Those who forget the past, are unlikely to understand the present

In the ongoing ideological battle between right-wing Modern Orthodoxy, and Open Orthodoxy, both sides seem to be talking at each other, or past each other. Oftentimes, they preach to the choir. One side screams “Tradition!”, while the other side screams “Dinosaurs!”. One side says “Progress” and the other responds “Conservative Judaism”. The Open Orthodox shout “Progress” and the RWMOs respond “heresy”. One group says “Rav Soloveitchik”, while the other responds, well, “Rav Soloveitchik”. And on it goes. While each side thinks it knows how things will turn out, I have figured it out.

We are reliving the battle between the traditionalist Misnagdim as they stand strong against the progressive Chassidim who wish to change the focus of Judaism. The ‘misnagdim’ will stand strong while the ‘chassidim’ push. After a long period of nastiness (hopefully with no killing this time), the two groups will reach a consensus, first with a cold peace, followed by a reunification.

No, wait. We are re-experiencing the battle between the traditionalists and the mussar movement. The ‘traditionalists’ will stand strong against the introduction of new ideas into the yeshiva curriculum, while the ‘ba’alei mussar’ will insist that Judaism needs mussar in order to remain vibrant, and true to its mission. After a period of nastiness and debate, the traditionalists will win out, with mussar essentially disappearing from the world of the yeshivah.

Actually, now that I think about it, we are, once again going through the time period after Darwin has taught the Theory of Evolution. The traditionalists are digging in, insisting that this newfangled theory is heresy and contradicts Torah, while more moderate rabbis, like the Tiferes Yisroel and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch are showing that we have nothing to fear. After a period of arguing and talking past each other, the ‘moderate rabbis” will vanquish the ‘traditionalists’, and people will look back wondering why anyone was scared in the first place.

In truth, it seems more like the Orthodox-Conservative split. At first it seemed to be a debate over small halachic and philosophical differences, but eventually the gap was too great, and a permanent split occurred.

Okay, maybe I haven’t figured it out. Still, there does seem to be a pattern here, and in pretty much every ideological battle which has taken place within Judaism for more than two millennia. Each time there are the traditionalists who attempt to dig in and prevent change, while the other side insists that change is inevitable and necessary. Each side is passionate, with the passion often turning nasty, and sometimes leading to tragic results. When change does occur, it happens too fast for those who wish things to remain as they have “always been”, while for the innovators, it happens entirely too slowly. While I would like to believe that we can learn from the past and talk with each other and try to find the common ground which is far greater than that which divides us, I know enough of Jewish (and human) history to realize this is unlikely.

While I have my guess as to how things will turn out, I am neither a fortuneteller, nor a prophet. As much as I am, at times, troubled and saddened by the amount of vitriol from both sides, as those in the middle struggle to figure out what they believe, I am thankful for the passion and commitment that lay behind the struggles.

About the Author
Pesach Sommer is an Orthodox Rabbi, fundraiser, educator and runner. He is married and has eight children. He currently works for Just One Life, where he directs special projects including their charity running program Team Just One Life. Pesach is 42 years young.
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