Daniel B. Schwartz
Daniel B. Schwartz

Toward a Redefinition of Centrism

I’m a centrist.  Or, at least I aspire to Centrism.  But what does that mean?

Most people, most Orthodox Jews, believing that they are applying Maimonides’ “Shvil Hazahav,” his representation of the Aristotelian Golden Mean, take centrism to mean the adopting of the mid point between any two extremes.  For the Modern Orthodox Jew, Halacha must guide one’s life, but yet other outside world views and practices must be reconciled with it. A balance between fealty to tradition and accommodation of modernity must be struck.  But Maimonides only applies the ethic to character traits.  He writes, for but one example,that one should be charitable, the midpoint between being penurious and a spendthrift. And while such a compromise between such extremes makes perfect sense, even ethically sense as applied to principles of Bildung, it is a problematic as applied to ideology.

Centrism, in its ideological application, cannot mean adopting a compromise position between the extremes.  In the first place, people tend to believe that the individual ethos to which one subscribes is THE centrist position. As the adage goes, “Anyone to the right of me is a fanatic and anyone to the left of me is a heretic. ”  And it’s true about all of us.  Shulem Deen describes this phenomenon in this wonderful article.

Moreover, to say that centrism means to ever adopt the middle ground is to consign the centrist to a lack of intellectual rigor and a paucity of ideology. Truth is rarely, if ever, a compromise position.   Additionally it would perforce require the centrist to be constantly changing his ethos and conduct in light of ever shifting extremes.

In essence, if centrism merely means subscribing to the ideological midpoint, it means nothing more than consigning the centrist to plotting a point on the ethical/ideological/intellectual grid and mindlessly subscribing to it.  It renders ideological geography the metric by which one should measure his world view. And I hardly think Maimonides ever intended any such thing.

And yet, so many who call themselves Orthodox centrists look at it as the midpoint between Chareidiut and liberal or Open Orthodoxy. For decades that midpoint was tautologically taken to be Modern Orthodoxy. A 1981 article in Tradition by Alvin Schiff, the then Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Jewish Education (see here) amply demonstrates this. Schiff uses the terms Centrists and Modern Orthodox interchangeably.

Harry Maryles, who owns a very informative and influential blog called Haemtza, defines centrism as those forms of Orthodox Judaism that cleave to the doctrines of Torah UMaddah, Torah I’m Derech Ererz or Torah uParnassah (see here). And he uses that definition to distinguish centrism from  Chareidiut (See here for example).  But even the casual reader of his writings will know that Harry certainly is not Open Orthodox. And as such, his centrism is the midpoint between the Chareidim to his right and the Open Orthodox to his left.

But the well documented “move to the right” that has occurred in Orthodox Judaism in recent decades has led one rabbi to associate contemporary centrism squarely with Chareidiut (see here). A centrism that encompasses so many wide and varied definitions, is an ideological free-for-all in which one can label any Orthodox ethos “Centrist,” be that label given approvingly  by Rabbi Maryles, neutrally by Rabbi Schiff or derisively by Rabbi Chernick.  In its current incarnation, i.e., in the drive to define certain hashkafa and/or praxis as “Centrist” it’s an entirely nebulous concept.

But the problem with the way people look at centrism, as an arbitrary point on the ideological continuum or as one of a few acceptable world views, is that it breeds apathy.  It’s nigh impossible to become passionate about an ethos born entirely of compromise. And if centrism can be found in a variety of formulations of Torah hashkafa,  why choose one over the others; especially if they all essentially lead to same practical result in terms of lifestyle?  Why be particularly emphatic about such a choice?

In a 1985 article for Tradition (see here), Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm laid down and identified centrism with the then regnant Modern Orthodoxy.  But he went further and articulated a set of guiding principles that define Centrist Orthodoxy; adherence to Torah uMaddah, Zionism and moderation.  But he too identified the problem of lack of passion, stating:

“The second important principle that distinguishes Centrist Orthodoxy is that of moderation. Of course, this should by no means be considered a “change” or “innovation”; moderation is, if anything, more mainstream than extremism. But in today’s environment, true moderation appears as an aberration or, worse, a manifestation of spinelessness, a lack of commitment. And that is precisely what moderation is not. It is the result neither of guile nor of indifference nor of prudence; it is a matter of sacred principle. Moderation must not be understood as the mindless application of an arithmetic average or mean to any and all problems. It is the expression of an earnest, sober, and intelligent assessment of each situation, bearing in mind two things: the need to consider the realities of any particular situation as well as general abstract theories or principles; and the awareness of the complexities of life, the “stubborn and irreducible” facts of existence, as William James called them, which refuse to yield to simplistic or single-minded solutions. Moderation issues from a broad Weltanschauung or world view rather than from tunnel vision.” [emphases added]

If centrism is to be a firm and principled commitment within Halacha it has to be something other than what it’s heretofore been presumed to be. I suggest now that centrism is not a set of practices, nor is it a worldview.  No particular set of practices or beliefs define it.  Nor is it to be found at any specific point on the ideological number line.  Chareidim and Open Orthodox can all be Centrists, if they dare to.  Centrism, a Hashkafic system, is a process by which an individual, or our case an individual Orthodox Jew, arrives at the balance between the conflicting ideologies with which he is presented and puts them into practice.

The question then becomes how to implement centrist thinking, thus enabling it to yield practical results.  Rabbi Lamm’s reference to moderation arising from a “broad Weltanschauung. . .rather than from tunnel vision” provides the answer.  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.  In religious sense for the Centrist to arrive at the path that leads him/her most directly to service of the Divine s/he must ponder all available options.

As a practical matter the Centrist will ultimately come to favor one approach to an issue above all others, or s/he may forge a new approach, one based on several attractive elements in the ones considered.  But the conclusions drawn, be they moderate or extreme are not the point for the Centrist; the process of encountering disparate approaches to a question, analyzing them, determining their merits and deficiencies and ultimately choosing among them is what really matters.  And while this idea contradicts the Maimonidean ideal set forth in Hilchot Deot, it is precisely what Maimonides intended in his Introduction to Avot, when he enjoins us to accept truth from any source.

Centrism dies when it is deprived of ideological options. Those who, via insults, derision, intimidation and appeals to authority, seek to prohibit consideration of points of view with which they disagree slay Centrism’s Maimonidean ideal.

Ever since the development of disparate Jewish schools of thought, traditionalists have struggled to determine “who’s in” and “who’s out” of the pantheon of acceptable Jewish Hashkafa.  But such determinations, as they serve to limit the availability of “acceptable” options, work against the Centrist’s ethos.  Rather than curtail honest and free contemplation by authoritarian fiat, allow the “free marketplace of ideas” to flourish and determine “what” as opposed to “who” is “in” and “out.”  That is the only way for Centrism to flourish.

Casting Centrism as a process and not a mere balance has the unique advantage of incorporating a number of normative Jewish values into it.  It demands intense study of primary and secondary sources of Jewish thought and law.  It demands great personal introspection, forcing the centrist to ask him/herself questions like “what’s important to me in my Judaism?” or “what ought to be emphasized in our community’s Jewish practice?” or perhaps most importantly “what does G-d expect of me?”  And the answers to those questions can be as wide and varied as are the people who ponder them.  What matters is the processes by which one goes about arriving at answers.

But most significantly, forcing Jews to look beyond the boundaries of their pre-conceived or inculcated notions of what constitutes true Judaism, demanding that they seek to discern the merits of disparate points of view, is a path to the end of internecine interdenominational squabbling and conflict.  The process of Centrism leads to a level of tolerance and acceptance of diverse schools of thought.  It leads to peace, the vessel into which G-d places His blessings for Israel (Uktzin 3:12).

What do we, as Orthodox Jews want?  What do we believe G-d wants of us?  Are we to become thinking caring Jews who grapple with the big issues in life, recognizing that not everyone will come to same conclusions, and then forge the best peace we can within that diversity?  Or will be merely look for the arbitrary midpoint and lazily call that the Shvil Hazahav?

As for me, I’m a Centrist.

About the Author
Daniel Schwarz, an attorney with offices in Jerusalem, Efrat and Rehovot, made Aliyah from Rockland County, New York in 2016. He's also an avocational chazzan.
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