to reach him we must go to him. His Torah however, is not in heaven, although it may sometimes seem to be there.

Traditional Jews try to do our best, and but most importantly, we never lose sight of where we ought to go. We strive to always choose life, even if that choice remains in the world of intent rather than deed. We never lose sight of where our standards OUGHT to be, and joyfully honor those who get closest to it. This is the lesson of Ubacharta Bachaim, a timeless idea that is demanding while comforting, showing the Jew the heights he can reach while applauding whatever progress he has made. That’s all G-d wants from us. Just remember, do not lower Him to where you are, do your best and let Him do the rest.


25 thoughts on “Centrism Is Dying – And For Good Reason

  1. A little understanding of history is in order. Strong centrism was born in the ashes of World War 2. The war left the Western world with a hatred of extremism of any form. As a result, those ideologies that compromised in the centre of whatever field they were in came into vogue. That’s why the Conservatives did so well in the decades following the war. People wanted a religious lifestyle but not to be Orthodox. They wanted to be modern and secular but not cut off from tradition. Conservatism offered them that compromise.
    Now as the horror of the War fades, extremism is returning. While a “flight to quality”, especially on the frum side, sounds desirable, remember that no extremism is healthy in the long term. Ultimately what is “far right” today becomes centrists as people search for even more radical positions. Right now the Burka Babes are extremists. Who’s to say that their ideology won’t be “mainstream” in a couple of generations? And is that a good thing?
    Yes, centrism is in trouble. The hardest part of a roof to be on is the middle, far easier to slide down one side but the drop at the end might make that not worth it.

      • No, but here’s my point. There’s always a centre but it moves. Today the average Chareidi is the new centre and the Burka Babe is the extreme. What happens when the Burka Babe becomes the new normal, the woman who goes out with her face uncovered is the prutzah? What will the extreme right be then? And when it gets twisted enough what does that do to real Torah Judaism?

        • Everything’s relative, I get it.

          However, we have a lodestar, the Torah. Over the years we may have moved a few feet to the right and a few feet to the left, but we’ve stayed in the lane. For thousands of years.

          Charedism is the same center it always was: Torah-centric, notwithstanding what modern historians try to sell. A clear unequivocal stand can withstand the test of time. Not the wishy washy centrism which incorporates the ever-changing philosophical fad of the day.

          • I lived in bnei braq over 30 yrs ago. The change to the right isn’t small, it’s huge. In my yeshiva where I went to high school, we all wore colored shirts during the week. My kids can’t even imagine that. I still bike to Kollel. In my days, many yungeleit , even the biggest learners would bike. Now i am the only one. We have moved so far to the right, that we would be considered either center or to the left nowadays.

            • You were never mainstream. You were many, but the mainstream was then, and still is, the more right wing that you describe.

              • I like how you know where I learnt. I did learn in a right wing yeshiva . The Rosh yeshiva was very right wing. The Kollel I learn now is also very right wing, but things have changed in the last 30 years. Why can’t you admit to that.

    • The ideology is dying. The patient? He’s alive and well and moving toward Torah. That’s worth whooping up!

      BTW both harry Maryles and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein have haredi children. We ALWAYS get our revenge! 🙂

  2. Yeats famous 1919 poem The Second Coming contained two oft quoted lines : “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” & “The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” The”wishy-washy” liberal-socialist center didn’t hold, allowing the Nazis and Communists, full of passionate intensity, to dominate. Do you see a Jewish world without a center, a Jewish world where the two options are the extremes of the secular or the charedim, an improvement over our current state? I think not. Here is the new data: Total Jews NY Area=1,538,000. Charedi=21.8%. Modern Orthodox= 10.2% .Non-Orthodox=68%. http://www.ujafedny.org/get/189755/ .The figures for out of town must show MO & Non-Orthodox as an even larger percentage of the whole. American Jewry would have less than 1 million Charedi Jews , 40% below the poverty line, and an intermarriage rate in the secular Jewish world way over 50%. Not exactly nirvana. Going on to your feeling that the RHM-YU type Centrists will not survive. True, the Charedi right are pulling harder than the MO left, as you suggest, but there are other currents going on at the same time. Secularism and acculturation are creeping into the inner bowels of American Charedi life; the loss of Yiddish, the influence of goyish music, the effects of English language on the outlook of charedim are examples. There is a secular alien aboard the spaceship Charedi, and it oozes out of the least expected places. Maybe the chumra- culture wins, maybe a more modest Yekke-YU culture wins. As of now the surface tides are going in a Charedi direction. Harder to know what is happening below the surface. As for the increase in Charedi numbers over other stripes, it’s main cause is to be found in the bedroom, Charedim have more children. It is indeed a great accomplishment to raise a large family where the kids are decent and frum. I suspect the poverty and the many children will have some long term bad consequences, but as of now they are not apparent

    • My focus wasn’t the numbers per se but rather the story behind them.

      Centrism in general and how it is practiced by the MO has no core, IMO, and furthermore is a new invention. In the Haredi world there is and always has been a spectrum, but they all color within the lines of tradition. Unlike MO, while still Orthodox, they have firmly removed themselves from that “distinctly Jewish highway” to unabashedly incorporate elements of modern thought which are diametrically opposed to Torah.

      Unfortunately for them, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

  3. Chazon Ish: True moderation can only be achieved as failure to achieve perfection

    Chazon Ish(Letters 3:61): Just as the unvarnished facts and truth are synonymous so are uncompromising perfectionism and greatness. Perfectionism means to develop something to the ultimate degree. One who advocates moderation and despises perfectionism, his lot is with the frauds or with those lacking understanding. Without perfectionism, there can be no completion and if there is no perfection, there is no beginning. The beginning is with constant questions and replies. The perfecter is the brilliant respondent who orders everything in its rightful place. We regularly hear announcements from well‑known groups that they have nothing to do with uncompromising perfectionists. They nevertheless describe themselves as being the true Jews with appropriate faith to Torah. We simply note, however, that just as there is no such thing amongst lovers of wisdom as love for minimum knowledge and hate for the very wise there is similarly no such thing as loving Torah and mitzvos moderately and hating the uncompromising perfectionists. All the foundations of emuna, the 13 principles and their derivatives, are inherently incompatible with the lightweight wisdom and superficial life that exists in this world. In contrast clear recognition, energetic involvement; high precision in emuna is the hallmark of the perfectionist. Those who proudly testify on themselves that they have not tasted the sweetness of uncompromising perfection are simultaneously testifying that they are missing emuna in the foundation of religion both intellectually and emotionally. Their attachment is only lukewarm. The perfectionists, who despite their genuine wish to have pity on these doctrinaire moderates, do not honor and respect their opponents. The yawning abyss that separates them is naturally only widened as the result of the disputes that occur when they interact with each other. The only true moderation that can exist is that which results naturally to those who love the perfection and strive towards it and educate their children to strive for the peak. In contrast how unfortunate are those “moderates” who cast aspersions on the perfectionists. The obligation of our education is to perfection. The only genuine protection of the educational system is to be contemptuous and to ridicule those who denigrate perfection. However given the burning spirit of youth it is not appropriate to strongly condemn specific individuals amongst the unfortunates. Instead, the youth should be developed to have true love of Torah that requires personal effort and heavenly pleasantness and they should not have obstacles placed on this road. Those schools that are labeled as moderate schools, they are not successful because of the fraud that is inherent in moderation…


  4. I don’t get it. There’s always going to be a center, just as surely as there is always a beginning, middle and an end. There can’t be only right and left, just like their can’t only be right or left. The new right and the new left will just produce a new center, and it will keep doing it.

  5. Is centrism (or as you seem to mean it, MO) dying? MO may represent a smaller fraction of the Jewish community than the right (Charedi + Chassidic), but that doesn’t mean that it is dying. It just means that the right is growing. Besides, current trends aren’t unalterable. 50 years ago, everyone thought that Orthodoxy was dying. And it was in decline back then. Baruch Hashem, Orthodoxy began to rise in the 70s, and is once again strong. I would be hesitant to describe any group as ‘dying’ just because they are not the largest group. Only time will tell what happens with the future of MO.

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