Last week, someone reached out to me because in a blog or a social media post I referred to myself as a modern orthodox Rabbi. The person who reached out to me was raised in a more “yeshivish” environment and he heard a lot about different definitions of modern orthodoxy and he wanted to know how I defined the term. I shared with him three basic underlying values of modern orthodoxy. The first underlying value is the value of general culture. We believe in engaging the world through the prism of Torah and not merely in order to earn a living. The second underlying value is the belief that the State of Israel is a gift from God and maybe even the beginning of the flowering of our redemption. The third underlying value is the belief that we should provide women, in a narrow sense, with the opportunity to study any type of Torah at the highest level and, more broadly, with greater opportunity to actively advance their own spirituality rather than be spiritually nourished through the spiritual endeavors of their husband and/or children.
When I was discussing the first value, that of general culture, I explained that I very much understand both sides of the debate. If I have an hour and I have a choice between spending that hour studying Torah or studying Shakespeare or some historical or philosophical text, shouldn’t I spend that hour studying Torah? Maybe I will find some value in studying Shakespeare, but does that really compare to studying God’s Torah? Even if we rule that halachically the actual obligation is not to study Torah every free moment but only to study at fixed times during the day and night, nevertheless, wouldn’t it better for us to study Torah whenever we can?
If I study Torah then I definitely will fulfill a mitzvah. If I read Shakespeare, do I fulfill a mitzvah? My standard answer to this dilemma has always been that even though I value the study of Torah and I encourage it, the advantage of a well-rounded education is that I learn, borrowing a phrase from Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l, the complexity of experience. I learn to think in a nuanced manner. I become a broad thinker. But then here is the question. At the end of the day every minute I have free time I have a choice: Do I want to get a definite mitzvah or do I want to learn complexity? By what right may I sacrifice more time studying Torah in order to study general culture so that I can learn complexity? Is an authentic Torah view one that prizes complexity, as vague as it sounds, over an actual mitzvah of Talmud Torah?
I pointed out to my questioner that the Chaim Walder story has answered that question for us with a resounding yes. As we reflect on this story and we acknowledge the awful fact that so many community leaders stood up for Walder, saying that it’s lashon hara to say negative things about him because he did not appear in a Beit Din to defend himself, or that we may not publicly embarrass him, or that it’s appropriate to eulogize him, or that it’s appropriate to post his obituary without even acknowledging his crimes, perhaps we can appreciate the supreme importance of the complexity of experience.
It is a narrowness of thought prevalent in some circles that paints people as either righteous or wicked, which means that if someone is outwardly righteous and does so many positive things for the community then it is inconceivable for him to engage in the kind of abuse that Chaim Walder was guilty of committing. It is a narrowness of thought that creates a climate where victims of sexual abuse are made to feel embarrassed to go to the police to report such crimes, fearful that it will hurt their shidduch possibilities or their standing in the community. It is a narrowness of thought that creates a climate where known abusers are made to feel welcome in communities without an awareness that doing so puts so many lives at risk. It is a narrowness of thought that allows for the misapplication of halachic principles of dan l’kaf zechut, (judging favorably), lashon hara, (gossip) and malbin pnei chavero (embarrassing one’s friend). And it is a narrowness of thought that enables one, in this day and age, to not know enough about sexual abuse and to not recognize that one doesn’t know enough about sexual abuse, thus creating a favorable climate for sexual abusers.
To be clear, there are many leaders in the charedi community and the modern orthodox community who acted appropriately when the Walder story broke and after he committed suicide, but unfortunately, many leading members of some charedi communities exhibited a lack of complexity of thought that carries with it dangerous consequences.
Of course, embracing the outside world and embracing secular culture does not mean that we must neglect Torah. We must continue growing in both areas in pursuit of our avodat Hashem. I remember while studying in Yeshivat Shaalvim when Rav Meir Schlesinger was the Rosh Yeshiva, he told us that the relationship between Torah and secular culture is akin to a triangle, comprised of two parts of Torah and one part of madda. As the triangle gets larger, each side of the triangle, i.e., each of the Torah sides and the madda side, gets larger. The greater the Torah that we learn, the more spiritually grounded we will be and the greater the madda we can study to supplement the Torah that we learn and to help enhance our avodat Hashem and our interaction with the world around us.
It is true that I could make the argument that every second that I could be learning Torah I should do so to fulfill a mitzvah instead of being exposed to the broader world which may or may not yield a clear, definitive mitzvah and all that I’m gaining is an ill-defined value called “complexity of experience.” However, as I told my questioner last week, we live in a world that calls for nuanced and complex analyses and problem solving, and recent events have reinforced the critical importance of my religious worldview.