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.