Sunday, June 13, 2004

R' Riskin on Modern Orthodoxy

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Shlit"a is the latest to join the recent conversation (registration required) on the state of Modern Orthodoxy. I'm largely in agreement with his comments; he writes about

the real essence of modern Orthodoxy as well as its most significant challenge in our generation and in every other: its mission to embrace and sanctify – rather than automatically reject – those aspects of contemporary society which can not only be made compatible with Judaism but which can enhance it.

Two comments from me.

First, there's that implicit disclaimer: "those aspects of contemporary society which can... be made compatible with Judaism".

Clearly, there are aspects of contemporary society which can not be made compatible with Judaism under virtually any conceivable circumstances. Some of them, however, are pervasive in most segments of Modern Orthodox society, which tends to accept the basest offerings of Western culture, from television to movies to music and books.

We "moderdoxers" have been reasonably successful at sanctifying the "kosher" aspects of modernity, from science to statecraft. But we've been pretty poor at rejecting the clearly treif. (This is not self-righteous commentary; I'm at least as guilty as anyone else here, if not more so.) Modern culture assaults us from all sides; too often we say, "We're only modern orthodox - bring it on!"

And then there are those aspects of modern culture which, while perhaps within the realm of the permissible, are of negligible positive value: overindulgence in spectator sports, for example, or spectator politics. How do we as a society better distance ourselves from narishkeit?

Second, the rabbi opens with a bit of tochacha:

In adding my voice to the discussion, I would first insist that greater commitment to Torah study, synagogue attendance, modesty in conduct and dress, and hair covering (for men as well as women in an obvious and non-sheitelistic manner) must be seen as vibrant expressions of a renewed and re-invigorated modern Orthodoxy.

This sounds rather apologetic - as if before singing the praises of modern Orthodoxy, he feels compelled to confess its faults so as not to be vulnerable to its critics.

Furthermore, while it is appropriate for Rabbi Riskin to scold the community he leads, I find his choice of topics questionable. Torah study, shulgoing, modesty - fair enough. There's plenty of room for improvement. I would add that our shuls tend to feature too much talking and too little davening.

But the bit about hair covering is mystifying. "For men as well as women" - is R' Riskin implying that MO men don't cover their hair properly? Maybe in America there are many who go to work bareheaded, ostensibly for reasons of parnasa, but in Israel it's a non-issue. Or is the mention of men just a gratuitous attempt at egalitarianism? I suspect the latter.

"Obvious and non-sheitelistic?" If he wants to pasken on valid hair coverings, he should do so explicitly, not toss in an off-hand phrase in an essay on another topic.

But mostly, I wonder: How is hair-covering conceivably a "vibrant expression of a renewed and re-invigorated modern Orthodoxy"? What about it is vibrant or invigorating? Assuming he holds it's an obligation (disclosure: my wife doesn't cover), what makes it more important than any of the countless other halachot he could have listed?

Do we, as a community, give enough tzedaka? Are we careful enough about our business ethics? About lashon hara? Hilchot Shabbat, for that matter? All of these, to my eye, are higher priorities than hair covering, which isn't even an explicit mitzvah and occupies a trivial amount of the Shulchan Aruch. Or does he mention hair covering simply because it's externally obvious, and thus vulnerable to outside criticism?

Among the vast collection of mitzvot d'oraita and d'rabbanan, the overemphasis today on kisui rosh among the standardbearers of the religious community disturbs me to no end. There are numerous religious communities and schools in Israel for which the first criterion for admission is the wife's (or mother's) type of hair covering. It has become less an issue of halacha and more a badge of self-identification.

And I'm disappointed to see Rabbi Riskin on that page.

(At least he mentioned it fourth, not first...)

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