Welcome to The Edah Journal
Editor's Welcome and Introduction to the Marheshvan Edition
Welcome to The Edah Journal. All of us at Edah look forward to your participation as a reader, contributor and commentator to this publication.
As our statement of purpose indicates, the objectives of the journal are both to inform and stimulate ongoing discussion of issues vital to Modern Orthodox life. Torah discourse has always been the lifeblood of klal yisrael, nurturing both its religious and communal life in our quest for qedushah. It is our hope that The Edah Journal contributes to this enduring spiritual process.
The Edah Journal will publish three on-line editions per year. In addition, the journal will post reader responses and interchanges weekly throughout the year to promote sustained discussion of the ideas raised in the journal.
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The Marheshvan Edition
Perhaps the most significant difference between Orthodox life before and after the Enlightenment is the pervasive presence of "the Other," i.e. gentiles and heterodox Jews. Much of our first edition is devoted to various Orthodox thinkers attempts to understand "the Other."
Of course gentiles and non-traditional Jews existed prior to the modern era, but in the former case there was little impetus for social intercourse or religious cooperation with them, and in the latter instance, pre-modern non-observant Jews were a marginalized statistical rarity. By contrast, modern life is doggedly pluralistic. Modernity willy-nilly places in close proximity people with different religious, ideological and existential commitments. Thus modern experience sharpens both the practical and spiritual need for making sense of the Other. For Modern Orthodox Jews the issue is most acute: Participating in the mainstream of modern life, we live, work and often socialize with gentiles, as well as with heterodox, secular and Zionist Jews. How are we to understand these "Others" within our Torah worldview?
Whether modern pluralistic conditions are cause for celebration or regret, sociologists of religion such as Peter Berger have shown that these conditions threaten traditional religious sociologies and the unchallenged assumptions on which past religious life rested. The presence of the Other immediately calls into question monolithic life-styles, traditions and beliefs.
Orthodox communities have generally adopted one of three strategies for confronting modern empirical pluralism:
(1) Consciously avoiding interaction with, or acknowledgment of, non-Orthodox persons and modern conditions. This is achieved via withdrawal into voluntary monolithic communities that strive to seal off non-Orthodox influences. This isolationist strategy is most often associated with extreme forms of Orthodoxy, such as the Satmarer and Munkatch communities.
(2) Pragmatically accepting the need to interact with gentiles and non-Orthodox persons for political or economic benefit. Thus civil tolerance of the Other and his culture is an instrumental value, marking a concession to the ubiquitous conditions of modern life. As a departure from the pristine halakhic ideal, interaction should be minimized consistent with prudential judgment. This policy is most common among what is termed, Ultra-Orthodoxy, and animates much of the traditional yeshiva world.
(3) Understanding gentiles and non-Orthodox Jews in a way that incorporates their presence within the hashkafah of Torah. Under this conception the Other assumes some form of positive religious and halakhic value, and Orthodox interaction with the Other is pursued as a spiritual desideratum, rather than a pragmatic necessity. This is normative pluralism, often associated with Modern Orthodoxy
This neat logical categorization is only a theoretical construct, for in real life all but the most extreme thinkers and communitieson the right and the leftpursue a mix of these strategies. Absolute isolation is an existential impossibility, while total normative openness to the Other tends to undermine any unique Jewish purpose and places Jewish life in peril. So while the important philosophic objective is finding validity for the Other, the serious practical question reduces to determining where the boundaries lie in any one approach, i.e. where normative acceptance should end and separation should begin, and vice versa.
Each Orthodox thinker discussed here, from the Meiri in the 13th century (in Moshe Halbertals seminal study) to the Neziv in the 19th century (in Howard Josephs essay) to Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg (whose biography is reviewed by Simcha Krauss), to our 21st century spokespersons (Tamar Ross and Shmuel Goldin), considers some form of normative pluralism to be spiritually desirable. As Samuel Heilmans essay points out, Joseph Liebermans national political involvement and his recent nomination for Vice President perhaps constitute the most obvious testimony to this approach. Yet each struggles with the tension between openness and boundaries. Each demonstrates that these categories are not strictly hierarchical, accepting a primary axiology of normative pluralism, and concurrently rejecting some form ofpragmatic interaction. As such, each advocates a specific dialectical approach.
All of us recognize that normative pluralism can come at great costweakening Jewish identity, disruption of communal continuity, and as Tamar Ross eloquently puts it, "a watering down of religious intensity" and "a distancing from the literal meaning of (religious) language." Yet there are also great potential benefits. Experiencing the Other as one created btzelem Elokim, appreciating the variety of the human spirit as part of Gods infinite wisdom, and developing relationships of mutual respect and dignity with the Other, all help us live an integrated spiritual life in which our religious ideals and practical necessities point toward coherent unity rather than cognitive dissonance.
This dialectic of potential costs and spiritual benefits contribute to the complexity of Modern Orthodox life. Our lives may be filled with serious dangers, but they also hold out the promise of increased qedushah by relating to all Gods creatures and internalizing the wondrous fullness of His creation.
In the first of our regular halakhah essays, Saul Berman challenges us to enhance shabbat and yom tov by investing those times with greater qedushah. He suggests that playing ball may hold the potential for such a creative contribution.