RW/LW Orthodoxy and the ‘Imaginary Polemic’

One of my favorite scholars on the topic of contemporary secular Jewish thought is Prof. Gideon Katz (Prof. Eliezer Schweid is another). I have learned much from his articles on the topic; I added much of his work on the topic in the bibliography at the end of my series of posts on non-observant Jewry.

In one of his articles, he discusses what he calls ‘the imaginary polemic’ between secular Jewish intellectuals and what they perceive to be the stance of Orthodox or at least ‘traditionally’ religious Jewry. The reason the polemic is imaginary is because there is only one real side to the discussion. Many secular intellectuals don’t really debate religious Jewry, with its manifold positions, world-views and attitudes. Instead, they debate a simplified, often simplistic, and always monolithic ‘position’ of their own creation. It is not a true debate, because a ‘real’ debate requires actual dialogue and exchange of ideas (as well as possible rejection thereof, but only after examination).

BTW, Orthodox Jewry is quite often just as guilty of such ‘imaginary polemics’; the examples for this are manifold. Instead of reasoned and principled disagreement, however heated and emphatic, we often get stereotyping and caricature of the other side. The result of all this is obvious – forget ‘dialogue of the deaf’; such a situation is very much that of two people debating imaginary friends.

So what does this have to with the title of the post?

It’s simple. I feel that the RW and the LW of Modern Orthodoxy are both engaged in an ‘imaginary polemic’ with each other. Both sides construct straw men of each other to knock them down. They publish in separate journals and conduct conferences where everyone (on either side) agrees with one another. Both have institutions where their ideas are dogma – the RW has the yeshiva world and its auxiliaries, the LW – academia and institutions in that orbit (e.g. the Hartman Institute). They send their kids to different schools, each dogmatically holding to their chosen position, and they live in different areas of the country.

This is a situation that is not conducive to dialogue or compromise, but rather to unrelenting war. Because of the ways the boundaries are presently set, both sides are “looking” in opposite directions and are drifting there. The RW is constantly trying to emulate the “pure” Charedi world, while the LW does the same toward the secular Western world. This is reinforced in a recent study by Dr. Hanan Moses, which found that people who identify as Chardal feel a much stronger connection to the Charedim, while those who identify as “datiyim moderniim” (which in this country means LWMO exclusively) feel a much stronger connection to secular Jews.

This leaves the broad, moderate center – made up of baalei batim, in a very tight spot. As they feel roughly the same towards both worlds, many feel torn between these two camps. Both sides have pretensions to leadership, yet because they are driven to extremes they are not palatable to this public. It may well be that the ‘baalei bayit’ contingent will need to look to itself for religious leadership and movement and let the two warring camps run themselves off their respective cliffs.  How they can do that is an issue I hope to address in the future.

As to the two lunatics in the asylum, I have a simple suggestion: start taking each other seriously. Regularly invite people who hold the opposite religiously to your world-view. Have regular columns in your publications by people you don’t agree with. Acknowledge the questions and challenges even if you don’t accept the answers. After all, kol machloket leshem shamayim sofa lehitkayem.



Hi, my name is Avi Woolf. I'm an American-Israeli MO Jew living in Israel. I have a background in Israeli (as in Land of Israel) and Jewish History and an insatiable need for knowledge. I also have professional experience as an editor, translator and indexer. Enjoy the ride! If you are interested in using my services or just want to drop me a line, contact me at:
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4 Responses to RW/LW Orthodoxy and the ‘Imaginary Polemic’

  1. fred says:

    actually, i think the 2-dimensional chareidi does exist, but almost exclusively in their press, or other quasi-official official, or public persona. thats what you get when you write articles based on chareidi media. sometimes i read articles by these scholars of chareidim and i recognize erudition but i wonder if they ever met and spoke to a living breathing chareidi. talk to a real live chareidi, and most of them, in my experience, are far more interesting than their official position.
    i find the same to be true, tho less so, when reading the chareidi attitude toward the bronja secular. i mean, have you read haaretz?! if all you know about the secular is what they publish, what would you think of chilonim? [i say less so because the minority always knows more about the majority than the other way around.]

    i dont know if there is really unrelenting war between the rw [=isolationist] and lw [which can mean lite, or integrationist, and there is a huge difference between the 2; clarify?], maybe there is war, but also a lot of ignoring.
    but i do agree with how they are on separate tracks.

    chardal’s feeling closer to chareidim is unrequited, which basically means that chardal to an extent can be useful idiots, suck-ups, what have you. certainly they do not garner respect in chareidims eyes.
    and that lwmo [define! this is a problem i have with your writing. you need clear, defined concepts!] feel closer to the irreligious is also odd. you [often] cant eat in their homes, and their big shopping/trip/off day the lwmo spends in shul. here too i fear the chiloni sees the lwmo as a mah yafis yid.

    the 2 sides are not running off a cliff any time soon, as the rw is growing ever stronger.
    and our educational institutions are led by chardal, by and large [virtually every hesder yeshiva is headed by a mercaz grad…], tho there are exceptions.

    but of course i do agree with your final suggestion. i wish i had more chiloni friends…

  2. AIWAC says:

    Sorry. LWMO, in my terminology refers to the ideologically integrationist (Hartman, Kibbutz Hadati, Neemanei Torah VeAvodah &c), not the MO-lite (some of whom might still pay homage to their religious responsibilitites.

    For your convenience, I will write up a glosarry of the terms I use regularly next week.

    Shabbat Shalom


  3. Steve Brizel says:

    Do you really consider the Hartman Institute as LW MO? How can anyone do so in light of one its graduate’s role at the Clinton wedding and its written pronouncements on Hilcos Gerus?

    • AIWAC says:


      You’re right; it’s more accurate to say that it’s an institution whose right flank encompasses LWMO.

      But the fact that a graduate of the institution held an intermarraige is no more proof than the many, many people who went to Volozhin and later stopped being religious entirely.

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