What’s in a Name?

My recent article, in which I suggested that Modern Orthodoxy could gain a lot by becoming more Haredi, faced much pushback from my peers. One of the main reasons for this was due to my choice in terminology. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to define my terms and ensure the continuation of this conversation in a productive way.

A group of Jews called Haredim is mentioned at the tail-end of the Book of Isaiah, reading as follows (Isaiah 66:5):

שִׁמְעוּ֙ דְּבַר־ה’ הַחֲרֵדִ֖ים אֶל־דְּבָר֑וֹ אָמְרוּ֩ אֲחֵיכֶ֨ם שֹׂנְאֵיכֶ֜ם מְנַדֵּיכֶ֗ם לְמַ֤עַן שְׁמִי֙ יִכְבַּ֣ד ה’ וְנִרְאֶ֥ה בְשִׂמְחַתְכֶ֖ם וְהֵ֥ם יֵבֹֽשׁוּ.

While the King James Bible popularly translates Haredim in this context as those who “tremble” at the word of God, there are two other primary definitions offered within the Jewish tradition. It is the difference between these two definitions that can explain what I meant when I used the word in my last article and why I received so much pushback.

The Babylonian Talmud comments that the Haredim spoken about in the Book of Isaiah are Talmidei Hakhamim, wise sages who spend their days learning with and from each other. Rashi takes a different approach, writing that Haredim are righteous people who hurry to fulfil the words of God. While the first definition invokes the typical image of the majority of those who identify as Haredi today, learning in batei midrashot all day wearing white shirts and black fedoras while shunning secular culture, the second definition offers a more universally applicable picture. One need neither be superficially yeshivish nor part of an intellectual elite to be the type of person who brings God into the world with a sense of urgency and passion.

It is this same definition that Rabbi Asher Lopatin used when he wrote that while searching for a new moniker for Open Orthodoxy “one thinker has even proposed adopting the term “Modern Haredi” (Isa. 66:5). We need to be passionate about our Torah and our Yiddishkeit, we need to be in awe of the divine message and even more truly in awe of God. All this, while maintaining our engagement with the outside world…”

Though Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm would prefer the phraseology of hasidism over that of haredism, this is also the type of passion-infused Judaism that is found in his “Hasidic Model” of Torah UMadda which starts with the idea that “God’s presence permeates all of material existence. The doctrine of avodah be-gashmiyut, worship through corporeality, is one of the primary corollaries of this precept. Nothing in our world lacks divinity and the potential for sanctification.” In Rabbi Dr. Lamm’s own words, “the way of service through gashmiyut, or its cognitive equivalent, is a way of appreciating Madda in and of itself as a Jewish religious experience.” In other words, the ideal path towards being a Jew in the modern world is one that allows all that we do and learn in both secular and religious contexts to be in direct service of God.

To devolve into a community where there is so little internal religious passion and such little sense of personal relationships with God is an affront not just to Modern Orthodoxy but to God Himself. It is our communal responsibility to cultivate a religious identity that allows us to live in the modern world while retaining our primary identities as servants of God and using those identities as our compasses within that world. To paraphrase one rebbe of mine, “the opposite of a Haredi Jew is not a Modern Orthodox Jew, but a Socially Orthodox Jew. Someone who may be a believer, but whose observance is entirely a function of being raised in an Orthodox community rather than any personal relationship with God. A Haredi determines his or her values by looking inward towards Torah while a Socially Orthodox person does so by looking outward at their surroundings.”

This is what I mean when I argue that Modern Orthodoxy should be more Haredi. By and large, those within our community who have pushed to the right have become more religiously passionate and feel a closer relationship with God. They have truly become more Haredi in that sense. But such a religious transformation need not lead to the abandonment of what makes Modern Orthodoxy unique. Our community can and must produce people who are both Haredi and Modern. Who are religiously confident and passionate while being unafraid of interaction with the cultural and intellectual world around us.

I end with the same question that I ended my previous article with: Does being Modern Orthodox really mean that we can’t also strive to be Haredi?

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he is is also pursuing a Certificate in Mental Health Counseling in partnership with the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He previously studied Communication and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
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