Post-Modern Orthodoxy

Modern Orthodoxy is based on an integration of Orthodoxy with life in the modern world. However, with R’ JB Soloveitchik’s passing, the movement was left without a luminary who analyzes and discusses matters of worldview. Consequently, Modern Orthodoxy’s thought is that of the mid 20th century, when Neo-Kantian and Existential answers addressed the kinds of religious questions people on the street were confronting.

And so, the argument is today, that there is a need for someone to articulate a Post-Modern Orthodoxy.

This is why there was much discussion in some Modern Orthodox circles with the publication of a selection of R’ Shimon Gershon Rosenburg — “Rav Shagar”‘s — essays in English. “Faith Shattered and Restored: Judaism in the Postmodern Age”, edited by Rabbi Dr. Zohar Maor, was published by Maggid Books this past June.

Dr. Alan Brill, on his blog, carried numerous translations of R’ Shagar since, as well as analysis of his thought. In particular, see this post of notes that Dr Brill compiled while teaching R’ Shagar’s thought, “Rav Shagar: To be connected to Eyn — Living in a Postmodern World“.

Times of Israel had an interview with R/Dr Maor, “Israel’s paradoxical man of faith, deconstructed“.

And recently, R Gil Perl, an alumnus of Yeshivat Har Etzion (“Gush”) who became a student of Rav Shagar, wrote an essay about why R’ Shagar’s thought spoke to him in a way that the teachings of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein of Gush couldn’t in the long run. See “Postmodern Orthodoxy: Giving Voice to a New Generation“.

To give you an idea of R Shagar’s thought, he likens Deconstructionism to Sheviras haKeilim — the Qabbalistic idea that Creation involved the breaking of vessels, and the post-modern’s inability to consider an idea to be objectively true. He builds a case for the condition of having difficulty with belief and therefore believing in nothing and turns it into a Ism of believing in Nothing. Identifying that lower-case-n nothing with the Ayin, the capital-N Nothingness from which G-d made Yeish, something (indeed, everything).

Me, I think it doesn’t work.

Post-Modernism is a confusion of the subjectivity of my justification for knowing something with the subjectivity of the known. Meaning, I can know objective truths for entirely personal and subjective reasons. I can be convinced of halakhah because of my personal experience of the beauty of Shabbos. Not from my liking Shabbos; from that about the Shabbos experience I find beautiful, likable, meaningful, and True. I know that hilkhos Shabbos as we have them today really did objectively speaking come from the Creator by way of my personal experience of Shabbos. Objective truth, subjective justification.

In contrast, in Post-Modern thought, since I have no guarantee of objectively proving anything to anyone else, the notion of objective truth is entirely denied. There isn’t “the truth” as much a “his truth” or “her truth”, narratives people and societies construct for themselves.

And this touches everything on the college campus from religious beliefs to defending the Palestinian because we have our narrative and they have theirs. (There is room for every narrative but those that exclude other narratives.) In the real world outside those ivory towers, though, you won’t find too many people with Post-Modern notions of science, declaring (eg) that math or physics are merely social constructs. But certainly outside the realm of the scientifically provable Post-Modern thinking has become part of the zeitgeist.

My problem with “Postmodern Orthodoxy” is that Post-Modernism (as I just described it) is inherently incompatible with the notion of a lower-case-o orthodoxy, including our case, capital-O Orthodox Judaism. I often said on Facebook that one reason why more are going OTD in this generation than in mine is that Post-Modernism has become part of the common culture. It is impossible to maintain any orthodoxy, including O, if one believes that there are no objective truths, or even that there is nothing one could ever assert as objectively true.

There is a profound difference between believing there is an absolute truth that I personally do not fully know or understand — which R’ Gil Perl presented as R’ Lichtenstein’s position, and believing that all truths are human conditioned. Between a personal nothing and an ideal of Nothingness. And yet, R Shagar says just that. To repeat a quote of Rav Shagar used in R Perl’s article, “All truths may be the product of human conditioning, but such conditioning constitutes the medium through which the divine manifests in the world.”

Rav Shagar’s position strikes me as internally inconsistent. For example, to This presupposes that there is a Divine which is manifest in the world, and any claim that says otherwise would defy that Truth. So, there is at least that one central Truth that is necessarily true, regardless of human conditioning.

The entire notion of considering any of the Articles of Faith human conditioned, true only from our perspective, enters the heretical. Another example, R Shagar’s Post-Modern Orthodox Jew will speak of revelation “though he knows there are varying and conflicting revelations, the contradictions do not paralyze him.” If one does not believe the revelation via Moshe and the revelation of the Torah are unique, are they not koferim baTorah according to the Rambam? How many rabbanim would allow you to use the wine of someone who believes that the only reason to embrace the Torah’s message is because it’s “the faith of our fathers” (as R’ Shagar describes it) and not different in kind than the message of the New Testament or the Qur’an?

There are two ways we can speak of the ideal human: we can describe life on the mountain peak, the person who has perfect generosity, perfect patience, perfect faith, a perfect relationship with G-d and other people, etc… But we know that actualize perfection is unachievable for anyone bug G-d. So, the true ideal human is one constantly working toward having those perfect relationships, trying their best, constantly growing. But they are two different things — the ideal in the sense of the goal to strive for, and the ideal of being a striver.

We need to learn to separate these notions. Ayin is part of the ideology. A crisis of faith, those times of nothingness, is part of the reach to internalize that ideology. The ideal life for most of us will be struggling with the ideology; but once one makes that struggle part of the ideology itself, I fear one crossed the line.

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