Centrist Orthodoxy: What It Is — and Isn’t

Daniel B. Schwartz is an Orthodox Jew and an attorney from Monsey, New York, who like me, calls himself a Centrist. This is how we both define our religious ideals. He has however written an article in the Times of Israel where he spells out what he calls his redefinition of it. Do we define Centrism the same way? Well, yes and no.

For me Centrism is a Hashkfa — a term that I think we first have to define.  A Hashaka as I have always understood it, is an approach to Judaism. One that stems from how one best understands the essential truths of the Torah.

Centrism is about what we think God requires of us and what He does not require;. A Centrist strives to understand the Torah’s philosophical underpinnings and how to apply them in our daily lives. It is way of living that best accords with what we understand to be God’s design for us — His Chosen people. In short we seek truth. We choose which ever path leads to it. In seeking that path we do not necessarily choose stringency or leniency. We just seek truth.

Of course all Hashkafos in Orthodoxy might be defined the same way. So what’s the difference? It is in where each segment ends up after finding what they believe to be the truth of Torah.

Centrism is not a Hashkafa which as Daniel points out (as did Dr. Norman Lamm before him) is defined as the midpoint between two extremes. Each of which can shift one way or the other over time. That would make Centrism nothing more a mathematical determination — that would change with the wind irrespective of any ideals. A Centrist has ideals, just like those to his Hashkafic right or left. The differences being in what those ideals are and how we arrive at them.

Even though Centrism has ideals irrespective of where the fall on the Hashkafic spectrum – they do happen to end up in a wide ranging center between right and left.

The term Centrism was coined by Dr. Norman Lamm, President emeritus of Yeshiva University. It is a term he quickly rejected after hearing complaints from the Conservative Movement claiming that they are the true Centrists in Judaism. But he never replaced the term with another one that would truly describe the Hashkafa he delineated. But I disagree with him. The term Centrist when applied to Orthodoxy fits. Because there is a right, a left, and a center. And via our ideals, we fall in the Center.

What are those ideals? This is the subject of Daniel’s essay. He happens to link to a few essays I have written on the subject which explain my views. These are principles I derived from my mentors and other influences (which can be seen in my bio on the right.) After studying with these mentors and supplementing their ideas with some independent studies of my own I arrived at my conclusion that Centrism is the essence of what Judaism should be.

Essentially Centrism is the following. The idea that the God’s Torah has primacy over everything else in life. And it is within that context, that the study of Mada has a high value in Judaism. There are various approaches to the study of Mada — or worldly knowledge. The two most prevalent are Torah Im Derech Eretz (TIDE) which sees the study of Mada as a means of better understanding God’s will – and Torah U‘Madda (TuM) as illustrated by Dr. Lamm’s various models in his book of the same name; or as in Rav Ahron Soloveichik’s 5 perspectives of it published in his book, Logic of the Heart  Logic of the Mind.

There is also a cultural component that allows and even encourages participation in the permissible parts of the general culture as a means relaxation so that we can better rededicate ourselves to God. And finally Centrism includes a deference for — and adherence to centuries of tradition that should not be abandoned because of a non Torah based spirit of the times.

(There is also another centrism that is sociological rather than Hashkafic. Which includes moderate Charedim and Centrists whose lifestyles differ little from each other and which comprise the vast majority of Orthodox Jews. But this is not the Centrism of which Daniel and I speak.)

While I don’t believe that Daniel disagrees with the components of Centrism that I outlined, he does not see it as a worldview or Hashkafa alone. In fact he says that Charedim and Open Orthodox Jews can be Centrists too.

This is where I part company with him. The ideals in which we each believe  differ substantially from one another. Charedim believe in Torah only, They do not believe in studying Mada for any reason other than a utilitarian one.. For example as a means toward Paranasa. And participation in the general culture is frowned upon — to be done only when absolutely necessary… and otherwise avoided. Open Orthodoxy on the other hand embraces the spirit of the times to the point of reinterpreting the Torah so that non Torah ideals can be accommodated.

Centrism is not — as Daniel suggests — a balance between 2 conflicting ideologies. It is about seeking truth in Judaism wherever one can find it and following its path. A path that happens to lead to a broad ranging center between the extremes of the right and left.

Here is something else I have the trouble with:

For the true Centrist, a robust free marketplace of ideas is crucial to success.  Only when one is presented with the opportunity to encounter and consider wide and varied opinions on the pressing issues can s/he determine which approach, which school of thought, enables him/her to achieve self actualization.

To say that Judaism invites a robust free marketplace of ideas counters the very notion of Torah as a system of God’s immutable laws.  You cannot entertain a great deal of those marketplace ideas without denying the Torah itself.  Just to make a point with the obvious… a Jew cannot accept the ideas of Christianity, no matter how compelling those ideas may be. Because accepting them takes you out of the realm of Judaism entirely and makes you a Christian (…although technically still a Jew).

That said, I agree that there are a variety of ideas that can be explored and accepted as truth. Just not a free marketplace. This is the danger of Open Orthodoxy which has stretched some Torah truths into near heresy as Open Orthodox Rabbi ShmulyYanklowitz recently did with an essay on Spinoza. Whose heretical ideas about God got him excommunicated from Judaism. Rabbi Yanklowitz wants to restore Spinoza as a member in good standing. Which is impossible since his ideas about God are heretical!

In order for ideas to be debated at all they have to be within the parameters of our fundamental belief system. Only in that context can we have a discussion, and decide which ones come closest to God’s truth. But I do agree with Daniel’s following comment:

In religious sense for the Centrist to arrive at the path that leads him/her most directly to service of the Divine.

This is true — and what I said at the outset. But Judaism believes in certain truths. To ‘ponder all available options’ is to entertain a denial of the those truths  which can hasten a path to heresy.

About the Author
My worldview is based on the philosophy of my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik , and the writings of Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitcihk , Norman Lamm, and Dr. Eliezer Berkovits from whom I developed an appreciation for philosophy. I attended Telshe Yeshiva and the Hebrew Theological College where I was ordained. I also attended Roosevelt University where I received my degree in Psychology.